There has been a lot of turnover at my nonprofit site. A longtime staff member left two weeks ago, leaving me the only remaining member of last year’s personal statements team. Our most accomplished and well-connected advocate has been driven out by incompetent bosses who couldn’t seem to see the good he was doing for the kids. Our education coordinator is leaving, and supposedly her spot will go unfilled because “it was like that for a year and it was okay then.” Actually, no. I worked that year. It was not okay in any sense of the word.
None of this is actually why I’m posting. I’m posting because of 1) Wednesday’s site visit, the first one I was present during, 2) the ludicrously careless actions of a coordinator, which could have seriously threatened a kid’s life, and 3) my first time witnessing police brutality based on race.
From what I’d heard of site visits, I already knew it would be a debacle. I’d heard that only the well-groomed, articulate, academically sound kids were placed in the front rows of the room; the site visit I experienced was actually a far cry from that, if just as terrible. I was with the seniors and Rebecca, the new college coordinator, in the computer lab for personal statements and CUNY/SUNY application work. Usually the seniors trickle in around 5:00 or so, and it being 4:00 when I arrived, there were only 3 seniors in the room, all hard at work on their applications and statements. The whole room had been changed. The middle row of desks had been removed to give the illusion of spaciousness. One table at the head of the room held neat piles of sign-in sheets, statements, and other documents, a little reminiscent of a formal testing center. A dry-erase board I’d never noticed now bore the words, Seniors: College Seminar. Agenda: Personal Statements & Applications. Computer lab staff affiliated with my agency were suddenly bright-eyed and friendly even though they previously never acknowledged my existence. I didn’t reciprocate. This didn’t faze them. “Site visit,” Rebecca explained. “Awesome,” I said, and proceeded to pretend it wasn’t happening, until it actually happened.
“We have to fill the room with kids,” the computer lab staff was saying. Our director was saying it too. So they literally began filling the room. 6th graders. 8th graders. Whoever was around. They sat them at computers and said, “Well, if seniors show up, they can use another classroom.” It didn’t matter suddenly that the other classroom lacked computers. That the seniors needed computers to work on their personal statements. Then Marie, the advocate for the 8th grade and a coordinator who seems to rank 3rd from the top, said to me: “So, whatever you were doing with 12th grade, just do it with my 8th graders.”
She was texting on her phone. Her 8th graders squirmed in their seats, impatient and annoyed at having their recreational time taken from them. None of them had homework or anything to work on. In that moment I absolutely hated her. “I work with seniors on personal statements,” I said. “These kids are in 8th grade.”
“Well, you know,” she said. “Have them write a story or something. Just so they’re doing something.”
I caught Rebecca’s eye after Marie left. “Bullshit,” Rebecca mouthed. I nodded. “What are we supposed to do?” an 8th grader asked me. “Write something,” I said. “A story. Anything you want. Just to practice writing.”
“Why we gotta do this?” another wanted to know, and before I could stop myself I heard myself say, “I don’t really know.”
Surprisingly, they all actually wrote something.
When Frank, a senior I’ve built a relationship with over the past year or so, finally arrived he was almost sent to the other classroom. I had to kick out an 8th grader so he could use a computer. He was clearly irritated, and I was already having a hard time hiding my annoyance. “Yo, miss,” he said, “I dunno why they gotta be all extra about it, like we some kind of social experiment, it’s bullshit, I mean, bullcrap. Why they gotta be all extra like this, like we don’t get nothing done by ourselves.”
“It is bullshit, and I have no idea,” I said. I was fuming, so much so I actually missed the moment when the board of directors glanced in the room. They didn’t even come in. If they had, they would have realized that it was all show—that only 4 of the kids were doing real work that needed to be done, and that the rest of it was an illusion. Really, if they’re so concerned about making sure the kids are learning, it would have made more sense to watch Rebecca and I do meaningful work one-on-one with the kids, to see them actually struggle with a personal narrative and revise it, to see them genuinely interested in the college research they’re doing. I find it really hard to believe that the board doesn’t know this is just a show—a kind of, “Oh, look at all the little black kids learning.” That’s what it felt like to us. That’s what it feels like to the kids. They know it’s a show. They watch and learn that the system can be played. Then they apply that knowledge to their individual sites, and voila—tutors and advocates are instantly reduced to ineffectiveness because a 9th grader might say, “You can’t punish me, I’m gonna call Miss Marie on you,” and because of favoritism and nepotism, you can’t even count on the higher-ups to always have your back.
Either the board of directors is willfully blind to the utter lack of learning transpiring at these moments, or its members are just plain dumb. I’m inclined to think the former. How do you plan a site visit and barely even enter the room? How can you call that a real observation?
