My friends Barbara and Jane were with me that Sunday afternoon when I answered the call from 718-777-4300. “Just pick it up, see who it is,” said Barbara, over my protests that I’d already had about 10 missed calls from the same number that morning and didn’t want to deal with any telemarketers over the weekend. When I grudgingly answered, I heard, “Please hold,” and as the Rikers Island switchboard put through the call, a saga 10 years long began a new chapter.
It was my former student Tom calling, responding to my letter to him and my entreaty to his Legal Aid lawyer to have him get in touch with me and allow me to visit him in jail. That phone call on Memorial Day weekend 2010 was the first time I had spoken to Tom since 2001, when he was in the fourth grade, I was a young teacher, and we were about to lose touch — he by bouncing around from PS 192, where I met him, to special education school to detention center to jail on Rikers Island, I by leaving the school where he had been in my third-grade class to look for a better environment in which to teach and, a few years later, by leaving the district altogether and starting Harlem Link Charter School with Margaret Ryan.
In the third grade, Tom touched me as few people have because it was clear that he had special gifts but without consistent and serious guidance he was headed for trouble. By the time he was eight, he had about every risk factor you could name: orphaned, neglected, disabled, hyperactive. With more agency identification numbers than birthdays, it’s no wonder he landed in the tracked “bottom class” that was assigned to me, the lowest ranked among six or seven sections of third-graders at my gargantuan elementary school. Though he never seemed to sit still or attend to his lessons, though he ran circles around the routines his novice teacher was trying to put in place, Tom was a sponge for knowledge and somehow, through sheer eagerness to learn and some uncanny survival skills, met the academic standards in reading and arithmetic that year.
In the nine years between his transfer to what I had heard was a “special education school downtown” (“He was scared” was all another teacher could tell me about the situation as he left) and the Memorial Day phone call, I used every tool I could find to search for him: phone calls to colleagues, new lists of special education schools, and Google and other resources on the Internet.
In about 2007 I found Tom registered at a detention center in the Bronx. Concerned but elated that he was seemingly back in the system where I could contact him, I called the school office there to ask about him. “No recollection of that one,” said the person responsible for registration there. “He’s probably already gone, if he was ever even here. We have 300 students in this facility, and they come and go all the time. You can’t expect me to know them all.”
In the nine years since I last saw him, Tom has made a series of poor choices. At the apex of these choices he committed a felony: robbery in the first degree. As a consequence he spent his 16th through 18th birthdays in a variety of jail and prison facilities from Rikers to the Bronx to Goshen, upstate. In December 2009, three years after imprisonment for his crime, he was released on parole. Within three months, he was back in jail for violating parole.
While Tom alone is responsible for his behavior, I’ve seen the long arc of his life since 1999 and understand that the truth is a bit more complicated. As he told me over the phone, he has lacked adult guidance over the years. That’s as gross an understatement as I’ve ever heard.
Each year, through various public and private agencies, our educational and correctional systems have spent tens of thousands of public dollars on Tom’s education and rehabilitation. Talking with him on that phone call from jail, I learned that the pattern I first observed with him in 2001 — when well-meaning social workers, psychologists and teachers based both at his school and the Administration for Children’s Services disappeared from his life with the stroke of a pen and a transfer to a new setting — would continue as service providers flitted in and out of his life.
Coming of age behind bars, having no family support to speak of and lacking a consistent adult authority figure, Tom was simply unprepared for life on his own. To make matters worse, when his parole began Tom also learned what it means to be homeless. It came as no surprise to this observer to learn that soon after being released, he made a thoughtless and self-destructive decision to skip a parole hearing. The sad tale thus continued in March 2010, when Tom was picked up by the police on that infraction and wound up back in jail, the one place he didn’t want to go.
In the weeks between Tom’s re-arrest and his 19th birthday this summer, he has found himself trapped in a Kafkaesque process in which the correctional system is doing its best to provide him with some support for life on the outside. I have joined him in the middle of this journey and gained yet another paradigm-shifting education in the process. Tom has been through a series of hearings intended to release him to a nonprofit agency that would provide him with some combination of life skills training, temporary housing and substance abuse treatment and prevention. Each hearing has seen new obstacles arise and has ended in delay and continued imprisonment.
