2010-12-31 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Commentary By Howard Schwach

Whether it is true that all children can learn or not depends on what you mean by the word “learn.”

It is an immutable fact of life that most children can learn something, but that many children do not want to learn no matter what methods you use or what incentives you promise.

After 30 years in the classroom, I believe in the triage theory, sometimes called the “lifeboat dilemma.” You remember the drill. You have a bunch of characters of varying experience, expertise and character in a lifeboat. Only some can be saved and the exercise is to choose who lives and who dies and to justify your choices.

You have the religious man who has no basic skills outside of providing solace and who is running from a child sex-abuse charge.

You have the illiterate prostitute with a proverbial heart of gold who is a master survival chef. You get the point.

Translate that scenario to the public schools and you have similar characters. You have the bright student who tests off the chart but is emotionally labile and who cannot focus sufficiently to learn.

You have the student who is learning disabled (I know they don’t use that term any longer, but is descriptive of the type) but tries her best to do her best. You have the gang member whose only aim is to appear tough to his gang family and disrupts the school at every turn. You have the severely disabled youngster who has to be taken to the toilet by an adult and, although 12- years-old, cannot write his own name and cannot feed himself. Can all of those children learn? Some can, some can’t and the rest don’t want to. Every teacher in the public school system knows each of those types, except for the latter, who requires special schools, special classes and several adults.

How do we address those students, with very different needs and skills?

Not by saying they don’t exist.

After more than 30 years of teaching, most of it in IS 53 in Far Rockaway, and 10 years teaching emotionally handicapped teenagers, there are things that I know to be true.

First, not all children can learn. Not all children have the skills to learn in the usually-accepted meaning of the word. Secondly not all children want to learn. In fact, quite a few don’t.

Fifty percent of the students in New York City public schools get good educations. Both my children, one of whom is now 43 and a retired NYPD lieutenant and the other of whom is 36 and a synagogue executive director, went through the New York City Public Schools.

My daughter went to PS 104, IS 53 (then considered to be the worst middle school in the district) and Townsend Harris High School. My son went to IS 53 and Far Rockaway High School. Both survived and I believe that going to public schools with bad reputations made them stronger, more able to handle the vagaries of life.

That both chose public service careers speaks volumes. They are among that 50 percent, and your kids probably are as well. Another 20 percent of the students are on the border. They have not yet decided whether learning is a valuable and rational process. Their friends tell them that it is not. They tell the student that to study hard and get good grades is to “act white,” something that is an anathema in the minority community. They can perhaps be lured to the force by persistent work and good teachers, but some of them will surely fall by the wayside.

Then, finally, there are the last 30 percent. They probably will never learn much, except by osmosis, because they are not much interested in education and neither are their family members. To them, education is something painful that you have to endure until you turn 18 and can really go out into the world to do your chosen “thing” – be it drugs or crime or something else injurious to the community.

You might as well write them off right now until the day they begin to understand that, without an education,” you are doomed to the underworld. That happens with many students. I still run into students I taught in the 1990’s who have since grown up, taken responsibility for their lives and moved on to have a business and a family of their own.

They universally thank me for helping them to stay alive until the realization that an education was important dawned on them sometime in their 20’s.

Vernon was a prime example of a student who could not, or would not learn. I won’t use Vernon’s last name, although I still remember it nearly 20 years later. I have no idea of what he is up to now or even if he is alive or dead.

Vernon was in my MIS II (Modified Instructional Services II) class for three years.

There were 12 kids in the class and I had a paraprofessional named Flo Quarles, who kept me alive more times than not.

We lived in Bayswater and one night my son, who had just gone into the police department, came into my bedroom and said that somebody was breaking into his SUV.

I pulled on my pants and ran outside behind him.

There was somebody sliding out of his truck window.

“Police, freeze,” my son said loudly, holding up his gun.

The figure dropped to the ground and laid there with his hands up. He had been stealing my son’s radio and some cash that was in the glove compartment. We both walked up to him and he looked up. It was Vernon.

“I wouldn’t have tried to rob the truck if I knew it was yours,” he said. Seems that he stole the radios and sold them to motorists getting gas in Jamaica for a few bucks to get money for drugs.

My son helped him to get into a drug program, but to no avail. He “graduated” and we both lost track of him.

Vernon did not want to learn. Probably, under the conditions he operated, he could not learn.

That is our reality, and nobody seems to be addressing that reality.

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