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

“I Wanna Have It All” – Benjamin

I was a few months into my observations at CBA before I asked any children to be in my study. Benjamin was the first child I asked.

A not particularly tall, although well-built Puerto Rican boy with a gaze that alternated between a mischievous squint and an inscrutable stare, Benjamin came to my attention a week or so after I began my visits. I am not certain precisely what it was about him that struck me. It may have been the eyebrows: he had shaved stylish little notches—one, two—in each eyebrow, as many of the young boys were doing at the time. Or that he came to class in an undershirt, which struck me as incredibly nervy. Or that even seated, he was constantly in motion—miming, gagging, singing. At the time, I was still trying to familiarize myself with the new children as well as to refamiliarize myself with the ones I had met in the school’s first year. (My notes from the earliest months are peppered with such jottings as “Eldris: curly hair, wore black shirt, jeans; peeked over my shoulder at my computer screen.”)

After class, I asked the humanities teacher, Hoshi Sullivan, about Benjamin. Ms. Sullivan filled me in on a number of children who had caught my eye. At that time, I was not necessarily thinking of making them part of my study; I just wanted to know who they all were. Of Benjamin, I jotted down from my discussion with Ms. Sullivan and my own observations:

(11/7/96) Benjamin: Shaved eyebrows; was wearing undershirt in class. 18 years old; has been in school no more than 12–15 days all year, Ms. Sullivan tells me. Today is his second time in Ms. S’s class. May need to be placed into a GED program. No learning difficulties apparent, but has little interest in school.

Benjamin did not appear in class often that first year; even less the second. When he was there, however, his behavior provided a curious antiphony to that of the other children. I noticed how events of the class seemed to course around him, how he never seemed an integral part of what was going on. Even early on, his often curious behavior (breaking into song while students were working silently; making faces; imitating the noise of a machine gun) hardly interrupted the flow of the class. For the most part, it seemed as if the other children had already taken his measure and had deemed him not worth following. Benjamin was not one who could bring down a class:

When he was in my class, he was not a problem. If anything, he let what needed to happen happen....Benjamin didn’t mess with other kids, he didn’t mess with me. Sometimes he would break out in song, and I would have to remind him. But that wasn’t too much of a distraction. That didn’t bother me. And also, he didn’t really demand tons of my attention, either.—Mr. McFadden, math/science teacher

Indeed, from what I observed in Mr. McFadden’s class, Benjamin’s usual place there was on the periphery:

At Mr. McF’s desk, Benjamin is seated quietly, staring off. Kids who come up to, pass by the desk, do not speak to him, he does not speak to them. Mr. McF circulates around the room checking on other kids’ work. Benjamin takes out a folded sheet of looseleaf paper from his pocket, reads it.

He sits with chin down on his folded arms; seems tired, out of it. (I notice that he seems to function during the Do Now,10 but when the class gets into the deep work, he slides off to the side; does not have anything to contribute. He has no bridge that he’s working on, as far as I can see [class has been working in small groups to build miniature bridges in their study of force, tension, compression, and other physical concepts]. At one point, he leans back in his seat, pseudo-screams, “I hate myself!” (although from the way he does it, I get the impression he is imitating a sound clip from some song). Continues to fiddle, tapping his ruler on the desk, playing with the slip of paper that he has taken out of his pocket.

The other children seemed to find him mildly amusing, but they had little intention of allowing him to distract them from what they had to do. He got the most attention from those who relished distractions of any kind.

Early that year, I observed Benjamin in a humanities class. One of the themes for Division I was the U.S. Constitution and its creation. As part of this unit, the children were reviewing U.S. geography—an area in which, as Ms. Sullivan explained to me, they were somewhat weak. They had been assigned to color a map of the United States and were working in small groups, as they usually did:

(11/18/96) 1:30 p.m.—Benjamin is here again today; he seems to be working, and is ready to use the coloring pencils. Joins Boyce and Levina at their table.

1:39 p.m.—“California, the city of ...,” Benjamin sings aloud; seatmates hiss for him to be quiet. He stops singing, but keeps up a running commentary as he works. Sophia, Levina are coloring, but Benjamin seems to focus most of his effort on entertaining them with his comments. He relates a story of when he was “locked up.” Sophia asks him why he was locked up. “Armed robbery,” he answers briefly before continuing his comments, which shortly trail off, about someone he knew in jail. Ms Sullivan mentions that they will be giving oral presentations on December 2, and that they need to start practicing for that. It seems that Benjamin doesn’t have what he needs to complete this assignment though he’s been coming every day, he says. Ms. S reminds him that he only started coming “every day” last week. She sends him to another humanities teacher to get an outline for the assignment. He returns some minutes later without the outline. “She won’t listen to me, yo!” he complains; mutters something about punching her in the head. Ms. S assures him she’ll get the paperwork for him.

