Wednesday, August 26, 2009

A Bronx Teacher’s Tale

While a cooperative parent-teacher partnership can foster a child’s academic success, the student-teacher relationship is often the key to unleashing the student’s potential. The following guest blog entry, written by a retired middle school teacher, demonstrates the profound and lasting effects of a positive student-teacher relationship based on mutual respect. (Note: Students’ names have been changed.)

I worked in a Bronx intermediate school near Yankee Stadium (a shrine to this Bronx kid). I was a physical/health education teacher, a team leader, and an assistant principal over the course of thirty-three years.

In my second year of teaching (1969), I was asked to coach the school basketball team. Of the eleven players who made the team, seven were graduating seniors. It was the start of a forty-year saga that has profoundly enriched my life. I had never experienced anything like the chemistry our team had, and I haven’t since. It has transcended, race, time, distance, and the vagaries of life. I’ve been playing baseball for fifty-one years, and I’ve coached several youth sports teams, and I have not had a similar experience.

Six of the seventh and eighth graders on that team remain friends to this day. We are physically separated by hundreds of miles in some cases, but we are always together in spirit. In addition, each of them keeps in touch with many other friends in that graduating class. We were brought together twice within the last year under unfortunate circumstances. During that time, I also reconnected with another student who I taught about fifteen years after I coached that 1969-70 basketball team. The events that have unfolded over the past year have overwhelmed me, and I have not yet been able to fully grasp the profound meaning of it all.

Summer 2008

I got a call from Scotty. He told me his father had passed, and he would appreciate it if I would come to the funeral. He said Charles and Marcus would be there, and they were all looking forward to seeing each other and me.

It was a bittersweet reunion. We were early and had some time to look through the 1970 yearbook and do some catching up on family news.

Charles told me that his youngest daughter was playing competitive basketball and doing quite well. He went on to say that he worked with her when she was starting out, teaching her the game the same way that I had taught him.

We talked about particular games. It was amazing that the four of us could recount the highlights of several of those games. They reminded me of the few times when I raised my voice in the huddle during time-outs or on the sideline. They also reminded me of the times when I said nothing and just gave them “the look” (their term) that spoke volumes. I would have liked to remind them of some of their frailties but couldn’t think of any.

Karl was not able to attend the funeral because his job with the military involves a great deal of traveling. He spoke with Scotty and I as soon as he got back. Karl has never forgotten my opening statement at the first round of tryouts for the 1969-70 team: “I won’t ‘cut’ any of you; you will cut yourself.” I have always told students that teachers don’t give them grades; they give themselves the grades that they earn by doing their class work, handing in their homework on time, and studying for tests.

One event is mentioned during every phone call and any time we get together. I have always believed it was the official beginning of our history together:

We lost our first three games. One of the losses was to a junior high school that had ninth graders on their team. To this day, we can’t understand why we didn’t win those three games. The first practice after the third loss started with the team sitting in the bleachers (shoulder to shoulder in the same row) and me standing in front of them. My brief speech is a consensus version: “We have put in a lot of long and hard practice time. We’ve lost our first three games. As I see it, we have two choices. We can simply drop out of the district’s league. Not all of the intermediate schools participate. Or, we can work even harder at practices and…” The eighth graders stood up and walked toward the court. The seventh graders stood up and followed. They picked up a basketball and began their lay-up drill.

Fast forward to our last game of the season. We had just defeated the faculty team for the second time. Scotty remembered what he was thinking: “The buzzer went off. We had defeated grown men, in an empty gym, for a second time. The first time was in front of the entire school. We headed to the locker room, trying not to be too excited since they had our short-term future in their hands. This was not college or high school, but twelve and thirteen year olds, defeating our teachers by a lot in the annual student/faculty game. Our coach had never coached a basketball team before. Our record was fourteen and four. We won thirteen games in a row and fourteen out of fifteen of our remaining games. We won the District Championship. I realized two things: we were talented, and that something special would happen to all of us, but I couldn’t put my finger on what.”

To this day, the teachers can’t understand why they didn’t win those two games.

Winter 2008

During the thirty-two years that followed my first season coaching basketball, I taught thousands of students. But one in particular continues to stand out in my mind. It was a matter of days before I had a gut feeling that Rashaun was exceptional. He seemed more mature and confident than his classmates, without a trace of arrogance. His social skills came naturally, and he was well-liked by all of the other students.

His grades were typically in the 95 percent to 98 percent range. He was gifted academically and athletically. But he did not perform well on standardized tests.

In 1983, Rashaun’s graduation year, it was my school’s turn to have a few of our top students compete with students throughout New York City for admission to some of the best private high schools on the east coast. We received a visit from the director of a prestigious educational assistance program. He explained the program’s admission requirements, and the rigorous and comprehensive interview process that each student must undergo. One of the admissions requirements was high standardized test scores.

When the meeting ended and the teachers left the office, I asked the program director if he could stay to discuss one of our candidates. I told him that our top candidate, Rashaun, would not make the cut because of his standardized test scores. I asked him to speak with Rashaun for five minutes. If after that he decided to factor in the test scores, so be it.

Fast forward to the end of the selection process. The program director and I were again sitting in my office. He said Rashaun finished the interview process with one of the highest scores among all of the candidates in the City.

Rashaun was accepted to a prestigious private high school. He excelled in both academics and sports at the school. He played eleven of twelve semesters on three varsity sports teams. He was captain of the baseball team three times, basketball twice, and football once.

In the summer of 1987, I drove to the apartment where Rashaun lived with his grandparents, helped him pack his bags, and drove him to Yale University. We spent the day moving his belongings into his room, buying his books, and walking around the campus. I did the same things when I drove my daughter to Cornell that same summer.

