“It’s like the architects were hired to build a prison and then in mid-stream the order was changed: Build us a school.”
One of my students came up with this theory. After an initial chuckle, I came to the conclusion that he was probably right. Samuel Gompers Vocational and Technical High School on Southern Boulevard in the South Bronx resembles a prison more than any public building, especially one housing youngsters, has a right to. There is a cement courtyard in the middle of the facility used by administrators to hide their cars from the public eye, two towers (sorry, no machine guns) that face the barren hostile expanse of Southern Boulevard between 143rd Street and 145th Street, locked side entrances (for teachers) and a heavily fortified front entrance complete with metal detectors, scanners, uniformed guards, and the occasional K-9 officer at the end of a very short leash. Once the late bell rings, all exits are electronically locked. This is the place I called home for 10 years of my teaching career.
Occasionally while sitting in the dreary yellow room that is called the teacher’s lounge, someone would remark in the middle of a particularly ridiculous conversation, “Wouldn’t this make a terrific situation comedy?” As soon as those words escaped my comrade’s lips a slow wave of depression would wash over me. It wouldn’t make a good situation comedy at all. It wasn’t that it was too depressing, it was just too damn drab and mundane. If there was a situation comedy that resembled our plight, it would have to be the 70s sitcom Barney Miller, for the sheer grimy civil servant world it humorously portrays. Like any good ensemble television show, we had our share of eccentric individuals. Of course, the cast of characters over a ten year period is ever changing, but featured players in our real-life sitcom would have to include the following teachers: John Carlino the dapper but tough as nails Freshman English teacher referred to by students and younger staff members alike as John Gotti. Every year students (and an occasional teacher) would ask me if Carlino was connected. No matter how logical my explanation that a Mafia Don would definitely not want to spend his time pretending to be a Freshman English teacher in a South Bronx high school, it never managed to convince. The cast would have to include Bill Veretti, Carlino’s paisan, a rumpled old-school teacher who has thrown in the towel years ago, biding his time, surviving in the classroom on guile and a lifetime of experience, unable to retire because of gambling debts. Carol Steinman, the personable and popular Art and Senior English teacher, looking at the other side of middle age, but still considered the babe of the department by virtue of her being the only female in the English Department. Jules Johnson, a charming slacker who plays the race card to create a thoroughly uncomfortable understanding with students, whom he hopes will not squeal on him for not teaching (and consistently falling asleep at his desk). Robert Braithwaite, the good natured Jamaican soccer coach who has an easy rapport with the younger students, though he lets his Seventh Day Adventist religious beliefs intrude upon classroom instruction. Paul McMahon, the kindly reading teacher who has a voice like Mr. Rogers, but whose temper boils over on occasion into fits of violent cursing and chair throwing. The word is out, don’t even innocently get into a discussion with him about abortion. Paul is the most loyal and principled staff member; he will put his job on the line to protect a fellow teacher whom he believes has been wronged. He keeps a fifth of Jameson’s in his locker, which he’ll pull out during tense times, usually after one of his temper tantrums. Dave Nemovkin, referred to as Captain Nemo, or simply Nemo by students and staff alike. He is the Chairman of the English Department and serves as a buffer between the mean-spirited Principal and the teachers in his department. He’s not a very good classroom teacher, but possesses excellent interpersonal and political skills. Liked by all for his easygoing humanistic approach to education he’s often at odds with the Principal, whose job by all rights he should have. Then there’s me; a hardworking, idealistic teacher, who shines in this setting by virtue of relative youth and lack of cynicism. Popular with students for being the “with it” teacher; the white guy who understands.
While we may not have the setting, nor the cut and dried plot lines for a successful situation comedy, we definitely have the characters. I most assuredly would trust these characters with my life. As a matter of fact: I did. Every day. For ten years. My mother always found it perversely ironic that I should wind up back in the South Bronx nearly 30 years after my family joined the great Jewish migration out of the Bronx and into the suburbs. While my existence was launched in the Bronx, my being was shaped in Dumont, New Jersey, a working-class town made up predominantly of Irish and Italian Bronx refugees. The teaching staff at Gompers resembled the populace of Dumont, a place I couldn’t wait to escape from. Double irony on me.