1:58 p.m.—Benjamin seems done with whatever work he’s doing for the day. He is singing “Happy Birthday” in a sultry voice; ends with “Happy Birthday, Mr. Kennedy. I’m Marilyn Monroe.” Class giggles. Ms. S tells them to put their work away, take out some paper for notes.

For some minutes, Benjamin has been bent over behind his desk in concentration; when he sits up, he has pierced the skin between some of his fingers with colored thumbtacks; flashes his hands to the class. “Allow me to demonstrate the skill of the Shaolin,” he says. Ms. S tells Benjamin to put the tacks back in her desk.

Most of my classroom observations of Benjamin are somewhat like this early observation. From the expectant glances he shot around the room during his “performances,” it was clear how much he wanted to be seen. It occurred to me that there was some particular way he wanted his classmates to perceive him, and although he did “clownish” things, I did not get the feeling that he wanted to be taken for the class clown. He wanted to be looked up to, I guessed, to be viewed by his peers as “hard,” worldly—although there was something vulnerable about him that belied the tough front he presented. (More than one of his teachers, interestingly enough, described him as “sweet.”) He lied about his age—told everyone he was eighteen years old when he was really fifteen, something it took even the administration a little time to catch onto. In spite of all his efforts, it always seemed to me that Benjamin reckoned only marginally in his peers’ consciousness—that the space they took up in his head considerably exceeded what he took up in theirs.

For me, there was a very small, but particularly telling, incident that illuminated the gulf that existed between how Benjamin seemed to want to be seen and how he may actually have been seen. It involved another boy, Julius, who in the eyes of many CBA teens, was someone to look up to. Julius, a tall, heavyset African-Latino youth with a cool, rather remote demeanor and an authoritative swagger, was a leader. His speech, whether in the classroom or in the cafeteria, was often surrounded by a respectful silence. His voice was not loud, and he actually seemed rather quiet. What struck me most about Julius, I think, was how effortlessly he exuded the “cool” Benjamin worked so hard to acquire. Unlike Benjamin, Julius rarely seemed concerned about his classmates’ reactions to what he said or did; at times he seemed hardly to see them at all.

Early during the first year, I observed this short exchange between the two boys:

Benjamin is seated at a desk near the center of the room, working quietly. Julius enters, walks over to Benjamin, and without warning, snatches the hat off Benjamin’s head. Tells Benjamin, without rancor, just matter-of-factly, that the hat is his; proceeds to his locker at the back of the room. Benjamin looks stunned, a little alarmed, like he’s afraid he won’t get his hat back. For a moment he does nothing; it looks as if he’s trying to gauge whether or not Julius is joking. Julius, as always, seems not particularly perturbed. (From his worried reaction, my guess is that the hat is Benjamin’s.) Benjamin follows Julius to his locker at the back of the room, asks Julius to look at the broken part in the back of the hat that marks it as his. After a minute or so, Julius relents, lets him have the hat. Moments later, Julius unearths his own hat from his locker, squashes it over his Afro, apologizes to Benjamin in that curt, abbreviated style of hip young males (“My bad, man,” or something to that effect), and strolls back out the room. Benjamin is clearly relieved—grateful, almost.

I often thought about this little scene when I struggled to understand the image Benjamin was attempting to craft for himself. What struck me most about it was that Benjamin, for all his bravado, was actually afraid. Something told me that he had no intention of going up against Julius for any reason and was hoping, more than anything, that he could persuade Julius to surrender the hat of his own accord. I do not think that Benjamin feared for his physical safety necessarily, but feared that against Julius’ insistence he did not stand a chance; feared that although he, Benjamin, was right, and the hat was his, this meant little in the face of Julius’ superior authority. It was authority like that, I thought, that Benjamin craved.

About the end of April that first year, I invited Benjamin to be in my study. He seemed surprised that I asked him, but readily agreed. He gave me his home phone number and added that it might be good for him to have somebody “watching” him. Even as I asked him, I was not sure what Benjamin was going to teach me about CBA, let alone its attempt to craft an academically oriented, intellectual culture—particularly since it was already clear that he spent more time out of class than in—but I suspected that looking at the school through the lens of such a child would tell me a great deal about what CBA was struggling to be, or struggling not to be.

Listening to teachers describe him, I hoped, would offer clues about where the school saw itself, about what “page” it was on. Even before I’d decided to study Benjamin, I would say to teachers, “Tell me about Benjamin.” Scarce as he had made himself, they all seemed to know something about him. One teacher said that she could tell, even from his odd bursts of singing in class, that he actually sang quite well and perhaps the school could better engage him if it had an outlet for his singing talent. Another teacher mused:

The funny thing is about Benjamin, I find him very endearing, even in the middle of his most inappropriate behaviors. There’s something there...I can’t explain. But there’s something there that I feel needs and wants nurturing. Because when I just sit with him in a one-on-one situation, we have had some very interesting discussions. And he has knowledge that I really did not think he had.

