Kids Were Having Sex In The Staircases, Butt-Naked-Caught-On-Camera Sex

June 1st, 2009 at 10:15 am | 20 Comments |

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Two years ago this month, I graduated from my masters program, packed a bag full of preppy college boy clothes, kissed my girlfriend goodbye for the summer and went to Philadelphia for a summer in training for Teach For America. There, I spent five weeks with hundreds of motivated, nervous and stressed incoming young teachers. Sitting in sweaty, non-air conditioned schools throughout that city, we were drilled on the fundamentals of teaching in low-income inner cities. Days began at 5 a.m. We battled for seats and grub in the Temple University dining hall. We picked up a sacked lunch – some form of cold cut on a stale roll – and boarded yellow busses. We were all heading to low-income schools in the city. My bus-driver was a Muslim woman in full burqa, and she drove like a mad-woman through the back streets of Philadelphia to the high school where me and many others attended classes all day and spent a couple of hours student teaching kids who had failed classes during the school year.

Repeatedly, we were told that this would be the hardest two years of our lives. I would sit through countless hours of lectures on the achievement gap and the strategies I might employ to push my kids ahead – to help them make “significant gains.” I didn’t know how weighty all these discussions were because I had no reference point as to how bad the schools we were going to were. I had no idea how far so many children in our country are. I didn’t know how ignorant I was to the problems in our inner cities.

The book learning I got through Teach For America training was nothing compared with the reality of stepping in front of my first class on a Monday morning in late August, 2007. Within minutes of students entering my school in West Baltimore, I realized that it would take every ounce of my strength as a human being to survive my two years.

For a long time, I was more interested in me and my survival than I was of my students. The students were going to be there the next day and they were coming as they were and are; how I would be emotionally, mentally and spiritually in order to help them was up in the air. The lessons I planned were to help me survive the day. I tried so hard to teach and to think of things for the kids to do. But I would go home tormented by the cussing I heard, the disrespect that was leveled at me, the dysfunction of a school where even the bell system didn’t work and kids could roam the halls without fear of punishment.

I was haunted by what I saw. Kids were having sex in the staircases – butt naked – caught on camera sex. As teachers, we were asked to assist the police in checking the bags of students and help waive the metal detecting wand at the front door during random weapons checks. During one of these checks early in the school year, I saw two cops throw a boy out the door and down so hard I was sure we’d need to call an ambulance. “That’s what they be doin’ to niggas,” a student said to me as I watched it happen.

After the weapons check, we were ordered to restore order in our classes and teach kids who felt like objects and criminals, not students. I remember having a particularly hard time going back to class one day after seeing one of my own students getting handcuffed after cops found drugs in the sole of his shoes. Just a day earlier, I had given this boy a book about basketball that he was quietly reading in the back of class.

Fights were daily. The rush in between classes was something like an episode of The Wire on steroids – kids playing dice, running in and out of the classroom, refusing to come inside on time.

My eye twitched constantly until the end of October when fall break came. I remember going to church and just staring at the Cross. I didn’t even have words to ask for help.

Eventually, I learned how to manage the chaos, but first I almost quit. The closest I came was when I had my laptop stolen from my room on a Thursday night in November. I had left my classroom door open for about three minutes and it was well after school was over. I was just running a quick errand to the office. I came back and my laptop was gone. I was so sad and defeated. More, though, I was furious. I drove with a buddy of mine – an Army man now stationed in Iraq – to a couple housing projects looking for the kid we knew had stolen the computer. When the kids found out I had gone there searching for my laptop, they said they knew I had heart.

Two years later, I hardly recognize the person I was when I left the middle and upper class, predominantly white background I was accustomed to my whole life. I feel like I’ve lived ten years in these two. I have two large journals full of stories and experiences.

I don’t know if there’s a political solution to the things I’ve been writing about. There needs to be a cultural shift in low-income areas to the point where everyone sees something in the schools, whether they are places where kids are training for professions, learning right from wrong or preparing for college. Schools, more than anything, need to be places where kids learn to take pride in themselves, their communities and families. Until then, the achievement gap won’t go anywhere.

