P.S. 30 Chronicles

by Louis Bedrock, August 6, 2015

P.S. 30 was an elementary school in the Mott Haven neighborhood of the Bronx. It included grades Pre-K to 5.

Mott Haven was one of the poorest neighborhoods in the Bronx. Rates of Tuberculosis, AIDS, Hepatitis, and Asthma were among the highest in the nation.

Author Jonathan Kozol visited P.S. 30 frequently and wrote about it in several of his books.

I taught there for more than 18 years.

I had a set of mailboxes-- for me and each student in my classroom. This encouraged written communication. Most of the missives from students were banal. Occasionally, they were funny:

—Mr. Bedrock. You speak Spanish good; but why do you say “Thierra la puerta” instead of “Sierra la puerta”?

—Can we take a class trip to Disneyland?

—You a good teacher but you scream two much.

Sometimes, they were not so funny:

—Mr. Bedrock, my mother, baby sister, and I are homeless. We sleep on the trains at night. Sometime I’m very tired in the morning and get to school late. So please don’t yell at me when I’m late, OK?

—Mr. Bedrock. Can you tell Angela something? She smells like garbage and it makes me sick when I’m behind her in line or have to sit by her.

—(Picture of a stick figure labeled “Mr. Bedrock” dangling from a scaffold.) I hat you Mr. Bedrock. I wish you were die. You embarrass me Mr. Bedrock. I hat you.

The last letter was from Eduardo. There had been a last minute fire drill; Eduardo refused to line up. We had had a real fire in the school less than a year ago, so although I can normally negotiate with Eduardo when he gets stubborn, I felt I had to get my class out of the building pronto; so I gave Eduardo an ultimatum:

—You have five seconds to get on line. Then, I carry you out.

He refused to move. I threw him over my shoulder and carried him out.

I called his mother and explained what happened. She was not pleased, but didn’t file a complaint with the district. Eduardo expressed his displeasure in the letter.

I walked behind Angela and found that she did smell like garbage. I confided with Carmen, our guidance counselor, who spoke with Angela and her inept mother about hygiene. The situation improved somewhat. We require people to get a license to drive a car. We should require them to get a license to bear children into this world.

On I-80W, about two hours from the southeast Bronx, there used to be an attraction called “Waterloo Village”.

Waterloo Village featured reconstructed 19th Century houses and stores, a functioning water mill powered by the Musconetcong River, a gunsmith, a large park and picnic area beside the river, and a replica of a Lenape Village as designed by my friend Harry Kraft and his son John, both anthropologists associated with Seton Hall University in South Orange NJ. The Lenape Village included a trail with rocks marked with pictographs, a sweat lodge, long houses, and cooking, tanning, and washing areas. The kids loved going there. The picnic lunch, the lectures by the Krafts in one of the longhouses, and the Lenape Museum and Gift Shop were highlights. The museum had the actual skull of a Lenape Indian, which revealed a cavity that went through a tooth and into the cheekbone. I had nightmares about this.

The Krafts had collaborated on a textbook designed for fourth and fifth graders filled with wonderful drawings, charts, and photographs. I built my Indigenous People study section of the social studies curriculum around the book.

Maria S. was in the neighboring classroom. When she saw the finished products, K-W-L reports my children had done, she praised the work and the project, but observed that I had failed to incorporate art projects, which would have deepened the children’s understanding of the Lenape culture. The following year, we collaborated.

Maria taught the two classes to design, cut, and sew Lenape clothing in miniature. The children built long houses with dowels and popsicle sticks. She convinced our wonderful resident artist, Elise, to spend a couple of weeks showing us how to make clay plates, pots, cups, and jars using the coiling method employed by the Lenape.

Maria’s teaching assistant was an attractive twenty-something year old mother of one of her students. Her name was Sonny. She was smart and tough. I was a bit afraid of her, but fortunately her kids liked me a lot and she did too.

NYC school busses do not cross the George Washington Bridge to visit locations in New Jersey. I had raised some money to charter buses by holding bake sales. The balance came out of my pocket. This changed when Sonny took over the bake sale.

Sonny told me my prices were absurd and doubled them. She increased parent participation through her charisma and powers of intimidation. Sonny amassed more than enough to cover the two busses we chartered. Everyone in the school bought baked goods.

