The recent death of Bel Kaufman, author of the best seller, “Up the Down Staircase,” brought back lots of memories of my days in the New York City public schools. After graduation from college, (an art major) I got a job teaching art to 7th, 8th and 9th graders in the Junior High Schools of the South Bronx, not the easiest way to earn a living. If nothing else, the experience made me an exceptionally good public speaker; if you can hold the attention of 30 twelve to fourteen year olds, there is no audience you can’t handle – although I have to say the worst group I ever addressed was a DAR luncheon in New Canaan. My inner city delinquents were nothing compared to that bunch of spoiled, elderly brats. I ended up doing “stand-up” comedy to get their attention, a skill I acquired during my years at Herman Ridder Junior High School in the Bronx.
The problem wasn’t so much the students; they looked forward to their one hour of art a week, although it had about as much relevance to their lives as Ivanhoe or Algebra. It was the system that drove me crazy. I taught thirty classes a week, each with over 30 students, close to 1,000 pupils in a subject that required individual attention. To say that I was a basket case at the end of a day would be an understatement.
The days flew by in what seemed like seconds. I felt like that character in the old German classic movie, “Metropolis”, who struggles to keep a giant, clock-like mechanism from exploding. If I let my guard down, chaos ensued. Scissors flew, art supplies disappeared, never to be recovered, fights broke out. Charges of m------f------------- rang out. My best friend who taught in an All Girls Junior High (worse than boys at that age) used to break up battles with an upturned chair, lion-tamer style. All it took was one emotionally disturbed child in the classroom, and all learning stopped.
Strange as it may sound, the really hard part of the job wasn’t the students. They were tough, street-hardened but basically lovable. The problem was the workload and the administration (isn’t it always?) with their bureaucratic requests, none of which I ever completed to their satisfaction. My lessons plans were always late and incomplete, my attendance sheets never totaled up correctly, and so on and so forth. Despite my neglect of proper paperwork and procedure, my children turned out gorgeous artwork and the halls of the school were filled with their efforts. Just hand them a crayon and a piece of paper, and, within minutes, something wonderful appeared. I learned to be a performer, a magician, to excite them about their ability to create beauty out of their own heads.
I lasted at the job for six long years. During that time, I did practically no artwork of my own. My only hope for escape (and to be an artist) was to marry and get pregnant (things usually happened in that order in those days.) The minute the pregnancy test came back positive, I handed in my resignation. As I walked out the door of J.H.S 98 the Bronx for the last time, I made two solemn promises to myself:
1) No one was ever going to say “go f---- yourself” to me again, and…
2) I would go on Welfare before I would go back to teach in a New York City public school .