The young man wore a staple in one ear. Brynn Cassidy tried not to stare as he paraded past her and slouched down in the desk in the farthest corner of the classroom. His nose was decorated with a safety pin. The fact that his hair was cut in a Mohawk style and dyed orange shouldn’t faze her. She’d been told what to expect.
Manhattan High School wasn’t St. Mary Academy, the parochial girls’ high school where she’d taught for the last two years. But teaching here was an opportunity she couldn’t let pass her by. She’d accepted this position to test her theories and gain experience in dealing with students from a disadvantaged neighborhood.
Next, a young lady entered the room in a miniskirt, blouse and no bra. Her hair, pitch-black and stringy, covered her far better than her choice of outfits. She glanced around, shrugged, and claimed the seat closest to the door as if it were important to make a fast getaway.
The room filled quickly. The school building itself was said to be dilapidated and run-down, but that didn’t trouble Brynn. St. Mary Academy was a turn-of-the-century structure with high ceilings and lovely polished wood floors that smelled of lemon oil.
When Brynn learned Manhattan High in the Washington Heights area had been constructed in the early 1950s, she’d expected it to be an improvement, but she was wrong. Like so many other schools, Manhattan High had been forced to make some difficult budget choices. Thanks to three failed school bond levies, modernizing the classrooms was on the low end of the priority list.
“Will everyone kindly take a seat,” Brynn instructed nervously. She stood in front of the class and was ignored, which wasn’t surprising since the bell had yet to ring.
Looking for something constructive to do, she walked over to the badly chipped blackboard and wrote out her name.
The bell rang, and several of the kids stopped talking long enough to indicate their irritation at being interrupted. The level of conversation increased once the bell finished.
Brynn returned to the front center of the room and waited. She’d learned early in her teaching career never to outshout her students. It only made her look foolish, and it didn’t work. After five full minutes of being ignored, she went to the wall and flipped the light switch a couple of times. This technique had worked elsewhere but had only a mild effect upon the class. The level of talking decreased momentarily while several glanced her way, then quickly continued their ongoing conversations.
Brynn decided she had no option but to wait them out. It demanded the longest fifteen minutes of her life to stand in front of that classroom until thirty people voluntarily gave her their attention.
It might have taken longer if the boy, Hispanic from the look of him, hadn’t raised his right hand and snapped his fingers. Ten or so other Hispanics stopped talking and turned around on their seats. An African American followed suit, and several of the others clustered together went silent.
The class had divided itself along ethnic lines, Brynn noted. The Hispanics sat in the front, the African Americans chose the back.
Once silence reigned, Brynn stepped forward. “Good morning,” she said with her brightest smile. “My name’s Miss Cassidy.”
“Why ain’t you married?”
“Because I’m not,” she answered simply, preferring not to get trapped in a conversation about herself. “I’m your teacher, and—”
“You’re new, ain’t you?”
“Yes,” Brynn answered politely. “As you already know, we’re involved in an experimental program called Interdisciplinary Learning.”
“That doesn’t sound like something a nice girl like you should be teaching,” one of the boys called out.
Despite herself, Brynn smiled. “We’ll be spending three hours together each afternoon, exploring senior English, world history, and social science. You’ll notice how the classes are grouped along parallel lines.”
“Is she speaking English?” one girl whispered loudly, leaning toward another.
Brynn decided it would be best to explain the concept in simpler terms. “The classes we’ll be studying are connected by subject. We’ll read The Diary of Anne Frank for the English portion, the history section will involve the study of World War Two, and in the last part of the session I’d like to discuss the justification for war and other value clarification.”
“All three hours will be spent with you?”
“That’s right,” Brynn said. “You’ll know me better than any other teacher, and by the same token, I’ll know you. I’d like it if we could work together as a team.”
“If we’re going to be spending this much time with one teacher, then it only seems right that you tell us something about yourself first,” the Hispanic boy who’d quieted the class said. Since she owed him a favor, she agreed.
“What do you want to know?”
“How long you been teaching?”
“This is my third year.”
“If she lasts the first week,” someone suggested under their breath.
“I’ll last,” Brynn assured them. “I’m too young to retire and too stubborn to quit.”
“Where’d you come from?”
“Why’d you decide to teach here?”
“She’s a fool, that’s why,” someone answered for her.
“That’s not true,” Brynn countered. “As I explained earlier, we’re involved in an experimental program that’s being sponsored by the federal government. I was asked to participate.”
