In Defense of Joe Biden
Several years ago, thirty years before Columbus discovered the New World, when I graduated from college, I applied for a teaching position in the Philadelphia school system. I was thrilled when I was offered a position at Girls High. And three days before the start of school I presented myself at Broad and Olney to begin my teaching career. Big mistake!
I quickly learned that the Girls High I was assigned to was the old William Penn High School for Girls located at Fifteenth and Mt. Vernon in one of the roughest parts of the “inner city.” When I arrived at the turn-of-the-century edifice my heart dropped below my ankles. Parking was impossible. I was stunned by the number of boarded up factories and abandoned homes. Graffiti covered the entire neighborhood and the filth and litter was overwhelming. Abandoned and stripped vehicles filled the streets.
And let me say as politely as possible, that several of the young men I encountered as I walked the two blocks to the school were not the type you would want your sister to introduce to your parents. The stares I received from many were quite threatening. The only thought that ran through my mind was if I survived this two block walk, I only had to wait three years before I could transfer.
Once in the school I was pleasantly surprised. The building was old … but magnificent. It had tons of marble with high ceilings, wide hallways and many elevated classrooms with vaulted ceilings. The office staff was friendly, competent and greeted me warmly. The room I was assigned was airy, spacious, quiet and private. Did I mention that the entire building was spotless?
The following two days kept me busy. For reasons I still can’t explain I decided to cover most of my classroom’s floor with area rugs (my dad had a carpet store) and I hung partial drapes on the lower portions of the windows to block out the view of the neighborhood. I swapped my Danish modern desk for the one that the Board of Ed provided. I even hung some paintings I owned, and when I finished with the bulletin boards some might have called me Picasso.
The first day of school found me nervous and quite apprehensive. Let’s be honest, I was a young white kid from a suburban neighborhood who had never even had any type of real contact with black people until my freshman year of college. I sensed that my students had very similar feelings.
I will shorten a long story by simply stating that the first four years I taught there were incredible. I learned very quickly that while few of my students were rocket scientists, while terribly disadvantaged, they were very decent kids. The vast majority were terrific. Once they decided I was for real and not a “three year and scat” they warmed up and we had a blast. At times there was bedlam in the hallways but I never had a discipline problem in my own classroom.
Some days they were the students and I the teacher. Other days it was reversed. I learned a great deal about growing up in “the hood” and they discovered that there were middle class blacks in the ‘burbs. I shared stories of my black neighbor who was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. They were stunned to learn that there was such a person. Because of this neighbor, I began to invite people of color who I met to visit my now famous “furnished classroom.” And over the course of several semesters I had bankers, lawyers, doctors and a variety of other professionals and business owners visit. I wanted my kids to see that there were exit routes from their present environment that could be achieved with education and determination.
Every year I made arrangements for a large group of my students to walk into town once a week for movies and theater. After the owners of these establishments discovered that my kids were “trouble free,” many free offers of tickets and assistance poured in. It became another two-sided educational experience.
Before I go on let me admit that it wasn’t all roses. From time to time I encountered students with problems. Some were quite serious. Sad to say, most problems were the result of the very environment most of them encountered. On one occasion I actually came face to face with a girl who pulled a knife on me in the lunchroom because I asked her to put her trash in a garbage can.
The amazing part of this story is that this very same youngster met me early the following morning to apologize. This surprised me more than what had occurred the previous day. Trust me, this kid had never learned the word remorse.
When my first period class arrived, I learned the truth. This knife-wielding youngster belonged to a very dangerous gang. And unknown to me, many of the members of this gang were in several of my classes. It turned out they liked me and felt her actions did not reflect favorably on the “group.” She was given, if she wanted to live, twenty-four hours to correct the situation.
You will note that I mentioned “the three years” to transfer elsewhere. Sad to say, before those three years arrived, things rapidly began to change. New teachers began to arrive who were more interested in civil rights than education. Still others who arrived were Vietnam draft dodgers with political agendas that really didn’t involve education. Civic, community and neighborhood associations, black power groups and the Board of Ed became more interested in the color of their appointments than their educational or administrative qualifications. Education suffered badly.
Things began to go downhill … quickly! It became obvious that discipline was suffering. Suspensions were discouraged. I witnessed low grades and high rates of failure, both only silently discouraged and questioned. Students who were far from Rhodes Scholars were promoted as borderline geniuses and many successful programs that were viewed as “racially insensitive” were either dropped or discouraged. And if you were among those teachers who balked about what was happening you were quickly branded a racist. (Sound familiar?!) I became a very unhappy camper.
Then one day, while on my way home, I was involved in a monumental traffic jam on the Expressway. It lasted for well over an hour. I had little to do but think. And the more I thought, the more upset I became. Few of my kids, I admitted to myself, who I had become so fond of and dedicated to, stood little chance in the real world. I knew almost from the “git go” that they faced religious leaders in the community who were often indifferent. A large number of political and civic leaders were actually exploiting, rather than helping, the girls. Further, I realized that many of my kids came from single parent, poverty-stricken homes where many of their mothers often engaged in prostitution and the sale and use of drugs to survive. Few of these women were able to offer real support at home
Even more, these young girls frequently encountered young men who didn’t understand the term fatherhood and were satisfied to play “Jewels in the Crown” and just become “sperm donors.” Add all of these problems, plus the crime and rundown houses, and it became obvious that few could escape their environment. Sad to say, all too many of my students joined the ranks of so many who became welfare mothers with too many children and who were totally dependent upon various forms of local, state and federal assistance programs. (As an aside, several years after I left, the school actually opened a nursery where students as young as thirteen could deposit their children while they attended classes.)
