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I was staring at a football player. His shoulders were bent, but he was not crouched for a blitz. He was eyeing me straight on. Even without pads he was massive. The air in the room was fire-hot, muggy. Any sudden move and this whole place would explode. He and I were not friends.
He was coming for me pretty hard along with his lady friend, whom the whole class called Booty, despite my effort to explain that no young woman should allow people to delegitimize her by naming her after a body part, no matter its prominence. (Would Oprah allow someone to call her Booty? Would Michelle Obama? Would Lupita Nyong’o?) Booty was having none of it.
I was at Countee Cullen High School in the heart of South Watts. Not long before, a freshman had been shot outside the school. Its history of racial and student violence goes back decades, but I didn’t know any of that at the time. All I knew was that two dozen high school students were watching and waiting to see what I would do. And I was watching too, because the football player was cursing me in the worst way. Maybe I’d told him to sit down one too many times. Or to stop distracting the class while I’m teaching. Whatever it was, I had set him off.
“Motherfucker, fuck you. You don’t run shit up in here. What you gon’ do?” Yeah, he was cursing me out pretty bad and baiting me for a fight. And frankly he had a good question: What was I gonna do? I hadn’t figured that out yet. Because in the back of my mind, I was thinking about those YouTube videos of kids fighting teachers and how at least half the time the teacher gets rocked. Hard. And I had bones, an ego, and expensive glasses and didn’t need any of those crushed. I shrugged and forced myself to sound cool, even casual: “Probably call the guard.”
It was so offhand, you’d have thought we were discussing the color blue. I was nervous and struggling not to show it. The kids were still watching to see who was going to win. It was in my best interest that I did. Someone shifted in their seat.
The kid doubled down. “I don’t give a fuck! Call the guard! Urkel-looking motherfucka.”
Laughter and commentary from the kids: “He called that fool ‘Urkel.’” This wasn’t going well, but I sensed an opening.
“Did you just talk bad about Urkel?” I offered before I knew exactly where I was going. He was a little thrown. Something in my brain told me to pursue this line of questioning.
“Did you just talk bad about my boy Urkel?”
“I’m talking about you, fool. With yo bitch ass.” Truth is, the name calling was making me see red. So I stuck with the 1990s sitcom theme to keep from busting a blood vessel.
“Well, you’re out of line there,” I told him. “No one talks about me or the homie Urkel like that! So I think it’s best you go to the office and think hard about what you’ve done!” A few laughs and some quizzical looks from the rest of the class. I headed for the door while calling for the campus aide and keeping myself well outside the kid’s body space. He just kept cursing: “Stupid motherfucka.”
The aide arrived and waved the kid out, but the kid was working on a stem-winder of final curses. Maybe it was my pride, maybe something else, but I didn’t want to let the recriminations go completely unanswered. My go-to is to say something funny, but the stress of the situation had thrown off my comic sensibility. “Okay, Santa,” I said, switching fictional characters. “Merry Christmas to you too. Come back next year.” The aide chuckled and I got a few more laughs from the kids. He took the student, who kept jawing the whole time. I went back into the classroom. The students were staring at me, some glaring, one or two smiling; others didn’t know what to make of me. I pulled up my pants briefly so they could see my socks, and I made a show of adjusting my glasses, the way Urkel himself would do it. I turned directly to Booty with a less-than-friendly smile: “Now what are you saying?” I was hoping the mixture of nerdy weirdness and just-kicked-out-the-biggest-kid-in-class toughness would be enough to get her to give in, but she was staring daggers. I kept staring back at her, a direct challenge, the final risky skirmish in a battle of wills. A few seconds later she looked away, mumbling what I was sure was not the Lord’s Prayer under her breath. A tiny win. Very tiny. But I took it. I looked up and out at the rest of the class. Someone said, “This fool crazy,” as I stood with my socks peeking through the bottom of my pants. It was almost a compliment. Better to be thought crazy than a bitch-ass!
