Hamlet in the Hood

The first time I observed Ms. Baker’s Senior English class they were discussing Hamlet.

“Should Ophelia trust Hamlet’s expressions of love?” Ms. Baker asked.

“No way!” Keena called out. Several others also shook their heads.

“Why not?” Ms. Baker pressed. “Mavis…? Are you with us? No? Tran? Don’t look at me. Look at the text.”

Keena started to speak but Ms. Baker shushed her, making brief but meaningful eye contact with each of the other dozen or so students facing her.

She waited.

I watched. In a few weeks she would be leaving for a six-month stint teaching in South Africa; only marginally employed, I was trying to decide if I wanted to be her replacement.

One boy, with his back to the horseshoe arrangement, had his eyes fixed on the Boston skyline a mile or two away. This million-dollar view was a selling point for me, and I enjoyed the irony of finding it here in Madison Park, a vocational high school in one of Boston’s most blighted neighborhoods. The other dreamer, a girl wearing headphones, had her eyes half-closed and inclined toward the ceiling while she mouthed the words to her song. The rest of the students had their noses in Hamlet.

“Perfume?” one small voice said.

“Way ta go, Maria.” Ms. Baker said. “Laertes compares Hamlet’s words to perfume. But what’s so bad about perfume?”

Maria shrugged.

“Look at the text. James? Damien?”

The room was silent. Ms. Baker waited. Five long seconds…maybe more.

“It’s sweet but not lasting!” Maria cried out.

“Yes!” Ms. Baker said, breaking into a big smile.

I had approached this class skeptically. Hamlet? The language of Shakespeare is a stretch for most native English speakers, and would be doubly so, I assumed, for these students, the majority of whom were born in—you name it—Brazil, Cambodia, Vietnam, Puerto Rico, the Caribbean, Guatemala, Somalia, Nigeria, Cape Verde. . . . And it was a stretch. When they read the text aloud, even the most proficient students struggled to pronounce the words. Making sense of them required an almost physical effort that left the students thrilled but spent. Yet line by line, under Ms. Baker’s direction, everyone seemed to grasp the story line and give themselves over to the characters’ dilemmas. Everyone, that is, but the two tuned-out students. (“Up all night selling drugs,” Ms. Baker later said of the boy. And of the girl: “Bad situation at home.” She wasn’t just being flip, I later learned—she knew each kid’s story.)

“So what is Laertes advising his sister?”

“Not to do it with Hamlet?” Russell proposed.

Ms. Baker nodded. “Exactly!”

I wondered if I’d just hit them on a good day when the subject was spicy and close to home. But subsequent classes over the next couple of days convinced me that much of Hamlet was uncannily relevant to these students. For one thing, the violence was familiar. Even the substantial number of students who lived in safe, orderly households were never far removed from the high-drama tales of murder and revenge that appeared in the neighborhood papers and spread through the corridors at school. Furthermore, as Ms. Baker reminded them, the Prince was seventeen, a student like themselves who studied in a foreign land, far from home. And Ophelia, she was even younger and had all the questions about love and sex and trust that they had. Everything about the way Ms. Baker approached the material conveyed her belief that Shakespeare was writing for them as much as anyone else (as of course he was), and the students bought it.

I was impressed. Inspired. The kids seemed bright and motivated; they touched and excited me. There was Nadine, an African-American with attitude to spare, a novel-in-the-works at home, and a new gender-bending get-up everyday. (Black lipstick and lacy long-Johns beneath army fatigues!) And there was Ha. In her native Vietnam, she had been severely burned by a kerosene fire and unable to go to school for five years. Now she was on her way to being valedictorian. Slight and quiet, she had the grace of a heron and the tenacity of a bull terrier.

Ms. Baker assured me the work load would be manageable. A student teacher would take two of my courses, leaving me with just four others—two in Senior English, two in Journalism, all relatively small and each meeting only twice a week. As for overseeing the school paper, Maurice, the student editor, was highly responsible, and besides, the kids knew the routine.

