"Don't worry about it," one teacher told me. "Just do what you can with them, but you can't do much." She wasn't the only one who felt that way. According to the kids, their 4th-grade teacher had reveled in calling them "stupid," and a teacher down the hall frequently referred to the entire group as "the criminals" (two of the boys had dubious police records). They had all ended up together as the result of their previous teachers' "rankings"- at the end of each school year, every teacher was asked to list her students from 1-to-whatever in descending order of promise. Ferguson's kids were culled from the bottom of each 5th-grade list, lumping all of the lowest achieving, most troubled students into one self-contained classroom for their 6th grade year. Tracking wasn't official policy at Quincy, but it might as well have been. "Low," "regular," and "top" groups were identifiable at every grade level, and though they weren't labeled as such, the reality of their presence escaped no one, least of all the kids.
"Our whole class is dumb," Armando told me one day. With facial hair already beginning to thicken and the body of a defensive lineman, Armando looked like he could've been in high school. But writing a single paragraph was a chore for him, and he agonized over reading basic picture books.
"You think you're dumb?" I asked.
"In a way, yeah," he said. "All these days of going to school and we still don't know nothing."
"You're not dumb," I assured him. "Even the things you do that you're not supposed to do take brains. You have to be smart to fool the teacher."