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Noteworthy graduates: Ray Suarez, ‘PBS NewsHour’
by Ellie Spielberg | November 25, 2010 New York Teacher issue
There was a time when the renowned newsman Ray Suarez was just, as he put it, a “smart, mouthy Puerto Rican kid from Brooklyn.” Now he’s senior correspondent for the “PBS NewsHour,” author and 2010 inductee into the National Association of Hispanic Journalists’ Hall of Fame. He rattles off his Bensonhurst schools and their cross streets as though he attended them yesterday: PS 128, PS 97, IS 281. He graduated from John Dewey HS in 1974. Of his public school education he says, “I am what you’d call a satisfied customer.” That’s despite dealing with bullying and racism. Some of those bullies later became his buddies and learned tolerance. But there’s something for which Suarez himself has no tolerance: “The way that publicly denigrating teachers has become the cheapest, easiest applaud line.”
At a time when it wasn’t easy for Puerto Ricans to rent apartments in lots of parts of Brooklyn, my parents made a strategic and sacrificial move to a neighborhood that didn’t always welcome them with open arms so my brother and I could go to the best elementary schools.
You can’t predict how your life could’ve been, but that was a really important game changer. I was in the tracking for smart kids.
No one in my family had the opportunity to get much education, and going to school with kids who always assumed they were going to get a higher education presented a set of very potent unspoken messages to me.
Sometimes those assumptions were off-putting and made me think of things like [economics] class at a very early age. But the neighborhood was a mix. Some knew education was their ticket out of Brooklyn and had grander plans for their lives. Other kids, including some of the guys I hung out with, hated school and were suspicious of academic success.
When you walk onto the basketball court in junior high school and kids are chanting derogatory names because you’re one of the smart students, it becomes a moment of caring what they think, or thinking “Who cares?”
There were kids who were sometimes mean or patronizing about Latinos in general and Puerto Ricans in particular, but so what? It turned out not to have mattered so much and taught me a lot about human nature.
I knew I wanted to be a journalist in junior high, and in high school it moved from being dream-able to being do-able. I was on the school newspaper and started to choose a college based on its having a full-power FM radio station and a big newspaper, part of why I went to NYU.
I wound up being a pioneer among Hispanic journalists by default. There were no models on the network level. You don’t choose when you’re born.
My parents demanded excellence of me, for which I thank them and thank them.
I thank my teachers, who over the years were so terrific that I can name almost every one. My English teachers at Dewey were nurturers: Abraham Chiavetta and Gregory Tumminio. So was my social studies teacher, Saul Bruckner, who became the founding principal of Edward R. Murrow HS.
When I read about the debate inside education now, I see teachers slandered, ridiculed and dismissed!
It’s one of the things in American life that there is absolutely no downside to — publicly denigrating teachers. It’s the cheapest, easiest applaud line.
Where do people say, “That doesn’t sound right to me?” What’s the push-back? What’s the consequence?
The situation in public education is so much more complicated that it might actually make people have a hard thought, so instead they denigrate teachers.
I sent my kids to public school in Washington, D.C. I have a daughter at Columbia and my son is at the University of Chicago. So they don’t seem too terribly scarred by their public school years!
When people in Washington ask my wife and me about that we say, “We’re public school people.”
— as told to reporter Ellie Spielberg
The series “Noteworthy Graduates” features outstanding New York City public school alumni talking about what they owe to their education.