The first two trips to Waterloo with Maria saw an April snowstorm one year and torrential rains the next year. Maria and Sonny decided I was a jinx and kicked me off the trip the following year. My kids adored Maria who called me “Grandpa Bedrock” and asked my kids if “Grandpa” was being nice, and requested that they tell her if I wasn’t.

My hurt feelings were not assuaged by the perfect weather that Maria, Sonny, the other parents, and the kids enjoyed that day.

The following year, high stakes testing was instituted and there was no time for trips to places like Waterloo Village.

Our Principal, Ms. R., hired me at a party at the home of my friend Stefan, who was one of her A.P.s. She was impressed that I spoke Spanish well and had taught ESL in Spain.

She did not regret hiring me. Most of my first two years, I was a per diem. I had no fixed assignment and would do whatever administrative, classroom, or manual labor chore she requested without complaining. I translated documents, carried records to other schools, moved furniture, covered classes with little time to prepare—I learned to have an expansive array of lesson plans with me at all times. I did more lunch duty than any other two teachers. Since I was usually the first to arrive, I was often sent for coffee for R and her staff as soon as I came through the door.

For her part, R kept me on the payroll, made me full-time as soon as she could, obliged me to observe the best teachers in the school one period a day, sent me all over the five boroughs for training, and encouraged me to take courses during the summer to enhance my skills and earn the educational credits I needed.

The only tension between us concerned religion. Ms. R was an evangelist and minister. She would often say to me, “I love you Bedrock, but you need Jesus in your life. I would reply, “Perhaps you’re right, but “K” is keeping busy for the time being.” Or “I don’t believe in God because I don’t believe in Mother Goose.”

During the first faculty meeting of the year, one September, Ms. R regaled the staff with tales of her trip to Israel that summer. She spoke at length about walking in places where her Savior had trodden.

—I understand exactly what you mean, Ms. R. —I interrupted—. I was in Disneyland this summer and felt the same awe walking in the footsteps of Mickey, Donald, Daisy, and Goofy.

My colleagues burst into laughter. Even Ms. R laughed at first. But then, she became angry and said,

—You’ve offended me, Bedrock. Don’t talk to me ever again.

The following day at 6:30 a.m., when I punched my timecard in the main office, Ms. R emerged from her adjacent office.

—Bedrock, go over to the bodega and get three Spanish coffees for Sandra, Eileen, and me. And three toasted buttered rolls. I’ll pay you later.

One year, Debra M. and I taught fifth grade classes in adjacent rooms. We decided to collaborate on a project about slavery for Black History Month.

We agreed to use the K-W-L format I alluded to earlier. K-W-Ls are student-centered projects. The first two sections of a K-W-L involve preliminary preparation. With both classes in one room, we taped chart paper to the blackboard and asked the students to list what they Knew about slavery. Then, what they Wanted to learn about slavery in the form of questions. We listed their contributions on the chart paper, asked them to copy the Ks and Ws in their notebooks, and encouraged them to add to the lists at home.

L stands for “Learned”. Tools for finding “Learned” inventory included textbooks, library books, museum visits, and guests who were descendants of slaves. We also decided to use the first two episodes of the TV series, “Roots”.

“Roots’ was not designed for an audience of ten and eleven year old children. The first two episodes feature graphic violence and a rape, so we took our idea to the Principal, Ms. R. Ms. R gave us permission to proceed, but suggested we consult the parents and carefully prepare the children.

We called and sent letters to parents offering to excuse their children if they objected to their seeing the strong material in the video. We told the children that they would be seeing adult material that was not designed for people their age. We offered them the option of leaving the room if anything in the presentation upset them.

We received 100% support from the parents. The children’s behavior exceeded our most optimistic expectations. There was no fidgeting, snickering, or even whispering. The children were transfixed. Their questions were spot on.

—How long did the people have to be tied to the bottom of the ships?

—Did a lot of them die during the trip?

—Were a lot of women forced to do what the woman in the story was forced to do?

—How many people were brought to America from Africa in slave ships?

Parents communicated their approval. Visitors from the district praised the K-W-Ls, drawings, essays, and poems on our bulletin boards, and precocious, histrionic Latavia read the poem “Old Lem” on the school intercom.

Their fists stay closed 

Their eyes look straight 

Our hands stay open 

Our eyes must fall 

They don't come by ones 

They got the manhood 

They got the courage 

They don't come by twos 

We got to slink around 

Hangtailed hounds. 

