[Editor’s note: The author is a social studies teacher at Washington Irving HS, Manhattan. He delivered the following speech at the Jan. 31 public hearing on Irving’s proposed closure.]
I began teaching at Washington Irving in the fall of 2002, not knowing a thing about what I was in for. I had moved to New York from Chicago a few months before, and before that I had been in San Francisco. As well, I had never been inside a public school. After two days, I felt sure I would fail the students and myself. After two years I thought I could last a couple more years maybe. Now I look back and see how this experience of teaching at Irving has sustained me and given me purpose. As well, it answered this question: what is New York City?
My whole life I had been in awe of New York, amazed by it, and when I moved here I thought, I’ll finally understand what New York means. I went to Midtown, hated it. Went to Coney Island, loved it, but it felt like 1898 mixed with desperation. Went to Ellis Island, the ocean was beautiful, the halls were inspirational. But where was this New York I needed to find? The bridges amazed me, Brooklyn neighborhoods reminded me of the other cities I had lived in, or had those reminded me, in retrospect, of Brooklyn?
Finally, I realized New York wasn’t in any of those places the way I hungered for it. But New York, the New York I needed, was right in front of me, in my classroom. These kids come from all over, the Heights, East New York, Q-Boro, Parkchester and the Lower East Side. I even taught kids from Staten Island — they grew up where Wu-Tang grew up: Shaolin, my friends.
My students are the New York I searched for.
And it was my responsibility to help them identify what their dreams were, to explore. It is my responsibility still.
The problems they struggle with are huge. The problems are bigger than any school, but the students can bring them here, and I will help them. We will help them. Every teacher I met here was more committed to this job than I would have imagined before I joined them. They were fighting for this New York. Every year I choose to fight with them. I can’t stop now.
The mayor says this is failure. But what is failure? Is it this struggle against poverty, against class and race division? The one group I don’t see here in my class are from the class that goes to Florida when it gets too cold, or wear their ski pass tags on their jackets when they come to school on Monday morning . They don’t come here. So what do the kids here matter to the mayor? That’s his people. And he’s made that clear since day one.
They close this school, our kids will get pushed around in the system, will disappear, sent from school to school, so that each school can play the numbers game politics forces them to play. A school can focus on one thing if it is to do that thing well. The choice we face is do we focus on a school’s future? Or its students’ future? A message will be sent to other schools, is being sent: protect yourself, give us the numbers we want, so the newspapers talk about those created numbers like they mean something besides “protect yourself.” Meanwhile, pushed around a system focused on itself, our students will be nobody’s responsibility, so they’ll be everybody’s problem. Most importantly, their dreams are the ones we won’t count.
I will fight to count their dreams, I’ll fight for this school, because this school doesn’t turn away students, doesn’t try to hide the problems these students struggle with. We are proud of our struggles, we wear them like badges, even when they’re scars. We might not have numbers, but we aren’t trying to make numbers here, we’re trying, against all these odds and divisions, to create students who get to count their dreams, and I dream they’ll need more than two hands to do it. They’ll need a community to do it. So I ask Gramercy, I ask New York, I ask the mayor, be part of that community that counts their dreams. Don’t close schools, open your minds, and make this school work. It deserves that.
There was a parade the day this school was opened. Right down Irving Place. This city was one that celebrated education and its possibilities, it wasn’t about answers we had, it was about the beautiful question our students future were. Move your numbers around, make your spreadsheet god dance. But all your data doesn’t have a place for their dreams in it, I say to you though: the biggest necessity our educational system faces is this: where are we going to put these dreams our students have?