The turnaround from terrific to terrible at Inwood came about quickly, possibly the result of the demands for integration that were ripping through the nation and the city at about that time, or possibly the change was brought about by normal demographic movement in the neighborhood. I just don’t know. The school, the teachers and administrators were the same, as was the curriculum. Only the school population changed. Suddenly we had more Puerto Rican, Dominican and Black kids than we had before. We did have some Black kids before the big change, but these earlier Black kids were the children of an elite. Paul Robeson’s grandson was one of my students, as was Congressman Charles Rangel’s son, and these boys were academically indistinguishable from their white peers.
The new population was different, more difficult. For one thing, many of these new students spoke only Spanish, and some were completely illiterate in their own language. They had not been socialized to schools or what went on there, and this made it difficult for teachers to make themselves heard in class, let alone teach anything. Teaching became less important than actual survival, and the discussions in the teachers’ cafeteria were suddenly about what worked and what didn’t in this “new” school.
Even our cafeteria was feeling the effect of the change, as budget cuts caused reductions in services. It is amazing how much little things mattered. The cafeteria manager was a plump German woman who saw to it that each table for four had a white tablecloth and a small vase of fresh flowers. Each day she also prepared a delicious fruit salad. All of that now went, and the tables were replaced by long, institutional tables with attached benches, without tablecloths or flowers, as if to signal that we were now in a different environment.
Only Mr. Weinberg, whose room was next to mine, seemed to have found a system that worked. He was in his early thirties, a small, effeminate man, who taught history and whose passion was the piano. I expected that he would be eaten alive by his students. I was wrong. His students were terrified of him, and of course, I asked him how he did it.
His system depended on work. He said that classroom discussions had to be avoided at all cost. That he gave his students so much written work to do in class and at home, that they didn’t have time to breathe, let alone misbehave. When a student did misbehave, it was because he wasn’t working. He would then get on the phone in the evening and phone the offender’s parents. He was careful never to mention misbehavior, about which the parents didn’t really care, but when he told them that their boy or girl wasn’t doing his work, that was a different story, and brought familial thunder down on the head of the offender, and no repetition of the offense in class.
I wasn’t happy about the Weinberg solution, but I learned from my colleague, and had few problems after that. However, teaching without class discussions and under the constant threat of disruption was no longer fun, and I decided to take the high school licensing exam and move on to high school, where things just had to be better. And so they where. . . for awhile.