Zalykha María Mokim
Do you remember that episode of “Girls” where Lena Dunham becomes a teacher? Dunham walks into a pretty well-organized school building, decides she wants to become a teacher, gets a roster of less than twenty students, does some sort of lesson in front of a bunch of teenagers that only involves talking at them and also starts dating a chiseled model type co-worker who teaches at her school.
What a load of shit that was.
For the past seven years I’ve had the privilege, pleasure and well, pain of being a public school teacher in New York City; five of those years have been in Bushwick, where I still currently teach.
First and very much foremost, with the exception of charter schools (which I am more than happy to discuss at a later point), becoming a teacher isn’t just about being literate and walking into a classroom willing to talk at a bunch of kids. See, most NYC teachers went to graduate school and studied on countless evenings to become teachers; we actually made that choice and committed to it. Oh, plus we had to pass over $750 worth of certification tests that very much resemble what Camus was writing about in “The Myth of Sisphysus.” Pointless, harsh and a point of pride once you pass them.
I wake up every single morning well before dawn and sleepily make myself coffee—see, here’s the reality of being a resident and teacher in Bushwick: those cute overpriced coffee bars aren’t even open on my walk to school. No croissants, avocado toast or whatever it is that they peddle; not that I could afford it anyway on my salary. At my old school, I had a colleague from some suburb in upstate New York who’d insist that she “can’t take the train, even if it’s the L” if it was dark outside.
Well, one of my favorite parts of my day is my walk, bike ride or public transportation commute to and from work. It’s on those walks that I’m able to really better understand what’s going on in the neighborhood, that I can see what challenges lie ahead and I’m able to reflect on the day I just had. Three out of four days I’ll run into students on my way to work and it always brightens my day; it gives me something to look forward to. I’ve run into mothers on the B54 bus, abuelas on the B60, fathers walking their child to school and even some students taking their own little sibling on the M train. Regardless of whatever will happen that day or what has happened in the past, they’ll always say “HI MS MOKIM!” or “MISSSSSS MOKIM.”
Frank McCourt once said a classroom teacher is “a drill sergeant, a rabbi, a shoulder to cry on, a disciplinarian, a singer, a low-level scholar, a clerk, a referee, a clown, a counselor, a dress-code enforcer, a conductor, an apologist, a philosopher, a collaborator, a tap dancer, a politician, a therapist, a fool, a traffic cop, a priest, a mother – father – brother – sister – uncle – aunt, a bookkeeper, a critic, a psychologist, the last straw.” McCourt was spot on and what I’d say is that he was missing a few other titles.
In my classrooms in Bushwick, I’m also human Yelp filterer (“Miss, I never heard of Roberta’s but it can’t be as good as Tony’s?”), a map (“The library is RIGHT BY here: go three blocks until you hit Dekalb, after the 99 cent store”), a translator for monolingual students and colleagues (“Bueno, y que paso en la clase de US History?”) and a civil rights activist (“No one ever has the right to ask you or anyone for papers”). I’ll never completely get tired of the way that kids come into my classroom and as soon as they walk in begin rapping at me about anything and everything. I will say that in my experience, I’ve found Bushwick students to be so much more verbose, collegial and warm than any other people I’ve ever met.
Teaching students goes beyond just giving them lessons on very important skills that as adults we take for granted. Learning how to read, for example, the very act that you are doing now, that is powerful and in the classroom, you’ll have the opportunity to coach a student through that journey.
While the rest of Bushwick can marvel over Wangfest or street murals, I’d challenge them to see the art of everyday living that many residents here expose in their day-to-day lives. It’s no surprise that some of Meryl Meisler’s best photographs were taken during her time as a middle school teacher over by Knickerbocker. Working with students, for the right person, is an art. In our classroom, every day is Bushwick Open Studios.
On a given day when you walk in, you’ll see that Ashley* is a public advocate, Briana is a novelist, Jose is a model, Daisha is an abstract artist and well, we’re all connoisseurs. Some nights around 8:45 p.m., while many much discussed Bushwick residents are just getting settled into their cozy bar stools, I find myself exhausted and grading countless papers, pouring over student work, figuring out where it may belong on a rubric and providing them comments so they know that you only get even better. I remember once I saw a Woody Allen film and he said, “those who can’t, teach.” In my experience, especially within education, I’ve realized that those who can’t, well, they can do everything except teach.
*All names are purely fictional in order to support and respect the privacy of students.