I decided I was game. So what if I was “overqualified,” as the dean had brusquely pronounced upon eyeing my resume documenting almost twenty years of teaching writing in colleges and graduate schools. I needed a job. And although this one didn’t pay particularly well, it offered adventure, a way to break out of a life that I had noticed was becoming increasingly insular. As a high school girl in Queens, New York, I’d acquainted myself with the wider world by reading—Black Boy, Black Like Me, The Other America. I was president of my high school’s “Human Relations” club; I participated in exchange programs with students from Harlem, and, in the summer, I lived and worked on a Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana. During college and afterwards, I traveled extensively, both physically and psychically. As a college teacher, I attended dozens of panels and workshops with titles like “Dismantling Racism” and “Valuing Diversity.” Even so, I’d noticed that although my son seemed entirely at home in his racially balanced school, all the friends he invited home were white. I didn’t have to look far to find possible explanations: my own guests were an equally homogenous bunch, and when my son and I were out on the streets of Cambridge and I ran into people I knew, they, too, were almost always white.

So, yes, I had my selfish reasons for wanting this job—I felt I was missing out by not having more contact with people of color; I wanted to feel more at home in my own multi-racial community—but also, I thought I could do a good job. Although my experience with high school teaching was limited to brief stints in largely white, upper-middle-class schools, most of them long ago, teaching was teaching, I told myself. I had a Master’s in the Art of it, and, as a veteran teacher of College Writing, I knew what high school seniors should be working toward. At the very least, I reasoned, I’d do a better job than the disaffected, untrained sub they would otherwise most likely get. Furthermore, I’d have two more weeks of training in which I could learn from Ms. Baker.

Two years would have been better, but already I had picked up a lot. I had noticed, for example, how physical she was with the kids—hugging the ones she hadn’t seen in a while, affectionately clonking the heads of the ones whose attention drifted—unless, that is, she’d made a calculated decision to ignore a particular dreamer or doodler for the day. I saw how she, a statuesque, olive-skinned Jew (I’m a petite, pale one) earned their trust by coaching the girls’ basketball team and staying late to teach a prep course for the SAT’s. How she make it her business to learn about their families, their churches, their talents and traumas. How her sternness was always mingled with compassion—a compassion so habitual and far-reaching, it extended even to a bug-ridden computer with whom I once noticed her empathizing. She’d be a tough act to follow but I figured that the structures and routines she’d established, and the positive attitudes she’d nurtured, would carry over to me.

My main job during my official training period was to help students with their Hamlet term papers. These were a requirement for graduation, one for which Ms. Baker had lobbied hard, because she wanted—expected—a good portion of her students to go to college, and for that they needed experience with academic writing.

Of course I agreed, but after a few hours of working with individual students, I began to appreciate the enormity of the task before us. The critical articles they were expected to read (and utilize and cite) were downright tortuous to most of them. And while several students could relate the play to their own lives in powerful and touching ways (“My father also died and my mother dishonored his name by marrying too soon”), such comparisons didn’t add up to an arguable thesis. I figured that the best first step would be to simply chat with students about what had struck them in the play. Laureen and I got off to a slow start but when she casually called Hamlet a transformer, I thought we might be onto something.

“Yes, go on.”

“A transformer,” she repeated.

“You mean he has a transforming effect on others?”

She shook her head.

Transformer? Some new pop psychology phrase akin to “enabler”? The only other “transformer” I knew was the metal cylinder on power lines, beaming out possibly dangerous electro-magnetic fields.

After a lengthy who’s-on-first-like exchange, I realized Laureen was comparing Hamlet to one of those brashly-colored, monstrous plastic action figures my eight-year-old had recently introduced to me. Push a button, one head retreats, another pops up; pull a lever, the shoulders sprout wings.

Hamlet. Transformer.

Transformer. Hamlet.

The comparison seemed both ludicrous and marvelous, but before we had a chance to explore it further, the bell rang—at which point, I glanced at the boy next to Laureen whom I’d intended to “help” next, and saw that his paper was shredded. So many times had he erased what he’d written that not a single word remained intact. By the time Ms. Baker left, maybe three quarters of the students had completed a paper she deemed successful. This seemed miraculous, especially considering that several of the remaining quarter had shown up only once or twice since the semester began. (Next to one of those names in the grade book, I noticed the word “incarcerated.”) It would be my job to help and prod the ones who still had a chance. This was the only bit of old business I had to deal with. As for future World Lit texts, I was limited by what books were available—Ms. Baker had ordered Salman Rushdie’s Haroun. Beyond that I could more or less do my own thing and Baker encouraged me to play to my strengths, i.e., work primarily on student writing.

