Coney Island to Paris to Miami: An Assistant Principal Shares
Lynn K. Robbins
K. Payne states in A Framework for Understanding Poverty, “An
individual brings with him/her the hidden rules of the class in
which he/she was raised.” However, he added, the impact an educator
can have on a child can modify those rules and change that child’s
future, regardless of their socio-economic status. I’ve been around
public and private education for 36 years, sometimes in a classroom,
sometimes in an office, but always a learner as well as a teacher.
I’ve certainly learned from my peers, but more importantly, I’ve
learned from the children by listening to who they are, where
they come from and what it is that they need.
I’ve taught in Paris at one of the most elite private schools
in the world; in Coney Island, a haven for drug pushers and prostitutes;
and a similar neighborhood in South Florida. Based on my experience
as an educator I will argue the presumption that social ranking
is the predominant factor in determining what an individual becomes
and the contributions that he/she makes to society. The following
are three stories about children that I’ve met. One was from a
wealthy background and the other two from poverty. They all needed
to be heard.
I met Sylvia in France during my first full-time teaching experience.
All of her permanent teeth were pulled when she was 14 because
she had a gum infection. Her mother didn’t want to go through
the hassle of supporting her daughter through a year’s worth of
dental surgery so false teeth became an easier option. She had
no self-esteem, and would even joke around by taking out her false
teeth and making grotesque faces. Sylvia was last in her class
at an elite international private school in just outside of Paris,
France. She slept until 11:00 A.M every day and missed most of
her classes. The administration couldn’t do much with Sylvia so
they let her sleep, took her parents money and moved her from
grade to grade. I would wake her up in the morning to go to class.
It was a Catholic school and I remember Sister Anne not appreciating
my interference because I wasn’t Catholic. She was afraid I might
influence her religious beliefs. They had no clue that Sylvia
had none. Her parents asked me to escort her to their apartment
across the street from Harrods, in London, during Christmas and
Thanksgiving. They weren’t going to be there and the only other
option for her was to be alone during those vacations, so I agreed
to her parent’s request. We were picked up in a Bentley and had
a chauffer, a butler, plus all expenses paid. I did it for Sylvia.
She often talked about what sixteen year olds talk about with
their parents or someone they trust. But, mostly, we talked about
math. She hated math. We discussed what she could do in life if
she didn’t learn math. There wasn’t much. Six months before graduation,
all of the seniors were asked to write a valedictorian speech.
Sylvia’s was the best. But she was last in her class and the administration
refused to use her speech even though they knew it was written
with great passion and insight. I talked with Sister Anne and
she finally agreed that Sylvia’s speech could be read by the true
valedictorian. Following her graduation Sylvia moved back to the
New York area with her parents. Although her grades did not support
her admission to any college, I was able to convince some friends
at a local community college to enroll her in a probationary program.
Sylvia went on from there. She now has a doctorate, has published
two books and developed her own business.
Tranisha was a 12-year-old girl who lived in Coney Island but
rarely came to school. She was retained twice and far too mature
for her present grade. Her father was killed one day while trying
to save the life of a child who had fallen into a river. Not soon
after, her mother became an alcoholic. Every morning before 7:00
a.m. I would set out to find her underneath the Coney Island boardwalk.
She would come to school with me now and again, but not often
enough. One day I asked what it would take for her to come to
school every day. She told me simply that if she could be a cheerleader,
she would come to school. I told her that could be arranged. I’ve
been an athlete all my life and had little respect for cheerleaders,
pom poms and all, but if that was what it would take for her to
come to school, I would make it happen. I was an intervention
specialist at the time and was part of a restructuring team at
a struggling Coney Island elementary school. The principal knew
that if I asked for something special for a child, he would see
to it that it was done. And so it happened. Tranisha began coming
to school every morning at 7:00 a.m. with some of her friends
and created a cheerleading squad, (we had no teams, but that mattered
little.) She went to the gym and was supervised by the security
guard while I went to my office. There was much to be done at
the school and we put in long hours. Tranisha came to school every
day for two weeks, worked with her group, went to cafeteria for
breakfast and then to class. She was smart, and the teachers knew
it. One day she asked me to stay for the morning practice. I agreed.
What I observed was remarkable and had no resemblance to cheerleading,
as I knew it. She had recruited over twenty of her classmates,
mostly girls but some boys as well. She stood in front of her
troupe, four lines of children, one head behind the other, standing
perfectly straight and silent, with hands at their sides. Then
she gave the command to begin. They performed intricate maneuvers
in unison including clapping, stomping, tumbling and chanting.
I do remember that when she gave the command to halt, one girl
said something to another. Tranisha called her name and pointed
to the door. The girl left the gym without a sound. She had violated
the rules and she knew it. I called schools in the neighborhood
that had teams, secured funding for a bus and we became regulars
at many halftime shows. Tranisha became a great leader of her
peers. I nominated her for a leadership award presented by Borough
President Golden. There were 600 winners but only one was to receive
the top award. It was Tranisha. As the award winner, she had to
prepare a speech to present in front of the other 600 nominees
and their parents at City Hall. Not only did we help her with
her speech but we had to dress her as well. There she stood, at
the podium, in a donated white satin dress with matching heels.
She was brilliant. After the speech Borough President Golden presented
her with a plaque and put his arm around her for a photo opportunity.
I knew she was a leader and so did she. More importantly, her
mother did as well. She was sitting in the audience, for the first
time, acknowledging her child’s accomplishments, and she was sober.
She, too, had prepared for this occasion.
When John was eight years old he saw his mother and grandmother
raped and sodomized at gunpoint by someone he knew. He became
a mute for a year. He was retained for one year and had a list
of discipline referrals that made him undesirable to most school
administrators. A few years later, a community leader brought
him to my attention and asked that I enroll him in the special
school in South Florida. I met with his grandmother and then with
him. There was something in his eyes. I enrolled him and became
his mentor. I was called when things happened with John, when
he bullied a child or disrespected a teacher. I do think that
he was testing me, and my commitment. I left for New York that
summer and gave John four envelopes with my New York address and
stamps on them. I received four letters. He received postcards
from Montauk and Manhattan. When I returned in August, I opened
a bank account for him with the proviso that whatever money he
made working as a babysitter or at other odd jobs, he had to put
50 percent of it in the account. The rest he could use for whatever
he wanted. The account was opened with $25. After 4 months he
had over $80. I told him by the time he entered college, he would
be able to buy whatever he needed. He never thought about college
before and now he does.
These children have reacted to the images and sounds of their
different environments and have moved beyond those experiences.
With borders collapsing, human dignities being devalued and personal
hopelessness growing, we need to look carefully at the impact
that educators can have on understanding and nourishing each student’s
ability and willingness to learn. As an administrator and a teacher
I have learned to listen and then try to engage, inspire and create
excitement in the process of learning. The goal is to broaden
perspectives and offer greater choices. That is the ultimate role
of anyone who has taken on the responsibility of educating our
K. Robbins is currently an educational administrator in Palm Beach
County and has an M. S. in Sports Psychology from Brooklyn College
and M.S. in Administration and Supervision from CCNY. She is past
Vice President of Phi Delta Kappa, Columbia University, and is
currently pursuing her doctorate in Educational Leadership from
Florida Atlantic University.#
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