First Person

Are You Perceptive?

Collin Lawrence is a former New York City teacher who is recounting his four years working at a Brooklyn high school. Read Collin’s previous posts.

During my second year at the Brooklyn Arts Academy, two students persistently acted out in their 10th-grade classes. One student, H, had a difficult time sitting still and staying focused, and he could turn on teachers in an instant if called out for misbehavior. He could be charming in one-on-one interactions but got into almost weekly confrontations with authority figures in the building, once even making a sexually lewd comment to a female teacher. The other student, V, had a physical disability that made him stand out to other kids. Perhaps to distract attention from this, V acted outrageously. He cracked constant jokes and roamed the classroom, rarely doing any schoolwork. My grade-level team tried many strategies to better engage these two students, but nobody (administration included) seemed able to reach either one of them.

In December, I was observing a 10th-grade English class in my role as grade team leader when I saw H standing at the door of the classroom. It wasn’t unusual for our students to leave in the middle of a class or show up in a classroom where they did not belong. The school did not have clear procedures to address this type of behavior.

The English teacher, Mr. J, was a first-year teacher who, though lacking experience, planned his lessons with great diligence. During my observation, his students were writing mystery stories. Mr. J was assisting the students as they worked in groups, so did not react immediately to the presence of H at the doorway.

H was motioning to his friend, Q, to come to the hallway. Seeing this, I told Q to stay put. H then walked into the room and whispered something in Q’s ear. At this point, the English teacher told H to go back to his own class. Instead, H resumed his post at the doorway. When Q started to get up, the teacher informed him that leaving the classroom would result in a referral. I also told him to stay in the classroom. “Guess I’m gonna have to take one for the team,” said Q as he defied our warnings and left the room with his backpack and coat. He did not return to English class and we later learned he had left the building.

Q was generally well behaved, so his open defiance struck me as peculiar. But again, students left in the middle of a class all too often, so I was not particularly alarmed and neither was the English teacher, who continued with his lesson. Later that day, I mentioned the incident to the principal, who concurred that it was strange, but did not say much about it at the time.

A couple of days later, on the Friday before winter break, Mr. J and I were called into the principal’s office. In our meeting, the principal told us that V had brought a gun to school on the day of Q’s strange behavior. Supposedly, the gun had passed hands from V to H to Q, and Q had it in his backpack during English class. When Q left the class with H, it was to take the gun out of the school. I do not know the principal’s source for this information, or if anyone ever actually saw the purported gun.

Having informed us of the situation, the principal proceeded to tell us that if anything bad had happened, it would have been our “names in the papers.” He suggested that, as young teachers, we needed to develop an ability to perceive when something was wrong in our classrooms. He further implied that if we’d had stronger relationships with the students in question, we could have kept Q in the classroom. When Mr. J pressed about what procedure to follow in the future if a student walked out of the classroom, he was told to notify the dean.

Q and H both received suspensions from the district superintendent of a half-year. Ironically, V, who allegedly brought the gun in the first place, got a more lenient suspension of one month. I don’t know what happened at the suspension hearings, but I heard that V’s parents actively defended their child from the allegations.

The incident raised some troubling questions. How can a teacher know what lies behind student behavior? Is perceptiveness indeed something that can be learned? What should teachers do if they suspect a student has a weapon? If administrators know that a weapon is in the building, should teachers be notified? If so, what steps should we then take to protect our students and ourselves? (Our school had no clear lockdown procedures at the time of this incident). And most troubling of all: what would a 15-year-old be doing with a gun and why would he bring it into school?

First Person

With roots in Cuba and Spain, Newark student came to America to ‘shine bright’

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Layla Gonzalez

This is my story of how we came to America and why.

I am from Mallorca, Spain. I am also from Cuba, because of my dad. My dad is from Cuba and my grandmother, grandfather, uncle, aunt, and so on. That is what makes our family special — we are different.

We came to America when my sister and I were little girls. My sister was three and I was one.

The first reason why we came here to America was for a better life. My parents wanted to raise us in a better place. We also came for better jobs and better pay so we can keep this family together.

