It was shortly after I had lost my first public school job. It all lasted a few months. I started in September of that year, and by December I was on life support. By February of the following year, I was officially out of the system. This is how it happened.
I had just finished my first year teaching high school English at Cardinal Hayes High School, one of the well regarded Catholic high schools in New York and beyond. After meeting with the principal, I learned that I would be allowed to return to the school the following year. My performance hadn’t been stellar, as suggested by the principal, but it was good enough for the principal to renew my contract. So clearly, there was nothing to worry about on the job front. I knew I had a job the following academic year. But the minute my plane landed at JFK Airport one summer evening in June, I had been dreaming of teaching in a public school; the salary was attractive for the newcomer I was, and I felt it would help me support the four-month-old daughter I had left behind in the Ivory Coast and, who knows, I could even help those of my relatives who were still struggling to eke a living back home. So when the opportunity presented itself, I could not pass it up. This was the opportunity I had been looking for all these years. I had even sent my credentials to the State University of New York for evaluation for an opening in the city’s public schools, but they had informed me that my degree was deficient in some area, that I needed to take additional courses to qualify as a potential teaching candidate in a New York public school. Meanwhile, I had found employment at ICS, a confessional school in the South Bronx. As a middle school English teacher, my contract was renewed twice until 2004. I had begun my first year at ICS when terrorists crashed their planes into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center, Killing thousands of innocent people.
I can’t remember what we were doing, but it was shortly after the class had begun. The principal’s voice came on the public address system: “Turn on the TV; there’s been a plane crash in Manhattan!” First, I thought it was one of those twin-engine planes that sometimes crash in trees for mechanical reasons or for lack of experience of the pilot in training. I turned on the TV anyway, and boy was I wrong! On the screen, I saw the plane slash through one of the Twin Towers, smoke billowing into the sky. Behind me, I heard a chorus of “Oooohhhhhs!” We sat watching, not sure what to do. Suddenly, we saw another plane flying toward the remaining tower. For a brief moment, I held my breath, unsure if it was going to hit again but hoping there were rescue workers inside assessing the damage caused by the crash; I was wrong again. The second plane slashed through the second tower at an angle, leaving a gaping hole in it! Soon, that tower would crumble to the ground! For us, students and teachers, the day was over. Parents began calling the school to check on their children; many of them even showed up to pick them up.
When I left the school that morning, I called my wife, who was working downtown at the time, to see how she was doing. She was fine, thank God, although there was “smoke and dust everywhere and people were going home or trying to cross over to the Jersey side.” By her reckoning, the situation was rather chaotic and her boss had told her and her colleagues to stay at their desks. I went to the babysitter to pick up my daughter who was just a few months old at the time, wondering all along what the whole situation meant.
With an expired contract four years later, I had to look for work somewhere else; I would be unemployed for the next six months or so. While waiting and looking for a stable and decent job opportunity, I tried my tutoring skills at my alma mater, where I would later complete my graduate degree in secondary school English Education. The pay was the bare minimum, but I delighted in helping students polish up their writing and grammar. But with a young child and bills piling up, I could not continue working only 20-hour weeks and for a minimum wage. Besides, my wife began complaining and urging me to do something about my situation. The unemployment check was less than $400 a week and couldn’t help cover our regular expenses let alone money for entertainment and other activities I needed for my physical, mental, and emotional well-being. I had to start looking harder for a new job that would offer a decent salary. And for a good reason! I was raised to with the understanding that the man of the house was the breadwinner. My father single-handedly raised more than fifteen children on his meager army man salary. I know how this might sound to some, but I was not going to sit back and let myself be groomed by my wife. If anything, I should be pampering her, not the other way around.
The next opportunity that offered itself was at a proprietary language school. This school paid a lot less and offered limited benefits, but after six months of struggle without a source of income, I didn’t have to think twice before accepting the offer. That signaled the beginning of my year-long stint in that school. Teaching ESL to a predominantly Asian and Hispanic student body was an experience that I embraced enthusiastically. Within a few weeks, word had gotten around, and scores of students wanted to take my classes. I taught a variety of courses, including grammar, American history, reading, and writing, listening, in addition to running the noontime conversation class. With the reputation that I had built in my first weeks of teaching at the school, needless to say, the conversation class was packed every day. During my tenure at this school, I received two evaluations, both of which corroborated the students’ enthusiasm for my classes. Unfortunately, I am a person who is always looking for something better although what that means, I am not sure. One December day, before the holiday season kicked in, I tendered my resignation and was on my way to teach for the Manhattan Educational Opportunity Center, the MEOC.
In September of that year, I had found an adjunct position at Hudson County Community College in Jersey City, New Jersey. So one December afternoon, I was walking to the 32nd Street Path Train when my telephone rang. I had just completed an interview at the MEOC about an hour earlier. Although I thought I had done well during the interview, I did not expect a call for at least a week or so. Apparently, I had made such a good impression that Ms. Nelson, a veteran teacher who had conducted the interview with Ms. Brown, then on of the school administrators, called to congratulate and offer me the ESL position. As I crossed Broadway to descend into the subway station, I could barely hear the cars honking their horns and notice other pedestrians rushing to the opposite side of the street before the light turned to let the cars proceed on Broadway. During my train ride, I couldn’t get my mind off the MEOC. My three-hour class that evening felt like a 30-minute chat with my students. The following week, I began teaching at the MEOC as an ESL adjunct lecturer.
