A Teacher’s Story

Veteran Philadelphia teacher Frank Burd tells his own story about the violence that plagues Philly’s schools, the incredible support he received from the community, and his ongoing fight to recover

Days before the hearing, I learned that the judge assigned to my case had suffered a serious injury, and that the judge who would be filling in was the head of juvenile court, Judge Kevin Dougherty. I worried whether he would be able to wade through all the papers relating to the case on such short notice. And though I knew that the previous judge had little tolerance for the two young men, I knew nothing about this guy Dougherty. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about.

We heard stories about how Footman had been a troublesome child, a crack baby. We heard stories about how Donte had had a clean record until now. No matter what the lawyers said, the judge would have none of it. When I read later that talk-show host Bill O’Reilly criticized the judge for not being tough enough, I was shocked. The judge was firm.

Then, at some point late in the proceedings, the judge asked if there was anything that I wanted to say. Though I didn’t have anything prepared, I had brought with me two photographs. They were of me with my father, with my brother, with my children, with my grandchildren.

I told my two attackers that they hurt and almost killed not just a teacher, but a good human. They hurt a man with a family that still needed him. They assaulted a man who cared about the work he did. They struck down a human being who had done nothing, and they did it for no important reason. I don’t remember the details. The assistant D.A. sent me a transcript of the hearing, but I haven’t looked at it yet. I know I lost my composure. I know I broke down. I am not ready to see it yet, more than a year later.

Both kids were assigned to detention schools. Footman’s was a lockdown facility. Donte’s was a more open, freer place. Neither can be held past his 21st birthday. I don’t know much about Footman’s progress, but I learned that after a rough beginning, Donte has settled down, and is doing better. He had sent me a letter of apology just before the trial, but I learned that his lawyer told him to write it, so I didn’t read it until after the hearing.

The spring progressed. Eventually my neck brace was reduced to a collar, then nothing. I went to the Germantown High graduation. I continued with outpatient therapies through the summer. Although I couldn’t turn well, I learned to start driving again. The toughest time for me was September. School began, and I had no place to go. Two of my therapies ended as the medical staffers concluded that they had taken me as far as they could, physically. I was alone. Everyone was busy doing his thing. I was still unable to function normally. I was glad that I at least had an antidepressant to help carry me. I still need it.

What I learned was that I could no longer do two things at a time. I could no longer multi-task. And what I did manage to do, I could only do in very small doses, because I tire so quickly. I realized that I am unable to concentrate for long. My brain simply closes down. It becomes too difficult to listen. I tried to go to a play in the spring, and I had to leave. It was too hard to sit still and hold my head up.

My memory is improving, but is still very weak. Friends tell me it’s age, and that they have similar problems. It’s not. It happened in a moment.