Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

Thank You, Mr. Delaney!

Bob Greenman is an award-winning educator who spent 30 years in Brooklyn, New York teaching English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools. Here Bob shares how he kept track of student progress with "Delaney cards," and how revisiting those cards brought back a flood of memories.

"Good morning, everyone," I say, with a slight but not too broad smile, always starting my term with a serious mien that loosens up by the second day. My eyes sweep the room, its 35 seats filled with boys and girls fresh from junior high. "My name is Robert Greenman and I'd like to welcome you to our class. I hope this will be an enjoyable and interesting term for you."

They're looking at me. What's he like? Is he strict? Is he mean? Is he a hard marker? What will he say if I give a wrong answer? They're coming from a junior high school of 1,000 kids, where they were the oldest, into a high school of 5,000, where they're the youngest. My face is not revealing much, intentionally, on this first class meeting, but I do want them to feel comfortable with me from the start, so I say, "I know coming to Madison is a whole new experience. If you feel I can help you with anything here, please come to me, whether it involves school or anything else. That's why I'm here." They think I'm there to teach English, which I am.  Actually, though, I'm there more to help them become people, in mind, heart and spirit.

And unlike them, I'm comfortable with them from the moment they walk into my room, already well disposed to liking them. I'm their teacher, after all. This guy they're looking at is looking back at them with a mission — not only to nurture them individually, but to build this bunch, from different backgrounds, countries, home lives, religions, races and ethnic groups, into a classroom community that forms every day when the period begins, and develops as long as I have them. It's my job to make this a cooperating group of people who know and like each other, or at least get along.

Sophs were my favorite group, unsullied or disillusioned by any earlier high school experience, and I had the opportunity and privilege to give them a bright outlook and set them on their high school path.

"But before we go any further, I'd like you to fill out these cards."

I hold up the one- by three-inch slip of stiff paper called the Delaney card." This is where I record your work and take your attendance each day. It's also a way I get to know your names, because all of your cards are placed in this book's slots according to where you're seated." I hold up my red, looseleaf Delaney book and show the blank, slotted pages of this New York City public high school staple. Invented by a New York City high school history teacher, Edward C. Delaney, who died in 1969, it's currently made in Syosset, N.Y.

"With this in front of me," I tell my class, "I can call on you without having to ask your name each time. And, by the way, please forgive me if I have to keep referring to the book for that; it takes me weeks to learn everybody's name when I'm getting 175 new students in one day."

Then I caution them: "When you get the card, please don't write anything down on it until I give instructions, because I ask that some things be done differently from what the card asks. Even if it looks logical to write something down, don't do it until I get to that part. And please print only, and in dark blue or black ink. That makes your writing easy to see even when I'm standing up and the Delaney book is on the desk."

Then I say, "Please pass  these back," and place seven cards on each of the room's five rows of immovable, old-fashioned classroom desks, the first seat in each row attached to the desk behind it. 

As I speak, I walk around the room holding several additional blank cards, and when I see everyone has one, I say, "In the upper left hand corner, where it says, 'family name,' print your last name."

Three hands go up.

"Yes?"

"May I have another card, please?"

"Sure," I say, smiling, not to appear impatient or disapproving.

"Me, too?"

"Me, too?"

I walk over and hand them cards. I'm expecting this. Why else would I be carrying these blank cards with me?

"Now, on the right hand side at the top, where it says 'official class,' don't write that. Instead, print your first name or the name you prefer being called. That way, I see your whole name at the top when I'm standing."

Five more Delaneys are ripped in half and five more hands go up. Other kids laugh good-naturedly, and I say something like, "Be right over." I have no doubt that if this were a class of adults, the same number of people would have asked for another card. Among the paramount classroom principles, from pre-school through college, should be "Never embarrass a student."

By the time everyone has completed the Delaney card's 15 items, I've handed out a dozen more blank ones. It's  taken ten minutes of class time, but it's worth it to have a book filled with cards on that first day that I can live with.

My classes began like that for 30 years, and for 27 of them I took the cards home when the term ended. Keeping them was a way to hold on to all those young people who spent part of their lives in my classroom, and throwing them away would be more than discarding a bunch of little cards. They represent my life, my career, and, outside of my own family, the source of most of the memories I've gathered in my adult life. I couldn't throw them away. Every card was and is a person. And some of the "kids" whose names are on these cards are now among  my wife's and my closest friends.

But when I moved from a private home to an apartment a little over a year ago, I realized when unpacking in my new place that I had to dispose of some of the things I had stored away previously but had no room for now.  But the Delaney cards? How could I? So I compromised and decided to throw away all the cards whose names didn't recall a face to me.

As I went through them, however, and the pile of faceless Delaney names grew greater, I was shocked and dismayed to realize that I, who had believed, and had told people through the years, that I remembered all of my students, could not match faces with most of them — out of about 10,000 only about 800 — although I'm sure that if each one of those I didn't remember passed by me now, Mr. Chips style, I'd remember many more of them.

Still, there are those hundreds who I do indeed remember, and wafting up from their Delaney cards come indelible memories of them. 

  • Elizabeth Shome, a sweet and bright girl who had been in my eleventh grade class the previous year, comes to me crying, as I'm leaving the teacher's lunchroom on the first day of classes in 1969. "Mr. Greenman, you've got to get me out of Mr. Anker's class," she pleads. "He's so cruel."

    The previous May I had recommended Robert Anker's senior creative writing class to my entire eleventh year journalism class. Most of them took it.  Bob, my closest friend and a wonderful teacher, always began his term with a serious classroom demeanor, a warm grin just below the surface, but displaying a wry humor that gave an entirely different impression of him than what they would soon learn he was really like, as he gradually endeared himself to his students with his generous spirit, skillful teaching and lively classroom engagement. If it's possible to warmly embrace students at arms length more closely than other teachers do with their arms literally around them, Anker did that.

