This is one part of an occasional series focusing on the individuals who make up the city’s 80,000-member public school teaching force, produced in conjunction with the Covering Education course at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
When 24-year-old Kadeem Gill started teaching at The Equity Project Charter School, he thought it was a temporary stop. Ten months later, he finally turned down an offer of admission from Columbia Law School—a journey that has wound in and out of Bedford-Stuyvesant, where he grew up a short walk from three public housing projects.
There, he lived with his mother, Mickey Ruiz, who worked full time, and his younger brother, Jonathan. He rarely saw his father.
“I dedicated my entire childhood to getting out of that,” said Gill. Half African-American, half-Puerto Rican, Gill is lean and stylish, with crisp, collared shirts are always tucked in, often under vests, his hair perfectly gelled.
And he did get out—all the way to Princeton University. But something drew him back. His half-brother, Danny, had always told him he would make an “awesome teacher.” After Danny was shot and killed, Gill decided he would listen.
Two years later, fresh from a stint with Teach for America and armed with master’s degree in adolescent special education, he joined TEP to teach sixth-grade math.
Housed in 15 trailers in Washington Heights, TEP is a five-year-old middle school. Nearly 90 percent of its students are eligible for free lunch, a standard measure of poverty, and 20 percent have special needs.
Special education, more than anything else, drew Gill to teaching. Jonathan had severe behavioral problems, and his schools “just didn’t know how to help him,” said Gill. “He didn’t have trouble keeping up in class but he had emotional issues. But they treated him like he had a learning disability.”
As Jonathan grew older, Ruiz found it harder to convince him to take his medication or even go to school. She couldn’t afford counseling. When he did go to school, he got into trouble for acting up in class, kicking down doors and lashing out at teachers.
His outbursts alarmed Ruiz, who remembers locking her door at night. “I just didn’t know how to help him,” she said. “There was nothing nobody could do for me.”
By then, Gill had left for boarding school in Connecticut, where he had been awarded a scholarship. Summer breaks were tumultuous. While his classmates traveled abroad, Gill came home to news that one of his cousins had been stabbed or robbed. And there was Jonathan, who hadn’t taken Gill’s decision to go to boarding school well.
“My brother was just looking to win,” said Gill. “He was asked to comply so much, he started to break rules.” But, Gill added, no one knew how to address Jonathan’s behavior.
Gill vividly remembers attending special education meetings along with his mother. Ruiz would often leave feeling confused, Gill said, because teachers couldn’t help her understand or deal with Jonathan. After repeatedly changing schools, Jonathan dropped out when he was 16 years old.
“The school system failed him,” said Gill, who said he, in return, is willing to “dig and dig to find out what it takes to reach each kid.”
On a recent Friday afternoon in Gill’s sixth-grade math class, Roniel, a student with special needs, and Ruddy were working together in a group. When Roniel refused Ruddy’s help with a problem, an annoyed Ruddy said, “Whatever. You can’t do this work anyway.”
Clearly upset, Roniel stalked away. Gill, who had been watching Roniel closely, asked him to step out of the classroom with him.
Once they were outside, Roniel started to cry. Gill asked Roniel to take deep breaths, then to name a dish he didn’t like.
“School lunch,” said Roniel.
“No, school lunch tastes great,” said Gill.
They argued for a few minutes and then, Gill said, “Have I been able to change your mind about school lunch?” Roniel said no.
“Then no one should be able to change your mind about your abilities and your potential,” Gill said.
For the chance to be that encouraging voice, he said, he is willing to be back home, where he is constantly reminded of a childhood that he once preferred to forget.