At Thanksgiving with Andrew’s family, I was paired up with another stray cat, Illona,* herself a reason to give thanks. “I work in Brooklyn,” she said shyly. I pressed her a little. “I work at a school.”
To be exact, she’s the principal of a bran-new public high school in Brooklyn, somewhere in the housing projects that loom between DUMBO(Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) and the lost village of Vinegar Hill. It welcomed its first hundred freshmen last September, and will double in size with the 2005 intake.
The theme of the school is Law and Justice, and she’s persuaded a fancy Manhattan law firm to help fund it. In the richest country in the world, public education depends in increasing part on corporate charity, and her kids are lucky to have a scrappy Bryn Mawr-Brooklynite to hustle for them. The law firm gives money for after-school programs, lends their contract movers to haul donated desks, and sends along their caterers and balloon-printers for the opening party. They book their senior staff for the monthly Lunch With Lawyers program for the kids.
“Is that a treat or a punishment?” we asked. Last month they sent Bill Gates’ dad.
I’d joked about my big fat Italian Thanksgiving, but in fact, Andrew is a Connecticut charmer, preppy enough to wear a blazer to Thanksgiving. (In high school he sang in an a capella group hired to produce angelic noises for Martha Stewart’s Christmas party. To avoid clutter, she tucked them into the attic above the party room and forced them to sing into the floor vent. Then she tried to give them credit in her book instead of the cash they’d been promised for their choir’s trip. “They’re high school boys!” said their choirmaster, “They don’t give a shit about your book!”)
Now he’s a theater director, and his latest project is a production of _Antigone_ with Illona’s freshmen students.
“Antigone?” I asked. “With Brooklyn public school kids?”
“Well, the text turned out to be a bit hard. So we’re doing it as improv. The chorus is a bunch of taxi drivers and deli owners, whining about the mayor.”
He and Illona swap stories about the kids. She seems to know every single name and family history. She’s very young, but not to a fourteen year old. “I’ve got the stare down. And the tone. If you don’t have the stare and the tone, you don’t make it through your first year of public teaching.”
She looks happy but exhausted, and glad to get decent food.
“I eat crap,” she says cheerfully. “Pizza. Chinese.”
When she got the job in February, she started working 12 to 14 hour days to plan the school. Through the summer her work days stretched to sixteen hours while she set the budget, hired the staff, and recruited the students at school fairs. She still doesn’t know where the school will live next year; there’s a chronic shortage of space in New York. “If we could just stay with a hundred, I’d be so happy. I love these kids. It’s the thought of doubling that scares me. And again the year after.”
The day before she’d taken them all to a sister school in the Bronx for a bring-a-dish Thanksgiving. It’s a little secret, she says, that the MTA(Metropolitan Transit Authority) will give schools vouchers for free travel on the subway. She takes her kids all over the city, uses it so much that she’s afraid they’ll tot up at the end of the year that her hundred kids have taken 7,000 free trips or something. The Thanksgiving was a great success. The Bronx school hired a DJ, and the kids got _real_ friendly. She had to walk around and separate them.
“Are you joking? Or do you really separate them?” We have visions of Ferris Bueller’s principal.
“Yes! We have to! You should see ’em. At least during school hours, we’ve got to watch them. When they misbehave, they get sent to the wall. They can still dance, but they’ve got to keep at least one hand on the wall.”
Like the Hays Code. I grew up in a family of teachers, and in Illona’s splutters, I hear the giggles that sometimes escaped stone-faced puritans of my youth, when the other students weren’t listening.
Andrew has read about this thing in the _New York Times_, where the girls grind their butts into the boys’ crotches…
“It’s called ‘dubbing’,” says Illona wearily.
“Is that where the girls touch the floor at the same time? Or is that some other thing?” he asks. He says that his Connecticut high school pretty much stopped at Stir the Pot and Running Man. We speculate on whether Dubbing wouldn’t be a better theme for a high school than Law and Justice. Might go down better at the student recruitment fairs.
“Let me tell you,” says Illona, “when you walk around, and they’re doing that stuff, and you’re saying, Alright, alright, get some daylight between you, you suddenly think, How did I become _this_ person?”
She hasn’t yet turned thirty, but she’s a frazzled, proud mother of a hundred babies; newborn teenagers. All through the turkey, I kept thinking, why isn’t someone making a documentary of this woman’s work?
*Real name hidden from Google