Failed Expectations


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A substitute teacher finds exasperated faculty butting heads with disillusioned and embittered students at one of San Diego’s inner-city schools.
What’s happened to public education?

WARNING: Those who are offended by explicit street vernacular may be uncomfortable with some of the students’ language in this story.

IT'S QUARTER PAST 8 on a sunny morning in the winter of 2006, and the neon-blue skies above Crawford High School’s dilapidated football stadium clash with an ugly patchwork of dead grass and rusted chain-link fence. The track is three blocks removed from the main campus and its coterie of beefy security guards and armed police. I’m one of three teachers on the field, and tension is palpable in the chill air. A rapper wanna-be from the junior class with a wispy mustache, military-short hair and a Slim Shady “f-you anyway” attitude approaches one of the other teachers. A thermal shirt rides tightly over the boy’s short and muscular torso. With another 10 pounds, grease in his hair and a cigarette in his mouth, he’d pass for Marlon Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire. But he’s not Brando. He’s one of the area’s abandoned minorities—the offspring of a Caucasian family that didn’t make it out of San Diego’s center-city enclave of El Cerrito when white flight took off in the 1960s.

“I can’t run, ’cause I wrastle, dammit,” he spits at Coach Cole—another of the ghost-faces surrounded by a swirling maelstrom of disinterested black, brown and tawny visages.

The school’s population is heavy with African transplants (mostly Somali), Vietnamese, Mexicans, Chicanos and homegrown, multigenerational African-Americans. They are kids with a visceral understanding of the poverty line, swimmers in that strange pool of economic disadvantage, discrimination and subsistence wages that is the common denominator of most industrialized urban centers in the modern age.

First period is scheduled for an hour and a half, and I wonder what kind of fresh hell will break loose when the running—nay, the walking—around the track is over and real boredom sets in.

“I talked to the wrestling coach, and he said you never showed up for practice,” Cole says laconically in Slim Shady’s direction as he scratches mile-run results onto a chart on his clipboard.

“But I’s on the team,” Shady retorts.

“How can you be on the team if you were never there?” Cole says mechanically. “This is the third time we’ve run the mile this semester, and so far you have . . .” He pauses to scour the chart.

“I tol’ you,” Shady says with a guffaw, “I couldn’t run ’cause I’s on the wrastlin’ team.”

“. . . you have an incomplete and one 18-minute showing,” Cole says, with a bemused frown. Shady looks away, as if to deny the man’s presence.

“I’s on the team,” he says.

“Well, you’re not now; I talked to Coach. You run, or you fail.”

“Well, I guess I fail then.”

Cole says nothing. The 18-year veteran of locker rooms and bad attitudes in San Diego’s Unified School District shakes his head with a mixture of exasperation and wonder. He’s a Crawford graduate himself, with an affinity for car talk and an aging taste in clothes— one that amuses his African-American students no end. He’s a clean-cut product of the absurdity of the 1960s, with a quiet and unassuming demeanor. It’s clear from watching him that he never turned on, tuned in or dropped out. He’s the type of man who excuses himself for farting in an empty room, a khaki-pants gear-head readying himself for a short slide into the long stretch of the school district’s attractive retirement package. Asked how things have changed at Crawford over four decades, he slowly shakes his head again, with a smile that implies everything has changed.

Slim Shady shuffles over to a trio of African-American cohorts. The four head to the bleachers to claim an open area. Desultory pockets of brown and black teenage faces dot the ramshackle structure, talking, jeering and exuding defiance. They’re all supposed to be running the mile, but they know the score. Most of them don’t give a damn if they pass or fail—and it’s easier to waste time sitting than to waste time rounding another meaningless dead-end course at quarter past 8 on a chilly Thursday morning.

Coach Goldman eyes them with indifference. She’s Cole’s age, and though she’s been similarly battered by circumstance and the system, there’s at least some fire left in her—a dim recollection of the way things ran in public schools 25 years ago, the way they still do in many small towns and much of suburbia.

“DeShawn, I see you up there,” she yells at a pocket of faces at the top of the bleachers. “You have two incompletes so far. If you don’t run now, you fail.”

“Fuck you” comes echoing back, tinny and faraway sounding.

“I just want you to know,” she yells.

“Fuck you.”

The retort slides off Goldman’s back like grease. She shrugs and returns to the clipboard in her hand.

“I’m giving you a chance to do this,” she yells again into the bleachers.

“Why don’t you just give me a D?” comes echoing back.

“They all want something for free,” Goldman says in my direction. “Somebody said to me the other night—and they might be right—they all want something for free because that’s how they grew up, on handouts. Ninety percent of them are on welfare. That’s how they’ve always lived, with the government or somebody supporting them—and their parents don’t want to work, ’cause then they don’t get their welfare check.”

