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Learning Outside The Box

December 17, 2006

This is excerpted from "The Children in Room 4E," to be published in January by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. The author, Susan Eaton, spent four years in teacher Lois Luddy's classroom at Simpson-Waverly Elementary School in Hartford. Here, the author writes about Luddy and her favorite student, Jeremy.

From the library downtown, it's about a two-mile walk to Westland Street, where Jeremy lived, in the eastern section of Hartford's North End.

"There's all kinds of shooting noises you can hear," Jeremy said that drizzly night, stepping out of my car, sweeping his hands out like a tour guide presenting his neighborhood. "The shots come from here and there and over there. And it just so happens that people do get shot around here. And everyone's seen someone get beat up for weird reasons, like for nothing. It's a pretty normal thing. And so, you kind of just stay inside and you just have to hope it doesn't come so close near you."

Jeremy lived with frequent gunshots and street slayings. He could watch daily drug dealing out his window. He also lived less than two miles from Windsor, the closest of Hartford's northern suburbs. Windsor - a town of modest ranch houses, standardized apartment complexes and middling chain stores - was nothing fancy, but it was safe. And its high school had a fine reputation.

To many of the families in Hartford's North End, Windsor, which annually hosted a dog show, a Fourth of July pie-eating contest and a winter carnival and carol sing, represented an unreachable aspiration.

"Where are we?" Jeremy had asked me from the back seat of my car early one afternoon. I'd missed the turnoff for his street and ended up just over the city line, in Windsor.

"This is not where I live," he said. "I think we have to turn around."

Heading back south, toward Hartford, we passed a bent, faded rusty sign, marking the line between suburb and city. Jeremy read that sign out loud too: "Welcome to Hartford. Beautiful capital of Connecticut," he announced brightly.

Several blocks past the sign, men and women climbed the cement stairs of the welfare office. Four decades ago, the sprawling brick building had a different function. From the 1900s until the early 1970s, as many as 2,500 workers, many from the neighborhood, had arrived here in shifts. They'd twisted wire, fitted handles, packed boxes, kept the books and collected steady paychecks when the welfare office had been the phenomenally successful Fuller Brush factory. Door-to-door Fuller Brush salesmen kept America tidy. During World War II, the Hartford plant had won a government "high achievement" award for making gun-cleaning brushes. But in 1968, the corporate giant Sara Lee acquired Fuller Brush. Four years later, they shut the Hartford factory and moved operations to Kansas.

It was still a busy place, and old-timers persisted in calling it the Fuller Brush Building. Inside, bureaucrats handed out government forms to citizens applying for help, not jobs. Thirty-one percent of Hartford's residents were officially poor; 41 percent of its children were poor. Welcome to Hartford. The poorest city in the wealthiest state in the richest country on earth.


CHECK-CASHING centers, storefront churches and, farther down, liquor stores lined Main Street near Jeremy's apartment. A much-loved little diner, Hal's Aquarius, had hung on for years, selling good, greasy food at fair prices. But the city had foreclosed on the property, and its days were numbered. The old Hartford Jai Alai over on Weston Street had drawn bettors for a while. It was slated to shut down. A few dance clubs offered what nightlife survived. A barber shop and a few nail salons limped along. A jail - the Hartford Correctional Center - hid down around the corner. A school bus parking lot tacked a swatch of dusty yellow onto the gray landscape. Saturdays, a flea market set up.

Nearing Jeremy's house, a 20-something muscular black man stood before an out-of-business car repair shop spying through binoculars. The young man told me he was on duty with a loosely knit crime-watch crew. He'd deployed himself after a local minister, galled by all the shootings on these streets, had challenged churchgoers to do something. The man was scoping out the parking lot of the liquor store across the way, ID'ing drug dealers. What does he do when he spots one?

"I dunno," he answered, binoculars fixed to his eyes. "I got kids. I ain't losin' 'em to this s---."


I'D MET JEREMY FOR the first time in September of 2000. His school principal, James Thompson, had pointed out a chubby, grinning third-grader waddling up the corridor toward us. Too wide for little-boy clothes, Jeremy was also too short for bigger sizes. His pants fit at the waist but he'd rolled the cuffs up to avoid tripping. A teacher hurried Jeremy and his classmates along. Even walking fast exerted him. He stopped and huffed and drank from a fountain where his long shirtsleeve dangled and got soaked.

