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Exclusive Excerpt: “Teaching Lessons from the Bronx”

This excerpt is drawn from “Why Do Only White People Get Abducted By Aliens?: Teaching Lessons from the Bronx,” a book published this month by Ilana Garon, who teaches English at a small high school on the Christopher Columbus Campus in the Bronx.

Garon writes in the introduction, “This is a book about being a new teacher: about the trial by fire that all teachers must undergo, about making mistakes, and about learning from one’s own students. It’s is a book about trying to work within a broken system, while at the same time being bolstered by the very same kids you came in wanting to save.”

In this excerpt, Garon describes trying unsuccessfully to get a student moved to a more advanced math class and seeing results only when an outside consultant took charge.

I first met Tyler when I was the one teaching his math class — back when he still attended. He was thirteen. He came with a sidekick, Shawn, also thirteen. I was told they were the two youngest (and, noticeably, shortest) kids in the school, having been skipped sometime in elementary school due to impressive test scores.

Most of the ninth-grade boys were still pretty small; they wouldn’t hit their growth spurts until tenth or 11th grade, at which point I would greet them in September to find that they towered over me. But it wasn’t just Shawn and Tyler’s stature that distinguished them. Both boys, Tyler especially, had a certain round, open-faced aspect that one associates with young children. For the most part, I was used to hulking teenage boys, or at least gawky, acne-ridden adolescents. The two of them seemed like an entirely different species.

Shawn was quiet, but you couldn’t miss Tyler if you tried. He was one of the most sociable and confident freshmen I ever met, introducing himself even to teachers whose classes he didn’t have, and befriending students in all four grades. Moreover, it quickly became apparent that both of them had already learned every single thing I was teaching their math class. It was the Friday before Halloween, and half the student body was staying home to avoid fallout from the Bloods and Crips initiation that took place annually on October 31. The rites of the initiation were rumored to involve anything from pelting kids with rotten eggs to cutting total strangers with switchblades, and so despite the extra police force that were assigned to our school that day, attendance was low.

To the half of the class who had shown up, I gave out a “holiday math challenge.” I had one for every holiday. This one was a permu- tation problem—the object was to calculate the number of different orders in which one could trick-or-treat at a given set of houses.

“If you figure this out, you get candy,” I said, holding up a bag of Reese’s Peanut-Butter Cups. “Now work in pairs, and remember, when you get your answer, don’t tell anyone!”

I began to pass out the papers. Bribery always worked well, and the kids who received their papers first got right to work. I wasn’t even halfway through distributing the papers when I heard a high-pitched “Yes!” across the room, followed by the unmistakable slap of a high-five.

“Miss! It’s 120! We got it! We got it!” Tyler cried, jumping up and down and waving his paper in the air. Beside him, Shawn smirked.

“Punk! I mean … sorry. Tyler!” As I spoke, I could already see the other kids scrambling to write down “120” on their papers. So much for group work. “Didn’t I just say not to tell anyone?”

“Oh yeahhhhhh!” He had a momentary look of dawning comprehension and then yelled, “Yo! Just kidding, people! It was … 83!”

I told the assistant principal that I thought Shawn and Tyler should be moved up. She nodded, said she would look into it, and promptly forgot. I’m not sure whether this was because she was so busy, or because I didn’t have any credibility as a math teacher; the original person slated for the job had left on day two after some students threw a stapler at her head, and I’d been given the position because I had some math classes under my belt from college. I was a stop-gap, in place only until a better solution could be found.

I kind of felt bad for the kids who had me; as a math teacher, I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing.

So I attempted to compensate for this, at least where Tyler and Shawn were concerned. After school, when the two of them would invariably come wandering into my classroom, begging me to give them candy or write a note that would get them out of Football Study Hall, I would teach them new concepts and give them more high-level problems to solve. We called it “challenge math.”

I thought it was a pretty good arrangement until an outside consultant “math coach” came and sat in on my lesson. I was lecturing about variables, and writing problems on the board. The majority of the kids, having already been bribed, were feigning polite interest in the value of “x” when “y” was equal to four.

Presently, a paper football hit the side of my head.

“Oops! Sorry, Miss!” Tyler called. Then I heard a loud stage whisper: “Yo, Shawn, learn how to catch!” But it was too late—they had attracted the attention of the math coach, who sailed across the room and started interrogating the two of them about the contents of their math folders.

“They shouldn’t be in this class,” he told me afterwards. “I’m going to see to it that they get moved up.” Both their names were removed from my attendance roster within 48 hours. I marveled at how fast you could get your roster changed when you weren’t a teacher.

This excerpt is reprinted with permission from Skyhorse Publishing, which published Garon’s book.

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First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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