Aside from the history teacher from Texas, other Washington Irving educators stood out as extraordinary, and this in an unimaginably bad learning environment. One was a cheerful Lebanese math teacher who had been felled as a child by polio. He called himself “the million dollar man” because of his handicapped parking permit, quite a handy advantage in Manhattan. Although he could only walk on crutches, he kept those kids in line! His secret? A lovely way about him and complete but polite disdain for his students. Where he came from, students were not allowed to act that way. Another was a German teacher, the wife of a Lutheran minister. Her imposing presence—she fit the valkyrie stereotype—kept those mouths closed. You could hear a pin drop in her unusually tidy classroom, and she managed to teach some German to the few hardy souls who wanted to learn it.
The most impressive of all was a handsome black American from Minnesota. He towered over us all, both physically and what the French call morally. He exuded an aura that inspired something like awe in his colleagues and students. I think he taught social studies. He was the only teacher who got away with blacking out his classroom door window, which added to his mystique. He engaged his students by concentrating their efforts on putting together a fashion show at the end of each school year. They designed and produced the outfits they strutted proudly on the makeshift catwalk, looking as elegant and confident as any supermodel. To tumultuous applause. They deserved it.
Although the school was always on the verge of hysteria and violence, it had all the trappings of the typical American high school. There were class trips and talent shows, rings and year books—even caps and gowns and graduation. High school diplomas were among the trappings, handed out to countless 12th graders with, from my observation, a 7th grade education. The elementary schools had a better record. But everyone knew that once the kids hit puberty, it became virtually impossible under the laws in force to teach those who were steeped in ghetto and gangster culture, and those—the majority—who were bullied into succumbing to it.
Students came to school for their social life. The system had to be resisted. It was never made explicit that it was a “white” system that was being rejected, but it was implicit in oft-made remarks. Youngsters would say things like, “You can’t say that word, that be a WHITE word!” It did no good to remind students that some of the finest oratory in America came from black leaders like Martin Luther King and some of the best writing from authors like James Baldwin. I would tell them that there was nothing wrong with speaking one’s own dialect; dialects in whatever language tend to be colorful and expressive, but it was important to learn standard English as well. It opens minds and doors. Every new word learned adds to one’s wealth, and there’s nothing like grammar for organizing one’s thoughts.
It all fell on deaf ears. It was impossible to dispel the students’ delusions. Astonishingly, they believed that they would do just fine and have great futures once they got to college! They didn’t seem to know that they had very little chance of getting into anything but a community college, if that. Sadly, the kids were convinced of one thing: As one girl put it, “I don’t need an 85 average to get into Hunter; I’m black, I can get in with a 75.” They were actually encouraged to be intellectually lazy.
The most Dantesque scene I witnessed at Washington Irving was a “talent show” staged one spring afternoon. The darkened auditorium was packed with excited students, jittery guidance counselors, teachers, and guards. Music blasted from the loudspeakers, ear-splitting noise heightened the frenzy. To my surprise and horror, the only talent on display was merely what comes naturally. Each act was a show of increasingly explicit dry humping. As each group of performers vied with the previous act to be more outrageous, chaos was breaking out in the screaming audience. Some bright person in charge finally turned off the sound, shut down the stage lights, and lit up the auditorium, causing great consternation among the kids, but it quelled the growing mass hysteria. The students came to their senses. The guards (and NYC policemen if memory serves) managed to usher them out to safety.