Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free

Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free

by Cinque Henderson


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On his very first day of school as a substitute teacher, Cinque Henderson was cursed at and openly threatened by one of his students. Not wanting trouble or any broken bones, Henderson called the hall monitor, who escorted the student to the office. But five minutes later the office sent him back with a note that read, “Ok to return to class.” That was it: no suspension, no detention, no phone call home, nothing.

Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free is a passionate and personal analysis of Henderson's year as substitute teacher in some of America’s toughest schools. Students disrespected, yelled at, and threatened teachers, abetted by a school system and political culture that turned a willfully blind eye to the economic and social decline that created the problem.

Henderson concludes that the failures of our worst schools are the result of a population in crisis: classrooms are microcosms of all our nation’s most vexing issues of race and class. The legacy and stain of race—the price of generational trauma, the cost of fatherlessness, the failures of capitalism, the false promise of meritocracy—played itself out in every single interaction Henderson had with an aggressive student, an unengaged parent, or a failed administrator.

In response to the chaos he found in the classroom, Henderson proposes a recommitment to the notion that discipline—wisely and properly understood, patiently and justly administered—is the only proper route to freedom and opportunity for generations of poor youth. With applications far beyond the classroom, Henderson’s experiences offer novel insights into the pressing racial, social, and economic issues that have shaped America’s cultural landscape.

Sure to ignite discussion and controversy, Sit Down and Shut Up provides a frank evaluation of the broken classrooms of America and offers a bold strategy for fixing them.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250101884
Publisher: St. Martin''s Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/18/2018
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 513,900
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Cinque Henderson is a graduate of Harvard University. He has written for HBO's The Newsroom and is currently a writer for Showtimes, The Chi. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, the LA Review of Books, Newsweek and Sit Down and Shut Up is his first book.

Read an Excerpt


Kids' Rights, or by All Means Vote for That Idiot!

It was 7:00 a.m. and I was on my way to work. This time I was heading to City High, a traditional public school in midcity LA. My radio was tuned to NPR and someone was yelling about "kids' rights." The yeller was running for school board. I turned it off. I'd be yelled at soon enough. Truth was, I was still reeling. Not just because that kid at Countee Cullen High School had threatened me a few days earlier but because they sent him back to my class five minutes later with a note saying "OK to return to class." I complained to the office after school, but I may as well have been speaking Greek. I followed Wilton Boulevard South from Hollywood to Koreatown and turned right to head toward the Mid-Wilshire neighborhood, a stone's throw from La Brea Avenue. I pulled up at the school on time. City High is mixed — white, black, Latino, Jewish, Armenian — and one of the oldest high schools in Southern California, one of those schools to which ambitious kids from tough neighborhoods are bused or that bright local kids attend because their parents can't afford private school.

As I walked the halls, I heard what felt like a hum — the normal sounds of teenage chaos but something else too — both similar to, and quite different from, Countee Cullen — though I couldn't yet recognize it. For a sub, every day is the first day of school. You're the new kid and you've got no friends. Every student is a potential ally or a potential adversary you've got to defuse. And you've got to size them up quickly. I had been told to (1) scout my building for the nearest guard; (2) ask if the phone in the room was working; and (3) if students say yes, I was to assume they were wrong and ask for the office number anyway. I'd need to call if the shit hit the fan.

Most resident teachers and administrators view subs sympathetically and are eager to help you out because you're a guest in their house. Others are more suspicious. One teacher used to push her desk up against the wall and remove her chair when she had to book a sub. She regarded subs as lazy, and she never wanted them to have even a place to sit down.

But that day I was lucky. The teacher next to me was Leah Ibrahim. She introduced herself right away, then broke off to yell at a kid for throwing his football in the hall, and he had nothing to say. "We had a rough day yesterday," she told me. "A big fight on campus. The Latino and Armenian kids got into it. First one in a long time." Then, as the bell rang for class, she added: "If you need to send a student to me, feel free. They're terrified of me." With that assurance I closed my door and started my class. My day passed largely without incident.

After school I walked with Ibrahim to the faculty meeting (yeah, they make subs go to those). I told her about my experience at Countee Cullen. She said she was not surprised but that Cullen hadn't always been like that. "It used to be a great school." At the meeting she ignored everything that was being said and graded papers until the union rep got up to talk about the upcoming school board election. She looked up sharply at the mention of one candidate. "That's the one who keeps talking about kids' rights?!" Everyone turned her way. (It wasn't only the kids who were terrified of her.) "If we want what happened yesterday to keep happening, then by all means vote for that idiot." Scattered laughter, nods of agreement. "These kids have a right to shut up and sit down," she mumbled in a stage whisper and went back to grading.

In fact, she loved this school. She had left for a few years to teach at a prestigious public school nearby, but she didn't like it. "I like regular kids, Henderson. And the ones we have here are every bit as bright as they were." I agreed with her. Even though I'd been at this for just a few days at that point, I'd already met a genius or two. One kid at Cullen laughed at me when I tried to do a massive cross-multiplication problem on the board, carrying the one and all that. He looked at it and in three seconds spat out the right answer. I was in awe.

