Five days a week Sam Rubenstein dissected the previous night's NBA action in a Manhattan office. He immersed himself in the basketball blogosphere as he ran the website for SLAM Magazine, one of the biggest sports rags in the country. After four years at SLAM, Rubenstein decided that partying (uh reporting) in Las Vegas for the All-Star game, attending each game of the NBA finals, and hanging out with superstars was no longer for him. He went back to school, studying towards a Master's in education at Fordham University in hopes of teaching at a New York City public school.
"11th and 12th graders think they know too much. I tried to teach Hamlet and none of them cared; they all knew he was going to kill himself."
Then our nation's economy collapsed on itself, taking out with it, at least temporarily, Rubenstein's dream of dropping some knowledge full-time. The New York City Department of Education is currently in a hiring freeze, and Rubenstein now finds himself working as a substitute, honing his skills and waiting until the city starts employing again. (Basically, it's just like that time Ron Artest worked out while he was suspended from the NBA, except that Rubenstein can't work in his field because of a dismal economy, not because he tried to fight half of Detroit.)
Gelf caught up with Rubenstein, who is 31 and lives in Brooklyn's Carroll Gardens neighborhood, 20 blocks away from his childhood home in Brooklyn Heights. In the following interview, which has been edited for clarity, Rubenstein discusses why the hell he left SLAM to teach in the NYC public school system, how his student-teaching gig compares with basketball, and his unrelenting love for all things Dipset.
Gelf Magazine: After undergrad, did you think about pursuing a graduate degree immediately?
Sam Rubenstein: Never. All my friends were all about finishing college and going straight to grad school, but I was like, "Fuck that. I want to make money and enjoy life."
Gelf Magazine: What was your first job out of college?Sam Rubenstein: I was doing data entry as a bookkeeper/accountant, but I had no interest in it. I was getting bored of it. At work I pulled a slow-down where I could do my own thing and look at sports websites. One day I called in sick and my boss covered for me; he did three months' worth of my work in two hours. He figured out what I was doing and transferred me to making binders. Then I got a real job, where I became a stockbroker trainee. I was trying to be somebody I wasn't. I did it for two months and was completely burned it out. It was a horrible, horrible lifestyle.
Gelf Magazine: Was there a moment of clarity where you realized it wasn't for you?
Sam Rubenstein: I felt like I was ethically compromising myself. It was very stereotypical Wall Street, Boiler Roomsell-your-soul, undersell, and lie to people. There were many little moments, but one day my next-door neighbor died and at first I was like, "I don't have time for his funeral. I'm too busy." Then his four daughters came over who were all under 10. I then realized I was a horrible person. I quit the job and did nothing for a month.
Gelf Magazine: How did you get involved with SLAM?
Sam Rubenstein: Before I worked for SLAM I was actually collecting data at a sleep-research center. My friend read Lang Whitaker's online column for SLAM every day and told me I should apply for his internship position. I got that job, so at first I was "Sam the Intern," and then I moved up from there, eventually becoming the online editor as well as writing for the magazine.
Gelf Magazine: What inspired you to get your Master's in education?
Sam Rubenstein: While I was working at SLAM online, I had two employees Holly MacKenzie and Marcel Mutoni who wrote for the site. It was so gratifying to see their writing improve with a little bit of my help. In the media, and especially in blogging, it's all about promoting celebrities more so than promoting yourself, so I really enjoy seeing others succeed whom I helped out. I also worked for a young authors club and it was really cool to teach third graders how to write.
I started taking night classes at night and went from there. By day I was editing SLAM and writing "Holla at a gangsta," and by night I was taking classes in psychology of adolescent development. Doing both was very hard.
My first summer class ended right during the 2008 NBA finals. I covered Game 6 in Boston, but I knew I had a presentation on the day of Game 7. I was worried that I was going to have to miss a final presentation or Game 7. Thank God it was a huge blowout and the Celtics won in six.
Gelf Magazine: How did your SLAM experience help you get into grad school?
Sam Rubenstein: Fordham was really intrigued with my internet writing. They looked it as a fun activity that kids would actually be into. It really helped me. I thought I was gonna leave my SLAM life behind, but it's been so helpful that I've used it a billion times in school. I had kids Twittering their thoughts on Lord of the Rings.
Gelf Magazine: You thought you'd be teaching by now, but have had to wait because of the hiring freeze.
