Commentary Magazine


In the Classroom

Dear Commentary:
I am having a wonderful time teaching at St. Luke’s, a Catholic high school in Jersey City.1 I teach American history to the sophomores—five classes in all. Though my students are learning about everything from Columbus to the Civil War, I’m sure I’m learning far more than they.

One thing that has struck me from the outset is the sheltered sophistication of many of my students, who are about fifteen years old and mainly members of one or another racial or ethnic minority group. I say sheltered because many of them have never been to New York City, which is only five minutes away on the PATH train. Some have never set foot at the Statue of Liberty, a five-minute ferry ride from Liberty State Park in the middle of Jersey City. Before I made it a requirement, many had never read a newspaper, and their ignorance of the most basic current events is shocking. In my second-most-advanced class no one could identify a New Jersey U.S. Senator; the best guess was Gorbachev. Another student identified Frank Lautenberg as the deposed leader of Haiti, and yet another asked if Aristotle and Aristide were the same person.

But they can sing entire rap songs by heart, know the O.J. Simpson case in detail, and are far, far more sophisticated in the ways of the world than I or any of my friends were in high school and college. They approach the world with a strong dose of skepticism: they are less likely than we were to be corrupted by frauds, well-meaning or otherwise. They may make bad decisions, but will be more likely to know exactly why they are making them.

Their sophistication comes through in the current-events presentation I have made a part of the curriculum. When I required them to read a paper every day, I strongly recommended the New York Times, but no one has yet taken me up on that. Several read (and bring in articles from) their ethnic papers: the Puerto Rican paper, the Filipino paper, the Brazilian paper. I did not expect that, but have encouraged it in the hope of stimulating discussion at home. (I do not know whether that has happened.)

I break down current events into five categories: international news, national news, local news, sports, and “wild card.” The category which has sparked the greatest interest is local news; most students bring in articles about crime, and a few have reported on crimes they actually witnessed in their homes or on the street. Whenever a student brings up a crime story, others invariably relate personal experiences. Many have spoken of visiting criminals in jails. Most of these criminals are relatives who have been convicted of drug offenses.

There is a fundamental assumption among my students that the criminal-justice system works. I have not heard a single comment about the system being “racist” or in the thrall of some conspiracy. Not that they think it perfect; one student mentioned an uncle who was arrested for drug use but escaped being charged by giving the arresting officer $400. But this story was presented as an aberration, a case of individual malfeasance and not a symbol of a systemic problem.

The anger many of my students direct toward the criminal-justice system does not concern its legitimacy, but its ineffectiveness. Common questions are: Why can’t there be a death penalty for rape? If rapists can’t be executed, can’t they at least be castrated? Why don’t murderers get the death penalty automatically? Why are drug dealers allowed to live? William J. Bennett’s mock-proposal (when he was Drug Czar) to behead drug dealers in public parks was very popular in the one class where it was discussed. In another class, I explained the Singapore system of justice; the students greatly admired it, and many wanted to try caning in Jersey City. A Filipino student spoke of how his beloved Marcos government used to carry prisoners naked in carts through the public square. The other students found that an excellent idea and could not understand why I was against trying it here.

One person the students do not think is guilty, however, is O.J. Simpson. Few are even willing to admit the possibility. This faith is strongest among black girls. To them, the Simpson case is a racial issue, plain and simple. When I say I think O.J. is guilty, they dismiss me with a smile; of course, I wouldn’t understand. Remembering Sidney Hook’s question to a diehard supporter of Alger Hiss—“If Hiss were to come out tomorrow and announce, ‘I’m guilty!’ would you believe him?”—I asked my students the same question about O.J. Like Sidney Hook’s interlocutor, they replied: absolutely not. He would just be covering up for somebody else.

I should add that though my black students identify with Simpson on racial grounds and for racial reasons, they are not offended at me for believing him guilty. I am, they are convinced, merely naive.