I had what I thought was the perfect first lesson. I would ask students to free-write on their names, then read aloud or just talk about what they’d written. I had used this ice-breaker with countless groups of various ages and levels and it had never failed to increase people’s comfort with writing, with each other, and with me. It also helped people plumb deeply buried feeling and it always elicited much wonderful writing. Now I had what would surely be the ideal group for this exercise—hailing from so many different places and having names both splendid and strange.

I began with brief instructions on what I meant by “free” writing—my usual spiel:

Write quickly, don’t stop. Don’t worry about grammar or spelling or punctuation. Don’t worry about what others will think of what you’re saying. These won’t be graded and you don’t have to share them if you don’t want to. If you get stuck, don’t stop, just keep repeating yourself or writing ‘stuck’ ‘stuck’ ‘stuck’ until a new thought comes. The writing, of course, will be messy and full of mistakes but that’s okay—these are meant as a warm-up, a way to mine your brain. We’ll write for about eight minutes. No talking while we write. Any questions?

Usually there are a couple, but this time the questions, the balking and bitching went on and on:

“Do we write about our first name or last?”

“There’s nothing to say about mine.”

“I don’t have a pencil.”

“I sprained my thumb yesterday.”

“I miss Miss Baker.”

Most kids, I think, genuinely wanted to cooperate, and in the end, quite a few came up with something interesting—one boy was named after an uncle who died choking on a chicken bone; another, after Portugal’s greatest soccer player—but what should have taken twenty minutes took forty-five and a couple of kids produced nothing at all. One had spent his time drawing magnificent cartoons. And another—I had been excited to see him writing non-stop, but when I took a closer look I saw his name, again and again, in giant loopy script—three or four pages of this and just this. He, I later learned, had “special needs,” as did many of my students. The term was relatively new then, new at least to me, for colleges had not yet started to admit such kids, at least not knowingly. The phrase so clearly implied that someone knew what those needs were and knew how to meet them, but if that was the case, no one had shared their knowledge with me.

When it was time to read aloud or just talk about what they’d written, only two students volunteered. When, near the end of class, I asked students to exchange phone numbers so they’d have someone to call about the homework if they were absent—creating a sense of community is always my first priority. Well, I was prepared for some flack at the h-word (Ms. Baker had told me it was hard to get them to do any.) but what surprised me were the several students who refused to give out their numbers. “My mother told me to never give it out,” one shy Latina girl explained. Others, I later learned, were worried about calls from the immigration officials or a cousin’s parole officer.

The day wasn’t a total failure, I decided on my drive home, but I was struck by the amount of energy it had required to achieve so little, and by how I, too—like Hamlet, like my immigrant students—was in a foreign land. There was a lot I would need to learn before I could demonstrate even a modicum of cultural sensitivity.

Overqualified? I’d had my doubts all along (had long ago switched from high school to college teaching in part because the latter was a breeze in comparison) but now I cringed at the foolish vanity that had allowed me to bask in the dean’s assessment and even grant it some credence. What use were my elaborate, well-honed systems of responding to first drafts, of teaching students how to evaluate their own work and respond to the work of their peers, if there were to be no drafts to begin with, or not enough trust to share them with others?

Sobered, I arrived the next day with a new bag of tricks: two “Name Your Baby” books and several Xeroxed copies of the book’s special section on popular African-American names—the Asians had to go it alone. The books created much excitement. “My name means lion,” one boy roared. “Mine, king,” said another, flexing his muscles. I thought high school students were a little old for such unabashed strutting; still I was delighted by the enthusiasm. One boy was so turned on he wanted to Xerox the whole book!

