by Bernard Gassaway - February 22, 2008
Nearly 32 years ago, while serving an 18-month sentence in a New York State Division for Youth detention facility, I met a teacher who taught math in a way I could understand.
Nearly 32 years ago, while serving an 18-month sentence in a New York State Division for Youth detention facility, I met a teacher who taught math in a way I could understand. Before I met him, I was totally turned off to math. My teachers did not explain it in a way I could understand, so I shut down. Heres what I remember about this teacher. He wore his hair in a ponytail. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. He cared about us. He made us feel special. He took some of us fishing. He was nice. He was cool. He was patient. I never forgot his impact on my learning experience.
Thirty years later, as Senior Superintendent of Alternative Schools and Programs for the City of New York, I remember visiting a classroom located in a prison-like homeless shelter in the Bronx. As I entered the room, I immediately observed about 18 students, from age 17 to 21, packed in a room that probably legally held five people. These students could be described as people of color, Latino and of African ancestry. The shelter reminded me of a building that might be found in a war zone. It was scary. I thought to myself, It must be hell living here.
Students appeared to be working on individual assignments. There was something surreal about this experience. I was in a classroom. No, I was in an apartment made to look like a classroom. It had the elements: desks, chairs, students, and a teacher. Was she a teacher? When I approached her, I noticed her swollen face. It was too big not to notice. I am sure my facial expression gave away the obvious question, What the hell happened to your face? She took the liberty and answered my unspoken question. I had oral surgery yesterday. I could not take off because my students need me. I am sure I fought back tears. I was in the midst of human misery. I was also in the presence of an unknown, out of sight, angel. She was a teacher not because she came to work, even in pain. She was a teacher because she cared about her students. Their growth and success mattered to her. She knew that her absence would leave them without instruction and care. She understood her students needed to escape, albeit temporarily, from their constant reminder of their homelessness. I remember thinking, How can they focus and think about school? The answer to my unspoken question was the teacher. She found a way out of no way. She gave them hope.
I remember visiting another homeless shelter in Brooklyn. It was a one-classroom site. The teacher and teachers assistant made a classroom out of little or nothing. There were about five students in the class this day, three females and two males. They had at least two things in common: they were Black and illiterate. They ranged in age from 16 to 21. The teacher divided the students into different groups. Some worked on math and others worked on reading and phonics. The teacher asked one young girl if she would read for my colleague and me. The girl looked at the page on the book and began to cry. It was as if she lost her voice. She wanted so much to read for us. Her brain simply shut down. I thought to myself, it must be difficult for her to come to this country and not know the language. You can imagine how shocked I was when I discovered she was born and raised in Brooklyn. I was shocked even further when she said she had attended a local high school as a freshman.
I will never forget the teacher. She was patient. She was focused on her tasks. She did not let us (the visitors) interfere with her work. She was a parent. She cared about her students. Her mission was to get her students to read and to compute, one letter and one number at a time. She was a teacher who chose to work with a group of forgotten people.
I also remember visiting a community-based organization located somewhere in the South Bronx. After signing in, I was directed to go through the doors and make a left turn. There I found the most dynamic individual, all of 5 feet tall, who weighed probably fewer than 100 pounds. She was full of energy and love. She had about 25 adult students crammed in a space that would comfortably fit 15. As was my custom, I introduced myself and asked the students to introduce themselves. They said their names and where they were from. Hello, my name is ________________. I am from Dominican Republic, Mexico, Puerto Rico, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali, and Haiti. I felt so proud of them. Many of the adult students worked at night and came to school in the morning. Some drove taxicabs and some worked in restaurants washing dishes. Some were on welfare. The teacher could not stop praising their efforts. Many of the students simply wanted to learn to read to help their children with homework. One pregnant mother brought me to tears when she said she wanted to learn to read to be able to read street signs and find her way home.
This teacher has never been absent from work in more than 16 years. She probably never had a lunch hour. She takes money out of her pocket and provides her adult students with carfare. I have seen her give food to students to take home. She is a beautiful person. She loves her students. The system only recognizes her as a number. To the families in the South Bronx and to me, she is a beloved teacher. She is a great woman who may never be recognized beyond the walls of her makeshift classroom. For her, that is enough. All she wants is to be able to educate her forgotten students.
As a New York City educator for over 20 years, I have been in the presence of greatness. Many teachers are worth their weight in gold. I have seen teachers perform what many may describe as miracles. A teacher touches individual students. A teacher teaches individuals, not classes. A teacher sees the possibilities in her students. A teacher gives hope. A teacher gives voice. A teacher navigates. A teacher explores. A teacher is patient. A teacher learns with his or her students. A teacher discovers. A teacher is a parent. A teacher accepts children as they are, not as he or she would like them to be.