Back in January, when New York had fallen into a vortex of a bitterly freezing hell, I melted into my bed and hid underneath my comforter like the delicate, elderly woman I truly am. As I get older I realize that the snowstorm is no longer the friend who once catered to my childhood need for jovial moments. No, the snowstorm is now the immature friend I have outgrown. (Well, maybe not.) Sometimes I think back and reminisce on all of the snowball fights I’ve had, the snowmen I’ve attempted to build and the days off from school I should have had, but didn’t.
In first grade, during one particularly snowy day, the mother unit dragged me out of the apartment once it was announced on the news that all city schools would be open. Teachers called out and many students had stayed home, resulting in a lack of adults in the building and, as a solution, the administration decided they’d pack all children into the school’s auditorium with little supervision.
I remember sitting in the final row, near the aisle, not having a chance to really absorb the madness before a squabble broke out two rows in front of me. It began as a senseless shouting match between two of my former classmates from kindergarten, Jasheira and Roberto, who had hated each other with a menacing fervor that was escalating before my eyes. From a distance it appeared that Jasheira had initiated the dispute, which soon became violently apparent once she pulled out a knife on Roberto, for seemingly no reason. Survival instincts arose when he snatched the knife out of her hands to discard it.
And that, in a nutshell, is what the New York City public school system is.
Earlier this year, the New York Post reported that a local elementary school in Far Rockaway, Queens, P.S. 106, was being run more like a holding cell for the conditioning of unintelligent children than an actual haven for their education. The blame for the lack of gym and art classes—which had been replaced with a marathon of movies—fell on the shoulders of the school’s principal, Marcella Sills, a frequent no-show who earns nearly $130,000-a-year in salary.
If you’re familiar with this story then you may find this shocking, but I don’t. During my years at P.S. 115, I saw everything from classmates being spanked in the classroom by a teacher to the school principal intimidating a defiant six-year-old into submission. When my principal, Mr. Tomka, whose fury controlled his actions in the lunchroom one day, decided that his administrative power could justify grabbing a child by his collar, picking him up and pinning him against the wall without consequence, I knew then, even at a young age, that I would not leave this institution unharmed.
When my first grade teacher, Patricia Manning, refused to teach me how to read, due to my bad behavior, I sat in a corner by myself and learned on my own. Later, she’d help plant the seed in the pure, fertile soil of innocence that would help sprout my first layer of thick skin, when she repeatedly struck me for progressing quicker than my classmates on a writing exercise. She kept her job, but only under the condition that she’d be accompanied by a teacher’s aide. A few weeks after this incident, the school was in mourning because, after her reported disappearance, Ms. Manning would eventually be found dead inside of her Queens apartment. As callous as it may sound, I shed no tears.
These foul ethics would continue to run rampant through the polluted hallways of junior high school, accompanied by pre-teens acclimating themselves through the uncomfortable stage of puberty. Grown men—teachers and creepy, middle-aged perverts alike, planted in and around the school like a staple of the waning infrastructure—sexualized and objectified 12-year-old girls, while the inaugural influx of criminal treatment towards students began with the introduction of metal detectors.
By the time I reached high school, I had already witnessed a teacher fighting a student; a 13-year-old classmate photographed performing oral sex in the school bathroom (in the prehistoric age when landline telephones still ruled the world); and more days spent watching movies than reading or learning.
High school was an animal all its own. The encompassing district of students held a unique combination of corruption, hypocrisy, tyranny, violence, power struggle, sex, money, drug use and distribution (from both teachers and students), teenage angst and, least of all, school work. All of which was daunting. The psychological challenge of being able to wake up five days a week for four years without visibly losing your mind was a precursor to life in the real world.
Academically, learning ceased or, at least, took a backseat to what felt like a twisted sociologist’s experiment on social Darwinism for the metropolitan area. With each passing day I noticed how the school system resembled the prison industrial complex, intricately tailoring the parallel roles between the school safety personnel to correctional officers, principals to wardens, and students to prisoners. The only exception was that we were able to go home each day, a privilege which came with its own daily consequence of search and seizures. Experience is the sole reason why I’m not surprised to hear stories like the one about P.S. 106, because when I think of the New York City public school system, I focus on the word system.
After graduating from high school, I had finally escaped the madness, I was free. I had finished serving my time and my high school diploma was proof of that, but that wasn’t the only remaining piece of evidence. For a year, whenever I’d enter a building, I’d dig into my pockets to remove any metal before stopping. Taking a moment to realize what I was doing, I felt exposed.
Will those children at P.S. 106 ever realize what’s being done to them?