The students enter the building through a side door, where they promptly submit backpacks and any other personal items to the N.Y.P.D. 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, cellphones, 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 yearlong 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. Then mayoral control hit our building like an angry little hurricane, declaring the school dangerous and sweeping us all away. So how do I describe this strange new teaching universe I’ve recently entered? For starters, it’s the greatest lesson in human dignity I’ve ever had.
My new school has a unique and troubled population, but they still have the right to a public education. They earn credits at this suspension site. They take their state exams here. We study the speech patterns and motivations of Holden Caulfield, the original troubled New York teen, as we would at any other school in the city.
Yet the drama unfolding in their respective neighborhoods often takes precedence over any literature we explore in the classroom. Whenever a friend or acquaintance is killed, someone will wear a T-shirt with the departed’s face staring back at me all day long, rendering the book in my hand useless. If someone needs a pen and I offer one with blue ink, he might not use it because that’s not his gang’s color. Some students compose entire paragraphs without using the letter C. Others shun B as if the consonant had done them wrong.
Symbols are everywhere, and the neighborhood is all that matters. They resent being here, a completely foreign place, and pine for their home schools all year long. 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 kid by kid, 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 16, 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, Steinbrenner-like dictatorship. It was his place, his rules. I was observed wearing cutoffs 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 promptly lost my first job. As the owner marched me through the kitchen and out a back door, he made a remark 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 role of the district attorney from my dishwashing days. “You just wait,” I thought. “We’ll see what becomes 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 afterward and watched him nod off again, my cheeks completely flushed with shame.
So perhaps it’s time to recognize that intelligence appears in various forms. Not everyone has to love Salinger as I do. Maybe Holden’s language is getting a bit dated by now, and Jay-Z probably lives in the Caulfields’ gorgeous apartment overlooking Central Park. And when a boy in my class becomes so immersed in the imagery of his time spent at Rikers, the only way to respond is to lay down the books and just listen:
“Mister, in the showers . . . everyone wears boxers. And if the soap does drop, you just say, ‘Screw it,’ and leave it there.”
Important Facts to Remember:
1. There is always plenty of soap to go around at Rikers.
2. The section reserved for minors segregates itself according to race and gang affiliation, just like the adults.
3. If another boy selects you to fight, you cannot ask the corrections officer for protection because he’s probably busy securing a back room for the fight to occur.
4. You cannot back down from confrontation in any way or be dubbed a punk, which may lead to unspeakable teenage horrors that may or may not have something to do with Important Fact #1.
5. If you hope to last as a teacher in a yearlong suspension site in N.Y.C., the lesson of the day does not always come from you.
Most people, though, Americans in particular, have programmed themselves through cinema and sports into honoring the art of a good comeback. Thankfully, even the New York City Department of Education believes in redemption, permitting students to apply for early dismissal from their suspensions if they qualify. Much like anything else worthwhile, it does come with an interesting catch to it. The students must write an essay. Not only do they have to include every letter of the alphabet, they must also apologize to their schools for what they did.
Interestingly enough, every student I’ve ever worked with on an Early Review Essay is completely innocent of any and all charges against him.
“But Mister, I didn’t do it. It wasn’t even me. That other kid was lying . . . and my school just don’t like me.”
“Would you like to get out of here early?”
“Then you need to redo this first paragraph and apologize . . . with feeling.”
By the end of the week, E. approaches after class to say goodbye. Today is his last day. He’s served his full suspension and will return to his home school next week 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 24 hours the kid’s world will expand tenfold.
E. makes his way through the building, an actual glimmer to his eyes, shaking hands and saying his goodbyes. As he takes his final strut down the hall, I can feel the entire school holding its breath and rooting for him. The mission statement here is really no different from 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 is a graduate of Stony Brook Southampton’s M.F.A. program and a former East End resident. His stories and essays have appeared in City Limits, Newsday, Hampton Shorts, Confrontation, The Southampton Review, and Thomas Beller’s “Lost and Found: Stories From New York.”