I grew up poor. I just didn’t know it. I was just a kid on the streets. I grew up in a neighborhood in what is now called the South Bronx. When I first arrived there in 1955, my neighborhood, between Southern Boulevard and the Bronx River and between Jennings Street and 174th Street was a patchwork of mini neighborhoods dominated by either Puerto Rican, Black, Italian, Irish, or Jewish families. By the time I moved out, in 1963, I was a “white shadow”, one of a small number of white kids in what had become a “minority” neighborhood. Many of you might know it as “Fort Apache, The Bronx”. Even Jimmy Carter came to visit. My grandmother once lived on that block (Minford Place and Charlotte St).
I moved “uptown” to the Grand Concourse and 171st street, which by 1963 was also a “changing” neighborhood, a far cry from the rising middle class neighborhood from the 1930’s to 1950’s. My nine years there followed the pattern of my former neighborhood. The building I lived in, once one of the most famous buildings in all of the city (The Roosevelt Gardens) was owned by the Weinreb family, one of the biggest slumlords in the city who let it deteriorate until it was condemned and closed. It became a symbol of the Bronx’s demise in the 1970’s. My mother was one of the last to leave.
I was a latch key kid with a divorced, poorly paid, working mom. I was told I was smart, but I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was play ball in the school yards of PS 66, 64, and Taft HS or and other street games on Longfellow Ave., Vyse Ave., and Wythe Pl. I had a disgustingly high IQ score but my first grade teacher wanted me tested for psychological issues. They had no ADHD questions back then. But because I wasn’t working, bored, and fidgety, I must have been ill. I identified with the lyrics from West Side Story…
Dear kindly Sergeant Krupke,
You gotta understand,
It’s just our bringin’ up-ke
That gets us out of hand.
We’re disturbed, we’re disturbed, We’re the most disturbed, Like we’re psychologic’ly disturbed.
We are sick, we are sick, We are sick, sick, sick, Like we’re sociologically sick!
Truth be told, I don’t remember much of kindergarten and first grade, except nap time, blocks, being scolded for not wanting to nap, and having my first-grade teacher tell my mother that I needed “testing.” I was never sure what my first-grade teacher, Mrs. S. (the bunned witch), meant by that. I think she meant psychological. It was before attention deficit disorder (ADD) was the easy answer. I prefer to think that she meant gifted and talented. Turns out it was probably a bit of both.
It was there that I endured Mrs. S. in class 1-3. I have one class picture of me in a cowboy outfit. I was smiling. It must have been Halloween. Like I said, I don’t remember much of first grade. I do remember not liking her and school. My memories consist of being told to keep my hands folded on the desk and my legs under it. That was hard, because the desks were bolted to the floor, and I didn’t fit. So, I kept moving my feet and legs into the aisle, for which I was scolded time and time again. “David. Put your feet under your desk. You will trip someone.” I would usually respond, “But no one is allowed to get up and walk down the aisle.” At which point, she would tell me to be quiet and, “behave yourself.” So, I would be quiet and not pay much attention, rather than get yelled at, until the next time I had to move my oversized legs from under the undersized desk.
Actually, I don’t remember much of third, fourth, or sixth grades either. I skipped fifth grade. I guess I really was gifted. I only remember sixth grade because of two reasons. One was a guy named Murray, who did the dumbest things. He was hysterical. In fact, we created a new phrase, to “pull a Murray,” which meant doing something Murray-like. The second and most important reason turned out to be my most embarrassing moment in school. You know, the one when you want to hide, not only under the screwed-to-the-floor-desks, but under the floor they were screwed into. Mrs. F. was going over some spelling list I was not particularly interested in.
Anyway, Mrs. F. was giving each person in the room a word to spell and pronounce. “Oh no,” I thought. There were enough words to reach me in my seat in the last row; I figured out which word I was going to have to spell and pronounce. “Oh shit,” I thought. “I have no idea how to pronounce it: a.w.k.w.a.r.d. What kind of ‘fuckin’ word is that?” I had never seen it, heard it spoken, let alone knew its meaning. Pretty ironic, huh? “Hmm, is it owkword? Awwwkwaaard?” (As you can tell, I learned to curse early on in life. That was far more useful than knowing awwwkwerd.)
“Oh no. Does she see how panicked I am? I don’t have a clue,” and now she says, “David, please do word number twenty-six,” or whatever number it was. I fumbled for the right pronunciation, screwed it up, spelled it, then, as we all had to do back then, say it again… incorrectly, while listening to the belly laughs of my classmates and Mrs. Bitch telling me to try again. And again. And again. Remember when I said I had skipped fifth grade? Well, that made it even worse. Not only was I the youngest in my class by about one and a half years, but I was also in a class with very few cronies who knew how smart I really was. As a result, I never forgot this experience. It was a moment that probably led me to teaching, although I didn’t realize it back then.
That takes me back to second grade. Miss Stafford was our teacher. She must have been the ripe, old age of twenty-three. We had no idea. We were seven. In 1956 and 1957, she was ancient. She was also incredible. When she passed away in 2009, several of us from her second-grade class were at her memorial service. We had no idea that our Miss Stafford would become the world renown Dr. Rita Dunn. A professor at St. John’s University for nearly forty years, she had become an authority on learning styles, an internationally renowned professor of higher education, a prolific author of thirty-two textbooks and more than four hundred fifty manuscripts and research papers, and the recipient of thirty-one professional research awards. We had no idea who she was going to become. At the time, neither did she.
It was she who inspired me to teach. She proved to me that in any one year, any one teacher could make a difference to any one student. She was creative and autonomous. She was innovative and caring. Unfortunately, I didn’t have many other teachers who had a positive impact on my life. Most were and still are forgotten. Looking back I now understand how being a student totally influenced who I became as a teacher.
So I became a teacher. I student taught at Taft, while I, as that white shadow, was still playing ball in its school yard with potential students. (I was only 19). I went on to teach for 16 years at Adlai Stevenson H.S. on Lafayette Ave, near White Plains Road. It was a huge comprehensive high school with kids from neighboring apartment buildings, modest homes, and of course the projects. There were middle class and many poor kids. They were almost all minority.
Here was this poor white kid from the streets of the Bronx teaching many poor Black and Hispanic kids from the same streets. I knew their conditions. I knew how poverty kicks you in the ass and “Down The Mean Streets” of Piri Thomas. I knew the factors that allowed some of those poor kids to succeed, but most to fail. I had seen both, but the failures all too often, some leading to murder and suicide.
I still understand these factors. Those sets of experiences never leave you. So when I read our public school detractors not correcting for poverty as the most pressing issue in public education I get furious.
But when I also read those who try to turn that poverty into bias, often racial, against these kids, I also get furious.
I hope you all do too.