The Series on Cultural Interchange

Preface to the Series
Titles in the Series
About the Authors

Building School-Family Partnerships in a South Bronx Classroom

David Bensman

Between Home and School: Cultural Interchange in an Elementary Classroom

Kathe Jervis

Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor




“It’s the Company Why Crab Don’t Have No Head” — Leo

“If I Don’t Have God, I Don’t Have Nothing in My Life” — Gisela

“I Wanna Have It All” — Benjamin

Leo, Gisela, Benjamin, and Their School


  View in PDF format

Reaching Out to Other People’s Children in an Urban Middle School: The Families’ Views

Jianzhong Xu

Grappling with Difference
14-minute video
Cultural Interchange in a Bronx High School: Three Children

Kemly A. McGregor

“It’s the Company Why Crab Don’t Have No Head” – Leo

It was the A House humanities teacher, Ms. Hoshi Sullivan, who suggested Leo as a subject for one of my case studies. Leo had been held over in tenth grade that year and was currently completing the work needed to advance to eleventh grade. It seemed he had finally gotten his “wake-up call,” Ms. Sullivan told me; in fact, he had just received an award for “Most Improved Student” in A House. One of his research papers had been submitted to a teacher collecting samples of student work for a committee to devise new state standards. Ms. Sullivan related to me:

I think he had his shock. I think holding him over was the best thing we’ve done for him. And now he will just fly.

I don’t know what he wants to do. When I first met him in ninth grade, he wanted to be a construction worker. Because he’s still very much into the path of least resistance. But now he sees that that path is a little longer than he anticipated.

I think he’ll be fine. I talked to his mom on the phone and she says, “I’m so proud. He’s really changed. I always talk to him every single day...,” and he said the same thing: “Every day, my mother says something to me about going to college. Every single day.” She said to me, “Every day, I make sure I mention to him how his good work is going to pay off when he gets to college, and does he want to start looking at colleges, and what does he want to do....” So unfortunately, he had to be motivated by a bad experience, but it has made a big difference for him.

Visits with the Sallingers

From my notes:

(5/6/97) 1:50 p.m.—Mr. McFadden (math/science teacher) asks Jason and Leo to circulate the room and help check the other kids’ work; tells them to help those people who ask for help. Leo circulates the room. Eldris asks him for help on one of her problems; he briefly explains the problem to her.

Such small incidents gradually drew me to notice Leo in the months before I invited him to join the study. I knew Mr. McFadden was quite particular about which students were permitted to check their peers’ work and would only have given the role to someone in whose skill he had considerable faith. I had seen Leo from time to time during his freshman year (he was one of CBA’s charter students) while I was working on another research project. He had left no particular impression on me at the time; I mainly recalled him as a student who was not very serious—more concerned with tossing off funny remarks for his classmates than anything else. He seemed to be somewhat of a joker then, always with something to say.

I had a memory of one occasion when some older students from a CBA sister school came to give a presentation on conflict resolution. Leo and several other ninth graders attended the session. The older students spoke with great seriousness about the importance of resolving conflict peaceably—for example, by walking away from a fight or by calling a third party to mediate. While most of his peers listened intently, Leo periodically interrupted to offer his own scornful opinions. He did not want to hear anything about conflict resolution. As far as he was concerned, this was not how conflict really got settled. All of this stuff was for people who could not deal with things the old-fashioned way—which, he made clear, he was more than capable of doing. For a while, the older students argued with him, told him that his was not the only way. It was only when one of the girls who was presenting told him very pointedly, “Look. I used to think just the way you did. But then I grew up.” He then backed down a little, although he did not seem totally convinced.

I was curious, then, to see what could have transformed this boy into someone CBA would deem “most improved” in his house and asked him to join the study. He agreed.

I made my initial visit to Leo’s home in late August, 1997. Leo, his mother, and his three brothers share a spotless, uncluttered apartment on the ninth floor of a well-kept, secure-looking apartment building about four blocks from the school. As Leo and I talked, his mother, Demetra Sallinger, listened quietly, only turning away from time to time to attend to Leo’s baby brother, Cody, a boisterous and energetic little boy just shy of two.

Leo told me a little about his educational history, starting with some of his experiences in junior high school:

I had a couple fights in there, because when I was there I used to be real quiet. I knew people, but I didn’t go there and like, hang around...people thought I was a punk, ’cause I was just sittin’ there, not saying nothing to nobody. And then ‘till I started fighting, that’s when people like started recognizing who I was. And I started getting in trouble constantly after that...constant fights, they called my house, I got suspended....

People would mess with you. They’d come around, smack you in your head. If you had lunch, they’d throw bread at you. You’d be a punk from that day on, they’d keep messing with you, tease you, mess with you. So I didn’t let it happen no more. This kid elbowed me in my nose, made my nose bleed one time I was going to lunch. I got suspended for that fight, ‘cause when we was in the next class, I punched him in his face, and I hit him with the chair. I got suspended for that...but by the third month, and a little later on in the year, they started recognizing me like, “Oh.” They knew they don’t mess with me. I still had fights after that, because people were still trying to test me. But like after that, a lot of people knew me.

