My Failing School

By Wanda Caine

Illustrator: Bec Young

Illustration: Bec Young

The school’s June party was a boat ride on New York City’s East River. Elsie danced with the principal. Everyone thought that was funny because they’d been fighting all year. He wanted her out of the school and she wanted to stay. Elsie and I had been at this school almost 20 years, through seven principals. The city declared our school a failure, but a battle of statistics had postponed our closing.

When a principal is new, he or she can’t put a foot down and say no to overcrowding, and we were always kept in fresh supply of new principals. Each spring we’d fill to the max under the usual application process: 8th graders list 12 high schools anywhere in the five boroughs of New York City. At least half our students said they had never listed us as a choice but had been simply ordered to attend. This gave our school its aura of banishment. The other half of our students were sent by their parents out of dispirited neighborhoods to Manhattan, the promised island.

In the fall, a politically unconnected principal has to say yes and take all the “over-the-counters,” those who just moved here or didn’t receive any placement at all from the city. Ours is a large building. We have fashioned our own small schools within it, without the department of education’s blessing, so we are treated like the last of the large-school dinosaurs. Sometimes a principal has breezed through with sights set on greater heights in the education mill. That might produce the political favor of taking all the kids from a school closed by a shooting.

It seemed youthful spontaneity had caused Elsie to jump up and dance with the principal. She laughed and joked with her enemy, and I imagine there was the exertion of forgiveness. Everyone said she’d danced up a sweat. The gossip and snickering over a dancing pair of adversaries continued after she left the dance floor. People blamed the principal for driving the school into the ground.

I’ve seen the school go up and down. Each down took us lower, but I was always optimistic. We created small schools to prevent an outside hand from reaching in to throttle us. An old friend took the post of English chair; when we got rid of departments, as all small schools must do, he became our small-school principal. We’d had a strong English department so we rallied behind his integrity and started a writing school. We built it, we planned it, we worked later than our usual late every day. I stopped my swimming routine and put on weight, came home late to my own children, but we churned past the planning stage, into our initial year and beyond.

Elsie stopped dancing to catch her breath. She leaned against a loyal friend, who walked her up the steep steps. Elsie wanted to go up to the boat’s deck for air.

More and more students showed up to the orientations, young teens who wanted their talents recognized. Parents saw a place where their kids wouldn’t fall through the cracks. We were excited, thought we were catching on. We created a graduation action plan, offered credit recovery after school, and teachers were allowed to observe other teachers. We did not choose students, like those schools that never have a struggle with truancy and whose success seems a given from the advantages bestowed by more educated or affluent families. We took equal percentages of students who tested above, at, and below grade level. A politically astute principal is one who can select compliant students with good attendance records. Otherwise, a principal must be able to finagle—or at least finesse the statistics long enough to ward off impatient politicians and the businessmen powering education.

I’d seen Elsie at school earlier the day of the party. We met as usual in the bathroom. She always gave me a compliment and it buoyed me when I felt unsupported because my dream of socialized education did not exist. We met this way every day to commiserate. If only the kids’ stomach aches, headaches, and dental pain were addressed—a health clinic at the end of the hallway, we’d say. “The kids could get shots and therapy,” I’d say. “And eyeglasses,” she’d say, followed by a compliment on the colorful tweedy threads in my sweater.
Elsie and I confirmed we would go to the boat party that evening. Few teachers were interested, but some retirees were being honored and all safety agents, secretaries, and school aides were going. We agreed that we like a party at the end of the year. Elsie noticed my shoes. “Are those espadrilles?” she asked. I was ready for a compliment that would send me back into the hallway, positive and focused on teaching. Instead, she broke out laughing: “Isn’t it funny that the clothing of peasants in rural Europe has become chic?” Annoyed, I walked out of the bathroom with a grumpy, “See you tonight.”

A neighborhood newspaper had been assailing us for years. Our kids of color spilled out into the streets after school, loud and numerous in the gentrified surroundings. They had fights on the sidewalk and in the train station. A few projects still stand nearby, and a kid who goes to our school was shot there. It was after school, but he came to the place where he might be safe, returned to us with a gunshot wound that didn’t bleed, lay on the floor and told everyone he had stomach pains but didn’t want to go to the hospital. Eventually his story came out and he got to the hospital. He recovered, but now there was a shooting related to our school. A kid got shot at our school was how it all came out. Maybe that was our death sentence.