We also came here to have more opportunities — they do call this country the “Land Of Opportunities.” We came to make our dreams come true.

In addition, my family and I came to America for adventure. We came to discover new things, to be ourselves, and to be free.

Moreover, we also came here to learn new things like English. When we came here we didn’t know any English at all. It was really hard to learn a language that we didn’t know, but we learned.

Thank God that my sister and I learned quickly so we can go to school. I had a lot of fun learning and throughout the years we do learn something new each day. My sister and I got smarter and smarter and we made our family proud.

When my sister Amira and I first walked into Hawkins Street School I had the feeling that we were going to be well taught.

We have always been taught by the best even when we don’t realize. Like in the times when we think we are in trouble because our parents are mad. Well we are not in trouble, they are just trying to teach us something so that we don’t make the same mistake.

And that is why we are here to learn something new each day.

Sometimes I feel like I belong here and that I will be alright. Because this is the land where you can feel free to trust your first instinct and to be who you want to be and smile bright and look up and say, “Thank you.”

As you can see, this is why we came to America and why we can shine bright.

Layla Gonzalez is a fourth-grader at Hawkins Street School. This essay is adapted from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.

First Person

From ‘abandoned’ to ‘blessed,’ Newark teacher sees herself in her students

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Jennifer Palumbo

As I sit down to write about my journey to the USA, all I can think of is the word “blessed.”

You see my story to become Ms. Palumbo started as a whole other person with a different name in a different country. I was born in Bogota, Colombia, but my parents either could not keep me or did not want me. I was, according to my adoption papers, “abandoned.” Abandoned is defined as “having been deserted or cast off.” Not a great start to my story, I know.

Well I was then put in an orphanage for children who had no family. Yes at this point I had no family, no home, not even a name.
I spent the first 10 months of my life in this orphanage. Most children at 10 months are crawling, trying to talk, holding their bottles, and some are even walking. Since I spent 10 months laying in a crib, I did none of those things.

Despite that my day to be chosen arrived. I was adopted by an Italian American couple who, after walking up and down rows of babies and children, chose to adopt me. My title just changed from abandoned to chosen.

But that wasn’t the only thing about to change. My first baby passport to leave Colombia is with the name given by the orphanage to an abandoned baby girl with no one. When I arrived in America my parents changed that name to Jennifer Marie Palumbo and began my citizenship and naturalization paperwork so I could become an U.S. citizen.

They tried to make a little Colombian girl an Italian American, so I was raised speaking only English. Eating lots of pasta and living a typical American lifestyle. But as I grew up I knew there was something more — I was something more.

By fourth grade, I gravitated to the Spanish girls that moved into town and spent many after-schools and sleepovers looking to understand who I was. I began to learn how to dance to Spanish music and eat Spanish foods.

I would try to speak and understand the language the best I could even though I could not use it at home. In middle school, high school, and three semesters at Kean University, I studied Spanish. I traveled to Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Honduras to explore Spanish culture and language. I finally felt like the missing piece of my puzzle was filled.

And then the opportunity to come to Hawkins Street School came and as what — a bilingual second-grade teacher. I understood these students in a way that is hard to explain.

They are like me but in a way backwards.

They are fluent in Spanish and hungry to obtain fluency in English to succeed in the world. I was fluent in English with a hunger to obtain it in Spanish to succeed in the world. I feel as a child I lost out.

My road until now has by far not been an easy one, but I am a blessed educated Hispanic American. I know that my road is not over. There are so many places to see, so many food to taste, and so many songs to dance too.

I thank my students over the past four years for being such a big part of this little “abandoned” baby who became a “chosen” child grown into a “blessed teacher.” They fill my heart and I will always be here to help them have a blessed story because the stars are in their reach no matter what language barrier is there.

We can break through!

Palumbo is a second-grade bilingual teacher Hawkins Street School. This essay is from “The Hispanic American Dreams of Hawkins Street School,” a self-published book by the school’s students and staff that was compiled by teacher Ana Couto.