The Walk-Out

The beginning of my friendship with Shawn was inauspicious. He punched me in the mouth.

Shawn and his older brother Kyle were protecting their turf at the Carthage baseball field. I was about as far from invading it as I could be. Looking back, I imagine my parents had dragged me out there hoping sports would rub off on me by osmosis and distract me from Birds of North America, comic books, and dinosaurs. Perhaps I was a bit too old for those pursuits; one thing’s for certain, though—soft, brown-shoe-clad, uncoordinated, nine, I was no threat to the boys’ diamond kingdom. By the time I’d gotten off my back and the ground, the brothers were gone, their point made all out of proportion to my willingness to understand it.

A couple summers later, I was horrified to learn that, after my dad built us a house out on the rural route, Shawn would be one of my new neighbors. Barely had fear balanced upon my brow when he came in the yard, walked up to me—I was probably looking for interesting insects—and demanded, “Do you want to learn to box?” Based on past experience, that was the last thing I wanted, but I quickly considered my options: being beaten up for sport, or as social punishment? In the ensuing years, I’d learned that Shawn was already involved in Golden Gloves, and the ominous metallic image conjured by the program’s name assured me that escape would not be a choice. I stuttered, “Sure”—and Shawn beamed a grin at me and proceeded to enthusiastically stick-and-move me through some basic steps. I was hesitant to believe it, but it appeared his intentions were…good. I’d thought he wanted to teach me to box so kicking my ass would be more of a challenge, but he seemed sincerely to want me to learn for my own good, and for fun. He was a patient teacher, he was manically hilarious, and he didn’t seem to think I was a pussy. That much of one, anyhow.

The lesson didn’t stick because I didn’t seek out further opportunities to practice them. However, Shawn and I became fast friends anyway. We landed in the same sixth grade homeroom, where we ritually tortured our Baptist minister-cum-teacher Mr. Lawhon. I was not as abashed in the classroom arena as when faced with proving my manly mettle in nature; I enjoyed doing schoolwork so much I did it quickly so I could do what I wanted, and I’d developed a taste for mischief to complement my interest in stegosauruses and Green Lantern / Green Arrow. One day, just before the recess bell was due to ring, Lawhon asked if any of us had questions about the social studies activity we’d just survived. Shawn raised his hand. This act alone stretched my eyebrows to the back of my head: Shawn normally lacked even a molecule of seriousness about his studies. I craned my neck across the room in anticipation of his inquiry.

Lawhon, eyes narrowed, murmured, “Yes, Shawn, what is your question?”

A long squeal of gas, sounding like it was being forcefully expelled from a balloon, followed, then was bisected by the bell—which, among other forces, propelled Shawn out to the playground before the teacher could even sneer one of his frequent idle threats. Nearly in tears and collapsed into laughter at my desk, I was courting disciplinary action myself. That, I thought, was a masterful emission, and over such natural phenomena young friendships are sealed.

Meanwhile, on weekends, as summer cooled into fall, Shawn continued to lure me into neighborhood danger. A few weeks later, he and the even-more-feared-and-a-damn-sight-older Butch Adams showed up at my door to tell me I’d be joining them in a game of sandlot football at Shawn’s house. I didn’t even know how to play football. They simply needed a body, though now I suspect it was yet another stage of Shawn’s altruistic mission to toughen me up—what kid does that for another kid? Five minutes into the game, I blinked my eyes and noticed I’d caught a pass from Shawn. I did not drop it (at this point, I was still literally striking out in kickball at recess). Also, a culvert ran just behind me, and, as I broke the trance brought on by my impossible success, I looked up to see Butch streaking toward me, shoulder aimed at my midsection.

Have you ever gotten the wind knocked out of you? As it turned out, my vain attempts to suck mine back into my lungs and see through the stars spinning in front of my eyes at least took my mind off the pain cycling through my back and neck. I lay sprawled in the ditch, but, again, to my amazement, I hung in there and completed the game. Nobody praised me; nobody even seemed to notice. Somehow that was just right, and, from then on, Shawn never missed a chance to invite me to play. Before long, I was knocking on neighbors’ doors myself, recruiting.

