Any Kid In The City

by

04/06/2012

Neighborhood: Flushing

Any Kid In The City
Photo by Karen Horton

The students enter the building through a side door, where they promptly submit backpacks and any other personal items to the NYPD safety agent who greets them at the steps. There’s a male agent for the boys, a female for the girls. Everyone is scanned for weapons, cell phones and drugs upon entering the building. Some of the more committed students have already hidden items inside a shoe, their underwear, perhaps the lining of a wig. The rest have scattered belongings in various spots throughout the neighborhood. It’s Monday morning at one of New York City’s level five, year long suspension sites. I teach English here.

I used to remark to friends and relatives that I would gladly teach any kid in the city. Oh, really? When I made this statement, I was already working at a large traditional high school in New York. We had sports teams. We had a band. We sang carols to the kids before the holidays. I signed yearbooks and hugged parents at graduation. So how do I describe this strange, new teaching universe I’ve recently entered? For starters, it’s become the greatest lesson on human dignity I’ve ever had.

My new school has a unique and troubled population. Yet they still have the right to a free education. They earn credits at this suspension site. They take their state exams here. We examine the speech patterns and motivations of Holden Caulfield, the original troubled New York teen, like we would at any other school in the city.

The drama unfolding in their respective neighborhoods, however, often takes precedent over any literature we study in the classroom. Whenever a friend or acquaintance suffers a fatality, someone will wear a t-shirt with the departed’s face staring back at me all day long, rendering the book in my hand completely useless. The neighborhood is all that matters. They argue and compete over things I don’t understand. They make remarks in the middle of a lesson that sometimes shake me to the core. So as the student body files into the building one by one, and the scanner hums and beeps over every single pocket and curve, I have to find a part of me somewhere that understands the magnitude of being their teacher.

At sixteen, I went to work washing dishes in a Long Island restaurant where my mother waited tables. The owner, who would later become the county’s district attorney, ruled his establishment in a strict, authoritarian style. It was his place and his rules. I was observed wearing cut-offs during an unofficial kitchen tour and reprimanded for it. Minutes later, I committed the error of making eye contact and the tirade began. I answered back and lost my first job. As the owner marched me through the kitchen and out a back door, he made a comment that stayed with me forever, invaluable words that I would summon repeatedly during an extremely challenging teaching career in New York City. “You just wait,” he began. “We’ll see what becomes of you!”

It was during my student-teaching experience that I encountered my first unruly student. The kid showed up late, talked incessantly, and pushed all of his assignments onto the floor. Still a student myself, I was completely flustered and dumbfounded. As I bent to retrieve the work he’d dropped, it struck me how easy it was to slip into the District Attorney’s role from my dish washing days. “You just wait,” I thought. “We’ll see what become of you.”

That summer I pulled into a convenience store and there he was, half asleep against the wall, a can of malt liquor the approximate size of his forearm beside him. He was wasted and bleary eyed, but recognized me and said hello. I recalled the prediction I’d made about his future when he was my student and how I couldn’t wait for it to come true. I sat in my car afterwards and watched him nod off again, my cheeks completely flushed with shame.

Back at the suspension site, E. approaches after class to say goodbye. Today is his last day. He’s served his suspension and will return to his home school tomorrow with a proverbial clean slate. His regular building is five stories tall with a river view of the midtown skyline. Our place is a single hallway with very small class sizes. In twenty-four hours the kid’s world will expand tenfold. E. makes his way through the building, an actual sparkle to his eyes, shaking hands and saying his goodbyes. As he takes his final walk down the hall, I can feel the entire school holding its breath and rooting for him. The mission statement here is really no different than any other school in the world. As time passes, as it does for us all, we will eventually see what becomes of him.

JB McGeever teaches Writing and Literature in the New York City Public School System. His essays have appeared in Newsday, City Limits, The new York Times, and Thomas Beller’s Lost and Found: Stories from New York.

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