Monday, March 16, 2009

Praise for Teachers Past and Present

We have just finished an exhausting process: deciding which school our fourteen-year-old would attend for high school. In New York City this is a crazy process, in part because of the incredible choices you have: specialized and selective public schools, and private schools with a variety of unique cultures. As we discussed and debated the different choices my son Aaron had, I was reminded of how important teachers have been in my life, and how the teachers at the Bank Street School for Children, Aaron and Isaac’s current K-8 school, are transforming them into the accomplished young men they are today.

In grade school, at South Loop School over thirty years ago, Mr. Preston Smith taught me I could be someone I had not yet envisioned myself. Mr. Smith was a math teacher who encouraged me to join the Number Sense club, when I was a fat kid who just wanted to be left alone. I won three gold medals in citywide competition (that’s more or less me in my short story, “The Snake”). This feat astonished me, and embarrassed me, for I really did not like the attention, and even got me into an argument with the principal, who sternly ‘encouraged’ me to donate the medals for the school’s trophy case. I said no. He said he’d call my parents. But nobody could ever convince me to give up my medals. I wasn’t just fat; I was stubborn.

Mrs. Dolores Vega taught me to be a proud Mexicano. Every Friday in her third-grade class, she would force all the kids to dance cumbias. ‘Force’ is not quite the right word; the girls would jump up and dance with Mrs. Vega, and some of the more suave boys would dance too, to show off their moves. She would not take no for an answer, and it made you feel good about yourself when you finally said yes to Mrs. Vega. I have never met a more consistently exuberant teacher who worked so hard for you to experience the true joy of who you were.

Mrs. Pearl Crouch and Mrs. Josie Gutierrez Kinard, at Ysleta High School, were my mentors in Publications. They taught me how to be a good writer of fierce editorials aimed at teachers and the school administration. How? By never accepting anything less than written arguments that were precise and provable. By showing me the meaning of integrity when they stood behind me, even when they came under pressure from the powers-that-be. By expanding my horizons: I first visited San Francisco and New York City with them to attend scholastic writing competitions. I did not know the fancy neighborhoods of El Paso, but I had seen “A Chorus Line” on Broadway and dined at Sardi’s.

At Bank Street, Aaron and Isaac have also experienced classroom after classroom with dedicated, insightful teachers. The School for Children is part of Bank Street College of Education, which is a school that trains teachers. But how do you capture the essence of a place where teaching about children, and children, and how they learn, their voices, their art, their music, are at the center of each day? Bank Street is a remarkable place. I see it reflected in Aaron and Isaac. They sit patiently to work on their homework; they discuss important subjects at the dinner table; they repeatedly ask why, and can offer plausible answers that delve deep into their own selves. Aaron and Isaac are not perfect, but I have little doubt that they will be good citizens in whatever community they decide to call their home.

Even I have learned from Bank Street. I do not think I was a good father when Aaron first attended school as a three-year-old. I was learning to be a parent on the fly; I was exhausted by my many responsibilities; I was too gruff, instead of being focused on understanding the world from my child’s point of view. My essay “The Father is in the Details” recounts my struggle to be a better parent. But I wanted to learn; I am excellent at adapting; I am a sponge. So I paid attention to how successive Bank Street teachers reached my children, how they handled questions, how they listened. Over time, I received as much of an education from Bank Street as my children did.

John Womack. Terry Karl. Maurice Natanson. Laurie Ryan. Karsten Harries. Juwanna Newman. And so many more I have not mentioned. To all those teachers who dedicate themselves to their important work every day, thank you.