2009-11-13 / Columnists

School Scope

So You Get A Phone Call
Commentary By Norman Scott

Norman Scott Norman Scott Last week I received a phone call from J, a former student who was in my sixth-grade class in 1973- 74. He had just been re - leased from a NY State prison after serving 27 years for murder and was in a shelter (not a good thing) until he finds a place to live. We stayed in touch all these years. I visited him twice in various prisons (he seemed to be in just about every state prison possible). He has been denied parole at least six times and he was somewhat shocked when it was granted so suddenly on the seventh try.

He was released with just about nothing and with little time to notify people (though it turns out that the weird phone numbers popping up on out caller id were from the prison).

His family was even more shocked. Why was he in a shelter? At first I thought the family forgot he existed. But it turns out that is a req uirement of his release for a few weeks.

I knew lots of people in his family. I taught his brother and his ne ph ew and knew his older sister, who was a political activist associated with a socialist party. In the 1975 teachers strike, she came with a bullhorn to rally community support for us.

A political note: This type of fa m ily association is only possible when a teacher spends many years in one school, something that seems to be out of style with the ed deformers.

J had taken up a hobby in prison of building a miniature farm out of popsicle sticks. He sent me the entire farm, which I still have in my basement. Beautiful work.

He was one of the more difficult kids to deal with and had disrupted many classrooms in the past years (that was before special ed). That class was very difficult, with more than a few kids ending up dead or in prison. I took his behavior issue off the table by buying lizards and some math manipulatives and freeing him from his seat or having to do any formal work in class, though he was free to join us when he wished.

He had already been held back twice I think - the maximum possible - see Bloom Klein, we didn't have automatic social promotion - but it was enough. You couldn't do it a third time and have a 13-year-old sitting in sixth grade forever.

He dropped out at 14. He studied acting and used to come to my classes in later years and do acting exercises. At times he went on trips with us. Then came drugs. And murder.

One time he called me on Thanks - giving from jail and said there were nine guys from the projects in the same cellblock. He put some of them who knew me on the phone. (One of them is featured in the Yankee parade story below.)

His scores on the test the year I had him were probably not great, as expected (though I maintain that if I had tried to force him into a traditional setting he might have done even worse). Obviously, my fault. No merit bonus for me. And maybe even a firing for being such a bad teacher as to not get good results, other than to get a child who had disrupted every class to function effectively in a so - cial setting. How do you measure that?

I can't tell you what he lear ned in class that year academically (though free to roam, his curiosity took him into many areas of interest). Maybe to trust a teacher enough to stay in touch for 35 years. Obviou sly, the long- term results were not good. But I can only look at that year and I rate that pretty high.

What would I have done if I had been offered more money for getting his score up? Or if threatened with being fired for not?

We've been in touch over the past week. I'm dropping off his "farm" at his sister's place. He has a daughter and once he gets out of the shelter, he has a place to stay.

I try to imagine the impact on someone who goes to prison in 1982 at the age of 21 and gets out at 48. How does he see the world today? Cell phones, computers, a world really changed in almost 30 years. "What is the biggest change you see," I asked? "The number of women with big butts," he answe - red.

Yankee Parade brings back me - mories.

This must be "student gets out of prison" story week. The Yankee parade reminded me of the parade 10 years ago. I was in a district job at the time and asked for the morning off. I stop - ped by my old school on the way.

In one of those coincidences that seems so crazy, in walked a former student looking for me. Call him "M." He had just been released from a sevenyear prison term, which he had served after a parole violation from a previous seven-year term. He must have been about 31 or 32 years old. He went in at 15. Half his life in jail.

We chatted and I told him I was on the way to the Yankee parade. "You took us on a trip to the Yankee pa r - ade," he said. Memories came flooding back. It was 1978. I was teaching a sixth grade class and we had a trip planned that day. So we made a pit stop to see the parade. We stood at the barriers on lower Broadway and waited for the Yankees to go by. Crowds were sparse, but loads of ticker tape was floating down. Everyone was so friendly and the kids had a blast rolling in the masses of paper. Three or four flatbed trucks went zipping by and we barely saw Reggie Jackson. Maybe 30 seconds.

These trips were the cement that glued relationships together between the kids and me as the shared experiences created bonds that created a true classroom community. That was a special class because I had moved up with them from the fifth grade, so knowing all the kids and their knowing me made the opening of school particularly easy. Except for "M," who had not been in my class the year before. He wasn't a bad kid but just never shut up and was constantly calling out and making wise-ass comments. The first couple of weeks were rough for us and I had to get control of the situation. So one day I told him to tell his mother I was coming over the next afternoon to talk about his behavior. They lived in the projects.

M opened the door when I knock - ed with a look of shock and surprise on his face. Surprisingly, rather than being unhappy, he seemed pleased that I came. That gave me some im portant insight into his character.

I sat down in the living room with his mom, a very big woman. I told her that there was a lot to like about M, who could be very funny - when you weren't trying to teach - but he had to get control of himself. M sat there grinning ear to ear.

After that day we were pals. It wasn't only his behavior that changed. Mine did too. I began to tolerate his remarks and laughed openly at them.

I often retorted and the kids loved what became a sort of routine bet - ween us. M became one of my favorite students of all time.

Norm blogs at: http://ednotes - on line. blogspot.com/

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