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As Bad as They Say?

Three Decades of Teaching in the Bronx

Janet Grossbach Mayer

Publication Year: 2011

Rundown, vermin-infested buildings. rigid, slow-to-react bureaucratic systems. Children from broken homes and declining communities. How can a teacher succeed? How does a student not only survive but also come to thrive? It can happen, and As Bad as They Say? tells the heroic stories of Janet Mayer's students during her 33-year tenure as a Bronx high school teacher.In 1995, Janet Mayer's students began a pen-pal exchange with South African teenagers who, under apartheid, had been denied an education; almost uniformly, the South Africans asked, Is the Bronx as bad as they say? This dedicated teacher promised those students and all future ones that she would write a book to help change the stereotypical image of Bronx students and show that, in spite of overwhelming obstacles, they are outstanding young people, capable of the highest achievements.She walks the reader through the decrepit school building, describing in graphic detail the deplorable physical conditions that students and faculty navigate daily. Then, in eight chapters we meet eight amazing young people, a small sample of the more than 14,000 students the writer has felt honored to teach.She describes her own Bronx roots and the powerful influences that made her such a determined teacher. Finally, the veteran teacher sounds the alarm to stop the corruption and degradation of public education in the guise of what are euphemistically labeled reforms (No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top). She also expresses optimism that public education and our democracy can still be saved, urgently calling on all to become involved and help save our schools.

Published by: Fordham University Press

Title Page, Copyright, Dedication

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xiv

At a time of crisis and upheaval in the New York City school system, when tests, assessments, and school closings have left students and teachers feeling battered and demoralized and when leadership of the system has been handed from a prosecutor to a magazine executive, perhaps people concerned with education should begin listening to voices...

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Nobody can make it out here alone

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pp. xv-xvi

Many indispensable people helped, guided, and encouraged me throughout the writing of this book. My husband, Larry, my muse, is, as always, at the top of my list of ardent, invaluable, and influential supporters. Nothing is possible without him! My son Stuart and daughter-in-law Maureen—my electronic media specialists who unraveled every snafu, of which there were many—gave countless hours of...

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To the Reader

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pp. xvii-xx

The students I have written about in this book really do exist, and the crucial moments in their lives that I have described are accurate to the best of my memory...

I. Bronx Roots

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1. Introduction

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pp. 3-8

September is—for me—the most beautiful month of the year. Here in the Northeast part of the United States, the weather is near-perfect, not too hot and not too cold. The autumn leaves are in all their glory, and so am I. I have spent sixty-one of my seventy-one Septembers in a New York City classroom, beginning as a kindergartner and ending...

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2. Nobody

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pp. 9-35

Iwrote this book specifically to tell you about my students. My intention was to be the storyteller, not the story. In a world where celebrities rule, fame fades, and idols fall, I am only too glad to have little or no attention focused on me. I am happy to stand outside the crowd and just be myself, my own person. The poet Emily Dickinson said it best...

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3. It Was the Worst of Times

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pp. 36-48

In 1975, America was in the midst of yet another economic crisis, and New York City was close to financial ruin.1 Mayor Abraham Beame and Governor Hugh Carey looked to President Gerald Ford for a bailout, and on August 30, 1975, the New York Daily News printed as its headline what was essentially Ford’s response: ‘‘drop dead.’’2 (His callous response was in stark contrast to President Barack Obama’s response...

II. Defying Expectations

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4. Omara—The Orphan

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pp. 51-56

It is easier and quicker to get to know the noisier students than it is to get to know the quieter ones. The student who asks for the bathroom pass and informs you, and the entire class, as to what bodily function must be performed immediately or dire consequences would result, is so different from the shy kid who would rather die than even ask for a...

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5. Remarkable Ramika

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pp. 57-61

What you noticed first about Ramika was her large, horn-rimmed glasses. You saw the glasses before you saw her sweet, soft-looking face; she had medium brown skin and was of average height and weight. She could have easily melted into a crowd of students, except for those oversized spectacles. They were the kind of frame that, in the...

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6. Marion—A Rare Gem

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pp. 62-68

It was the first day of classes in September, the second day after Labor Day. The halls were filled with students, armed with new programs, searching out their new rooms and teachers. I noticed a very sweetlooking young girl peeking into my room. She was nervously clutching her program and checking the room number and teacher’s name on the...

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7. A Typical American Teenager—Dominican Republic–Style

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pp. 69-73

The beginning of every term is frenetic, and so it was a few weeks into the term before I realized that not only were two of my students brother and sister, they were also twins. Dora had sparkling eyes, the kind that indicate a healthy glow inside and a spirit not yet killed by either a chaotic home life or a stultifying school system. She was extremely pretty with thick brown hair and a slim figure usually hidden...

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8. Tenacious Tamika

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pp. 74-77

Itaught in summer school only once, almost thirty years ago. (Once was enough; it was so grueling.) It was there that I met Tamika. It was July 5, the first day of classes, orientation day, and I conducted a tour of the enormous and convoluted five-story building for my group of new students. Some students were noisy, some were quiet, and some were...

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9. Multiple Intelligences: A Digression

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pp. 78-82

Ican’t wait to tell you about Dolores, Marisa, and Pedro; their stories are coming up next. But in order to write about them, I have to introduce you to (if you don’t already have his acquaintance) Dr. Howard Gardner, John H. and Elizabeth A. Hobbs Professor of Cognition and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education...

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10. Dolores—The Dancer

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pp. 83-90

Unsmiling. Tense. That’s how Dolores appeared walking into my classroom for the first time. I said, ‘‘A smile is needed to get a seat in my classroom!’’ It was definitely the wrong thing to say because a large scowl came across her beautiful face. She stopped in her tracks and looked back, wistfully, at the door; it was still open, and she looked like...

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11. Marisa—with Charisma

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pp. 91-96

Marisa was an extremely talented young teenager with an outgoing personality and uncommon singing ability. She could have been written off as not having gifts of any kind (see Chapter 9, ‘‘Multiple Intelligences: A Digression’’) because of her weakness in math. In high school, math counts exceedingly high; in life...

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12. Pedro—The Piano Player

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pp. 97-101

Some of the most profound conversations that I ever had with my closest colleagues occurred in our non-air-conditioned, decrepit basement lunchroom. (I tore my hosiery every day on the broken wooden chairs that served as lunchroom ‘‘furniture.’’) Although these devoted teachers taught English, as I did, we often lamented the lack of music instruction, not only in our school, but in so many city high...

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13. Bridging the Gap

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pp. 102-104

There are so many other Bronx students that I could tell you about. Would you believe that a young man, our valedictorian some years ago, admitted to a few of his teachers, near graduation day, that he had been homeless for the last year of high school and had been living on the New York City subway, keeping warm and sleeping on the train...

III. Losing Our Way

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14. Deception, Dismantling, and Demise of Public Education

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pp. 107-142

Oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.’’ When Walter Scott penned these famous words, could he ever have known that over two hundred years later, he would be describing the destructive forces in education today? In all good conscience, I cannot conclude my book without commenting on and detailing...


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pp. 143-154


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pp. 155-160


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pp. 161-166

E-ISBN-13: 9780823249268
Print-ISBN-13: 9780823234165
Print-ISBN-10: 0823234169

Page Count: 192
Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Mayer, Janet Grossbach.
  • High school teachers -- United States -- Biography.
  • English teachers -- United States -- Biography.
  • Teaching -- New York (State) -- New York.
  • Bronx (New York, N.Y.).
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