Category Archives: Education

My College Reunion

I’ve just returned from my 50th reunion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, as after every reunion, I’m struggling not to evaluate my life in black and white.

Reunions are joyous: catching up with classmates, revisiting Wellesley’s gorgeous campus, and huddling in the dorm with my old roommates until the wee hours, just as we did fifty years ago.

But reunions invite us to take stock of what we’ve achieved. Every five years our class produces a fat record book full of statistics and personal narratives. Reunions invite us to compare ourselves to others, and, compared to Wellesley’s famous “others,” I’m a failure.

Perhaps such comparisons are a hazard of any reunion, but at Wellesley the bar is high. I remember my interview at Wellesley fifty-four years ago. On a table in the admissions office was a Chinese vase given by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Wellesley graduate. As the daughter of a name-dropper, I was impressed. Would some of her fame rub off on me? Today I share the Wellesley name with Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I passed her on campus without, of course, knowing she is likely to become the first woman President of the United States. Being a Wellesley graduate makes for a good game of six degrees of separation.

But there is pain in having known famous women. Cokie Boggs Roberts and I were together in the Wellesley Widows, an a capella singing group, for three years. I adored her. We shared intimacies. She even stayed at my home in Greenwich after the Widows took a spring trip to Jamaica. But we went our separate ways. She became famous, and I know that now she doesn’t remember me. I shared a dorm with Diane Sawyer. Same story. Everyone in the Class of 1966 is proud that one of us became a Wellesley College president and another is a wealthy woman whose generosity built the college’s social center and whose contribution put our class at the top of giving this year. These classmates know me, but they’re too busy, and I’m too intimidated to consider ourselves friends.

And there’s the challenge of Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” – four Latin words that capture the College’s mission: to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Have I made a difference?

After every reunion I must remind myself that I am me, that apples can’t fall far from the tree, that it’s OK to fill the center of the bell curve. Without the bell, there would be no end-points for the famous others. But this year, while I’m consoling myself with clichés, I receive a letter from a classmate whom I don’t know very well. She’s seen my blog and writes, “I was really glad to have made the time to read your pieces, and I respect, too, your long career teaching in an inner city school. You have made a more lasting and positive impact on America than the rest of us put together.”

What an overstatement, but I’ll take it! I needed affirmation of my contribution. I realize, again, that failure is not the opposite of fame. And if fame is recognition, perhaps I am famous. Last week a security guard at the Sun Arena in Trenton asked if I’d worked at Trenton High School. He hadn’t been my student, but he remembered me bustling around the school on student government activities30 years ago.

My reunion doubt is gone. Why make comparisons? Why be a name-dropper? Instead, like my classmate, I’ll write letters affirming the contributions of others who, like me, are neither famous nor failures. We all make contributions, and we all need recognition.

Fear and Ferguson

Fear is not professional. Teachers and police who fear members of their community should never have been hired. We damage the very people we are supposed to serve; we damage our professions and ourselves.

Officer Darren Wilson was probably raised to fear black men. I do not hold him entirely accountable for his fear because I was raised to look down on black people, to see them as different from me, which is a form of fear. As children, Darren and I didn’t know any better. American society is responsible for our fear.

But someonethe certification board, our supervisors, and ourselvesshould have screened us for fear before hiring us as professionals. I thought I’d screened myself. During the civil rights movement, I’d rebelled against my upbringing. Although I knew few black people, I was sure they all were good but had been treated unjustly. I applied to Trenton High to help their cause. I did not anticipate the visceral fear I’d feel when surrounded by black faces. And nothing in the certification process or interview revealed my fear. Here is the story, taken from my book, of how I slipped through.

It was almost Labor Day when the Trenton School District offered me a job based on my application alone. I had the choice of an elementary school position and one at the high school. I chose the high school and went for an interview with the special education supervisor, Mr. Lorenzo Dupont. Mr. Dupont, a robust, fatherly white man who wore a short-sleeved white shirt, gray slacks, and an enormous key ring at his belt, stood waiting. A dark-skinned man in his forties, dressed in a Hawaiian aloha shirt, sat at Mr. Dupont’s desk. He seemed tired and distracted. Mr. Dupont introduced him as Dr. Hopfield, the principal. Dr. Hopfield asked me one question: Had I ever had experience in an inner city school?

My mind raced back over my career. I had taught in one city. Among my 120 English students, I’d had the children of blue-collar workers and one girl who was black. They’d resisted literature. “Why do I need this? I’m going to be a butcher like my father.” I didn’t know if the school qualified as “inner” city, but it had been a challenge.