Yet until this rapid transition began to occur, I and a fair number of other dedicated teachers remained. While our views were not always realistic, we believed that we still could and did make a difference. We were not Don Quixotes, but we believed we could help many of our kids escape their surroundings. We remained optimistic and dedicated, working for low salaries and in many cases exposing ourselves to real danger. We were all colors, ages and religions, and we stayed the course while so many other teachers just waited until they could bail out.
Then one day it all came to a head. About two weeks after the traffic jam I mentioned earlier, I overslept. I arrived in school seconds before my first class. I had no chance to grab a bite before the first period bell rang and I remained starved until I had fifth period lunchroom duty.
I stopped long enough in the teacher’s lunchroom for a very quick sandwich before rushing off to the students’ lunch area. When I arrived at the students’ area, I immediately knew there was a serious problem. A huge group of girls were in a tight cluster, and extremely noisy in one corner of the room.
The other teacher assigned Lunch Room Duty and I immediately pushed our way through the mob to discover that two senior girls had been involved in a “debate” over a boy from the Ben Franklin High School for Boys. At one point during the “discussion,” one of the girls picked up a knife from the table they were sitting at and stabbed the other girl. The wounded girl had subsequently grabbed a fork from the same table and stabbed her attacker in the rib cage. Blood was everywhere.
After breaking up the fight we informed the nurse. The City’s rescue forces arrived quickly. Both combatants were rushed to Temple University Hospital with very serious, but not life-threatening injuries. We got the group to finally calm down and return to having lunch. While all of this was occurring, the janitorial staff had quickly arrived and cleaned up the mess.
For most, life quickly returned to normal. But not for me. I had just helped one of the wounded girls in her effort to get a scholarship. I was devastated and ended up heading for the principal’s office after changing my bloodied clothing. Quite frankly I needed to “dump.” I had to get it off my chest. I was barely twenty-six and was emotionally exhausted. I needed a shoulder to cry on. I had to vent. I was extremely upset, disappointed and frustrated.
My needs were not met! While the “head administrator” was very concerned with the girl who was stabbed, the state of the other student was never mentioned. And the shoulder I sought was never offered. Basically, I was told to toughen up. (Period! George Patton at his finest.)
The next point of discussion broke the camel’s back. It was this encounter that caused me to resign. I was told to stop being a prude. This wasn’t the affluent suburbs. Where this school was located girls would be girls and at their ages many had robust sexual appetites. He expanded on his hypothesis but I had stopped listening.
He didn’t realize the difference between a four-pronged eating utensil and a certain sex act. We just stared at each other in total silence. Finally, after enlightening this bewildered educator as to the difference between the verb and noun in question …. I blurted out that I was finished and would not return after the term ended in four weeks. I finally surrendered.
To be honest, I never looked back. I loved teaching. I felt it was the right job for me. I did the right thing. I believe I helped a large number of students, male and female, to seek and, in many cases, achieve better lives than had I not been there to interact with them. I was only sorry to learn, after I left, many thought it was their behavior that made me leave. Nothing could have been further from the truth. They were the only reason I stayed!
I haven’t given this part of my life much thought in many years. I’ve been busy…. New career, family, wife, community involvement. But when Joe Biden was taken to task recently for his “busing” vote so long ago….I was reminded of my earlier days in the Philadelphia School system. It was such a different time and place. I don’t think busing would have helped my kids. And I can only imagine how it impacted them once put in place.
Perhaps it’s unfortunate that my history and experience tells me Joe Biden was one hundred percent correct in saying “nay” to busing. Just because someone says “nay” to a given idea doesn’t mean they’re a bigot or a racist. His remarks were very far from bigoted in intentions and meaning. And while I don’t always agree with today’s Joe Biden, what he espoused years ago definitely gives me pause.
Moving kids for long periods of time to vastly different environments for the sole purpose of mixing races was misguided in my opinion. Yes, it’s true, much of the stuff, programs, etc. implemented to achieve equality and racial parity were helpful. But, in my opinion, this notion of busing, was nothing more than a way of mixing black and white kids.
Let’s be brutally honest. I wonder what people in our greater reading area would think about participating in a busing program today? And what issues, pro and con, would be raised? And how many people who participated in that original “busing” would want to do it again? Back in the day, many of us remember that it was programs like this that impacted the great flight out of the cities. All types of parents left the identified areas. It didn’t matter what color you were. You left because of what you felt would happen to your school. Parents of all colors, races, religions and planets fled. They resettled elsewhere.
Well, what do you think? Busing was a sensitive issue then, and the thought of it in today’s environment could be just as sensitive. Many schools still suffer from stories/events as I encountered years ago. Do you think busing would impact the positive change we want for our children?
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