On the Outside Looking In: A Year In an Inner-City High Schoolby Cristina Rathbone
The story of inner-city students who come from poverty, dysfunctional homes, and drug-riddled neighborhoods and of an underfunded school and its devoted principal, who represent their last slim connections to mainstream society. See more details below
The story of inner-city students who come from poverty, dysfunctional homes, and drug-riddled neighborhoods and of an underfunded school and its devoted principal, who represent their last slim connections to mainstream society.
- Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.90(w) x 8.80(h) x 1.20(d)
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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. Amad 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 and Madison 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. But he was so involved in the sports section of his paper that he didn't notice when Lucille slid out of her seat a few minutes later. Strolling to the open door she turned around for all the world like a model on the runway and, curling her finger, beckoned Maurice outside. When he got back five minutes later he was smiling bashfully, shaking his head, and adjusting the bandanna that was wrapped around the hundreds of multicolored elastic bands in his hair.
"You dis me and I'm gonna pull a Lorena Bobbit on joo," Lucille said to him, wagging her finger from the doorway.
"Damn, she shady," he said to Rasheem once she was out of sight. "She half-and-half--one day cool, the next all lovey-dovey. I tell you something, nigger: that relationship ain't going to last long."
Then he tugged at the front right pocket of his jeans and twisted his beeper so he could see the digital screen on top. I had begun to recognize the quick grasping motion kids made toward their hip, and then the flick of the wrist and the glance to the top edge of the matchbox-sized transmitter. Beepers weren't allowed at West Side, but all the kids seem to have them: there were neon green, pink, and blue ones, and white ones, and clear ones that showed the inner wiring like a miniature Pompidou Center. Some carried the digital message on the top, others on the side, and still others were covered in homemade designs painted on with Liquid Paper. One was even painted like the American flag, and its owner somehow managed to persuade Ed to let him use the classroom phone to respond to a beep that he swore was from his mother. But Sandra Quintana, the girl for whom Cristy had been saving a chair for close to an hour, was the only one who brazenly wore her beeper on the outside of her pocket and left the setting on "beep." Hers was plain black, but it was a Motorola, the Rolls-Royce of beepers, which said all it needed, and it went off as she strolled in, about half an hour later, in a succession of high-pitched, second-long squeals.
"Hi Ed!" she said exactly the same way Cristy had, and then casually stopped the tiny alarm and looked down to her hip, shrugging as if the number she read there wasn't important.
"Ms. Quintana!" Ed replied, putting on a French accent as he looked up from the crowd around his desk. "Oooh la la."
"--I ain't taking no first period, Ed, come on, B! I gotta pick up my girl in the mornings," a young man said when he finally saw the schedule Ed had outlined for him.
"Tell me, James. How do you spell success?" Ed asked him.
"S-u-c-c-e-s-s," Sandra sang out as though she were in kindergarten. "Don't dis us, Ed."
But he had leapt out of his chair by then, no small feat as he hardly fit into it in the first place, and he'd had to do a slippery little side shimmy to squeeze out of the gap between chair and table and then thrust his weight forward before he toppled over. At the board he erased the graffiti written on it with the edge of his hand without paying it the slightest bit of attention, and with the tiny fragment of chalk, which was all he could find, he started to write.
"This is how you spell success," he said. "D-I-P-L-O-M-A. Remember that when you get up in the mornings and you'll be out of here by June."
"Tha's whack, Ed," Sandra said.
"He a corny nigger," someone else agreed.
"Nah, nah, he cool. Ed, you cool," Maurice announced. "Seriously he is," he said to Lucille, who had sunk her face down into her crossed arms on the desk by then. "He joke around and stuff. He ah-ight."
No one seemed to notice me sitting pertly there, in my own little chair at the back of the room. Or if they did they simply assumed I was meant to be there and ignored me, and perhaps because I was feeling shy and wary I was content to sit back and watch a lanky boy in a red satin ice hockey shirt give up the battle for Ed's attention and focus on a girl across the other side of table instead.
"You wearing enough rings?" he asked. The girl extended her fingers, looked down at her hand, and smiled at the clumps of silver rings she had bunched there.
"Yeah," she said.