Leo’s junior high school experience taught him that a new student in a new school had to be on his guard. He knew he needed to create and maintain an image that let students know they couldn’t “mess with you.”

Once at CBA, Leo reassumed his “real quiet” demeanor. At first, he knew only one other student, a boy who had attended his junior high school. In time, however, he got to know more people and “everybody started knowing each other.” Unlike at junior high school, there was less pressure to prove himself by fighting, something Leo attributed to the school’s relatively small size:

It was no problems when we got [to CBA]. We had a couple people that still wanted to throw [fight], everybody was new, you know, like, let’s try to be friends, whatever. There’s still some people that want to be hardheaded, just want to show they bad. But otherwise, there’s no problems, I didn’t have no problems. It was easier because it was a small group.

There was a time in tenth grade, however, when Leo was not doing very well at CBA. He did not like the school and found the whole portfolio concept strange. He also spent a lot of time “hanging out,” as his mother later mentioned. At one point, Leo even tried to transfer to another high school but claimed that a mixup in the transfer of his records made transferring impossible. “I wanted to go to Coolidge High School, they had my name down,” he related, “but Central Bronx didn’t send my records, so I couldn’t go, I had to stay there.”

I pointed out to him that he could have taken his failure to secure a transfer as an excuse to just give up—to say, “I don’t want to be here, but they won’t let me leave, so I’m not going to do anything.” Why, I asked him, hadn’t he done that? He responded:

College. That’s on my mind. My mother be drilling me. “College, college, you going to college,” you know? And I was like, I’ll be here...I’m just gonna act like it never happened, like I never tried to leave. Just try to stay on the same track. I would just mess myself up if I’d done that, “uh, I ain’t gonna do no work.” That woulda hurt me a lot. So I thought—let me just keep doing what I was doing....Try not to get into trouble, or anything like that.

Now in his third year at CBA, Leo seems to have settled into his niche, to have found a place among his peers where he is comfortable and has their respect. He enjoys writing stories and is curious about computers—he has asked a computer-manager friend to “show [him] the ropes.” He likes math the most; at least it doesn’t terrify him the way it does some of his classmates. “Math is just simple,” he told me. “Like, once you get the main thing, that’s it. It’s all right.” He isn’t sure of the career he wants to pursue—accounting seems interesting, but he is also drawn to the idea of being a chef. He’s considered the possibility of studying marketing in college, or maybe physical education.

However, Leo had one major portfolio project needed for promotion to eleventh grade that was unfinished. He thought for a while he might even get away with not doing it, since a number of his classmates had not done the project either. Over the summer, he attempted to complete the assignment, but gave up when he found that “summer school was not helping me.” When he did not complete the project during the two-month grace period at the beginning of eleventh grade (Leo says he didn’t know they were being given the grace period to complete the work until two weeks before it was up), he was “kicked back” to tenth grade.

What really galled him about the experience, he said later, was seeing students he felt to be even less deserving of promotion than he being sent on to eleventh grade without completing the project. Interestingly, he expressed no cynicism in recalling the experience, nor did he complain about wanting to give up in the face of what some children might consider blatant unfairness. Instead, he seemed to have intensified his efforts and only wanted to finish his work so he could graduate and move on to college.

During my visit with Leo’s family, Leo and I conversed but his mother said little, allowing her son to do most of the talking. However, as the conversation progressed, she began to interject more freely. Demetra Sallinger is a shy, slender woman with a gentle Caribbean accent. She is from the island of St. Kitts and has lived in the United States since 1979. I chatted with her about the quality of food in America, and we swapped horror stories about the meat industry. Demetra remarked on how skinny she is, explaining that she does not eat much because she does not trust the food in this country. She rarely has meals outside of her home and hardly ever eats meat. Her mother, who has been in the United States for thirty years, has never dined in a restaurant.

At one point, our discussion turned to a building that was being constructed a couple of blocks away. Demetra said that when she first saw all the construction, she thought it was a school—which surprised her somewhat because another school was already quite close by. She was disgusted to find that what was actually being built was a detention center. “They need more schools, not more detention centers,” she told me emphatically. “I tell Leo, they’re building it for Black boys. Watch out.”

When I next visited the Sallinger home a few weeks later, Demetra spoke more about that detention center:

They need to build schools, that’s what they need, a lot of schools. And number one, building up [a detention center] here, beside a school, that ain’t no good. ‘Cause they’re not gonna do it in a White neighborhood. So why should you do it in a Black neighborhood?...And then to see that they build these facilities right beside [a] school. Don’t make any sense, you know what I mean. So I just tell my kids, “Listen. You gotta to keep out of trouble. Because when they build the jails and everything, they’re building them for Black children. Keep yourself out of trouble, go to school, get your education, that’s what you need, so you could get yourself a good job. Don’t sit down say, oh, White man this, White man—ain’t no White man, nothing. You make something of yourself.”