I looked into Dr. Hopfield’s weary eyes and told him I’d worked in Woburn, Massachusetts. Dr. Hopfield nodded, gave Mr. Dupont his consent to hire me, asked that I do my best for the students, and left the office. I’d had my interview with the principal. Mr. Dupont skipped his chance to interview me and led me to my classroom.

Dr. Hopfield must have suspected my fear, but he had a vacancy to fill. Was there such urgency when Darren Wilson was hired for the Ferguson police force, or is fear the norm in Ferguson? And if fear is the norm, would Officer Wilson have tried to conquer it?

I knew I was afraid. I discovered my fear the first time I encountered a throng of black students innocently returning from lunch. I struggled to hide it and thought I was succeeding until the following incident forced me to become a professional.

Even as I romanticized the problems of the inner city, the thought that I might be physically threatened never occurred to me. But one day that fall, I found myself trapped at the back of my classroom by a new student. Large, firm breasts were inches from my face. Dark eyes looked down mockingly, “Try and get past me,” they implied. I made a move toward the intercom by the door. She pressed in more boldly. She seemed to revel in her power over me. The other students, all young men, sat watching us. Embarrassed and desperate, I yelled for the teacher in the next room. She heard me and came in. The young woman took her seat, and I passed to my desk. Nothing more was said.

My vulnerability scared me. I wasn’t used to students being bigger than I was. Big and black . . . . No. Nojust big. What had started it? Why had I lost control? My failure as a teacher scared me more.

Maybe the incident hadn’t really been a threat, just a test. After all, the young woman hadn’t actually touched me. The other students hadn’t banded together to jump me. I’d been tested by students before, though never so openly, and I’d won. Surely, I could do it again.

But the memory of those defiant breasts wouldn’t go away. A woman’s breasts. So much bigger than mine. The confrontation had meant more than just testing the new teacher. A woman’s breasts . . . on a child. A child . . . . What if the child had been trying to find someone to respect and rely on? Someone stronger, so she could put down the responsibilities carried by the woman? If so, I had failed as an adult. My job was to protect that child from finding out that she was more powerful than an adult. She didn’t need to grow up that fast. Maybe she’d tested me because she’d already been made to grow up too fast. I vowed to embrace these children.

Once I embraced my adulthood, the fear was gone. I could then embrace my students. In my 23 years at Trenton High, I was rarely tested by one of my own students and never again lost control. If only Darren Wilson had recognized Michael Brown as the teenager that he was!

Of course, in the halls or auditorium, where students were protected by anonymity, I didn’t have the same control. Kids often spoke with disrespect when I urged them to go to class or sit quietly“You’re not our teacher, “ “Mind your own business,” or “Who do you think you are? Security?”but rarely the “F” word. Trenton High kids didn’t curse, and the “F” word was considered cursing.

I learned another lesson in professionalism: don’t expect respect; earn it by showing respect. Although it was easy to earn respectand compliancefrom my own students (many were overwhelmed that I’d bothered to learn their names), it was difficult in the halls. I learned to interpret disrespect as just a few teens showing off to their peers the power that anonymity bestows. My job was to remain respectful and keep on urging their best behavior.

It was all about anonymity. For a time, girls wore gold earrings the size of index cards with the name of the wearer stenciled in. They were a big help with discipline. “Tonya, it’s time to go to class.” Tonya would whip around, indignant, “How’d you know my name!” But Tonya would start moving to class. When Trenton High divided into small learning communities where teachers knew all the students, discipline problems in the halls vanished.

What did Darren Wilson really say when he found Michael Brown walking in the street? Even if Wilson was originally as polite as he testified, I can hardly believe that Michael Brown’s alleged “fuck what you have to say” was, as Wilson testified, “a very unusual and not expected response from (sic) a simple request” and thus one that drew his attention to Brown. Why was the response “unusual” when Wilson said that he himself later told Brown to “get the fuck back.” Professionals don’t use “fuck;” they don’t need to. But they are not surprised when others do, and they don’t respond to the disrespect. Wilson could have waited for the back-up he’d called for. Better yet, community policing, where officers try to get to know the residents, could have reduced the anonymity that allowed the confrontation.

We ask our doctors to be professional. We require years of education and trainingcut by cut, stitch by stitchunder the watchful eyes of a series of licensed practitioners until confidence replaces fear. Otherwise, doctors could kill us. Shouldn’t we require more trainingand under a variety of supervisorsfor our teachers, who can kill our spirit, and for our police, who carry guns?

When Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that the St. Louis grand jury had found that “no probable cause existed to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” he explained that “the law allows all people to use deadly force in certain situations.” The law needs revision. Those situations cannot include fear because someone doesn’t look like us, because someone doesn’t jump at our command. None of us should be excused. But keeping an illegal chokehold on someone already on the ground, pleading for breath, cannot be excused. When handcuffs, mace, a TASER, or even a gunshot to the leg would do the job, killing is not professional.

Society must demand higher standards. Unions must protect themselves by holding all members to those standards. And Officer Pantaleo of the NYPD must face criminal charges for what the medical examiner, a brave professional, called a homicide.

The Subliminal Curriculum – Beautification

A well-meaning pre-school teacher decided her class would make headdresses as a project for Thanksgiving. She cut headbands and lots of colorful feathers from construction paper, showed the children how to glue the feathers to the headband, and then stapled the finished bands to fit their heads. Perfect!

Undoubtedly the pre-schoolers were not aware of the project’s hidden lessons—its subliminal curriculum—nor perhaps was the teacher. Subliminal curricula are not openly intended. But, in addition to perpetuating a stereotypical image of Native Americans, the project suggested that there is one right way to make a headdress and that pre-schoolers cannot choose colors nor draw feathers, much less be entrusted with scissors or staplers. Perhaps gluing was the only age-appropriate and safe skill for a class of three-year-olds. My point is that this project is an example of the subliminal curriculum.

I saw a far more devastating example of the subliminal curriculum at Trenton Central High School when our new principal decided to beautify the entrance hall so that visitors on their way to the main office would be impressed. She placed potted plants on the window sills, installed colorful doormats that read “Working Towards a Future,” and mandated that no student be seen near the main office. A security guard was placed at the junction of the main building and each of its wings. All day long they directed students to go around through the back of the building to get to the opposite wing or to the cafeteria, even though the shortest route was straight across. Because the lunch schedule for each small learning community differed, students on their way to the cafeteria, happily babbling with each other after hours of study, had to walk by classrooms where lessons were in progress. If the students from each wing had been allowed to use the central hall to reach stairs leading to the cafeteria, they would not have had to pass any classrooms, just offices and lounges.

Trenton High’s entrance hall, with its high ceiling, columns, and chandelier, was already beautiful. The plants were a lovely addition. Although the message on the doormats seemed ambiguous to me, I found the message to students clear: you’re not good enough to be seen in your own school. I doubt, however, that students got that message. There was no organized protest against the avoid-the-main-hall rule. A few kids even enjoyed trying to sneak past security into the forbidden zone. I wonder what impression the bellowed “Get back here” made on visitors.

Another hidden lesson was that making the school look good was more important than creating a quiet learning environment. And, of course, the beautification was not intended to be enjoyed by students.

At Trenton High, students and learning often came second to looking good to outsiders. The principal was praised widely in the press for her collaboration with Xerox to acquire the duplicating facility that I wrote about in my blog on vocational education. We on the inside knew how few students it trained. But I was grateful for the Xerox employee who worked there; my duplicating problems were solved.

I have other examples of the subliminal curriculum, but readers will have to wait a few weeks while I take a vacation.

Vocational Education – A Worthwhile Alternative?

Tracey Syphex, ex-offender, is now vice-president of Phax Group Construction and Design, LLC; managing partner with Phax Group LLC, a real estate development company; and the 2011 Princeton Regional Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year. He was a panelist at the Princeton Area Community Democratic Organization’s recent discussion “Trenton From the Grassroots.” He credited his turn-around to having learned a trade at the Mercer County Vocational Technical School.

Until the late 1990’s, Trenton High had its own vocational school, taught by professionals in their fields. Students spent three periods daily, for two to three years, learning commercial foods, auto body, auto mechanics, cosmetology, masonry, and a host of other trades. When I first started teaching there in 1981, I could bring in my dry cleaning, get my hair cut, have my lawn mower tuned, and get my car un-dented and repainted. My job was to help my special education students read and understand vocational vocabulary. In the process I became versed in unibody auto construction and the diseases of fingernails. One of my students learned welding and moved to Texas as a skilled worker. Nursing students earned certification. Trenton’s vocational program was impressive.

But the vocational school began to decline as state-wide testing increased. Students who didn’t pass the Minimum Basic Skills test were required to take remedial classes, and suddenly there was no room in their schedules for a three-period vocational course. Over time, vocational classes became filled predominately with special education students because they were not required to pass the state tests. Some vocational teachers chafed that they had not been trained to handle so many special ed kids.

