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

Once I learned my two attackers would be in court together and I would confront them, I wondered: What would I say? What was the inclination of the judge? And how would I feel when I finally had the chance to look at Donte Boykin and James Footman again? I was in such turmoil as I kept trying to think about what I wanted to tell them. I was so angry. I didn’t want to be angry. I didn’t like being angry. But I was.

Some days, I actually felt sorry for them, especially Donte. At other times, I wanted them locked up with the key thrown away. Most of all, I just wanted to be better. I wanted so desperately to wake up, as if I had just had a bad dream. “This isn’t the kind of thing that happens to me,” I kept telling myself. “This is something that happens to a friend, or a friend of a friend.”

I think lots of people cried for my injury, and were just as infuriated as I was. From the greeter at Wal-Mart to the doorman at my friend’s apartment house to strangers I met on the bus, people wanted to get their hands on the kids to get retribution. And they were all black. I cannot tell you how loved I felt by a community that was angered to its core.

Also assisting in my recovery were the piles of letters, cards, flowers, fruit baskets and visitors. They were remarkable. I am sad that no one kept a sign-in book when guests visited. There were so many. I know that my brother Bill was concerned for my health and sought to limit the visitors. But apparently I told him regularly that any and all who came should be shown to my room. I was so overwhelmed by the kindness, I needed to thank everyone myself. And though I remember little of any visit, let alone the visitors, I do remember how uplifted they made me feel.

I got cards from people I didn’t know, from as far away as Sweden and Australia. When I got home, I had on my machine a message from a woman in Alaska, thanking me for all I had done as a teacher and expressing her hope that I wouldn’t give up on the kids, even though she, as a teacher herself, knew how difficult the job was.

And then, something else happened. Among the cards I received were messages from those who’d been my students years and years ago. They remembered stories that they related to me. They told me how funny, crazy, smart and daring I was. They told me I was their favorite teacher.

One instance in particular occurred while I was walking to the bus, through a shopping-center parking lot. A woman jumped out of a car and walked toward me, fast. She was about 50 and had lots of white in her hair. “Mr. Burd,” she cried out. “I’ll bet you don’t remember who I am.”

I studied her for a moment, then declared, “You’re Nairda Green. You were in my seventh-grade math class at Roosevelt Junior High School in 1969.” She almost collapsed. In fact, it wasn’t as extraordinary as you might think. That was my first year as a teacher. Nairda was my smartest pupil. And though she had put on a few pounds, her eyes hadn’t changed a bit.

I heard that I was nominated to be one of the school district’s 10 Teachers of the Year, to be honored at a Phillies game on Teachers’ Night. When the Phillies rep called, I told her I didn’t want to be honored because I had been hurt. But then she read me the nominating letter, from a kid I had taught at Parkway in 1978. There was no reference to my injury. And I learned that others had also written on my behalf. Perhaps, I thought, it was important to be so honored. I was humbled.