Junia Yearwood

If only visitors could see my students

By Junia Yearwood
December 13, 2010

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EVERY DAY, the sightseeing bus crawled up and down the busy streets around my school, English High. I often wondered what would happen if one day the driver would adjust her itinerary and make an unscheduled stop.

Would the tourists have the courage to walk the halls of the school and see my students as I do? What if they could visit our class for a firsthand view of my students, who struggled to meet the challenge of high academic rigor and often succeeded — in spite of many negative personal experiences, the gross social and economic inequalities they suffer, their vast deficits in cultural knowledge and the use of standard English, and the public maligning of them and their school system?

I wished the sightseers could listen in to the animated discussions in small groups as my students responded to one another’s journal entries about the definition of evil and brought up examples of historical and fictional characters who embodied their definitions. How would visitors have reacted if they listened in to Joel and Shonda’s heated argument about who is more evil, Iago in “Othello’’ or Meursault in “The Stranger’’?

Joel contended that Iago is definitely evil but Meursault acted in self defense. Shonda disagreed, insisting that Meursault is just as evil as Iago since the Arab did not physically assault Meursault and all Meursault had to do was walk away. Dana shouted across the room for them to be quiet because they were interrupting his train of thought. They glared at him but continued their discussion in subdued tones. There was a burst of giggles and chatter from the other students, which required another “ . . . And a hushhh came over the room . . . ’’ from the teacher, her manner of quieting the class.

I wished the sightseers could linger a while longer and hear the teacher introduce the day’s main activity, which required the students to grapple with the dense prose of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Imp of the Perverse’’ and decipher his argument. Would they join in the students’ laughter at Dana’s frustrated outburst, “Why doesn’t Poe just say what he has to say in plain English?’’ Would they understand when Cruz agreed with Dana and declared, “I have a headache.’’

Would they appreciate the students’ struggle, their frustration, and their triumphs when they reach understanding — as Sarah did when she screamed, “I’ve got it! I understand what he means by ‘induction a posteriori . . . a paradoxical something, which we call perverseness, for want of a more characteristic term.’ ’’ Dana rushed over to see and as Sarah explained they giggled victoriously. When another student interjected with envy, “They think they all that!’’ there was more laughter.

I wished the sightseers knew that, because of administrative pressure for higher enrollment in advanced placement classes, many of the students had been assigned to the 12th grade AP English and Composition class they had just observed even though these students were reading at or below the fifth-grade level, and that a few had been speaking and writing English for only two or three years. Many were in the class despite the D’s they earned in their previous English class.

If those sightseers had stopped to visit us, they might understand that they were witnessing the tenacity of the human spirit, the will and ability to learn despite profound inequalities. I wished they could have a personal encounter with the heroes of the day — the indomitable spirits of those trapped behind the walls of the city’s public schools.

But the tour bus always continued its journey. Few faces ever glanced our way; the majority stayed focused on Doyle’s, the historic green pub ahead. Few would ever pause to peek in wonder at the “rose in concrete’’ of Jamaica Plain.

Junia Yearwood, a guest columnist, is a retired Boston Public Schools teacher.