The town I grew up in was 99% Scandinavian American. I was in the minority because my family was Irish American. There was a small community of Mexicans that lived across the railroad tracks and one family that was black (a professor from Eritrea was teaching at a local college). With that background, when I started teaching at the third largest and third worst school in New York City, I was completely unprepared for the diversity and angst of an urban classroom. I went into the classroom thinking that I would be a teacher; I would lecture, read aloud from books, grade multiple choice tests, take field trips to plays, and write recommendation letters. I had an idea of what it meant to be a teacher and I fit that vision with my glasses, ill-fitting pantsuits, and love of reading.
I never felt so out of place in my entire life. During the summer before my first year of teaching, I read a book by bell hooks and was convinced that I was not equipped or worthy of teaching students from a different background than my own. And to an extent, I was right. The students came from 130 different countries. I couldn’t understand the students from Jamaica or Guyana. I was supposed to teach ESL History, and not one of the students understood any English (and I did not speak any of the 15 languages they spoke). Fights broke out in my classroom every day. A security guard took pity on me and stood close to my door at all times, knowing I would need assistance at some point. Each day was a struggle to survive.
One afternoon, right before holiday break, with only four students in my classroom out of 35 on my attendance list, I was trying to “teach” about the French Revolution when Leroy (not his real name), a 16-year-old freshman, stood up, interrupted my lecture about the Tennis Court Oath, and said, “Who the f–k cares what these guys did on some tennis court? Why do I need to know this sh-t? It’s not even real.”
While abrasive, Leroy came to school almost every day. He did not always come into the classroom, but he was always patrolling the hallways. He wore blue and white beads around his wrists and neck, which meant he was a member of the Crips gang. We had a tumultuous relationship. Some days were better than others. On the “good” days he would come into class, not look at me and put his head down on the desk. On the “bad” days he would saunter in 20 minutes late, smirk and glare at me while sitting in the back of the room. While a few students took pity on me and laughed at some of my lame jokes or smiled when I tried to engage them in conversation, for the most part I was alone in the classroom and Leroy’s blatant hostility challenged my belief that I was doing the best I could.
As I contemplated his question and tried to decide whether I should call security, I couldn’t help but feel…embarrassed. I was wasting his time. He was right. Why should he care? Why does he need to know this part of history? I remember that I sat down at my desk and shrugged, “Good question Leroy.” He threw himself back into his chair, hissed and cursed about the class under his breath.
Over the holiday break, as my family and friends inquired about my new profession, Leroy’s outburst kept replaying in my mind. After much contemplation and discussion, I realized that Leroy and I actually agreed on one thing: school sucks. When I was in high school, I too hated most of my classes, albeit it was a quiet hatred. I despised some of the classes because of their complete disregard for practicality. No one ever told me why I needed the information they were forcing me to memorize and regurgitate on a multiple-choice test. And then it hit me, the class I most disliked was history because of its glaring irrelevance and mind-numbing lectures. Of course Leroy hated me; I hated me (well, me as the teacher I thought I was supposed to be). What got me through high school was the college-bound culture in my community. I knew that getting into college far away from home was my only ticket out of the mundane. But what kept Leroy coming to school? What was he trying to escape? He didn’t seem to have dreams of going to college—or maybe he did. What did I actually know about Leroy? The realization that not only did I not know this student, but also that I did not even make any attempts to try to know him, struck me at my core. If when I was his age I wanted something useful, something I could see the importance in, something I could feel, why shouldn’t he want the same thing? Why did he need to know this history? Why was I teaching it?