The stimulus plan gives an unprecedented quantity of money to schools across the country. I don’t think it will solve the achievement gap. I bet a lot of the money will be wasted and squandered. I bet the money will look like the beautiful new laptops our school has that have sat in an empty room for the last couple years because the administration was too afraid that kids would break or steal them. Money won’t mean anything until education is valued.

I would like to say I’ve helped a ton of kids and been a wonderful inspiration to all. I would like to say I was the most prepared teacher and the finest of Christians each day. But there were more days than not that I was sick to my stomach going into the school – many mornings I would have to block out a thought that repeatedly popped into my head as I drank my coffee and looked through my apartment window and was saying “I would rather be dead than go to that school today.”

I think I’ve done my best. I did all I could to survive as a teacher in Baltimore. I don’t have all the answers, nor do my colleagues in this program. As conservatives, we should push for school choice and speak passionately about lessening the influence of teacher’s unions so more bright people feel it’s a legitimate and fulfilling option to teach in our public education system. And really, it’s about more than just talking. If our senators are so passionate about school choice in the District of Columbia, they should go to S.E. Washington, D.C. and talk with the people about their ideas. It’s not enough to lecture people from the comforts of the Capitol.

No, there aren’t many conservatives in an organization like Teach For America; it’s made up largely of idealist young liberals hell bent on making social change. A group of smart and determined people working together as we do in TFA doesn’t make it a socialist organization. We know, regardless of our political affiliation, that our society won’t be as great as it could be until all students receive a top rate education, or at least an education that shows them that they have the right and responsibility to be responsible and successful members of America.

I will not be in this school next year and neither will anyone else. The school is being shuttered after four decades. It was once a powerful symbol of the African American community in this city as a good school – a place where kids and adults were thriving and pushing towards a better future. Now, it’s a place synonymous with drug trafficking, gang violence, bad/no teaching, lowly test scores and failed social experiments. I don’t know what my particular future brings. I’m going back to school to work on a Ph.D. But I’ll be back in the inner city schools because they need me here. They need you too.

Recent Posts by Thomas Gibbon



20 Comments so far ↓

  • raphael a

    As a teacher, I’d like to respond to this post.But first let me say that Mr. Frum’s Newsweek article now seems understated. With Rush Limbaugh comparing Judge Sotomayor to David Duke, Newt Gingrich pandering to a base by calling on her to resign, and an unstable “pro-life” advocate violating the 10 Commandments and committing murder, Republicans can write off much of the minority, women and youth vote unless a different face of the party emerges.Democrats will continue to attract voters with strong “in-the-moment” idealism and maternalistic impulses to save the world.The larger picture is that sacred Democrat institutions like public schools no longer serve the population they intended to, i.e. the poor. Public school is still great deal for middle class parents and union teachers. Students who suffer the most are the ones in these ghetto schools who try the hardest, only to be shot down, sometimes literally, by others who do not wish for them to succeed.Young martyrs who are recruited to teach mostly burn out.The only alternative I see – aside from black/conservative coalitions pushing for charters and vouchers in individual cities or states – is through technology. While conservatives are busy writing article after article, some innovator needs to make thirteen exemplary k-12 classrooms available to all via satellite or internet, and accompany it with self-paced on-line lesson plans.That way, poor students interested in getting ahead but stuck in schools where the author just admitted there is no learning, can do so for little cost. There is already one San Diego HS that is doing this.Neither Teach For America martyrs nor more conservative “think tank” articles will solve a systemic problem.Thinking and doing out-of-the-box will.dailyraphirmations.com

  • balconesfault

    I believe that the worst thing we did for education was try to make it “more efficient” by making larger schools.That works, as raphael pointed out, for kids from well disciplined middle class families. You can substantially cut costs and benefit from the “economy of scale” by processing more kids through the same facility – as long as kids are willing to stand in line.If you’re in a situation where kids are not naturally attuned to stand in line – then larger schools are destined for problems.Most of the inner city private and charter high schools that serve lower income populations are not anywhere the 1500 – 2500 student populations that are common for public schools.Sometimes, efficiency is a friend. Sometimes, like Rumsfeld trying to draw troops out of Iraq too quickly so he could prove the virtues of the leaner high tech army, efficiency becomes its own worst enemy.

