The first place Moustafa Elhanafi met Principal Geraldine Maione was underneath the shade of a tree in FDR High School’s courtyard.
Maione wasn’t standing below the thick branches and wide leaves to teach Eastern philosophy or poetry, but rather to catch students in the act of skipping class.
For his own part, Elhanafi was glad to find her there. Glad because educational instruction wasn’t what he was attempting to escape. On the contrary, it was precisely what he was seeking out on that fateful September day, writes Miller-McCune journalist Ben Preston in a gripping report on one young man’s journey from illiteracy to academic success.
“I saw her, and I didn’t know if she was the principal, but she was wearing a suit, so I asked her if she was,” said Moustafa.
Maione welcomed him inside and listened to what he had to say. With his father beside him, Moustafa told Maione how, at 18 years old, he still didn’t know how to read or write. He had tried and failed at other schools, and he was willing to work as hard as he could to learn, but Moustafa said he needed help. After 15 minutes relating his frustrations, he began to cry. Maione, too, became emotional. She told him she knew just the person who could help. As if on cue, special education teacher Rosalie Dolan strode around the corner on her way home for the day, right into the tear-streaked faces of Moustafa and Maione.
“He cried, she cried, I cried,” recalled Dolan, relating the details in the thick accent shared by so many of the South Brooklyn school’s teachers. “I don’t know how to explain it; it was like a rainforest. I think we all had a spiritual experience that day.”
The trio’s first meeting that day launched Moustafa on an academic journey that has brought him tantalizingly close to obtaining a high school diploma. Outside of school hours, and without pay, Dolan began the painstaking process of teaching Moustafa how to read, one letter at a time.
That was in 2008, at the end of Moustafa’s three-year run at the Roy Campanella Occupational Training Center — known colloquially as the OTC — a school for developmentally disabled children. The New York City public school system — the largest in the world — has many resources at its disposal, but as Moustafa’s case suggests, it’s not always successful at plugging every student into the right ones.
Moustafa had been enrolled in what is known as an inclusionary program — special education classes sponsored by the OTC, but held on the campus of John Dewey High School, the conventional school right next door. But Moustafa felt out of place in OTC classes. He couldn’t get the hang of reading and writing, but he was different from his classmates, most of whom suffered from Down syndrome, mental retardation, and other severe disabilities. The OTC is well known for helping students with such problems, but its approach wasn’t working for Moustafa.
Moustafa had asked his teacher, Marian Bruce, to help him learn to read, and said that she invited him to show up before class for tutoring. But at those sessions, something was missing. He recalls being asked to copy lessons for class onto the board, mimicry that didn’t help him correlate sounds to letters. Plus, he said, “I’m a slow writer. I had to go one letter at a time, and by the time I finished, the bell rang and class started. It didn’t help at all.”
Frustrated and depressed, Moustafa eventually stopped going to school. His father didn’t like what he saw. “I said, ‘Moustafa, you need to read and write to get a job,’” recalled Ahmed Elhanafi, a now-retired taxi driver who raised his two sons in Bensonhurst, not far from FDR. Ahmed pep-talked his son into asking for help from the principal of the high school in their neighborhood, starting the trek to Geraldine Maione’s shady tree.
Moustafa Elhanafi had been born in New York City to Egyptian immigrant parents who were themselves illiterate – not only in the language of their newly adopted country, but in their native Arabic as well. At age 2, he moved back to Egypt with his mother, who went on divorce his father a short time later. He lived in Egypt for six years, speaking Arabic but never learning to read or write it.
Upon his return to New York at age 8, Elhanafi lived with his father in Bensonhurst. His lack of formal education, natural shyness and emotional sensitivity all lead a dysfunctional system to misdiagnose him as mentally retarded, ineducable, and, after reporting him as suffering from attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and advise his father to place him on Ritalin. He faithfully took the drug for a year – even as his appetite vanished to the point of malnourishment.
Thanks to the help and support of educators like Rosalie Dolan – who routinely instructs students outside of normal classroom hours free of charge – and Principal Geraldine Maione – who has thanklessly turned around failing area schools FDR as well as Grady – of which she is now the principal, Moustafa’s prospects for the future look significantly brighter than they were on that warm September day when the three first became acquainted. He has passed every one of his Regents exams and is slated to graduate this June.
Last week Bensonhurst Bean reported that FDR and Grady, which had both received a grade of B on their latest evaluations, are slated to be drastically overhauled by Mayor Bloomberg – a process that would include the mass firing of staff members.
Both Dolan and Maione would probably agree that while education is a noble calling, it is a thankless one indeed.