So I watched my former fourth-grade student Ernie Silva perform his powerful one-man show, “Heavy Like the Weight of a Flame,” with a different eye. As his former teacher and a member of the education deform resistance movement, I saw things that a casual viewer might not see. The show reinforced what every experienced teacher knows: it is not the so-called achievement gap or “teacher quality is the most important element” - blah, blah, blah - but the street gap faced by most Black and Latino kids compared to the daily life experience faced by middle class kids.
Ernie’s story may be unique but it is also in many ways typical of kids growing up in the projects and on the streets of Williamsburg in the 1980s. There was lots of danger all around. Ernie faced it all. Shots fired at a party with one slicing a hole through his shirt. Being stopped by cops pointing guns in his face. Drugs, drugs, drugs – everywhere – in his own house where he was the youngest of 13 children and his brother, destined to die young, was a heavy user. And the other brother in prison who also died. He ended up riding freight trains across the country.
Ernie became a street performer doing break dancing when he was 12 and still in sixth grade. One thing led to another over the next few years and he started doing stand up. His bio states he became an obscene hooky player and started using his train passes to travel around the city looking for comedy clubs instead of going to school (he attended Murray Bergtraum HS). I won’t get into the rest of his journey that led to a scholarship to a graduate acting program at USC. He lives in LA now.
Ernie did not face the so-called achievement gap in reading. He was in one of the two best classes I ever had in terms of academic skills (either 1982 or 1983), in terms of achievement and 75 percent of the children in that class (which I only got because of a threatened grievance) were reading on or above grade level. They wouldn’t have been in that class otherwise since classes were grouped strictly by reading scores. Their math was probably not as good but generally they were pretty high. What needs to be pointed out is that most of these kids walked into school as four-year-olds (the top level neighborhood kids usually attended pre-k) with some level of skills and the teachers nurtured these skills.
Ernie talks about how he was a voracious reader. Friends and family told him: “You can’t change things with all that garbage you read” and “knowledge is dangerous and raises questions.” Mostly these questions took the form of “What the f!”
Ernie’s teachers through elementary school were experienced teachers who were at the top of their game. That class was pretty much together from pre-k through sixth grade. The bottom classes also had the same teachers and the academic results were very different.
There were only two classes on the grade in those years at my school as we had lost lots of population due to tenements being torn down – which by the way automatically raised our scores as the project families were more stable than the tenement kids. Ernie was a project kid. The difference in reading ability between the top and bottom classes was very wide. One of the best teachers had the other class and she told me she had a tough time that school year. The next year we reversed – thank goodness for the UFT contract or my principal would never have given me that class without my threat to grieve it.
I attended the show with another student from the same class, whom I hadn’t seen in 25 years. We caught up during intermission.
He taught in NYC high schools for years and keeps track of his former students. He was the best math student I ever had and one of the brightest students. He and his sisters’ journeys are also interesting and instructive and illustrate how very bright kids in places like Williamsburg have to take routes – like through the military – that middle class kids don’t have to face.
I know that anecdotal stories are not considered “data” but the follow-up stories teachers who spend many years in one community hear inform their knowledge and understanding of what it will take to make real changes and why so many of us are ed deform resisters. Joel Klein and Teach for America tell their minions there are no excuses and they often end up discounting trying to address the “street.”
This is misleading to young teachers who must have an understanding of the “street” and how it transcends the question of reading and math score data. Having such an understanding – which only comes to white middle class teachers through years of experience and involvement in the lives of their children – is a building block toward becoming a more effective teacher.
I want to stress that I also do not believe in making excuses. Teachers have to believe in every student’s potential and do their best to help them fulfill that potential.
But there are bigger issues that must be addressed that are way beyond the teacher. Indeed, it was that understanding that pushed me into political activism by my fourth year of teaching.
During our reminiscences with my other former student he had lots of memories of my classroom (my giant room) and the trips – the time I loaded him and five other kids into my car and took then to my house after school as a reward for good behavior, how he was car sick and barfed in my driveway – sure ways to get an SCI investigation today – I hope the statute of limitations has expired.
Contrary to the Ed Deformers, I do not take the position that teachers are the major influences in these kids’ lives, but are small pieces of a very large jigsaw puzzle.
Seeing Ernie perform was special for me. He managed to work my name into the show (“Mom, my teacher Mr. Scott, gave me an A on my science exam today.“).
I didn’t go out with Ernie and his crew after the show, though invited. The other former student joked that he was waiting for me to leave before lighting up because he didn’t want me to see him smoking. I thought I was a pretty casual teacher and things like that wouldn’t matter. But teachers have an impact in ways that are beyond our imagination.
As I was hitting deadline, the story of the anti-teacher, anti-tenure, antiseniority bill in the NY state legislature was hitting the news.The bill has shades of an even worse bill in Florida and the proposed Washington DC contract. Follow events at my blog, http://ednotesonline.blogspot.com/.