Mark Gerson had a unique experience teaching at a tough inner-city Catholic school, St. Luke's in Jersey City, N.J., that largely serves Hispanic and African-American students. For one thing, Gerson is Jewish and hails from a privileged background. He found that the Catholic school model succeeds with flying colors in serving the underprivileged. Gerson's experiences resulted in a book, Dispatches From an Inner-City School That Works, (New York: Free Press, $23). This week, a third and final excerpt.
BECAUSE THEY WORKED hard and wanted and expected to work hard as adults, my students took an almost instinctive interest in money and economics. One of the parts of the Constitution that captivated them was the interstate commerce clause, because it allowed the government to limit the number of hours they could work. I did not expect to spend much time on this, but the students were fascinated by the idea that the federal government could regulate working conditions in a Jersey City restaurant on the basis of the fact that the tablecloth was made in New York. I was surprised that this point generated significant ire among my students. Carmen reacted first: “No one should tell me how much I should work except my mother. How does Bill Clinton know how much money we need or how many hours I can work and do well in school?”
Walt added, “She be right, yo. And if I ain't workin‘, you think I'm studyin’? No. I am out with my boys.”
Every student who commented on the interstate commerce clause agreed with these assessments. The unanimity was striking, but so was the fact that most students did not allow themselves to become too upset in light of what they considered a grievous violation of their liberty. Why? Because, as Charles told me, no one paid any attention to these laws. He had worked 60 hours a week in a restaurant for several years, and no one had ever threatened to stop him. Moreover, Charles added, it was not just small businesses that do not keep official records; his younger brother had worked similar hours in a branch of a large supermarket chain, and no one had bothered him, either. I would never have thought of it before, but now I would not be surprised if statutes restricting the number of hours teenagers work are the most violated laws in the city, and there is nothing the government can do about it.
The interest generated by the interstate commerce clause spoke to one of my students'great interests-economics. Next to religious history, the kind of history my students liked best was economic history. Not, to be sure, the monetary policy of the Second Bank of the United States, but supply and demand, the invisible hand, and other concepts they could recognize in their daily lives. This interest was apparent from the beginning of the school year, when I planned a lesson on the joint stock companies that financed Columbus. Actually, it was not so much a lesson as a brief explanation, but the top two classes were so fascinated by the concept of stocks that we ended up spending the rest of the week on the stock market and other methods of investment. Several students came to see me every day that week during lunch to learn how to read a stock page, and another group came after school. My brother Rick, an expert on the stock market who was managing one of the nation's largest student-run funds, read, faxed and overnighted to me the material I used. The material was new and fascinating to the students. I decided to take advantage of our proximity to New York and told Rick to organize a trip for my class to the financial district during his Christmas break.
Our first stop was the Stock Exchange. The students took advantage of all of the attractions of the visitors' gallery, which included a variety of computers offering different information, a movie, and a gift shop. Others stood transfixed in the alcove overlooking the trading floor, listening to the market being explained in the language of their choice. The New York Stock Exchange provided a presentation and tour free of charge to the students.
”How much do you think it costs to buy a seat on the New York Stock Exchange?” the woman leading the tour asked.
I saw Rick whispering something to Shanquilla, and her hand shot up.
”Yes, young lady?”
“Six hundred and thirty thousand dollars.”
”Why,” the tour guide said, taken completely aback, “you are right. How did you know that?”
”'Cause I bought one,” she answered, sporting a huge smile.
From there we visited my cousin Rob Goralnick, who ran a commodities clear-inghouse, and then went to see his brother-in-law, Jon Yeager, who traded oil in the World Trade Center, The students liked watching the commodities floor not only because it is anarchic and exciting but because it was in the Eddie Murphy movie Trading Places. Jon came up from the floor, and made excellent sense of the chaotic trading going on below us. And he pleased Maura and Shanquilla greatly by naming some of the traders on the floor they had identified as especially good-looking; he pleased them even more by inviting one of these traders to meet us. (That trader was flattered and shocked; apparently, he was not used to being a sex symbol to adoring teenagers in the visitors gallery of the commodities exchange.)
Finally, we visited two of my friends, Dave Ruder and Adam Scheer, investment bankers at top New York firms. I warned them in advance that my students would ask two kinds of questions: The first would concern things about a teacher that a college buddy would know but a student would not (I told Adam and Dave to use their own discretion on those). The second type of question would be, How much money do you make? Although this is not a question asked much in bourgeois society-it is considered impolite-I knew my students would have no compunction about asking it. I told Adam and Dave to answer honestly. It would, I stressed, be good for my students to know that people fresh out of college can, so long as they work hard in school and are willing to continue doing so after graduating, make upward of $50,000. The fact would have been a bit removed coming from me.
We met Adam and Dave at the fountain in the World Financial Center, which the students proudly identified as the site of the big party in the Eddie Murphy movie Boomerang. Dave came down first, and my brother went to greet him. “Mr. Gerson,” Shanquilla said, pulling me aside, “he's cute!”
”He's also as good as engaged.” Adam met us a couple of minutes later at the dock near the World Trade Center, and they both gave a short talk and then took questions. “Dave, what kind of girls does Mr. Gerson like?” Shanquilla asked.
“More specifically?” “You'll have to ask him about that.” “Shanquilla,” I asked, “do you have any other questions for Adam and Dave?”
”I do,” Maura said. “How much money do you guys make?”
”More than Mr. Gerson,” Shanquilla offered.
”That's true,” Dave said with a laugh.
“No, really, how much?” Maura persisted.
”Enough to live comfortably,” Adam answered. “And in a condition where we can hope to continue living comfortably.”
”Well, OK how much money do you make?”
”After taxes,” Adam did a quick calculation in his hand, “when you consider how many hours we have to put in here, it comes to about six dollars an hour.”
”What?” Maura looked at me. “Six dollars an hour?”
”Six dollars an hour?” Shanquilla shot back. “That means you got to work over a hundred thousand hours to buy a seat on the stock exchange!”
”Huh?” Adam and Dave did not know where that came from.
”Never mind,” I assured them. Maura was not giving up. “I can't believe you only make six dollars an hour. That's nothing.”
”Well, I have never figured it out precisely, but I think that is basically it,” Adam conceded.
”What's the point of this?” Maura asked. “I make $6.50 an hour at Pathmark!”
”There is more to life than money,” Adam replied. “It is more important to enjoy your job, to get up each morning and look forward to going to the office. It is, after all, where you spend most of your waking hours.”
“I am just curious; why do you care so much about money?” Adam asked.
”Because you buy things with money,” Maura responded.