My thirty-five years as a "fly on the wall" in the central office of a city school system resulted in some bizarre and memorable experiences. At the very least, I began to figure out what works and what doesn't in the world of public education. I'd like to write a column loosely based on my anecdotal experiences, on what I observed, on who ultimately became a captain of our blighted ship, and how, while so many generations of children coming and going from our schools were ultimately left to fend for themselves with few necessary skills.
My material would range somewhere between Kozol's "Death at an Early Age" and Kaufman's "Up the down Staircase".
HERE IS A SAMPLE COLUMN
by Samuel A. Zervitz
Back in the 1970's and 1980's they swarmed into our building,
these unemployed Save the Youthers, convinced since they had nothing to offer and could share it with kids going nowhere, who better to reach out to the young?
They were former drug dealers. They could say no to drugs. They were unemployed. Most had dropped out. They could warn children not to drop out and to get a job.
A Mohammed Ali groupie came in to volunteer. A Church of the Third Eye disciple with a street congregation-as he explained it-had decided to commit himself, if somebody paid him, to saving our children through unicycle basketball. I kid you not.
Still another save the youther claimed he had the answer: break
cement bricks with your head, just to prove you can accomplish anything. He arrived with his head bandaged while hauling a variety of bricks in to demonstrate how hard his head was.
In a school system with a population that peaked at 193,000
during the early seventies, a ragtag army of street types joined in, convinced if they got "hit upside the head" growing up, they were more than qualified to both volunteer and even make some money saving my city's young people from oblivion.
Saving the youth became a career move.
I began teaching in 1973. The principal of the high school where I taught had "Save the Youth" scrawled all over her.
While she claimed to have a doctorate, and declared the school's population her extended family, she came off as someone Tyler Perry might have invented in another time. Yes, a Tyler Perry character. Only she lacked his favorite characters' essential decency.
One child needed saving more than most. My heart went out to him. He sat in the last row of an enormous classroom. He said nothing. Mostly he glowered. Sometimes he slept. I ignored any curriculum guides and spent weeks explaining Nat Turner to my class, generating debates on subjetcs like killing in the name of god, self defense, and high school level weapons of mass destruction.
In quick order I discovered saving kids hardly qualified as a popular endeavor. The more troubled kids a school system might discover, the longer administrators-my self included-would continue to function.
But my principal from the dark side of Tyler Perry never fooled me. The weeks and months passed, youth continued to flounder, and I sensed I had no real control over the forty or fifty students in the nine classes strfeaming into my room daily.
But that child in the back of the room kept me around much longer than I intended to remain. His writng was remarkable.
Over the years sincem, I've often wondered what happened to him.
His name was Daniel. When the spirit moved him, he slipped me his papers. His handwriting was clean. His writing was crystal clear. He had an ear for dialogue. His omniscient narrative
voice was godlike. I saw in my mind's eye what he shared in his prose. These were "Me Nobody Knows" street scenes. Mothers shouted, hauled small children home. Larger childern fought to the death. His prespective was uncanny. He reminded me of Henry Roth, who wrote "Call It Sleep", a New York 1930's immigrant bible. You could read Daniel and hear the language of his mean streets in much the same way you heard the sounds of Henry Roth's Depression era New York.
Then I was out of the school. On the advisement of the English Department head, I took the promotion to the central office to perform public relations magic, ostensibly to defend the indefensible.
I never saw Daniel again.
I think it was a single incident, repeated oevr and over, that convinced me I had to do something different. At least once a week-and you could never predict when-our principal got on the public address system and bellowed the following:
"All first period and homeroom classes will go to second period
instead of first period third period, which was the original plan but it been changed. Got it? All my second period students
will go to lunch fifth period instead of sixth period because...
sixth period you got to go to the auditorium to hear a accountant talk about numbers and math, which you not good at but will be. Third period students go to gym seventh period. And you seventh period people goin' to gym seventh period, don't
do it. Because third period will be there. "
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