Bill Burd had said on the phone that his brother was fading in and out, but if I showed up at Einstein maybe Frank could answer a question or two from me about being assaulted by one of his students whose iPod he'd confiscated. Turned out, Frank Burd had an hour of great clarity - and excruciating pain - as he talked about what it was like to teach math at Germantown High School. Like leading struggling students through the desert, he said - only to be attacked by a member of his party.
Here's a better idea. The piece, itself:
Daniel Rubin | A casualty of an everyday battle
By Daniel Rubin
Frank Burd says he's done talking. He clicks the pump in his left hand for another dose, and as the morphine starts to flow, he squeezes his eyes shut and takes a breath.
But there's something more to tell. And so he asks you to lean in and listen hard, because speaking is excruciating with a broken neck.
"I don't want this to be about angels and villains," he says in a soft rasp. "I'm just a teacher. I was a good teacher, and they're struggling students. I was just trying to be there for them. It's like you're walking through the desert and you just want to get the kids across. One is frustrated, and so he attacks the leader."
He doesn't remember how it happened Friday. One moment Burd, 60, was in the hallway of Germantown High with a 17-year-old senior whose iPod he had confiscated in class. The next moment he was in the ambulance.
Maybe that's a memory he doesn't need. Then he won't have to replay the assault. A hall camera caught the incident: two students hitting him, sending him crashing into a locker. He struck his head, leaving a deep gash in his scalp and snapping two vertebrae.
Peaches and pain
Burd's brother, Bill, and friend Beckey Kane have been keeping watch at Einstein, feeding him canned peaches, moving him gently when just being still hurts.
Now Burd's curled on his right side, his head immobilized by the black metal brace screwed into his skull that reminds him of one of those old presses for wooden tennis rackets.
Three times during Algebra II the boy had pulled out the digital music player, and three times Burd had threatened to confiscate it.
The rules say that when a student uses a phone or music player in the classroom, the teacher is to hand the device over to the school police. But Burd always returned it at the end of the period.
"All I want to do is teach," he says. "And they want to listen to music. But they play it so loud I hear it in the front of the room and the other kids are bopping to the beat."
The boy's explosion makes no sense. He was doing good work, had ability, even if it was his second time taking the class.
"He's a bright kid. I had a rapport with him. I don't know where [the rage] came from. I don't understand, and I find it frustrating because I care about these kids. They're angry at something that has nothing to do with you."
The 17-year-old has been suspended along with a 15-year-old accomplice. They face criminal charges.
Fighting for attention
The story made national news, and lit up Web sites over the weekend. On Phillyblogs, a high school teacher in West Philadelphia wrote of her own frustration competing with electronics for students' attention.
"It's way worse than people know," Lelah Marie, who teaches Spanish at Paul Robeson High, said by phone. "We are living in one universe and they are in another, where the kids have all sorts of tiny MP3 players and phones. They take calls in class, and do not stop talking."
It's an everyday battle.
"The district has a policy of no electronics in class. We're supposed to take them away, but kids won't give them up. One kid will take it and pass it along to others... .
"They're so distracted by this stuff. You want to make some contact with the kids, but they really dislike you when you do."
Today, Burd is scheduled for surgery. The doctors plan to rebuild his neck using parts of his hip. He's not ready to think about whether he'll step inside Germantown High again, let alone teach another class.
"The idea I had my neck broken by a student," he says, "is overwhelming."