In 1968, I was a first grader at a small private school for boys on the Upper East Side. Our teacher was Miss Hurt, a name so “on the nose” that it qualifies as Dickensian parody. Across from our classroom door, there were large windows with a view of the back of the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue. One afternoon we twenty boys caught a glimpse into one of the hotel rooms of some adult activity or perhaps merely a female in a state of undress. The remembered bawdiness of our glimpse grew to become more graphic as we ourselves grew older, limited only by the pre-pubescent imaginations of our “wildest” classmates.
I know a young teacher who is in his second year teaching in the Bronx -- or trying to teach in the Bronx. The number, severity and effects of neighborhood conditions are such that he, a caring, dedicated teacher, barely has any chance of succeeding. Through his eyes, I have developed a small understanding of the scope of the problems facing schools. In just one example, a kid who was held back is now the big kid in his grade and he is a bully, toward teachers as well as students, threatening to bring in a gun. Attempts to deal with him are not backed by the school administration. In another example, a parent comes in and threatens the teachers and security (ineffective, by the way) is not even called. All these problems stem from life in the community but manifest themselves in the schools and in ways that make teaching difficult, if not impossible. One result is that students are not getting the education they are supposed to get but they are being pushed on to the next grade. Rinse and repeat, year after year. Solutions cannot be planned in the schools if community conditions are not, somehow, addressed. Even if funds were unlimited, where would we start? If the bowl was not a colander, but water tight, how might we proceed? It is hard not to see this as hopeless and the young teacher, for the sake of his own sanity, will likely leave the city and seek to teach in a suburban school district -- one more loss for that Bronx district.
I taught poetry in a PS in Spanish Harlem for about 12 years. 4th and 5th grades. Almost every child was 1) a person of color; 2) being brought up by either/and/or grandparents and a single mother; 3) Knew an incarcerated relative. The kids were resilient, strong, beautiful. Their circumstances sucked, generally. Most of the teachers were GOOD. Huge uphill battle for all involved. But the battle was fought and is being fought.