New Voices: “Don’t Smile” by Aaron Rabinowitz

June 3, 2024

In the early 2000s, Aaron Rabinowitz joins the New York City Teaching Fellows program and finds himself in the classroom, learning to teach on the job. “Don’t Smile” is a trip through Rabinowitz’s experience in that first year in a New York City public school. “Your first year isn’t about the students,” he’s advised. “It’s about surviving.”


1. New Job

People ask me what it was like to teach in a New York City public school but the question should really be, what was it was like to teach there without any training? The proper way to enter the field of education is to consider it a calling—to play “teacher” with your stuffed animals and to be a star student throughout your childhood, to have a poster on your bedroom wall of Strunk and White, to earn undergraduate and graduate degrees in molding young minds while piling up hundreds of student teaching hours. All I did during the dotcom bust was collect unemployment for as long as possible and get lured into the teaching profession by a free master’s in education and a guaranteed job.

The newly-minted New York City Teaching Fellows program, designed to address the massive teaching shortage, was built for people like me. What I brought to the table were five button-down shirts, three dress pants, a bag of my father’s old ties, and blood in my veins. There was a summer boot camp where we were given a lot of confidence and encouragement before we were sent into the least desirable, hardest-to-staff schools and reminded that if we quit, we would have to pay back our master’s degrees. For the next two years, I would be employed as a full-time teacher in a school in Brooklyn while taking evening classes in Manhattan. Surgeons do not operate in the ER in the AM and earn their MD in the PM, yet here I was attempting to teach during the day and learning how to teach at night.


2. Advice

An old boss of mine once said I had an easy smile. She hired me because You can’t teach smiling. But in the leadup to my first day in the classroom, all the veteran teachers I met told me not to smile until Thanksgiving or Christmas. When I was at a stoop sale, browsing used education books in front of an ex-teacher’s brownstone, he told me not to smile until Easter. I had just parted with fifty cents for his copy of Other People’s Children. He looked at me with wistfulness and resignation, as if my future was trenches and mustard gas. “Actually, don’t smile at all.”

I smiled. I thought he needed to preach more than I needed to listen. I mean, I had this. I’d spent part of the summer shadowing another teacher and taking full-time pedagogy courses. I’d just bought his dog-eared book on teaching.

But what he said next stayed with me. Advice of a new category. “Your first year isn’t about the students and it’s not about getting through to these kids. You just have to get through.” He clapped me on the shoulder and pocketed my change. “It’s about surviving.”


3. Another Thing Coming

They were late with cleaning the top floor of my new school that summer. I had hoped to set up my grade two classroom in August but was rebuffed by the custodial staff until early September.

My girlfriend Sara moved the rows of wooden desks and chairs into tidy groups of four and I began to organize the huge collection of picture books I had amassed over the summer. The language arts curriculum I had developed would turn these second graders into lifelong readers in no time.

A tall woman burst in. “If Principal Shelton thinks that she can push me around, she has another thing coming.

I exchanged a look with Sara, who had just slid the final desk grouping into place.

“What happened? Who?” I asked.

“Principal Shelton. Last year she promised me my classroom wouldn’t have to climb all the way up fifth floor, and look at this, no air conditioning.”

I’d met Principal Shelton once. At my interview. She kept mispronouncing my last name. In my four years there, she continued to mispronounce it at staff meetings, when she saw me in the office, in the schoolyard, which was actually a repurposed parking lot, and on my last day. I hadn’t made a good impression, not because I was under-qualified, but because I didn’t speak loudly enough.

The tall woman tossed her purse on my desk and fanned herself with a manila folder and complained some more about the principal. Who was she? I was afraid to ask because of her sour mood and because it was entirely possible we had already been introduced.

