At the end of what was an incredibly emotional year for me and the entire Banana Kelly community, I began getting emails from my boss that each started off like this: "Due to the closure of Banana Kelly High School..." followed by all the logistical procedures we had to follow at the end of the year. It was incredibly insensitive, when I was literally attending a wake for an educational community that I worked in wholeheartedly, to receive emails reminding us of our own demise.
“Due to the closure of Banana Kelly High School” rings in my ears as "due to the closure of my family" - which doesn't make sense, because families cannot end. The building we existed in, the brick and mortar, was taken from us, but we have always bled our ties out into the streets, and I will be upset with my students if they walk by me on 161st and do not acknowledge that we know one another. (Thank you, Gary Lemons) I still said hi to Rashad on the 2 train last week, who I taught 4 years ago in a summer program and haven't seen since, still remembered his name, because he was and is important to me.
I’ve written testaments before to the ways this school has impacted me, which I’ve read at public hearings and had published in local newspapers as symbols of resistance to the closing of this community space. But as I’m sitting at home in the summer-time, knowing that I will not return to have a classroom there in the fall, I am feeling the loss in a much deeper way. With the contents of my educational life filling up the small room that will soon serve to hold my first child’s firsts, I can’t help to wonder about the fate of my FIRST CHILDREN, at the hands of the DOE. I vow to still advocate for them from afar and support them in succeeding throughout their lives. Because this is for life.
It hurts to make the choice to leave, because ultimately, it will be the children of this community who will lose out again, who will suffer from enduring the rest of their high school years with just-out-of-college educators who will quit and leave in succession. It hurts that their graduation and Regents scores will suffer from the revolving-door that surely follows, which has grave implications on their ability to go to college and train for careers. I believe that we’ve installed enough fighting spirit into them, that they will find alternate paths to their dreams, and push toward them, but they are my children and I worry. Because I am no longer paid to teach them lessons doesn’t mean that the caring can stop. How can you stop caring for a person who you have watched grow, who has watched you grow?
But, as a colleague said, we have our professional and personal dignity, and need to make a decision that is best for us. There is no conspiracy here; which is perhaps even more powerful. We all made choices that are best for us, independently. Very few of us are choosing to return, because everything we loved about BK was enclosed in a few rebel classrooms inside the new republic. Incarcerating, arresting kids, pushing them toward the jail cell and away from the diploma is not how I choose to interact with my children, with my family. We talk of love, honesty, respect and how to grow. We turn fights and arguments into debates and discussions of sociology - why do we act the way we do? What causes our anger, personally and socially? None of us is perfect, but we get to know one another, accept one another and (until last fall) be peaceful with one another. This year was one of violence, and my room became an island of doves with olive branches.
I have an exit letter that I have written to my boss. I hem and haw over if and when to email it to him, as it is harsh and concise, yet includes much-needed knowledge about working with people. He needs lessons in what it means to respect someone. I did not re-apply to the school after we were excessed, and did not apply elsewhere in New York, as I am going to embark upon a career change. It will still be education based, but in the classroom of my home. Now, if you’re keen in senses, you’ve probably realized that I have trouble building boundaries between education and family - as they become intertwined in my life. But it does not make me a better teacher to be cold and disconnected, my students say that one reason they like the way I teach is because I tell stories. I am human, I have experiences that lend themselves well to characters we read about, lessons we discuss. Who I am is a part of how I teach.
My advice to my boss in the exit letter is - be human, let them be human, show them who you are, what you value, what your passion is, and they will respect and listen to you. Not all of the time, but most of the time. It astounds me that he views the world from a very binary perspective - us vs. them, and has not paused to consider the commonalities we have with our students.
This reflection will end with the irony that right after the last day of school, an arbitrator made the decision that the school closings and re-openings were not happening. Banana Kelly will not become CPAL after all (fingers crossed). But perhaps even more bleak is that most of the staff will still be leaving, because despite our love of the kids, it is an inhospitable environment for learning. New textbooks won’t solve a lack of love at home, or generations of drug abuse. They certainly won’t solve the problems of this Bronx community, nor of the racist school system that believes in feeding the prison industrial complex with my children. I refuse to believe that death and jail are the two options for these youth, and choose to educate in a place where other futures are written, not in a place where they first gain a criminal record.
To my students, who I know will never read this, but will have bright futures if it’s the last thing they do... to my esteemed colleagues, who have taught me so much about the craft, the art of teaching... to my island, who have held me together when everything was falling apart... and to my family, everyone who ever roamed the halls of Banana Kelly when Quci was dancing, or Roro was maccin, or T-Skillz was wilin, or Daniel was yelling, or A was saying “ladies and gentlemen, it is now 3rd period... it is time for class!”