"What's with the silver thing? That a new trend? Yo Ed, you heard about that? A new trend in silver?" Ed didn't hear him. "I don't know, man," the boy said pensively then, stroking the inch of thick gold rope that stuck out from under the neckline of his hockey shirt. "Silver's attractive but ... problem is ... no value."
A few of Ed's advisees had managed to register for a full complement of classes by then and had already left, their schedules tucked carefully into their wallets or their back pockets along with their free student travel passes, but most hadn't even begun. And apart from an occasional and random attempt at progress--a "Yo Ed, you finished with me yet?" shouted in no particular direction--most kids seemed pretty happy just to let time slide by as they waited, not very hopefully, for whatever was supposed to happen. One rolled small bits of paper into pellets, another chewed his way down to the end of a brown plastic coffee stirrer, but most just stared at the wall or watched a clump of skinny black girls in tight jeans and high heels catch up on neighborhood gossip as they picked at their McDonald's sausage-and-egg biscuits, conscientiously raising their little fingers like dainty old women at a tea party.
Then a security guard in a too tight uniform burst into the room. I had seen him earlier in the day, leaning against the open doorway downstairs, hitching his pants over his rock-hard belly as he eyed the girls. But he ignored them now as he dodged through the desks and then peered out of first one, then another, then the third window to the street below. A carload of nonmatriculating kids from "uptown" had pulled up outside, he said under his breath. Those that heard him shut up. Alarmed, Ed stepped out of his chair, more quickly than he had before, and joined the guard at the window. The kids in the car could be here to cause trouble. It had happened before. When the school still had the run of a grand old building on 102nd Street and Amsterdam Avenue two boys had driven to West Side looking to avenge a shooting from the night before. They waited all day, until they saw the boys they were looking for. Then they jumped out of their car and started shooting. "Nobody was hurt, thank God." Ed had told me. "But the point is that as friendly as we are, we are always on the alert for that kind of danger."
I didn't know how many people in the room had heard that story, but most were sitting silently now, somber and edgy. Boys slid low into their seats as if stretching, girls made as if they were doing their nails, and every now and then they shot glances at one another as though asking, "You know anything about this?" For a full minute and a half there was no sound in the room except the frantic crackle and burst from the old radios that the security team had finally pulled out, in desperation of ever getting the new sets to work. This time it turned out to be nothing. Perhaps thirty seconds later the car drove away. The security guard, who I would find out later was named Louis, left, and Ed went back to his desk and tried to complete the registration process for at least a few more of his kids.
But any cohesion the class had managed to maintain until then had evaporated. In relief or frustration or fear or celebration kids leapt out of their seats and jabbered. Jokes were made, stories told about high drama out on the streets over the summer--daring trips to the all--white Brighton Beach, cars being stolen, cops evaded. And an hour later Maurice and Rasheem and Sandra and Cristy and Lucille were still sitting there, ostensibly struggling to fill out their for the most part incomprehensible registration forms. By then Maurice was musing about setting fire to the school. Sandra sympathized but asked him to wait until she had graduated. Cristy said that he better make sure she wasn't in the building before he struck the match, and Lucille just smiled softly. Rasheem raised a long thin finger in the air like a comic-book professor and inquired politely of Ed how many credits he might need to complete his education. And even the boy who until then had been keeping himself happy by chewing his coffee stirrer removed it now to ask, over and over, and never with any change of inflection: "Yo Ed! Where's my papers at, Ed? Yo Ed! Where's my papers at, Ed? Yo Ed! Where's my papers at, Ed?" until Ed--almost drowning in the chaos of reverberating Yo Ed!s--put an end to it all by stretching his great belly to an almost flat line, raising his hands up palm outward, and admitting defeat. He was up to his elbows in his students' original transcripts, the closely guarded notches on their ladders to graduation, and the files inside his orange milk crate were in total disarray. Loose pages were everywhere, and many of them were covered with yellow Post-it notes scrawled across with phrases like "Credits missing from American history," "Transfer sheet not found," "RCT English passed?" or, in big letters and underlined, "RCTs?"
"OK OK OK, I'm going to tell you what," he said. "In one month's time I'm going to turn fifty. October ninth. Fifty years old. And if by then, by the time I turn fifty, all your records aren't in total order, then--I'm really going to go out on a limb here--I'll buy you all tickets to the Broadway show Les Miserables."
The class groaned. "Shit sounds whack to me," someone said.
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