The first year, for the most part, I was the roundsman. Thanks to Miguel I learned how to cut mirepoix (for mirepoix it doesn’t much matter how you cut the vegetables) and the different garnishes for decorating the plates. Those matter. Thanks to Henry, the relief floor chef, I learned how to make all the sauces and soups; Henry taught me everything Miguel wouldn’t, at night, and Frank, the night saucier, taught me that station and how to be a completely-qualified first cook. By the end of the second year, I took over the night saucier job when Frank retired. Frank had bought into a taxi company and there came the point when he didn’t need to work anymore. He was Austrian born, European trained as a saucier.
Also in that first year, the union powers in the hotel fixed it so I was elected Assistant Shop Chairman. This, in reality, with their way of neutralizing me and making sure I used my college degree and proficiency in English to defend them. They saw me as a virtually unheard of asset in this area in hotels and a great asset for Local 6, the Hotel-Motel Worker’s Union. At one point I thought I would be drafted by the union and I would have been quite happy making that my career. But I wasn’t their material: not Mafia enough, not willing to do things that really went against my conscience and not willing to keep quiet and turn the other way when some really dirty stuff went down.
Anyway, in my fourth year I replaced Henry as relief floor chef. Henry taught me more about being a teacher than any teacher’s-teachers did. He taught me what to do and then left me alone to do it. He told me not to be afraid to try because we could always fix anything I messed up. Then, when I was a good saucier, he pushed me further. He told me any saucier could make good sauce from stock but a great one can make great sauce from water, so he started making me use water instead of stock. I learned both how to be a great saucier and how to be a teacher from Henry.
One of the duties of the morning floor chef was to collect requisitions from every station and then go down to the storerooms with the kitchen porter who piled all the requisitioned items onto a flatbed hand truck and carted that truck up to the kitchen via the freight elevator. Mostly I didn’t have to do anything but lock and unlock doors and make sure the only things taken were requisitioned. I did have to check the requisitions since some cooks (Miguel was notorious for this) would over-order and then waste things. This part of the job presumed I knew exactly what they needed, and by that time in my tenure there, I did. Overall, what I lacked in innate skills I made up for by being a quick-study and by hard work which included practice, more practice and more practice after that.
One very quiet Sunday morning, about 6:15 A. M., we were downstairs getting what we needed. This Sunday was like every other and the requisitions were all quite usual. We were nearly done and out in an open area starting to head toward the liquor room which was the last stop before the freight elevator. In rapid succession, so close together as to be almost simultaneous, two things happened: Julius came rushing toward us holding a film-wrapped package in both hands in front of him and following him was Mr. Schmidt, the Food and Beverage Director. Schmidt was obviously in pursuit of Julius. Julius, shielding it as best he could with his body, tossed the package into a trash can and came to us. Schmidt, right behind Julius, started reaching into the garbage cans. There were four cans all huddled together, and he found the package in the second can he searched.
The porter and I watched the scene unfold, completely innocent bystanders until Schmidt pulled me into it. “You see this? He tossed it into the can. I know you saw him toss it.” Then he started yelling at Julius. “That’s yours, isn’t it? You just tossed it, didn’t you? Answer me,” he demanded.
“Not mine,” Julius said in broken English.
I told Julius not to say anything and softly, politely asked Schmidt to stop yelling at him, to stop making accusations and speak to me, which he did. He told me he was firing Julius on the spot. I told him he could do that if he wanted but Julius was entitled to due process and that he’d have to pay him anyway so he might as well let him work and save me the hassle of getting another pantry man and himself the cost of having to pay double. “But he was stealing,” Schmidt said. “Allegedly,” I said. Schmidt went into a tirade in German, his native tongue, which for the Jewish son of a Jewish World War II POW in Nazi Germany raised the hairs on the back of my neck and put me wholly on edge. “I have work to do,” I said. “File the complaint you want and we’ll deal with it when it comes up.” Schmidt stormed off, pissed off.
The upshot of all this was I defended Julius. Schmidt, could not honestly say he saw Julius toss the package. He tried to tie the package to Julius circumstantially, but when pressed, he couldn’t get passed that he’d never seen what was in Julius’ hands and he hadn’t actually seen him toss the package into the can.
Innocent people get convicted. Guilty people get off. Julius didn’t stop stealing; everyone stole. For anyone who remembers: There are 8 million stories in the Naked City.
I know some people will read the title from this and from the first part as a recrimination of sorts toward a group of people. Not at all and not so. For those of you who must know, it is poetic license or “the catch phrase” or the “hook.” In advertising, it would be the “come on.” So let’s debunk any negative connotations and let’s go back some 25 years to when I first started at AES. I loved all my students there, each and every one of them. I didn’t like them all, by any means, but I loved them all. Even as a Dean, where I met the kids who did bad things, I loved those kids too, each and every one of them.
Now let’s clear up bad things. By bad things I don’t mean cut Keller’s class because he was too tough, and I don’t mean cut class at all, even though I don’t advocate or condone cutting classes. By bad things I mean bully, demean, take advantage of other students, smoke dope, drink, you know, and even these things are on the not-so-bad side of the bad range. By bad I mean more like rob, rob with a gun, beat up wantonly, beat up wantonly as part of a gang, etc. etc. etc., the things we all know are bad and criminal.
Many stories like that latter definition of bad come to mind, but those are for another time, maybe. For now I want to relate a story about our Senior Trip in 1997 when we went to Universal Studios, Daytona and Sea World by bus from the Bronx, a group of all African American and Latino kids. The first night in the motel some of the kids wanted to go to the pool so a few of the chaperones went with the group of kids, maybe thirty of them.