  • Cforchange

    “They need you too.” That’s an understatement. I know I’ve ranted before that I am the lone Republican participating in my community rebuilding efforts for the same deal you experienced, only in a different place. I’ve focussed my energies strictly on issues pertaining to crime, public safety and improved police relations because this is where all the chaos starts. When the focus is correctly placed, all predjudices are gone. It’s not about black or white, GED or PHD. It’s about mutual respect, goodness for everyone who wants to be in the game, the tax paying game that is. We are in the hangover from pimps & bling so we need to rehabilitate tax payers. Big urban problem for the GOP though, Republicans have dropped out of community presence and influence and have chosen a war with community organizers which in fact do have positives.If your school is just closing, chaos is in infancy and what follows is very ugly. It took our community 5 years beyond school closings, church closings, countless street homicides blatent challenges to and disrepect for the law including association lines reaching out to the death of 3 law enforcement agents (local, state and fed) before our help arrived. No doubt the latter precipitated the necessary aid. Congratulations Thomas – because of your experience and how you view it, you will be a great teacher. Be safe!

  • Jewels

    Mr Gibbon, first off, I’d like to congratulate you for penning an eye catching title there. ;o)I’ve volunteered in SE DC before, I know exactly what you’re talking about. (ever heard of the “little white house”?) There are tons of money, volunteers, and programs in that area all ready. One of things I learned while I was there was that money from the outside poured into the system wasn’t going to help. A lot of people expect it to come anyway, and they don’t see a reason to change doing the things the way they do. What needs to happen is a change in culture, in attitudes. Cops are frustrated because they see they cycle repeat- no matter how much punishment is meted out. People see their frustration and they take it for prejudice, for “the man” keeping them down.Part of them understands that there is something wrong with the way their life is lived, but they haven’t got a clue how to live it any other way. If they want change, if we want to help them, we have to do it by introducing a new culture, a new way to live life, and we have to start with the young and the motivated.I also like balconesfault’s suggestion about smaller schools, smaller classes. The last thing this area needs is to get a mob of kids together and expect them to learn. More teachers per student will greatly help motivate kids.

  • ktward

    raphael a sez:”…Teach For America martyrs…”Martyrs? How about heroes.Thank you, Thomas, for your fortitude and for sharing your experience.

  • turnturn

    great stuff, quite an accomplishment. Proud of you, bro! Looking forward to wed.

  • Mike K

    My ex-wife taught school in east LA in the early 1960s while I was a medical student. Most of her students were Hispanic and many were the translators for the parents at parents’ night. There was no teachers’ union; her principal ran the school and even recruited his teachers from the applicant interviews. She learned she had to be careful about what she said to parents at the parents’ night as, if she mentioned that the child was not working hard enough, the child was likely to come to school the next day with bruises.I graduated and she did not return to teaching until 25 years later when she took a substitute job. We had divorced and she had gone into banking, rising to a VP, then being laid off in a merger. She has a life time credential but she had to take the CBEST test, about which there were so many complaints in LA (and so many failures). She found it about 8th grade level.She started at a school in a blue collar suburb of LA and was appalled at what she found when she started teaching again. Of course, unions had changed almost everything. Teachers made derogatory comments about their students in the break room, often making fun of them. There was much less interest in the professional aspects of the job and far less concern about such things as bulletin boards in the classroom. One day she mentioned to a second grade teacher (she was teaching third grade) that her kids were very well prepared for reading. It was a compliment. The woman burst into tears. No one had ever complimented her on her teaching.Within a month or two, the principal was telling her she was his best teacher and asking her to sign on for the entire year. A few months later, she got another banking job and left. For several years, she would see that principal in the supermarket and he would always come over to talk. She had been out of teaching for 25 years but she realized that what he was saying was that she had the old attitude of teachers for the 50s and early 60s. The new teachers were totally different.Around that time, I exchanged a series of e-mails with another returning teacher, this time high school math, who was also appalled at what she found after an absence of 20 years. Something changed about 1970 and teachers got an entirely different attitude toward their job; it was no longer a profession. I am all for better teacher salaries. Getting rid of 75% of the non-classroom jobs in the LAUSD would help raise those salaries far more than another bond issue. But can the average teacher be trusted anymore to have the student’s best interest at heart ? I don’t know.The teachers’ unions have destroyed the profession of teaching. Maybe that’s why good teachers take jobs in private schools for a 20% reduction in salary.

