Tag Archives: New York City

Lessons From A New York Vagrant

Creepy Rooster Gonna Get You!

This month’s guest blogger is Daniel Friedland, author of Down Aisle Ten, a fictional history of Universal Simultaneous Anxiety Collapse Disorder, an incapacitating disease that arises from the abundant fears that surround us in the modern world.

So what’s with the cock rooster on the front cover? Doesn’t he look like he wants to poke your eyes out? (It’s all fun and games until someone loses an eye.)

But I digress.

Dan is offering a copy of his book to one lucky commenter. Read his piece here today, and check out what you need to do to win below.

Oh! And you can follow Daniel on Twitter at @djfriedland or via his Facebook page.

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SoWrong

Click on the eyeball to see who else is contributing to this series! 

 

Lessons From a New York Vagrant by Daniel Friedland

Times Square wasn’t always Disneyland. There were no shrimp-themed restaurants or toy stores and it was nothing like the family friendly carnival scene it is today. In the Times Square of my youth, vagrants greeted you with alcohol breath, strip club promoters offered dirty flyers, and litter collected on the curbs. It was the heart of New York’s seedy side, a hub of ill repute, and when I was seventeen years old and wanted a fake I.D., Times Square was where I went.

I can’t recall how I ended up in that Wendy’s.

The man must have whispered something about fake I.D.s as I walked down the sidewalk. Now inside the restaurant, he leaned over the table and promised he could get me what I wanted. But there was one important question he needed to ask first.

Was I a cop?

This idea was ludicrous. I had fluffy hair, string bracelets around my wrist, and a telltale suburban naiveté. I was about to deny working at 21 Jump Street when the man extended his hand to my face and instructed me to sniff his fingers. It was an odd and unexpected development, but I was forced to agree with the stated proposition. Yes – his hand did smell like pot. This olfactory evidence, he explained, proved he wasn’t an undercover officer. I accepted this conclusion.

Now that his bona fides were established, my new acquaintance began asking me questions. Where did I go to school? Was I related to anyone in the police department? Did I have a recording device on me? Would I tell anyone about him? Withering under his interrogation, I discarded all sense entirely. He had me right where he wanted me.

When he said he needed to check the bills in my wallet to make sure the serial numbers weren’t traceable, I handed him all of my money.

Let me repeat that one more time – I handed him all of my money so he could check the serial numbers.

Give it a moment to waft over you. Feel the full breadth of my humiliation.

I feel compelled to note that I am not generally a stupid person. I sometimes make witty conversation, I can solve a Wednesday crossword puzzle in the New York Times, (I’m working toward Sunday!) and I have never mailed cash to help out a Nigerian prince. Yet on that fateful day, I fell prey to a classic trick of misdirection, duped by an unexpected turn and a narrative I could not control. My folly became clear to me when the door to Wendy’s closed and the man disappeared into the crowd.

It was a good lesson for a modest price – stay focused.

And if there’s a secondary moral to be gleaned, perhaps I shouldn’t have been looking for that fake I.D.

Of course, nowadays my wallet stays in my front pocket, and it has been years since I’ve stepped foot inside a Wendy’s. Yet no matter how much time passes, I’ll always be just another victim of the old Times Square. Long live its seedy memory.

To enter to win a copy of Down Aisle Ten, leave a comment about a time when you were absolutely humiliated by someone else. That’s right, spill your own #SoWrong moment. Either that or confess your favorite fast food restaurant and what you like to eat there.

Tweet us @rasjacobson & @djfriedland

NYS Grads Ain’t Reddy For College

graduation caps

Image by j.o.h.n. walker via Flickr

In case you have not already seen/heard this by now, I am reposting Sharon Otterman’s article: Most New York Graduates Are Not College Ready – NYTimes.com in its entirety. If you like, you can click on the link above and read it in its original format. Frankly, this is the kind of news story that makes me weep inside.

If you prefer, you can read my repost below and catch all my snarky comments in blue. Red indicates sheer horror. (This is why I cannot loan out my books, people.)

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February 7, 2011

Most New York Students Are Not College-Ready

By SHARON OTTERMAN

New York State education officials released a new set of graduation statistics on Monday that show less than half of students in the state are leaving high school prepared for college and well-paying careers. The new statistics, part of a push to realign state standards with college performance, show that only 23 percent of students in New York City graduated ready for college or careers in 2009, not counting special-education students. That is well under half the current graduation rate of 64 percent, a number often promoted by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg as evidence that his education policies are working.

But New York City is still doing better than the state’s other large urban districts. In Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse and Yonkers, less than 17 percent of students met the proposed standards, including just 5 percent in Rochester.