The racial situation at St. Luke’s is in general very interesting. The school is home to seemingly every conceivable race and ethnic combination, and everyone gets along. Cliques are color blind, though dating appears not to be. Everyone seems to be one-quarter this or one-half that; it is hopeless trying to follow who is what.2 This does not mean that the students don’t try; most say they are something. But there was greater ethnic solidarity among my Jewish friends at Williams College, or among the Italian-Americans with whom I once worked on a political campaign in Essex County, New Jersey, than among the students of any race or ethnicity at St. Luke’s.

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When I applied for teaching jobs in the spring and early summer of last year, I had a very difficult time even getting an interview. My chances were dead as soon as it was discovered that I was white. I was told this directly: “minority” students need “minority” role models. This made little sense to me at the time; actually, it was infuriating. Now that I have been at St. Luke’s for six weeks, it makes less sense than ever, and I wonder how anyone who has spent a month in the inner city could harbor such an absurd belief. The students barely notice a teacher’s race, and when they do, they think nothing of it. All teachers are judged by the same standards: it does not matter if one is black, Hispanic, Jewish, or Martian.

Some of my students, however, seem to understand that whites can be easily manipulated by the race issue. After I had punished several black students with detention one day, one of them claimed—jokingly—that I must be a racist. I dismissed the comment with an amused glance; whereupon the others, impressed, started to tease the boy who had made the charge: his scam had failed. At the end of class I asked him why he had brought it up, and he admitted that he was just trying to waste time.

In another class a student suggested that we were not doing enough black history, and complained that she only learned about her people in February, “black-history month.” This comment was silly: we had just spent a week on 18th-century slavery. I said so, and added that we would not be devoting February to black history, either. Blacks, like other groups, were an integral part of American history and would be covered as such. This went over well with the students; they understand their manipulations better than anyone else, and respect those who refuse to indulge them.

On the other hand, the seeming success of racial integration at St. Luke’s is belied by the total prevalence of race in all political or quasi-political discussions relating to American history—and not just in the obvious cases (like Thomas Jefferson’s “hypocrisy” as a slaveholder). After telling one class, for example, that The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, I asked if there were any questions. “Yes, Mr. Gerson. Was John Jay a black man?” This constant playing of the race card provides students with a way out of confronting history seriously, liberating them from the need to think through complex issues.

I am the only Jew at St. Luke’s—an item of curiosity to my students. Most have never met a Jew before, and are eager to learn. Much of what they know comes from the movie Schindler’s List, which has made them genuinely sensitive to the tragedy of Jewish history. They are also very curious about the Jewish religion, bombarding me with questions ranging from “what is a bar mitzvah?” to “do Jews believe in premarital sex?”

True, there has been an occasional anti-Semitic comment. One student asked why Jews were racist (me excepted, of course). Another asked why the Jews killed Christ. I thanked each of them for being honest and tried briefly to dispel the premises of their questions. I do not blame them for asking: these fifteen-year-olds have certainly heard such things from someone in authority, somewhere. But it seems to me unproductive to dwell on the matter. Since I do not believe prejudice can be eliminated through discussion, I hope to contravene spoken and unspoken anti-Semitic attitudes through the example I set during the course of the year.

One reason I doubt there is much more anti-Semitism than what I have heard is that my students are honest to a fault. In a manner we bourgeois folk would call tactless, they say whatever comes into their minds. In the middle of a lesson on Columbus, one raised her hand.

“Yes, Yolanda.”

“Are you Jewish, Mr. Gerson?”

“Yes, Yolanda. Why do you ask now, when we’re studying Columbus?”

“Because you look Jewish.”

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My students have a good conception of success and a rough idea about how to become successful. I learned this at the beginning of the year when I had them write down where they envisioned themselves in five and fifteen years. The vast majority planned on going to college, many en route to professional careers. Perhaps as many as a quarter of them wanted to become pediatricians. I don’t know why, but I would guess that their pediatrician is the most respected figure in their lives. Many others were headed for the law; one girl even specified that she intended to become a “corprite [sic] lawyer.” Still others entertained plans based more directly on their experience and interests: one girl, who comes in every week with new and interesting hair arrangements, said she wanted to own a beauty salon. She sure knows hair, and I have no doubt that she will be successful.