Throughout my whole teaching career in the Bronx, I went on countless trips with our kids, many of them overnights and many of them not. One thing I noted early on that remained a constant was that our kids became demure and shy when taken outside their everyday surroundings and into new places. Even a trip from the Bronx to somewhere in Manhattan changed their individual and group personalities from mostly unabashed to mostly shy. Of course this does not speak to individuals per se, but as a group, and this was a truism for most of the kids over the years.
At the pool was another group of kids, not of our demographics and I won’t say more than that. This group was wild and crazy and disturbing the guests of the motel, the families who had come with their children and were at the pool. They threw their things everywhere, made a mess everywhere, dominated the pool and the lounge chairs, were loud and cursed up a storm in front of the little children. The big boys scared the little children, messed with the girls in their group in ways that shouldn’t happen in public and did much more.
All the guests that were the families seemed to think this was kind of okay, just kids having fun. I had come to the pool a little after my group of kids and sat quietly in a lounge and watched all this. I also watched my kids, who were quiet and laid back, as they swam and had fun as a group in the pool and out, away from the families and particularly away from the other group. Because I had come a little after my kids and I am not their color, the guests couldn’t know I was with them. Consequently, I was privy to some nasty remarks made about them simply because of their demographics. They were actually being very good and by comparison to that other group they were being angels, yet they were disparaged, the subjects of finger-pointing scrutiny.
This entry is about context, to put context to many things at work in our society and to put context to the title of this entry and the one before it. Bad kids? No. Kids.
I saw this phenomenon once before at Ohio State University, go Bucks! One of the years I was there they beat Michigan for the Rose Bowl, and the fans, the kids, if you will, had a loud drunken party on High Street (that really is the name of the street that borders the campus on the north side and runs through Columbus as a main street), doing more than ten thousand dollars worth of damage to police cruisers and store windows. Even the cops stood on top of their cruisers and shot their guns in the air. The next morning, the mayor, ME Sensenbrenner, commented for the news and newspapers that it was just all American kids having fun. But when civil rights/anti-war protests took place, with no real rowdiness and no real damage (this before the famous riot where martial law had to be put in place), the same kids were animals, wild beasts, and the finger-pointing was rampant. Same thing different time.
My “bad kids” were great kids. And by the way, the FBI and undercover cops started that famous anti-war riot that led to the Kent State Shootings. Check it out in the old newspapers if you don’t want to believe someone who saw it firsthand.
One Thanksgiving I was fortunate enough to be able to attend the NYC Thanksgiving Day Parade and sit in the VIP grandstand to watch the floats go by. As we were moving through the barricades to our seats, I heard a voice repeatedly call out my name from one of the NYC Parks Department trucks. I saw that it was a former student of mine at Adlai Stevenson High School (AES) in the Bronx. I’ve talked about AES here before. Its population was 99.5% Black and Latino and it serviced some of the poorest zip codes in America. In our brief moment of chat, this former student told me he worked for the Parks Department, was doing great and making a sh..t load of money. Triple time today, he told me. Then he thanked me for helping him get through high school.
Early on I had a tall, lanky kid in my Freshman English class who was a musician and pretty talented since he was taken into the school orchestra immediately after the music teacher heard him play just one time. He was so tall I asked him if he played basketball—you could see him a full head above any crowd—but he told me it wasn’t his thing, that music was. This was all well and good except the young man decided he’d rather spend his time with the music teacher in the music room than attend my class. Even though he did his work (except for class work) and turned in all papers and was quite proficient in ELA, much more so than most of the others in his class, after repeated warnings and even conversations with his parents about his attendance, he ended up failing.
Exactly nine years later, this same young man reappeared. He came into the school wearing a fine-tailored business suit and when he found me, he told me he had specifically come to seek me out. I remembered him not by name but by height, and damned if he wasn’t a strapping young man in his young twenties. He told me he was a doctor now, that he had graduated medical school and was interning in one of the Bronx hospitals. He wanted to thank me for failing him, he said, because it taught him to show up.
We’ll call her Lori here. When Lori was my student, she couldn’t write a complete sentence and both wrote and spoke in vernacular. But Lori was smart, very smart. Problem was, she was too pretty and the bad boys loved her. Worse, she loved the bad boys, though eventually I would find out from some of her friends that a lot of how she acted with the bad boys was for show and went no further. Thank God! I had Lori as a formal student twice and by the end of her freshman year she had mastered writing enough to be ready to move forward. I didn’t see her at all in her tenth grade year, but in eleventh grade, she sought me out and insisted upon joining the Debate Team. The team was already set for that year, so she worked in the background helping the team members research and prepare their constructives.
As a senior, Lori was a debate star and constructive-writing pro, hell-bent upon going to law school, which she did as I discovered a few years later when I received a note from her with her business card. The note said she’d gone to Harvard Law and upon graduation had scored a position in one of the law firms in Manhattan. The note was signed “From the kid who couldn’t write a sentence.”
Lori, by the way, is just one of many of my students who made it through law school and these are just a few of my memories. My colleagues, the ones I actually respected and befriended, all have their own and together we account for many bad kids gone good. I say bad kids because some of them were bad kids. Most of them, however, just needed to be socialized (sometimes much more than needing to be taught high school curriculum). I say bad kids because sometimes society looks at them that way. In reality, they were just kids who needed to be guided constantly until they could guide themselves.
I don’t much talk about my Doctorate but my dissertation deals with “these kids” and what determines whether or not the ones who are in jeopardy make it through high school. Unlike what the grubby, greedy little curriculum-peddling, book-selling, upwardly-mobile professional pedants would have you believe, it’s really quite simple: one single adult who guides, pushes and stands by them no matter what. That’s basically the crux of what it takes to get “these kids” through high school. The problem is that society is not willing to walk that walk.