Un-rapped: How this sub lays down life lessons with lyrics

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Originally published on May 26, 2016

Dowaliby on his Mercedes-Benz. Photo by Leonard Caoili

To any Lowell student who knows the struggle of nodding off during a monotonous class, an engaging, friendly substitute teacher is just the fix. A student who has had a class led by George Dowaliby, a sub rated with five stars on RateMyTeachers, will probably recognize this rap, called “To Gee with Love, R.I.P.”

During a Block 8 Chemistry class on Jan. 7, Dowaliby told Gee’s story about one of his “homies” named Gerald, whose nickname was Gee, who had died in 1992 while attending Dowaliby’s night school. Just two weeks before his death, Gee had decided to try to leave behind drugs, gangs and drinking to turn his life around and graduate with Dowaliby’s help. Dowaliby dedicated his evening school at Lincoln this year to Gee and recited the poem to both of the classes that he taught on the first day.

I used to teach a homie named Gee last year

Thinkin’ bout him makes me cry in my beer

Just two weeks to go ‘till he graduates

How could he know he was fingered by fate?

Use to sit right up front sportin’ single braid

The ladies all loved him, he had it made

Looked you right in the eye when he said, “wassup”

Cause he respected his friends, that’s sure enough

He has to do some time but that was all done

And it was all good, ’cause I loved him like a son

Tryin’ to turn it around an’ get an education

Just two weeks to go till graduation

I taught him ‘bout English and Social Science

Cause he already knew about money ‘n finance

I always knew night school would be fun time

When I’d run into Gee on the way to Sunshine

He could sure look mean but I didn’t trip

To the ways of the street Gee sure was hip

Learned a lot from him too, I didn’t tweak

That to survive you can’t be weak

Just to weeks to go ‘till graduation

Forties all around, chronic celebration

Heard the party went all night, right by school

To be quite blunt, things were hella cool

But then early in the morning

Suddenly and with no warning

Party’s over for Gee all behind a gun

Homeboy was just playin’, lookin’ for fun

I miss you, Gee, but you ain’t dead

You live on in my heart and in my head

And though I can never say goodbye

It’s hard not to break down and cry

Thank you Gee, for being my friend

For me your life will never end

And when we next meet in that Gangsta Lean

I’ll make you smile again, you know what I mean

So long, Gee, till I see you again

As my student, teacher, and friend

And as everyone can surely see

This one’s for you, Gee, with love, R.I.P.

Dowaliby, age 68, was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York, and has been a teacher for 24 years. His teaching philosophy is based on getting to know his students deeply and in return opening up to them by many means — one of which is by rapping for them.

Dowaliby’s education as a youth was not related to rap music at all. While he was growing up, his English class inspired him. When Dowaliby was in tenth grade at Riverview Prep in East Sandwich, Massachusetts, his favorite English teacher Kurt Vonnegut, author of the famous book Slaughterhouse-Five, motivated him to become an educator. According to Dowaliby, Vonnegut wasn’t all that famous in 1962–1963, and had to work simultaneously as a teacher and a car salesman to provide for his family and make ends meet. Despite these financial struggles, Dowaliby maintains that Vonnegut was always a kind person who always did the right thing for no purpose other than because he felt it was right. Vonnegut also gave each of the fewer than ten students in his English class individualized lessons on whatever areas of English they had interest in. According to Dowaliby, Vonnegut taught him the value of friendship with his students and how a teacher could use that friendship to help the student reach their full potential. “To me, as great of a writer as he is, I think he was even a better teacher,” Dowaliby said.

Aside from connections to the educational world and a love for academia, Dowaliby says he always felt like he was “born to be a teacher.” At the young age of 16, he had other ideas for his future, such as following his passion for law and becoming a law professor, so he saved the possibility of teaching for consideration in the future.

Eventually, after a few years of bartending in the city, he revisited the idea when in 1992, Dowaliby taught his first class at Lowell as a substitute. At this point, he had his credentials to teach American Democracy and English. He was fond of the school from his very first day, and always told himself that someday, he wanted to be a part of the school’s community. Since then he has supported students at many schools in the San Francisco Unified School District, some of which are McAteer, which is now the School of the Arts, night and day school, home schools, and even a 36-foot white van.