Sam Rubenstein: I feel frustrated, but I don't want to get angry about it. It sucks 'cause I crammed a Master's into a year and a half, with the target of starting my new career in September, but the economic collapse happened about halfway through. It's trickled down into budgeting and everything has changed for a lot of people. I read that someone in a similar position to me ran up to the city's chancellor of education in public after he spoke, crying about how she was promised a job and now she feels lied to. That kind of stuff is one of the signs of a breakdown in civil society, just like that Senator yelling at the President out of turn or Kanye West acting more inappropriately than any of the disadvantaged students with behavioral disorders whom I've taught. My experience now is just trying to be patient and wait my turn.
Gelf Magazine: What subject and grade do you ideally want to teach?
Sam Rubenstein: I definitely want to teach English. I don't want to teach 11th and 12th grade they think they know too much. I tried to teach Hamlet to them and none of them cared; they all knew he was going to kill himself. Seventh graders are complete lunatics and 10th graders have serious emotional problems; I did when I was in 10th grade. It's just a terrible time in a human being's life. So ideally I would like to teach eighth and ninth graders.
Gelf Magazine: How did you like teaching kids at first?
Sam Rubenstein: Everyone is bad at first in front of kids. It was very overwhelming. There were days were I felt I couldn't do it. I couldn't control them. I didn't go into it thinking, "I'm going to educate poor urban kids with my supreme knowledge." The kids I taught have a lot of unfortunate issues at home. The fact that they can still do well in school despite the stuff in their home lives is unbelievable.
The kids matter to me. Their presence has an impact on my life and my presence has an impact on theirs. It's a lot of fun.
Gelf Magazine: You wrote some articles for SLAM online comparing teaching to the NBA. Did you share them with other faculty members or your students?
Sam Rubenstein: Those articles are something I talk about sending the other teachers at happy hour, but I never actually follow up on that. I've shared them with my friends in grad school, but I've never talked about it with my students.
Gelf Magazine: Do your students know you used to write for SLAM?
Sam Rubenstein: They think it's cool that I wrote for SLAM. The very last article I wrote was an interview with Kobe after he lost to the Celtics in the finals. He was so terse giving one-word answers to everyone. I sucked up to him at first, talking about his MVP and everything he accomplished that season, then I asked how it felt to have it all come crashing down. He really spoke from the heart, if you believe Kobe has a heart.
Gelf Magazine: What are some of your favorite articles?
Sam Rubenstein: I'm really proud of my Ron Artest album review. I liked my post after the Giants won the Super Bowl where I announced I was retiring as a sports fan. I think I did a good job of capturing the glory days of Dipset that's how I earned the nickname Sam'ron a.k.a. Killa Sam. My first interview ever for SLAM was with Bernard "The Executioner" Hopkins, which was really awesome. I did a good Zach Randolph piece where I tried to play off that he "allegedly" raped a stripper. Also the time I was interviewing Randolph and he let his pants fall down and he just stood there naked, that was weird.
Gelf Magazine: Any good anecdotes from teaching?
Sam Rubenstein: I was only in the classroom for 30 weeks, so I'm still new, but I've had so many memorable experiences. I worked one-on-one with an eighth grader who read at second-grade level. He couldn't read the word "the." I helped him out a lot. We were reading the Plaxico Burress biography and midway through he shot himself in the leg
that was pretty funny.
This one kid is gonna fail out of high school and there is nothing I or anyone can do for him. We're gonna try, but he's going to fail out and be a genius stand-up comedian. He's going to be a Tracey Jordan. He's the funniest person I have met in years. He wouldn't come to class often, but when he did he'd make his mark. When I was teaching the The Odyssey and I asked why the cyclops is so angry, his response was "poor depth perception." We went on a field trip about caviar extinction. A woman held up a can of caviar that cost $6,000. He raised his hand and I was so afraid of what he'd say, but he asked, "You can get that with food stamps?"
Gelf Magazine: It's clear to anyone who's read your writing that you're a hip-hop junkie. Do you use hip-hop to bond with your students?
Sam Rubenstein: I didn't want to be that white teacher using black music to teach black kids. Also I hate to sound like an old man, but nowadays their music is such garbage. It's funny I'd bring up Nas's Illmatic and they'd tell me their dad likes that album. When I talk about Jay-Z, Biggie, and Nas, they tell me that's the old-man stuff, so I don't even try to relate to current stuff.
They asked me if I like Rick Ross because he's the boss of bosses, and I told them that I like him because he's got a chain of his face. And they were blown away that I knew about Rick Ross.
There were there some smart seniors who always wanted me to freestyle in class. I always promised that I would and I thought about doing one where I would zing them and diss them with a freestyle, but I decided it probably wouldn't be the most appropriate thing to do.