In another class, after trying free-writing again (and encountering only slightly less resistance), I handed out an excerpt from Sandra Cisnero’s House on Mango Street. This two-page meditation on the name Esmerelda, had been a real crowd-pleaser when I’d used it with college students and adults. Sensuous and lyrical, imaginative and emotional, it would serve as the perfect model for the revision I wanted these students to do of their free-writing—or so I thought. In fact, several students seemed intrigued, but near the end of class, a girl named Lupita loudly proclaimed: “With Miss Baker we were doing term papers on Hamlet. Now we’re doing baby stuff!”

Baby stuff. The phrase haunted me, even though Lupita’s “friend” had looked at me sympathetically and said, “When we were doing Hamlet, she complained about that!”

The ironies both amused and unsettled me. Here was a Latina female snubbing Cisneros in favor of Shakespeare, personal reflections in favor of term papers. I was reminded of an article I’d read years before. Lisa Delpit, an African-American educator, argued that free-writing was all well and good for elite white students who knew standard grammar and needed loosening up, but most minority students, she insisted, needed to learn standard grammar, in order to gain entrance into the dominant culture. All that loosey-goosey stuff, she said, was selling them short. I didn’t agree at the time; I believed there was room for both imagination and mechanics, freedom and discipline, just as I have always believed there is room for both dead white males and live women of color. But now I wondered if I ought to ally myself more with Delpit. I started second-guessing myself at every turn.

Of course, every teaching situation—every student, really—requires one to continually reassess and recalibrate. Jose, one senses, needs pumping up; Franklin a kick in the butt. Last week, Darlene needed time out to cool off; this week, she needs to be pulled back in. Such is the delicate balancing act any good teacher must perform. It requires dozens of little decisions every few minutes with success dependent on one’s abilities to read countless subtle cues. Are tears, for example, evidence of too much stress, or a calculated ploy for leniency? Is a complaint that work is too easy to be taken on face value or is it a cover-up for embarrassment that what sounds easy feels hard? I’d always prided myself on my ability to assess which students needed what, and how hard I should push, but now, unschooled in the culture of poverty and racism, and confronted by so many different personalities and codes of behavior, I was misreading some cues and being misread. How else to explain the costly blunder I made some time after that “baby stuff” complaint.

I had come across an editorial by long-time Teacher’s Union President, Albert Shankar, much of which was in the voice of a straight-A student from the inner-city who then transferred to a suburban school where she received C’s for comparable work. Realizing she didn’t yet know half of what she would need for success in college, this girl, in a stern but compassionate tone, was trying to warn her brothers and sisters not to rest too easy.

I made copies of the article, passed it out, and we read it together. It seemed like a good way to convey that I, like Ms. Baker, had no intention of selling them short. I believed they were capable of making it to college, but it wasn’t going to happen without a lot of hard work. Probably some students took the article in the spirit I intended, but Nadine—my source for much information, no doubt not all of it true—told me later that some students were insulted by it. They felt I was putting them down.

If anyone else had delivered this news, I would have been quicker to shrug it off, but Nadine had some kind of hold on me and I took the comment to heart. I even considered the possibility that some part of me hidden to myself had wanted to put a few of my students down. It was true I’d been feeling frustrated, embarrassed even, by my inability to control the few unruly ones who made it impossible for the others to learn. But no, I concluded, I wasn’t trying to get back at anyone; rather I’d made the mistake of imagining that these kids would react to such a wake-up with renewed determination—just as I would have. Now I realized that Imy psyche, my habitual ways of reacting—might not be the best source of information about how these students would react (and I’m still learning that I shouldn’t even assume that those more like me will react to things the way I would.) I hadn’t considered how fragile many of these kids’ self-images were. (“Why would you want to teach here?” more than one student asked me, bringing tears to my eyes.) I didn’t think enough about how many times each day they were dragged down by reasons to give up; I didn’t realize how easily they might interpret my attempt to motivate them, as my way of saying they were too far behind to ever catch up.