The one discouraging note is that many want to be professional basketball players. I, too, once wanted to be a professional basketball player—but then I entered the sixth grade. I would have thought that these kids—especially the ones without a prayer of making the varsity team—would have outgrown such a notion; but no. At least they realize that they must go to college before the Knicks will draft them; there, if not before, I trust they will hit upon more realistic career goals.

In any event, however unrealistic some of their goals may be, my students do display genuine interest in intellectual pursuits, if they find them enjoyable. A few weeks ago, I announced to two of my classes that I would be starting a mock-trial team to compete in a statewide contest. I explained the procedure: the state bar association had provided a cocaine-smuggling case, and we would have to prepare both the prosecution and the defense, which meant that four lawyers, six witnesses, a half-dozen jurors, and a number of alternates would be needed.

This would be fun, I said, but a lot of work, possibly more than the students could imagine. We would settle for nothing less than the county championship. They would need to understand the case and their part in it well enough to be able to handle whatever the opposing side conjured up. They would have to understand the notion of objections well enough to make appropriate ones on the spur of the moment and respond to any leveled at them.

Remembering that my own high-school team years earlier had fielded a group of top students who were advised by some of the best lawyers in New Jersey, I was mindful of the tremendous disadvantages St. Luke’s would labor under. I did not say this to the class, but I stressed that many other teams were more experienced than we, and that we would have a lot of catching-up to do. I then asked who was interested.

Every student in the class raised his hand. For a moment I was taken aback: hadn’t I stressed how much work this would be? No matter. I asked my students to think it over and get back to me if they changed their minds. Later that afternoon, two students appeared: they had discussed the issue with their basketball coach and had arranged to miss practice for mock-trial sessions when necessary.

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One problem afflicting the team is the slang my students use in any circumstance. “We be goin’,” “I ain’t goin’ to do nothin’” are common phrases—as are the expressions “Word is bon” and “Word up,” both meaning “That’s the truth!” and used to punctuate a powerful point.

“I ain’t doin’ no work for that teacher.”

“Word is bon!”

Some of my students, meaning no offense, also curse regularly in class. After making a good point in a discussion last week, a boy turned to the girl he was talking with and declared, “My s—t is sweet!” I had to explain why this was inappropriate.

So new rules have been imposed in my class: verbs must be used and conjugated properly, double negatives are forbidden, slang is banned, and cursing is a cardinal sin. Abiding by these rules requires significant effort, considering that the students often do not know when they are violating them.

Language being a crucial component of identity, I was afraid my students would disagree vigorously with my insistence on standard English. I would have to convince them that changing their way of communicating was in their own best interest.

I started my crusade by telling them that if a mock-trial lawyer or witness slipped into non-standard English even once during the actual meet, the whole team would be laughed out of the courtroom. They did not dispute this, but claimed that they could turn their normal lingo on and off. No, you can’t, I countered: look how you talk in class.

Then they defended their normal usage in relativist clichés. “You speak one way, and we speak another. So why is your way better?” I retorted that several times in our discussion they themselves had referred to “proper” and “improper” English. Eventually they were convinced, and grudgingly agreed to make a concerted effort.

Now when they come into class, my students take pains to catch themselves when they slip into nonstandard usage. At times, they sound plodding: retarded, one girl suggested. There is no shame in this, I said. Actually, what sounds plodding is, in this instance, the melody of real progress. I reminded them that Thomas Jefferson counted to ten before he spoke to ensure that he would not embarrass himself; surely it was permissible for students at St. Luke’s to count to five or six.

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A constant source of fascination has been my students’ conception of justice as fairness. If several are talking in class and I give one detention, the one singled out invariably becomes incensed. Not in his own behalf—he understands the punishment is deserved—but because all those talking should be punished accordingly. Nor do those who have escaped punishment become upset with the one making this demand.

