Category Archives: Trenton

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.

Fairness versus Family

It’s 10:00PM. The deadline is 11:59, but I still haven’t received from one of the candidates her responses to the League of Women Voters’ questionnaire that I sent fourteen days ago. I leave my lap top and head to bed, praying that she will make the deadline. Otherwise, I face a difficult decision.

I know the candidate’s child came down with a fever and stayed home from school today. Family first! I should give her a break…. But what about the League’s policy of fairness to all candidates: the same word limit, deadline, and time allowed for answering the questions? Out of fairness to all, when setting the deadline, I take into account weekends and the Jewish holidays, which always interrupt election season. And I know that the other candidates also have family health issues and constraints like moving. Couldn’t this candidate have started on the questionnaire earlier?

How to tell a sweet person, a loving mother that her responses will not be included in the Voters’ Guide because, in nursing her child, she missed a deadline? But, if I give her a break, am I not damaging the League’s reputation for impartiality? Isn’t what makes fairness fair allowing no excuses? I return to my laptop and whip off an appeal. “The hardest thing about League is that fairness to all candidates means I cannot give any one candidate any slack. So I hope you can email your written responses before the 11:59 deadline tonight.”

Family first, the mantra at Trenton High School. I was a misfit because I couldn’t understand why my mentor, during my first year of teaching, missed the first eight days of school. Unprofessional! Or why my aide missed class to get shoes dyed for her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps I didn’t understand because my family and I enjoyed good health, and I got my shoes dyed on a weekend. I retired with a year’s worth of unused sick days, and when I was hospitalized for a week, I demanded and got a substitute whom I trusted to make my kids work and wrote lesson plans from my bed.

Is it just me? Uptight? Maybe, but this summer I was the person who looked after a paralyzed friend because her family could not. They had jobs and nothing was going to get in the way of their going to work. They couldn’t afford to get fired or lose their pensions. I understand that. But what if there had been no one to look after my friend, trapped in bed, hungry, soiled, and at the mercy of fire? What if a sick child is crying while Mommy tries to compose responses to a League questionnaire? How to give a break to a misguided teenager without teaching him that he can depend on getting breaks? What about the unemployed father who steals bread to feed his family?

It’s morning. I approach my lap top with trepidation. I read a subject line, “Candidate Questionnaire Response.” The time recorded is 11:50PM. I’m saved! An accompanying email says, “Thanks for the tough love.”

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.

The Language of Responsibility

I’ve always been fascinated by the language we use to describe falling. With little kids, we say “Susie fell.” But for an elderly person, we say “Grandma had a fall.” That passiveness—as if Grandma were a victim of gravity— is akin to “accidents happen.” Maybe I’m a control freak, but I don’t much believe in accidents.

Recently I asked whether a young man who’d damaged his grandmother’s car in a rear-end collision felt embarrassed. Oh no, I was told. It was a rainy night, and the woman in front of him stopped short. So much for responsibility! But wouldn’t the young man gain a greater sense of control, of pride in his potential power, if he acknowledged that he hadn’t kept a safe following distance?

I worry about a little boy who leaves a trail of broken toys and bruised buddies as he zooms through his play—all “by accident” and thus forgiven. I explain that although his intention is to do no harm, some forethought about cause and effect is needed. I tell him about a kid whose playmate swung him around near a flagpole. The resulting concussion necessitated weeks of missed school and left him too dizzy even to watch TV. The little boy’s eyes grow wide, but I’m afraid he still wouldn’t notice a flagpole.

Years ago at Trenton High, a young man who usually loved science came in, put his head on his desk, and hid his face in his arms. I went over, bent down, and realized he was crying. Two members of his family had been seriously injured the previous snowy night when the car in front had skidded on a patch of ice and they had been unable to avoid a collision. “I should have driven them home,” my student sobbed.

You? I tried to console him. “It’s not your fault. What could you have done?”

He looked up, still berating himself. “I race stock cars. I know how to swerve to avoid collisions.” So much for what I knew about my students, but what a sense of responsibility! He believed that, given the weather, he should have anticipated issues with icy patches and volunteered to drive. Too much forethought?

When is an “accident” an accident, and what is the impact of the language we choose? I don’t have the answers, but the question seems useful.

I Hate My Skin

Trish made the following comment on my post “Asians Are Smarter,” which I’m publishing with her permission. “I so disliked the title of this post that I almost didn’t read it. But, now I am glad I did. Your blog is certainly touching some nerves with me. My husband and I are Caucasian. We live in Trenton. We are the parents of a six year old African American boy. Before we adopted him, six years ago, I feel like I had considered every aspect of raising a child here. Each day, tiny little things happen to remind me that I cannot ignore race. Our son is reminding us too. His questions and comments sometimes take me by surprise. “I hate my skin!” he has said! That is just one of many things that really make me stop and think hard about raising our child. Just recently, a friend told me she purposely uses the words Caucasian and African American with her children. I have started doing the same. I am so thankful that I have many African American friends I can talk to and a few excellent books I can consult. Their advice has been invaluable.”

If reading “I hate my skin!” is painful for me, hearing it must be devastating for Trish and her husband. No child that young should have learned to hate anything about himself. But how to repair damage that shouldn’t have happened in the first place?

An image from the PBS Newshour sticks in my mind: Gwen Ifill interviewing John Kerry. I was struck by the balance: two intelligent, attractive people—a black woman and a white man—equally knowledgeable. Margaret Warner or Judy Woodruff interviewing President Obama offers the same balance. But could a six-year-old appreciate what I see as ideal relationships, where gender and skin color are lovely variations and intelligence trumps all?

I wonder if Trish’s son can explain why he hates his skin. Wanting to look like an adopting mom and dad is less ominous than experiencing playground taunts or being told that skin color implies certain characteristics. Or is it possible that a six-year-old is making such associations on his own?

At Trenton High, I was surrounded by such a variety of black people that it was impossible to link color to behavior. In fact, the one assumption I brought—that all black staff members would work tirelessly for the success of their black students—was shattered. But recently I’ve been trying to help a black friend in crisis. Her children can spare neither time nor money. Instead of pulling together as a team, they scream accusations at one another while their mother lies helpless. Fearful and frustrated myself, I find myself suddenly seeing black—linking color to this selfish, dysfunctional behavior. I know better. I hate myself. But when the hostile, irresponsible, loud faces around me are all black, I make an association.

I need to restore balance, to schedule lunch with my other black friends. It hasn’t helped that I was raised on stereotypes, that I live in a mostly white community, nor that I’m writing a blog about race. Thankfully, I continue to have long chats by phone with my friend who’s in crisis—who, though physically incapacitated, remains strong, capable, and loving. But I shouldn’t need such reassurance. Skin color, character, and behavior are not correlated. I know that. But if I make false connections, might a six-year-old?

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.