The Moral Sewer

(From Substitute Teaching in Alexandria, Virginia, by C.F. Navarro.)

At the George Washington Middle School where I subbed one day, a fellow sub from Ghana joined me for lunch in the school cafeteria. We tried to carry on a conversation but had trouble hearing each other over the loud, foul-mouthed bantering among a group of African American students, boys and girls, sitting at the table next to us. Finally my friend, unable to finish his lunch, excused himself. As he got up to leave, he cast a look of disgust at the students and made a comment that, had he been a white man, would have gotten him fired for racism. The students just jeered at him, mocking his Ghanan accent long after he had exited the cafeteria.

Not all African American kids act that way, of course. The majority of those I taught were conscientious and well mannered. Still, I feel obliged to report, as have many witnesses in and out of school, that of all ethnic groups, the one with the largest proportion of dysfunctional students are by far the African Americans. The official apology for their putrid behavior is that they have been brutalized by a 300-year legacy of racial bigotry. How a 13-year-old kid can be brutalized for 300 years defies all mathematical logic, but in the surreal world of public education anything is possible. Some African American kids no doubt have had a hard life, but, in the main, not nearly as hard as peers from other ethnic groups. Compared to immigrant youngsters from war-torn countries like Sierra Leone, most of our troublesome African American kids have led a charmed life. They come to school well fed, well equipped with CD players and well shod with expensive athletic shoes. Unlike their grandparents, they never suffered the indignity of having to sit in back of a bus or drink from a separate water fountain. The main reason the behave way they do is that they are undisciplined at home and spoiled rotten in school.

At the aforementioned middle school, where I subbed on number of occasions, a small group of African American boys relentlessly harried their teachers, and us subs in particular. One would leave pornographic drawings on my desk. Another would greet me and the class with obscene gestures when he entered the room. Another spit in my thermos bottle when I wasn’t looking. Another threatened to kill me—run over me in the street—because I had stopped him from fondling a female student. Once, against the wise advice against the wise advice of regular teachers, I rushed out in the hall to help break up a brawl between rival gang members. In the melee, one kid pummeled another over the head with a metal chair. It was a miracle that he didn’t kill him. Finally, the two city police officers stationed in the school arrived on the scene and, after a considerable struggle, subdued the chair-wielding kid and led him away in handcuffs. After a brief suspension the kid was back in school. That armed police officers were stationed in all our public schools, allegedly to keep outside evil-doers at bay, but, in fact, to protect students, teachers and staff from in-house African American rowdies, was a mark of shame. School officials, though, did not see it that way.

Because th George Washington Middle school at the time had no crisis room--Central Office did not deem it necessary-- I first tried to deal with the problem by sending the troublemakers to the principal’s office. But the principal would only send them right back in minutes, and troublemakers would come swaggering into the classroom, gloating that there was nothing that I nor any teacher could do to them. I then took to writing memos to Central Office, documenting in detail how those few troublemakers were preventing their classmates from learning, but that didn’t work either. The pro-forma response from Central Office was that that kind of behavior was typical of inner city culture, and that it was the job of teachers to accept and deal with it. The only help they offered me was an occasional lecture on “differentiation,” the latest fad on how to integrate out-of-control students, and a visit from an administration whose idea of motivating teachers consisted of jotting down the names of those who didn’t wear smiles on their faces. As one hall-monitor put it, the powers-that-be had given the troublemakers the run of the school.

But it wasn’t us teachers who took the brunt of the abuse. The ones victimized were other African American students, the majority of the student body. Three to four times more time and resources were invested on the troublemakers than on their normal peers. For those deserving kids there were no special team meetings, no home visits, no individual counseling, no tutoring programs. It was assumed that since they didn’t cause trouble they need no help.

Much to their credit, the parents of white-middle class had seen to it that their children were declared “talented and gifted” (the mother of all euphemisms) and placed in advanced, disruption-free classes. But the African American kids had no one to advocate for them. Though just as bright and self-motivated, they were left to languish in inferior classes with the troublemakers. My former students at that middle schools, now seniors, are still segregated academically, most of the white kids preparing for a college, and the majority of African Americans facing a bleak future of limited opportunities. The troublemakers on whom so much energy and resources was invested all quit school when they reached the legal age of 18. Unofficially they had quit when they were 8.

A county commissioner in Mecklenburg County, North Carolina, where I now reside, once had to the guts to opine that African American rowdies who make it their business to wreak havoc in the local public schools were product of a “moral sewer.” Naturally, he was skewered as a racist by public figures and news media pundits from all sides of the political spectrum, Sean Hannity included. Some African American civic leaders, though, while not openly siding with him, did not disagree with him either. They knew in their hearts of hearts that the gist of his remark was largely true.


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