Working at Gompers had its share of rewards. First of all, it was the only high school that would take me. Let me explain briefly. For the first year and a half of my career I taught at Automotive High School in Brooklyn. That’s right: an entire high school dedicated to the task of educating our future auto mechanics and auto body technicians. I knew from the start that I had a gift for teaching English, though it took a while to get over the culture shock. For example, for the first two weeks in front of a class, the students kept repeating the unintelligible phrase “wheredeeame.” I thought it was some arcane bit of Ebonics that I was not privy to. Finally during the first post-observation conference with my Department Chairman, she politely asked, “Where is the aim?” I was baffled, “What’s an aim?” She patiently explained that every lesson has an aim, or goal, usually phrased as a question, and in New York City teachers write the aim on the board. Since that day, come hell or high water, I write an aim on the chalkboard each and every day, even if we’re having a test or a guest speaker. Despite a few rough patches at the beginning, I could tell that I was a good teacher. So could the other teachers. A few of the older teachers got my ear and reminded me daily that it was a waste of my talents to be teaching English to a bunch of unappreciative future garage jockeys. Point well taken. I went out looking for a better situation. I landed a teaching job at Julia Richman High School in Manhattan after an interview that was more like an interrogation with the Principal.
That September (1986), when I reported to the school, I was placed in the charge of the Assistant Principal of Administration, a diminutive man with a pointy beard bearing a striking resemblance to W.E.B. Dubois, who took an instantaneous dislike to me. He asked me who I thought I was, going over his head, the New York City Board of Education’s head, and the union’s head, in going to the Principal for a job. I shrugged my shoulders and mumbled something about doing what I thought I was supposed to be doing. He told me that there was no position for me at Julia Richman High School. I asked if I could speak to the Principal. He told me that the Principal would be “predisposed” today. And tomorrow.
I went to the Board of Education headquarters on Court Street in Brooklyn. I sat in a pale yellow room for two days with a group of about 15 defectives who looked as if they just disembarked off the Voyage of the Damned. Finally, the person in charge of personnel placement agreed to meet with me. His name was Rufus Tomlinson, and I’ll never forget the look of pure malevolence in his beady little eyes.
“So what prompted you to believe that you are larger than the New York City Board of Education’s Bureau of Personnel Services?” he barked.
“Excuse me?” I stammered.
“You heard me boy, why did you think you could go over my head and interview for a job at Julia Richman High School? We have a system in place and we can’t have peach fuzz faced newbies thinking they can get around our system, now can we?”
“I thought that’s what I was supposed to do,” I responded in an all too thin voice.
“You thought? Do me a favor and don’t think. I’m paid to do the thinking around here.”
“What do I do now?” I asked.
“What you do now is get your sorry white ass out of here and hunt yourself down a job. You’re so good making phone calls, setting up interviews, climbing the ladder. Place yourself! Good day.”
I went home and started making phone calls. At this point we were three days into the school year. I called 40 high schools before anyone would see me. Samuel Gompers High School was number 41. Dave Nemovkin hired me the next day, an act that I am eternally grateful for. On the spot I swore (to myself) allegiance to Gompers and Dave Nemovkin; I would do them proud. At the time of my hiring, I was the youngest member of the English Department, a position I would hold through the next ten years of cutbacks, restructuring, lay-offs, job actions, and various budget crises. During my time at Gompers I worked under two Principals, three Bronx Superintendents, three mayors, five Chancellors, but only one Dave Nemovkin. He, along with an admittedly burnt out, but good humored veteran staff, made it worthwhile.
Because I worked hard, especially in the early years, and had a good rapport with the students, I had it easy. I helped Dave make teachers’ schedules, assign rooms, plan lessons, talk to resistant teachers, and order books. Within a few years I was Dave’s assistant, officially designated as Assistant Chairman of Humanities, which encompassed English, Social Studies, Languages (Spanish), Music, and Art. I only had to teach four classes and I got to pick which ones. Some teachers thought I was doing all the work and Dave was merely riding on my coattails. But that was far from the truth. Dave and I worked well together. What he really needed was a sounding board to tell him what bullshit would fly, and what wouldn’t in regards to the rest of the department. In education, particularly in New York, there’s a lot of unadulterated theoretical crap that’s passed on down from the top to be disseminated and supposedly implemented by the troops (teachers). I was Dave’s bullshit detector, and he was grateful to have me as an Assistant.
In short, I was needed at Gompers. I got along well with the students, and so few of them had two parents at home that I served as a sort of surrogate father to many, handing out sagely advice as well as welcome disapproval as the situation may have merited. I was also skilled at teaching for tests and consequently my students excelled on the English Regents Exam. Of course, this is not sound pedagogical practice, but in New York City only the bottom line counts, and the bottom line is doing well on standardized tests. I was comfortable. I was well liked and respected by my fellow teachers. Even the Principal liked me. But I wasn’t satisfied. I always wondered what kind of teacher I’d be with better students. Don’t get me wrong, there were some exceptional students at Gompers, and some of my former students are already more successful than I’ll ever be. The greatest satisfaction of my career has come from finding ways for my brighter students to live up to their potential. However, it was one of my brightest students who made me realize it was time to leave the Bronx. I’ll tell you about how I saved his life. Maybe.