Just how damaging that mistake was, I’ll never know. I do know that shortly after it, I seemed to enter a period where I was getting, not merely sullenness and lack of preparedness, but rudeness and hostility. Take Henry—too handsome for his own good, I decided. Flashing his disarming smile, he’d arrive twenty minutes late and charge across the room, belting, “Yo. Wassup? How’s it going?” Take Nadine. From that point on, she seemed out to get me at every turn. When I gave the winner of some class contest a prize (a never-touched blank journal I was reluctant to part with), Nadine publicly proclaimed it a cheap gift. Only now does it occur to me she might have been chagrined she hadn’t won the contest herself. Or maybe she just saw how hard I was trying, how insecure I was, and she reacted as any self-respecting adolescent would: perversely. Quite likely, her cruelty and Henry’s histrionics and Veronica’s surliness were just standard issue—part of a lengthy testing period these students—so frequently themselves the target of abuse—subjected all authority figures to? When I e-mailed Ms. Baker about some of my frustrations, she wrote back that it took her “six months to get them to do anything” and she was sorry to hear that apparently they were going to “make me do all that work over again.”

I don’t mean to imply that those first few weeks (months?) were disastrous. They had their bright spots, the brightest of which may have been working with my student teacher. Though it seemed farcical for me to be mentoring anyone when I so needed mentoring myself, I loved observing and advising and conversing with Karen, and my insights and suggestions helped her prevail through some classes that were downright fiascos.

There were also encouraging moments in my own classes. In one I shared my free-writing on my name, saying that my father had changed his so it wouldn’t sound so Jewish and hamper his business success. I confessed that while I longed for a name that felt more genuine, I was sometimes glad that I could keep my Jewishness hidden. I’m not sure what the students made of this but their rapt attention told me they knew I was speaking from my heart. And this name unit that had started so inauspiciously led to several more spirited classes where we discussed an Israeli story called “The Name.”

A woman is pregnant and her father wants her to name the new baby after his nephew who was killed in the Holocaust. The woman, on the other hand, objects to all reminders of the horrific past; she wants to give the child a modern, forward-looking Hebrew name. In my more rambunctious class (with Nadine and Henry, et al.), we debated whether it is better to remember or forget painful events. We listed the pros and cons of each approach; we tried free-writing again and James shared his piece about a fight he’d gotten into with a childhood playmate in Honduras. I don’t remember how he’d offended her, but for some reason she was out to get him and did so stupendously by throwing a pepper in his face. “It was the 3rd hottest pepper in Honduras,” James wrote. This was just the kind of spectacular detail free-writing often breeds, and a poignant reminder of all the knowledge this boy had that was common and crucial in Honduras but nearly useless here—except, of course, in its power to delight the likes of me. When I got frustrated, as I often did, by just how much some of the students didn’t know (how to address an envelope, for example; where to put the stamp), I reminded myself of all they knew that I didn’t.

Our discussion of the Israeli story led us to a poem by the Mexican-American Lorna de Cervantes. Students enjoyed probing the images and the question the poem posed: What happens to our childhood memories that are “mown under”? Some spoke passionately about the pain of losing contact with their native country and the childhood they had there. They puzzled over what they would find if they dug up those memories—a “corpse” or a “seed.” For homework, Celeste, a sixteen-year-old mother (there were two or three in each class) wrote about having lost out on all the fun of being a teenager. That period is like a corpse, she wrote, “gone forever.” Another student, who was responsible for the care of her severely asthmatic mother—as well as several younger siblings, one of whom was awaiting a liver transplant—wrote that she’d never had a childhood at all.

In these few memorable classes, students saw, as they did with Hamlet, that literature could speak to their deepest concerns. They experienced the magic of metaphor, the power of their own voices when they speak their heart’s truths. And they saw how a well-chosen detail can evoke a whole, long buried world. I also noticed they were less inhibited about revealing themselves by connecting to what they read, than they were if I simply asked them to write about themselves.

These successes sound substantial to me now, yet at the time my pleasure in them was overshadowed by the number of students who came without their homework or didn’t come at all. And as I moved into what I think of as the middle and most discouraging period of my six-month stay, the victories began to feel more and more piddling. Maybe because my sense of urgency was growing. How would we ever get out even one issue of the school paper? How would my seniors learn even a quarter of what they needed to make it through a month of college? What should I be doing here, anyway? Would college teachers and future employers value a heightened self-knowledge and poetic sensibility as much as I did? Maybe I should put all my energy into teaching sentence structure, vocabulary, the use of the apostrophe? Like Delpit, I wanted to give the students the currency they needed to succeed in the dominant culture, but I also had misgivings about concentrating solely on that, for, as the prominent African-American writer bell hooks has said, “Every step into the white, educated world is a step away from the only culture in which minority students have felt at home and validated.”