When he graduated from Yale, Rashaun went back to the high school he attended. He went to Temple Law School at night while teaching and coaching at his former high school. He lived in the dorm and was the Director of Student Activities.

Today Rashaun is a prestigious business litigator at a large law firm. In 2007 he was the subject of an article in a prominent law magazine.

Every December I receive a holiday card or an e-mail from Rashaun. In December 2008, his e-mail began with the usual holiday greetings. But this time he wrote that he had been in a car accident some months before, and had undergone physical therapy. His physician told him not to run or play basketball. Even before the accident, he was annoyed that he had become out of shape. He wrote that he planned to call me in a couple of days to speak with me about eventually getting himself back on a basketball court.

I didn’t hear from him for a while, so I e-mailed him. We arranged a day and time to speak. That first phone call lasted more than two hours. Over the next several months, I’ll be giving him a private, individual version of the Wellness and Physical Fitness course I created and teach at a local university.

Spring 2009

Nearly a year after the first reunion of the 1969-70 basketball team, I got a call from Scotty. He said that Walt’s mother was critically ill, and he was driving up to New York. Walt was not able to attend Scotty’s father’s funeral last summer and asked if we could get together. Walt’s mother passed the day before we planned to meet for lunch. He insisted on getting together because he needed to be with us, especially now.

When I arrived at the diner, Walt told me that it meant a lot to him that I had come. He handed me a large plastic bag. The others at the table suddenly got quiet. I reached into the bag and removed a large two-foot by four-foot poster board with a collage of pictures from the 1970 yearbook. I brought that yearbook with me to the funeral last summer, and I had it with me again so that Walt could look through it as the others had done. However, he got a copy of the yearbook from a friend and carefully removed our team picture and all of the candid shots taken during games. The team picture appeared in the middle of the poster, surrounded by the candid shots. I began to well up, but the team didn’t notice as they started pointing to different pictures and saying things like, “This was the game against…” I joined in. I told them I was going to put the picture in my car. I just needed to get outside and get it together. I was moved by the thoughtfulness of Walt’s unexpected gift. As I was trying to speak coherently, Walt quietly said to me, “I’m just glad you like it.

We were there for three and a half hours. Walt was calling mutual friends and telling them he was with Scotty, Charles, Marcus and Dr. Schwartz. We all had a chance to chat with each of them. But it was Desiree who brought tears to my eyes. What she said not only encapsulated our story, but also emphasized the power of mutual respect and the dangers of stereotyping: “Do you know it’s been forty years. We were saying, ‘What’s this skinny white man doing in our neighborhood?’ But you’ve been and still are such a big and important part of our lives for practically all our life.”

I later called Walt to find out the time and place of the funeral. We somehow got into a discussion about the team concept. He said that one of the most rewarding things about our team was that we played as a team and nobody thought of himself as a star. He remembered a time when a graduate of the school who used to play on the basketball team asked him, “Are you ‘the man’ this year?” Walt replied, “We’re all ‘the man.’”

We talked about my coaching philosophy. He told me that when he works with his boys, he starts every practice session with the “shuffle” drill and does other drills without using a ball. We often walked and ran through offensive plays without the ball.

I spoke with Karl a few days after Walt’s mother’s funeral. He was hoping we could all get together this summer under more pleasant circumstances, and the conversation again shifted to the team. He told me, “We enjoyed you. Imagine enjoying a teacher.”

Marcus calls me from time to time, and we also talk about the team, coaching basketball (he coaches basketball in his school district’s recreation program), and about how education in general relates to the world we live in.

In one of our recent phone conversations he referred to the point in history when we started our journey together. The country was trying to cope with a tumultuous and perilous time. There was Kent State, race riots, the Vietnam War, and a great divide in America. Everything was changing. The world was changing. But we were immune to it all.

During another recent phone call, Charles spoke about the term “role model.” It wasn’t a part of our language yet. When it did become part of our vocabulary, sports stars were considered role models because they appeared in the newspapers, on TV and on billboards. Kids looked up to them, idolized them. Teachers could also be role models, but the thinking was that teachers should live in the districts where they taught so they were visible 24-7.

Charles said, “You didn’t live here, yet you knew my mother and my brothers and sisters. That’s what breaks down barriers.”

Each of us agrees that playing team sports can teach life skills and positively influence the values we internalize. Charles said, “If all you’ve gotten out of playing a game is that you played a game, you cheated yourself”.

Karl believes that the glue of all relationships is “caring.” When people care about one another, it creates a bond that cannot be broken. He said, “One of the reasons why we played so hard was that we never wanted to let you down.”

Nobody ever complained about not getting enough game-play time, Karl told me. Everyone on the bench cheered for the five who were on the court. “It was just the way it was. Whenever you made a substitution, every player that went in played his heart out.”

To me, it meant that these seventh and eighth graders understood the concept of “team.” They personify one of my favorite sports slogans: “Losers quit when they’re losing. Winners quit when they’ve won”.

Karl told me, “If you were anybody else, it wouldn’t have worked.”

No magic formula exists that confers upon individuals the readiness to trust and respect others, the ability to understand and learn from one another, and the capacity for compassion instead of indifference. It’s all about the choices we make.

As Scotty thoughtfully, but succinctly, puts it: “All of this started with a basketball.”

Irwin Schwartz

Dr. Irwin Schwartz, Ed.D. is a health and fitness professional with more than 35 years of experience in the field. He created the curriculum for the Wellness and Physical Fitness course at Pace University in 2000, and has been teaching the course since then. Before joining the faculty at Pace, Dr. Schwartz had worked at a junior high school in the Bronx since 1968. He served as an assistant principal, health and physical education instructor, team leader, health coordinator, and coach. He’s currently writing a book based on his philosophy and approach to health and fitness.

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