Should teachers let students into their lives?

An inner-city teacher reflects on the murder of New York teacher Jonathan Levin.


Anthony Cody
June 17, 1997 1:01PM (UTC)

jonathan levin a 31-year-old English teacher in one of New York's
toughest public schools, has become the latest martyr to violence in our
society. His murder, for which two men -- one a former student -- have been
arrested, has provoked anguish on the part of his students and a search
for a rational explanation on the part of many others.

"The murder left some students and teachers wondering whether Levin had
been killed because of his own kindness," reported the New York Times on June 11. "I don't think teachers should do that no more," 17-year-old Elena Avila was quoted. "I think it was wrong for Levin to be so trusting to kids, knowing the bad reputation of the school."

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Was Levin killed by his own kindness?

Some are pointing the finger of blame at the amount of violence depicted in the media, indirectly
indicting Levin's father, the chairman and CEO of Time Warner, in his son's
death.

Was Levin killed because of the glorification of violence by the media?

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The reality is more complex than either of these explanations.

When a tragedy such as this one occurs, it is natural to ask if there was a way it could have been avoided. We tend to look at the immediate situation in which Levin found himself. Should Levin have refused to open his door to his former student? Should he have been less trusting? Should he have
stayed away from that neighborhood? Should he have just left those people
alone?

As a society, we tend to relieve Levin's killers of responsibility, telling ourselves they must
have been pathological or unable to control themselves to commit such an act. I disagree; these were
people with wills of their own. They cannot be held blameless.

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And not only are they guilty, we all are. I am
reminded of the recent statement of inner-city radio documentarian and high school student Lealan Jones, who was asked what kind of monsters (who were, in fact, children) could have dropped a young neighbor from a 14th story stairwell: "What type of monsters would put them in an environment like this? ... Where the swings are not there, there's not grass -- just dirt patches.
In the homes, roaches run rampant, the stink of garbage in the air. What
type of monsters would put them in that environment? What type
of monsters can be created?"

And if we decide that Levin did not "belong" there, is there anyone who does
belong there? This line of thought leads us to a despairing attempt to escape from the reality of our cities and our schools. An escape was clearly available to Levin, but he ignored it, instead choosing the dangers, difficulties and rewards of
teaching.

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Jonathan Levin has become etched into our consciousness because he cared
and acted when he was not obligated to do either. Because of his wealth and
family ties, Levin presumably could have achieved success in safety, far
from the mean streets of the Bronx.

While there is danger in our troubled times, there is also hope. And
teachers are on the front lines, coping with the first and trying to impart the
latter. We ask our students to excel, to meet high standards, while making
vague promises for their future. We hope that if they do work
hard, if they buy the dreams we are peddling, the pot of gold will be there
for them. But the gold never arrived for Levin's killer, and even his
teachers' bright vision for him could not illuminate a path to success.

Teachers can inspire, but only society can deliver the goods. Teachers can
build hope, but when that hope is not fulfilled, our good will alone is not
enough to protect us from the wrath of those rejected. We need more than a
responsible media. We need to create a reality that actively rewards the
hope teachers try so hard to inspire.

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Anthony Cody

Anthony Cody has taught junior high school science for 10 years at Bret Harte Junior High in Oakland, Calif. For the last two years he has been "on loan" to the Lawrence Hall of Science in Berkeley, developing a new middle school science curriculum.

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