Sometimes the behavior seems just so inappropriate to the time and so—spontaneous, that I don’t even know if he’s aware of what he’s doing. Like leaping up and making believe he has a gun in his hand, you know. Why? What is this connected with?...It’s like he sits there perfectly calmly, and then just gets up and starts shooting people with this make-believe Uzi.

I, too, saw a slightly different side of Benjamin when he worked with a teacher one-on-one. It was almost as if once he realized he did not have to “perform” and all that mattered were his ideas, not his image, he could allow those ideas to take center stage. Once I watched him in a class with Jacqueline Keye, a resource room teacher as well as his advisor.11 After seeing that the six or more other children in the classroom were settled down to some independent assignment, she sat down with him to review a humanities lesson he needed to complete:

(1/9/97) 9:54 a.m.—Ms. Keye turns to Benjamin, gently reminds him that he has been out for a long time, and that he has no notebook, no supplies to work with. Tells him they will begin with study of the Black Panthers. Gets some supplies for him to work with from her desk.

JK: What do you know about the Black Panthers?

BD: They wanted their freedom. They killed cops.

JK: (saying she will write all this down) Why did they kill cops?

BD says they should kill more of them.

JK tells him they want to have an intelligent discussion, and he will have to use his mind.

JK: Anything else?

BD: They locked up Huey; he was the leader. And they did something to Washington.

JK: What do you call when people get together to express their ideas?

BD: Boycott?

JK: Could be. They carry signs, saying they want equality.

BD: (can’t think of the word) Damn.

JK: Have you ever heard of the word “protest”?

BD: Yeah. Like, don’t kill animals. Fur.

JK: What was it like for Black people before the Black Panther party?

BD: Real bad. They had segregated schools. They couldn’t eat in the same place. (He thinks) It was bad. The Ku Klux Klan was there.

JK: What does the KKK do?

BD: They wear white masks. They carry forks(?) sometimes. They tie people by ropes. They burn crosses. They carve signs on them with blades.

JK: It’s true, they do all those things.

BD: Skinheads, too.

JK: All those White supremacist groups have things in common. You’re right, they burned and hung people.

BD: Did they use guillotines?

JK: (explains what the guillotine was) Why do you think the Panthers got together to write this program?

BD: To see if the Blacks could be more equal with the Whites?

JK compliments his answer. He asks to go to the bathroom. She gives him a yellow Post-it note as a pass. He leaves.

When Benjamin comes back, he reads through the Panthers selection. Nydia enters, pats him on the face in greeting; he tells her to get away. Another boy drifts in wearing a hooded sweatshirt. JK gets rid of him; closes the door. Goes to Benjamin, who tells her he is ready for her to see his work. He explains that Blacks were beaten by police, disrespected. JK asks him a few questions to elicit his understanding of “racism.”

JK: Because of this, the Blacks decided to—

BD: —to stop all that. I forgot about that lady, Rosa Parks, that was in the bus—

JK: That was a little bit before that.

Further discussion on issues Panthers fought against.

JK interrupts herself to get a kid settled, to tell Brenna where to find construction paper. While JK attends to other students, other issues, it seems Benjamin is in constant motion. He pretends to be a baseball pitcher, winding up, making a pitch. Pretends he is driving a vehicle, really slowly, until the girls near him start tittering.

When JK rejoins him, they discuss juries. She asks if he were being tried for a crime, who would he want on his jury–Blacks, Whites, or Latinos? Benjamin says, “My family,” then concedes that he would like “a mixture.” JK says that one issue is that Blacks wanted more Black people in the juries. They talk further about issues of race in law enforcement. Benjamin takes advantage of some turn in the conversation to demonstrate how cops in Puerto Rico treat kids that are out after curfew, which sets the girls laughing again.

The Benjamin I saw there—still “on stage” yet willing to engage in talk around his work, was one who did not appear often. There was something about him that resisted getting too close, that shied away from putting forth himself and his thoughts as if they were serious things worthy of being dealt with. The Benjamin I saw tended to strain more and more toward the periphery, adamant about not becoming part of anything the school valued most. He worked hard to maintain an image (“fronting,” as one teacher called the kinds of things he did), but never got too close. Benjamin was not what you would call popular—children knew who he was and greeted him when they saw him. His “hang buddies,” however, were mostly students from another school. As far as I could recognize and from what he told me, only one other boy among his crew on the corner was from CBA.

The corner, in fact, was the one place I could usually count on seeing Benjamin. I was not seeing him in classes much, but failing to catch him there, I was sure to run into him on the corner eventually.

