Chapter 14: Blood Pressure Rising
After spending an entire school year not in school, I found an educational establishment that was thrilled to include me as part of their staff for the following year. What could be more impressive than The Emily Fisher School of Advanced Studies? It was a charter school, which means you can get government money to run a school provided that you can show a plan, the personnel, the place, and a purpose. A purpose might be creating a magnet school for performing arts in which kids spend part of the day in regular studies followed by theater, music, etc. The Emily Fisher School for Advanced Studies had a purpose: keep the worst of the worst kids that had been kicked out of the City of Trenton’s public schools off the streets. The only “advanced studies” were teaching studying the help wanted ads to get themselves outta there.
The director was a nice guy, and I’ll call him “Daniel” because I likely will not praise him very highly. He had great intentions, but it seemed he didn’t have everything necessary to complete the expectations that he forecast. He was a former attorney, but I suspect he had been disbarred. If so, he won’t be the only disbarred attorney to appear through this series. Staff was to appear in the main building of the school only about two days before students. We sat in a gym well past its prime and still smelling like the sneakers used in the CYO basketball games from about 40 years prior. I looked around at an interesting collection of misfits and castaways, and sitting next to me was a friend from several chapters back – Dave.
If you recall, or if you don’t, Dave was the teacher whom I had been e-mailing when I was chased out of Penns Grove, the school at which the superintendent was snooping through our e-mail. Eventually, the pressure and legal action against Dave was great enough that he resigned from the school run by the fabulous Cheryl Smith, NOT of Cherry Hill, NJ, who had proven herself to be a vindictive and vengeful bitch. Although Dave seemed to have a strong case to avoid being fired, Cheryl stooped lower than low. She went to the newspapers.
Dave’s picture had been in the newspaper with allegations that he was showing pornography to students in his classroom. There were also allegations that he was having sex with students. What is ironic about that claim by Cheryl Smith, NOT of Cherry Hill, NJ, is that she had a family member teaching in that same school. “Tom,” as I will call him, was the subject of whispers about him and female students disappearing after school. It was joked about specifically because he was said to have a very strict rule that he would only get together with seniors, as if that was somehow noble. Actually, his wife was a former student of his. I knew at least three other teachers there whose wives were former students. I found that odd and worth discussing. Dave and I “discussed” it through e-mail that was eventually read by not Cheryl Smith. One of our e-mail exchanges went something like this:
Dave: I gotta go. Legs hurt.
Me: Take a walk through the high school.
Dave: Yeah. Maybe there is a new senior.
Me: Right. Seniors are okay, but no freshmen, sophomores, or juniors.
Taken out of context, it seems like we were endorsing having sex with high school girls as long as they were seniors. Taken out of context, nobody would know that Dave and I were specifically making fun of Tom, the superintendent’s relative who preyed upon senior girls. We never mentioned Tom’s name because we didn’t need to. In a previous chapter, I mentioned how the superintendent who fired me had brought my e-mails to the police. This was why. This small exchange was enough for my superintendent to suspect I had been having sex with students. It was enough for not Cheryl Smith to suspect it too, which then facilitated her ability to get rid of Dave.
Tom, Ms. Smith’s “nephew,” had been reprimanded for getting too close to seniors. That e-mail exchange between Dave and I was a moment for her to take attention away from Tom and dump it all on Dave. Although Dave had a good case to keep his job, things got bad when she pushed his name into the newspapers with allegations of sleeping with students. That’s when Dave gave up, resigned, and looked for a job elsewhere. Once I found the job at the Emily Fisher charter school, I quickly called Dave and sent him up for an interview. He got the job, and we had a chance to work again for the first time in three years in a very low-profile place. Good money, bad atmosphere.
The Emily Fisher School included kids from 6th grade up through 12th. Due to my extensive experience, I would teach a small, special education, 6th grade class. I had only five kids in my room, which was without exaggeration as big as a small bedroom with no windows and one door that I had to keep locked because random kids wandered around the building. Of my five students, two had criminal records and parole officers. One was the son of a school secretary. There were two more who I just can’t remember at all. I taught all subjects except art and gym. A good day was only one fight, maybe two. They weren’t horrible kids, but they did have horrible lives. They were misfits and castaways, just like most of the teachers. They wanted attention but didn’t know the best ways to get it and usually resorted to trouble.
In addition to teaching all subjects to these kids, I also had one high school high school English class. There were about ten students with one more who would either be added or subtracted or both about once every two weeks. Kids randomly came and went, usually without explanation. Most kids were affiliated with a known gang, trying to join one, or running from them. There were police calls at least once a week, usually involving an arrest. Preventing injuries, not education, was primary as well as learning how to talk to these kids without pissing them off.
One of my students was “John,” a 12-year old boy who wore an ankle locating bracelet and met with a parole officer once a week for his part in beating and robbing a gas station attendant. He would not think twice to punch most people in the mouth. I remember making him cry, but I don’t remember how or why. “Carl” was a happy, athletic 12-year old boy on probation because he was in his cousin’s car while that cousin was selling drugs. I never asked why, but I was sure there was a reason that no girls were ever in the class with these boys.
In my high school class I had a nickname: Pop Pop. I took that as a great sign of endearment because I know that “Pop Pop” is a name reserved for a father figure, often a grandfather, in the homes of kids in places like Trenton. I wasn’t rude to them, and they weren’t rude to me. I’ve learned, and Trenton reinforced my belief, that kids will give to you what you give to them. If you are real with them, they’ll be real with you. I gave them time to talk about what they wanted to talk about, but I steered them back to what I needed to talk about. I knew they wanted to read books about gangs, fights, and kids who cursed a lot. I was okay with that because it was still reading, regardless of what was happening. I didn’t enjoy the books, but I enjoyed that they were reading and talking about it.
I was never personally threatened, but I was warned a few times. There was a tall, Hispanic boy who told me one day, “Don’t go in the parking lot after school.” When I asked why, he said, “You don’t care why. Just don’t go.” I watched from a window later that afternoon as he slammed another boy’s face against the police car that responded when the fight started. I thought about going out there to help and going to the parking lot before the fight started. Maybe I could have kept him from adding to his police record, but I doubt it. If I had gone out there, it’s possible he might have been distracted, which would have only left him unprotected for someone else to clobber him.
About halfway through that school year, my friend Dave got a job at a “real” school, and I was very happy for him when he left. I still carried guilt from when he lost the job he had held for over 15 years in Maple Shade, regardless of how many times he insisted it was not my fault. He often said, “You didn’t click ‘send’ on my e-mail. I did.” He was right, but I still felt wrong.
Somewhere around February I went for a regular dentist visit. As usual, they took my blood pressure. The hygienist said, “Pretty good. 115 over 90.” I sat up quickly. “Pretty good?! Not so much,” I said. I had never scored higher than 90 over 65. Although 115 over 90 is great for most people, it showed a 25 point jump for me. It was from that school, and I had to get out.
The educational atmosphere was not helped by the people in charge. The guy I called “Dan” who was the top dog in charge of the whole operation showed up on the first day of school in a clown costume. He didn’t care a whole lot about education. He cared about collecting money from the state and keeping kids off the streets. The principal had no background or training in education. She was tall, African-American, and a former college basketball star. It was assumed her physical presence would keep kids in line, but that was laughable. I knew the plan. Collect money and hope nobody gets hurt. I complied until my health seemed at risk, not from the kids or gangs but from blood pressure.
I was actively applying to other schools, but those breaks were rare in the middle of a school year. I thought about whether or not I was a “quitter.” I thought about the consistency that those kids needed and how many of the adults in their lives had walked out on them. I thought about all of the teachers whose “best” wasn’t good enough. I also thought about Dan, who did a nice thing by hiring me and paying me a ton when nobody else would hire me. Those things mattered to me until a meeting somewhere in February.
Someone complained to the state department of education about the conditions in the school. A state representative attended a meeting designed for teachers to air any complaints or grievances about the school. It was supposed to be a teachers-only gathering, but I saw a few people who were planted by the school leaders, and I knew they were there to intimidate the teachers. They were there to be seen, which would send a message that the teachers needed to keep quiet. That’s when I lost respect for what Dan was fronting. Not long after, a break came when I was given an interview and offered a job. After seven months and twenty blood pressure points, April 1 was my last day in Trenton. I had an excellent Spring Break.