After seven years in South Carolina, I cashed in my small savings, rented a U-Haul and moved my few belongings, including three cats, to New York City. The man I had been dating up and down the Eastern seaboard was a student there, but since I wasn’t ready then to commit to marriage, I rented an apartment I could afford on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Note the “I could afford.” It was a small, cheap flat on the edge of Harlem.
I quickly signed with a temp agency and was sent to the Hearst Publishing Company as a fill-in receptionist for its President. He then hired me full-time and although the job paid well, I soon grew bored. To escape, I accepted the President’s offer to work for a Hearst magazine and became an Assistant Editor for Good Housekeeping’s Special Publications. Which meant proofreading recipes and needlepoint instructions. I later did a short stint in their fiction department but left after a few months to take a part-time teaching position in Newark, New Jersey.
Thus began a nine-month experience that was exhausting, at times fearful (the 3-block walk at night to Newark’s train station), yet was also deeply moving, an experience that for me opened a window onto a world white Americans seldom see.
Essex County College at the time existed on permanent lock-down. This was five years after the riots in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination that nearly destroyed downtown Newark. It wasn’t a safe city, so that no one without a college ID was admitted beyond the front desk of the college, including my husband, whom I had married the summer before taking the job. Most of my students were African-American adults, many having enrolled under a policy requiring only a high school diploma.
That year, I taught a night-school English class each semester. The most powerfully moving experience occurred the second semester, which I describe in an earlier post published after Dylan Roof’s murder of innocents in a Charleston church. You can read that here.
The first semester class was a remedial course for students who hadn’t tested well in writing skills. The class wasn’t supposed to exceed 25 students, but no one told the computer, which spit out 10 extra students, including an Egyptian and Puerto Rican neither of whom spoke any English. Competency levels among these 35 students were all over the map, but there were five students that should never have been in a remedial class. Unable to have them moved to a regular English class, I let them work in a nearby empty classroom, mostly on their own, while I moved back and forth between rooms during the two hour and a half sessions.
As I write this, three students from that class stand out in my mind.
–One very bright and verbally articulate young man in the remedial group was a city bus driver, who was always dashing into class at the bell or a little late, having come straight from the last route of his day. Once in a class discussion about poverty he said this: “White and better off people condemn poor people for bringing children into the world they can’t afford. What they don’t understand is that for the poor, sex is the only pleasure in their lives that’s free.”
–A young woman that I placed in the group of five after the first day when I had all the students write a paragraph about their names, wrote this: “My name is Thyrecia McRae. My first name is Greek, my last name is Irish, I’m a Jew and I’m black. So what’s in a name?”
–There was an older woman in the remedial group with six children that left after class every night to work a late hospital shift as a practical nurse. Though a marginal student, which wasn’t surprising for the schedule she kept, she missed only one class the entire semester, and that class only because one of her children had been hospitalized after being hit by a car. At the end of the semester, she asked if I could raise the “D” I gave her to a “C” so she could be admitted into an RN program. Sadly, I couldn’t, yet I have always hoped that this amazingly determined woman eventually found a way to that goal.
The second semester was very different. I taught a regular freshman English class and the most spontaneously involved group of students I’ve ever experienced. They argued with each other, raised questions and were so vocally engaged, I’m sure they could be heard well beyond our classroom. They were a joy and a privilege and more than that they provided me the most moving professional experience of my life.
Next Up: North Carolina