For Demetra Sallinger, making something of yourself, both in and out of school, involves choosing your associates or “company” carefully and keeping them to a minimum, if possible. “Keeping company,” in Mrs. Sallinger’s way of thinking, is something that should be generally avoided, especially when the company you keep does not share your goals and ideals. Little good, she pointed out, can come from having lots of friends, since this only provides more opportunities to mess up. Demetra was wary of most of Leo’s friends and frequently warned him against some of them. She told me that her own grandmother cautioned her against “keeping company” with the injunction, “It’s the company why crab don’t have no head.” Part of the reason Leo was kept in tenth grade, she said, was that he hung out with the wrong crowd.

It was clear that monitoring her children’s associates is a high priority for Demetra. She lamented that “bad company” led her oldest son, Trent, astray. While she worked extended hours as a home attendant and supervised her children mostly by phone, Trent would tell his mother that he was going to school or doing homework, when he was really hanging out with friends:

But people used to tell me, “You know, I see Trent in such and such a place....” I say, “What? Trent should be in school.” And they said, “No, I see Trent up White Plains Road hanging out, he and Kiki, and Damon, Ali”—a whole block of them. Then he used to hang out in this building [in an apartment], on the eighth floor. And the mother [of that apartment] runs—I call that a harboring house. And I used to tell Trent, “Better go to school,” ‘cause I was going to bring the cops right there....And then he go to school for a day or two, ‘cause he don’t want me bring the cops there, because you know, I will do it.

When Trent ended up dropping out of school, Demetra was certain that it was largely due to the influence of his aimless friends:

The boy is so smart. All his friends—all of them who he hang with—that’s why you see them is the one who get him outta school. They weren’t going to school ‘cause they don’t know nothing. And he was so smart. He’s still smart. And they didn’t like that.

She has watched Leo especially closely to be sure that he does not follow his older brother’s example. When Leo was in tenth grade and stopped studying and just hung out with friends, Demetra placed him under house arrest. In Leo’s words:

I couldn’t even go outside. I had to stay right at the kitchen table. Sit there. Homework, homework, homework, you know? For a while, I wanted to be outside. I’d just be in the house. People were surprised to see me come out. I’d come out probably weekends, Sunday, come out for like a hour or two. Right back upstairs. I had like, no freedom. So the only way I could get some freedom is if I was doing good, you know, start doing these things without her forcing me to do them. That’s the only way.

Demetra has continued to impress on her son the importance of associating only with people who have the right goals—to go to college, to be gainfully employed. Choosing your associates carefully can mean the difference between success and failure in life:

So I tell [Leo], company can make you do a lot of things. One thing, company—they know you gonna get through in life, they gonna try their best to keep you down. Don’t let that ever happen.

In one respect, the significance of choosing the right associates had hit home with Leo. For him, a summer internship at Jackson-Whaley, a structural engineering firm in Manhattan, has provided a rich opportunity to establish the connections he needs to move to “the next level.” He was proud that he seemed to have made a positive impression on one of the company executives: Leo was able to converse with him “for about an hour and a half” about Hiroshima and Pearl Harbor—subjects that he had studied intensively in humanities the past year. Leo said, “I know he was surprised that I knew so much.”

Leo hoped that his internship would provide some leverage for the future—a good work recommendation, offer of a scholarship, something favorable to add to his college application—and was very conscious of making a positive impression. He said that each morning he arrived at work about twenty minutes early and had no problem staying late, if necessary. He did his work quickly and offered to do other tasks if he finished early. “They see I’m a hard worker,” he said. “They say to me I’m always on the move. Always on the move.”

Because he had fallen a full semester behind, Leo did not graduate with his cohorts in June, 1998. He has seen benefits to the delay, yet conceded that now he felt more than ready to move on. The Jackson-Whaley internship had opened his eyes to educational and career possibilities that he was eager to explore. Later that summer, he reflected:

I’m not gonna lie. Seeing that everybody graduated, and that I’m supposed to graduate, I feel stupid. I’ll be like “Dag, I should have been graduating this year.” But, in a way, this setback helped me—helped me get this job. Now I have more time to think about colleges, I’ve been to college—I’ve been to college fairs....Now I have a little better understanding. You know, I know what to look out for now. More people told me now I got a little better vision. But, at the same time—I’m ready to go. I’m ready to put my life in full motion. Full speed, but I can’t do it, I’m still in school. It’s holding me back. I wanna go to the next level now. You know, I’m tired of staying on the same level. I want the next level.

Return to Top of Page

Next Chapter