I recently read these two articles about the Harlem Children’s Zone, the much-lauded model for inner-city education and the one Obama has promised to implement across the nation as the new model for education. And, to cop a grammatical meme, I am disappoint. (I am probably also DOING IT WRONG, but that’s a separate issue.) The Times article offers a closer look at what is wrong with the program (and there’s plenty to talk about), but rather than address these points Canada simply sugar-coats the issue and blames it on the teachers. Teachers are certainly accountable, but so are directors. If we aren’t supported on the ground level, how can we get anything done? If we aren’t managed by competent people at individual sites, how can we expected to be competent without disregarding instructions? I love these kids, and I want to do as much for them as I can, but the truth is that I don’t live with them, I can’t drive them to school, I can’t go to their classes with them, or go to college with them. If they aren’t taught to apply what they’re learning in program, the whole attempt is pointless. With all the hand-holding that the organization prides itself on, our kids are not learning independence, and in college they aren’t going to receive the benefit of the doubt. Professors won’t meet them at the office door and offer to take their homework out for them. It’s do it on your own, do it on time, or fail. And while we’re creating a slight bump in test scores and high school grades, we aren’t giving them the tools they need to succeed in college and beyond.
I could keep ranting about this, but instead, I’m going to talk about Marie. Two weeks ago, Marie reached into Frank’s shirt and pulled out his chain—a necklace with a photo of a dead friend, pretty common paraphernalia in these neighborhoods and almost always gang-related. They were standing on the corner, about 8 guys on the corner across the street. We’ve been in the middle of a gang war for a long time now, and Frank’s chain showed his dead friend, a member of the Bloods, wearing the colors and throwing up the Bloods sign. “No need to hide it,” Marie said, apparently wanting him to honor his dead friend, and walked away. Later Frank complained that she did that, and that was enough to show how uncomfortable it made him.
Rebecca has lost kids over these chains before—a kid forgets to tuck it under his shirt, crosses the street and gets capped; or an advocate unwittingly tells them they can untuck, and shots are fired into the group, killing two. For that matter, I’m barely onsite as a part-time employee, and I know what the chains mean. Marie, and our director, came up in neighborhoods like this. They know better. I can’t believe they actually say things like, “Well, NYPD is on the block, so we’re safe.” This after the summer’s shootout when NYPD sauntered slowly up the block to check things out, or last Wednesday when I walked home through a block where black residents were yelling and running like shit had just gone down, and the block was lined with cops doing nothing. Leaning on cars, talking to each other on corners. Dismissing me with a glance, because I don’t look like I live in the projects, i.e., I’m not dealing, I’m not packing, they don’t have to worry about me. It’s the black community they have to worry about.
Frank is okay, but I’ve spent the past 2 weeks in fear that someone will run up on him. He lives in that neighborhood. Eight guys saw that picture. He’s about to go to college and escape it all, and I don’t know what I can do to prevent anything. Rebecca has asked about bringing in a gang workshop so staff can learn more about how to recognize the signs, talk to the kids about it, attempt to implement long-term measures to deter them, but the director apparently hasn’t gotten back to her about it. For that matter, the meeting between the director, Marie, and Rebecca hasn’t taken place yet. It should have been on Monday. As I left work on Thursday I overheard Marie saying, “I’m a hard worker. It’s almost Friday. If there ain’t meetings I got to go to, I’m going home.”
Because practically putting a death sentence on a kid’s head does not constitute important meeting material, even though being 5 minutes late to work does.
All of which brings me to my final subject. At Penn Station on Friday, while I waited for my train to pull in, a white cop entered the waiting area to chase out the homeless people sitting and sleeping there. This in and of itself is common: no ticket, no waiting area; those are the rules. On this particular day, a homeless black man was sleeping on two seats and didn’t wake up at the officer’s voice, so the officer struck him on the back of his shoulder. The man jolted awake. Everyone turned to stare. “You do not want to fuck with me today,” the officer said. “This morning my best friend was shot by one of you people. You do not want to fuck with me. Show me your ticket or get out.” The man had an expired ticket. The cop threw it to the floor and gestured. The man left. The cop left. I wasn’t close enough to see his badge number, but from where I stood I could see his partner, leaning against the wall, watching and saying nothing.
Who do you talk to when law enforcement can’t be trusted? I don’t know. I keep rereading these articles, thinking, What the fuck am I reading, hoping it’s going to be better when I go in today. It won’t be. What we need is a long-term solution, a good housecleaning starting at the top ranks, and changes to the NYPD. Not like any of these things are happening, or will happen any time soon.
Forget tenure or my Ph.D. applications. This is the pipe-dream I’m having: that we are magically making it easier for the kids and improving these neighborhoods, instead of just concealing the grime.
This work by V. Manivannan is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.