Of course, every good teacher struggles with the problem of too much to do in too little time, but in large, urban public schools the needs are generally greater, the stakes higher, and the interruptions and impediments overwhelming. I wanted to scream every time the loud speaker went on to announce a track team victory, every time we all had to huddle outside because some kid got his kicks pulling fire alarms. During my initial visits, the vocational emphasis of the school excited me. The TV studio and hair salon, the print shop and a student-run restaurant—they all made Madison Park a sexy, happening place. But now that I’d seen how many students didn’t know “two” from “too” from “to,” didn’t even have a notebook or folder where all their English assignments went, I was becoming a back-to-basics fanatic. I started resenting the school’s progressive features that I formerly would have applauded. These kids didn’t need more stimulation, I thought. They need quiet and calm. They ought to have English every day, I raged. Two out of five won’t do it, especially because one of those is often missed in favor of some internship, field trip or special visit from a local business. Better still, they should go to boot camp. The gentle kind, in a pastoral setting, far away from the baby brothers who need to be taken to the emergency room, from the uncles who need translators at court hearings, from the monotonous, deadening after-school jobs that buy them things they need to feel cool. I had an inkling of the psychological cost of leaving one’s family and community, but from inside the chaotic world of this school, I was beginning to wonder if there was any other way.

Meanwhile, I seemed to be wasting more and more class time sparring with Henry, who didn’t see why we shouldn’t have a little party whenever he decided to stroll in; and with Lupita, who refused to put away her nail polish. I remember after one particularly unproductive class, one of the most diligent students said: “My family worked so hard and risked so much to come to this country so I could get an education, but,” his eyes welled up, “I can’t get one here. Nobody else wants to learn.”

My eyes welled too. I felt he was wrong. There were others, some who would even have admitted it. I berated my “overqualified self” for not knowing how to do right by them. At the same time, I realized that even the most seasoned teacher would have her work cut out for her here because the tone was controlled by those who bragged about their F’s.

I felt sad and fed up. I’d discover that a boy who said he’d gone to his internship never actually got there—had gotten lost and felt too defeated or embarrassed to call for better directions. I’d spend an hour with a kid discussing an alternative to the never-delivered term paper and he would then disappear for three weeks. I’d try calling the parents of absent kids, but either no one was home or they didn’t speak English or I’d leave a message that the student would erase before anyone else heard it. And the one time I did actually meet with the parents of one particularly bright, disaffected African-American boy, they were at as much of a loss as I was and could only bemoan their choice not to bus their child to a white suburban school. I was so exhausted by 1:45 when the school day was over, I could only hope I’d be able to make the short drive home without falling asleep at the wheel. And Nadine—her usual fascinating, infuriating self, always quick to jab me where she knew it would hurt the most—one day, she loudly (there was never any soft with Nadine) accused me of never staying after school like Miss Baker did.

What could I say? I had stayed a few times near the beginning, but less and less as fatigue and irritation settled in.

And then. . . None of this is easy to reconstruct, but the days got longer, and it wasn’t quite so grueling getting up at 5:45. In our Journalism classes, the bare bones of articles came trickling in. Karen and I started working with their authors one-on-one, and it began to look as if we might get out an issue after all. Hilda sweated through five or six drafts of her lead article gleaned from several of Miss Baker’s letters from South Africa. Nadine and Maurice worked hard to construct arguments for and against Ebonics. Tom polished his jazzy poem on why teachers shouldn’t patrol the hallway. (Actually, I was the one who decided it was a poem when I saw the jagged margins; Tom told me he just didn’t know how to format on the computer.) There were the usual diatribes against the Walkman Rule and the nasty lunch food, but there were also articles on the lack of black history in the curriculum, on the suspect popularity of Tommy Hilfiger, on abortion, gay marriage, sexually transmitted diseases; on what it means to be a man, and on how it feels to live all alone—which this student did. There were reviews of art exhibits and original poems on God and love and Martin Luther King. And although a lot of the writing looked to me like it was done by much younger kids, the newspaper had substance, passion and pizzazz. I couldn’t have been more proud.