The Board of Regents, which sets the state’s education policies, met on Monday to begin discussing what to do with this data, and will most likely issue a decision in March. One option is to make schools and districts place an asterisk next to the current graduation rate, or have them report both the current graduation rate and the college ready rate, said Merryl H. Tisch, the chancellor of the Board of Regents.

The move parallels a decision by the Regents last year to make standardized tests for third through eighth graders more difficult to pass, saying that the old passing rates did not correlate to high school success. (Oh good, let’s make new, harder tests. That should fix everything.What else is going to have to fall out of the curriculum so that our kids can pass these silly tests?)

State and city education officials have known for years that graduating from a public high school does not indicate that a student is ready for college, and have been slowly moving to raise standards. But the political will to acknowledge openly the chasm between graduation requirements and college or job needs is new, Dr. Tisch; David M. Steiner, the state education commissioner; and John King, the deputy state education commissioner, said in interviews last week.

With President Obama making college readiness and international competitiveness a top national goal, and federal and philanthropic money pouring into finding ways to raise national education standards, that equation is changing, they said. “It is a national crisis,” Dr. Steiner said.

Statewide, 77 percent of students graduate from high school. Currently, a student needs to score a 65 on four of the state’s five required Regents exams to graduate, and beginning next year, they will need a 65 on all five.

Using data collected by state and community colleges, testing experts on a state committee determined last year that a 75 on the English Regents and a 80 on the math Regents roughly predicted that students would get at least a C in a college-level course in the same subject. Scores below that meant students had to often take remediation classes before they could do college-level work. Only 41 percent of New York State graduates in 2009 achieved those scores. (No duh! This is what I have been seeing for years: Baffled community college students claiming to be “A students” in high school who have absolutely no idea how to read for meaning or write in complete sentences. No wonder they start freaking out when they suddenly get C’s on their essays!)

In the wealthier districts across the state, the news is better: 72 percent of students in “low need” districts are graduating ready for college or careers. (You get that, right? Over 25% of students in more affluent suburbs aren’t pulling their weight when they get to college.) But even that is well under the 95 percent of students in those districts who are now graduating. (We live in one of these “low need districts.” I have tutored students in grades 6-12 who still have not mastered basic comma rules. I have had to teach them commas, semi-colons and colons. I’ve thrown in a few mini-lesson on thesis statements for good measure. But that’s about all I can do. But seriously, the schools can’t do it all. I know they can’t. Why? Because public schools are so busy being mandated to prepare students for standardized tests that they simply do not have enough time to make sure that students have mastered certain things, so they have had to let some things go. I think folks at The Board of Regents must believe that kids pick up things like grammar by osmosis.)

The data also cast new doubt on the ability of charter schools to outperform their traditional school peers. Statewide, only 10 percent of students at charters graduated in 2009 at college-ready standards, though 49 percent received diplomas. The state has not yet calculated results for every district and school. (So charter school are broken, too? What a surprise!)

State officials have also begun a series of meetings in local districts to introduce this data and ask local officials what they want to do about it. A common reaction, Dr. Tisch said, is shock and hesitancy. There are fears of plummeting real estate values, as well as disagreement, particularly in rural areas, with the idea that all students need to be prepared for college.

Jean-Claude Brizard, the schools superintendent in Rochester for the past three years, said that while he was surprised by the data, he welcomed the effort to move the conversation away from simply graduating. In an effort to improve, Rochester has closed half its high schools and opened new schools, including its first high school that allows students to earn credits at several local colleges. 

In New York City, roughly 75 percent of public high school students who enroll in community colleges need to take remedial math or English courses before they can begin college-level work. (I would argue the same is true here in Rochester. Many of my incoming first year community college students are not anywhere ready for regular Comp-101. They need a more basic English class to prepare them for Comp-101. That is what my community college is grappling with now. This semester faculty in the English Department started developing a new diagnostic tool as the old AccuPlacer was proving ineffectual. Not everyone had to take it and part-time students slipped through the cracks.) City education officials said the 23 percent college-ready rate was not a fair measure of how the city would do if graduation requirements were raised to a higher standard, because students would work harder to meet that new bar.

While it has not gone so far as to calculate an alternative to graduation rates, the city has already begun tracking how each high school’s students fare in college, and in 2012 it will begin holding principals accountable for it. “Last year, well before the state announced this plan, we told schools we would begin including robust college readiness metrics in school progress reports,” said Shael Polakow-Suransky, the chief academic officer.