The corners he picked to stand on were telling. Either he stood on the one right where the school building sat, positioning himself a few yards away from the school fence in fact—where he might not be very visible to teachers or the principal unless they happened to step outside either the front or side doors. However, his preferred spot, it seemed, was the stoop of a building directly across the street from the school. Later, as the weather grew colder, he donned a distinctive black and yellow jacket—the yellow, a noisy, irrepressible shade that made him impossible to miss if anyone looked from the windows of at least three different CBA classrooms. It was clear that Benjamin was not trying to hide. He felt comfortable on that corner. When I asked him if the owners of the house minded that teenagers were congregating on the front step during school hours, he told me in the vague way I had come to recognize, that they didn’t mind; they were his “friends.”

The first time I saw Benjamin on the corner it surprised me. It surprised me that someone who was supposed to be inside a building not ten yards away was so boldly flaunting his noncompliance. Why dared he stand so near the school? Wasn’t the whole point not to be seen? I knew how CBA traditionally dealt with truants and cutters. In the school’s earliest days, I had seen how office personnel would religiously phone parents any time their children failed to show up for school. For a moment I was afraid for him, afraid of the kind of trouble he would be in if the teachers caught him.

That first time I saw him, I asked what he was doing there. He offered a somewhat foggy story of having a problem the day before with a student from one of the other schools in the building and said that for now, he did not want to go back in the building because if he saw the boy, he would have to fight him. He said he would go in tomorrow, after things had cooled down. I told him that tomorrow it would be too tempting to put off coming back for “just one more day.” He said no, no, really, tomorrow he would be there.

This conversation, it turned out, was much like others we would have in the future: I urging him to go back into the school, he insisting that no, he couldn’t handle it right now (“It’s boring up there; I’m going crazy”), but he’d be there tomorrow, without fail. As I saw him there on the corner, over and over again, it became clear that I was not the only one who saw him and that his presence on that corner was no secret.

The Duartes

When I was in school, really, it was much better than now. Because before we had more respect for parents. We went to school to learn. Not like now, these kids. They go to school, but they don’t go to learn. We went to learn. And this thing about cutting classes, you didn’t see that as much then, either. Although you didn’t have many opportunities to go to school, you know...we walked to get to school. Sometimes there were kids who didn’t have shoes. They came to school with holes in their clothes. We went because we knew there was a future for us.

I tell Benjamin, you know, put a lot in your head—study, study. Don’t hang out with your friends and cut classes. But mi hija, I don’t know. I don’t understand, I don’t understand.—Mrs. Duarte, Benjamin’s mother

I first met Benjamin’s mother on a Sunday afternoon in mid-May, 1997, shortly after Benjamin had agreed to be part of my study. My notes from that visit:

(5/15/97) As I approach 3A, two little girls are seated on the top step—one about 10 or so, the other one about six, maybe. I look around for a second, and they ask me in very polite voices if they can help me. I ask them if they know the Duartes. The older girl says yes, and points me to a door. I ask her if she knows Benjamin. She grins; yes, she does. The smaller girl pipes up that she’s Benjamin’s niece. I ring the bell. Mrs. Duarte asks who it is, and I identify myself. She opens the door, asks me to wait a moment while she sequesters the dog. After locking the dog in a room to the side, Mrs. D escorts me to the living room. Her daughter, Alicia Elena, Benjamin’s little sister, is with her. A smiling, pleasant faced girl of about 11 or 12. It turns out she is in 6th grade “going on 7th.” Alicia Elena informs me that Benjamin’s 16th birthday is coming up soon. She also tells me that she has narrowed down her career choices—now she only has to decide among fashion designer, model, singer, and vet. And nurse, she adds later.

Mrs. Duarte wonders if Benjamin has ADD [attention deficit disorder]. She had read about it somewhere, and it sounds exactly like his condition. No matter what he sits down to do, in a few moments he’s up doing something else. I tell her it’s hard to tell, and that when a kid gets a label, sometimes it’s hard to live above it. I tell her that I’ve noticed too that he jumps from activity to activity.

Benjamin is the apple of his father’s eye, from Mrs. Duarte’s description. She wonders if her husband spoils him. She says he gives him anything he wants. Alicia Elena says that her father makes her earn what she gets. Mrs. Duarte says that a kid should earn what he gets, not just get it for free. She wonders if that is why Benjamin is like he is.

Mrs. Duarte says that she doesn’t like CBA as much as Pride Academy, Benjamin’s previous school.12 At PA she said she got a call every time he was missing from school, but not so here. Benjamin was kicked out of PA for carrying a pocket knife (a “little knife” Mrs. Duarte calls it, holding out her hand to show the size. I gather it’s about the size of a pocket knife.). She says Benjamin hates school. He feels he doesn’t learn anything there. She is not certain what he wants to be when he grows up. She hears him talk about baseball a lot, and he only goes to school because she makes him.