Leroy’s blatant assertion forced me to reevaluate what I was doing. I went back to my curriculum and my lesson plans looking for a hook, something that brought the historical issues to their core. When I got back to school, I decided to give the French Revolution one more chance. It was actually a really exciting part of history, not just for its Enlightenment ideals and fight for freedom, but because it was a blueprint for so many stories in history: people struggling to survive and succeeding. I started my next lesson with a single question: “What would you die for?” Who knows why, but Leroy came to class that day. He read the question aloud and gawked. “What would I die for? Sh*t. My mom.” I asked him why and he went on a five-minute tirade about all of the reasons why and from whom his mom deserved protecting. But he couldn’t protect her at that moment because she was in prison. We spent the entire period discussing what we would die for and why. Other students shared their stories and explanations. Many said they would die trying to get food or money for their families, others said there is nothing they would die for except their own safety. Leroy’s expression during class was one of interest in what others were saying. He leaned in when a quiet girl gave her opinion and challenged another student when they said they would die for no one. He didn’t seem so angry. I started planning my lessons thinking about whether they would make Leroy lean in to listen or aggressively challenge me. I changed my focus from spouting facts to making a concerted effort to connect all of the content necessary for the state exam to useful information, or at the very least, emotions and situations to which the students could relate. Trying to find the heart of the subject matter that could connect everyone became the goal of each lesson.
While some days were better than others and Leroy still came in late or not at all, I held on to the times when he did attend class and seemed more engaged. He became my gauge for whether something was working or not. Part of it was the fear that he would call me out again but part of it was a feeling that if I could engage him, I could hook any of my students. As a follow up lesson to the “what would we die for” conversation, the students made protest posters from the point of view of the various estates. Leroy chose the women marching to Versailles demanding bread. He connected the historical event to his mother trying to do what was right for him and his siblings. I didn’t inquire further about his family but through this activity I was able to get a glimpse of his life. Understanding where students come from is perhaps more important than anything else one can do in the classroom. It was not until years later that I felt comfortable asking students follow-up questions to help me understand their situations.
Leroy’s frustration was the turning point for me as a “teacher.” I stopped trying to be the teacher I thought I was supposed to be, and started being the teacher I wished I had had in high school. It took another year before I felt comfortable really opening up to my students and having them open up to me.
It is something I am still working on. But Leroy helped me realize that my students’ experiences were richer than many of the stories in history, and that through their experiences we can try to understand the decisions that were made in history. I started asking them about their lives, their opinions, and their experiences to get ideas for how to engage them in history. I organized discussions that would challenge their stereotypes and broaden their understandings. And I always participated in the activities, because, quite frankly, I needed to learn too. I knew very little about what it was like to live in a homeless shelter, or with family members in prison, or gangs dictating schedules for walking down the streets. It was a giant learning curve and one that was riddled with bumps and uncomfortable situations. Fights still broke out and classroom management was dicey, but I realized I was more comfortable when the students were talking and I was asking questions, making historical connections, as opposed to lecturing and dictating the direction of the class.
For the last seven years, Leroy’s question has guided my teaching practice. I try very hard not to waste anyone’s time. While I still struggle with the question “Why do we need to know this?” I feel that it keeps me grounded. It keeps me questioning my motives and intentions in the classroom.
It took quite a while (a year) but eventually I found out why Leroy came to school: it helped kill the time. He had a girlfriend that wanted to go to college so he showed up to class or he followed her to her classes. He could get a free lunch and hook up with a few friends. As a side note, Leroy was in another one of my history classes a year later. Through a few class discussions he showed a deep interest and a passion for understanding world events. I had started a Model United Nations class that was doubling as a world history class. Model UN is a club in which students represent different countries and debate international issues while trying to find resolutions to these global problems. Since Leroy had failed one course of world history, I convinced him to take Model UN instead of a regular history class. While at first he was apprehensive and a bit crass, his passion for justice made him a remarkable participant and the other students modeled diplomatic discourse. Through our club’s field trips, he challenged ambassadors from Palau, Vietnam, and South Africa on their policy decisions and exchanged bullet wound stories with a Lost Boy from Sudan. I never felt the need to apologize to others for his assertive line of questioning because it was his questions (and anger) that helped me figure out what was important. At the very least these diplomats would benefit, however briefly, from seeing life through Leroy’s eyes and hearing his demand to keep it real and applicable.
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