On the Outside Looking: A Year in an Inner-City High School

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780613167895
  • Publisher: San Val
  • Publication date: 2/28/1999
  • Format: Library Binding
  • Product dimensions: 5.82 (w) x 9.16 (h) x 1.26 (d)

First Chapter

On the Outside Looking

A Year in an Inner-City High School
By Cristina Rathbone

Rebound by Sagebrush

Copyright ©1999 Cristina Rathbone
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0613167899

Chapter One

ED REYNOLDS, THE principal of West Side High School, was in no position to start registering kids for classes on the first day of school. A mad flurry of royal-blue SWA graffiti tags had appeared mysteriously the night before, scrawled across the walls of the seventh floor. So instead of preparing for the onrush of students in the stately way befitting a principal, he had spent most of the last hour on his knees, scrubbing. He was using a can of soap named Staci. The label read: "Vandal mark remover. A required product for hotels, restaurants, institutions, schools and motels." Ed had bought a whole crate of it on special offer. But despite its robust claim, the Staci didn't seem to be working. After nearly fifty minutes of scrubbing, the blue ink still hovered there, translucent now, as though painted on with watercolor: SWA-Spicks With Attitude.

Ed was proud of his school, even if their last building had been condemned two years before. They were currently housed in a temporarily leased space in midtown Manhattan, a kind of homeless shelter for a school with no place else to go. Right in the heart of the fashion district, and with the Mary McFadden showroom across the street and Macy's andMadison Square Garden just a few blocks away, it was an odd location, not typical Board of Education real estate. But then West Side was not a typical public high school. Long used as a place for dumping troubled kids, it was a school for those the Board of Education wanted to forget. And if that was why Ed's students had to commute a hundred or so blocks from Washington Heights and Harlem, while their old school building sat empty, then Ed was determined that at least the walls would be clean.

Given the current situation, there was little else to make his students feel wanted. It would be one thing if they had the whole building. As it was, they were huddled into three floors of an otherwise perfectly normal, twelve-story office building. The rest of the floors housed a variety of business-each good object lessons for the students, it was true-but it wasn't as if they could provide what the school really needed, like a lunchroom, cooking facilities, an auditorium, science labs, music rooms, or even a gym. The school was so stripped of perks, in fact, that unless you knew it was there you would walk right past the tiny blue metal sign that hung from the top of a gray side door next to a coffee shop and a subway entrance to the uptown A train. "West Side High School," the sign read in murky letters, "500 8th Avenue."

On the first day of school in the fall of 1994, however, you couldn't miss the place. By 8:00 the school's elevator operator still hadn't arrived, and though security had taken over, the new walkie-talkies they were using didn't work and they were forced to communicate through the open shaft of the unused freight elevator instead: "We need you down here in the lobby!" "I'm on seven now-coming right down!" The process was excruciatingly slow, and with nowhere else to go a sizable crowd of frustrated students had ballooned out of the too small lobby and onto the sidewalk. By the time I walked out of the Thirty-fourth Street subway station they were mingling as best they could with truckers eating their breakfasts out on the street and with the photographers, stylists, models, and well-dressed salesgirls clicking by on their way to Macy's just two blocks away.

Behind on their high school credits at nineteen, twenty, or twenty-one, West Side students were older than most high schoolers in the city. Most had once been dropouts, chronic absentees, or hyperactive loudmouths-the kind of brashly egotistical kids who can disrupt an entire class, or an entire year of school if left unchecked. So it wasn't that surprising to see that even after two years they were not a particularly welcome addition to the heart of the prosperous, crowded, grimly busy world of New York's garment district. Their numbers alone intimidated the elderly seamstresses who hobbled past on their way to open-plan sweatshops, and their hooded stares and languid postures, postures that somehow seemed insolent if you happened to be hurrying past on your way to work, drove many commuters to cast their eyes to the ground and scurry across the street.