Mrs. Duarte says several times that she told Mr. Duarte to be there, but he did not get home. She tells me he’s still in Manhattan.

Mrs. Duarte says she hopes the study helps Benjamin, she doesn’t know what to do with him. Right now he’s hanging out someplace. A few minutes before I came she had seen him outside. He’s supposed to be in at 9:00, 9:30, but he comes in very late (I don’t ask her how late she means). I say it must be hard to get up in the morning if he goes to bed late, and she agrees. He hangs out after school.

I met Mr. Duarte when I visited the house again in early June. I got the impression, although I am not sure quite how, that I had caught him there purely by accident, that he had not planned to be there when I arrived although I had specifically arranged to meet with both parents. As the three of us talked, however, Mr. Duarte warmed to the conversation and spoke with eloquence and passion about himself and his son:

The difference before, when we went to school, from the teacher, from the assistant principal, and the principal, and the counselors, they care. They care. And they don’t hesitate, you know, to call your father. Now it’s different...I have worked with different schools. But it’s not the same. They don’t focus on the students the way they did when we were in school. So what happens? If they don’t focus on them, they get more freedom than they’re supposed to get.

I ask Mr. Duarte if he feels that CBA, where Benjamin is now, is one of those schools that cares about students:

He got his advisor, she’s a good teacher, she speaks with us. Sometimes I tell her about problems with Benjie, and she says, “I’m going to speak with my superior to see if they can give him an evaluation, or something.” Sometimes I think that he got problems; I don’t know, yo no se. But then she says, “I’m going to call you,” but she doesn’t. If he cuts class, he’s absent, they don’t call here. If I call, I know. But if you didn’t call, you wouldn’t know. They don’t send a paper, they don’t say nothing.

At other times, Mr. Duarte expressed the view that the kind of education offered to children like Benjamin was not really intended to advance the interests of a young, non-White male from the Bronx; that schools were more intent on containing children of color than empowering them. He felt that the schools offered a whitewashed view of America that someone like Benjamin could not connect with. For instance, Mr. Duarte talked to me about what he had learned about George Washington from reading and from watching the History Channel—things, he felt, most schools were afraid to teach:

Because it’s another thing, in the schools. They only teach the positive things of the American. See, you don’t know that, that he [George Washington] was in the English army, and he turned against them. They only teach in school the positive....They’re gonna say in the school about George Washington that he got more than 1,000 slaves, tu entiendes?13

More than once, I asked Mr. Duarte if his remarks applied specifically to CBA, or was he speaking of American high schools in general. His responses stopped short of indicting CBA along with all the other schools. (Maybe he feared offending me, perhaps thinking me more closely affiliated with the school than I actually was. Or is it possible that he did not fully trust the neutral stance I tried so hard to maintain?) Yet it was clear that he thought CBA less than up to the task of engaging the mind of his son who, in his opinion, had “the capacity to teach in a school”:

Mr. Duarte: I am talking with my heart. White teacher come all the way from, let’s say, Yonkers, to teach—she don’t care! She doesn’t know our son. He wanna learn, learn. And believe it, that’s the truth....So, it’s different that [Puerto Rico]—our country, the teachers were the same race we were. And they focused on teaching.

KMG: What you’re saying definitely is true in a lot of schools. Do you think it’s true in this school, too, in Benjamin’s school?

Mr. Duarte: I don’t know in this school, but like she [Mrs. Duarte] said, we’re trying to make Benjamin have an evaluation for a long time, and they say yes, yes, but they never do.

The Duartes clearly believed that CBA had fallen short of its obligation to Benjamin—by not regularly informing them of his absences, by not having him tested (although Mrs. Duarte herself acknowledged the dilemma of saddling Benjamin with a label), and finally, by not teaching in a way that made sense to him—that is, like a “regular” high school, a “credit school.” They had considered acceding to his demands to transfer to such a school:

Mrs. Duarte: He always says he likes a school that has credits. “That school where I am, they don’t give credits.” I don’t know.

Mr. Duarte: That’s another thing. He loves, let’s say, talking about social studies—

Mrs. Duarte: Like a regular school, you know, a regular high school—

Mr. Duarte: —you know, English language, classes. [At CBA] it’s different....We do what he wants, because it’s not what we want. He’s the one who [says], “I don’t want to go to that school, because I don’t want to do nothing.” He’s speaking with the truth. And he’s being realistic, he knows that he don’t wanna do nothing....He told us many times that he wants to be in a school where credits are given. Like let’s say they have Spanish, English, they have social studies, they got science, they got geometry, or they got biology—that’s what he wants.

