It’s December 2002 and I have just been told that I will be teaching a Special Ed class next semester at Stevenson High School in the Bronx, the school where I am working full time while I earn my MA in ESL from Columbia Teachers College. The past semester, I taught several ESL classes, one with 44 students whose range of English spanned, “Hello my name is Jose” to “Yo! Fuck you holmes.” I was given no curriculum, guidance, books or direction. In a way it was nice because I had no one looking over my shoulder. If I wanted to start a class war and incite my predominately Hispanic kids to demand more from a system that was stacked against them from day one, that was my prerogative. But I would have to teach them how write a decent sentence first.
But that was last semester. Special ED, as I would learn, was a whole other beast. The New York Board of Ed has a great policy of giving the most difficult jobs to the least qualified people. Take a first year teacher with little to no classroom experience and throw them in a class with the worst behaved kids in the whole school. It is a great system if you want to terrify new teachers, and have them disappear one day and never come back. I was lucky because I was told, “At least you have the ESL Special Ed class, they are not as bad as the natives.” So, let me get this straight, not only do they have “issues” they also don’t speak English? “Well not really they are just in ESL because they have a Latino sounding last name. Most of them were born right here in the Bronx. So how does that make them any easier? “Well, I guess you’re right. It doesn’t.” The bar at the Board of Ed is not very high. “Just think. At least there can’t be more than 12 in a class, by law.”
Well that made me feel better. Twelve kids who were classified as “special”, who may or may not speak English, and me in a classroom. And if I thought things like support, supplies, and direction where hard to find in the ESL department, the Special Ed department was like something out of Mad Max. My two years of teaching at a village school in Mozambique, that didn’t have books, desks, or windows did not prepare me for the mess I was about to stumble into. Months later, I would go to the office to check out a TV only to have the assistant principle in charge ask me who the hell I was, and why I was “stealing” her TV. After I explained to her that I had been teaching ESL Special ED 101 since December, she told be suspiciously to have it back by 7th period because Mrs. Hernandez needed it. I would never find out exactly why these kids had been labled Special Ed, but I quickly learned that it would affect them for the rest of their lives, or at least until they dropped out.
Harold? Yo teach! A very well groomed light skinned black kid with Latin roots and last name. Would feel comfortable on the set of a 50 Cent video. Cheap gold Bling. Light blue tracksuits and impeccable shoes. A different pair everyday. Expensive. Nike. Respected. Nice kid, cocky, but polite like a well trained pit-bull. Lazy.
Francisco? Francisco? Is Francisco here? Wha? Here man, chill out dawg! Francisco could you please not lie on the desk and actually sit in it. Francisco? How do I play this one? We hadn’t discussed how to get a large fifteen-year-old man with a large un-groomed afro, a distant “crazy” look in his heavily medicated eyes, who smelled like a funky blend of soap, marijuana, sweat, and bad breath from laying across three desks during roll call. Francisco?
Yo, mista. He retarded. We all are. Can’cha see where you are? This is Special Ed bitch. Can’cha see how small the rooms are? He was right. The rooms in the Special Ed wing, they were actually all in one wing, were much smaller then the regular classrooms. I was never told why, but they did foster a cozy sense of institutionalization and claustrophobia that I would later find appealing.
You are not retarded. I whispered to know one at all. Francisco? Please get off the desks. Rolling his eyes, he slithered into a desk, pulled his hood over his head and started to sleep.
Jennifer? Whad Up Mista! Here. I mean present. Large hoop earrings. Black Hispanic blend, light skinned. Hair pulled tight into a ponytail. Hooded sweaty, very white teeth destroying a piece of gum, and very new sneakers. Nike. She is doodling. On her binder is scribbled, “get rice or dye tryin” “ I luv 50” and “yo shorty” She will become pregnant and disappear before the semester is over.
Maria? She don’t ever talk mista. She not only retarded, but she don’t even speak English. People say she walked here from Mexico when she was twelve. She is a short, plump but not fat, Mexican woman. She looks somewhere between 10-35. Her eyes sparkle as she smiles at me. She doesn’t say a word. Maria will become my rock. She will be why I come back, day after day. I will teach her nothing or so I think.
Eva? Here mista. She is a large girl. White Puerto Rican mom, black dad. Hair in a ponytail. I will learn that she is at a second grade reading level. Which is actually the highest of the group. She is quiet and sweet. She protects Maria like a large hen and her chick.
Francisco? Could you please wake up and join the class. Francisco?
Esmeralda? Yo, I heard that bitch was arrested last weekend. Turnin tricks for crack. She a fuckin chickenhead. Just kiddin’ mista don’t look so scared. I think she moved back to the DR. Thanks Harold. We’re ready to learn mista, start teachin. Thank you Harold. There were others, a few that came and went, but their names have disappeared from memory.