Early in the year I explained that punishment in my class would be determined by the principle of selective incarceration. While I would like to punish all violations, I could not possibly catch everyone. But bad acts would be punished because they were bad, even if equally bad acts unfortunately passed without notice. If they did not like the punishment, they should not commit the offense. I can’t say my students are happy with this system, but I think they understand its logic.

When I went to high school, we always tried to ingratiate ourselves with our teachers; it was our job to get on their “good side.” Students at St. Luke’s labor under no such notion. It’s the teachers who have a lot to prove—we have to earn the respect of our students. These students think in radically democratic terms; all authority and all privilege must be earned.

The respect of the students is essential if they are going to pay any attention to what the teacher says or assigns. But how to earn it? Pure discipline can work (I give several detentions a day), but it must be supported by the fundamental belief that the authority behind it is morally and not just procedurally legitimate. There are several ways to instill this belief.

First, students appreciate a sense of humor. The ability to laugh at oneself, and to turn a student’s antics around in a humorous manner, is invaluable. Two athletes in one of my classes repeatedly “slapped five” whenever one of them answered a question correctly. I asked them to stop. They did it again. I wondered out loud if they were capable of sitting through an entire period without touching each other. The whole class (including the athletes) laughed, and there has been no slapping-five since.

Second, students want to know that their teachers feel confident. One teacher, who tripped over his briefcase twice on the first day, has remained a figure of ridicule.

Third, students want to know that their teachers are smart. They regard intelligence and knowledge as prerequisites for authority, and need to sense it right away. The first time they ask, respectfully, “How do you know all that?” the teacher has crossed an important barrier.

Fourth, students want their teachers to be able to identify with them personally. I did this early on by playing basketball after school in the gym. One initially recalcitrant student changed his attitude completely when I blew by him with a crossover dribble several times in a row. The news traveled fast, and it helped me establish authority among quite a few students. Although I had worried (and was warned) that playing ball might be too familiar a gesture, the risk paid off handsomely. The students have not attempted to exploit my familiarity; they understand the difference between the court and the classroom.

Identifying with them on this level has also allowed me to counter an aspect of their culture I find very destructive: rap music. Though most of my students listen to little but rap, I consistently point out that it is terrible as music and carries a message that is anathema to most of their own beliefs. I have urged them to listen to Frank Sinatra instead, and I give them extra credit for coming to class with the title of a Sinatra song or a fact about his life or career. My top class has responded better than I ever expected: one student spent an entire Saturday morning listening to a New York radio station that plays popular standards and came in with the names of several dozen songs.

Adapting an idea from an article by Martin Marty in the Christian Century, I have also started a “Frank Sinatra Detention Club.” Detention consists of writing, “Mr. Gerson, Ol’ Blue Eyes is the best,” or “When I go home, I am going to listen to the Chairman of the Board” 40 times while listening to Sinatra’s recordings, anything from the Capitol years to the Dorsey sessions to the glorious new Duets II. Some dread these detentions because they dislike Sinatra. Others begin in terror but discover that he is not so bad after all. One who received a “Frank” two weeks ago has been humming “Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week” ever since.

I realize I may possibly be constructing a perverse incentive, using Sinatra as punishment. Surely that is not the message I want to communicate; I want my students to appreciate Sinatra. But I rationalize my act by hoping that they will begin to want detention. When that happens, I will declare my operation a success and switch to Doo-Wop.

_____________

 

The top class is the only one where students have heard of the Democratic and Republican parties. For homework one night, I asked them to write down the differences (if any) between the two parties. Their answers were crudely Marxist, almost caricatures. Republicans are “greedy, conceeded [sic] people,” “only concerned for the rich and the upper class,” and “want all the money for themselves and the government through high taxes.” Democrats, on the other hand, “care for people like us, the minorities,” “want to help the poor and the lower class,” and “want to help everybody.” Not one student had anything nice or even neutral to say about the Republican party.

