Chapter 3: Brooklyn August 1988
by Peter Kravitz
I picked up a map of New York City High Schools at the Board of Education on Court Street, near my wife’s and my first Carroll Gardens apartment, a third-floor walkup on Second Place.
I planned to pedal my Raleigh three-speed—my childhood bicycle—to various Brooklyn High Schools to find a teaching job. It was a sweltering late August, and administrators had trickled back to the city’s schools to figure out staffing needs.
I had never taken an education class and only taken one undergraduate class in English. But I had gotten myself a New York City TPD (teacher professional development) license, and I had been fingerprinted.
I didn’t know Brooklyn very well, but my map dictated that my first stop would be Boys and Girls High School. So I pedaled there—it was only about two miles away.
Bedford Stuyvesant had a reputation as one of the more dangerous neighborhoods in New York City, but I was fearless, especially when pedaling my three-speed. Youth often creates an unrealistic sense of indestructibility.
At one point, in a forest of apartment-building projects, I stopped my bicycle to consult my map when my keys fell out of my shorts pocket. I was immediately surrounded by about five or six teenage boys. Despite the neighborhood’s reputation, I wasn’t alarmed. We’d only recently returned from our sojourn and had spent time in Morocco, where ghostly figures in hooded djellabas had crowded around Jennifer and me. That was far more disconcerting than this. The boys appeared harmless and I wasn’t trying to communicate in my limited French to Arabic or Berber speakers.
“Hey guys, what’s up?” I said, smiling at the boys.
One of them bent down and picked up my keys. He handed them to me and said, “Don’t be losing your keys in Bed Stuy.”
“Thanks,” I said. “Can you guys steer me towards Boys and Girls High School. I know it’s around here somewhere.”
Not long after that I was perspiring in the office of Boys and Girls High School Principal Frank Mickens. Despite the air conditioning Mickens sweated even more.
He was a big man in a suit and tie with a booming voice. He didn’t really talk, more yelled. He studied my resume on his desk.
“You were a newspaper reporter?” he said.
“Yeah, I worked for a few newspapers in Philly including the Philadelphia Inquirer,” I said. “But then the Inquirer went on strike.”
“And you coached wrestling at Haverford College?” he said.
“And I worked with admissions to get kids into the school. One of my wrestlers came from Brooklyn. I was the head coach.”
“But you never taught before?” said Mickens, who was in his third year battling drug dealing and shootings as the principal of Boys and Girls High.
“Well coaching is teaching.”
“I repeat, you never taught before?”
“Correct. I never taught.”
“Then I’m not hiring you!” he roared, hoarsely.
His secretary pulled me into her office and quietly handed me an application. “We need you,” she said.
And so, I had a full-time teaching job, after my bicycle ride to my first high school, after being told that I didn’t have the job. Welcome to the New York City’s world of education.
I commuted to the school via the F-train subway to Borough Hall. Then I walked to the A-train platform. There were hundreds of commuters, packed into the platform, headed into Manhattan on my first day of orientation. My side of the tracks had a sign saying, “To Bedford Stuyvesant.” On my side of the tracks was me—not another soul rode the subway into Bed Stuy at that early morning hour to go to work.
In a crowded auditorium, Mickens addressed his staff at my first-ever teachers’ meeting.
“Nineteen years of incompetence!” said Mickens. “Twenty-seven years of genocide to our children!”
He described his enemy, teachers who stopped caring. He said he was going to get them and transfer them out of his school.
“I know that some of you have a tendency to be attracted to the children.” I looked around. Everybody was looking at the ground. Everybody was nervous. This wasn’t deadwood he was talking about. Who knew what was coming next? Would he single out a teacher? He sounded like a preacher. The power of his words rang out like a Martin Luther King speech. “Rid yourself of those tendencies now!”
And then he said something that would become the greatest advice on teaching I have ever heard, words that I carry with me and repeat every day. He lowered his booming voice, and in a softer voice he rarely used he said, “Treat the children as if they were your own.”
You could take every education course, every motivational film about teaching, and just throw them into the sewer and begin with: “Treat the children as if they were your own.”
A teacher need only be armed with that simple advice. Nothing more. If you like kids, and you are out to help them, and do for them what you would do for your own children, in time you can become a good teacher. Now, I didn’t have any children at that time, but I recognized that I had just received the First Commandment of teaching.
Mickens grew up in Bedford Stuyvesant. He’d taught at Boys and Girls. Before he returned as principal the school had become the most dangerous in New York City. Students attacked teachers and fired guns at each other during basketball games. Teachers appointed by the NYC Board of Ed to Boys and Girls would look for another profession.
Mickens worked 18 hours a day, seven days a week to change the school. If the Board of Ed sent a student with a criminal record there, Mickens focused on that student to the point that the student either turned his or her life around or left the school—though probably more the latter. Bureaucrats ranted: “He’s dumping students on other schools.”
Mickens responded to the bureaucrats at 65 Court Street with: “These troubled students you are dumping on my school require constant attention. They have attacked teachers and deans. Take them in your office and try to educate them. You don’t do anything all day anyway.”
Mickens’s passion, his concern for his neighborhood and his school, led the city’s new chancellor, Dr. Richard Green, to tell him in their first meeting: “So you’re the principal they want me to fire.”
Peter Kravitz’s memoir, So You Wanna Be A Teacher, is available everywhere books and ebooks are sold.
Peter Kravitz is the author of So You Wanna Be a Teacher, a former Philadelphia reporter and retired New York public high school Journalism teacher. He's a regular contributor to Silver Sage Magazine.