One foot poised above the ship deck, Elsie stopped on the top step. She said she was having trouble breathing. Her friend, a special education paraprofessional, helped her through the doorway. Elsie grabbed her friend’s arm and began to stagger. She clawed at her throat and chest. Her friend helped her to a chair where Elsie began to moan and call out. A few people turned around and thought she’d had too much to drink. They left the deck. Elsie fell off the chair. A dean of students was the one to come to her aid.

Even as our small school grew, attendance problems, fights, high dropout rates continued. One of four small schools in the building, we made calling squads to address attendance, held intervention meetings with failing students and their parents. Then the official warning of our closing came. Still, we writhed in denial, wrote impassioned letters, invited local officials to our Demonstration of Learning Day.

Someone cleared the deck of the bystanders, who stared in horror as Elsie choked and sputtered. Elsie managed to say, “I’m dying.” A gym teacher with a Bronx-accented, raspy voice admonished her: “You are not, I repeat, NOT, dying.” She shook her finger at Elsie, planted her feet apart, and spoke the way we’d heard her address students. “Do not let me hear you say that because we are not going to let you die.”

Our school is being phased out. That means we take no new 9th graders, but we will graduate those who entered this year. The students found out the school was closing when it was past the deadline to apply to other schools. They were granted a special application process, but most schools have very few 10th-grade spots. Some of the kids have poor attendance records and failing grades, so no one wants them at a new school. Close a failing school with many failing kids and it’s the end of the problem, right? New York City will have no more failing students, no more gangs, no more struggling families, no school-age children living in shelters, no more students with post-traumatic stress disorder, no more undiagnosed learning disabilities.

Elsie stopped breathing and her heart stopped beating. The dean beat on her chest and breathed into her mouth. She started breathing again. Her heart came back to life. The dean still becomes excited when he recounts those hopeful moments.

Emissaries came to our school to say the closing was official. Morale fell through the floor. Most teachers didn’t make it to the Christmas party.

The large schools serving inner-city kids are being closed. These very same schools have a preponderance of older teachers. We are baby boomers who came of age in the ’60s and ’70s, when the ethic was altruism and people chose to devote their careers to the more difficult schools. We’re not talking about a few years’ dalliance to enhance a résumé, as corporate culture would have it, but an era when lifelong commitments were made to people other than those from your very same background. Closing the schools where large numbers of us are to be found is our reward for choosing this life. Dedicated, devoted, graduate school educated, we can no longer be hired because we are not cost-effective. Each school has its own budget, and two young, energetic bodies can be supplied for my one. Instead, at top salary, we are shuffled into the cattle car of day-to-day substitutes, so that our salaries are carried out of the building. Remember the substitutes you threw paper balls at? Taxpayers’ crumpled money is being thrown at the face of experience. Wouldn’t someone want to use us as mentors to new teachers so they can hang in a bit longer and gain experience? Or is a transient workforce all that’s necessary to educate this city’s young people?

The Empire Queen turned around sharply in the East River. Its sluggish engine, meant to pump slowly for a leisurely cruise, ground into a speedier gear. The engine noise and steep lean of the boat sent us all back to our tables, where we sat still and quiet.

As the cement of our closing hardened, important people dropped into our classrooms. They wanted to know how we were using our data. Someone came to my class one day when a group of students sat on my classroom stage to present the culmination of a few days’ work. I thought the visitor was in charge of deciding which schools shall live and which shall die. My third-period class was a combination of dramatic, conscientious, and funny, and I couldn’t stop myself from thinking that their savvy presentation could save our school. I thought the world depended on me and my students. I knew my boss, the head of our very own start-up school for which we’d worked so hard, had brought the destiny-decider to me because I could be counted on to do something moving and creative, something that would make it clear that our students are on their toes, their skills’ swords sharpened.

Janay, the “A” student who’s surmounted all odds, entered my classroom cheery each day, returning at lunch to ask what help I needed. Some months earlier, her psychotic mother had bitten Janay in a fight, then called the cops to arrest Janay for defending herself. This injustice had enraged Janay, which didn’t look good to the cops or the court, but a good grandmother had come to the rescue. A loving aunt and uncle were interested in her future. “I’m their top priority,” Janay told me. The day before the arrival of our destiny-deciding visitor, Janay had been out of school for a court appearance. It seems there was a decision to return her to her mother, so Janay went up to the stage with her group to do her presentation, unwound the coil of her waist-length hair, and hung her head over so that her hair spilled to a swampy nest on the stage floor.

Through this curtain, she announced, “I’m not doing a presentation today, Miss,” and that was the last thing she said.

