NYC Teacher · Teacher Voices · Teaching in NYC

So We Beat On, Boats Against the Current: A Teacher’s Take On Schools That Fail Students

(The author of this guest post, a teacher at a New York City public high school, wishes to remain anonymous. Names and other identifying details have been changed.)

“I can’t wait to come back to this school and throw money at everyone,” said Derek, an 11th grade boy in one of my classes. “Hit all the students with cash and hit the teachers with bats.”

“This school is nothing,” he continued, talking to the people at his table.

“You don’t think the school is good?” I asked him.

I had been standing nearby long enough for him to know I was within earshot. His threat about bats didn’t concern me too much. Derek was a smart kid, an above-average reader in a class with some very low-skilled students. I had heard him read a section of The Great Gatsby aloud, almost flawlessly, and help students with words they didn’t know when it was their turn to read.

“This school is a joke. It does nothing for me,” Derek replied. “It’s not making me any money.”

Derek usually appeared frustrated and bored in class, feelings which manifested themselves in his behavior. He was almost always late, and when he did finally enter the classroom he usually came in loudly. It would take him several minutes to take out a notebook, minutes more to locate a pen (which he often did by talking to his friends across the room), and most of his teachers were quick to characterize him as “disruptive.”

By this point in the year, Derek had gotten under enough teachers’ skins and flunked enough classes that the administration felt the need to call a meeting with his father. After the meeting, Derek’s dad, who lives in Ulster, decided he would pull Derek out of his New York City school so that he could go to school upstate. This is where Derek’s line about “coming back to the school” one day and “throwing money at the students” came from. He knew that he was on his way out.

“How could the school make you money?” I asked.

Stupid question.

Why ask Derek to explain the connection between education quality and income? He didn’t need to know the statistics; he could look around at his school and his peers and come up with the numbers, numbers that did not look good. And what was the point of trying to convince Derek that his school was good, when for him and so many others it was clearly not? Derek has 11th grade classmates that read at an elementary school level. When those students arrived at their middle schools as 6th graders, they read at an elementary school level. When those same students left 8th grade, they still read at an elementary school level. And now, through two and a half years of high school, they were still where they started.

For Derek, the illusion of “school” in New York City had faded, probably to be replaced by a reality that was much more disturbing. It is enough to frustrate anyone. It frustrates me, too, enough to realize that Derek is probably just rebelling against a school that has failed him. I find myself wondering when all of this will be fixed, when students like Derek will be able to choose a good school without first needing the temerity to rock the boat, and second the luck to have a parent that lives outside of New York City.

It is difficult to say that any one person is to blame for what I have described. But some person, group of people, or entity has failed these students. Something went wrong along the way and continued to go wrong for an extended period of time. For Derek and his peers, the last line of The Great Gatsby seems to be a grim prophecy: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” How could anyone blame him for trying to fling himself out of the current? How could anyone blame him for ceasing to pretend that everything is okay?”

What do you think?

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