In 1988, when I was 21 years old, I signed up to be a substitute teacher with the Trenton Public School District in Trenton, NJ. I was young and naive and really did not know what I was getting into. However, I was a college student at the time, and since I had 60 credits under my belt I met the requirements for the job. The pay was $60.00 a day.
On my first day I was told to report to Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School. The school was located in the heart of an urban neighborhood. A housing project was located right across the street, and many of the homes in the area were old or badly in need of repair. Two liquor stores were close by; students surely had to pass them on their way to school. I can recall being a little nervous as I entered the building because a local newspaper had recently run a story in which a writer characterized Trenton students as animals. It was a particularly nasty piece, complete with a photo illustration of animals hanging out of a school bus. I had also heard stories about how bad some of the students were. Unsure of what I might encounter I braced myself for the worst.
As I walked to the main office I examined my new surroundings. The first thing I noticed was that the walls and floors were dark brown in color. Uncovered brown cast iron radiators could be found along the walls and the early morning sunlight filled the hallways. The school was being clean and presentable. However, when compared to the suburban middle school I attended the building seemed old and out of date. I later learned that King Middle School was the second oldest middle school in the United States.
The principal at that time was black man who looked like he was approaching middle age. He had a study build and his salt and pepper hair made him look somewhat distinguished. He exuded confidence and I sat in the main office and watched as he got the day started. His voice echoed through the hallways as he made the morning announcements over the PA system and he addressed some problems that needed his attention. To me he looked like he was trying to stay on top of things, and make sure the school day got started smoothly.
I received my assignment from the school secretary. I cannot recall if I was subbing for a 7th or 8th grade teacher. But I do remember feeling a little uneasy as I walked into the classroom and greeted the students. It was my first day on the job, and I was worried that the students might find some reason to make fun of me. I was wearing a greenish and black colored sweater and black pants. The black shoes I was wearing were out of date even by 1980 standards. I can distinctly remember that outfit because as a college student I didn’t have much of a professional wardrobe and I was concerned that some of the students might make a fun of my attire or make some type of wise crack. Neither thing happened. Instead the students just kind of looked at me as I told them my name and gave them a worksheet out of the sub folder. They received the document and politely began to talk amongst themselves. It was almost as if they were used to having subs so they knew the routine. I had heard so much about how out of control Trenton students were so I expected them to be unruly. However, the students I interacted with that day were not little villains or troublemakers. I found them to be polite, mannerly and friendly.
The bell rang signally the end of the period and the students busted into the hallways. It was like they had all this pent up energy that needed to be released, and I watched as some of them laughed and joked on their way to their next location. As I walked down the hallway I encountered a security guard standing outside the boy’s bathroom. I wondered why they felt the need to have guards in the building. Were they expecting the kids to riot and assault each other all day long? As soon as the guard spoke I felt like he was a negative influence in the building. Well, in actuality, he didn’t speak to the kids, he yelled at them as he attempted to get them to move along. To make matters worse he used profanity to get his point across. It was my first negative experience; hearing someone talk to the students like they were less than human.
Eventually it came time for lunch and I followed the kids to the cafeteria which was located down stairs. Whereas the rest of the building seemed to be presentable the cafeteria looked dark and inhospitable. Because of the location and structure room only a little sunlight could filter into the space, and the light fixtures did not provide adequate illumination. The teacher’s lounge was not too much better than the student cafe. The tables were old and there was nothing inviting about the space.
Eventually the day ended and I departed. I can’t remember everything that happened that day (again it was over 25 years ago). But I can recall wondering why certain parts of the building were so dark and wondering why they had security guards. Yet most of all I found myself questioning why so many people had such negative things to say about Trenton students. Generally speaking, I found them to be friendly, energetic and no different than any kids.