But maybe because his records are, you know, not good?...Maybe he’s afraid that they’re gonna say no in another school. But maybe if we tried, we can get another school for him. Because that’s what he wants. Because it’s not what we want, it’s his life, his learning, and his future.

Mr. Duarte tells me that Benjamin was not always the kind of student he is now. At one time he liked school, he says, and was a good student:

I remember when he was in 5th grade, I worked in the school [that Benjamin attended at the time]. He wrote biographies for social studies. He was number one, believe me, he was number one. Focused. He wanted me to buy him magazines, you know. Now, he’s only girls, girls, girls.

Girls, Mrs. Duarte adds, and hangiando.

A Talk with Benjamin

About two more weeks passed before I managed to sit down with Benjamin himself for an interview. He had promised on at least one occasion before to be at the house when I came by, but by the time I arrived, he had disappeared.

Once, I actually managed to track him down in the neighborhood. That meeting occurred about ten days after my initial visit with his family—a visit from which he had been absent. On that particular day, I stopped at the house to retrieve the appointment book I had forgotten there:

Noela [the translator who has accompanied me from a home visit earlier that evening] and I call Mrs. Duarte from the pay phone outside of the apartment building. She says she can let the book down to me in a bag. I wait under the window until it opens, and she lets down a plastic shopping bag tied to a really long length of plastic cord. My book is inside. I thank her, ask her for Benjamin; I haven’t seen him. She tells me he was in school. He probably wasn’t; Ms. Sullivan told me today [Thursday] that she hasn’t seen him since the beginning of the week. He had come in then, “acting like he was going to do work”—asking her about things he’d missed, as if he seriously wanted to get them done. She hasn’t seen him since. (And, of course, last week with him hanging outside of the building and not going in because he was avoiding some kid who had been bothering him.) I don’t push it any further—a situation, I guess, where she sent him and he never got there.

I ask Mrs. Duarte if she’s seen Benjamin recently; she points off to her right, in the general direction of Longfellow Avenue. Since it’s almost dark already, I decide not to pursue the matter, and Noela and I start back to the train station. On the corner, though, I see a young boy and I ask if he knows Benjamin. “He’s Spanish?” the boy asks me. Yes, and has a little sister. “How many brothers? Two?” I think so, I tell him. The boy seems to know who I’m speaking of. “That’s his brother right there.” He points to some young men sitting around in a vacant lot. The brother’s name is Stefán, the child says. I call through the gate to Stefán; he approaches me. I tell him who I am, that I’m doing a study with Benjamin, but I can’t find him. Has he seen him? He tells me that Benjamin often hangs out on Longfellow; I could check there. I shake his hand through the fence, thank him. We head toward Longfellow, which is a short block away. At the corner I see a young Latina woman, ask her if she knows Benjamin Duarte. She says she doesn’t know his last name, but she knows someone named Benjamin; he’s right there. Points to a young man seated on the front step of a house across the street. He is alone, just staring down, seems to be napping.

It’s Benjamin. I’m unaccountably glad to see him—I say hi, introduce him to Noela, ask him why I haven’t seen him in school. He tells me it’s boring there. I ask him about the boy he was avoiding at school—a “punk-ass” from Franklin HS (another school located in the same building as CBA). I ask him how he handled it—did he speak to one of the boy’s teachers? (Though I know he would never do a thing like that.) He says no, “I keep it to myself.” I ask him what he is going to do. He says he’s going to get a job. The last job he had was passing out flyers—he got fired when they caught him sending his cousin in his place. I tell him we’re headed to the train station; would he mind walking us up there? (I don’t think we need the escort, but it’s a good excuse to chat with him a little). He agrees.

Along the way, he greets several people, and we talk. I ask him what other ideas he has for a job. He tells me he likes cars—anything having to do with cars. Tells me he can put anything on, take anything off, can fix anything that’s wrong with it. Says he likes painting cars, but that the paint “gets me mad high,” though this seems more amusing than disturbing to him. Notes that the money is good, too. When I ask him what school Stefán goes to, he tells me that Stefán is 25. At some point, I ask him if he has a car. He says no, but he drives one. Stupidly, it doesn’t occur to me to ask him whose car it is that he drives.

I remind Benjamin that portfolio time is coming up; what’s he going to do? He tells me that he doesn’t even have anything to put in his portfolio; about two pieces of work, maybe. If he gets left back, he says, he’s dropping out for good. Maybe get a GED. I point out to him that a GED is for people who basically know the work, but for various reasons can’t make it to school. If you don’t even know the work, you can’t pass the test. He smiles silently at this, doesn’t answer.

