You're Fired, Go Teach!
Room 230. First day of school. I unlock the door and try to wrap my head around what's about to happen here . . . in my classroom . . . where I'm Mr. Danza. That Mister alone takes some getting used to--a whole different kind of Boss. At Philadelphia's Northeast High, only my fellow teachers get to call me Tony. School rules. This gig isn't acting, it's for real. Real kids, real lives, real educations at stake. And any minute now my students are going to walk through that door.
Engage the students. The mantra that was drilled into my head during teacher orientation starts playing like a bass drum in my chest. One of my instructors rolled her eyes when she said it, and then she added, "No one ever seems to question why the burden is all on the teacher to do the engaging, when we ask so little of the students, or for that matter, their parents."
Her vehemence startled me. "I never thought of it that way," I told her.
"No," she said, not unkindly. "But I promise, you will."
It's stifling. I turn on the AC--a luxury I'm grateful for--and double-check my room. It looks as good as I could possibly make it in my week of prep. The institutional beige cinder-block walls and the desktops are scrubbed so clean even my mother would approve. I dusted the bookshelves, squeegeed the windows, and installed dispensers of hand sanitizer by each door--an attempt to defend my students against the swine flu epidemic that's threatening the nation. This last touch, I hope, will show the kids that I sincerely care about their well-being and not that I'm a germ freak. I've also decorated the walls with fadeless blue paper and encouraging banners, which say things like the only place success comes before work is in the dictionary and my favorite, no moaning, no groaning--if only I could follow that advice myself! Above the blackboard, I've glued big letters to spell out: take part in your own education. And on the wall are listed my class rules:
1. BE here, on time and prepared
2. BE kind
I try to shrug off the advice of a veteran teacher I met last week at Becker's, the local school supply warehouse where I bought all this signage. He was a sweet-faced guy, moonlighting as a checkout clerk to make ends meet--so much for those "outrageous" public school salaries--and he immediately marked me as a novice. His tip-off was the huge pile of educational decorations I was charging to my own credit card. Philadelphia teachers receive only a hundred dollars each for classroom supplies for the whole year; obviously I was way over budget in more ways than one. So this veteran offered a tactic to save my skin. "Never smile before Christmas," he warned. "Smiling puts you at their mercy, they'll eat you alive."
Fortunately, before I can dwell on this memory, the bell rings. Actually, it screams like an air-raid siren. But then, the strangest thing happens. Outside, the hallways are bedlam, but in my classroom dead quiet reigns, even after the first student walks in. She's small and neat, wearing jeans, a white T-shirt, and a plastic headband. She bounces a little on the balls of her feet and grins at me, but doesn't make a sound.
I have a big mouth, which is how this whole thing got started.
In 2007 I was two years into my dream job--hosting a live, one-hour TV talk show in New York City. It aired from ten to eleven every weekday morning on the ABC network, right after Live! with Regis and Kelly and before The View. I felt like the king of New York. The show not only gave me a window into the true complexity of the greatest city on earth but also offered a...