Here’s one embarrassing truth about me: I am terrible at faces. For example, earlier this year I confused my son’s friend’s mother with his grandmother. (They look nothing alike, an independent source established. “They aren’t the same height. They don’t have the same hair color or complexion,” the source listed out. “Their faces could not be more dissimilar. They are completely different people.” Sara is the source. Sara, who is now my wife, can discern individuals based on height, hair color, complexion, and faces.)

The point is, I could not ask this woman her name. She didn’t know about my facial apnea. Would she feel slighted that I didn’t remember her, if we indeed had met? Would she think it racist that I, a white man, did not recognize her, a Black woman? I decided to use one of the reading strategies intended for my incoming second graders: context clues. I’d let her talk. I would stand silently by as she continued to deride the person who reluctantly hired me.

As she rearranged Sara’s desk groupings back into traditional rows, we learned that each grade was made up of six classrooms and the students were “tracked,” or ranked by level. This woman and I were to be co-teachers. We were assigned students with special needs. By law, our classroom population was capped at twenty-four kids, half of whom had Individualized Education Plans. It was the other half that concerned her.

“They picked the worst students from all the classes and gave them to us. The worst of the worst.”

“Okay,” I said, “but how bad can a second grader be?”

“We aren’t teaching second grade.” She took a dramatic step backwards. “We’re teaching fifth grade.”

There’s an old expression: if you fail to prepare, prepare to fail. Here’s the lesser-known addendum: if you’ve spent the entire summer writing a language arts curriculum based on picture books, creating worksheets for second graders, and reading early-grade education books—all of which suddenly became obsolete—prepare to fail.

I had three days to catch up. Three days to make up for an entire summer, which was already not nearly enough time. I would never catch up. I hadn’t even had a chance not to smile yet.

I looked at Sara. She was concerned, but not surprised.


4. ’Nam

Sara was not surprised because she’d been through an even greater top-down level of dysfunction. She had taught two years at a place featured in a New York Post article that headlined “Chaos Reigns at Mark Hopkins Intermediate School.” Her coworkers were so jaded that they used to claim that the school’s namesake was “a famous drug dealer in the area.” She had seen the same teacher quit and reclaim her job multiple times in one year. She had known a colleague who had her car stolen while teaching. The following day, after the teacher rode her bicycle to school, the bike was pinched as well. The old guard of teachers admitted to Sara that they had it easy, had cut their teeth back when parents always favored the teacher’s explanation of events over the child’s, back when there were actual consequences for misbehavior. That wasn’t the case anymore but these older teachers were insulated now, had the choicest classes with the choicest students. Sara had to deal with disrespect on a granular level. As in, kids ignoring her during her lesson except to point out her armpit stains. As in, a student calling her a fucking Jewish lady. Those veteran teachers had avoided the war in Vietnam because of public school educator exemptions, but Sara had been in the shit.


5. Unsolved Mystery

My unexpected co-teacher was named Ms. Scott. She didn’t begrudge me for my lack of experience, for having no clue what I was doing. She saw that I brought a je ne sais quoi to room 504. When she led a lesson, she taught from the chalkboard. I assisted from every angle, moving around, walking backwards, gingerly sidestepping backpacks and table legs. I pulled kids aside to re-teach concepts, to keep the room on the same page. She saw that her success was tied to my success. She saw that I was trying.

We started to click because of a robbery. It occurred the day before the students arrived. Some unspent money from the school’s previous year’s budget went into boxes of paper, eight reams, for each teacher. (None of the copiers was stocked with paper, so we had to use our own.) Copier paper was the closest thing in the school to gold. After the boxes were distributed, Ms. Scott confronted the principal about a different complaint and left hers unattended. That was when the crime of paper happened.

“Take half of mine,” I said, upon hearing the news.

“When I find out who stole my paper, Mr. Rabinowitz,” she said, removing four reams out of my box and placing them on the top shelf of a cupboard with a lock. She nodded at me. She wasn’t saying thank you. She was saying we were on the same team.