"That little guy right there is exceptionally bright," Thompson said. Jeremy, lifting his head, drying his shirtsleeve on his pants, waved exuberantly.

"Good afternoon, Dr. Thompson," Jeremy shouted, moving speedily to catch the straight line of brown-skinned children winding toward the cafeteria. "Hey, nice tie! Very colorful!"

Thompson nodded and yelled after Jeremy, "Thank you, sir."

Jeremy saluted.

"Exceptionally bright, like I said," Thompson whispered. "And definitely a future candidate for the mayor of Hartford."

Thompson urged me to come back and observe "a great educator in action." Her name, he'd told me, is Ms. Lois Luddy. She taught third grade, up on the second floor, Room E4. ...


OVER AT WAVERLY, Ms. Luddy, still a deft and indefatigable teacher after 28 years in Hartford's classrooms, couldn't indulge Jeremy often. Simpson-Waverly, like most of America's inner-city schools, had been pressed by city administrators and government bureaucrats who above all else had to keep test scores up. Ms. Luddy had to stick to an exacting, prescribed curriculum, patterned meticulously to mirror the state's annual standardized exams. Every school in the state had to release its scores for grades four, six, and eight. Kids took tests in third and fifth grade too. In 2002, President George W. Bush would sign the No Child Left Behind Act, requiring still more testing in third through eighth grades and potentially tough sanctions against schools that didn't measure up. Under the law, every state had to align curriculum with testing standards.

Educators, even before No Child Left Behind, put test results to many uses. Some teachers used them to identify kids who needed extra help. But in Hartford, as in increasing numbers of poorly performing, large urban districts, educators had come to use scores to decide which children to hold back. A principal's - and a school superintendent's - job security often depended upon the results. Eleven of Hartford's 33 schools carried "failing school" designations when I showed up in 1999. Two more would be added later to the federal list of schools "failing" to "make adequate yearly progress" under the No Child Left Behind Act. Under NCLB, such schools could be shut down. Or eventually, students in them could transfer. But there was a catch. Students had to stay in their school districts. In Hartford, that usually meant a student would only move to another poorly performing school. Hartford's tough-talking school superintendent, Anthony Amato, called the Connecticut Mastery Test - CMT for short - "die on your sword" exams.

So Ms. Luddy rarely taught science or social studies, which weren't on the state [mastery] test. With her own money, she still bought her kids books about U.S. presidents, famous African Americans, state capitals, the Civil War and the organization of U.S. government.

On Friday afternoons, she continued to convene her sacred "class council" meetings, at which students practiced democratic decision-making. She managed to pull down colorful maps and work in stories about her trips to Japan, Africa and Guatemala. But she had to talk faster about cultures, traditions, languages, music. These mild, once-standard, mind-stretching extras forced Ms. Luddy, a Catholic-school girl who'd always followed the rules, to redefine herself as a subversive.

She also "schemed" (her word) about how to help the several obese children (including Jeremy) in her class. The school had two inventive and cheerful phys ed teachers, though recess had been sacrificed for more test prep a year before I'd shown up.

Ms. Luddy believed strongly in something she called "character building." But she could almost never find time anymore for its core exercise of having children wrestle with ethical dilemmas.

"I think we should see ourselves as children," Jeremy declared during a rare session - this one about whether or not disrupting class more than three times should trigger the loss of some yet-to-be-defined privilege. "Disrupting isn't showing consideration. But also, we are children and some of us are working on behavior things and the rest of us need to be kind of patient with that. We are all working on something."

Jeremy didn't see himself as perfect either. Consider his "baddest" deed - faking an earache to get out of school and go on a doctor's visit with his big brother, Raymon. Raymon, a year older, had long suffered from what Jeremy called "a sneezing hive allergic reaction to the floor." Jeremy knew that after doctor visits, their aunt headed to Burger King. Jeremy loved their burgers and fries, but what he really craved was the plastic woolly mammoth toy they handed out with each meal.

Grammar drills lost out. Hand clasped to his ear, he told Ms. Luddy he hurt "real bad." She sent him down to the school nurse. Jeremy's aunt walked around the corner and fetched him. He'd felt victorious, briefly.

But he'd confessed the sin that same afternoon. Sitting on the couch in his apartment, under a framed color print of Mother Teresa, Jeremy turned the new woolly mammoth over and over. The move wasn't worth it, he said. He offered a hangdog smile. "Please," he begged. "Don't tell Ms. Luddy."

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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