But, like a lot of veterans, Ibrahim no longer was so hopeful. "This is the worst time ever to be a teacher, son. These kids —" she said, breaking off her thought. "It was never this rough before." As the faculty meeting at City High let out, I saw her picture on the wall of the library. She had been voted teacher of the year by students a few times. We walked out of the meeting together. She was still grousing. She told me how much rougher the school had gotten lately, the increasing frequency of fights between the Armenian kids and the Mexican kids. One kid, she said, was a constant bully. After his umpteenth fight the school managed to get him kicked out, and he transferred to a charter school. But he returned with a lawyer who claimed the boy was being denied his right to an education because the charter school was not within walking distance of his home. "This kid fought every day. He even went after the assistant principal once. And we're denying him an education?" She asked if I would be going back to Countee Cullen. I said that, despite the craziness, I kind of liked it. She asked for my substitute number in case she had to be absent one day. I responded by saying I had a feeling she was never out. She said, "I've missed one day in thirty years, and that's because my plane got delayed on my way back from a friend's daughter's weekend wedding. I'm never doing that again. If the wedding's out of town and not during summer break, I send gifts. I'm still mad at Delta for it." Just as we were passing the parking lot, several students approached her, anxious about an upcoming test. My day was done. Hers still wasn't over. Speaking to her students, she had clicked fully into teacher mode. Not wanting to disturb her, I headed toward my car without a word. A few seconds later she yelled after me, "Good luck this week!" I said "thanks" and held up a playful Huey Newton fist. "Kids' rights!" She waved at me with a grimace and walked toward her class, students in tow.

The notion of kids' rights isn't an idle one in education. During my year I often found myself teaching a class of absolutely rowdy middle schoolers, threatening to keep them in for recess if they didn't stop cutting up. They would turn to me indignantly and say I couldn't take recess away because they had "a right to play." Then they'd promptly go back to ignoring everything else I had to say and goof off for the remainder of class. And they were absolutely right. Tons of schools, charter and public, won't allow a teacher to deny a student recess for misbehaving because doing so, in the schools' eyes, violates their rights. When I told my younger brother about that, he was in shock. "I never saw the good outdoors during seventh grade, because I was held in for lunch so much," he told me. Same with me. Yet a school administrator reprimanded me for keeping a kid in during the fifteen-minute morning break after he threw an eraser across the room in my general direction. His classmates came to the door and said, "You not supposed to be doing this, mister. He can play if he wants." They then told the administrator, who came into the classroom and told the kid to go to recess and chastised me. I explained that he had thrown an eraser at me. She said, "Then we will deal with that, but our children have a right to their free time." When sixth- graders know their rights but don't know long division, or how to sit still and work when an adult tells them to, the school system has a problem.

Maybe you feel warm and fuzzy when you hear about someone championing kids' rights, as if they are finally defending kids against the awful tyranny of adults who would deny their right to the monkey bars just because they threw an eraser at someone. If so, you've not been paying attention to the world around you. The woman yelling about kids' rights on the radio was my first clue to how to unravel the puzzle of why that kid at Cullen got barely a slap on the wrist for cursing at me. Honoring kids' rights even in the face of serious misbehavior was becoming nearly commonplace in the toughest U.S. schools. And the idea didn't even start here. It started three thousand miles away, in Germany. You need to know about it.

Summerhill Academy was a city on a hill, actually a mountain in Hellerau, a suburb of Dresden, and later in Sonntagberg, Austria. The tiny school was a child's utopia. The lucky inmates were running the asylum. The Scottish education reformer Alexander S. Neill had founded his dream school in the aftermath of World War I and eventually moved it to England, then Wales, and finally back to the south of England after World War II. There he set about the task of extending the full complement of human freedoms to children, the last population denied such rights by a corrupt world. Neill designed his school without an overseer, demands, or expectations. The individual happiness of each student, no matter how young, was all that mattered.

By the time he started Summerhill, Neill was a committed socialist and rested every human evil at the feet of social forces. "A criminal cannot help himself," he once wrote. "Heredity and environment make a man good or bad. ... If a man is a murderer he is not responsible for his actions." Neill had become the twentieth century's most ardent acolyte of Rousseau's dictum that "man is born free but is everywhere in chains." Neill believed society's age-old methods of educating the young were the forger of those chains. Summerhill Academy would break the chains. In Neill's utopic vision, "no boy would learn to read a word until he desired to read; no boy would do anything unless he wanted to do it."

Not many people would agree with this philosophy today, but at the time Neill's approach to education made him an international celebrity. His book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing (1960, with a foreword by Erich Fromm) became a best-seller in the United States. His writing and lecture tours provided the world with a look at what life was like in this British children's paradise. Newsweek,Time, and The New York Times all found column inches to devote to him. He even drew powerful detractors, including the famed anthropologist Margaret Mead. But Neill's liberationist notion of children's rights and freedoms had taken deep hold in the West. At a meeting of education reformers in the United States, no less a radical than the Black Panther Huey Newton called for a "human standard to arm kids with [to make them] free to determine their own lives."