Air slowly seeped back into the room. I could feel the balance of power tipping back my way, if only slightly, but only God knew how long it would last. Despite whatever laughter I had generated in this contest, none of it felt very fun at the time. I was feeling nothing but nerves, trying my best to hold it together. I took a breath and launched back into the lesson, hoping they couldn’t hear my heart pounding in my ears. “Alright, then, what were we saying about the hypotenuse?”
Yeah, I had the worst job in the United States. I was a substitute teacher in one of the nation’s toughest schools and this was my first day.
Sit Down and Shut Up is an insider’s account of life inside the forgotten precincts of U.S. public schools, and it’s dedicated to one not-so-funny idea—the sometimes hysterical but often harrowing truth about that world: new teachers flee in droves every year from our toughest schools, and many veterans have left long ago because of the one thing they did not see coming: kids’ chaotic, unchecked behavior that the adults and even the kids themselves seem almost helpless to control. And this insider account comes from one of the most unlikely sources: a substitute teacher. I know what you’re thinking. A sub? What the hell do you know about teaching in tough schools? All you did was babysit for a day or two! Turns out, you can learn quite a lot from subbing if you pay attention. You’re also thinking: Getting roughed up by kids is the definition of being a sub. Being cursed out doesn’t mean squat. Yes, except I worked at one school where students assaulted three full-time teachers and one administrator. My experience was not unique. And what a lowly sub may lack in depth he can gain in breadth, by going, as I did, as a stranger into countless strange lands with an open heart and a questioning mind. I was curious, obsessed even, as I traveled from one end of Los Angeles to the other, from Beverly Hills to Compton and every neighborhood in between, to find the answer to an intractable problem: how to make public schools work for the poorest and most discarded among us. A man named Sam Choudhary, whom Forbes named a leader in education in 2013, said what every teacher in tough schools secretly knows and is embarrassed to confess: “Student behavior is one of the biggest problems teachers face.”1 In poor and underserved communities, white and black, I think it may be the biggest.
If you are black or a progressive liberal, I have just raised your hackles. You are on guard because you’re sure you are about to read yet another narrow-minded, self-hating black conservative’s wailing about the moral failures of black people or the poor. If you are white and conservative, you are quite possibly feeling giddy, because you think you are about to read a brave black conservative’s trumpeting of the truth about the moral failures of black and poor people. Both camps are wrong. I’ve voted only for Democrats. I believe in the social safety net. I listen to NPR on my way to work. I believe global warming is real. And in the following pages I talk enough about the evils of racism, the horrors of police brutality, the failures of capitalism, and, yes, private and public character and ethics to both satisfy and irritate the hard-core left and right among us.
But one thing is inescapably clear. Education experts, parents, and politicians have for too long danced around what is happening in the most troubled schools, insisting on all kinds of random fixes for why kids aren’t learning. A thousand different theories, a thousand different reforms: better teachers, younger teachers, school vouchers, school uniforms, smaller classes, wired classes, charter schools, partner schools, block schedules, mixed schedules, later school days, longer school years, arts classes, yoga classes, teaching to the test, abolishing the test, eradicating tenure, delaying tenure, more math, less gym, more instructional minutes, more planning minutes, more direct instruction, more group instruction, student-centered classrooms, student-led classrooms, higher curriculum standards, revising curriculum standards, kinetic learning, visual learning, teaching like your hair is on fire, teaching like you’re about to get fired (because you probably are), smart chairs, smart boards, chairs that wiggle, desks that wiggle, classrooms with no desks, classrooms with no teachers—the list is truly endless.
But nothing has worked. Why? My central, bracing premise—that in our toughest schools it’s not the teachers’ fault, it’s the students’—points to a larger social reality far more complex than anything an iPad or a yoga class can fix. But perhaps more important is that children are what a society makes them. So what did we as a society make? What did we, the adults, do that it got this bad? And, even more important, is it possible to make it better? I believe it is.
