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As Bad as They Say?Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx$

Janet Grossbach Mayer

Print publication date: 2011

Print ISBN-13: 9780823234165

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: September 2011

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823234165.001.0001

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Marion—A Rare Gem

Marion—A Rare Gem

(p.62) 6 Marion—A Rare Gem
As Bad as They Say?

Janet Grossbach Mayer

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Marion came to class every day, usually early. She sat down in front, and began to work on her individualized reading assignments. As the weeks passed, she proved herself to be a rare gem. She was highly motivated and bright and eager to improve. In her introductory writing sample, she revealed that she was an only child, living with her parents and her grandmother. They had come from a Central American republic and spoke little or no English at home. Marion was learning English as a second language. This chapter states that the senior year in high school in New York City is probably the most stressful for even the most confident teenager. Until the 1990s, a variety of diplomas were offered in New York City. The regents diploma was given in recognition of the highest achievement, and a general diploma was granted for meeting all requirements for a diploma, but on a more average level.

Keywords:   Marion, Central American republic, English, second language, high school, New York City, regents diploma, teenager

It was the first day of classes in September, the second day after Labor Day. The halls were filled with students, armed with new programs, searching out their new rooms and teachers. I noticed a very sweet-looking young girl peeking into my room. She was nervously clutching her program and checking the room number and teacher's name on the door. She entered my room tentatively and was almost pushed aside by more aggressive students in pursuit of the best seats in the room. (For some students, that meant the back of the room, the farthest away from the teacher; for others, a very few, they grabbed the seats closest to the teacher's desk.) Although this class was made up of ninth graders, new to the high school, some entered more self-assured than others. The shy, sweet-looking girl stood out because she had not yet chosen a seat; was she waiting to be told where to sit, or was she waiting to find a seat no one else wanted? I recognized her predicament and waved her to a front row seat near me. She was quietly pretty, with big round dark brown eyes and chocolate brown fluffy hair worn in a soft page-boy style more typical of the 1950s than the 1990s. She was wearing a dark blue flared skirt and a plain white blouse not usual for the first day of high school, where the outfits ranged from tank tops and jeans to jeans and tank tops. She gave me a quick, nervous smile that indicated “thank you” without really moving her lips or uttering a sound.

I told each new class in September that I wanted for them exactly what I had wanted for my own two sons when they were in school. I wanted them to be happy and to learn. I also said that I expected them (p.63) to show up every day; half of success in life was just showing up, and if they worked hard, I would guarantee their success in English and reading.

Some of my students, Marion being one of them, bought into my philosophy right away. (I could tell by her smile and more relaxed look. Others would need to be convinced—they had the Missouri show-me genes.) Most of my reading students had been labeled failures because of their low junior high school scores; many didn't even have their junior high school diplomas because of their low scores. Many had been left back for two years and still were unable to reach ninth grade reading and math levels (see Chapter 9, “Multiple Intelligences: A Digression”). To me, they weren't failures. How could fourteen-year-old students think of themselves as failures? The city school system had failed them, by not providing the right intervention, but that's another story. What mattered most was the “here and now.” They were here, and now I could help them! As she listened to me, Marion looked like she wanted to applaud, but she restrained herself. At the end of that first class, some students lingered to ask me questions, including Marion. In a very low voice, almost a whisper, she asked for directions to the lunchroom, and I sent her along with some other girls who were headed there, too.

Marion came to class every day, usually early. She sat down in front, near me, and began to work on her individualized reading assignments. As the weeks passed, she proved herself to be a rare gem. She was highly motivated and bright and eager to improve. She worked at her own pace, mastering slowly but surely most of the skills she lacked. (This was an individualized reading class, based on each student's clearly diagnosed needs and interests.) Marion never wasted a moment; she worked from bell to bell and would not be distracted by poorly behaved students or false alarms—bells rung either by mistake or by students eager to cause disruptions in the school day. She just continued on. Whatever help I offered, she grabbed. In her introductory writing sample, she revealed that she was an only child, living with her parents and her grandmother. They had come from a Central American republic and spoke little or no English at home. Marion was learning English as a second language, and that helped account for her low reading scores. The harder she worked, the more she learned, and the happier she was. In the beginning, she was too shy to talk to other students and spent most of the term immersed in her books and work, until I made a surprise birthday party for her. It wasn't a big deal, but it was something I learned students really appreciated. Many of them had no celebration at home; certainly, in high (p.64) school, unlike elementary school where parties were more common, students were unaccustomed to birthday parties. Many stayed home on that day, and to encourage their attendance, I made a fuss over their birthdays.

