Cheating is so widespread among teachers and students it’s almost laughable. I call it the Mississippi River of cheating: A kid in the front-right corner of the classroom will have a wildly wrong answer to a test, and a kid in the back-right corner of the room will have the same exact wrong answer. With teachers, the cheating is more of a massaging of the numbers on the Regents. The Regents are damn near everything. As teachers, we massage the tests to make sure if a kid is close to passing, he or she does. We don’t take a 30 and make it a 65, but we do our best to make that 62 a 65.
Now, I understand that people might look down on this—how could teachers do this, blah blah blah, and it’s true. But we are cogs in the breakdown of accountability. This test is a requirement to pass high school and graduate. If the student doesn’t pass, the parent comes in screaming that he was a mere three points from passing. The principal hears it. Then we hear it. Then he ends up passing anyway. This is the norm. Seniors are the worst, because they feel so entitled that we have to cover our asses nineteen different ways to fail them. There have been stories of guidance counselors’ flat-out changing grades and passing seniors who should have failed but miraculously walked on graduation day.
Out of 3,000 kids at my school, seventeen are white. If you look at the statistics in NYC, I think about 15 percent of the students are white. It’s a weird thing. It’s kind of segregated. And the racism among students is horrible. Upstate, a kid would be expelled for saying the kinds of stuff my kids say. Here’s an example of a typical conversation: One kid was African, one was Jamaican. The Jamaican kid was insulting him for being from Africa, calling him “spearchucker.” I told him he was being ridiculous. “Guys, I hate to say this, but to white people, you are both the same. They don’t give a crap if you’re Jamaican or African. The police pull you over, what are they putting on that form? Black.” If you were to say that to a very liberal-minded white person, they’d probably be horrified. But the kids weren’t offended. They understood.
There’s a story I tell my kids every year about when I was a reporter. I worked for a small-town paper, and I was taking photos at a science fair. Suddenly, a white teacher shoved a little black kid into one of the pictures. She just forced her guilt into the photo. Then, one year, I had this awesome junior class. I told them that I’m going to do something different for them: I was going to have them read The Souls of Black Folk and Up From Slavery. I don’t know any other teachers who were teaching those books. And one of my students, a girl, called me out: “You talked about that time you were a reporter and they shoved that little black kid in the photo. Well, why are you doing this? You’re a white teacher coming to this black school—why are you teaching this?” I was slack-jawed.
These kids are really smart. You develop attachments to them. Even the funny, crazy kids. One kid wanted to show me something on a computer. He wasn’t even my student, but he came up to me and gave me a flash drive. I took it home, and it was loaded with pornography. I said to myself, “Oh my God, I’m going to end up on the cover of the New York Post.” So I wiped it clean and gave it back to him the next day. I said, “I don’t even know what was on it. It was full of viruses.” He looked like I killed his dog. “Mister, you deleted my porn? I spent all day at the library downloading that.”
And of course there’s the drug culture. It filters down in the most interesting ways. The kids sell Pop-Tarts in school like they’re drug dealers. This one kid would go to Costco and buy in bulk and then sell Pop-Tarts in the morning. He actually made enough money selling Pop-Tarts to buy a car. So one day he got busted by security with a huge bag full of Pop-Tarts, and they asked him, “What is this?” He said: “They’re my snack.” And they were like, “No, they aren’t.” So he sat down and ate them all. He graduated and went back to Africa.
As told to Katie Charles