During my year of subbing in some of the most difficult (and some of the best) schools in Los Angeles, I realized that none of the answers to why inner-city schools have gotten so bad are obvious. Tracing the answers to their source meant tracing them to many sources. It meant seeing all the difficult aspects of black American life—persistent racism, poverty, police brutality, the legacy of slavery, and fatherlessness—in both old and new ways and finding the right language to think about them and through them. It meant investigating first principles. Why should we even care if students in the poorest parts of the inner city learn to sit down and shut up? Again, I thought I knew the answer. That year showed me I didn’t.
In the year I traversed the breadth of Los Angeles County from as far north as Pacoima in the San Fernando Valley to north of Compton in South LA, an area of about forty-seven hundred square miles, I saw the inside of more than fifty schools and taught more than ten thousand different students—at elementary, middle, and high schools. Struggling public schools, thriving public schools; struggling charter schools, thriving charter schools; private schools where the kids were less than awesome, private schools where the kids were flourishing; parochial schools, Catholic and Episcopal; Jewish schools, Orthodox, conservative, and reform. Sit Down and Shut Up is the record of what I saw.
My life until then had consisted of some relative success as a writer, but I did not take a job as a substitute with any idea of generating a book. No. At first I did it as a lark. I’m a night owl and write deep into the early morning hours. If it were up to me, I’d be in bed at 4:00 a.m. and up at noon. Being forced to get up early twice a week organized me and made me feel a little less like a bum. But also my conscience was nagging me. I come from a family of educators. My father taught at a historically black college for most of my childhood, and when he died, several carloads of his students carpooled from across the country to attend his funeral. They just had to be there, one of them told me.
The most dramatic memory I have of my mother is of her sitting on the floor of our small home in the rural South, rocking back and forth, crying terrible tears, and just saying, “Thank you, God. Thank you, God,” over and over and over. I was seven. Although her words were happy, she seemed to be in such pain that I asked my father what was wrong. These were tears of anguished joy, I learned. She had passed her teaching exam and was now qualified to be a public school teacher. I’ve never forgotten that. My reverence for teachers and education is a permanent part of who I am.
While my conscience was badgering me, I was wondering what was going on in public schools—I kept hearing the rumor of a new generation of terrible teachers who were apparently openly failing struggling kids. I had attended predominantly black, rural public schools only a generation ago in a state that regularly competes for last place in education, yet my teachers taught me and my siblings well enough that I was accepted by, and graduated from, one of the best colleges in the country. In fact, in the few years between my graduation and my siblings’ graduations, my high school sent students to Duke, Harvard, the University of North Carolina, Emory, the Air Force Academy, and a slew of the best schools across the Southeast. Other students joined the army, some went into the NBA and into Major League Baseball, and a small fraction ended up in jail. I am, in other words, what my parents and my teachers made me. So who made up this new crop of teachers rumored to be such open and bumbling failures? I quickly learned it was exactly that: a rumor. And it wasn’t a new crop of teachers. It was a new crop of kids. Hurt, resentful children of broken homes (or parentless children), learning in a society that was not ready or prepared to address the internal struggles that these kids did not create but brought with them nonetheless.
Some of the poor charter schools and traditional public schools I subbed in, full of black and Latino students, were spectacular places where students were taking a deep dive into learning. Some of the wealthy private schools seemed like educational hoaxes, not worth the tens of thousands of dollars they cost. But when a school was truly failing, it was because a kid could say “Fuck you, motherfucker” to an adult, be sent to the office, and turn up in my class five minutes later with a note from the office that said “OK to return to class.”