Marion's was going to be the first party that fall, so she had no reason to expect it. The day of the celebration, she came in quietly, as usual, opened her folder to begin her work, and immediately noticed the card I had left there. As she read it, she flashed me her glorious smile (how I love smiles), and I pulled out, from my closet, birthday balloons and cookies and juice. I told the class to stop working (you can imagine how they hated to do that) while we took time out to celebrate Marion's fourteenth birthday. Everybody sang “Happy Birthday,” and two girls volunteered to help distribute the refreshments. Marion's face was flushed from embarrassment and excitement, but she seemed to enjoy the attention. I gave her the leftovers, and she, in turn, gave them to the two volunteers. They thanked her—and kissed her—and it was these two girls who eventually became her best friends throughout her years in high school; they would prove to be very devoted friends through some very tough times ahead.

Marion wasn't only my dream student—she became every teacher's dream student. How could it be otherwise? Her attendance and punctuality were perfect; she paid strict attention in class, took notes on everything, always did her homework, and studied for all her tests. She never misbehaved or acted out or spoke out of turn. An ideal student!

Although she was assigned to my class for only one period a day, she came back on her lunch period to do more class work. She worked as hard in that second period as she did in her first. Others, one-period only students, were amazed!

Over the next few years, Marion, while no longer in my class, visited me daily, showed me her good grades, and would occasionally ask for help or advice. We kissed hello and goodbye, and if by chance we met in the halls, we kissed again, as did lots of students. By the third year, I knew Marion's mother and grandmother well enough to kiss them, too.

My first grandchild arrived at about the same time that Marion became a senior. I was as excited and happy for Marion's new status as she was excited and happy for my new status as a grandmother. I told her that I hoped my granddaughter grew up to be as beautiful a person, inside and out, as she was. Marion and her family bought my new granddaughter adorable pajamas with matching booties. I tried to accept the (p.65) gift graciously, but I was uncomfortable receiving it because I knew it wasn't easily affordable for them.

The senior year in high school in New York City is probably the most stressful for even the most confident teenager. In addition to making momentous decisions about their future, they had (and have) the added burden of meeting the new higher standards, passing regents exams, in all major academic areas. (Most New York suburban students pass these exams by their junior years because they have no language barriers and are better prepared, by both the home and school.)

Until the 1990s, a variety of diplomas were offered in New York City. The Regents diploma was given in recognition of the highest achievement, and a general diploma was granted for meeting all requirements for a diploma, but on a more average level. (In the 1930s, my mother graduated with a commercial diploma, which led to a career as a secretary or bookkeeper, as they called accountants in those days.) Both the Regents diploma and the general diploma enabled students to continue their education or enter the job market or the armed services. Marion's graduating class was the first one to need to pass regents exams in order to obtain a diploma. New York City had instituted a “one-size diploma to fit all,” and in the history of New York City schools, this high standard was a first. (In reality, one-size diploma doesn't fit all, and my colleagues and I knew that more students would fail to graduate because of this new requirement.)

The New York City Department of Education was the butt of endless jokes and sad tales of bungled bureaucracy at its worst. For years, they couldn't even get an accurate count of the number of city schools under their jurisdiction! In this bureaucratic maze, they imposed these new standards, higher graduation requirements, without first rewriting curriculum and without adequate teacher preparation and training. These new tests were, and are, grossly unfair! Jonathan Kozol, in The Shame of the Nation, states that “high stakes testing takes on pathological and punitive dimensions.”1

What is certain is that for many of the immigrant children who have not lived in our country for long, these new high-stakes tests were stressful beyond belief. Marion was caught in this unbelievable turn of events, her class being the first to require passing the English regents. (Math, science, and history regents would be phased in slowly, in the future.) Passing these new tests in order to graduate scared Marion and many students like her. (The English regents has since expanded from a three-hour test to a six-hour writing test.) Even in New York City's “glorious” (p.66) past, whenever that was, if ever, there was never a six-hour English writing test.

These new high-stakes tests, for students like Marion especially, presented problems that were nerve-wracking—almost impossible—almost beyond her capabilities. I say almost because Marion had more guts that most linebackers on the football field. She would tackle the problem, no matter what. She would give it her all. Her teachers gave her extra help; she let no opportunity slip by. But the pressure on her was enormous.

She was an only child who was much loved and nurtured and protected. She couldn't bear to disappoint her family by failing this test and not graduating. She was certainly not alone in feeling this intense burden. Our school social worker predicted an increase in suicide attempts by young people placed in this overwhelming predicament. You have to realize that families were planning big graduation parties, relatives were coming from all over, including even from other countries, to celebrate what for many was the chance to attend the first high school graduation in the family. Students' futures were at stake—everything depended on graduation. (By the way, the “one-size” diploma means that even special education students have to earn the same diploma.)

