The Jive Sextet
I was very excited to be teaching with two of my friends from College, Del, and Liz. It was our first job out of college, and we were very idealistic and full of enthusiasm. During the first few weeks we were frustrated by the behavior of many of the children, but we enjoyed the challenge, and in time we learned to love them. That’s not to say there weren’t a multitude of problems. There are too many inner city schools like this one, where the students roam the halls, threaten and assault teachers and other students, and damage the school property. Incidents of gang violence, weapons, drugs, and abusive language are commonplace in many of these schools. It appears that 10-20 per cent of the student body is responsible for 100 percent of the problems. I was told that there was a teacher who maintained perfect order in the classroom, despite the pandemonium that existed in the halls. Nobody could tell me exactly what it was that he did to achieve this. I caught up with him one day, and asked if I might observe his class. He wasn’t thrilled with the idea, but I convinced him that I would be discreet, and never reveal anything that transpired in his class. He asked me to sit in the back of the room, keep my head down, and not engage the children at all. I did just what he asked. When the bell rang, he stood at the door to his classroom, and completely ignored the insanity that was going on in the halls. He let the students in one by one, and they took their seats in complete silence. I used my peripheral vision to eyeball what was going on. Every student had their hands clasped on top of the desk, and they raised their hands before asking or answering questions about the lesson. He was an English teacher, well prepared, and left no opportunity for the students to interrupt his lesson, because he used every moment of the class time, leaving no gaps. It was a remarkable transition from the chaos in the hall to the inside of his classroom. It was something akin to the kind of discipline we read about in the days of the 19th century one-room schoolhouse. Afterwards, I asked him how he achieved this. He said that it all takes place in the first moment of the first day, at the beginning of the school year, and any delay in establishing this procedure would end in failure. He maintained a kind of severe posture, but he was a very effective teacher. The lesson I learned was that kids are kids, and it’s up to the adult in charge to establish the atmosphere conducive to education. Now you might say that it was a contrived act, but it worked. Del and I were given a class of 100 students that met in a large lecture type room with only seventy plus seats, so our first meeting was tumultuous, to say the least. The class was called a general music class. Novices that we were, we didn’t understand that this was the administration’s way of creating a break time for the teachers of several classes. Thirty of those students were classified as CRMD, which is the acronym for Children with Retarded Mental Development. Adding insult to injury, they were from several grades, and many of the seniors were held back, overage, and six feet tall. Remember that this was a Junior HS, and not long after the turmoil that occurred in Brownsville, Brooklyn, during the late 1960s. The students were standing around, or sitting on the floor and playing with dice, and there was utter pandemonium in the classroom. My first order of business was to secure the twenty plus missing seats to contain them all. After this first class was over, I scoured the school for chairs. I used a procedure that I learned as a camp counselor. I call it the crab maneuver. The crab lies beneath the sand as he grabs his prey and drags it under. Then, the sand falls back and covers over everything, and all is quite again. I dropped into empty classrooms, grabbed a couple of seats, hurried back to my room, and deposited them inside. I repeated this until I had what I needed. I picked chairs with solid backs, got a can of black paint, and Del and I painted one hundred numbers on the seat backs. Those chairs simply disappeared, crablike. The next day I stood outside in the hall, and Del who taught the class with me, escorted the students one at a time to their assigned and numbered seat. If anyone got out of their assigned seat, we called them out by name. It was very effective. It took a long time to get this done, and several days before it ran smoothly. Since the administration didn’t care if any education was going on in our class, they didn’t interfere. I guess as far as they were concerned we were just babysitters. But we wanted to teach, and we did. I used my skills from my days as a croupier in a gambling casino in England, to put an end to the crap games. I know this is going to be hard to believe, but there were mornings when the local gang members would pow-wow with the principal. I guess they were telling him what was going down today, or something like that. They did this on a regular basis. On one occasion before the end of the school day, an announcement came over the loudspeaker asking the teachers to leave by the back door and go straight to their cars. Apparently the gangs were waiting at the front of the school to give the teachers a beating. They were standing outside with bats and chains. In time, I was able to build a successful band program, and Del and Liz did the same with their choral groups. I enjoyed teaching the students, and even to this day, some 43 years later, we still keep in touch on Facebook. I wrote a proposal that would employ the best of the senior musicians to mentor the younger students during the summer vacation, because I thought that it could work to build an instrumental group fast, provide a part time summer jobs for the kids, and act as an incentive for the mentors to progress on their instruments. The principal, who had the brains of a pickled herring, rejected it. A month later I got hold of a copy of my proposal with the principal’s name as presenter.
There’s nothing one can do to counteract this kind of move. It would be my word against his. I just started out and I knew where that would end up, so I kept my mouth shut. It wasn’t funded, but I still think that it is a great idea. We had a veteran staff that had a great deal of empathy for the kids, and did whatever they had to do in order to get the job done. I learned some valuable lessons from the staff, and from the children, that served me well throughout my teaching career.