I press him harder about what he’s going to do. He doesn’t know—he says he’ll find work with something he’s good at. I tell him that it has to be not only something he’s good at, but also something someone will pay him to do. He mentions he might go back to “PR” [Puerto Rico]. His parents are thinking of sending him in July or August. Benjamin says it’s better there. A few moments later he says it’s “bad” there—though I get the impression he means “bad” in a way that’s OK with him. He says that people there will hurt you if you look at them funny. Tells me that he has a cousin there who’s one of the most infamous “killers” on the island—Mario Orejas. Tells me MO was wanted for murder, they hunted him for a long time. Finally caught him and locked him up. MO tried to break out, killed three guards in the process. They caught him again, and he’s doing life.

What fascinates me most is Benjamin’s demeanor as he relays this information—excited, awed. “That’s my blood,” he says proudly at one point. Tells me his whole family in PR is “crazy” (points at his head).

Before we part, he tells me he’ll come back into school some time next week. I tell him that I’ll be there on Tuesday. Can he be there then? He says he will. He’ll just tell Mr. McFadden that he was in the hospital. I ask him if he really believes that Mr. McF will buy this. No answer to that; that smile again.

I did not manage to connect with Benjamin the following Tuesday and was unable to meet with him until nine days after that. This time I scheduled the appointment with him at the school, during his math/science class (with Mr. McFadden’s permission).

After several minutes of waiting around the empty classroom, it was obvious that Benjamin was not coming. I knew that he had been in school that day; I had seen him in humanities class that morning. My notes:

(5/29/97) I make an inquiry or two—no one has seen Benjamin. I go over to the other side of the building to check the gym, see if he’s still playing there. The gym is locked. I go back to the school’s main office, ask if anyone there has seen him. Ms. Hadley [an office assistant] says she saw him outside around 11:00. I tell her I’ll check if he’s still there, and if he’s not, I’m calling his mother.

From a window, I can see a group of kids clustered on the corner across from the school and surmise that he may be among them. I realize that I’ll have to sneak up on him, not give him any time to run off. The usual door I come through is no good; he would see me walking up the block. I ask the security guard if I can get through another door, and I do.

He is among the group of kids on the corner. His back is to me; the other kids in the group are facing me. They are sitting on the stoop of a house directly in front the school, near the corner. Benjamin appears to be entertaining them with a story—he is jumping around, prancing, gesticulating. I call to him a couple times before he hears me. I ask him if he remembered our appointment. An exaggerated “Oh, NO!” type of reaction, covers his mouth, looks shocked. He tells me he had to leave for a lunch break; he was hungry (lunch was from 12:15 to 12:45; it is now well after 1 p.m.). He is eating a sandwich; says he was going to come back after he’d finished it. He says he doesn’t want to go into the building, doesn’t want Mr. McFadden to see him. I tell him that Mr. McF is in the computer lab, not the classroom. Says he will come in, but that he can’t stay. He’s afraid that if the teachers see him, they will force him to stay.

I manage to coax him into the building under great duress. When he sits down with me and the tape recorder, he is very fidgety, moves around a lot, looks at the two or three kids (they express shock at seeing him) who have stayed behind in the classroom. He explains to them that I have hired him to work with me. Looks around often, seems very conscious of the others in the room. Talks a little loud, and I get the impression that some of his more bombastic comments and gestures are as much for their benefit as mine. Benjamin slouches in his chair, looks away often. Maintains a good deal of bravado, but I can tell he’s not totally comfortable, a little wary. He seems unable to stay focused—he is most tuned into the conversation when it turns to the coins and baseball cards that he collects fanatically.

During the course of this interview, Benjamin told me that the only reason he was in school that day was because it was “boring” at home. He added that he had been in school the day before, but had left to join some girls who were waiting for him outside. He found it hard to stay in Mr. McFadden’s class, he said, because Mr. McFadden was “always messin’ with me, he always start with me.”

KMG: What do you mean by “starting with” you?

BD: He pick on me. He always pick on me.

KMG: He asks you things, or—

BD: Nah, he’s always talking—nonsense.

KMG: Like what? Tell me.

BD: “Oh, why you don’t do your work?” I be trying, I tell you, I’m trying...he’s still, “Aarrgh, gotta do it, do it.”

KMG: So that’s picking on you?

BD: Yes.

KMG: Doesn’t your mother do the same thing?

BD: My mother doesn’t scream at me.

KMG: She doesn’t scream at you?

BD: Oh, yeah, yeah—but I expect it from her, but not from him.

KMG: Why don’t you expect it from him?

BD: ’Cause I don’t like people that’s not from my family to start talking loud to me.

KMG: Oh, he was talking loud?

BD: Yeah.

KMG: So what, is it because he raises his voice at you, or because he asks you how come you’re not here, how come you’re not working—

BD: I don’t know—this class, it gets on my nerves. I dunno why, I’m just retarded, I dunno....