The next day, I went through a list of issues. My students had already made it clear that they wanted to institute draconian punishment for nearly all criminals, but we went over the ground again. Then I moved to school choice. After explaining it, I asked for their opinion. Everyone was in favor of it. OK, I said, let’s go on. Do you think prayer in school, or at graduation ceremonies, would make nonbelievers feel uncomfortable? The students found this preposterous. We’re all in Catholic school, they said, few of us are Catholic, and no one feels uncomfortable during prayers and mass. How could anyone?

Of course I told them they were more Republican than many Republicans. Knowing that I am a Republican (I responded honestly when asked), they thought I was just trying to convert them, and refused to believe me.

But if these kids will never be Republicans, they are certainly no liberals, and never will be. That, anyway, is quite refreshing, even if what it means for the prospect of conservative politics in the inner cities is less clear.

It would be a gross understatement to say that for my students culture has primacy over politics. In their own way, they are passionately concerned about political ideas, especially regarding race; but they do not see politics as relevant to their lives. They go to school during the day, and many work long hours after school to pay their tuition and come home to major family responsibilities. If they saw any connection between politics and their future—about which most of them are quite concerned—they would certainly care a lot about politics. But they do not count on politics for their salvation. They count on themselves, their families, and their faiths—traditional vehicles of upward mobility for Americans.

_____________

 

The one political issue that does capture the imagination of my students is school choice. It is a major issue in Jersey City, given that Mayor Bret Schundler’s pilot program needs to pass the New Jersey Senate. Everyone here supports it, from the students to the principal, though some teachers and administrators are worried that it could become an invitation for the state to regulate Catholic schools.

On October 16, I took eight students to a rally for school choice in Liberty State Park, and it was a truly memorable experience.

Evincing a real interest in what was going on around them, the students learned a lot and benefited greatly from the day. They went to every table that had pamphlets and engaged the pamphleteers in conversation about whatever idea they were hawking. They did the same with spectators, protesters, and even the police. And they sat in rapt attention during a rousing and powerful speech by Mayor Schundler. (They met him before the rally started, and one asked if he’d like some of her French fries. “No thanks,” Schundler replied, “I’m too nervous to eat.”)

Unfortunately, the most exciting part of the day for the students was a fight that broke out not five feet behind us, when about 100 off-duty Jersey City policemen formed several lines behind a barricade 100 feet from the stage and shouted, “Bret Must Go!” They were not protesting school choice; they were upset about a union contract. But then, when one of the people attending the rally—a father with a small daughter—attempted to leave, a demonstrator prevented him from passing. There was pushing, and an off-duty cop decked the spectator. The state police quickly arrested the cop. One of my students took pictures of the whole melee. I developed them, hoping that one would be good enough for a newspaper, but none was.

This incident was quite disillusioning. Here were the police, the protectors of law and order, blatantly promulgating lawlessness. (It turned out their permit specified they were to stay 500 feet away.) Intricate arguments about the First Amendment can be made, but there is little doubt that the police violated the spirit of free speech by drowning out the speaker, and then behaved disgracefully toward someone engaged in lawful and peaceful assembly.

My fifteen-year-olds, who have a tenuous and ambiguous relationship with authority at best, and are taught on the street that the police are their enemy, were confused. Only slightly less confused myself, I could be of little help. And what was there to say? The event was self-explanatory. I admitted to my students that the police were wrong, very wrong—but this is something I never planned on having to say to these children, who desperately need to respect and trust the police.

We had taken a bus to the rally from another Catholic school, but they had left before us. It was a glorious day, and we decided to walk the three miles back. Through winding shortcuts around serene brooks and through abandoned junkyards, a rather interesting thing happened. My students stopped and talked with people along the way. Walking home, they recognized relatives, friends, neighbors, and just stopped and talked. This happens all the time in small towns where I have lived, but I had no idea that such a tight-knit community could develop in a large city. Much of the conversation was in Spanish.