My tenure at the MEOC lasted a little more than three years. Here again, as at the proprietary language school, word got around very fast and many new students sought out my classes. I taught an intermediate level ESL class that comprised students from various Spanish countries, as well as Africans. Many students approached me to seek advice on their progress in my class and on career plans. The atmosphere felt like in a small country college; students felt comfortable asking questions and speaking to teachers, and teachers felt close to students. I am not sure about other teachers, but I personally had a genuine interest in my students’ queries pertaining to education and work. Indeed, I felt that it was part of my responsibility to orient them to the best of my knowledge. Consequently, we build mutual respect and a relationship akin to a big brother relationship. Back then, I used to work the morning shift, which ran from 10:00 AM to 12:30 PM. Twice a week, I would commute to Jersey City in the evening for an evening course I taught at Hudson County Community College. Even with both salaries, I had a hard time making both ends meet. Paying the then $600 or $700 monthly rent for our two-bedroom apartment was sometimes a real struggle. Hence, it wasn’t surprising that I kept looking for other opportunities. Anything that paid better would be welcome even if I had to leave New York. It was on one of my electronic forays that I chanced upon, I believe, an article about the new chancellor of the Washington Public schools, Michelle Rhee. As I read the article, I felt that I could be part of the innovations she was bringing to the school system. Besides, I felt that I could make a lot more than the meager income I was making at the time. As I dug deeper, I realized I could sign up to teach summer school in the District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)! Without hesitating a second, I completed the online application process. A few weeks later, I received an email informing me that I was being offered a summer position. My dream of teaching in the DCPS was well on its way to becoming a reality. With a light heart and high spirits, I went on with my two jobs at the MEOC and Hudson County Community College, knowing that come June, my life would change for the better.
On June 25, 2009, I embarked on a Greyhound bus, DC-bound. A few weeks earlier, I had made arrangements, via the internet, to rent a room in Washington, DC. Dorothy, the woman with whom I had been communicating via the internet and by telephone was to pick me up and take me to her house, where I would be staying while I taught summer school. I arrived in DC in the afternoon. It must have been around 4:00 PM or 5:00 PM; I can’t remember the exact time, but I do remember I had to wait for a long time before Dorothy eventually made her way to the Greyhound station in North East DC to pick me up. While I was waiting, I sat down to watch one of the large-screen TVs in the station waiting area. Soon, CNN began broadcasting news of Michael Jackson being carried unconscious to a California hospital. My first reaction was that he had overdosed on some substance and would be out of the hospital in a day or two, but in any event, no more than a week. It was on this hopeful note for the pop icon that I got in the back seat of the jalopy in which Dorothy had come to pick me up.
As we drove to her house, we made small talk since we were meeting for the first time. But the radio was on and the conversation soon veered to Michael Jackson. I can’t remember the exact content of our conversation, but I know all three of us in the car, Dorothy, myself and the male driver, prayed that Michael would get out of the hospital soon. The drive from the Greyhound station in Northeast, DC to Dorothy’s house in Southeast, DC lasted about 30 minutes. Before we got to our destination, we were clobbered by the news of Michael Jackson’s death. At first, we were in disbelief. But as more and more radio stations broadcast the news, we eventually awoke from our disbelief. Yes, Michael Jackson had just died at the age of 50! Who could have believed his life would be cut short so unexpectedly at a time of unprecedented medical advances? But he was gone as the hours that followed would confirm to us. Once in the house, we began an impromptu tribute to The King of Pop. We played all of Michael’s songs we could get our hands on and stayed up in disbelief into the wee hours of the morning.
Dorothy lived in a two-bedroom house with the living room and kitchen on the first floor and the two bedrooms on the second. The house also had a basement, where she kept her washing machine and drier, as well as any junk that would normally be in an attic. There was a shared bathroom and shower on the top floor and a simple bathroom on the first floor. The backyard had a deck, where we once had a barbecue, and a two-car parking space. As part of my rent, I had a television set with cable in my bedroom. In this room, I would take my quarters until the end of summer school 2009. Every weekend, I would walk to the supermarket about a mile away to buy groceries, which I kept in the large refrigerator in the kitchen. I set time aside to cook at least twice a week so I could have fresh food when I came back from work. I didn’t bother my host and didn’t expect her to cook or provide for me. But sometimes she did share a dish. On such rare occasions, she would tell me, “Steven, I made this or that… you can help yourself.” In general, I felt comfortable sharing the house and kitchen with Dorothy since there were just the two of us. One of her nephews visited once for a barbecue and her brother joined us toward the end of that summer, which was not much of a problem since he spent much of his time in a third room Dorothy had reserved for her daughter.
