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The First Day of "The Great Expectations School" (Exclusive Book Excerpt)

09/09/2009 03:09 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Today is the first day of class for New York City public schools. Below is an excerpt from The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle about my rocky first day as a fourth grade teacher in the Bronx.

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At 7:58, I descended the stairs to the basement level where the students waited in the cafeteria. Each step down brought me closer to the nether din of high-pitched children sounds. I cracked an excited smile, stunned that my weeks of training and years of youthful experience had steered me to this unequivocally grown-up post. For 22 years, I had been on one path and 25 Bronx children had been on another. Now we would meet.

"Don't smile!" Ms. Slocumb, a second-year Teaching Fellow, whispered forcefully. "Seriously, no smiling!"

Holding a pen and clipboard purely as props, I entered the lunchroom to meet the students. I took in the Spongebob Squarepants bookbags, the girls' elaborate hair settings, jeans with winding embroidered flowers by the cuff, and the boys' Allen Iverson jerseys. Kids. They looked adorable, eager-eyed for the uncertainty-fueled First Day of School. I circled the table, shaking each child's hand and introducing myself.

For the first of 183 times, we performed the morning lineup ritual of Mr. Randazzo raising his arm, the signal for silence. All responded by raising their arms in acknowledgment. Randazzo gave a perfunctory welcome speech and the kids fell swiftly into two lines, separated by gender and ordered by height. He came around to give each class a rubric score of one to four depending on the degree of silence and neatness of the line. I marveled at the grand organization.

Line leaders Hamisi and Sonandia (two with encouraging blue cards -- notes from their previous teachers), led the crew, halting every two doors in the corridor or every landing on the stairwell to look for the "go ahead" or "wait up" hand signal from me at the back. Meanwhile, I cased my problem-reputation kids. Imposing Lakiya Ray was the tallest in the class, a sour, tough-faced girl with tight braids. Eric Ruiz, whose previous teacher told me he was "just a weird kid," was unreadable at first. Deloris Barlow, a skinny, pig-tailed girl, was laughing a lot at the table before lineup but calmed down appropriately. Fausto Mason immediately tipped me off for trouble. Short and puffy-cheeked, Fausto grinned and swaggered with a loose strut.

During summer training, I studied cases that made a convincing argument that students' achievement levels vary directly with their teacher's expectations of them, regardless of neighborhood or family background. I was determined from the first day to maintain high expectations for all my students, giving everybody the blank slate I felt we all needed, even infamous Fausto Mason. After all, he had never had a male teacher and he had never had me.

I assigned the students to desks according to my carefully devised seating chart. Guided by the blue cards, I tried to arrange only one or two loose cannons per group.

After deflecting questions about my age, family size, and marital status, I launched into an even-tempered sermon about how 4-217 will succeed or fail as a group.

"On the Yankees, either everyone wins or no one wins. If Derek Jeter has a great hitting game but doesn't back up his pitcher at shortstop, the team suffers. The Yankees are a strong team because they back each other up. They win because they work together. We need to help each other out for us all to do well. All I want to do is help you get smarter and have fun while it's happening. I'm very interested in trips, rewards, and games, but only if we work together. Does this sound fair?"

"Yes, Mr. Brown," the choral response resounded. The speech felt firm and the kids sat silently with their eyes on me for every word.

"Excellent! Since we're a team, I thought it would be fair if we all made our class rules together. Who has an idea for a good rule for our team?"

Myriad hands shot up. I called on Cwasey, a shrimpy bespectacled boy with squinty eyes and a freshly shaved head.

"You should respect everyone. Like teachers and students and the principal."

"Outstanding Cwasey! Brilliant! Respect for teachers and students and the principal. An outstanding first rule." I jotted it on the board. "What exactly is 'respect?' Cwasey?"

"Respect means you should treat everybody good, like you want to be treated."
I had a star. Cwasey Bartrum!

I called next on Sonandia, my line leader. "You should do all your work the best you can all the time."

Deloris said, "Nobody should steal nobody's stuff and treat everything like it's important."

Bernard piped up, "You should not fight in school cause there's better ways to... like... solve your problems."

"You should respect everyone," Dennis reiterated.

Lakiya prompted several giggles when she shouted in her bassy tone, "Do your homework!"

I ignored the chuckles because she had hit one of the key points. This wasn't going to be so lawless after all. These children were moral authorities! I consolidated their input into two broad rules regarding respect, effort, and honesty (rules I had, of course, planned from the beginning) and moved them to the Reading Rug, an 8' by 10' panther design I had bought on the Grand Concourse.

For the first lesson, I was to read Crow Boy, an Eastern fairy tale about an outcast child who finds self-reliance. Introducing the story, I wrote the word "unique" on my chart paper which Sonandia, my wordsmith, defined as "one of a kind." I told them we all have secret talents that we ourselves might not even know about yet. "Some of you on the carpet right now might be brilliant comic strip artists, creative writers, question-askers, room-organizers, or things we haven't even thought of. This year we will work together to discover those hidden gifts."

Two pages into my Crow Boy read-aloud, Fausto stood up and ambled leisurely towards the door, drawing the attention of the whole class. "Fausto. Fausto. Fausto!" I shouted. Fausto turned back toward the class.

"THAT STORY'S WACK YO!"

I kept a straight face, but a majority of class erupted in crazed laughter at Fausto's apparently genius comedic line. Fausto beamed while 15 kids cracked up, Lakiya the loudest of all. She bellowed a forced, open-mouthed cackle, swaying violently in her seated position, knocking into classmates.
Ten seconds ago, we were all on the same page. Now it looked like a different class.

As the overwrought giggles receded, Fausto, now a superstar, still had not returned to his seat. I had to take this kid down. In deadpan, I said, "The story's not wack. Are you ready to stop acting like a kinder..."

"DAAAAAA!!!! Mr. Brown talkin' gangsta yo!"

"Mr. Brown said 'wack!'"

Destiny, Athena, Sonandia, and three others whose names I had not yet memorized sat patiently waiting for the story to continue. Everyone else was going bonkers.

"He say, 'the story not wack'!!!"

Beads of sweat formed all over me. I looked at the clock. 8:43. Three hours and 47 minutes until lunch.
"Silence. Silence. Fausto! Sit!" I yelled at him as I would a wayward mutt.

Deloris piped up with a grin, "Mr. Brown, you turning red."

Bernard jumped in on my behalf, "Be quiet yo! Let Mr. Brown read Crow Boy!"

Lakiya, still grinning, echoed Bernard's plea. "Shut up! Shut up y'all!" Suddenly, Fausto's face changed and he sat.

I had set myself against allowing "shut up" into the 4-217 vernacular, but my temperature was skyrocketing and at that moment I could handle the kids shutting each other up if it worked. And did Lakiya, a famous attitude problem child, hold sway over other kids' behavior?

You can read more about Mr. Brown's misadventures, fiascoes, and epiphanies in The Great Expectations School: A Rookie Year in the New Blackboard Jungle, now in paperback.