Also, I was growing. Having sprouted to nearly six feet, at 13 I was big enough to do actual damage myself playing football and basketball. I’d taken an odd route to being player, though. As a premature nerd, along with a fascination with zoology, superheroes, and mythology, I’d developed an obsessive interest in sports statistics—that’s just a little hop over from mythology, anyway, isn’t it? Aside from feeling I had no choice but to play (thanks to my father) and barely believing I could survive playing (thanks to Shawn), that I could actually make the statistics I was fixated upon was a temptation I couldn’t resist. I picture this process being reversed for most athletes; they learn to excel at sports, then they get interested in its tantalizing and deceptive numerologies.

Sad to say, the most important statistics during my first two years on the hardwood and gridiron were our won-loss records—put more succinctly, our loss records. We didn’t win a single football game, and in basketball we were little more successful. As players, like any junior high kids, we boasted only the roughest-hewn skills. However, in ninth grade, things changed for us again, and Shawn was right in the middle of those things, as usual. So was I, to my surprise.

We won our first-ever football game, right out of the gate. Our season opened way out of town, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. When we trotted out onto their field, we confronted a marching band and cheerleading squad both of which were bigger than our entire roster. Their football team itself appeared thrice our size—both in number and bulk. They proceeded to run back the opening kickoff and waltzed in for a two-point conversion, and we were down 0-8 with only mere seconds having elapsed. I experienced a bad mythology flashback as I watched their running back spin the pigskin across the end zone: this was a very, very bad omen.

Minutes later, our helmets bowed in prayer after we’d made negative progress on the ensuing kickoff return and quickly dug ourselves into a third-and-27 hole deep in our own territory, I began to contemplate the thin line separating an omen from an actual shootin’-fish-in-a-barrel prediction, and looked across the huddle at Shawn, who happened to be our quarterback. His eyes were mean slits.

“Awright, they’ve been playing us up. We’re going deep to Nathan on a post. That’s not the play call, but that’s what we’re doing. Keep ‘em off my back. ON THREE!”

Shit. He was serious.

Result: 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown. We blew the extra point, but hell—it was now a game. And ol’ Shawn had the stones to just improvise according to what he was seeing.

As we headed back into the locker room at halftime, still down 6-8, the Fayetteville fans—they seriously dwarfed the handful of parents who’d made the trip to see us—rained insults of a nefariously nasty nature down on our heads. “It’s just a ninth-grade football game,” I thought—but I converted the hurt into fuel. Soon after the second-half kickoff, we scored again—Shawn connected with me on a 20-yard pass play to take it down to the one-inch line—made the extra point, went up 13-8, and that, as they say, was all she wrote. I had never before cried from happiness, nor have I since except quite a bit more discreetly at the altar. My tears, though, were for more than just having won a game against pretty imposing odds. They were also from astonishment at our power—a bunch of 14-year-olds determined for themselves that they would win, then won. Or maybe, simply, Shawn did, and sold us on the prospect.

In basketball, a new coach met us for tryouts. In his recent past, he’d been a star guard at Missouri Southern State College, but his court skills weren’t what really made him special. He had charisma, style—a lime-green three-piece “game” suit? Why not?–and great instincts for coaching youngsters. He was the first adult Shawn and I had ever met who talked to us like we were his equals, and entrusted us with serious responsibilities. One might be skeptical of this approach when applied to 14-year-olds, but Shawn had been ready to lead for a while, and spending time in his orbit had caused me to wonder (and fantasize) about my own capabilities. Coach Stevens sensed this, and soon we were both involved in planning strategy with him. He expected me to provide leadership for the starters on defense, on the boards, and in sheer hustle; Shawn was the “captain” of The Blonde Bombers, our mad-dog reserve squad who uncorked lightning nearly every time they touched the court, especially when we were playing at home. Our gym was smaller than regulation; if memory serves, it had to be a good 15 to 20 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than any other high school’s. After Shawn and the Bombers checked in, spectators might be treated to long-range set shots that, while launched from almost half court, were actually “only” 25 to 30-footers. Shawn would bring the ball across the midcourt line, then, without hesitation, uncork a Steph Curry-like high-archer into the hoop. The Curry comparisons end there, though, as Shawn launched his shots off his shoulder and beside his ear, the action resembling a shot put / slingshot hybrid. We won most of our games, but Stevens surprised us by giving us the reins and encouraging us to have fun, to the extent that we came to expect it.

