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A Math Teacher Writes / François Bereaud

I started my teaching career at age 22 in Camden, New Jersey, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. Camden was, and is, a very poor city. Driving through streets of row houses, I estimated every fourth to be abandoned. I saw no supermarkets or movie theaters in town, for that, one had to cross the highway into the suburb of Cherry Hill, a place which looked exactly as it sounded. Every day, I’d leave my Philadelphia apartment and make the short drive over the Ben Franklin Bridge to Camden High School, the “Castle on the Hill”. The school held about 1500 students in an imposing brick building. I say “held” intentionally as I came to see it as a safe haven for those students who made it there. While I saw a few fights, the school felt strangely calm.


I was only a few years older than my students, but our backgrounds couldn’t have been more different. I grew up white and middle class in a small college town. They were Black and brown, living in urban poverty. I taught the same class five times a day, a blend of pre-algebra and algebra to 10th graders. The goal of the class was to pass the High School Proficiency Test (HSPT), doing so would enable students to obtain a diploma. All of my students had failed the test the year before. They would get two chances to pass this year. The school scheduled pep rallies to hype up the HSPT.


Rosalyn was the first student who made an impression on me. She was in my first period class and would often be waiting for me when I showed up in the morning. She sat in the front row, always smiled, and did her homework without fail. I thought she had a good chance of passing the test in the fall. Then she disappeared. After a week, I asked a colleague who’d had her in class in ninth grade. He gave me a look. “She was sent away.” Sent away? To the pregnant girl school he explained. As soon as girls showed, they were whisked off as if it might be contagious. I’d had no idea. Rosalyn came back in May, looking the same as when she left. She proudly showed me a picture of her baby and continued doing her homework. Her kid would be thirty-four now, six years older than my firstborn. I don’t know if she passed the HSPT that year.


There were five of us new math teachers at the school and we were all to be evaluated by Mrs. W, an imposing district administrator. Toward the end of October, before a fall break, the word came that she was making the rounds. One by one, my colleagues got visits. By Friday, she still hadn’t been to my class. I hoped she wouldn’t observe the day before a break, and, if she happened to visit, I sure hoped it wouldn’t be period three. That class was my loudest, lead by Jimmy, a smallish kid who never sat down and never stopped talking, his staccato pattern a mix of Spanish and English. We’d come to an understanding. He could wander about the classroom and chatter as long as I could simultaneously attempt to teach. Class started that day. Two minutes later, Mrs. W walked in. I took a deep breath. Jimmy sat down for the first time in weeks. The period was unbelievable. Led by Jimmy, the students were exemplary. Hands were raised, answers were given, notes were taken. Mrs. W left early with a smile on her face. When class ended, I stood at the door to wish the students a good long weekend. Jimmy gave me a knowing look. You owe us. If I’d had a $20, I’d have dropped it in his hand right there. “They like you,” my mentor teacher said. Jimmy dropped out before the end of the year.


Diana had a squeaky voice which made her sound like a younger kid despite her make-up, and, like Rosalyn, she did all her homework. She was in the period before lunch and would sometimes stay a minute or two after class to talk with me. The conversations were light. She’d ask if I’d seen a certain movie or been to the Cherry Hill Mall. I imagined her at the mall with friends, maybe flirting with boys and probably being followed by mall security as I guessed all Camden kids were. She had a genuine enthusiasm for school and I gently tried to suggest future academic possibilities. She also seemed tired. On top of her schoolwork, she cared for several younger siblings. At the end of the year, she passed the HSPT. I mentioned it to the same colleague who’d schooled me on Rosalyn. He’d also had Diana the year before, but didn’t share my enthusiasm. He told me her mother was a known prostitute and that it was likely Diana, would – or already had – follow in those footsteps. Anger rose in me and I wanted to punch him. I walked away, hoping against hope that he was wrong.


It’s been decades since my year at Camden High. It’s an unsolvable math problem, but I estimate that I’ve had around 8000 students sit in my classrooms over those years. The overwhelming majority of those names and faces are lost to time, but Rosalyn, Jimmy, and Diana endure.


Some stories an old teacher doesn’t forget.



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 FRANCOIS BEREAUD teaches and writes in San Diego.


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