Taken on their own, each obstacle is logical, even beneficial. In one instance, an agency wasn’t aware of an earlier diagnosis, and requested a screening. Another time, after an animated display by a prosecutor, a judge decided Tom would be at risk of recidivism without an escort to his destination agency, something for which he is not eligible until age 19. With Tom’s maximum 45-day stay for violating parole now approaching 90 days, these hearings paint a picture of a bureaucracy that seems to refuse to coordinate information well enough both to serve justice and provide Tom with a chance to rehabilitate himself.
So for Tom, with yet another hearing scheduled in a few weeks, it’s more of the same: waiting in his cell and requesting “protective custody” as much as possible to avoid the violence of the other inmates. When I visited him, Tom showed me fresh handcuff marks on his wrists. “It’s not the guards, it’s the other inmates,” he said. Whatever Tom learned in third grade, it may have put him on the path to getting his GED before being released on parole — a glimmer of hope that he might recapture the promise I saw 10 years ago — but it did not provide the survival skills needed to stay out of jail or the social skills to deal with the target on his back that accompanies his status as one of the youngest inmates on Rikers Island.
When Margaret and I started designing our school, the word link kept coming up in our conversation, leading to the school’s name: Harlem Link. There were interdisciplinary links between subjects in the curriculum, links between home and school, collaborative links through co-teaching, links with institutional partners for field trips, and more. As the school prepares to graduate its first class of fifth-graders and send them out into the world, another link is taking center stage: the special relationship between teacher and student. I know our fifth-graders are prepared to navigate the challenges that come with adolescence and growing up as they move on to competitive middle schools. They have had a much more concerted, coherent and rigorous experience than Tom did when he began bouncing around the system. Perhaps equally important, we are laying the plans to keep track of, support and invite back to Harlem Link our alumni as they progress through middle school, high school and college.
Maybe there is nothing I could have done to help Tom along the way. I don’t know. But I do know that I don’t understand a world in which a child could be so short on support that Rikers seems an inevitable destination. I also don’t understand a world in which, despite all of the agencies, all the social workers in and out of Tom’s life, all the hearings, I was maybe the one person looking for him, and I couldn’t find him until it seemed far too late. In the research I’ve done in the last month, partly to prepare to set up an alumni program for Harlem Link and partly in response to my experience with Tom, I have learned that a federal privacy law prevented me from having access to Tom’s records after he left my classroom. As his former teacher, I was deemed a no longer “interested educational party.” That’s right: The system is set up so that when something momentous happens in a child’s life, good or bad, his or her former teachers are officially not part of the educational community that can celebrate or provide succor on that occasion.
There are schools, of course, that track their alumni well. There are schools that measure their success longitudinally by finding out where their students go to college and what type of lives they lead decades after graduation (something we intend to do). There is nothing in the law preventing a school from asking alumni to stay in touch. What bothers me is the tremendous expenditure of resources that comes with dedicating staff time and technology to this effort when the most basic of this information is easily available in the New York City Department of Education’s servers. As a small school, we will do what it takes to keep these strongest links alive. But because of our limited resources, I know we will struggle to do it.
I’m talking to my lawyer friends to understand the reasoning behind this law — or regulation, since this interpretation is not specifically spelled out in the law — but in the meantime I am determined that nothing momentous will happen in the educational careers of our alumni without their elementary school teachers knowing about it.
Someone asked me recently why I wanted to make a big deal of Harlem Link’s 90 percent teacher retention rate in the past two years. With the school year winding down and this big graduation approaching, it’s been a time of reflection and celebration for many fifth-grade families. The notion that we are a larger family as a school and the famous saying, “It takes a village to raise a child,” have come up repeatedly in different settings as families and students try to cope with the idea of moving on to the next school. To my questioner I say, the fact that our teachers are sticking around means, among other things, that Harlem Link will be better able to keep those teacher-alumni links intact.
I am back in Tom’s life now. I can’t see him every day for 180 days as I did 10 years ago, but I’m willing to bet that in those days I learned and today I still remember more about him and what he needs than the sum of all of the specialists and case workers who have appeared and disappeared in his life since. I wish I could have participated along the way, could have spoken to some of the people who had to learn his family history (or, in some cases, not even get that far) over and over again. And I’m determined that in 2020, none of our teachers will have to say the same about any of our proud graduates.