The first day my new teacher walked into our school in Spanish Harlem, I burst out laughing. Ron Clark was this young white guy from North Carolina who talked with a funny Southern accent. He said he used to be a singing waiter. I thought, Who is this guy? He’s a complete joke.
It was 1999 and I was in the fifth grade at New York City’s P.S. 83. I figured I’d spend most of the year in the principal’s office. I’d always been a troublemaker. I’d get yelled at, and then the teachers would give up on me. I thought that’s what would happen with Ron Clark.
I was wrong. That first week, I kept mocking him. He hauled me out to the hallway and said I’d better shape up. “Tamara,” he said, “you’re a smart kid. You can do better.”
He told me I was a natural leader and that I’d go far in life if I started applying myself. I was mad at first, but then something happened: I began to respect him. There were 29 students in our class, and it didn’t take long for us to realize that Ron Clark was no ordinary teacher.
He was only 27 and had the most unusual way of teaching. To help us learn the states and capitals, he changed the lyrics of a popular rap hit called “Thong Song” and had us sing and dance with him. When we read the Harry Potter books, he decorated our classroom like Hogwarts. And during the Presidential election, he put campaign posters on the walls and covered the room with 5,000 red, white and blue stars.
Like most teachers, he had lots of rules: Treat each other like family. Don’t butt in line. But the real difference was how involved he was. Mr. Clark ate with us in the lunchroom instead of going to the teachers’ lounge. At first, my friends and I were thinking, What is he doing?
He asked us what was going on in our lives. At recess, he came outside with us, and we taught him how to jump rope. When it snowed, Mr. Clark, who’d never seen snow before, pelted us with snowballs, and we pelted him back.
Before coming to P.S. 83, he taught at Snowden Elementary in his hometown, Belhaven, North Carolina. His parents were DJs at dance clubs, so he grew up with music and energy. He wanted a life of adventure, he told me, but his mom encouraged him to apply for a position at Snowden when one of the teachers passed away. Mr. Clark ended up loving it. He came to Harlem because he’d seen a TV show about our troubled schools and the lack of qualified teachers. He wanted a challenge. Boy, did he get one.