I didn’t know this then, by a long shot, but I do now: leadership, paired with the belief that one can change one’s circumstances, is pretty dandy in the sports arena, but those qualities are frankly wasted if they’re confined to the circuses which, along with bread (take that how you will), distract us all from the more important crises in our lives. Imagine all those great Greek myths if they had only been sung about athletic competitions. Most high school athletes have to wait for opportunities to test their training in the world outside gyms and off the fields, and often don’t (or won’t) recognize them; Shawn and I were fortunate to be presented one the very next year. Looking back, and considering the nature of our friendship, I am wholly unsurprised we went for it.

 

As sophomores, we both found ourselves splitting time between junior varsity and varsity football duties. As such, Shawn and I were at the bottom of the food chain, though the toughness we’d both developed had spared us some harassment. One thing, though, that made our situation agitating was that the seniors we were encouraged to worship and fear had, as towering freshmen when we were mere scrawny seventh graders, subjected us to routine physical hazing in the hallways, often with teachers (and some of those teachers coaches) laughing if not egging the assaults on. Every morning, when they saw us in the hall, they’d “chip” us: ball their fists, flatten them out, and cudgel our chests with them (stop a second and recall what a seventh grader’s chest tends to look like: it’s already concave). This was different from getting knocked silly into a culvert in a sandlot contest; that had a somewhat larger purpose, at least. This was intimidation based on nothing but being physically bigger and chronologically older—it didn’t necessarily carry with it any talent of which we should have been in awe. Collectively, they also lacked charisma. In our current fraught time, I can imagine some readers saying at this point, “Shoot, schools actually need that kind of ritual today—these kids have no grit!” Well, grit’s a complicated thing in 2019—for example, just going fearlessly to school today is pretty admirable—and I’m simply not one to advocate any kind of abuse, physical or otherwise, having taught young people for 35 years. However, since we’d last had to be in the same space we were all now three years older, the size difference between our two groups had withered, their lack of character (at least among some of them) had become more apparent, and their primacy in all matters including football had become much more difficult to take seriously. But it was reinforced by our coaches, so we had little choice but to swallow our resentment and pretend to look up to them, though we could occasionally work out moments of vengeance in scrimmage. And a scrimmage is what soon presented Shawn and me a worthy door to open.

On a Monday night, we’d traveled a relatively far piece north to play a junior varsity game against a rival. The game was hard-fought, smash-mouth football that required all of our defensive energy, resilience and acumen, and extended into overtime, when we finally prevailed. I can’t recall why, but we stopped at an all-night diner on the way back (why wouldn’t we have eaten before the game?), and didn’t arrive at our houses until well past midnight. Most of us surely weren’t asleep any earlier than two a.m., and school started at 8. None of us were of the inclination (or had the freedom) to skip—after all, the best thing about high school is that’s where everyone is—but at least, surely, we’d not have to scrimmage after school. Surely our coaches understood.

Within seconds of dragging our asses into “the sophomore lounge”—a very dark, squirreled-away, and symbolic section of the school’s bottom floor—we discovered we’d be going full-pads after school against the varsity. Teeth grinding, I turned to Shawn; of course, he was right there. He looked me in the eye and said, “This shit ain’t right.”

It’s not that we couldn’t have taken it. I’m sure we had no doubt we could. But considering what we’d just done on behalf of the team, how we’d done it—old-time football, coach!—and when, as a result of choices that weren’t even ours, we’d finally returned, we didn’t feel respected. You might argue that, as sophomores, it wasn’t our place to be respected. I’d submit that one good thing about leadership, a great internal gumbo of toughness, self- and other-belief, courage, and inspiration, is that it makes it hard to accept one’s place. In this case, we preferred, and chose, not to. We huddled, right there in the bowels of our school, and developed a plan, which Shawn barked out to the passel of JV players who’d gathered by that time in the lounge:

“Alright, we ain’t goin’ to practice tonight. We’ll take whatever punishment they wanna give us, but we’re in the right on this one. We left it on the field last night and they don’t even give a shit. Well, we’ll make ‘em give a shit right here, with this. If any of y’all do go to practice, you’ll have to deal with us, and I think you’d rather deal with the seniors and the coaches than that. Are we together on it?”

