Vital Signs

Teaching the "Unteachable"

On the last day of the school year, I sat at my desk. My students had not yet arrived, and I was considering making a decision that would affect the rest of my life.

The machinery that precipitated my dilemma had been set in motion a year earlier. Having recently earned a B.A. as an evening student, I was about to retire from the New York City Police Department, where I had been employed for the past 20 years as a member of the uniformed force. I planned to attend law school full-time, and subsequently pursue a career in law. But unexpected financial exigencies forced a change in plans. I needed a job.

The New York City Board of Education, facing a teacher shortage, had announced that it would temporarily waive education course requirements—to be fulfilled at a later time—for candidates who met all other eligibility criteria. I decided that, after I had fulfilled those requirements, I would enroll in law school as an evening student. I took the examination for a license to teach social studies in the secondary schools, and passed.

When I appeared at Board of Education headquarters for a teaching assignment, I was directed to the Bureau for the Socially Maladjusted and Emotionally Disturbed (BSMED). I would be teaching boy's who, when frustrated, often react violently. For many of them, the courts had issued PINS (Persons in Need of Supervision) petitions, attesting to the inability of parents,...

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