Preparing for the Urban Classroom

By Ameya Okamoto

There’s something very unnerving and strange about the dichotomy between the extra-ness, flamboyance, and allure of bougie New York City and the blank walls, repetitive buildings, and overheated, overdue, long bus rides to East New York – where sweat stained uniforms, bad school lunches, broken pencils, and badly-drawn genitalia on desks reign supreme. As weeks have gone by and days have started to merge together, I’ve found myself often arriving at the front doors of IS 364, asking myself “did I ever really leave?” My repetitive, I leave my house before sunrise and leave as the school at dusk. Nothing but experience can quite prepare you to work in an urban school. At the same time, nothing could’ve prepared my sporadic artist/student lifestyle, chaotic brain , and chronic lateness for the 360 culture shift to a regulated, predictable year-round schedule,  strict, full-time job with 10 hour work days, minimal (and I really mean minimal) pay, hour-long commutes, frustrating children, a lack of social time, personal time, and independence.

Earlier this month, I had a friend walk in his first fashion show for NYFW at the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn. I somehow snagged some last minute tickets to surprise him, rushed home after a day’s work, tossed my sweaty, grey toned clothes onto the floor, threw on a fit a little more fitting, smeared on some intense eyeliner, and then sprinted to the train. I walked into the stadium, passing influencers and photographers, flashing cameras, brand-name backpacks, fur coats, shaved heads, chains and glitter – and an overall exclusive and predictable NYFW spectacle. In time, I found myself sitting in an arena across from Lil Kim walking through a smoke machine in a neon yellow latex jumper. And yes, I got to see my boy walk. But that wasn’t what shocked me that night or what made me really *really* think.

What made me think was  the overwhelming focus on status, show, and merit that the event suggested. What made me think, sitting in that stadium, under the fog and flashing lights, surrounded by insecure teenagers, twenty-something creatives, and viral influencers, was that less than two hours before I was in a classroom in the projects on the outskirts of the city teaching thirteen-year-olds how to add exponents. I felt my privilege, but I also felt in my bones, the drastic, echo chamber of disconnect between the communities that I had moved through in only a couple hours. How do I exist between the two? What is my place? How can we work to close gaps similar to this? How can we create opportunities for students to experience, question, and explore their lifestyles and different ones that exist only a (long) metro ride away? New York City is small, but the number of lives you can live here is vast.