6. Italics

Ms. Scott spoke with italicized intensity about everything. “On my property in Jamaica, the fruit is so fresh you could pick a mango and eat it straight from the tree.” Once, when I came down with a cold, she said, “Go straight to the bodega and buy five kiwi and eat them immediately. You will not become sick.” It wasn’t the kiwi that cured me; my health was restored because of her will.

Often though, her fervor was aimed at our students. “You think tears scare me?” she once asked a bawling student. “Tears don’t scare me.” Her most frequent threat related to her Zen-like willingness to end her teaching career over the smallest of infractions. If one of the girls said something sassy under her breath or sucked her teeth, Ms. Scott would make it clear that she was fine with resorting to extraordinary measures to maintain control of the room. “I don’t care if I lose my license,” she would say, lowering her voice a register. I can clean houses if I need to.” At least once a week she reminded them that she wasn’t going to stress herself out, that she had a fallback career.

Years later, a former colleague called me up to reminisce about old times. He heard that Ms. Scott had lost her teaching license due to an unresolved clerical issue. She was, to his knowledge, now making a living cleaning houses.


7. A/C Aside

I was envious of the second-floor teachers, all veterans. The second floor had offices and a handful of classrooms, all equipped with excellent ventilation, because they were showcase rooms. Resources poured into the second floor. Those newly painted, well-lit, air-conditioned rooms reminded me of Nazi internment camps dolled up to trick international inspectors. When the district superintendent visited, she never went above the second floor. The security officer never went above the second floor. The administrators never went above the second floor. Anyone who didn’t teach above the second floor never went above the second floor. And nobody went to the fifth floor if they didn’t have to.


8. Micro Math

My first clue that there was an entire level of injustice invisible to me came on a Tuesday. Mr. Dempsey, one of the white old-timers who had joined the teaching force to circumvent the draft, taught Supplemental Mathematics. His memory stretched back far enough to recall the last white student to graduate from the school in 1974. Because of seniority, he had the second-cushiest position in the district (the number one slot taken by the Computers teacher). No grading. No memorizing student names. Minimal class management. He wheeled his cart from class to class teaching the same lesson for thirty minutes, polishing off the final quarter-hour with math games.

When Mr. Dempsey finished his weekly lesson with our kids, he would drop the chalk into its tray and say, “Your classroom, Mr. Rabinowitz,” and hightail it to the teacher’s lounge.

“He always says, your classroom, as if I don’t exist,” said Ms. Scott. “As if I’m not sitting right here next to you.”

“But isn’t that because I’m the one teaching the next lesson?”

She shook her head. “Doesn’t even look at me.”

The following Tuesday, when he said, “Your classroom,” I saw she was right. Even when I tried to squirm out of sight, it was always my classroom to Mr. Dempsey. Why had I needed Ms. Scott to point this out? Why wasn’t I tuned to the proper frequency?


9. Alternate Side Scott

I didn’t learn classroom management my first year because of Ms. Scott. When I was at the front of the room, she was at a desk grading papers, always in the kids’ line of sight. Teaching went well for me except those periods on Tuesdays and Thursdays when she left the room to go down to the street and move her car. Damn those alternate-side parking bylaws. Before she left, she’d stop at the threshold and lean toward the rows of students. “I don’t want to hear anyone misbehaving. An-y-one.”

She was partly looking at Tim, but mostly at Clayton. Clayton, a ten-year-old who weighed “a buck twenty-five.” I only weighed a few pennies more. On those alternate-side days, he’d make some funny remark. Or go over and attempt to push Tim off a chair. Somehow, he’d get the class going.

I had nothing in my arsenal. I couldn’t cajole him into behaving. I couldn’t wave around my provisional teaching license or propose to clean houses. I couldn’t stop in mid-sentence and zip someone’s lips with narrowed eyes.

I did have one disciplinary technique, however: The Crouch. I would crouch down to their level, talk with them one-on-one, and have a discussion without allowing the class to be an audience. That’s all I could do. It was highly ineffective.