    "Elizabeth," I say, "it's the first day. If you don't love him in two weeks, come to me and I'll get you out." Elizabeth, who is now 54, comes to me two weeks later to thank me. "I love him," she says.

  • It's a 1974 spring afternoon when Barry Bennett and I, on the way to  my car and his home, come upon a well-dressed elderly man lying on the sidewalk, drunk. We help him up and, one on each side, walk him to his apartment building and leave him on a couch in the lobby, as he asks. Outside the building, we walk silently for a minute, and Barry turns to me. "Mr. Greenman, I never saw a drunk person. I can't believe it. He looked so nice. I thought drunks looked like bums."

  • On the Times Square subway platform on our way home from a school trip, in 1970, Joyce Trief drops her Hershey bar on the platform. A real chocolate lover, she picks it up and is about to bite off a piece when I grab it, throw it on the track and give her 35 cents (yes, folks, 35 cents) to buy another at the platform's newsstand.

  • Marianne Sanua is immersed in a book during the subway ride to Columbia University, in Manhattan, where 30 students and I are attending the March 1974 Columbia Scholastic Press Association convention. The train arrives at the station and we all get off — except Marianne, still reading placidly as the doors close and the train pulls out. She caught up with us later. Today, Marianne is a professor of Judaic studies at Florida Atlantic University. Interestingly, her brother David, also my student, was fired from a job after college in a Barnes & Noble stockroom for spending too much time reading the stock instead of stocking the reading. He's now a lawyer.

  • Angel Rodriguez was among several blind students attending Edward R. Murrow High School when I taught there in the late 80's, but unlike the others, he got around school without help — no dog, no cane, no paraprofessional aide. And he walked about as fast as everybody else — he told me he could hear the walls. On the second day of class I write a sentence on the board that contains an unpunctuated parenthetical phrase. After reading it aloud I ask the class if there's anything wrong with it. Angel raises his hand and I call on him. "If  it doesn't have commas on both sides of that parenthetical phrase," he says, "it's got a problem."

  • Jennifer Smith, I'll call her, sits in my classroom day after day in the early 1980's talking. And talking. And talking. I whisper to her at her desk during class; I speak to her after class; and I speak to her before class, telling her how much her talking disturbs the class and me. She always responds politely and promises to stop, but she never does, or can. I change her seat twice to get her away from friends she talks to, but she goes on. And because her attendance is perfect I never have a day off. As a last resort, because I always tried to keep any difficulties between my students and me our affair, I call her home, the only time I ever phoned a parent because of a child's classroom behavior.
    Her father answers.
    "Mr. Smith?"
    "Yes?"
    "This is Robert Greenman, Jennifer's English teacher. I'm sorry to disturb your evening. I'm calling because I'm having a difficult time with Jennifer in class. She just won't stop talking."
    "Just a moment," he says, "I'll get my wife." And he is out of there.
    What happened in class after that, I don't remember. But I just found Jennifer on Facebook, looking happy — radiant, actually — holding a two-year old in her arms and two older children at her side.

  • And then there's Vic Shaw, who graduated in 1974 and is among  my most memorable students. He had 14 brothers and sisters, all living in the same apartment, and the house was so noisy that he'd go to bed very early and wake up at 3 a.m. to do his homework.

    When Vic applied for editor in chief of the student newspaper that I advised, I suggested that he run for school office instead because Madison hadn't had a black student government president since 1956. His election, I told him, would help raise the morale and community spirit of a school racially integrated in numbers but not in fact. It was a bad decision on my part. Vic was elected, only to find his attempts to ease Madison's racial tensions thwarted by an administration intent on shunting him strictly into fund raising activities, while trumpeting the color of his skin as an example of the great black kids at Madison. As editor, Vic would have written editorials, columns and news stories and attracted other black students to the staff, a true leadership role. So exploited did Vic feel by the school administration that he refused to have his graduation picture appear in his yearbook.

    Twenty years ago, finding that his Delaney card's address and phone number were no help in locating him, I called his college's alumni office, and was told that they can't give me his address but will forward a letter to him. I never followed up — don't ask me why, I don't know. But it was to my lasting regret. A few weeks ago, with the Internet to work with, I located his sister Mariela and called her. Vic, she told me, had died of kidney failure  in 2009. He was married, the father of a boy entering college this year, and an artist and writer. I was stunned and distressed, over his death and over my negligence. I see Vic seated in Madison's student union office and I wish I had that moment back.

Epilogue:  I just received an e-mail from Alan Madans, who I last saw at his 1975 Madison graduation. I knew years ago that he'd clerked for Supreme Court Justice Harry A. Blackmun, then practiced law in Chicago, but had not been in touch. His Delaney was, of course, no help in locating him, but the Internet was, and yesterday I e-mailed him at his Chicago law firm, mentioning that I recall his being the only student I knew who was a Sinatra fan. The 17-year old boy I still pictured wrote back, telling me that he has two daughters in college and he and his wife are "adjusting to being empty nesters." And he still listens to Sinatra.

Click here to read more articles from Teachers at Work.

Bob Greenman is the author of Words That Make a Difference; and, with his wife, Carol, More Words That Make a Difference, vocabulary enrichment books based on words and passages from The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. Bob taught English and journalism at James Madison and Edward R. Murrow High Schools, and at Kingsborough Community College, all in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is a newspaper in education consultant for The New York Times, and his website has a section devoted to journalism education. Click here to read more articles by Bob Greenman.

High (School) Anxiety
Despite Bob's long teaching career, even he could experience anxiety dreams.
Bob says teachers should promote pun-making in the classroom.
Portrait of a Principal
Bob reminisces about Saul Bruckner, beloved high school principal.