Solemnly, determinedly, we were. The rest of the school day was tense, but, together, we kept the plan muted. I remember walking out to my car at 3:00 with my short hairs at attention and chicken-skin rippling up my neck and down my arms: this was real, and I felt more alive than I ever had. My first kiss hadn’t been one-eighth as electric! More important, regardless of what happened next, I already felt vindicated—and respected. At least our coaches had had to acknowledge and answer to our existence.

The turd had hit the proverbial rotary blades when we arrived at school the next morning. A couple coaches were waiting for us in the lounge, and tersely informed us that the seniors would be running practice that afternoon, and that we’d regret it. I recall chuckling (not too loudly); the fear I had of them had diminished, and I even thought to myself, “Oh, so you’re responding to this by taking an afternoon off from your paid coaching job?” Still, the prospect of two hours at the mercy of this particular group of seniors didn’t fill any of us with delight and, in good conscience, we couldn’t ditch again. This was about having made our point and showing up to answer for it. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been right in the first place.

Lord, it was quiet in the locker room that afternoon. Somehow, the upperclassmen had already dressed out, and we could see them over the berm looming and glowering on the practice field as we filed in. When we re-emerged and assembled in their wake, the senior defensive captain bellowed, “You could have come to practice yesterday and scrimmaged instead of skipped like a bunch of fags. So today it’s two hours of drills. Just drills. Conditioning drills. If you can’t hack it, you’re done here. Go home and don’t come back.”

Though I recall thinking, “Hell, just conditioning drills? You’re gonna have to kill us, and that’ll be on you,” our punter, Danny, had other ideas. Danny, in many ways, had prepped me for meeting Shawn, when we were both very young and lived on the same block, before my family moved out to the country where Shawn lived. Danny, too, had kicked my ass (a couple of times, actually—you weren’t anyone in Carthage until you’d done that), but I’d gotten his sister Tammy’s birds-and-bees talk out of the bargain. He was tougher than boot leather, much quieter than the two of us, and a bit of a loner, but he was also a warrior. As the captain bloviated, Danny was standing directly in front of him about 15 or 20 feet away, holding a football. As the sound of that final threat was deteriorating in still air, he extended the ball out in front of him, took two steps, punted it just past the captain’s left ear and over the upperclassmen’s heads, and walked over the berm toward the locker room.

“Collins!!! Get back here! You don’t want to mess with us!” Without turning around, Danny lifted a third finger, and was gone.

Have you ever witnessed false authority deflate? It’s an enriching experience.

We survived the two hours of conditioning drills. It helped that Danny’s punctuating of the statement we’d made confirmed for us that we’d won. We didn’t deserve the punishment, but by administering it to us nonetheless, the senior leadership fell further in our esteem. To their credit, afterwards they seemed to respect us more overtly; I’m not sure the coaches recovered, because I detected incrementally dispersed micro-retributions being launched against us for the rest of the season.

We finished up the season strong, but our protest justified the whole season for me. I’m not sure how the rest of the players, especially Shawn, remember it, but the strategy, bravery, and common cause he inspired us to demonstrate have been a part of my fiber ever since. I’ve had several other occasions to employ them, though honestly, and regrettably, I haven’t always taken them. Whenever I have sheepishly and uncourageously avoided an opportunity to exhibit such valor, I always remember our walk-out, and what my 15-year-old self knew to do.

 

I didn’t return to football—I’d seen enough, really—and I wouldn’t spend as much time with Shawn again. Strangely, I now realize, that was partially his fault: the confidence and leadership he’d helped me access within myself pushed me to sample student government, where, with other students, I helped revise the school attendance policy into a fairer and more motivating document, and exert myself more fully as a writer for the school paper. For some issues I wrote nearly 75% of the copy; make no mistake, that was not a good thing, for anyone. Sports receded in my life, and academics advanced. In the future, when Shawn and I did find ourselves in league, it was to cross the state line to drink, dance and get back intact, or pile ourselves and other wild comrades into my college dorm room, celebrate our friendship as wild comrades do, check out a local rock show, and avoid jail (or, more precisely for me, avoid getting kicked out of the dorm, and school). Forty years later, he remains one of my fondest friends, one to whom I owe so much, though as increasingly older men living in different towns we see each other too infrequently.

