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The Bittersweet End

Collin Lawrence is a former — and now present again! — New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

When I walked into school on Thursday, June 24, 2010, I knew that my final two days at the Brooklyn Arts Academy were not going to be the glorious ones I’d imagined. Word had been sent out that morning from the administration that no teacher would be allowed to leave the building without the permission of the payroll secretary, and that we’d no longer be allowed to stream world cup games in our classrooms. It was clear that the principal had not reacted kindly to the letter that we had written him the day before, outlining our concerns about being asked to sign documents acknowledging error in recording student attendance. We were being punished.

There was a meeting for returning teachers held at 10 a.m. I did not attend, but the teachers who did reported that the principal berated them. I was told that he walked in, held up the letter, and said it had made him “sick to his stomach.” He had taken particular exception to the first line of the letter, which spoke of the “unified staff of [the Brooklyn Arts Academy].” He said that, since he and the office workers were also part of the staff, the letter did not speak for everyone. He also said that he’d been planning to have an end-of-year celebration for the teachers, but that now he couldn’t do it. And he said that the Brooklyn Arts Academy would never be the kind of school he hoped it would be if teachers wrote letters like this. Then he walked out, leaving the assistant principal to finish the meeting with the stunned teachers. She gave the teachers an assignment to write a 2-4 page reflection about how they might integrate “key cognitive strategies” into their curriculum for the next year. The deadline was 3 p.m.

Those of us milling about got the lowdown as soon as the meeting was dismissed. All of us, teachers who were leaving and teachers who were returning, decided to have another meeting and see if we could think of any way to defuse the situation. We elected to call the network leader, essentially the supervisor of our principal, and ask him to mediate a conversation for us (the principal had outright rejected our request for a group meeting to address the attendance issue, saying instead that he’d be happy to meet with teachers as individuals). This was the same network leader who’d come to our first staff meeting of the school year and told us to communicate our concerns to our principal rather than taking out our frustrations in other ways (i.e. the learning environment surveys).

When we heard back from him, he essentially hung us out to dry. He told us that, since we’d gone to him without first informing our principal, it showed we weren’t sincere in our desire to improve communication in the building and therefore he wouldn’t help us. So there was nothing left to do. We signed the forms or not based on the best attendance records we had available and turned them in. I never heard anything more about it.

I received my end-of-year-review that day, but unlike in years past I got no feedback about my performance. The evaluation form was delivered to me by one of the assistant principals, who had nothing to say other than “sign here.” (I received an S rating, as did almost everyone else except the dean, who was given an unsatisfactory rating on the basis of poor attendance. When he told the principal that he had doctor’s notes, the principal reportedly replied, “I don’t care if you had cancer, it is principal’s discretion.”)

Near the end of that day, I went to find one of my colleagues who’d become my best friend on the staff over the years. She and I had started teaching at the Brooklyn Arts Academy at the same time four years ago, and were the only two remaining teachers from that year. This would be the last time I’d see her for a long time, as I was taking a personal day the next day (Friday) and she was leaving for a trip to Southeast Asia that weekend and would miss the final day (Monday). I hugged her goodbye, and she gave me a card and actually cried. We’d been through so much together, and it was unbelievable to me that it was ending like this. I was moved by her tears, which I don’t think were a response to present events but a genuine outpouring of emotion for the end of a bond we’d formed through this crazy, shared experience.

That weekend I flew to Chicago and was the best man in my twin brother’s wedding. During the day on Friday, before rehearsal, I jumped online and checked in with my colleagues back at the school. They reported that “it’s like a ghost town here” and that the principal wasn’t even around. So I didn’t miss much.

I returned Monday morning, the day of graduation and my final day at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, to a similarly empty-feeling school. On this day last year, the administrators had held a breakfast for the staff, and given cards and gifts to the teachers that were leaving. But I received no such recognition.

By 10 a.m., I had not heard a word from an administrator other than a “good morning” from one of the APs. The secretary came by to give me a new stack of attendance documents to sign. I was just sitting in a classroom, waiting around until it was time to go to graduation. The other AP did come by and said “good luck” to me and two other teachers who were leaving. She told us she was “sad” on that day. She noticeably did not say “thank you” to us for the work we’d put into building the school. I never saw the principal in the building, and never had any parting words with him.

I had written my own thank you notes for each and every one of the secretaries and members of the support staff who’d helped me out in various ways over the years, and so went around and said my own goodbyes. I also sent out an email to the entire staff, requesting that they come out for a post-graduation get-together. In this email, I wrote, “it has been a meaningful four years for me here and I would like to properly celebrate with everyone who has been a part of that. If I don’t get a chance to personally talk to you, know that I have enjoyed being a member of this staff and that I wish everyone the best of luck in the future. ”

The administrators left to set up for graduation around 11:30 a.m. and after that we were just in the building killing time. I eventually left to go out to lunch with a few of my colleagues and then we headed to the graduation venue. An email I wrote the next day to my colleague who’d been absent (the one who cried on Thursday afternoon) describes the ceremony and captures my feelings at that time:

At graduation, [the principal] gave a speech about humility. It had nothing at all to do with the graduating class of seniors. He read an excerpt from James Baldwin that was over their heads. Other than that, though, graduation was nice. The choir and band performed. [One student] read a poem he’d written that included shout outs to many teachers and students (mine said something about “daily quizzes” in Lawrence’s class). [Another student] gave a speech. [The two music teachers] gave speeches. And the final performance was a song that was composed by [two students, a boyfriend and girlfriend] and performed by the choir along with [a few of the seniors] and a couple other boys who rapped while the choir sang behind them — it was actually really impressive.

I got to shake a lot of hands and take a lot of photos with the graduates, so that left me in a much better mood than beforehand. In the end, the students are the main reason we do what we do so it is more meaningful to receive positive feedback from them than our administration anyway.

That night, a colleague held an end-of-the-school-year party at his apartment. It would be the last time that I would see many of the teachers who’d become my friends over the last few years. The mood of the evening was a mix of incredulity at the absurdity of the final few days and euphoria for the end of an era (I wasn’t the only teacher leaving – the other three grade level team leaders were likewise moving on). We drank and were overly praiseworthy of one another, perhaps trying to compensate for lack of affirmation given by our administrators. I was buoyed by the kind words of my colleagues, for whom I’d become somewhat of a leader or spokesperson. They, at least, understood and appreciated how much of myself I’d poured into the Brooklyn Arts Academy. I stayed to the end. It felt like my party.

And so ended my career at the Brooklyn Arts Academy. After a long and intoxicating night, I slept in the next day. When I awoke, I felt fantastic. It was a new beginning. But it wasn’t going to be so easy to let go of the last four years. I needed time to process what it all meant. I knew that I wanted to write something.

About our First Person series:

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