In the school year1999-2000, the vocational school was closed, and much of its equipment disappeared. Rumor had it that the Mercer County freeholders had pressured Trenton to close its vocational school because it competed with the county vo-tech schools. Under a new superintendent, Trenton High was reconfigured into small learning communities (SLCs), all of which were intended to lead to a career but few of which offered hands-on experiences, and those only to seniors. The vocational building itself was divided into standard classrooms; only the shop housing cosmetology was spared. The Medical Arts SLC took in the vocational school’s nursing and cosmetology programs. Business and Computer Technology absorbed the former business courses and opened a huge duplicating room under the sponsorship of Xerox. A few students worked there each period, supervised by a Xerox employee. Applied Engineering offered computer-assisted design, but SLC’s like Law and Justice and Fine and Performing Arts offered no trade.

I myself joined the Medical Arts SLC but was never assigned to help students with vocational vocabulary. Medical Arts sent its seniors across the street to Saint Francis Hospital, where they learned various skills from the hospital staff. For two years, the nursing program continued at the hospital, but then it was decided that the student/teacher ratio was too costly and the program was discontinued. The nursing teacher retired in disgust. Of course it was costly; kids got certified! By 2006, Medical Arts had been moved to a building far from Saint Francis. No Child Left Behind forced everyone to concentrate on those high-stakes tests.

Do we need vocational education? Tracey Syphex was saved by his trade. Now he hires and trains felons who’ve been released from prison. Recently, the PBS Newshour’s “American Graduate” series has showcased the benefits of hands-on learning and internships. Businesses cry out that they need skilled workers. Vocational education—half a day with a professional—is costly, but so is prison and so are social programs to support the unemployed.

Asians Are Smarter

For years I’ve heard that Asians are smarter than Americans. Each time, I’ve envisioned hordes of Chinese people peering down disdainfully at stupid me. I’ve cowered, embarrassed and fearful: are they really smarter than me? It wasn’t until I wrote my post “The Most Dangerous Pronoun” that I realized I’d fallen into the collective noun or “they” trap.

Acknowledging that Einstein, Chomsky, Clinton (Bill and Hillary), and thousands of other individuals are smarter than I am has never bothered me. And I acknowledge, unconsciously and happily, the intellectual superiority of Chinese friends. It’s the vision of hordes who are ethnically different from me that’s intimidating. I, a Caucasian, stand no chance. Perhaps that’s what black people feel when reading negative comments and dismal statistics about their race.

But wait, we are individuals. We fit into a spectrum of ability that has nothing to do with ethnicity. We can strive to fit in wherever we choose. I was reassured recently by an article in The Princeton Packet about Amy Chua, the “Tiger Mom,” who spoke at Princeton University about her latest book, The Triple Package, written with her husband. They began by identifying overachieving groups in America today, which include Nigerian-Americans, Jews, Mormons, and Chinese-Americans among others. They found that the groups share three qualities: self-discipline, insecurity, and a superiority complex or sense of one’s exceptionality. According to Chua, feeling simultaneously superior and insecure produces drive. She noted that the three qualities are not exclusive to any one ethnicity or group.

Can any child learn to achieve? As a teacher, I believe so—though how to instill insecurity is a mystery. At Trenton High, students came with insecurity; my job was to elicit and prove their exceptionalism, and that took long enough. But, if I succeeded in convincing them of their worth, self-discipline usually followed. Some of my students achieved.

Certainly I was raised to believe myself superior to others. Mother told me I was an aristocrat and boasted about me to her friends, but she never warned me not to boast. My braggadocio alienated everyone around me. Without friends I became insecure, aware of my effect on others, and eager to please. People now tell me that I’m driven. I believe I have achieved.

Are Asians smarter? I opt for a more useful wording of the question: do American schools instill in students whatever qualities they need in order to succeed? Answering that question is hard enough and will yield more valuable results.

 

 

Disparity by Race in Education

I was eating dinner and watching the NewsHour on PBS when Judy Woodruff announced that for the first time in almost 15 years, the Department of Education had published data…from all 97,000 public schools across the country. “The findings highlight big patterns of disparity by race,” she said.  My fork dropped and my ears perked up. “No kidding!” I thought, but then I learned that although only 18% of students are African-American, they account for half of all suspensions and that even pre-schoolers get suspended! I didn’t know about the pre-schoolers, but at Trenton High, of course, about 98% of the suspensions were Latino or African-American because 98% were students of color. With regard to punishment at least, it was impossible to see disparity by race.

