Lessons in human dignity

A teacher at a last-chance school witnesses the struggle to forgive and to ask forgiveness.

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The students enter the building through a side door, where they promptly submit backpacks and any other personal items to the New York Police Department safety agent who greets them at the steps. There's a male agent for the boys, a female for the girls. Everyone is scanned for weapons, cellphones, and drugs upon entering the building. Some of the more committed students have hidden items inside a shoe, their underwear, the lining of a wig. The rest have scattered belongings in various spots throughout the neighborhood. It's Monday morning at one of New York City's Level 5 yearlong suspension sites. I teach English here.

I used to remark to friends and relatives that I would gladly teach any kid in the city. Oh, really? When I made this statement, I was working at a large traditional high school in New York. We had sports teams and a band. I signed yearbooks and hugged parents at graduation. Then things changed. The school was declared "dangerous." The faculty was forced to find new positions. So how do I describe this strange, new teaching universe I've entered, one that was clearly not my first choice? It has become the greatest lesson in human dignity I've ever had.

My new school has a unique and troubled population, but they still have the right to a public education. Students who have been suspended from their neighborhood schools come here. They earn credits. They take their state exams here. We study the speech patterns and motivations of Holden Caulfield, the original troubled New York teen, as we would at any other school in the city.

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Yet the dramas unfolding in their respective neighborhoods often take precedence over any literature we explore in the classroom. When a friend or acquaintance is killed, a student will wear a T-shirt with the departed's face staring back at me all day, rendering the book in my hand nearly useless.

The students resent being here. They argue and compete over things I don't understand. They make remarks in the middle of a lesson that shake me to the core. So as the student body files into the building kid by kid, and the scanner hums and beeps, I have to find ways to chip away at their hostility and indifference.

Perhaps I should be more flexible. Maybe it's time to recognize that intelligence manifests itself in various ways. Not everyone has to love Salinger as I do. Holden's language is a bit dated now, and Jay-Z probably lives in the Caulfields' gorgeous apartment overlooking Central Park. And if a boy in my class becomes so immersed in the imagery of his time spent at Rikers Island, sometimes the only way to respond is to lay down the book and listen.

New York City's Department of Education does believe in redemption, and students may apply for early dismissal. Like anything else worthwhile, it requires certain conditions. The students must write an essay. They must apologize to their school for what they did. It's not surprising that every student I've worked with on an Early Review Essay is completely innocent of any charges.

"But mister, I didn't do it! It wasn't me. That other kid was lyin' ... and my school jus' don't like me."

"Would you like to get out of here early?"

"Yeah."

"Then you need to make peace with what happened at your school, redo this first paragraph, and apologize... with feeling."

At the end of the week, E. approaches after class to say goodbye. It's his last day. He's served his suspension, completed several drafts of his essay until it was right, and will return to his school with the proverbial clean slate. His school is five stories tall with a river view of the midtown skyline. Ours is a single hallway with very small classes. E. has a glimmer in his eyes as he shakes hands and says goodbye. As he takes his final strut, I can feel the entire school holding its breath and rooting for him. The mission statement here is really no different from that of any other school and the rewards are just the same. As time passes, as it does for us all, we will eventually see what becomes of him.

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