A long-haired Mexican girl smacks a boy on the butt and giggles shrilly while bounding through the bleachers, outrunning his retaliation.

“What are you doing?” Goldman barks. “That’s the third boy you’ve harassed today. Why don’t you go run around the track instead of taking an F?”

“What?” The girl yells back with a snap of her head, in a strong Chicano accent. “Who you think you talking to?”

“I’m talking to you,” Goldman shoots back. “What’s gotten into you today? I thought you were going to try to pass.”

Something in the remark connects, and the girl gives up on the acerbic glare she’s shooting in Goldman’s direction. She turns her back and heads deeper into the bleachers, toward another group of flunkers.

“I give it right back to them,” Goldman says, conspiratorially. “You have to.”

Anthony, a tall, thin African-American boy with cornrows, jogs by in a dirty shirt and worn pants. Off-colored sweat socks hang limply about his shoes.

“I’m gonna do an extra lap,” he says to the two teachers. “I wanna give my extra credit to Jaquira.”

“You can’t give your laps away,” Cole says without looking up. “Why don’t you just take the extra credit?” He looks more intently at his clipboard, back to Anthony and then at Goldman. “This is the first time he’s run all year,” he says.

Goldman is a transplant from another of California’s metropolises, a middle-class North County denizen of solid upbringing who, like Cole, is methodically checking off the days until retirement. A fine-arts teacher by trade, her small campus studio has been shut down for years for lack of funds. Sometime in 2003, Goldman was shuffled into her new ad hoc role, splitting time between the locker room and a Spanish class. She has an honest, open, at times even a tender rapport with the kids. But most of them (dis)regard her as an unavoidable anomaly—another white authority figure in an institutional setting that hardly reflects the ethnic composition of their out-of-school world.

“I think I’ve figured out a way to make them do something,” Goldman says. “If they don’t pass,” she begins, looking to all the kids sitting in the bleachers or languidly idling around the track, “then we deport them.” She looks to Cole, who doesn’t lift his eyes from the clipboard. “I mean, most of them are here illegally. And then they don’t even try to pass when they come to school.”

“Nope,” Cole says without tearing his attention from the clipboard, “won’t work. The ACLU or some other liberal group would sue us—tell us it’s not fair.”

“I know it’s not PC,” Goldman continues, “but come on. What are they doing with the opportunity they have in being here? Tell them if they don’t pass—if they don’t even try—they get sent back to wherever they came from . . . with their family. That’d get something out of them.”

Cole smiles. “They’d sue us for sure,” he says.

SEVERAL MILES and many worlds away, in the quiet, green, sunny and well-manicured recesses of the University Heights neighborhood, Cole’s boss, the superintendent of the San Diego Unified School District, is settling into his role at the helm of California’s second-largest school system. He is Carl Cohn, an African-American who forthrightly acknowledges conditions in many of San Diego’s inner-city schools are grimmer and more disheartening than the city’s ruling class would like to admit. His office sits on the second floor of the district’s complex on Normal Street (an aging facility that was, until 1930, San Diego State Teachers College). On a hot, sunny day in July 2007, the dimly lit space is quiet, cool and comfortable. Like Cohn, there is nothing flashy about it, nothing superfluous.

In conversation, Cohn is sure and steady. His speech is methodical. He employs that stable clip common to intelligent and learned people—one that suggests what the man is saying is accurate beyond reproach and simultaneously inspires a quiet confidence in the listener. It is the voice of a proven leader, of a man at the zenith of his career—maybe even beyond the zenith—the voice of an educator who’s proven his mettle, knows how to do his job and still has the infallible confidence born of much-lauded success in his field.

The likelihood—and perhaps not even Cohn knows this for sure—is that he came out of public-school retirement two years ago for the same reason Michael Jordan returned to basketball after a brief hiatus—because he had to. Like Jordan, Cohn left his role (as superintendent of schools in Long Beach) at the top of his game. He was credited, after 10 years there, with turning a once-beleaguered, failing school district into a nationally recognized model of redemption.

After his departure from Long Beach, Cohn took a position as professor at the University of Southern California. Money likely wasn’t a motivator in his decision to come out of public-school retirement. Nor was the need for recognition. In 2001, Cohn won the Harold W. McGraw Jr. (of McGraw-Hill repute) Prize in Education, and in 2007 he was portrayed in the movie Freedom Writers, which depicted the hard, inner-city work of one of his determined Long Beach high school teachers.

So what did a man into his 60s, his track record already established, need with the big-city headaches of another highly visible public office? The fact is, the district needed Cohn—whose impeccable record would more likely be stained than enhanced with another stint as superintendent—far more than he needed it.

 

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