Once upon a time philosophers, from Jean-Jacques Rousseau to John Locke, wrote long treatises on education alongside their masterpieces on political economies and the nature of man. Plato’s Republic, in which Socrates asks how one teaches youth to love justice, is essentially a teachers’ manual. But the great intellectual minds of our democracy are preoccupied with what they imagine to be greater concerns. In journalism ambitious reporters see the education beat as at best a way station, at worst a type of exile. As one national reporter told me, “Even among local coverage, education is at the bottom of the pile in prestige.” I once took a peek at the home page of one well-known journal to get a sense of how little regard we have for public education. A quick sense of journalistic hierarchy, from top to bottom, ran thusly: world news, business, opinion pages, U.S. news, technology, arts, politics, fashion/style, movies, local coverage, sports, theater, science, obituaries, television, health, travel, books, and then, finally, tucked somewhere between food and automobiles, well below the virtual fold, was education. The education beat will rarely win you any awards, and, in some papers, even a death notice gets more attention than our nation’s public schools.
I refer to Rousseau and Locke because what this year showed me, above all, was something that the philosophers may have always known: that the four walls of a nation’s classroom are hothouse laboratories—chaotic, teeming, vibrant, tough—containing that nation’s most vexing social issues. In this case, beneath the sound and fury of outrageous adolescent behavior lie titanic forces: the legacy of race and inequality, the price of generational trauma, the failures (and promises) of capitalism, the nature and structure of human consciousness. And that combustible legacy made itself plain in every single interaction I had with an unruly student, a desperate parent, an exhausted teacher, or an overworked administrator.
Though this book focuses on black and Latino students in the inner city, by far the harshest comment I came across about student behavior while writing this book was said of poor white students by a white teacher in the all-white, opioid-riven Appalachian region. In J. D. Vance’s bestselling Hillbilly Elegy, a harried teacher remarks, “They want us to be shepherds to these kids. But no one wants to talk about the fact that many of them are raised by wolves.”2 The economic collapse that fosters adolescent chaos stretches across the country, no matter the race. Facing up to that, offering solutions (and explanations), is part of the very real business of this book.
The most clarifying and confounding comment I heard in this year of being a teacher-for-hire came from a teacher in his early forties who’d attended Cullen High School as a student. After a particularly brutal day, he remarked with confusion and anguish, “This school was always tough, but kids used to fight each other. Now they fight the teacher too.” That phrase haunted me and it concentrated my mind. It was the beginning of a mystery. I realized he was right. There were plenty of fights at the schools I had attended as a kid. On the bus, after school, at school. An older kid who lived down the road from us once took a gun to school because he was being bullied so badly. But no one fought a teacher.
During this year I slowly began to understand that that seemingly simple shift—from fighting each other to fighting the teacher—was a sign that something unaccounted for had entered this world and destabilized it; a Rubicon had been crossed and a thousand tributaries flowed from it. Sit Down and Shut Up is about my journey to find the source of that Rubicon and its tributaries and to ask if the flow of that terrible river, as it coursed through the lives of the neediest black and brown kids across Los Angeles, could be stanched. Some of the things I found at the mouth of the river thrilled and surprised me, others shocked and saddened me. I imagine they will shock, thrill, sadden, and surprise you too.
Though the experience of black boys in white schools, which has been recently treated in the press, gets some attention here, this book is primarily about the lives of poor kids in our toughest schools.3 These kids rarely grow up to experience the more “sedate” forms of racism—passed over for lucrative jobs and promotions, tokenized as the only black, profiled in stores they have the money to shop in—their lives and schools are too chaotic for them to advance that far in life. This book is about how to improve poor schools so those kids can have a chance to struggle for a better livelihood, not just struggle for their lives.
It’s about what I knew, what I thought I knew, and most of all what I learned during my yearlong journey inside some of LA’s toughest schools. It is also about the enormous number of teachers and students who rush into battle each day armed with hope and grit and who—despite the many challenges our schools face—try to carve out a place where students can learn. It is about the thousands of tiny gestures teachers make every day, gestures that involve compassion and discipline, sweetness and stringency, second chances and bright yellow lines in their effort to return a sense of normality to their environment, so that teachers can nurture, protect, love, discipline, and teach their students. Drawing forth, to paraphrase the poet, lilacs from fallowed land.
Copyright © 2018 by Cinque Henderson