I’ve been teaching young people across what will soon be five decades, and from bell to bell (as a current mantra goes) I am presented chances to pass along the wisdom Shawn helped me gain, as well as the wisdom we picked up together on the way to becoming men–earlier than most, to my reckoning.  Each class I meet also challenges me to keep practicing those lessons myself, since no matter what age I’ve reached, I will never truly be exempt from the necessity of leading, making difficult decisions, and protecting myself and others against threats to our integrity. I may have been left sprawling in the dirt after my first encounter with Shawn, but without him afterwards, I might not have learned how to truly stand up.

The Bad Ones, Part Two–Junior High (1974-1977)

It’s not like I’m picking on anyone here, or maligning public schools, which I will philosophically support until the day I die, which produced me (a decent if not perfect citizen), and which provided me a space to do what I was born to do, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s just that, again, when it comes to teaching, sometimes it’s the learning what not to do that really counts. I think of a line Bob Dylan sang, “…I’m loving you / Not for what you are / But for what you’re not”; I think of the unfortunate truth that you can’t know if and why a book’s great unless you’ve read a horrible one. So that’s how I’m going to frame this–by what I learned what a teacher shouldn’t do as a student of those who did those things.

Don’t physically abuse students.

I realize that this is fairly easy to avoid today as–in most schools–corporal punishment is forbidden. I caught the tail end of the corporal punishment era, and I can verify that the practice does not achieve its intended effects, and that its unintended effects are the opposite of what the punisher desires.

I was whipped–yes, whipped–with paddles carved for that express purpose, that an alarming number of teachers had handy–37 times when I was in 7th grade. I know this because I was a statistics and mathematics freak, and I counted everything that mattered (my fascination with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a little over a week after I was born, was likely the stimulus). Administering these mild beatings were usually study hall-“teaching” coaches, but my shop and art teachers also got into the act, and my phys ed teacher, a coach whom I respected, whipped me on the last day of school because (he told me) he was the only coach who hadn’t yet.

What’d I do to deserve this treatment?

Early on, I was simply testing limits. The art teacher just called my classmate David a “Polack”? What would he do if I not only pointed out his bigotry but also asked him how he’d feel if someone called his wife a slut? OK, so I was not very good at equivalency statements, but I was 12! His also being my church’s minister did not keep him from whipping me and sitting me out in the hall for a week.

So my study hall teacher / football coach has a funny voice and covertly dips snuff in the classroom? Why not, when he steps out to talk to another coach, duck down in my seat, hide behind the head of the kid sitting in front of me, stuff my tongue in my lip, and precisely imitate his trademark idle threat: “Y’all best keep your mouths shuuuut or I’m gonna take ya out in the halllllllllll!” I didn’t know who Levon Helm was at the time, but he’s exactly who this guy sounded like. My impression was so close to the real thing I could make the entire study hall sit up straight. One day, he didn’t quite step outside; he was tucked just inside the door frame, beyond my line of sight. I let it rip, picking on one of my best friends: “Hey, Mike Craig? You best git yer mouth shut or I’m-uh take you out in the hallllllllllll!” Mike, sitting a few seats in front of me, had seen the coach get up and move, but still he stiffened like he’d taken an electric shock. Unfortunately, the coach heard–and saw–me, too: “Overeem, grab the board off my desk and git out in the hallllllllll. Nowwwww!” He actually asked me what “cheek” I wanted it on, then blasted me thrice as the two other coaches he was talking to burst into laughter.

 

After those initial encounters, I’d come to a few important conclusions:

1) It’s more than possible to get punished by a teacher for something the teacher himself did wrong that you just happened to point out.

2) Some teachers are sadistic bastards that enjoy inflicting pain.

3) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who have no sense of humor about themselves.

4) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who, out of laziness and lack of imagination, are short on strategies.

5) “Getting busted” (what the coaches called it) only hurts for about 30 seconds.

6) “Getting busted” is also a guaranteed attention-getter–and a laff-riot.

The practice’s impotence as a deterrent transferred the power to me. The practice’s extremity transferred attention to me. The practice’s barbarism transferred civility to me. As a true-blue seventh grader, little was more important to me than me, so I tried to get busted as often as possible.

