Frustrated and angry, I slipped out the school cafeteria's side door. I pondered my class's lack of discipline during library research for the dreaded freshman term paper. I had to leave the noisy school and gather my thoughts. Maybe a walk around the block in the beautiful snow would invigorate me.
As I walked, I thought about ways to cope with the low skills and lack of focus I found in most of my freshman students. It was my first full-time teaching job, and I felt like a failure. How could I interest these kids more in ideas and writing? What was I doing wrong?
Suddenly my attention shifted to urgent sounds behind me. I turned and faced a car that screeched to a halt alongside me. Two large men leapt out. They ordered me to put my hands on the car. I thought they must be policemen, but they wore no uniforms, no badges. They asked me what I was doing as they started to frisk me. They were now checking my pant legs, apparently for weapons.
I told them that I worked at the high school down the street. I had dressed down a bit that Friday, wore an oversized green winter ski jacket, and had just started growing a beard. Perhaps I appeared a bit scruffy and not much like a high school teacher?
They asked for identification, so I pulled out my teacher ID card and handed it to one of them.
One man looked at me and said, "Usually when we see a guy walking down this street, he is a drug dealer." They gave me a stern warning, saying it was too dangerous to be walking here, ever. Perhaps to appease them and partly because I now felt unsafe, I asked them if they would give me a ride back to my school.
By the time I arrived, I had 10 minutes to grab lunch before my next class. My mind was back on my students.
But now I was thinking of the star of the drama club I had started and coached each day after school. He had recently told me how afraid he was to walk the two blocks to the bus stop at 4:30 p.m. after practice because he was fearful of being attacked by gang members. To my dismay, he quit the club. Now, I better understood his dilemma.
At times, outside observers and critics might be tempted to stereotype inner-city students, teachers, and schools as unwilling to meet high standards.
What many might not understand are the realities so often surrounding these schools and children. How can children truly succeed when they don't feel safe walking to school? How can a teacher refocus his energies back to teaching when he is picked up by police officers while walking around the block? How can the student whose mother is addicted to drugs come to class and be ready to sit down in class?
Later that same year, the school experienced budget cuts that left it with fewer teachers and pushed more students into already crowded classrooms. Certainly, there are no easy solutions to the difficulties found in many inner-city schools, or any schools. But the schools only reflect problems and issues in society at large.
I hope that people can start building a better sense of community in our cities. This might mean volunteering time tutoring or being a Big Brother or Big Sister to a struggling child. It might mean meeting with or writing to policymakers to work for funding and sound programs for troubled schools.
Action by action, individuals can make a difference in helping troubled schools and neighborhoods be better places to learn and live.
Jonathan DeYoung teaches at Harrisburg (Pa.) Area Community College.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor