by Rainiel Guzmán
“These ‘advocates’ propose that teachers should curb both detentions and suspensions and rather inquire as to the whys ‘some’ students have boundary issues, poor study habits and exhibit ‘oppositional behavior’. They should share one of my commutes, which would answer many of their whys.”
As the school year approaches in the twilight of another violent summer in Philadelphia, we are greeted by recommendations which seek to address climate at our schools. Key among these recommendations is the cessation of detentions and suspensions for previous infractions such as tardiness, or the use of profanity and cell phones. Teachers know what will follow, chaos. Precious time will now be “mandated” to address non-instructional matters. It is clear that the proponents of these recommendations do not work or often visit many of our schools. In fact, I am certain that many “advocates” of children in our city must have very different commutes than mine. Their commutes must be through pastoral promenades or perhaps through singing hills. These “advocates” propose that teachers should curb both detentions and suspensions and rather inquire as to the whys “some” students have boundary issues, poor study habits and exhibit “oppositional behavior”. They should share one of my commutes, which would answer many of their whys. Allow me to share with you one of my commutes in particular.
I have been an adjunct at a local college for the past two years. The experience has been one of amazement and genuine satisfaction. The campus is located in a northern Philadelphia barrio. The student population is mostly comprised of working, single, Hispanic mothers. I declare my admiration for their tenacity and efforts. As you may expect a class comprised by mothers is regularly peppered with text-messages, emails and/or phone calls from children of all ages as well as by significant others. During our ten minute break, these mothers are on their cell phones restating orders, assessing chores and, yes, if need be refreshing threats. Once class resumes, the strains from a long day are visible, with the added responsibility of two additional hours of content remaining. At the end of our four hour class, generally concluding shy of ten o’clock p.m., everyone heads home. Likewise, I gather my materials and walk to the parking lot.
As you leave the building the grittiness of this barrio quickly takes over your senses. One detail stands out immediately–there isn’t a tree in sight. Meanwhile, competing songs from speeding cars race by and die out up and down the street. The sidewalks are poorly lit by the streetlights and a heightened self-awareness kicks in as a compensatory instinct. Yet, for the residents of el barrio, all is well. Old and young are out in the street holding congenial conversations and conducting all manner of affairs. As I pull out of the parking lot, I have developed the art of evading children. These children usually ride their bicycles in groups of three or four, down the middle of the street. By children, I mean on average boys ages eight to twelve. In case you are entertaining the idea that this must be a summer affair, unfortunately the answer is no. These children ride their bicycles in the middle of the streets year round, weather permitting.
I have raised the issue with my students and have asked for their opinions regarding these night boys. They generally are very candid. Perhaps, the most succinct opinion gravitates around a well worn phrase, those kids are raising themselves. Once that phrase is uttered out loud a shared silence follows. The silence is then broken by open affirmations of violence directed to their own children, especially directed to the boys: ¡Yo lo mato! (I’ll kill him.) ¡Ay, si yo lo agarro montando bicicleta a estas horas! (Oh, if I find him riding a bike at this late hour!)Their “professed” anger quickly gives way to mother’s worry. As we proceed with the content, quick, under the table texts are sent. Corresponding mothers’ smiles confirm that all is well.
Once on the road I have become equally adept at turning corners. Night jaywalkers of all ages compete with the cycling muchachos de la noche in open disregard even contempt for cars and buses. This commute home is unlike any I have ever had. Still, other night children await my passage home.
My commute leads me through several northeast Philadelphia neighborhoods. As I follow my personal North Star, both girls and boys of all ages are out and about in small groups. By now it is well past ten o’clock. It is often impossible to discern any adults supervising them. Again, in case you are entertaining the idea that this must be a summer affair, unfortunately the answer is no. These children are on the corners and in the middle of the streets year round, weather permitting. As I near the last minutes of my commute into my well lit, verdant and night-childless streets, a string of Chinese corner restaurants attracts my attention. Indifferently of the day of the week or season, these restaurants are full with children and teenagers buying and eating late dinners. They often eat on the stairs, given that these restaurants do not offer seating. There are a few adults present, but my passing glances cannot confirm their relationship to the children. As I approach the unmarked “borders” of the barrios, hoods and neighborhoods, which weave our city, the smiles of these children challenge my thoughts. I’m consumed by questions, and perplexed by their laughter.
I begin to indulge in self-righteous commentary to myself; Where are the parents of these kids? Why do we have a city wide curfew in the first place? Doesn’t anybody care? My morning commute to school is free of questions, jay-walkers, and young boys on bicycles. The Chinese restaurants are closed and the hectic morning rush of pedestrians do not allow for congenial conversations.
I truly wish that more “advocates” would commute at night. In doing so, they would have to answer not only the “whys” but to their current austerity machinations. Machinations, which seek to cynically redirect assured, non-instructional conflicts onto the charge of teachers. Please note that austerity in certain business circles is a code word for the stripping of assets, i.e. not having to pay for school nurses.
The hypocrisy spewed by these change agents is toxic. They are well aware of the conflicts which have and will continue to follow the gutting of nurses, counselors and behavioral scientists from many district schools. To their Machiavellian credit, they astutely enable some well intentioned but politically uninitiated “advocates” who instead of demanding the immediate reinstatement of non-teaching professionals, essential to any well run school, add their efforts to these cynical pursuits. I and many more resent the continued characterization of teachers as the enemies of our students and by association of responsible parents. Teachers are often, too often, the only constant adult presence in many of our students’ lives. I am not a psychologist, nor am charged to perform as one, thank God. Still, I will offer my very pedestrian diagnosis regarding the referred “whys”: children cannot parent themselves and teachers cannot be mandated to be surrogate parents or psychologists. God help us all, especially the children of the night.
Rainiel Guzman is a 2011 Lindback Distinguished Teacher Award winner. He is an adjunct professor at Eastern University, and teaches art at Swenson Arts and Technology High School in Northeast Philadelphia.