This white van was the School on Wheels, a program Dowaliby executed in the 1990s at the request of superintendent Waldemar Rojas. When Woodrow Wilson High School was shut down, 160 students exited the school system, so Rojas tasked him to do “whatever it takes” to get all of the pupils back, according to an article by SFGate. In this tuition-free program, Dowaliby was the school’s driver, custodian, cafeteria worker, school secretary, security officer, teacher and principal, and engaged his students in learning by incorporating rap music into the curriculum. His favorite songs to use while teaching were “The Ghetto” and “Money in the Ghetto” by Too $hort and “Dear Mama” by Tupac. In class, Dowaliby instructed his students to analyze the mechanics of these songs, such as their rhyme schemes, informal rhymes, and alliterations.

However, when a new superintendent, Arlene Ackerman, came into office, she decided that in addition to shutting down McAteer, the rest of Rojas’s projects would be shut down. Dowaliby’s program was the “baby thrown out with the bathwater,” meaning that his project was terminated by Ackerman without close consideration of its benefits and success, according to Dowaliby.

The program was shut down even though it was making the city $5,000 for each individual pupil of the 160 total students who graduated with high school diplomas from the program. “[I remember feeling] heartbroken, because I thought I had a program that had viability long into the future,” Dowaliby said. “It is still my belief that we’ll never really see a total end to dropouts and truants. [My program was] the one solution that we had in the district that worked over a period of years.”

Although he has taught at many other places and in many other environments such as the School on Wheels, Lowell is one of Dowaliby’s favorite places to teach because he believes that Lowell is the best school in the country. “Lowell is where I started, it’s my comfort zone,” Dowaliby said. “Why would I want to teach anything but the brightest and the best?”

However, Dowaliby still wishes to become a more permanent member of Lowell’s community. After 24 years of teaching in the SFUSD, one of Dowaliby’s goals is to be a part of the school’s regular staff.

Since returning to Lowell three years ago after taking a break when the School on Wheels was shut down, Dowaliby has been working as a guest teacher at Lowell, substituting daily for absent teachers. His integration back into the school was possible because of the support he got from his students, who helped him establish connections with teachers. “[When entering the school], I didn’t really know any teachers, but because of those kids, who got me connected with the teachers, and enabled me to get my foot in the door with them” Dowaliby said.

He establishes these connections by rapping for his students and having them write a biography before he teaches his lessons. This biography helps him learn about his student’s lives, what is important to them, what experiences they have had and their current situation. Knowing situations in a student’s home or social life helps both the student and himself in establishing a strong connection and understanding of each other, according to Dowaliby.

For these reasons, some students believe Dowaliby is a wonderful, one-of-a-kind teacher. “A teacher is a person who provides knowledge,” Pamela Yee said, who was a Lowell student in the Class of ’93. Back then she wrote a letter to Rojas requesting that Dowaliby be given a full-time teaching job at the school. “A good teacher is also a friend who listens to and truly cares about the needs of his students… George Dowaliby is a member of this rare breed of teachers,” she said. Dowaliby’s creativity and refusal to give up on teenagers also make him a part of this rare breed, according to an article from the San Francisco Chronicle.

Dowaliby’s future at Lowell is unpredictable, but he does not want to be leaving the school soon. Currently, he, along with security guards AJ Frazier and Joe Medina, is teaching a course after school to teachers called Positive Behavior Intervention and Support, which has as its goal, “the elimination of harsh, punitive disciplinary measures like suspensions and expulsions,” according to Dowaliby. The class instead attempts to teach students appropriate ways of behaving in order to prevent extreme measures of punishment.

Dowaliby will continue to serve Lowell for what he hopes to be a long time. Dowaliby’s philosophy has never called forgiving up on his dreams of teaching, and he hopes to instill this same philosophy in his students. “Whatever you believe in, don’t ever give up that dream,” Dowaliby said. “No matter how far away it may seem, no matter how many people may tell you you can’t accomplish it. If you want something, you can accomplish it.”