Dragging at coffee through a hole in the lid, I glanced apprehensively from one huddle of students to another. Across the street a boy in a yellow baseball hat and matching yellow shorts gave a handful of cigarettes to another boy whose jeans hung low enough to reveal the ZIMM lettering across his shimmering red boxer shorts. Over by the pay phones another cluster of boys in oversized black canvas jackets and heavy black jeans were engaged in a surly dance with their beepers, looking down at them before turning to the phone, punching a series of numbers in, and then hanging up, immediately, long before there was time for words to be spoken. Nearby, the girls were dressed in the same oversized jeans and stuffed nylon jackets as the boys. Topped with hollow, trooped gold earrings and brightly painted lips, they surveyed the street with an almost macho, proprietorial ease, until one of them saw me staring and pursed her lips, cocked her knee, placed a hand on her hip, and said, "Yeah?" I turned away as though our meeting of eyes had been a mistake. I was so relieved when I recognized a boy standing in front of a corrugated iron garage door that I raised my arm to wave at him. When he didn't respond, I pretended I was fixing my hair instead.

Ed had told me to meet him up on the seventh floor of the school at 8:00. It was nearly 8:30 now, and the elevator was still horrendously backed up. I went to the coffee shop on the comer, bought another cup of coffee for myself and one for Ed, lingered a little while longer, and finally decided to take the stairs. Seven stories up the hallways were as packed as the sidewalk had been, and I was surprised to see so many little children among the crowds. Some were tiny, just a few weeks old in body holders. Others were older, three or four perhaps, and they wandered around among the students' legs at about calf height, expectant at first, probably thinking they were at a party, but then becoming frustrated when they realized there would be no balloons or cake.

"Momma momma I'm bored I wanna go," one pudgy three-year-old with bows in her hair told her mother, tugging at her elbow.

"So do I, girl. Believe me, so do I," the not quite fifteen-year-old mother said without even looking up from the pile of school papers in her hand. Another little girl still wobbly on her feet had decided to sit down on the floor. With little else to distract her she had started to play with the Velcro on her Reebok sneakers, pulling the flaplike tongue up and then sticking it back down, until her mother, standing in line for a train pass at the other side of the room, shouted at her, "Come over here, now-now-now-now!" Five minutes later, when Ed asked the young mother how her summer had been she looked away and said, simply "Bad."

"Bad?" Ed asked softly.

"You don't know how bad, Ed. It was hard."

Ed was still down on the floor scrubbing away at the SWA tags when I spotted him. He seemed glad, if a bit surprised, to see me, though the coffee I offered him was dearly something he didn't have time for right then Sitting behind a desk a few yards away, the receptionist kept answering the phone, then cupping the receiver and shouting across the hall to ask Ed whatever the person on the other end wanted to know. Teachers approached with requests for chalk or student lists. Some handed him papers to sign, others needed keys to the book room, the weight room, or one of the storage cupboards in Ed's office. Every seven or eight minutes a new load of incoming students poured out of the tightly packed elevator in a sea of freshly ironed Guess jeans and Nike sneakers and bright red and yellow T-shirts. As they unfolded themselves from the overfull elevator amid clouds of "Shit!" and "Damn, man!" Ed would lumber to his feet and greet them with the casually welcoming markers of a favorite uncle.

"Maria, your hair looks nice," he said to a passing girl, whose scowl eased into a smile. "Thanks, Ed," she said, swinging her hips.

"Enrique! Has Angelique been looking after you this summer?" he asked a tall boy with a ribbon mustache whose heavily tattooed arm was draped clumsily on his tiny girlfriend's shoulder. "How's your mother, Dayna?" "Halloo, Tamiqua!" "Baldwin, welcome." "Keeping out of trouble, Rahim-What? No? Rahim-Rahim-Rahim!" he said, clasping his cheeks with the flats of his palms in mock horror.

Down a few feet from him a girl with white acrylic nail extensions an inch and a half long was trying to press the bell for the elevator. "Could you press the elevator for me?" she asked a woman who had been storming up and down the corridor ever since I had arrived. But the woman ignored her. She was chasing after her son's records for the third day in a row, she told anyone who looked like they might be able to help her. Where could she find a copy of her son's transcript?

Ed stayed where he was, down on the ground with a rag in his hand. Pools of sweat had formed under his arms, dyeing his mauve shirt purple. He rolled his eyes. "Know who she is?" he asked me when she was well out of earshot. "She's the mother of a student who killed another student uptown last semester. Can you believe that? Killed him-and now she's mad that we can't complete his paperwork in five minutes."

It was nine-thirty by then, and Ed had given me the bucket and cloth and two cans of Staci to carry, trailing behind him as he made his way, late, to his classroom. He wasn't all that surprised to find that it was filled with sixty or seventy chairs. The room was painted mauve, nearly the same color as his shirt, and was wider than it was long, with three windows looking out onto the sweatshops of West Thirty-fifth Street. It would have been a nice room if it weren't so cluttered, and I spent the next few minutes arranging the chairs into a rough kind of circle while Ed dumped the orange milk crate he had been hefting around all morning onto a desk at the front and started in on some paperwork.