_____________

 

One morning last week I saw one of my best students, Jon, standing outside school in a designer sweatshirt, sweatpants, six gold chains, high-top sneakers, and with a Walkman. This was strange. The school uniform is very strict and very simple: a light-blue St. Luke’s knit shirt, black polyester pants, and black shoes. Chains have to be tucked into the shirt, shirts have to be tucked into the pants, and earrings cannot be larger than a quarter in diameter. Violations are punished by detention. Jon—like everyone—always wears his uniform in school. Why not to school? When I asked, he just shrugged, and said that he liked to wear comfortable clothes to school and did not mind changing.

I thought there might be more to it than that, and asked my students. Several quickly volunteered the answer. If they are seen in their neighborhoods or on the bus wearing a Catholic-school uniform, they will be beaten up. Now I notice many students changing immediately before and after school.

All this must be very difficult for them. In school, and presumably at home (because someone is paying $2,200 to send them to St. Luke’s, and there is little scholarship money available), they are provided with structure and rules. In the street, they must conform to a different pattern if they are to have any friends. Since many of the students work after school and live far apart from one another, they cannot simply socialize among themselves; they need the friendship of public-school kids. Living a contradiction like this must cause a great deal of inner confusion.

But the pressures of the outside world have not stopped the students from progressing rapidly and effectively in the history curriculum. In two months, we have gone from Columbus to the Revolutionary War. Initially, some (especially in the slower classes) were skeptical about the purpose of it all. “Why do we have to do Columbus? We do him every year, and he is so boring.”

“OK,” I replied. “Tell me what you know about Columbus. If you know enough, we’ll skip him and go on.”

“I think he discovered America.”

“Is that all you know?”

“Yes.”

Their honesty was helpful to me. I have found that it is not Columbus that bores them, but the very idea of history presented in a certain way. My department chair warned me over the summer that the students do not see the “relevance” of history. And so from the beginning I have tried to demonstrate that history is not the sum of dates, names, and places but rather a collection of fascinating stories. I have explained that historical figures display the same loves, hates, fears, foibles, passions, worries, and ambitions as they do. The personal lives of historical figures are every bit as spirited as ours, and the personal lives of long-dead men intersect with their public personas just as ours do. This point has resonated well with my students. Perhaps too well: one asked me today if George Washington wore a wig because he was gay.

When historical events are presented as story, students learn them well. On their last test, many students who could not identify the date of the settlement of Jamestown were able to tell the story of John Smith and Pocahontas in exquisite detail.

They also do well when complex historical ideas can be tied to their own lives. Teaching the Calvinism of the Puritans, I explained the notion of worldly asceticism, which I consider one of the most beautiful ideas in Western thought, and one that my students should try to live by. I told them this, and they understood the reasons very quickly. They did an excellent job on the homework assignment I gave them: “Write a story about a day in the life of a worldly ascetic.”

_____________

 

The teachers and administrators at St. Luke’s are wonderful. The dedication of the faculty is especially inspiring. The pay is very low, starting at $15,480 and not rising much higher. But that is never an issue. The feeling of camaraderie generated by commitment to a common purpose is electric. This is the only organization I have ever been a part of that is immune to political infighting. All of the teachers and administrators are willing to help one another and to lend advice when needed. Around 40 percent of the faculty are under twenty-five and another 40 percent are over forty-five, but our relationships all around are terrific. We respect and learn from the experience of the older teachers, and they help us channel our energy and our ability to identify with the students. The only distinction between nuns and lay teachers is that the nuns are addressed as “Sister,” while lay teachers are on a first-name basis.

It is a marvelous atmosphere, and I am lucky to be a part of it.

Sincerely,
Mark Gerson
November 18, 1994


Footnotes

1 St. Luke's is not its real name.

2 I have yet to meet a student who describes himself as Hispanic. There are Peruvians, Brazilians, Cubans, Puerto Ricans, Mexicans, etc., but these subgroups do not identify ethnically with one another.

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