  • balconesfault

    ” She had been out of teaching for 25 years but she realized that what he was saying was that she had the old attitude of teachers for the 50s and early 60s. The new teachers were totally different”I believe that on the whole, the teaching profession had a much higher quality of applicants available back in the 50′s and 60′s.Why? Simple economics. Up through the 60′s, one of the best career paths available to a highly educate black, or a hispanic, or a female, was education. Much of corporate America was still shuttered to them, women could become nurses, but rarely doctors or lawyers, even government bureaucracies in much of the country were largely white.Affirmative action did change some things, most notably the range of opportunities available to women and minorities. Better paying … in many cases MUCH better paying opportunities. And while idealism and calling will still draw many to teaching, in general, talent follows money.But we keep looking back nostalgically to the days when the teaching profession had essentially captive workforces of highly educated women and minorities, and complaining that the teaching profession suffers from talent loss. Free marketeers usually understand what it takes to attract better talent to a workforce …

  • brendan

    I am pretty far to the left, but i’ve often found that a focus on and concern for education among conservatives has brought forth some of our best thinking on the subject KIPP, for example, and the struggle for smaller schools offering more choice for another. This piece is an example of similar concern, but felt and expressed at the personal level. a great piece, and even inspirational–and this from someone who doesn’t even hate teachers’ unions! (my mom was a public high school and junior high school teacher, and believe me, whatever problems unions may get blamed for now, there were terrible, oppressive things going on then. Pre-union schools were not always far above Dickensian. i say it’s not unions, but public will and management skill that count the most.)I am a product of nyc public schools, and all my kids have gone to them as well–usually with good results. but i see the need for much change, and i am very grateful for the kind of concern and dedication you’ve shown here. yes, we need the schools to matter again, you are so right about that. but it is examples like yours that will show so many that the schools really are worth caring about and dong something to change. and i hope when you return to teaching, it is at a school where one of mine attends.

  • danbmil99

    Great, excellent article. Education is one of the few areas where I believe the government has no option but to get involved. The question is at what level, with what measure of choice, etc.Recently I was involved in starting a school. This was an exclusive, private school in a very upscale area. Nonetheless, the quality of teachers we were able to attract was appalling. Granted there were risks to joining a new school, but still, it was a nightmare of incompetence, bad attitude, misguided ideals and just general chaos.Obama talks a good game on edu, but I fear without a coherent opposition grounded in the reality of inner city problems, his agenda will quickly become a conduit for money-for-nothing, business-as-usual union and local politics. The worst offenders are often the ‘community organizers’ who seem to have an odd blindness to the inherent faults of the communities they claim to represent, and see everything through the lens of victimhood and retribution for past abuses.When is the last time you heard a Republican say anything even remotely meaningful or relevant about life in the inner city? It’s as if they don’t know or care that these places exist. I’d like to ask Thomas if he dared to preach abstinence and clean living to his students? Or maybe he would have liked to discuss the 2nd amendment right to bear arms? I’m sure many of the kids in his class would agree that it’s better to be the one with the gun than not.The GOP cannot simply write off urban America as a pointless, secular wasteland. Not as long as they’re allowed to vote.

  • raphael a

    If the school is so run down that kids are unsupervised and not learning, and the author had days where he was sick to his stomach working there, what good is guilt tripping or self congratulation?Schools like this aren’t evidence that public schools are failing these kids?They need a major structural overhaul because we’ve tried everything, and smaller class size isn’t feasible with 14 trillion deficits.More “heroes” won’t help. Unless you think “heroes” would have saved the railroads when they became obsolete.