Although I did not say so to Benjamin, I recalled that I had seen Mr. McFadden “having a talk” with him on one or two occasions. I was unable to hear what either of them said, yet I imagined, knowing Mr. McFadden, that these were intense, unequivocal communications that left Benjamin little room to hide behind the empty promises he made to himself and to others. Mr. McFadden was always, if nothing else, clear. Benjamin, I was beginning to realize, treasured a vision of himself and his future that had little relation to his current reality. I suspected that Benjamin resented Mr. McFadden’s irritating demands for accountability, resented how they forced him to confront the insubstantiality of that vision.

What also occurred to me then is that it was Mr. McFadden’s “nagging” that had earned him the respect of so many of CBA’s students—his insistence that students treat schoolwork as their work, as seriously as they would a job; how adamant he was about “ideas getting the majority of the air time,” as he put it, in the classroom. A number of students liked that he pushed them, that he expected a lot of them. In their view, it showed that he respected them. Benjamin did not seem to see it this way.

Although I had a number of impromptu encounters with Benjamin in the ensuing months, I did not sit down with him again for a formal taped interview until early the following school year, a little over two months after school had started. He had not, after all, transferred out of CBA—although he had tried and had given up in face of the effort it would take. He said, however, that he was a bit more optimistic about succeeding at CBA, now that they might be offering more of the things that he liked:

...they puttin’ us through more things; they giving us more programs, and stuff....Not like last year. Last year we hardly ever got gym. And I heard this year they gonna open up the pool. They gonna do mad stuff—teams and junk. ‘Cause I wanna be in the baseball team. I want a handball team.

This year, Benjamin told me, would be different: I’m going to could ask the teachers. They saw me every day. They were surprised. They were like, “What you doin’ here?” I was like, “Stayin’ in school.”

A little later I asked him, “If I come back two weeks from now, what will you tell me about school?”

Think I’m gonna tell you I been there every day, and was doing all my work. I’m not gonna get influenced by nobody else no more...I’m not gonna let nobody influence me on cutting. Like, that’s why I leave, people be like, “C’mon, let’s be out.” So I be like (mimes following them). But now, I’m stickin’ onto my chair. Gotta do something.

I asked him to explain to me how he would manage to do this, especially since what he had just said regarding his classes:

I be bored up in there. It’s them classes, them classes got me dying already. They’re too long. Mad long. Two hours, two-and-a-half—oh my God, the same class?

He assured me, however, that he could make the turnaround; that, indeed, he’d done it before and was certain he could do it again:

I could do it. I did it in 9th grade. Ninth grade I was, ptth! Forget it. Once it hit like February, when the new marking period started, every day, brrr! (mimes intense activity), started getting higher grades than everybody in class.

When I asked Benjamin what he planned to do after graduation, he said:

First thing is get a job. Temple University sent me a thing to join their college. ’Cause I went out there, to Pennsylvania, with my counselor; he used to take us on college tours. And they sent me a booklet with the application, and they wrote, “We look forward to having you here, Benjamin.” It’s a good school....It’s buttah!14 That’s where I want to go. I don’t wanna stay in New York. I wanna go far. Pennsylvania ain’t that far, but at least it’s not in New York. Get out of New York, another state.

Get a new life? I asked him:

Yeah, get a new life for four years, then come back. Have my money, have my phat15 car...I wanna have it all.

10“Do Now” is a 10- to 15-minute period at the beginning of the class where teachers ask students to engage in a short problem or question as a warm-up to the main activities of the day. return to text

11Benjamin was not classified as a resource room student. There were a few occasions, however, when he would be put out of class for some reason or he would ask to leave. Sometimes he joined his advisor, Ms. Keye, in the resource room, where she would help him with his work. return to text

12Benjamin had been expelled from another alternative school, Pride Academy (PA), on a weapons charge. He came to CBA about January, 1996. return to text

13That Mr. Duarte held this opinion was especially interesting to me. I thought particularly of the numerous classes I had observed of two of Benjamin’s teachers: humanities teacher Hoshi Sullivan, a young African-American woman in her late twenties, who describes herself as a “nationalist”; and resource room teacher Jacqueline Keye, a white Jewish woman in her late forties, who openly embraces her working class, socialist background. That their black and Latino students get to hear “the other side,” the side that often went unheard, had always seemed to me to be a driving objective behind the things these teachers chose to teach. As Ms. Sullivan once remarked, “I don’t have any problem calling out the Framers [of the U.S. Constitution] for who they were, and what they really were about....Not to bear disrespect, but to be clear about what’s happening...[high school] kids are at an age where I can tell them the truth, and they can determine for themselves what that means to their personal life.” (Interview, 8/14/97). I did not know if Mr. Duarte had observed what I had observed, or on what, specifically, his opinion was based. return to text

14Meaning “very good.” return to text

15See footnote 14. return to text

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