Having finally caught on, teachers only whipped me 18 times my eighth grade year, and I didn’t get whipped once as a freshman (more than a little credit should be given to my having incrementally matured). But the lessons those 37 beltings delivered stick with me still: admit your mistakes, work at reducing student pain, learn to laugh at yourself, develop a tool-kit of strategies for non-violent direct action against student “high-spiritedness,” control the show by making your lesson attention-worthy and witty, and strive for justness, not power.

“I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Math, 8th grade

Another Last Day of School Picture

Don’t just stand or sit there. Don’t just flip transparencies, hand out worksheets, or click through slides. Don’t drone like a muezzin. (Actually, I would now find that interesting.) Look the hell alive! Life is short, education is forever!

Many of my junior high teachers acted as if they’d rather be anywhere else. I had a math teacher that you’d have thought must have had an invisible gun to his head. He taught grudgingly–think about that! One of my science teachers relied on overheads to let him think about his football playbook for the bulk of the hour. One of my history teachers blatantly twisted his eyebrow hairs and read wrestling magazines behind his desk while we worked on endless worksheets. Another history teacher we called “The Tree,” due to his tendency to break down our past into dualities: “Over herrrre [left arm extended, left palm turned down and cupped], we have the Axis, and over herrrre [right arm extended, right palm turned down and cupped], we have the Allies [hold pose, pause, let learning sink in].” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that history did not necessarily tranquilize those who taught it.

When a teacher did show enthusiasm–I’m serious about this, and you have to remember, I was a junior high boy–it was almost sexually arousing! In the case of one of my math teachers, there was no “almost” to it; you’ve seen it in the movies, but I was once forced by an unexpected anatomical event to decline her invitation to work a problem on the board. Sexual attraction and engaging educational content: a devastating combo!

To be clear, though, the lesson I took with me in this case was to try to teach each lesson as if it were my last, as if each second mattered, as if, should I bomb, students’ lives would be scarred forever and they’d remember me as a failure. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have always refrained from micromanaging my lesson plan so I’d have to spend some of my class time operating without a net. It works. And, at least for me, it’s exciting, and fun. For all involved, I hope.

“I repeat, I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Shop, 8th grade

Last Day of School 7th or 8th Grade

If you don’t know your stuff–if you don’t love your stuff–do us all a favor: Do something else for a living. Having your summers off (news flash: it’s actually more like two months, we don’t get paid for it, and the time we spend working at home adds up to at least a summer’s equivalent) is not worth ruining 179 days of 120 students’ lives.

An art teacher who didn’t do art. A science teacher who excelled only in handling transparencies. A social studies teacher who clearly was connected to the study of society only as far as the textbook explored it, and who could communicate about history only in the textbook’s words (“Don’t read it to us again! You assigned it for us to read last night!”). An English teacher (oh so many of those) who didn’t seem to think that, for example, the ideas of Mark Twain applied to her own life–wasn’t that the whole point? A physics teacher who asked me not only to write and/or proofread but also grade his tests. I was in eighth grade. And not a fantastic science student.

I’ve been lucky in this regard because I loved to read and write before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But once I made the decision and began contemplating the difficult practical realities ahead of me, I flashed back to those moments when I’d made an ass out of myself and disrupted my and a whole classroom’s education. The common reason why? Not because I wasn’t being challenged; that’s my problem to solve, not the teacher’s. Most of us recognize and respond to teachers who are not only lively, and just, and kind, but who also know and especially love their material. The energy generated by deep and broad knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and a desire to share what the material’s done for you is the best classroom control tactic of them all. Why did Miss-uh Phipps-uh never have to lift a finger to redirect me? She knew Dickens, Steinbeck, Homer, and sentence diagramming like her own name, understood it so well she could simplify it for us or show us multiple ways into it, and actually enjoyed it to the extent that her fun was contagious. Why could I not wait to go to Mr. England’s physical science class, even though I was a notorious science bungler? He could not wait to put us in the driver’s seat and help us do science, with majestic but affectionate sarcasm and fool-proof advice. He could always convey what science was worth, and when you finally earned his praise, which was never withheld without logical reasoning, you got repaid with warm humor and a grin that crept ever so slightly out of his stoic visage.

I got into this business largely because, whether this is the experience of the average American or not, I frequently saw a fun job being botched, and realized it wouldn’t be so hard to do correctly, and really enjoy. For once, I was right. I thank my “Bad Teachers of Junior High, and quite sincerely, for making the mistakes that sent a beam of light down my pathway to success. Without them, I’m not sure I could have honed my understanding of a very complex task, and reached the point where I could freely make mistakes of my own.

