Eulogy for a school

Students at all-male FitzSimons High wait to check in with their school IDs in 2005. The school is now closed.
Students at all-male FitzSimons High wait to check in with their school IDs in 2005. The school is now closed. (CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 08, 2012

In September 2007, I walked into the halls of Thomas FitzSimons High School. This was my first teaching assignment, at an all-male, African American neighborhood school, the only one of its kind in the city.

No one is walking into the halls of my school this September. Five years later, "Fitz," as we affectionately called it, has been closed. What remains for me are memories of the students who came through my classroom door and changed the way I think about education in America.

Our school never received much support from the district's central offices. We knew we had to make do with what we had and cut corners where we could. No district budget will ever address the need for more positive role models or ensure safe passage to and from school. And no district budget will ever address the grief of losing a student to senseless violence.

During my years at Fitz, we lost eight students to violence in the surrounding streets of North Philadelphia. Not once did someone from district headquarters show up with grief counselors; not once did the media come to explore the impact of the violence on the school.

But violence was an inescapable priority at FitzSimons, where I learned that education means much more than mathematics and literature. We had to tackle tougher topics, such as how to get a job, practice safe sex, deal with grief, avoid the traps of the ghetto, and, most important, become a productive citizen in a difficult environment.

At times, these additional areas of study seemed more important than the traditional subjects. How can a classroom of students begin to discuss Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra when one of their classmates was just discovered shot and left to die blocks from the school? How could they begin to consider the laws of inertia the day after a shootout between rival drug dealers?

These are the questions we would ask ourselves, and these are the issues we would somehow work into the process of learning. We were often called on to be not just teachers, but counselors, mentors, uncles, fathers, and sometimes saviors. Many of the students who came through my classroom have become like sons to me.

This was not a 9-to-5 job - more like 24/7. No overtime was paid, no bonuses were handed out - just the rewards of student success and changed lives. Many students would not be where they are today without a special teacher; some may not be alive.

FitzSimons was a haven for some students and a source of torment for others. But one constant was that the teachers and staff worked and existed, for the most part, as a family and a team, each taking care of particular students and needs. We knew that feelings of loneliness and isolation could cause adverse reactions. Many of my students would come to discuss their issues with me during lunch, and I would do my best to positively motivate them, often in the face of very discouraging situations.

Fortunately, there were volunteer organizations that maintained a presence at FitzSimons and often helped us deal with such issues - organizations like Nu Sigma Youth Services, which ran our Student Success Center. Commissioned to carry out career and college counseling, these men not only did that; they also provided our students with what they needed most: more positive male figures in their lives.

Over the years, Fitz produced many success stories. In fact, one of my first students is expected to graduate from college this year.

Thomas FitzSimons was a rare institution, and not only because it was an all-male neighborhood high school. It was also a place where, to an unusual extent, young men had to learn life lessons alongside the standard curriculum.


Jeffrey Lee is a Philadelphia schoolteacher. He can be reached at jeffslee65@gmail.com.

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