Purgatorio Leads to Paradiso
Since I began with a Dante metaphor, I might as well stick with it. Most folks are understandably unfamiliar with the Divine Comedy. It’s being used broadly here, to illustrate how my journey through the World of School Reform ascended from 1987 (my Inferno) through a transition (the Purgatorio --- from 1989-1993) before “ascending” to a Paradiso during the 1994-1996 years. Before examining those Purgatorio years, though, it’s crucial to mention the importance of my living in New York City at this time. Throughout my (first) tenure as an NYC resident, I lived on the Upper West Side --- the neighborhood I had fallen in love with in the summer of 1986. It was, for me, a perfect match --- easy access to the rest of the city by way of the 1,2,3 trains, rife with diners as well as music and theater venues (The Beacon, The Promenade, Symphony Space), great markets (the first Fairway, Citarella’s seafood) --- who could want more? In the middle of all of it, for me, was Big Nick’s Burger Joint on the west side of Broadway between 76th and 77th streets. Big Nick’s became my touchstone, home-away-from-home and, during my second tenure on the UWS (2009-2014) I actually wrote an essay for a workshop (facilitated by New Yorker writer Ian “Sandy” Frazier) about it. Here’s an excerpt:
When talking to a New Yorker (NOTE: when I use the term “New York” or “New Yorker” I’m talking about Manhattan. Brooklyn, Queens, and Bronx residents refer to themselves based on their boroughs…and Staten Island, well, is really part of New Jersey, despite the longest suspension bridge in the world) so, when talking to a New Yorker, two of the easiest and most common topics of conversation are living space and food. For example, “He got a two-bedroom with 900 square feet for only $2500 a month!!” and “Waddaya wanna eat tonight? Italian? Chinese? Thai? Japanese?” And this is why, to me, Big Nick’s epitomizes the New York I know.
Standing on Broadway facing Big Nick's storefront, the green awning clearly announces "Big Nick's Burger Joint" while sporting a gay pride flag on top (“Some of the staff are gay…I support them”). The front of the place foreshadows what is to come. The glass door alone has six different signs on it, announcing "Booths and Tables in the Rear" as well as "No Transfats" ( great, if unlikely, consolation for a Burger Joint?). A red neon sign in the window announces, "Charcoal Prime Steaks and Ribs" and a placard informs you "Breakfast Special 6 am - 12 noon/ Breakfast 24 hours a day/Daily Specials - Pick Up Our Menu". There are no fewer than 11 more signs festooning the 15-foot wide brick face and window.
The menus sport a caricature of Mr. Nick himself (drawn by his wife …”she’s very talented”) , flexing a dumbbell comprised of two large burgers, resulting in an impressive bicep bulge. The cartoon does not particularly resemble Mr. Nick -- not even the Mr. Nick I first met in the late 80's, when his hair was still dark and his height and weight made the appellation "Big" Nick understandable. In those days, as now, he was always a presence overseeing the day-to-day operations of "the Joint." Mr. Nick started the Burger Joint in 1962, with some friends, when the Upper West Side was still “West Side Story” territory and the neighborhood was dominated by Guiseppe Verdi (“Needle”) Park. But the Promenade Theatre was across the street and the actors and theatre goers loved the burgers at “The Big Nick’s.” As more “Burger Joints” sprung up around town, Mr. Nick created the quarter pound “Big Nick” burger and the name for the “Joint” changed. When McDonald’s created their Quarter Pounder, the “Big Nick” went up to a half pound …..and an Upper West Side legend was born.
Sadly, Big Nick’s has gone the way of Upper West Side gentrification, priced out of the neighborhood. It was the place I always took my NYC visitor/tourist/out-of-town friends to, so they would get the “real feel” of The City. Big Nick’s represented everything I loved about living in New York City --- it was bustling at all hours, it had numerous characters from Central Casting sitting at the counter, its walls were adorned with autographed photos of the (very) young David Letterman and Mike Tyson, as well as a million “stars” from the neighborhood --- actors and athletes who were in plays and commercials, singers and record producers --- you name it, the Upper West Side had it! The energy and excitement of living in New York City in those years was infectious and primed me for my first summer in Providence in 1990.