One thing that is helping districts get over their shock, Dr. Tisch said, is the opening of a discussion about how to improve things. On their tour, which has visited Albany, Buffalo and Rochester and will visit New York City, Westchester County and Long Island in the coming weeks, officials are presenting a menu of options. (Oooh, a menu! Well, I’ll take one helping of smaller class sizes: Eighteen students would be lovely. I’d like two helpings of students with parents who value and support education. I’d like a pile of teachers who are enthusiastic about their subject matter. I’d like intelligent principals who support their teachers and support staff. I’d like a double-helping of students who accept responsibility for their actions. I’d like to see Honor Courts comprised of the most ethical students, as nominated by teachers and peers. I’d like all students to sign an contract stating that they understand no one has the right to interfere with anyone else’s right to learn – because if they do, they will be expelled. And, um, I don’t see this on the menu but if it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to request students who remember to bring the necessary materials to class. Every day. Or at least just a pen.)

One idea is to simply report a college-ready graduation rate as an aspirational standard and leave it at that. (I have no idea what this means. So a principal could report: “We aspire to have 35% of our students graduate by 2015. That is insane! That is called The Anti-Aspirational Initiative.) Another is to impose tougher graduation standards — like requiring that all students in the state take four years of math and science, or permanently raising the passing score on high school Regents exams to 75 in English and 80 in math. (Be still my heart! Could it be that The Board of Regents is starting to realize a 65% is not really a passing grade. It’s a friggin’ low D! Way to go, Board of Regents. For the love of Pete, it’s only taken thirteen years for you to realize that teaching to a low standard is only bound to enforce that standard. Oy!)

But they are also discussing increased flexibility for districts and students, so that they can spend more time on the subjects they are interested in. For example, students might be permitted to choose at least one of the Regents exams they must pass to graduate — currently all students have to pass math, English, science, global history and American history. Students might be able to substitute foreign language, economics or art for one of the five. Or students could replace one Regents with a vocational skills test in an area like carpentry or plumbing. (Non-snarky response: I actually love this idea. Traditional education is not for everyone, and we need to value our vocational students more. Honestly, those middle and high school years are the only times in life where we expect people to be universally excellent at everything from foreign language to math to science to social studies to English to gym to sewing and cooking! People aren’t made that way. It would be great if we could allow students to specialize in their areas of interest. I mean, you could have asked me if 5th grade if I was going to be a nuclear scientist and I would have told you, “Hells bells, no!” and then I would not have had to suffer through calculus. I can honestly tell you that in my career, I have never used calculus. Ever.

Alternatively, the state could grant flexibility to districts to give credits based not on how many hours students sit in a classroom — currently 54 hours per semester per credit — but on whether students show competency, based on examination or online course work. (Really, so a student who can demonstrate that he already knows his shit might not have to sit through a required class. Just because the State says he has to take it? Now that’s somethin’!)

To press their case, state officials said they hoped to get political support from Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. The political environment was particularly challenging now, because the state will roll out a new system in July to evaluate teachers that has the potential of strong opposition from teachers’ unions. (Oh great. Let’s blame the teachers who can’t “fix” their students in one calendar year, and if their numbers aren’t high enough, let’s put them on probation (or possibly fire them), ‘cuz teaching is not stressful enough without wondering if you are going to have a job the following September. And everyone knows that when students fail, it’s definitely the teachers’ fault.)

“The obligation at the end of the day,” Dr. Tisch added, ” is to make sure that when youngsters graduate, that graduation means something from New York State.” (I think Dr. Tisch meant to say: The obligation is to make sure that graduation from New York State means they have a set of skills which will enable them to succeed in college and in life. Because right now, that is just not the case.)

My Weird New York State of Mind

Photo from Skyline Park in NYC

I am terrified of New York City. There I said it.

This has nothing to do with the recent bedbug scourge; I have been afraid of The City for at least 20 years. Oh, don’t get me wrong, I love watching movies about New York. I think the first film with scenes shot in New York was called The Thieiving Hand. I learned about it in a Film class in college where we also saw Citizen Kane and The Pawnbroker. None of these were particularly uplifting movies: to the contrary. But they made me feel that New York was the place where people could start revolutions, where broken people came to start new lives and reinvent themselves.

So pretty!

As a kid, I loved A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and 42nd Street and who doesn’t love Miracle on 34th Street? At some point, I saw Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which is when I think I started dreaming of going to New York one day and locating the store with those lovely blue boxes. I imagined myself a little like Dolly (in Hello Dolly!), always surrounded by friends, no matter what the circumstances. Later, I fell in love with “ethnic films” like Shaft and Super Fly, The Jazz Singer and everything ever produced by Spike Lee, especially Do the Right Thing. I was already in love with John Travolta, so put him in a movie about New York with the music of the Bee Gees (Saturday Night Fever), and I was in. I memorized the dance moves from The Wiz and All That Jazz and belted out Annie so people could hear me at the top of the Chrystler Building. I laughed at Tootsie and,more recently, I obsessed over the television series Sex in the City, living vicariously through the four friends who made their way in the Big Apple.