The report went on to say that African-American, Latino and Native American students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers and less experienced teachers than white students do. That sounded familiar. Positions at Trenton High were never all filled by September. One year, when I took over a homeroom, the students called me “Mrs. Staff” because “Staff” was the name on the classroom door. No teacher had yet been hired for the math class scheduled for that room. But was it that few teachers were willing to teach in an urban school or that the Trenton School District was too disorganized to contact those who did apply? For two years in a row, even though I’d applied in spring, I, an experienced teacher, wasn’t contacted by Human Services until the week before Labor Day. The first time around, I’d already accepted another job. The second time around, I called Human Services myself to ask about the status of my application. It had been overlooked. I was then offered a choice of two vacancies, one at an elementary school, the other at the high school. After two brief interviews, I chose the latter.

The DOE report also found that while more than 80 percent of Asian-American and more than 70 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and science courses in high schools, only 67 percent of Latinos were at a school that offered a range of advanced classes. The figure was 57 percent for African-American students and less than 50% for American Indian and native Alaskan high school students. I recalled an evening meeting of the Trenton High School Management Team in 2001. A student had come to protest that Advanced Placement courses were being discontinued. Our principal told him that because few, if any, students had passed the AP over the previous 10 years, success was unlikely. She reassured him that she had contracted instead with the College Board for Pacesetter, a course of study that would be more appropriate for our students. She suggested that he could take up to six advanced credits at Mercer County Community College. She’d been told by the provost that those credits would be transferable to 40 institutions of higher learning. The young man wasn’t happy; he didn’t want to lose time commuting.

Was our principal, a black woman, just being sensible, not wanting to waste time and money on AP? What role does “If you build it, they will come” play? In the ’80’s, Trenton High had a gifted and talented program that produced gifted and talented graduates. It vanished. In 2002, a colleague suggested resurrecting it, but her committee was stymied because the title sounded too exclusive. Perhaps we should have called it the “AP Small Learning Community.” Sadly, what the DOE found out after 15 years is what Trenton students have known for the past 30 years.

Half Empty Half Full – Expectations Clarified

An example from Trenton High in my recent post “Half Empty Half Full” may have led some readers to think that only white counselors had low expectations for black students. Not true! Expectations for black students had no correlation to the race of the expecter. And thankfully not everyone had low expectations.

Kyle, who came to Trenton from Jamaica at the age of nine and who had never been to school, was placed in special education and, in high school, became my student. As he blossomed (he had no learning difficulties other than first having missed three years of school and then been treated as special), I began to see college potential. One of my black colleagues taught a summer enrichment and remediation program for minority students at a prestigious private prep school in Massachusetts. She agreed with me that Kyle should try to get into the program—why not? Kyle’s white English teacher was more realistic than I about Kyle’s chances and accused me of pushing Kyle; nevertheless, the teacher wrote a letter of recommendation. Kyle was not accepted to summer school, but he determined to go to college, especially because as a track star, he might get financial aid. He had my backing, and he was supported by his coach, a black man. On the other hand, his counselor, a black woman, was encouraging him to consider the army rather than college—not that I mean to suggest that a career in the army implies low expectations. Perhaps the counselor, given her large caseload, didn’t know Kyle well or was swayed by his classification as a special ed student. The point is that expectations differed widely; thus the kind of advice and help that students received differed too.

I believe that the adults who advised Kyle were well-meaning, but another incident shocked me. When a young black student in the gifted and talented program confided to one of her teachers that she hoped to become a doctor, the teacher sneered, “That’ll never happen. You’re from the projects.” The teacher was a black woman. Such a black-on-black put-down! Why?

When I first came to Trenton High, I assumed that all the black teachers, counselors, and administrators would be doing everything in their power to inspire students, to prepare students to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. What I found is that a few did; most did not. Black and white staff alike often didn’t have the inclination or perhaps the energy to push themselves as hard as was necessary to overcome the challenges. Whether we adults pushed ourselves and whether we believed in the kids had more to do with our age and idealism than with our race. What I also found out is that any assumption about race is wrong.

The black teacher who judged people based on where they live really isn’t so different from me. My self-esteem surely rests in part on the fact I live in Princeton. But I never put a student down. Why does anyone put a kid down? Happily, both Kyle and the young woman who hoped to become a doctor achieved their dreams.