They burn us when we dogs 

They burn us when we men 

They come by tens ... 

After lunch, I would read to the children for an hour. The Little House books were very popular as were the illustrated tales of Chris Van Allsburg. Desks were pushed against the wall and chairs were arranged in a circle. Some children liked to sit on the floor. Others would lie down on blankets or coats.

The new kid, “Sam”, was an amazingly good reader. She read on a junior high school level. She liked to read aloud and did so in a modulated, dramatic voice that belied her eleven years.

One day, as I read from The Little House in the Big Woods, Sam quietly walked up behind me. When I paused, Sam took over the reading. I didn’t get to read again for the rest of the hour.

After that, the children would often ask me to let Sam read. I tried not to feel too offended. She was really good.

I was doing entrance duty because two paras were absent and I was there. As the children filed in, an adorable little girl who looked like a first or second grader ran out of the line to give me a big hug and a “Good morning, Mr. Bedrock!”

—And where do I know you from, young lady?

—When I was in kindergarten, you stopped me to tie my shoe. And you called me “Banana Nose”.

My fourth graders were out of control. Perhaps it was the proximity of the Christian winter holidays. Perhaps they were just antsy. At two-thirty, I lost it:

—Silence! It’s two-thirty. It will be time for dismissal in fifteen minutes. Do you want to go home at 2:45 with the other children or do you want to stay here with me for another hour?

—Stay here with you! —the children chirped almost unanimously.

One sunny day in May, my fourth graders were in the playground across the street from the school for recess.

While chatting with a few of the children, I was stung in the face by a yellow jacket. It hurt and my face started to swell almost immediately. A crowd of children soon surrounded me, some of them grabbed my arms, and they escorted me toward the school.

—What’s going on? —asked Mr. Z, who was in charge of the playground at the time.

—A bee has stung Mr. Bedrock —explained Haydee—. We’re taking him to the nurse.

Oppie was a very grown up fifth grade girl in my bilingual class. She had advanced skills in irony and metacognition.

Sometimes she insisted on staying with me during prep period despite my insistence that she needed gym, computer class, science, or music. Her best friend, Nabriska, would stay with us.

Oppie’s life was seriously turbulent and she felt more comfortable talking to me than with the guidance counselor or the school psychologist.

Her mother had AIDS, her father, a violent streak. Oppie’s academic success, social skills, her very survival, cannot be explained by science.

—I’ve had a bad morning, Mr. B. My father was screaming at us. I locked myself in the bathroom and he beat on the door and cursed at me for like an hour before I was able to sneak out and run to school. I didn’t eat breakfast. Sometimes I ask myself how I deal with all of this. I mean, good grief, I’m only eleven years old!

During the 5th grade science lesson, I gingerly and politically correctly explained human reproduction with the aid of the two models I had bought and had built with the children: The Visible Man and The Visible Woman.

The brilliant Magda raised her hand. I remember thinking, “Oh, no.”

—Mr. Bedrock, when you get twins, is it because there are two sperms and two eggs or can one sperm fertilize two eggs?

—Uh, can I answer that tomorrow?

I called Magda’s equally brilliant and progressive mother and asked permission to show Magda a video clip on the computer that explained and illustrated the difference between fraternal and identical twins. She consented.

However, I found myself incapable of preventing the rest of the class from also viewing the video.

Stefanie was proud of being Dominican, the little chauvinist. She was also proud of being the smartest kid in the class and the teacher’s pet, something I heatedly denied although it was true.

What made her my favorite was her ferocity in learning and her unabashed delight when she “got it”.

I had demonstrated equivalent fractions using manipulatives--small plastic disks cut into two parts, three parts, four parts, six parts, or eight parts. Now I was trying to explain how to add or subtract fractions by finding a common denominator.

—Give us one more example —demanded Stefanie.

—OK. Say you want to add one half and one third. What’s the smallest number that can be divided by both two and three?

—Six —said Stefanie almost before I had said “three”.

—So how many sixths are equivalent to one half?

—I got it! —shouted Stefanie— I got it!

She began speaking Spanish like an “ametrelladora”—a machine gun, to the other children in our bilingual class. Pretty soon, everyone was saying, “Comprendo, comprendo.”

—Give us some more problems to solve!

Every class should come with a Stefanie.

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