On film, New York always seems so romantic. Remember watching the child run from one parent to the other in Kramer vs. Kramer in the blindingly bright sunshine of Central Park. Seeing Harry meet Sally again and again and again… until they finally realize they really were meant to be together and kiss. Sigh. And I love Sleepless in Seattle when Meg Ryan (aka: Annie) flies to New York to meet Tom Hanks (aka: Sam) where they finally meet on the top of the Empire State Building and kiss. Sigh. And I love when finally, finally, the cyberspace relationship between Meg Ryan (aka: “Shopgirl”) and Tom Hanks (aka: NY152″) from You’ve Got Mail turns real and they meet each other at Riverside Park and kiss. Sigh.

In the movies, New York totally works for me.

In real life, not so much.

In July of 1990, I went to New York for a friend’s wedding reception. It was a sloppy event as it was raining and muggy. My hair was a wreck. Everyone wore shiny, slinky dresses, and I felt like I’d worn the absolute most wrong thing – ever. I knew no-one other than the bride, and I had already suffered through hours of ostentatious name dropping, so I decided to leave.

Disaster!

Here is where the trauma starts. I got lost. Really lost. I found a subway station and planned to take a train back to my hotel which was about 40 blocks away. At that time, I felt fairly confident (less than 50%) that I had picked the right train. I sat down and watched the streets roll by. For a little while, I was heading in the right direction, but suddenly, to my horror – instead of stopping at the street I’d expected, the train just kept zooming on. I asked a woman where the train was headed and she said Connecticut, and that it was an Express train.

“No stops,” she said.

Somehow I’d gotten onto the completely wrong train and was forced to make peace with the fact that we would not stop until we “landed” in Connecticut.  I felt like I was in that book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. (You know, where the kids escape their home in Connecticut and go to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and discover the secret behind a mysterious sculpture?) Only I was going the wrong way.

Exhausted and scared, I cried. A man on the train took pity on me, got me turned around, and wrote out elaborate directions regarding where I needed to go and which stop I needed to be sure to get off at. He warned me to stay alert, watch for pick-pocketers, and avoid talking to strangers.

“Not everyone is as trustworthy as I am,” he told me as he pushed a $20 bill into my hand. “In case you get in trouble, use this for a cab.”

I don’t think I ever got past that whole train thing because in real life, everything about the New York City scares me. I am one of those people who was not born with any kind of built in GPS system, so no matter how many times people tell me that the Aveues run this way and the Streets run that way, I always smile and promptly forget. The information doesn’t stick; it simply evaporates like piss on the sidewalks.

Nevertheless, each summer I fly to the Big Apple to and force myself to try to conquer my weird phobia and to learn to negotiate the City by myself.

You know how psychotherapists make people with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder touch doorknobs to prove to them that nothing bad will happen to them? That’s kind of what I’ve got going on when it comes to New York. I have to go there and try to push through my fear. My theory is that if I deal with my NYC phobia the way people deal with other phobias, perhaps things will eventually be easier for me.

The advent of technology has allowed me to go to New York alone. If I didn’t have a Smartphone, I wouldn’t even try; the Yelp app has helped me find everything from restaurants to public washrooms.

My friends in New York are very accommodating. They are patient when it comes to my fear and always tell me to call them from where I am and that they’ll come and get me.

“It’s faster,” they assure me, “and no trouble at all.”

When they find me, they take me to their favorite places – which is awesome because I’ve seen some places that are really off the beaten path.

Shortly before Person A has to go, I call Person B who asks me where I am and tells me to stay put. Can you imagine? So much delicious learned helplessness.

Central Park is divine!

Maybe some day I’ll be brave like one of those cops from NYPD Blue, exploring the internal and external struggles of the fictional 15th precinct of Manhattan. Or perhaps some day I’ll become a purple-haired assassin (like the costumed vigilante Hit-Girl from Kick-Ass), fearing nothing. Until then, I’ll live New York City mostly vicariously  — through the movies.

But for real,  just know that all of you City dwellers are endlessly fascinating to me. To me, you really do know everything: where to find the best gazpacho and the best sushi; you live in tiny apartments, stacked one on top of the other, paying crazy rent — but you know the nightlife makes it all worthwhile; you know where to go for tea and which laundromat has the best dryers. You know which car service is the best to get to the airport. You have survived terrorist attacks. And you know how to take underground transportation, daily, without ending up in Connecticut.

What scares you and how do you attempt to conquer it?