I am not sure how I survived the semester. There were many days that ended with me on 125th street: waiting for the bus, listening to Tupac, holding back tears, hysterical with exhaustion. I would arrive home; pass out on the couch, only to be awakened for a night class that lasted from 5-9 in which we would discuss classroom disciplinary actions like writing the student’s name on the board as a warning. Meanwhile here is a snapshot of that day, “Francisco, get the fuck off the desk! I am not going to warn you again. Yo mista, you can’t swear at us. I can do whatever the fuck I want. So either get up or get out. (I had no idea how I would actually remove him from the room, but if it came down to it; I could probably get one of the armed officers roaming the halls to help me.) Francisco moved.
The days passed. Maria smiled more often and drew words like a kindergartener. I realized early on that things like: homework, guilt, grades, discipline, threats or attendance were meaningless. I had to rely more on words like; trust, respect, honesty, flexibility, and of course patience. I was not going to change these kids in any significant way in the few months I would be a part of their lives. I was not Michelle Phiefer and this was not some Hollywood movie. It was a long series of cold grey days walking through the snow from the 176 St. stop on the six line. I woke up at 5:45 and made my way, first to the M60 to 125th than the six train to Park Chester and 176th st, then another bus to the school door, a little over and hour on a good day. These morning commutes were my own personal lesson on class relations in the good ole US of A. Crossing over the Harlem river at dawn, staring at the smoke billow from the industrial building covered in graffiti, was not the best way to get ready for what my day would entail. Everyday I pretended to be brave and strong. By ten o’clock I would stand outside in the cold and smoke four cigarettes in rapid succession.
One day, I looked out the window and realzied that we had found our rhythm. Since I had no curriculum and no one who even knew I was in the building, I could do what ever I wanted. So we examined rap song lyrics and talked about 50 Cent. I told them about Mos Def and we listened to songs like Umi says. “This shit is wack, mista.” We read poems by Tupac. One was about Van Gogh. So we did a unit on him. “He cut off his ear for a bitch, man that boy was whipped.” We talked about the rebel, the misfit, the artist. They told me that Van Gogh was like Tupac in many ways and like them too in other ways. I agreed. We looked at Starry Night and some self-portraits. I had them draw self-portraits. I told them that when you look at a real Van Gogh you could actually feel the thickness of the paint. I told them that van Gogh sometimes ate the paint because…they didn’t need me to tell them why. They understood his madness.
Francisco’s picture was bold and expressive. He was awake more often then not these days and asked a lot of questions. I told them his paintings were worth millions, they said that they should be priceless. “Where are they? His paintings.” There are some right here in NYC at the Met. I told them. You should go and see them. “Yeah, right.”
It hit me. Why not get a bus and take them to see the paintings? I filled out the forms, got the proper signatures, and on a clear spring day in March a full size school bus was waiting out front waiting for the five of us. Harold, Francisco, Eva, Maria and me. “I haven’t been on a field trip since third grade.” “I ain’t ever been on one.” I felt like Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest before they go on the fishing trip.
“Yo mista, why’da get such a big bus. You a fool.” Just enjoy the sunshine Harold and leave the bus to me. We sat in the back together. Francisco picked at his afro as we penetrated Manhattan with our huge yellow bus. We drove down Park Avenue first up in the 90’s where the pigment is still dark and the streets dirty, till we made it down to the 70’s where the trash has been swept and everything shines white. For anyone who doesn’t believe the US is a racist society drive down Park Avenue. Start in Harlem and stop at the Met Life building…
…or walk into the Met on a Tuesday morning with five Special Ed kids from the Bronx. I could feel the eyes follow our every move as we made our way through the Egyptian exhibit. “There are too many white people here mista.” Harold proclaimed as a small group of girls from a school that had probably catered their bag lunch walked by nervously. This art belongs to you just as much as it belongs to them, I assured him. We spent some time looking at the medieval armor before we made our way to the Van Gogh. There was no epiphanal moment, but what was I expecting? We looked and we walked by just like everyone else.
Outside we laid on the grass and ate the lunch the school had supplied and talked about: the dogs we saw being walked, the distant between Manhattan and the Bronx. They were convinced it was much farther than I said. But after watching Harold stare at a woman walking a Pug wearing a pearl necklace, I agreed that they might have been right. We took a walk, and Eva and Maria giggled as they spoke in Spanish. Francisco played in a fountain, and Harold fidgeted nervously about not looking cool or tough enough. “You’re a smart kid, Harold. You’re not retarded. Don’t ever forget that.” I know mista…
A friend of mine recently told me that she has been accepted into the NYC Teaching Fellows program, in Special Ed. She asked me what it was like. I wrote this account not to scare her, but to show her that there are kids out there who have no idea who Van Gogh is, and that it feels good to be the one to show them. Good Luck g-luv. I know you will be great. No matter what just keep going back at some point it makes a little more sense.