Although Ms. Scott intimidated the kids, they knew she was there for them, too. Once she drove Clayton home after he’d gotten into some trouble with older boys outside of school. Another time she determined that a girl had been truant because her mother needed her home for child minding. Ms. Scott went to the girl’s apartment one afternoon, spoke with the mother, and helped her find an alternate solution. Another time, she advised a quiet, mild-mannered single father, who had to go to court to prevent his wife from taking custody of his child. “You need to act strong,” she told him. “You can’t let her walk all over you. Your son needs you.”

Tough as she was, she had boundless compassion for the aggrieved. It was Ms. Scott’s misplaced empathy that was the catalyst for The Incident.


10. New Students

Mr. Moses looked like a cross between Santa Claus and Rabbi Akiva ben Yosef. A Christmas tree topped with a Star of David. I met him at a staff meeting before the school year began. As he curled his sidelocks and scratched his white beard, he confided in me that he hadn’t taught public school in twenty years and hoped things hadn’t changed much. Ms. Scott took one look at him and gave me her own opinion on the matter. That Principal Shelton had no business hiring Mr. Moses. Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—before anyone could take bets on how long he’d last—he had vanished. And the Jewish holidays were early that year.

I did not register his absence until Ms. Scott and I began to receive his fourth-grade refugees with no explanation from the administration. Each morning, a different trio or quartet appeared, swinging their feet in splintered chairs. The first kids that came to us said their class was temporarily being divided among the other fourth- and fifth-grade classes while Mr. Moses took off to celebrate his holidays, but it was obvious to Ms. Scott and me that he simply took off.

On the morning of The Incident, three of Mr. Moses’ students were in the back row. As I was about to start my prep, a girl handed me a torn scrap of paper from Principal Shelton that read, Here is a new fifth-grade student in your class. This girl was dropped off like a baby in a basket on an orphanage doorstep. Zero context. I had been here a few weeks and already accepted such curveballs as the way of the world. Plus, I had forty-five, now forty-four minutes left, no time to investigate. I had a homework assignment to complete for that night’s master’s class and worksheets to copy. This girl could’ve been from France. From Australia. From some faraway island. I didn’t know she was from the second floor. I didn’t know she came from a class with air conditioning.


11. The Incident

Like most educators who had recently retired from the public school system, the music teacher was near death. Walked with a limp, spoke with a rasp, sat with a plop. A white woman with a fragile demeanor and a necklace made of reading glasses. She had been cajoled by Principal Shelton to come back for two days a week and was the sum total of the school’s music department.

The top floor hadn’t yet begun to cool down from the summer. Our room was still hot as hell. I left for my prep the moment the music teacher ambled into the room. Ms. Scott also had a prep, but stayed for the same reason she stayed when I was teaching. She wanted to keep those kids on point.

The music teacher was teaching the class “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the morning in question. The students were lent plastic recorders to blow into. I don’t remember exactly what Tim did that caught the ire of Ms. Scott but for sure he had disrespected the music teacher in some way. I do remember that I had wasted my prep on a wild race around the school in a vain quest for a copier with toner. I returned to class a couple of minutes before the bell rang.

As I stepped into the classroom clutching a ream of paper, my curriculum binder, and teacher planner, Ms. Scott’s arms were full as well. She was in the process of “removing” Tim from the classroom.

Mr. Rabinowitz, do not let this boy back into this room.” She was gripping Tim’s shirt collar with one hand. Her other held his ankle. Tim was levitating. He was horizontal to the floor.

She tossed him out of the room in such a way that he slid on his knees and hopped to his feet. He angled himself toward the door, seething. He was far enough away for her to shut and lock it from the inside.

Class,” she said, speaking at the door’s plate-glass window.

Tim kicked the door from the outside.

No-body,” she continued.

Tim kicked the door again.


Tim kicked harder.


