“Our schools will not improve if we continue to close neighborhood schools in the name of reform. Neighborhood schools are often the anchors of their communities, a steady presence that helps to cement the bond of community among neighbors.”– Diane Ravitch
Every so often I am overcome with emotion. When I was a kid, it happened often when watching sad movies and cartoons would have me gushing uncontrollably. It was embarrassing because of the attention it drew; I wound up with a stuffed nose and a huge headache. So I spent a great many years toughening up, trying not to wear my emotions on my sleeve. That worked to a point. Today you won’t find me going to see movies labeled “tear-jerkers” because the last thing I want is to be seen crying in public.
It was a melancholy week as the marking of 9/11 always brings back so many sad memories. Yes, I did some crying in the privacy of my home. Everyone remembers where he or she was and what he or she was doing when a tragedy of this magnitude hits. I am no different; like it does every year, it brought me back to my time as a teacher.
Theodore Roosevelt High School was a large, comprehensive high school in the Bronx. It began in 1918 as a school located within another school, training secretaries and accountants. By 1928 the school entered its own building on Fordham Road. By the time I went to work at Roosevelt in 1984, gang violence and drugs had ravaged the neighborhood and the school had developed a bad reputation. It consistently made the top ten schools in New York City list for violence. I was not happy when the school district sent me there to work. However, over time my fondness for the school, its students, and faculty grew. It was there that I developed my love for teaching.
That same week, a friend and former colleague of mine from Roosevelt contacted me about planning our second annual staff reunion. (Roosevelt was one of the first schools closed during Mayor Bloomberg’s reign of terror on large public high schools.) Quite honestly, my heart wasn’t in to planning the reunion; I guess it was stress from the opening days of school as I still work part time programming a middle/high school. But then I received an unexpected email invitation from the 2R Teddy Bears Retiree group.
I excitedly read the email and accepted the invitation for my first retiree luncheon. In reviewing the names of people on the invitation, it became clear that something was stolen from some of us who began working during in the 1980’s. We, the leftover teachers from Theodore Roosevelt High School, were scattered to the four winds. We worked together for many years (over 20 years for me), but our destiny was not to be Roosevelt retirees because they closed the school before we had that opportunity. I loved working at Roosevelt and had always envisioned staying there throughout my teaching career. Our place as “Roosevelt Retirees” was robbed from us. School closings affect not only the neighborhood and alumni, it also affects the staff…those of us who dedicate our lives to a profession working in a school we love.
The last ten years were spent teaching in different schools, including, a couple of the Roosevelt replacement schools, Fordham High School for the Arts, Fordham Leadership Academy for Business and Technology, Walton High School, Bronx Academy High School, and Theatre Arts Production Company School. Of these six schools, three were closed by the Bloomberg Administration. Friendships developed in each of these schools, but it was not the same as the experience working at Roosevelt High School. What was it about the school that made it so special?
The experience could be summed up as camaraderie. Although we were quite an outspoken bunch, we knew we were working in an over-crowded school with some wonderful but often difficult students. We pulled together as a staff to provide our students with an education. Our collegial relationship reminded me of a quote, “After a while, you’ll discover that though you may not like all of us, you’ll love us in a very special way, the same way we already loved you.” At Roosevelt, we had a way of growing on each other.
To this day, I cannot explain why I feel so sentimental and sad about Roosevelt. What do I mourn? Having something taken from me before its time? The unfairness of the situation? The attitude by some in this country toward teachers and unions? The attempt to make it seem as Roosevelt High School never existed…why they even took down the plaque dedicating the Auditorium to our beloved Assistant Principal, Pete Routsis…no more Routsis Hall. Really? The building was there since 1928 with tens of thousands of graduates. Where is the legacy? Gone.
Perhaps there was no closure. The year the school closed there was a huge party. They invited everyone they could find, former staff and alumni, to say a fond farewell. Hundreds attended and a vast amount of Roosevelt memorabilia was given away to commemorate the school. People were able to say their good-byes and walk away with a piece of history. I was unable to attend the party because I was recovering from “back to back” surgeries. Some years later, someone brought me an old yearbook from the party; that memorabilia contains fond memories.
It is funny how an object can symbolize so much and it is sometimes why people will spend money on antiques and collectibles. Recently, a person contacted Linnice Collectibles regarding an item that was for sale. It was a music box that looked like a piano. The person explained that they wanted it because it was similar to something belonging to their grandparents. Apparently, after their grandparents passing, the stepfather proceeded to sell off everything to feed his drug habit leaving little to remember the past. Now the person wanted the music box for a brother who was a piano-player going through hard times. The replacement item was intended to make the brother experience fond memories from their childhood and to lift his spirits.
Quite by surprise, I again find myself becoming overwhelmed with emotion as we plan a second reunion that includes the 2R Teddy Bear retirees. This time, however, there are good feelings when remembering so many people with great fondness. We, the leftovers, are going to see a lot of old friends who served as our mentors and taught us a lot by sharing their wisdom when we were early in our careers.
Some quotes from my favorite educational historian, Diane Ravitch, that I am sure will resonate with teachers:
“Will non-English-speaking students start speaking English because their teachers were fired? Will children come to school ready to learn because their teachers were fired?
It would be good if our nation’s education leaders recognized that teachers are not solely responsible for student test scores. Other influences matter, including the students’ effort, the family’s encouragement, the effects of popular culture, and the influence of poverty. A blogger called “Mrs. Mimi” wrote the other day that we fire teachers because “we can’t fire poverty.” Since we can’t fire poverty, we can’t fire students, and we can’t fire families, all that is left is to fire teachers.”
“The corporate reform movement has co-opted progressive themes and language in the service of radical purposes. Advocating the privatization of public education is deeply reactionary. Disabling or eliminating teachers’ unions removes the strongest voice in each state to advocate for public education and to fight crippling budget cuts. In every state, classroom teachers are experts in education; they know what their students need, and their collective voice should be part of any public decision about school improvement. Stripping teachers of their job protections limits academic freedom. Evaluating teachers by the test scores of their students undermines professionalism and encourages teaching to the test. Claiming to be in the forefront of a civil rights movement while ignoring poverty and segregation is reactionary and duplicitous.”