The First Terrace
Where the Inferno is a series of “circles” where sinners reside, the Purgatorio is composed of “terraces” Dante and Virgil ascend (each Terrace represents one of the Seven Deadly Sins). What distinguishes the residents of the Purgatorio from those in the Inferno is that those in the Circles are damned, while those on the Terraces have hope for redemption. So, while they may be guilty of pride, envy, wrath, or sloth, for instance, they can be saved! I’m pretty sure that analogy works for how I viewed School Reform in 1990. There were the “non-believers” (some of whom actively worked against reform efforts) --- I believed they were damned But there was also a vast mass of teachers and administrators who exhibited some aspect of those Deadly Sins (particularly pride or sloth) but might well be capable of coming around and achieving School Reform redemption. Whatever the case, I headed for Providence, Rhode Island eager to meet the “Virgils” who would guide me, providing instruction on how to save those souls who were wandering in the Purgatorio but might, with the proper intervention, see the light of the Paradiso. (We won’t discuss how the Sin of Pride may well have infected me at this time . . . but I’m sure the Reader can judge for her/himself!)
If you have visited Providence in the 21st century you undoubtedly have a positive view of the place. It is, indeed, a picturesque city with great hotels, prestigious institutions of Higher Education (Brown University, Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales), fabulous restaurants, terrific hotels, the Trinity Repertory Company and a new Performing Arts Center, a great “local” sports scene (college basketball & hockey squads, as well as Boston’s top “minor” league franchises in both hockey and baseball), and, in the summer, access to fabulous beaches (Rhode Island is, after all, “The Ocean State”). That was not the case in 1990. When we arrived in late June of 1990, I was shocked that I was in the State Capitol. As I told Paula Evans, the Director of the Citibank Teacher Program, “There’s no downtown downtown!” There were few decent places to eat, nothing scenic to look at, and only two hotels in the whole city! Luckily, our cohort of teachers spent almost all our time on “College Hill,” where Brown University is located.
The First Cohort
Under the outstanding leadership of Paula Evans, ably assisted by (the equally outstanding) Gene Thompson, and held together by Program Administrator Kitty Pucci, the first cohort of 15 Citibank Teachers were in great hands. It was an outstanding group, assembled from all over the country. There were teachers from Arkansas(2), Tennessee, Maryland, Pennsylvania, California, Iowa, Texas (2), Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Michigan, and New York (3). Paula and Gene quickly created a “team” from this disparate group of “like-minded” teachers. We were all living in a student dormitory north of the Main Campus, in a building whose architecture can best be described as “neo-penal.” Even that helped create a wonderful rapport among “the troops.”
Our days were packed with activity. There were two segments to our daily routine. In the mornings we were teaching at Brown Summer High School (BSHS) --- a laboratory school created every summer on the Brown campus to give aspiring teachers in the Brown University Education Department’s Teacher Preparation Program an initial “real world” teaching experience. 400 students from the Providence City school system enrolled in BSHS, which met from 8:00 a.m. until 12 noon each day, with two “Class” blocks (8:00 to 9:50 a.m. & 10:10 until noon. It was not a “credit-bearing” Summer School (although some students, who needed credits in certain subjects could “negotiate” with their school’s Guidance Counselors and receive credit from BSHS --- but they were the rare exception, not the rule). The student teachers worked in teams of 2,3, or 4 and the “courses” were built around Essential Questions, rather than “content” to be “covered.” As experienced teachers, Citibank “Fellows” taught our class solo but did design the curriculum around the same Essential Question the student-teachers in our discipline were using. We each taught in one of the blocks and observed our colleagues, or the student-teachers, in the other block. A wonderful, eye-opening experience.
In the afternoon we met as a large group first, to work through the 9 Common Principles and clarify our understanding about them, and then we would often break into smaller, “working” groups wrestling with how we would “consult” with teacher practitioners. The goal for the Citibank cohort was to create a cadre of Classroom Teachers who were not only working on implementing Coalition Principles and reform in their own classrooms and schools but could also visit other Coalition schools and serve as consultants/coaches for the teachers in those schools. This perfectly fit into the basic philosophy of the Coalition --- teachers would be the fulcrum to lever change in schools.
Our group was exceptional --- intelligent, thoughtful, professional on every level. The summer was a formative experience and, by early August, we were ready to leave Providence and not only return to our schools “re-charged” and ready to go, but also prepared to begin working with other practitioners in Coalition Schools all around the country. Returning to school in September, I believe I felt like Dante facing the terraces of the Purgatorio. As noted by Jonathan Jones in The Guardian:”
It is a spiritual journey towards light through darkness,
marked by meetings with the damned, who confess their sins
and remember their lives with pain, pride, regret and longing.
Remembering how Herndon and Sizer both likened the Public School to a secular church, the parallel to The Divine Comedy struck a responsive chord.
Next: Citibank Boots on the Ground