The building was beginning to fill up. I couldn't see what caused it from where I had taken a seat in the back of Ed's classroom, but the level of noise in the corridor had exploded. The flat sound of palmed high fives snapped into the room, coupled with laughter and sometimes a screech from a girl welcomed just a little too enthusiastically. Groups of students ran laughingly by in a blur, their sneakers squeaking against the linoleum floor, and every now and then one of Ed's advisees swaggered or shimmied into the room, each with their assumed persona etched as clearly on their face as if they were carrying a sign around their neck.

Cristy Rivera was the first of his kids to appear in his classroom that day. A big girl with a pale face and traces of a downy black mustache highlighted by two shades of deep-purple lipstick, she rolled into the room like a star onto a sit-coin set, her book bag in one hand, a yellow Styrofoam plate with three wedges of carrot cake in the other

"Hi Ed!" she announced, walking over to a seat in the the center of the room, and throwing her bag onto the empty chair beside her. "Hey Ed, it's me, Cristy," she said again, when he didn't answer right away. "I told you I'd be back."

Ed cupped his face in his hands. "Oh no," he groaned. "I dreamt your mother took you back to Salvador."

"Nope. Guess you weren't so lucky," Cristy laughed. But she quickly grew serious when a skinny young man in a yellow sweatshirt and a fancy, fitted blue baseball cap came in. When he started to sit down in the chair next to her she flared her nostrils and pursed her lips and then said: "Yo! Yo! That chair's for Mama-out!" It spoke wonders for her size that the boy stood, unquestioningly, and moved to another seat.

Next in was a six-foot-tall, broad-shouldered young man and a skinny boy in an orange jacket and orange jeans and a snappy pair of rectangular wire-rimmed orange shades. They had been complaining loudly about how long it had taken them to make their way through the confusion downstairs, so by the time they made their entrance Ed had known they were coming for some time end was prepared. "Maurice and Rasheem," he told me, arching his eyebrows in expectation.

"Damn man, I seen a kid pull a snake out of his pocket down there, Ed. An actual live snake," the tall one, Maurice, said by way of a hello. "A python."

His friend Rasheem laughed in agreement. He adjusted his hat and then glanced around the room. "Uh," he said as he caught my eye. "Uh."

Ed was soon surrounded by a shifting group of seven or eight students vying for his attention. Unlike regular schools, every student at West Side had individually scheduled class programs. In an environment where a twenty-year-old may have two high school credits and a sixteen-year-old thirty, a generalized grade system couldn't work. And though it led to increased paperwork, the personalized system was essential for making sure each student received the classes they needed. But paperwork was clearly not something Ed enjoyed or was particularly good at. I could tell by the way he hunched over his orange milk crate, tense and worried, and by the alarmingly casual way he rectified mistakes: drawing a hasty line through an erroneous figure, scrawling a signature or a note on a scrap of discarded paper taped over the top with an explanation, as if to say, "I am the principal. This will pass.

Ed didn't notice when Lucille Andrews came in five minutes later with her puffy blond caretaker from the residential home for disturbed teenagers where she lived. I had met them both the week before at an orientation for new students, and Lucille had been scared then. Clinging to the same man's arm, almost in tears, she had explained to Ed that she didn't want to go to West Side, that she just wanted to go back to her center, because she just knew by looking around that she would be the youngest one in the school.

"What are you, fifteen?" Ed had asked. Lucille looked nineteen or twenty. "Fourteen?"

"Thirteen," Lucille had said very quietly, her eyes fixed on the floor. Ed couldn't believe it. He glanced up at her guardian, who nodded. "We'll keep that secret then," he said, dearly dismayed. "OK? No one will have to know."

But today she was all dressed up in a pink felt beret studded with sparkling, multicolored gems, a pink sweatshirt, and baggy white jeans, and from the moment she sat down she flashed lusty glances and provocative smiles in Maurice's direction. Her guardian had to wait for her paperwork to be completed before he could leave.



Continues...


Excerpted from On the Outside Looking by Cristina Rathbone Copyright ©1999 by Cristina Rathbone. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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