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

A few years earlier, I had surveyed my classes after there had been a few minor assaults on teachers, mostly white teachers. I asked the kids to rank, in order, whom they were most likely to listen to among four categories: men, women, black and white. I wasn’t surprised by their answers.

They respected and would obey a black woman first, a black man second, a white woman third, and a white man last. Of course, they qualified it by saying that not everyone fit into that pattern, but as a rule, that was the pecking order.

I remember one kid added, “But you don’t fit into that.”

Did James Footman punch me because I was white? Would he have punched me if I were a woman? Did I fit into a category that just put him on violent autopilot? Right from the start, I decided I didn’t care. I had come to Philadelphia almost 40 years earlier to teach in what was then called the ghetto. I came because in that era of violence and racism, I felt it was important not just to teach, but to reach out and show my students that just as they were different from each other, all white people were not the same. I wanted to make a difference.

When I was a kid growing up in Queens, I’d learned that the professions were teaching, medicine and the law. I wasn’t good at science, and I didn’t want to be a lawyer. But I liked sharing what I knew. Philadelphia offered me the opportunity to share with the children of the city.

Some days I hated it, but I usually felt that the job I was doing was important. I quickly grew to like the kids. I was good at teaching. And I was a role model. I can’t say I thought of myself that way, but it was a fact. Years ago, when Charles Barkley said that parents, not basketball players, were role models, he was wrong. We are all role models.

The basic distrust black kids have of a white teacher hasn’t changed much over the years. But neither have I. I’ve always believed that people can work together and learn from each other. We must! It was my job to work toward that.

That’s not to say that things in the classroom remained the same over the years. I hear adults — the parents and grandparents of my kids — say things like, “This wouldn’t have happened in my day. We respected the teachers then.” Maybe in the 1950s that was true, but I began teaching in 1968, five months after the assassination of Martin Luther King. And Philadelphia was as violent then as it is now. The difference was that gang violence was at a peak. Black kids in one gang were attacking and killing black kids in another gang. The churches seemed powerless to make a difference. In my second year of teaching, I took a gun away from a kid in school. Another year, at a different school, a kid I didn’t know grabbed my tie, pulled on it, and wouldn’t let go. The violence was always there.

Academically, I have to say that the average kid at the average Philadelphia school had no better math skills then than today. They had terrible math backgrounds and couldn’t do the simplest operations. There was very little preschool then, and the kids in the inner city weren’t getting the education they needed.

So why did people like me stay? To paraphrase a line I recently heard on HBO’s John Adams, “If the good teachers don’t take on the responsibility to teach, it will be left to lesser men.” Who can measure what would have happened if we who cared were not there? And every now and then, I’d bump into a young man or woman on the streets, and they’d remind me of the successes I’d had.

James Footman will never be one of those kids. That day in the hallway, James Footman broke my neck.