The Roses of Ispahan
A Personal View of Music Teaching in the Inner City

by Heidi Lowy
Bedminster, NJ USA


eaching can be a hard job under the best of circumstances.  But what is it like under ones far less than optimum? This article describes my experiences as a music teacher in an inner city school. It speaks to how some members of our society react to learning, even when it relates to learning about some of the things that make life beautiful.

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"There is no more fragrance in the pale orange tree,
Nor celestial aroma in the roses in their moss...."

from the poem "Les Roses d'Ispahan" by Leconte de Lisle
for voice and piano by Gabriel Faure.


Is beauty in the eye of the beholder?

Beauty is lacking at the high school, I think. Outside, the birds begin to sing a little before 6:20 am, as I park my car in the adjacent lot. I haven't missed a day since September. It's March now, and I'm feeling desperate. So desperate, that my husband and teen-aged daughter are beginning to scream back at me, when I come home, after a day of teaching in this place.

Screaming is de rigueur here. I yearn for quiet time, away from the pervasive cursing, or "cussing," according to local lingo. The students scream at each other, in the hallway. They scream at me, during class.

Classroom management is my goal today, everyday. And I fail at it, each and every blessed day. I am the gaoler-teacher of children who address each other constantly, using the "n" word. As a white, middle-aged, well-educated, but novice public school teacher, teaching in this inner-city environment is my first experience in the public school arena, and I know it will be my last. I'm an "f---in'" music teacher, and the F Word is as common to me now, as it is to my students. Students curse at me all day. "You f---in '" white-assed bitch" is a favorite. And not even uttered in an undertone. I am cursed at, humiliated and nothing is done to stop it. How can I stop hatred and personal animus in children who just plain don't like me? I can't. Most of my students are illiterate. Putting three or four words together to form a sentence is likewise, out of reach. I can't believe what I am seeing. These children can neither read nor write at grade level, or even slightly below it. It's happening right here, in the bosom of New Jersey.

"You can't change anything," said one student to me during my morning hall-duty circuit. My answer, at the time was "You may be right, but that doesn't mean that I can't try." Empty words, Ms. Teacher, I now say to myself. The child was right. After all, she's been through the school system since Pre-K. She's watched the teachers as they either remained or crumbled to the pressures of having to teach. I'm the 8th music teacher in 5 years at this high school. And yes, the school is failing, according to the NJDOE. It's ranked as one of the worst in the state, and I don't wonder why.

Teaching content matter, for me, would be the easy part, but it's impossible to teach when a large number of my students spend their daily class time with white audio plugs in their ears. When asked to remove them, one girl refuses. "I CAN HEAR YOU," she screams, over the audio streaming into her ears. And she doesn't even realize that she's screaming. I'm interfering with her audio, which is her only source of enjoyment in the joyless world of secondary school education. Kids are telling me, imploring me, every day, not to challenge them. "It's too hard." "I just want to pass, that's all." With an attitude like this, no wonder that these children feel hopeless. They are aiming much too low. "A's" are as out of bounds for these kids as the basketball thrown at a referee.

In my classroom, which I refer to as the local dumping ground for students with no interest in any musical elective whatsoever, kids flash their phones at each other constantly, taking photos, exchanging pleasantries. Quite a few walk in and out of the classroom at will. What can I do to stop them? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Food is another issue. After months of cleaning up empty gum and candy wrappers, used wads of Kleenex and other refuse daily from my classroom floor, I placed the closest, biggest trash tub in front of my classroom door, one morning, demanding that the kids deposit their trash in it, before entering. Result? They pushed me back into the classroom, and as I raised my hand to fend them off, I made contact with one girl's shoulder. Then the stories began. One girl angrily told the principal that I had slapped her in the face. And on and on.

The greatest joke at the high school is the school rule that no cell phones or electronic devices are allowed in the building. Even the fear of confiscation does nothing to thwart the majority of students in my classroom who find their electronics obligatory to their daily survival. And every teacher I know, myself included, wouldn't dare snatch anything away from a student, fearing that contact might occur, or that a parent might sue if a cell phone is lost by the teacher or administrator who takes possession of one.

I left in late March because it became impossible for me to continue. The psychological toll of being constantly screamed at by unruly children and the threat of physical harm, feared by my family on my behalf, forced me out. I was run out of Dodge, right here in The Garden State.


It is peaceful now, as I hear the birds sing outside my window at home. I treasure the quiet. The volume of my life has been turned down. Beauty has returned, for me, at least, but a part of me remains there, and hears their screaming "WE CAN STILL HEAR YOU, BUT WHAT WILL BECOME OF US!"

Editor's Note: Heidi Lowy is a teacher, performer and recording artist. She was interviewed for PEP in June, 2007.

Page created: 5/26/07
Last updated: 11/25/09
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