Tim slapped the window with an open palm.

In,” she concluded.

Tim banged the window.

The classroom was equally chaotic. Students and woodwinds squealing. The music teacher stammering.

As Ms. Scott stepped away, Clayton took her place by the inside of the door. He stood on his toes to peer through the window.

I pulled him away a split-second before Tim’s hand punched through the window. Glass shattered everywhere, but not into Clayton’s face. I had saved him from a severe injury. Glass went into my face, however. Had I not already worn glasses for bad vision, I might have no vision now.

Time moved at odd angles. My ears were ringing. I know I was at the front of the classroom. Students scrambled. The fourth graders approached from the back of the room as I shook glass from my hair. “Excuse me, Mr. Teacher, are the Jewish holidays over?” asked one. “When is Mr. Moses coming back?”

The new fifth-grade student, the one from the land of A/C, came up to me. I felt sweat trickling down my cheek. No. It was blood. “Can I go back to my old class?”


12. Victims

In a different zip code and time period, there would’ve been a hearing. Ms. Scott would have needed to justify her use of force. And because there was no justification for what she did, she would’ve lost her license there and then. But in the aftermath, the focus was not on her actions. Ms. Scott gave a straightforward account and the principal did not reprimand her. She asked about Tim. What were the consequences for him?

Ms. Shelton wasn’t asking this philosophically. She wasn’t asking about the consequences for Tim’s psyche, how he felt having his teacher put her hands on him to heave him out of the room. She wasn’t asking about the consequences of him being exposed to drugs in utero, what the consequences were on his mind and body and how this might have contributed to his moment of irrationality. Ms. Shelton simply meant, for how many days should she suspend him?

Ms. Scott spoke passionately against suspension. Give him time served. He had learned his lesson. They both had. He came back the following day, or perhaps the day after that.

When he returned, he and Ms. Scott did not begrudge the other. They were both victims, in a way, of an administration that created an impossible teaching situation, of a denigrated profession that was no longer the beneficiary of a war draft, of a hot classroom.

The door was also a victim. All day passing students would wave their hands through its pane-less window or shout into the room. Impressively, the window was replaced within a week. But the day it was repaired, the slat that Tim had karate-kicked belatedly fell. I was in the middle of a lesson. One of those rare times Ms. Scott was not in the room, and yet the students were so engrossed in my math lesson on mean, median, and mode, that they forgot she was not there to keep a lid on them. The board, as if retaining a memory of the previous week’s assault, spontaneously clattered to the floor and chaos reigned in classroom 504.

For the rest of the month, when other students passed, they’d stick a leg through the low opening or dip their head into our room and shout.

Eventually we propped the door open.


13. Strategies

In the first few minutes after The Incident, Ms. Scott regained control of the room and found a broom and dustpan. The music teacher hastily collected the instruments. I unlocked the door and ventured into the hallway. Tim was sitting in the stairwell, crying quietly. I could feel a small shard of glass still burrowed above my cheekbone. I crouched down to his level. I looked at him. I asked if he had any strategies that helped when he got upset.

He nodded. “I take a pill.”

“Okay.” I sat next to him on the step. I wiped blood from my cheek. He wiped blood from his arm. I did not know how we would get through. “Okay. Well, let’s both take some deep breaths.”

We sat there on the stairs, breathing in and breathing out. That’s all we could do. We sat there, surviving.

Aaron Rabinowitz writes creative nonfiction, fiction, and poetry. He won
PRISM international’s Creative Nonfiction Contest, Meridian’s Short Prose Prize, and CANSCAIP’s Writing for Children Competition. He has been writer-in-residence at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity in Alberta, PLAYA in Oregon, and Writing Between the Vines in California. His work is published or forthcoming in Grain, The Malahat Review, Cherry Tree, The Potomac Review, Acta Victoriana, Humber Literary Review, and elsewhere. Aaron also will water your plants when you are out of town.


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