  • balconesfault

    “Unless you think “heroes” would have saved the railroads when they became obsolete.”LOL – another discussion. Railroads are in fact having a big resurgance because of their tremendous fuel efficiency for long hauls of heavy cargo – and for urban transit where people have gotten tired of hour-long commutes in single-passenger vehicles when they could be reading or working for the trip.One of the daunting challenges is the overcrowding of existing rail lines – particularly frustrating when you consider how much more rail existed 100 years ago in this country. The cost of replacing a fraction of that former infrastructure (particularly the right-of-way costs) are a huge impediment to expanding rail service to meet current demand.Some “heroes” who would have saved more of those rights of way would have save America billions going forward.

  • agbiggs

    “she drove like a mad-woman through the back streets of Philadelphia to the high school where me and many others attended classes all day…”Me suspects they weren’t classes in English grammar…

  • Mike K

    “But we keep looking back nostalgically to the days when the teaching profession had essentially captive workforces of highly educated women and minorities, and complaining that the teaching profession suffers from talent loss. Free marketeers usually understand what it takes to attract better talent to a workforce … “I don’t disagree, and pointed out that teachers could be paid more if the bloated administrative staffs of school districts were cut in half. The New York Archdiocese taught 600,000 students with a staff of about 50 a few years ago. Critics accused them of skimming the best students so they offered to take handicapped students.http://tinyurl.com/lekh8sI have also been involved in the development of several private schools in Orange County, CA and found excellent teachers willing to work for less than they could earn in public schools, even though the local public schools are quite good.I am also involved in supporting the Catholic high school I attended over 50 years ago. It has an excellent record with boys from blue collar backgrounds. Most of the Catholic schools in CHicago, and other cities, have closed and it survives only through heavy alumni support.http://www.leohighschool.org/html/index.html“When is the last time you heard a Republican say anything even remotely meaningful or relevant about life in the inner city? It’s as if they don’t know or care that these places exist.”A standard lie from the left. Dan, why don’t you send Leo High a check ? Hundreds of Republicans do.

  • balconesfault

    “teachers could be paid more if the bloated administrative staffs of school districts were cut in half”You haven’t really looked into the bureaucratic requirements that NCLB imposed on school districts, have you? That’s not going to happen anytime soon.Additionally, Catholic Schools have a huge advantage – self-selecting population, and the ability to expel those who clearly don’t want to be there.In particular, I think that cuts have hit the “assistant Principal” ranks too heavily – and those assistant Principals were always the first line of discipline. As schools saved money by reducing their numbers, teachers had to pick up more of the responsibilities for discipline (see above), both forcing them into a different relationship with their students, and detracting from their teaching time – not to mention requiring an entirely new skillset, and as we know, each time you require a workforce to master additional skillsets, you need to be willing to pay more for the people who have the capability of mastering additional skillsets.

  • ktward

    raphael a 11:25 PM:Re: ‘Heroes’ vs. ‘Martyrs’It occurs to me that I may be over-dramatizing here, so if you or someone else calls me out on it, I won’t quibble.But yes, I do believe these teachers, such as this author, are heroes.Why?Because he was willing to go to work every day even though it made him sick to his stomach. Because it was scary and hopeless and he wanted to quit. And because he readily admits all this.He’s done an excellent job of illustrating that many of these inner-city schools are to teachers as war zones are to soldiers: abominable infrastructure, security threats, chaos (his term). Someone’s gotta do the job. It may be thankless and hopeless, they may even disagree with every policy and execution, but they still show up and do their job to the best of their ability.Yes yes yes, public education needs an overhaul. No argument from me on that.But this teacher was brave enough to admit he doesn’t think he even made a difference, that he just managed to survive- and with a gaping void in terms of ‘job satisfaction’ that would leave most of us nothing more than cerebral mush, he’s going back.Yes. This man is a hero.

  • danbmil99

    ‘”When is the last time you heard a Republican say Mike: ‘”…anything even remotely meaningful or relevant about life in the inner city? It’s as if they don’t know or care that these places exist.”A standard lie from the left. Dan, why don’t you send Leo High a check ? Hundreds of Republicans do.’I'm not saying individual republicans don’t care. I’m saying the platform and the message is basically, “if you’re from the city, especially the poor part of the city, don’t bother checking us out because we ain’t for you.”Write off the urban poor; write off African Americans; write off college educated under-40′s; write off women; write off everyone but southern white males and Christian conservatives.That is not a winning coalition.