By then it was mid-May. Karen had to leave, and the very class that had once tortured her threw her a party with presents and loving, appreciative letters. As for the classes intent on torturing me, small victories continued to occur. When we wrote about my friend’s double-exposure photographs, for example, or when we talked about why Rushdie believed so passionately in the power stories have to transform our lives. I can’t claim there was any dramatic turn-around; nevertheless, something started to shift in me.

I’m not sure what did it. Insights from veterans certainly helped. One day over lunch, I admitted to a guidance counselor that some of my students seemed amazingly immature—“amazingly” because I would have thought that with all their responsibility, taking care of younger siblings and working after school, that they’d have been more mature. “Yes and no,” the woman said. “They’ve been forced to grow up too fast—and without the nurturing that allows someone to really grow up.” And in late spring, during a late spring professional day, a guest speaker said something that stuck: “It’s true most inner-city kids are years behind, but don’t get angry at them for being where they are.”

Perhaps I just got better at picking my battles? Or maybe now that we were in the home stretch, I was simply able to let go a little and relax? All I know is around the time that the newspaper came out and Karen was packing up, I was falling in love with the kids.

They’d gotten under my skin. I don’t know how else to describe it—except to croon that line, as I often did then, smiling and shaking my head. Not that the aggravations ceased or even lessened, but I stopped taking them so personally and paid more attention to what gave me pleasure: Eric’s pride when he taught me how to cut and paste on the Mac; Celeste’s excitement when she told me she’d seen one of our vocabulary words in a magazine. I knew I would miss a lot of these kids, even—especially?—some of the ones who gave me the most grief. And I was full of “if only’s.” If only I hadn’t been so green, so easily thrown off course by a little lip. If only I’d had my own classes from the start and not had to deal with the students’ anger over Ms. Baker abandoning them. If only I’d had more time; even Ms. Baker had foundered for six months, and I was convinced I was getting the hang of it now. I went to the dean and told her I’d be interested in a more permanent job.

 

Senior classes end a good month before graduation, and I remember that last month as my best—not because I only had half as many classes, but because I began to see a lot of the seniors individually. They came voluntarily—eager for help finishing long-overdue assignments or for my feedback on their graduation speeches. Many of the students did their best work those last few weeks—maybe because individual help was what they needed all along. Maybe because graduation mania was in full swing and already students were waxing nostalgic about their suddenly wonderful school with all its awesome teachers. Some started visiting me just to chat. Not Nadine, but I swallowed my pride and nominated her for the Intellectual Curiosity Award—which, in spite of everything, I believed she deserved. When she won, she must have found out who’d nominated her because a day or two later, she thanked me. No small victory, that one.

Graduation conflicted with some other obligation I had, but when I heard about what an emotional event it was, I regretted not making it more of a priority. One hot day in late June, I finished up the rest of my grading, cleaned out my drawers, said a few more good-byes and turned in my keys. But all summer I dreamed about the place—even after I had accepted a part-time job teaching writing at Tufts. I dreamed, mostly, about Henry. He had plaintively begged me to pass him, but I didn’t feel I could. I wondered if he’d gone to summer school or just given up on the whole education thing.

In the fall I went back to Madison Park for a visit. While I was hoping to see some of my sophomores and juniors, I went mainly to see Ms. Baker, who hadn’t responded to the messages I’d left on her machine. I was eager to learn what impression she’d gotten of the job I’d done.

When I arrived, she was talking to another teacher in the hall—and she just kept talking to that teacher for a long time, not acknowledging me at all, though I was sure she had noticed me. I was tempted to give a little smile and wave and then disappear, but that isn’t my way and besides, I couldn’t imagine why she was being so cold—so rude, really. I knew I hadn’t been a smashing success, but I thought I’d done pretty well, all things considered. So I kept standing there feeling increasingly foolish until she couldn’t avoid me any longer. When we stepped into her classroom, she came out with it:

She was upset that I’d failed so many seniors, especially because among the failures were a couple who had pretty decent skills.

