He Spent a Year Telling Students to ‘Sit Down and Shut Up’

Cinque Henderson's provocative memoir raises questions and concerns.

Going to the head of the class.

Should purgatory exist and I wind up there, I’ll possibly do some expiation for aiding and abetting in the abuse of substitute teachers back when I was a kid. While I wasn’t ever an active troublemaker, I certainly enjoyed the unscheduled holiday that came whenever a sub took over for the regular teacher. Zoning out, talking out of turn and generally not giving a damn were the (dis)order of the day whenever a substitute filled in. On the other hand, it was always a relief when the regular teacher returned. Some of those subs were actually big dollops of trouble themselves, including that older British fellow, Mr. Cooke, who informed us not only that Shakespeare wrote the King James Bible but also that all those profane four-letter words in the English language were coined during the California Gold Rush.

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If being a substitute teacher was a loathsome proposition in rural Oregon back in the 1960s and ’70s, how must it be now, in some of the toughest schools in the country? Cinque Henderson, a young writer, found out recently when he spent a year subbing in various schools in the LA area. An African-American Harvard grad who hails from a family of educators, Henderson traveled to institutions rich and poor and with various racial configurations. He taught adolescents in both public and private schools “from Beverly Hills to Compton”; he spent time in charter schools and in parochial schools of various stamps (Catholic, Protestant, Jewish). He found some schools to be inspirational laboratories for learning; others were sheer chaos even on a good day.

He has now written a book about his experiences: Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free. As the title suggests, Henderson harbors strong, fairly old-school ideas about what ails the American education system and how to make it well — or at least not quite so miserably ill.

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He begins the book with an anecdote about a confrontation he had at a South Watts high school with an angry football player who muttered spiteful curses under his breath (when he wasn’t barking them aloud):

“Motherfucker, fuck you. You don’t run shit up in here. What you gon’ do?”

Eventually Henderson had the student removed from the classroom, but before long the kid returned, boomerang-like, to unnerve the young teacher again.

Definitely a provocateur at times, Henderson surely knows that the rather rude title of his book will raise the eyebrows of certain readers, as may his thesis at the top of the book: that in “poor and under-served communities, white and black,” student behavior is arguably the biggest problem teachers face these days.

As he zigzagged from gig to gig, Henderson noted that, in schools with few behavioral problems (often middle- to upper-middle-class institutions), measures were in place for removing unruly students and for otherwise imposing consequences for bad behavior. But that was not generally the case in the poorer, troubled schools:

As this happened over and over in my first few weeks —  spending one day at a terrific, thriving school where there were clear boundaries and consequences for violating basic rules of respect between adults and kids, followed the next day at a school where kids could barely read and write but could openly curse and threaten you — my mind began to darken.

Henderson traces the woes of the worst LA schools, in part, back to the crack cocaine epidemic of the late 1980s and early ’90s, when “the natural relationship between adult and child was fatefully severed.” He is also critical of the “children’s rights” movement that emerged from ideas in the best-selling 1960 book Summerhill: a Radical Approach to Child Rearing, by Alexander S. Neill.

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Tough-school advocate Joe Clark.

While insisting that he is himself an NPR-listening Democrat who believes in global warming, Henderson stresses the need for “stringency” when it comes to moderating student behavior. He repeats this word often in Sit Down and Shut Up. No, he’s not advocating for corporal punishment or other dire penalties. In fact, he brands as “draconian” some of the policies that grew out of the “Zero Tolerance” movement of the mid-1990s — personified by the “Rambo of public education,” Joe Clark (of Lean on Me fame). Henderson believes that students need to learn impulse control and that disciplinary measures can encourage such self-mastery. In that spirit, he established one classroom rule in the schools where he subbed, a rule he worked hard to maintain: no cursing or other foul language within his earshot.

It’s ironic, then, that in one early chapter, Henderson is himself rather salty. He classifies students into three groups: gems, knuckleheads and assholes. (The categorization works in other contexts, too, he posits. For instance, during the Second Gulf War, Colin Powell was a gem, George W. Bush a knucklehead and Dick Cheney an asshole.) He believes that if young knuckleheads gravitate toward gems within a classroom, they may be redeemable. But perish the thought that instead they glom onto the incorrigible few: the assholes. If the worst-behaved students can be removed from the classroom — temporarily or, in some cases, permanently — such in-between-ers will better flourish, he believes. As for those worst rotten apples, Henderson calls for bringing back reform schools, albeit ones that have themselves been reformed to serve as something more than a conduit to prison life.

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There seems to be good sense in much of what Henderson calls for. At times he may seem like a bit of a reactionary, but his ideas are actually quite wide-ranging. He makes a fairly strong case for a moratorium on charter schools, branding the “school choice” movement a “boondoggle for the rich.” He’s an unapologetic critic of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos. And at one point he spends several pages writing about athlete-activist Colin Kaepernick, praising his “reason and patience and the ability to subdue the egotistical self.”

On the other hand, there are sections of Sit Down and Shut Up in which Henderson does himself no good favors. In one chapter, he embarks on a tangent about the “toxic” destabilization of black culture by hard-edged gangsta rap, harping for many pages on young white women sexually fetishizing thuggish black rappers (and vice versa). In the bargain, he all but launches a personal crusade against Kanye West, Kim Kardashian and (especially) Mariah Carey. To a degree, this stuff is pertinent to his argument, but he’d have been wise, perhaps, to trim it back and use it as a springboard for a separate book. In another chapter he discusses the need of young African-American males for older male mentors, mostly on the ground that adolescents need someone in their lives who can physically intimidate and/or subdue them (something, he claims, a mother cannot do once a child reaches a certain age). He tells with apparent relish an anecdote about a father who responded to a disrespectful son by hurling a knife in his direction, then — clarifying that he doesn’t actually endorse knife play — he acknowledges that such a story may make certain readers “blanch.” He’s right. Meanwhile, there are obvious hot-button issues relevant to his subject that he neglects, including mass school shootings and cyber-bullying.

The book is at its best when Henderson writes of his interactions with his students. He includes sharp, detailed and sometimes funny descriptions of the gems, knuckleheads and assholes who were a part of his life during his year in the trenches. He likewise gives us glimpses into the lives of some stalwart (if discouraged and exhausted) teachers who manage not only to endure the maelstroms that are their classrooms but also to cope with the criticisms of purported “experts” (including DeVos), who have scant appreciation for the sacrifices these people regularly make for their students.