This past Tuesday, I sat in a windowless classroom on my beat, getting yelled at by a principal, four assistant principals, and a handful of teachers and students from a local high school. Many of their sentences began: “Do you even know..?”
Did I know that their math team had done well? That their media school produced numerous magazines and books? That their fine arts academy’s music and art teams had worked together on a concert, the latter painting the sets till all hours? And one young teacher hissed at me, “Do you even know what you’re doing?”
They were responding to one of four articles I’d written about their school, which like other large high schools in New York has been undergoing rapid changes under Chancellor Joel Klein: breakup of its student body into small “learning communities,” shifts in curriculum, and its first “report card.” These teachers and students felt I had stigmatized the school, that I had written a borderline racist way about the changes in the school’s demographics “without writing about the amazing things that happen here every day,” as the director of their business school put it. And their principal accused me of “twisting the facts to suit your (my) agenda.”
Now I know why education reporters burn out.
I’ve spent close to six months now trying to sort out fact from rumor on both the overall citywide reforms and on what’s going on in the local schools, to the extent possible when my beat isn’t Chelsea schools but all of Chelsea. I get letters and emails challenging this or that point as well as giving me tips about where to look. The stories told by each vary hugely, both in simple facts and in the mood about the schools themselves. Especially this one. I began to work more slowly, to examine each claim and to prepare to ask for an official response from the school.
Then news broke: a kid at the school had been shot a block away. With three bullets in his body, he had run around the corner to the lobby of the school and collapsed. Suddenly it was front-page news (for us), and a followup to the first story these teachers had hated, about rumors that swirled about gang activity after three of their students were stabbed.
After months of looking into it (to the extent possible while writing other news stories every week), I feel like I’ve been part of a 2000’s NYC version of Kurosawa’s Rashomon. The school blames the community, with its out-of-town partyers and public housing complexes. The community blames the school — most of whose students live in less affluent neighborhoods, like the South Bronx or my own ‘hood Washington Heights. A longtime expert on NYC schools tells me that many parents from those neighborhoods likely chose it partly because it’s in a rich neighborhood, and they figure the kid will be safe there. OR they only send them reluctantly aftet their child begs, “because she wanted to take a chance on Manhattan,” as one parent in the room said on Tuesday.
Meanwhile, a kid is recovering at St. Vincent’s Hospital. The school is trying to recover, the Tuesday group said, from the damage my articles have done. And I’m still turning the crystal around and around, hoping to distinguish between objective fact, personal testimonies, and the bigger picture, if there is one, while pulling out an actual story by deadline.
It’s a journalistic truism that if all your sources feel equally maligned, you’re doing something right. But as a sometime educator, I did feel bad that the kids felt I’d ignored their heroism. Because much of their work as I’ve seen it is indeed brilliant, like the short films and newspapers I’ve seen, a testimony to both students and the teachers who shepherd them. These kids’ writing sure beats the pretentious drivel I produced in high school.
If there’s one thing I learned from my time teaching at CUNY, it was that many of the students struggling to learn paragraph structure had already done things I’d never have the strength for — like living with alcoholic parents, or crossing over from Mexico in the dark of night. (I don’t remember the latter guy’s name, Department of Homeland Security, should your Google-enabled software find this entry. I do remember that he was a cook in a fancy Manhattan restaurant, and a hell of a poet.)
Time to shake off the dragged-to-the-principal’s office feeling from Tuesday, and finish my piece (deadline this afternoon). Most of the investigative stuff will have to wait for another week. If I succeed in describing one facet of the crystal with accuracy, I’ll be happy. I don’t expect them to be.