If Neill was the first of many brains behind the notion of children's rights, the United Nations was becoming the muscle. In 1923 activists, inspired by the appalling conditions children had suffered during World War I, began to press the League of Nations to institute global standards for the health and safety of children. This was the protectionist side of children's rights come to life, with advocates calling for a child's right to be fed, sheltered, educated, and, even more movingly, to be given a name. After the League was replaced by the United Nations, the effort cycled in and out of favor before culminating in the 1989 UN treaty called the Convention on the Rights of the Child. Its provisions are powerfully protectionist, including bans on child soldiers, child pornography, and sex trafficking. But some other provisions may surprise you:

Article 13: The child shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of the child's choice.

Article 14: States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.

When the treaty was put before the entire UN body for a vote, it was ratified by 190 countries, becoming the most ratified treaty in UN history. But those who objected wanted to know: What does it mean for children to have the right to practice their own religion? How many millions of parents have dragged their kids out of bed, stuffed them into their best clothes, and hauled them to religious services? What does it mean for kids to have a right to express themselves? Does this mean a parent can't tell a kid to shut the hell up while they're trying to watch TV? Exactly these unanswered questions led Congress to reject the treaty, making the United States one of only three nations to do so (the others, Somalia and South Sudan, were not great company to be sure).

The expansion of children's rights, typified by Summerhill and the UN, is what led the Harvard legal scholar Martha Minnow to declare that "advocates for children use the same rights ... to place them in the same legal category as adults." What does a thirty-year-old UN treaty that the United States has never ratified have to do with the day-to-day functioning of a school in a tough neighborhood, where kids refused to simply do as they were told? Where they are more aware of their newly conferred human rights than even the adults teaching them are? You might be interested to read Article 31 of the treaty:

States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.

There it is: the right to play. Those rowdy middle schoolers were right. As of this writing, legislators in California are trying to pass a children's rights bill similar to the UN treaty, enshrining at the state level what Congress refused to thirty years ago.

But this was only part of what brought the toughest public schools in the country to the state at which I entered them just a few years ago. The elevation of children to the legal category of adults by international fiat, even if not ratified by the United States, was about to confront a social and cultural phenomenon that would wreak similar though infinitely more devastating havoc in the poorest pockets of U.S. inner cities. The combined power of these two forces would tear through the landscape and permanently alter for the worse the relationship between adult and child.

During the forty years between World War II and the mid-1980s, life for black Americans improved along every measurable social index available. With the advent of civil rights legislation especially, life expectancy, infant mortality, and income all were coming into closer alignment with those same measures of the white mainstream in the United States. The economic and structural supports for working- and middle-class life in the black community seemed to finally be taking permanent hold. But then the destruction of agricultural and manufacturing jobs after the war hit black inner cities especially hard, with a dramatic loss of employment. Into this world came a scourge, crack cocaine. A man named Rick Ross happened across a tiny rock-like substance that would make him one of the richest and most powerful criminal gangsters in American history. Someone had found a way to take a tiny amount of pure cocaine, mix it with water and baking soda, and, on an ordinary kitchen stove, produce crack. Cheap and powerful, with a high that reached the brain in only a matter of seconds, it made zombies of its users and laid waste to black homes and black families like nothing before it. It is important to acknowledge the widespread belief that crack was deliberately pumped into the inner city by the federal government to fund unauthorized and illegal activities abroad. And whether one is a conspiracist or not, it is easy to see where the belief came from. The impact on inner cities was near total.

The economist Steven Levitt has written that black American achievement was "hurt more by crack cocaine than any other single cause since Jim Crow." Michelle Alexander, in her book The New Jim Crow, remarked, "No one should ever attempt to minimize the harm caused by crack cocaine and the related violence ... [it] 'blew through America's poor black neighborhoods like the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.'" Poor inner cities, already dealing with the havoc of joblessness, fell into almost complete collapse. The homicide rate quadrupled, the black infant mortality rate soared (along with low birthrates and parental abandonment), the achievement gap between black and white students reversed its decline, stretching wider, and the number of blacks sent to prison more than tripled. Violence in schools of course took off too, as gang and turf wars spilled into the public schools and plunged them into chaos. (The "zero tolerance" policy of the 1990s grew out of those violent days.) But even with all that, students were not yet fighting their teachers.


Excerpted from "Sit Down And Shut Up"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Cinque Henderson.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction 1

1 Kids' Rights, or by All Means Vote for That Idiot! 11

2 Broken Windows 27

3 Gems, Knuckleheads, and Assholes 40

4 A Candid World 58

5 Stamped from the Beginning 78

6 The Child Is Father to the Man 106

7 Less Than Zero Tolerance 128

8 Follow the Money 145

9 What It Means to Be Distracted 169

10 Forget It, Jake. It's Chinatown 186

11 Super Sub 200

12 Final Days 212

What Can We Do Now? 219

Notes 223

Index 233

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