As her senior year progressed, I could see Marion falling apart. She was working so hard, but she was frantic about the possibility of failing and not graduating with her class. She and her friends would walk by my classroom every day on their way to lunch, and I would try to reassure her and all the others that they could and would pass the regents. After all, doesn't hard work and perseverance lead to success? Nobody could be more conscientious than Marion.

When I first read about the new federal act signed into law by President George Bush in 2002, No Child Left Behind, I was astonished that these words belied the fact that more children would now be left behind, not fewer. This new law was poorly thought out and its draconian consequences had never been fully anticipated. Schools all over the country are turning themselves into “testing mills,” spending most of their time and money on preparation for mandated tests. Talking about money, NCLB was and is seriously and profoundly underfunded, making the states shoulder the financial burden. NCLB is—without a doubt—the Katrina of education! (See Chapter 14 for more details about NCLB.)

Back to Marion. I was on my way to the English office when I was confronted by a large group of students, Marion's friends. They were crying uncontrollably and couldn't tell me what was wrong. Finally, through the tears, one of them attempted to speak: I could hear Marion's (p.67) name being repeated over and over, and I knew that something terrible had happened to her. Tears welled up in my eyes, too, and then a young man in the distraught group managed to blurt out that Marion had fallen from the fire escape in her sixth-floor apartment to the concrete pavement below and was rushed to the hospital. They were all on their way there, but stopped to inform me about the accident. When my classes ended, I too rushed over to the hospital and found the lobby overflowing with students. I hadn't realized how many good friends Marion had made during her high school years. Everybody was either sitting and crying or standing and crying. The hospital personnel told us that she was extremely critical, having, among other life-threatening injuries, severe head trauma.

And so the vigil began; more students and more teachers came and went, but her family never left. The prognosis was not good; so much damage had been done to her head. It was almost impossible for her to recover, and if she did recover, how much of her would remain? The days ran into weeks, and the weeks became months. There was still a daily vigil. Her family was always there, but the number of students dwindled, as graduation day came and went. Although Marion was unable to go on with her life, others had to.

What had happened? How did Marion fall from the sixth-floor fire escape ledge? Was she chasing a homework paper that had flown out of her hand, as her family said, or were the pressures of her senior year too much?

Unanswered questions. What I do know is that Marion started making progress, beyond all expectations, defying even doctors' expectations— although not her family's. She began improving after months of operations and convalescence. First an operation on one eye, then the other—then repeated operations on both. She was the miracle girl. She had to learn to walk and talk again, and slowly, very slowly, she got better. She desperately wanted to return to school in September, begin her senior year again, take her regents, and graduate the following June, just a year late. However, she needed further operations in September and home schooling was the only alternative; of course, in typical New York City bureaucratic bungling style, it took months to obtain it.

Marion needed to pass one more test, the Regents Competency Test in history. She had passed the English regents in January and she had to take three more classes in order to complete all her credits. Late fall, she finally returned to high school, extremely frail, accompanied on the bus every day, rain, snow, or sleet, by either her mother or grandmother.

(p.68) Each day, I would meet these grand ladies in the teachers' cafeteria where they waited patiently for Marion to finish her classes. How heroic they were! That June, Marion's fifth year in high school, she graduated— triumphantly! Her outer appearance had changed drastically: She was thin and her gait was halted; her beautiful eyes didn't focus correctly; more operations were needed, and she had a metal plate in her head. Her body was damaged, but her spirit was undaunted. The real Marion was a fighter with a strong will to succeed; the sweetness and goodness and sensitiveness that had always been there were still there. There would be more operations down the road, but they didn't interfere with her college plans and her goal to become a teacher, just like me, she said.

On the last day of school, in June, I took Marion and her mother and grandmother out to dinner on City Island, a part of the Bronx that looks like a New England fishing village, complete with wooden piers and boats and stores selling bait and related fishing equipment. It was a gorgeous day, in spite of the heavy rain, and was a fitting celebration for such an auspicious occasion; however, it was a bittersweet farewell because we would no longer see each other every day. We promised to keep in touch, but we knew that our time together had ended. It is a teacher's lament—you “grow” them (like the economy), and then you send them out into the world and hope that they are armed sufficiently.

I wish I could end the Marion saga right here. But life isn't that tidy. Marion did, miraculously, attend college in the Bronx and was doing well when suddenly, she had a stroke. Her fragile look was all too real. She was almost completely paralyzed, unable to walk or talk. Once again, she needed to fight back. What is the prognosis? Contrary to expectations? Marion, who has defied all expectations previously, will do so again, I just know it—because she's a fighter—and a winner—and my hero!


(1.) Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America (New York: Crown Publishers, 2005).