I was shocked. I didn’t know how many I had failed—I guessed six or seven, which didn’t seem like a lot out of over fifty, especially since a couple of those had never shown up and one had come only once and only, it seemed, to show off the flashy pet iguana he cradled under his jacket. Of the others, either they hadn’t done the term paper or they had but they’d done nothing since. None of these even seemed like hard calls—except possibly Henry, and only because he’d begged me and flashed me that smile of his that was so hard to resist.

Still, Ms. Baker blamed me. Why didn’t they come to class? I could imagine her wondering. Didn’t you make it exciting enough? Didn’t you call their homes after every absence like I told you to? Don’t you know what they’re up against? How complicated their lives are? How precarious their faith in themselves? How crucial it was at this juncture to give them the benefit of the doubt?

For months afterwards, I caught myself rebutting her:

I tried to make some classes fun, but these kids are eighteen years old—they shouldn’t expect everything to be fun.

Even if I had stayed late, Henry wouldn’t have come, Lupita wouldn’t have come. Could you at least give me a pat on the back for the school paper? Several people said it was the best issue ever!

I hated how defensive I sounded. In hindsight, I was sure I could have done better.

 

All this was years ago and I’ve more or less made my peace with what I did and didn’t accomplish at Madison Park. I never really pursued a permanent job there; I was offered a position at a prestigious university and I took it. As an adjunct, I don’t get paid much there either, but I can teach whatever books I’d like, use their massive library, and stroll through their gardens and galleries. I don’t need a key to go to the bathroom, and on my way home, I don’t doze off at the wheel. I have quite a few students of color but few who aren’t middle- or upper-class. Sometimes I miss the kids at Madison Park—their rawness, their hunger and daring; James’s mastery of the hierarchy of Honduran peppers; Jose’s all too intimate acquaintance with the brutality of the Guatemalan military, Paulina’s muscular knowledge of Cape Verdean rhythms. I miss feeling as if, just possibly, I could make a big difference in someone’s life.

On the other hand, my current students generally come to class, do their homework and show up for appointments. Many of them will eventually get good jobs, jobs that can make a difference, and I tell myself that I can influence what they will do with the power they will have. I encourage them to live an examined life; I expose them to theories about white privilege and interlocking oppressions; and I assign them readings about the lives of kids who go to schools like Madison Park.

2 Responses to “Hamlet in the Hood”

  1. Julia

    I am astonished and inspired by how much the author’s experiences matched my own teaching at a large urban high school in California. I am sure that had I stayed, I would have experienced the kind of falling in love with the kids that she described — and I experienced as much as I could allow myself to in three years. However, I believe the core of what she learned — about focusing on how the kids gave her pleasure, and on taking things less personally — can apply to teaching in any setting. I currently work with middle schoolers from a completely different environment, but, being teenagers, they can still be challenging. I have also found that the more I lighten up and see the good in them, the better it is for everyone. Of course, this attitude does not solve the logistical problems and balancing acts every teacher must tackle, which the author illuminated so well. I also want to say that a teacher has to go with her conscience about how to grade a student, no matter where her or she teaches. Ms. Lawrence’s decision to fail students, made with integrity, surely had an effect on their lives. But partially, that effect was created by the students’ decisions. Thanks for a riveting read.

  2. Evelyn

    Powerful piece of writing. It seems to me that Ms. Baker felt guilty for leaving once she saw many of her Seniors had failed. Like most of us, she blamed someone else instead of herself.
    My granddaughters attend a charter school located in a failing school district that has lost 8,000 out of 11,000 students since my children went there. This charter school won a Bronze award from USA Today a few years ago for its excellence. It has a strict dress code and attendance policies, and the students who want to learn do well there.
    A relative worked in the local Headstart program which was a wonderful experience for my granddaughters in the 2000’s. However, the program has deteriorated to the point that time and effort is no longer spent on teaching preschool concepts but instead on preventing & controlling violent behaviors, potty training, and restraining kids as needed. She finally quit after a year of bruises, bites, and threats like “Where you live? I’ll bust your windows out!” from preschoolers.

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