I met Mr. Eduardo Merida with a firm handshake and a direct gaze, and was welcomed warmly into his sixth grade classroom in Andrew J. Townson Elementary, School 39, in Rochester, NY. In the northeast quadrant of the city, School 39 is the fifth largest elementary school in the district, currently teaching over 600 students, kindergarten through sixth grade.
Factors including reputation and location encourage many parents from far-reaching parts of the city to send their children to School 39. As much as half of the student body comes from outside the immediate northeast quadrant. While this kind of enrollment fosters the involvement of some parents, many others do not live in the neighborhood, and remove themselves from their child’s school life.
This lack of consistent structure and role models manifests itself through disruptions in the classroom. Violence and behaviors originating in the children’s neighborhoods are continued, imitated and spread with lightning efficiency. Hormones, combined with a lack of parental attention are ripe to become distractions from learning. These problems are not unique to School 39, but are magnified by community disengagement with education.
Many teachers become overwhelmed. The fast-paced energy of the students is combined with, as Merida puts it, “a lack of imagination.” Today’s reality of a constant supply of entertainment available instantaneously causes many to expect the same environment in the classroom. While Merida would like for all of his students to become “seekers of knowledge,” he sees many sitting back, expecting to be amused. When students realize they cannot understand material several grades below their own, inquiring minds become recalcitrant, as curiosity is stifled by frustration.
Merida confronts these problems directly. His motto of “Think” adorns the walls inside and outside of his classroom. It is a reminder for his class to ask questions of themselves and the world around them. The following photographs show how Merida confronts some of his toughest problems, and why so many return to School 39 many years later, to shake the hand of the teacher who helped them grow into mature adults.
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