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My Turn: Teacher’s first class taught him lots of lessons

Robert Ricken in 1958, then a new teacher,

Robert Ricken in 1958, then a new teacher, with his students at Junior High 65 in Manhattan. Credit: Robert Ricken

My first job when I returned from serving in the Army during the Korean War was teaching in a junior high school on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.

Initially, I was not aware that I was entering another “war zone.” I didn’t realize how totally unprepared I was to face my new career in a community that was under siege by teenage gangs. My desperate principal assigned me to be the 10th grade teacher of Class 9-13.

It took me almost three weeks before I was able to teach a complete lesson. On several occasions I offered to resign, but my principal simply said, “If at first you don’t succeed . . . ” He didn’t have to finish the quote. The New York City and Long Island teacher shortage obviously saved my budding career.

Once you learned what to say and what NOT to say, it became possible to teach a class. I also discovered that when students liked you, they would do anything for you! One morning I mentioned I didn’t have a stapler. After lunch, five students brought me brand-new staplers, still in unopened boxes. After school, I returned them to the neighborhood hardware store owner, who was unaware of the thefts.

To motivate my class, I suggested that we go on some field trips, and Carlos said, “No teacher ever took class 9-13 nowhere!” My experienced colleagues in the faculty room said I was out of my mind. To make visiting a museum a truly educational experience, I made them write a personal letter to the principal asking permission to go, and a business letter to the museum requesting a proposed date. Believe it or not, they were serious about the tasks. Carmella said, “It’s gotta be neat, so let Aida write the final copy, since she writes good!”

I also described all of the exhibits at the museum and for once they were absolutely quiet. Then we listed the things they wanted to see, and finally I had them vote on which they wanted to see first. To my amazement I was actually teaching! Two weeks later we walked to the subway and started our journey. Besides learning a great deal about cultural artifacts, they also learned even more about life. It seems the guards, seeing my kids in jeans, black jackets and boots, kept us under strict surveillance. They followed us from exhibit to exhibit. After the trip, Thomas said, “You know the guards had uniforms and they thought we also had uniforms. They thought the way we were dressed made us look like criminals.” Felix added, “Hey, if I went to rob a bank, I’d wear a dress suit.”

Amazingly, my students didn’t stray from our group. They were totally intimidated by the strange building and were well behaved throughout the trip. However, when we got back to Canal Street, they became wild, and once again acted the part of cool street-wise kids.

The class found out from another teacher that I was getting married at the end of the school year, and they started whispering to each other in class. I found out from Alfredo that he was chosen to buy me a gift. One day they all came in with big smiles and Alberto presented me with a tiny gift-wrapped box. Of course, they insisted I open it immediately. When I did, I was shocked! It was a beautiful pearl pin to hold my tie in place. I started to thank them when, Bruno said, “We chipped in all that money for such a little pin!”

At the end of the year they came to my home in Brooklyn for a dinner of franks, hamburgers and sodas. It was my graduation present to them. Again they were totally intimidated by the strange neighborhood. They commented that it was really quiet, nice front lawns and every driveway had a car. When it was time to go home they were afraid to take the subway back to the Lower East Side, so they begged me to accompany them home via the subway. Once at the Canal Street Station, they again acted like they owned the neighborhood. I was never certain if my students or the museum guards learned the most during our visits. However, I scheduled the next trip to the Statue of Liberty, since my students all lived in its shadow, but not one had ever been there.

At this stage of life, I sometimes have difficulty remembering the names of students I taught in past semesters. I have to smile when I realize I remember all of the kids in Class 9-13. The smile turns to a belly laugh when I have to confess that they are now over 70 years old.

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