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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Visiting Paterson, NJ


I'm teaching a class for future teachers.

Many -- though by no means all -- of the students in our class are suburban and are white.

We visit an urban school. Today we visited a school in downtown Paterson, New Jersey.

As I walked to the school this morning I saw the neighborhood through my visiting students' eyes: the garbage strewn all over the street. This morning I passed black bananas strewn on a five foot high pile of dirty sidewalk snow. Why bananas? Why not.

I saw bricked up windows in downtown Paterson. I saw a hollowed out man, stubble, clothes falling off, clothes that were in any case inadequate to the freezing temperatures and snow, disoriented, muttering to himself, rolling his eyes at me. I saw signs in Spanish and Arabic. Very few in English.

Inside this school was vibrant life. The teachers and staff are deeply dedicated to resurrecting this school -- it had to be taken over by the state, it was failing so badly. Since restructuring and sending a few "gangstas" to special institutions, test scores are soaring. The walls are lined with plaques commemorating previous high-profile graduates from this 87 year old school.

Our tour guide was a teacher, dedicated and charming.

I imagined that I could see on my students' faces that they were deciding that this inner city high school was not so bad, after all. Maybe Paterson, for all its difference, is not a foreign country.

Our tour was a long one. One of my students pulled an empty water bottle out of his backpack and approached a water fountain and began to fill it.

"DON'T DRINK THE WATER!!!" Our tour guide, suddenly panicked, shouted out.

My students looked at each other and laughed nervously.

I am reminded that a couple of times a year here in Paterson I receive notification, in English, Spanish, and Arabic telling me that the local water supply has unacceptable levels of lead, feces, and cryptosporidium.

***

There are two thousand students at the school we visited. I asked. Not one of them is classified as "white." Three miles away, there is another high school that is almost all white. 

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