Next to Janay sat Mouse, who could be counted on for a few sharp pointers delivered with levity. He asked if I saw the news last night about the young teen killed in Bed-Stuy. That was Kiton’s block. That was Kiton’s best friend killed by a stray bullet. Kiton had all their notes. I grieved silently because she was my stage actress. It was due to her that we found a way to put all our work on stage.

I sat with the teachers I’d known for decades. There was a lone, remaining plate with an intact piece of cake and we stared at it. Grace said that if no one else wanted the cake, she would eat it. Someone slid the cake to her. I rattled the ice in my empty drink, and someone passed me his vodka and tonic. “Mostly untouched,” he said. At first we just said, “This is taking too long,” then we began reviewing what had happened. The dean was still with Elsie. There were people up there with him. Boats, unlike planes, are not required to carry defibrillators. There was no such device on board, no oxygen, just our dean who took CPR refresher courses. Thank God, we said, and Grace said we should pray.

With Janay’s head still hanging over, hair swaying gently, Mouse simply walked off the stage and sat back in his chair. He pulled up his hood to cover most of his face. I went to stand next to him, murmuring, “What’s going on?” “Nah,” was all he answered, but I asked him again while the visitor jotted down some notes. From inside his hood, Mouse finally told me: “My lawyer called my ma and she just called me. They’re saying I got seven felony charges against me—said I was planning an assault.”

Another teacher said it was for graffiti, but Mouse told me he was arrested for being with someone who was planning an armed assault. I don’t know. At this writing he is said to be where they send kids too young for prison.

The principal went to the mic: “As you know, our colleague Elsie is having a heart attack. Grace Hayes will now lead us in prayer.” Grace is a minister. For years she trained our students in peer mediation. She developed and taught electives in African American history. After 30 years of teaching, she got a degree in social work and counseling. She wanted to be a guidance counselor at our school, but since it is closing, she is going to start a private practice. “Let us pray for our sister Elsie,” she said into the mic. The boat bumped into the first berth it could find, recklessly scraping the dock.

A guidance counselor once described my way in the classroom: “You muscle it.” I never sit at my desk. Instead I make the rounds of my students’ tables, sitting with them, or stand by my command table distributing materials. I’m up until all hours creating new ways to motivate the kids, inventing or rethinking lessons. My husband asks me why I can’t just change the date and teach the same lesson twice, but I’m always advancing my ideas about how the kids learn best. I’m not crusty. I go with the trends, mandatory or suggested.

An EMS crew was waiting at the dock. They put on their gloves, picked up their bags and tanks, and waited. I couldn’t stand the minutes it took to secure the ramp. Finally, they could rush aboard, those holding equipment first, and two with the stretcher next. I noticed the boat crew standing next to our table, staring glumly out the window.

After my class and I sealed the school’s fate, I searched the building for the destiny-decider. It’s a big building in a nice neighborhood. Built during the WPA, it has murals and stained glass windows, a pool in the basement, and stages in some of the classrooms. I found the destiny-decider with my small-school principal, meeting in an empty classroom on the first floor, and I politely interrupted.

Briefly, I recounted what each student faced on that of all days: Mouse learned of felony charges, Janay thought she was being sent back to hell, and Kiton lost her good friend to a stray bullet. With my palms out like Moses who’s got only a desert to offer, I explained, “These are our students’ lives.”

“Yes, I know your population,” said Mr. Fate. “I used to teach at. . .” and he named a school that, like all the old buildings, is the first and last name of a person, a role model. The new schools are named by topic or skill, a box off the rubric. “What do you do on a day like today?” he asked.

I told him it’s hard to move forward when three kids’ traumas merge on the pinhead of a lesson.

In the end, the small-school principals let us know that the decision to close us was made long ago, before our statistics got better. It was a done deal, sealed by destiny’s boss long before we were told about it.

“Why aren’t they taking her off the boat?” Was it 20 minutes, half an hour, 40? A second EMS crew arrived. We were startled. Their uniforms were different. They were from some other city agency or hospital. I tried to see this as a good sign, that perhaps they were some sort of specialists, but at our table my boss put his head in his hands and said, “This is not a good sign.”

Finally, two crews came down the ramp with the stretcher holding Elsie. She was completely covered, strapped and masked, and one EMS worker continued with chest compressions while trotting alongside the stretcher.

In a moment we would be motioned off the boat, so we began making cell phone calls to our families, leaving brief messages about our captive state. “I’m going to be late,” I heard over and over. “Someone was dying, and we couldn’t leave the boat.”

Wanda Caine teaches at the Bayard Rustin Educational Complex, which will be completely phased out by 2012. Names are changed.