In DC, they celebrate the Fourth of July with a lot of firecrackers apart from the official fireworks, which are common in almost all cities across the country. I was sitting on the back deck one June night when I saw a group of youngsters walking up and down the big yard, many houses shared. Then I heard a succession of explosions. I knew they were firecrackers because we used them many years ago in the Ivory Coast around Christmas and New Year’s. Dorothy and I sat there, enjoying a six-pack of Heineken I had purchased from the grocery store off Wheeler Road. The merriment went on until very late, probably into the wee hours of the morning. Firecrackers could still be heard when my host and I turned in for the night.
Before summer school, all the teachers and administrators had to attend a day of professional development. I found this useful since it was my first time teaching in the District. Several workshops were led by local teachers and administrators, covering the curriculum, the standards, and mandatory assignments. The day was also an opportunity to meet and exchange with future colleagues and learn about the experiences of those who had already taught summer school in DC.
When summer school finally began, I was glad to learn that I would be working with sophomores and juniors. I felt that these students would be more mature since they were older than the ones I had had at a public middle school in New York prior to joining an adult English language program. My experience was not what I had expected, which is why I spent only a few months at that school. With older students, I expected to provide activities that were more engaging, convinced that they knew what they wanted from summer school. Most of them needed passing grades in the respective subjects they were taking in order to be promoted to the next grade.
The program ran mainly in the morning and early afternoon, with each class meeting for three hours. As I had expected, my classes ran uneventfully. Most of my students, in both the sophomore and junior classes, appeared to be attentive. At any rate, they did not disrupt the class or talk out of order. These students showed a genuine disposition for learning. Indeed, for the first few weeks, they mostly came to class on time, completed their assignments as expected, and participated actively for some and not so actively for others. I was enjoying my days in summer school, to say the least. Obviously, with students so well-behaved, who wouldn’t want to secure a permanent job in the Nation’s capital? Such was my desire to work in Washington, DC and to make a difference that I resolved to apply for a full-time position. I would stay in the Nation’s capital to explore the possibility of bringing the rest of the family once everything was on track.
Around the end of summer school, I heard about job fairs organized by the DC Public Schools in different parts of the city. Using my DC Metro map, I planned my route to attend some of those fairs. In the process, I interviewed with several schools, but the outcome wasn’t very promising. I eventually got to a table attended by a man and a woman. I greeted them and proceeded to grab some of their literature to read on the metro, and maybe call them up to see if they had an opening. At this point, they finished with the lady they had been interviewing. Directing they look toward me, they asked in unison, “Are you looking for an interview?” I paused for a second; my mind was not on having an interview now. I had just finished half a dozen already and I was thinking about what to make for dinner that night. I hesitated one more second, but before I had had a chance to say something, I heard the lady say, “What’s your subject area?” I answered, “Secondary English.” From then on, things went fast and I ended up with an offer of employment at a school in South East! The paperwork was immediately processed and I was asked to report to the DCPS central office to be processed by Human Resources.
Meanwhile, classes were still in session at my summer school assignment. Following the interview and the offer of employment, I proudly walked into the school building as usual. I picked up my material and proceeded to the classroom; I might as well have hit the lotto jackpot! The students I had in my morning and afternoon class were in high school, and I didn’t have any management issues with them. My only challenge was to motivate the handful who were not really into what we were doing in class. Most of my students knew that their promotion to the next grade depended on their performance in my class, so they usually completed their assignments and made their best effort to be in class on time. Now, working with the two high school classes was one reason why I was elated at the offer of a permanent position within the District of Columbia Public School system.
At noon, we the faculty usually gathered in the teacher’s lounge on the first floor, where we shared the space with the administration. A few minutes earlier, I had bought my chicken salad sandwich from a grocery store a few blocks away. I had sat down to eat lunch when my summer camp supervisor inquired about the interviews the previous day. I answered that I hadn’t been very successful in securing interviews and that I had been looking to work in a high school. I told him I was offered a position at a middle school, which I had accepted and intended to report to the DCPS office to complete the paperwork the following Monday when we had concluded summer school.
“Congratulations!” he said with a smile across his face.
“Thank you, I am really excited that I will be able to continue my career here in Washington, DC,” I replied before adding, “The school is in South East. The name… wait, I forgot. I think it was Johnson.”
His face changed immediately as he asked me quizzically, “Did you say, Johnson? I would think twice before accepting a position at Johnson.” I was not exactly sure why he had cautioned me about Johnson. That was the least I had expected. However, I did not seek an explanation right then because I wanted to savor the notion that I would be working in the DC public schools. Around 3:00 PM, I collected my teaching materials as usual and proceeded to the metro station, homebound, musing my supervisor’s response. In time, I would learn what he had meant by his comments. For now, I was content that I was going to work in the Nation’s capital. At the end of the day, I collected my stuff and sauntered through the hallway, down the stairs, and into the train station
At the metro station, I decided to call Charlie, a friend of mine from New York who had moved to Maryland a few years earlier to share the good news. He was excited that I would be in Washington, maybe in Maryland, and that we would be able to visit each other frequently. When our telephone conversation was over, I descended the stairs to the platform. My train pulled up a few minutes later. I boarded and the doors closed. A new experience was about to begin.