Ron Joyner was a bright, energetic, eager student who was in my Sophomore Honors English class as well as the Junior Honors English class a year later. Along with another student, Ron was a year younger than everyone else in the class because he was in an accelerated Language Arts program in junior high school. He was not the most popular kid in the class, but I always chalked it up to his being younger and not quite as physically mature as the other students. Ron was a good student, not great, somewhat lazy, a good writer, and extremely well spoken. He was into Eastern philosophy and religion, and while he wasn’t my first student who was into such things, he was certainly the most erudite on the topic. In fact, I could always count on Ron to make me look good at times when the Principal observed me. I remember one time we were talking about the conflict between fate and free will in a short story by Isaac Bashevis Singer and Ron started talking about yin and yang and the duality of the universe. The other students started questioning him about the concept and even the Principal got involved, and if I remember correctly, the Bronx Superintendent was also in the room and he got involved too. When the administrators left, they left satisfied in the knowledge that higher education was going on in the classroom here at Gompers High School in the South Bronx. That was Ron. He had the uncanny instinct to ask the perfect question to stimulate a lively class discussion. The students in class called him my boy, or Shot Junior, because he often paraphrased or repeated things I said in class and made them his own in order to impress teachers in other subjects. I didn’t mind. In fact I was flattered. He graduated in 1992 or 1993 and I didn’t hear from him for a couple of years.
The next time I saw Ron Joyner was on a tv screen some early hungover Monday morning in June. I nearly fainted when I turned on the tv and saw skinny Ron Joyner being led into a police car in handcuffs. He was arrested for a string of vicious crimes that shook New York during the month of June 1995. Apparently Ron was the maniac who went on a rampage and beat one woman to death by pounding her head into the pavement in front of the dry cleaners she owned, sexually assaulting and beating a piano teacher in Central Park to the point of putting her in a coma, sexually assaulting a jogger near an overpass by the FDR Drive, and attacking a woman in Yonkers. If you think back through all the horrific headlines shrieking from the front pages of New York’s tabloids, you’ll remember that terrible week in June.
On the day of Ron’s arrest, there were newspaper and tv reporters camped around the school. I had to run a gauntlet of cameras, wires, and beige trenchcoats just to get through the front door. That same morning, the Principal issued a memorandum telling staff members not to talk to the press under any circumstances. I spoke to other teachers who taught Ron and they all acted as if they barely remembered him, or as if they never knew him at all. I knew that what Ron had done was as bad as any crime I’d ever heard of, but I couldn’t deny his existence the way everybody else did. I just knew it wasn’t right.
That afternoon I spoke to a reporter from the New York Times who was the only reporter dogged enough to follow me through my silence to my car. Finally I told her to get in my car. I drove around the neighborhood surrounding my school telling her all about my former student. The next day my name and my words were in the Timesarticle and paraphrased in the other newspapers. I was worried what the Principal would say, but fuck it all, there was such a thing as freedom of speech in this country.
As it turned out the Principal was not angry with me at all. She said my quotes in the paper were thoughtful and reflected well upon the school. Over the summer, the State District Attorney’s Death Penalty Task Force visited me at home and I told them what I remembered about Ron Joyner. One of the prosecutor’s told me that it was unlikely that they would recommend the death penalty because it appeared as if Ron Joyner suffered from a degenerative mental illness such as schizophrenia. He said that my testimony helped.
About a year later, there was a trial. The trial was a formality, it was basically understood that upon a guilty verdict Ron Joyner would receive life imprisonment with no chance of parole. I testified. It was unnerving walking into the packed courtroom and swearing upon a Bible to tell the truth. What was more unnerving however, was Ron sitting at the Defense table looking exactly like he did a few years earlier, still the scrawny kid, not the grim faced monster pictured in the news. When he saw me sit down, he smiled and waved “Hi Mr. Shot.” I gave him a half a smile in return. I told the court about Ron’s promise as a student, and about his diverse interests, and about his relationships with his fellow students. While I was testifying, Ron put his head down and began sobbing, at first quietly, then moaning loudly in an eerie wounded animal voice that filled the room. The judge threatened to clear the room, I think she may have ordered the jury out. For an eternity it was me on the witness stand and Ron Joyner, face buried in his hands wailing from the depths of his soul.
After my testimony, I left with a few other teachers who served as character witnesses. Outside the courthouse, reporters tripped over each other to get to us. That night my face could be seen on newscasts throughout the Metropolitan area.
At the end of the school year I transferred out of Gompers, and out of the Bronx to A. Philip Randolph Campus High School in Manhattan. The Principal, who had always stood in the way of my earlier attempts to leave, signed my transfer papers. It was time for a change.
About a year after that, I was laying on my couch channel surfing on a lazy Friday night when an episode of Law and Order caught my eye. There on the witness stand sat a slightly balding, well-intentioned, clueless English teacher testifying about the potential shown by a former student who had committed a string of heinous crimes. I flipped the remote. I couldn't watch.