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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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