  • danbmil99

    oh I almost forgot, completely write off Hispanics with a vengeance by totally misunderstanding the immigration debate and then, just for lolz, displaying a disrespectful, insulting attitude to the first latina ever put up for the SCOTUS.Way to go, GOP! Classy!

  • barker13

    Tom,Excellent essay – as usual.I was away on vacation or else I would have responded earlier.Mike K: I have to disagree with you on the pay issue. Or rather, partially disagree.Here in NY suburbia new teachers start in the mid-high $30′s depending upon the district and whether they’re coming in with a bachelor’s or masters. Within five years or so they’re in $40′s, perhaps 50′s; within seven to ten years in $60′s or above and those teachers with 15 years or more under their belts… they can be making six figures.Not too shabby for a 180 day a year gig, maybe six hours a day.(*SHRUG*)Yeah, yeah… outside hours. Boo-hoo. How many outside hours does the average physician spend “working” outside of patient hours? What kind of overtime does an accountant put in over tax season? What professionals don’t put in multiple “off the clock” hours on professional activities outside “9-5″ hours?Throw in the benefits… the pensions… I don’t wanna hear about how tough teachers have it; they don’t, not in absolute material/financial terms.Where teacher pay is inadequate it’s for science, math, and technical teachers. English and philosophy majors looking for teaching jobs are a dime a dozen; not so biology, chemistry, physics, and math teachers grades 8-12. These are the positions we should fund at higher salaries in order to attract the necessary talent. Should we add “hazard pay” to the more (in terms of being quantitatively measurable) dangerous, stressful schools? Sure. Should the best English teachers and social studies teachers and art and music teachers be paid more than the mediocre teachers in these fields… sure – but again I note… in broad terms where the money should be focused is on supply vs. demand inequities. Anyway… just picking one aspect of the post/thread to comment on. At this point (it’s now 6/10) I’m not even sure if anyone will read this post let alone address it.Tom… if you’re reading… keep up the good work!BILL

  • Michael Hurta

    Hi all,I am not going to respond to any of the comments; mainly because I have stayed up late, I am tired, and have not read them. Perhaps I will tomorrow.Thomas, I would first like to say that I am a staunch Democrat and I agree with MOST of the political implications you give. The problem of education has one that has been handled only minutely by both Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals. But then you say this:”As conservatives, we should push for school choice and speak passionately about lessening the influence of teachers unions so more bright people feel its a legitimate and fulfilling option to teach in our public education system.”I am fine with you trying to lessen the influence of teachers’ unions. (And, quite frankly, I agree as a liberal they should be lessened, too. Maybe not lessened by as much as you think, but at least a little.)”school choice,” though, really? That’s the Republicans’ answer to Democrats throwing money at the problem. It simply allows a redistribution of money, more than anything else. You can fight for school choice, but keep in the same context as liberals fighting for more funding to schools.Your most illuminating paragraph on the political consequences of what you have seen is the one where you say you do not know if there are any political solutions. You say, “There needs to be a cultural shift in low-income areas to the point where everyone sees something in the schools, whether they are places where kids are training for professions, learning right from wrong or preparing for college. Schools, more than anything, need to be places where kids learn to take pride in themselves, their communities and families.”Sometimes culture wars are bad, even in education. In Texas, all of us Democrats are quite upset with the way social conservatives have created a social war out of the education system — but they make it a social war that we feel infringes on separation of church and state grounds. I think it is perfectly fine for politicians to fight a culture war that is entirely constitutionally sound. And I think it is a viable solution in schools. I’m not entirely sure how we would go about it, but then again that is why I am still an undergraduate student who does not plan to run for office any time in the very near future. But that’s really where the discussion should be, the culture shift. And I think whichever party gets it started — Democrats or Republicans — will have a lot to gain from it. My only ideas thus far is that we are PROBABLY doing things wrong. I don’t have extensive knowledge on the subject, but I know many places in Europe, and probably Asia too, do things very differently. Perhaps we should endorse charter schools and a study on which charter school methods end up working the best? But that’s just an idea I am throwing out there. I really don’t know.All we know is something is not working. And money, whether it be through increased funding or through vouchers, isn’t going to solve anything.