“Why’d you do it?”
The questions were making her decidedly uncomfortable. “Part of the agreement would be that a portion of my student loan would be forgiven.”
“That’s the word the government used.”
“Where’d you teach before?” a Chinese girl asked, her gaze shyly meeting Brynn’s.
“St. Mary Academy. It’s a private school for girls near Rochester.”
“La de da,” one of the boys said in a high-pitched voice. He stood, dropped his wrists, and pranced around his desk.
“Hey, could you set me up with one of those nice Catholic girls?”
Brynn didn’t bother to answer.
“Do you color your hair or is it naturally red?”
“It’s auburn,” Brynn corrected, “and it’s as natural as it comes.”
“What do you think, dummy, with a name like Cassidy? She’s Irish, can’t you tell?”
“Dummy?” Brynn repeated, and then added in a Home Alone voice, “I don’t think so. If he were dumb, he wouldn’t be a high school senior. This brings up something I consider vital to this class. Respect. I won’t tolerate any name calling, racial slurs, or put-downs.”
“You been in girls’ school too long, Teach. That’s just the way we talk. If Malcolm here wants to call Denzil a nigger, he’s got a right ’cause he’s a nigger himself.”
“Not in this classroom he won’t. The only thing I’ll ask of you in the way of deportment is mutual respect.”
“I don’t even know you, how am I supposed to respect you?”
It was a good question and one Brynn couldn’t slough off.
“Especially if the only reason you decided to take this job was so you could be forgiven for something you did to the government.”
“That’s not the only reason I took the job,” Brynn pressed, “I want to teach you to dream.”
“Excuse me?” A girl with her hair woven into tiny braids all over her head sat upright. “You’re making us sound like babies.”
“I’m not suggesting naps,” Brynn explained. “How many of you know what you’re going to do after you graduate from high school?”
One hand went up, from the same Hispanic youth who’d helped her earlier.
“Your name is?”
“Hello, Emilio. Tell me what your dreams are.”
“I got plenty of those. I dream about Michelle and Nikki and . . .” His friends made several catcalls, and Brynn smiled and shook her head.
“I’m talking about the future. After high school, five years down the road. We all need a dream, something to pin our hopes on, something that gives us a reason to wake up in the morning.”
“You mean a dream like Martin Luther King?”
“Yes,” she said enthusiastically. “An ambition to do something, travel somewhere, or be something.”
“Why?” The boy who asked had caught her attention earlier. He seemed indifferent to everything that was going on around him. A couple of the kids had said something to him, but he’d ignored them as if they weren’t there or, more appropriately, as if he weren’t entirely there himself. Briefly she wondered if he were on drugs.
“Why?” Brynn repeated. “Because dreaming is a necessary part of life, like eating or sleeping. Sometimes we just forget about it, is all. We’ll be exploring more about this later, but I guarantee you one thing, by the end of this quarter, there’ll be plenty for you to think and dream about.”
“You know,” said the girl who’d claimed the desk closest to the door, “you might be all right, but it’s going to take some doing, getting used to a teacher who doesn’t look any older than one of us.”
“She isn’t married, either. Say, Teach, do you want me to set you up?” Emilio asked. “I got an older brother who could use a chick like you.”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” Brynn answered, reaching for her attendance book. “Now that you know about me, it’s time for me to learn something about each one of you.”
“But we don’t know you!” two or three protested in turn.
Brynn held the book against her breast and sighed. “What other information do you need?”
Questions were tossed at her in every which direction. She put a stop to them with a wave of her hand. “Listen, I’ll give you the basics and then we’ll have to get started. My first name is Brynn.”
“How many kids in your family?”
“She’s Irish and Catholic, ain’t she?”
Brynn ignored the comment. “I’m the fourth oldest and the first girl. My oldest brother is thirty-three and my youngest sister is sixteen.” She lowered the grade book and called out, “Yolanda Aguilar.”
“Here.” The Hispanic girl raised her hand and waved enthusiastically.
Brynn looked at Yolanda and made a notation next to the girl’s name. “Emilio Alcantara is here,” she said, making a second notation.
“What are you writing down about me?” Emilio demanded. He sat up on his chair and craned his neck toward her as if that would be enough to read what she’d written.
“I said you sat in the front row and revealed leadership characteristics.”
“I do?” He sounded surprised.
“What’d you say about me?” Yolanda asked.