One recent Monday morning, I boarded the C train at 168th Street in Upper Manhattan, on my way to jury duty.
While I waited on the platform, I noticed a young black man, high-school student age, professionally dressed in a blue shirt and tie and dark blue slacks. The young man’s face was hardened, possibly to ward off any conversation from strangers.
We both boarded the train and took seats which called for direct eye contact if either of us faced forward. The young man happened to be sitting under a poster that read “Welcome Back to School.” The posters are sponsored by the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principal’s union, and the one above his head had a picture of me on it.
I asked the young man if he was wearing a school uniform. He said yes and proceeded to tell me that he attended the Bronx School for Law, Government and Justice. As I got up to move toward him, the young man quickly took out his school identification and showed it to me. I realized he probably thought I was a police officer.
I often talk to school-age students on the train. On this day, I was also thinking about the achievement gap, and about how the city is now rewarding schools on its annual progress report if they show improvement among its black and Latino male students. Whenever I can share with a student, especially a black male student, I try to. I am a graduate of Morehouse College, a historically black institution that is all male, and mentoring is what I learned there.
Without telling the young man who I was, I began to engage him in a conversation. Now that I think about it, engage does not at all do justice to the rapid questioning that I subjected the young man to. He was noticeably uncomfortable and even stuttered when attempting to answer my questions. I asked him the following questions:
What is your current grade?
Have you taken the PSAT and SAT?
Do you want to attend college?
Have you decided on a major?
Passengers on the train looked on with curiosity.
The young man answered that he was a junior and had taken the PSAT but he needed to check with his counselor about the SAT. He told me he was interested in architecture or engineering and that he was possibly interested in M.I.T.
I then asked him if he knew what minimum math SAT score he needed to show that he was college ready for a STEM major, or what we call the studies of science, technology, engineering and mathematics. The young man said he did not know, but he said he was good in math.
I decided that I really had interviewed this young man enough. I asked him to turn around and look at the poster behind him. I returned to my original seat. When the young man noticed that I was the man in the picture, his face flashed a smile that could have been used for a toothpaste commercial. He then exclaimed, “Wow, what a small world!”
The encounter was a small glimpse into the kinds of survival skills students in certain New York neighborhoods have had to hone that are often counterproductive to the social networking required for success in the professional world.
For example, in some neighborhoods young people are told not to look people directly in the face because the look may be perceived as aggressive and may cause the student to be placed in a situation where he might have to defend himself. Also, being polite and speaking first within some neighborhoods could cause a student to be attacked.
The young man also treated me one way before I let him know who I was. He was code-switching. Some people think they have to be able to easily switch their behaviors or the way they talk, depending on whom they meet.
As a principal, it makes me think about how complex it is to create a successful school culture for students who were brought up according to these intricate codes.
The young man had been quick to produce his identification for me, and it probably never occurred to him that I was an educator interested in his future.