 

 

The Bad Ones: Part 1–Elementary Years (1968-1974)

I am sure you’re looking at this title and assuming that, in this context, I am about to profile the Top 10 worst students I ever had to survive. Fortunately, I don’t think I could make a list of 10 of those—maybe five, and three of those would be massively spoiled brats, not your stereotypical underclass refuseniks. As far as the teachers I survived are concerned? Well—a Top 10 is insufficient.

Let me take you, though, through my edumacational stages, but also demonstrate that one can learn almost as much from the worst of my profession as from the best.

My seven elementary teachers broke down this way:

1) Two were mean as snakes. And physically imposing to a little kid. And seemed, through those two characteristics, to be zealously guarding the truth: to wit, that the only thing they hated worse than teaching was children.

2) One looked like she was a sister of the first two—and she was indeed steely—but had a twinkle in her eye that betrayed her affection for us and her love for the gig. She only had to lift me by my earlobe once to attain my acquiescence to her program, and afterwards she simply asked me if I knew why she’d put the clamp on. I knew the answer.

3) One was incapable of controlling a classroom of children but also constitutionally kind. If you said you were sick, she always sent you to the nurse and didn’t check with your parents. And she quite inaccurately referred to each of us as “Sweetie.”

4) One appeared to have been teleported in from the 19th century. She was strange, but…good. Especially when it came to teaching that so-currently-relevant skill, cursive.

4) One was a corrupt, lying, oily bastard who Baptist-ministered on the side, sported a glass eye, and claimed to have invented the washer and dryer (?!)–if only the patents had not been stolen from him.

5) One dared to show us affection outwardly, and used to stick out her tongue and roll her eyes with pleasure at our performance. And she could teach an ostrich to fly. In fact, she was the first great one I knew: Opal Jarman was the name, and doesn’t it bode well?

I suspect that ratio is about right for folks of my vintage; what I have observed from a limited perspective since I’ve been in the profession is that, maybe, millennials have gotten a better shake. But let me elaborate on a few of the more intriguing moments in my enlightenment, as facilitated by the most suspect of my elementary teachers.

One of those first two? My kindergarten teacher. “Welcome to school, you little INGRATES!” was her rallying cry. Let me support her, in a way, and my point:

It is nap time in my kindergarten class. As usual, I am unaccountably unable to fall asleep on my thin rubber mat, which lies atop a cold, concrete floor. My restless eyes wander around the room until they alight on a view—OK, please bear in mind I was six!—of a girl’s exposed panties. This is a view the import of which I had not the training to decode; it seems, shall we say, strange to me, and thus…my eyes linger. Little do I know that other eyes—evil eagle eyes, darting around behind bifocals—are spying my eyes.

A crow-caw splits the silence: “Phillip Overeem, get up to the teacher’s desk right NOW!” (Editor’s note: So why is it now that elementary teachers are supposed to refer to themselves in third person? It only seems to heighten their menace!).

My heart sproings back into my chest, and I advance sheepishly to her desk. ‘What is the better death,” I think, ‘To run and surely get caught, or to come within her reach and have the flesh stripped from my bones by not just her claws but her tone of voice?’

As I come within a yard of her desk-fortress, she reaches from behind it, grabs my shirt, and pulls me behind it to her side. With the other hand, she yanks open her bottom left-hand drawer (the time-honored drawer within which we hide our flasks), and screeches directly into my ear the following query, and command:

“Do you want to see girls’ panties, Phillip? DO YOU? Well—look at these!”

At that, she lifts her hand to my neck and thrusts my face into the silky pile of kiddie-skivvies she has—can it be?—hoarded in the drawer. I am frightened, not a little pained, then vaguely conscious of something undefinably but most definitely wrong. She yanks my face back out of the drawer and thrusts me with shot-putter strength back to my mat.

And I do not speak of it again…until now.

Seriously, though, about 10-15 years ago, I finally recalled this incident to my mom, herself a retired elementary teacher. I had figured that, at that late date, my confession would not end up dispatching Carthage law enforcement to Columbian Elementary to excavate the grounds for bodies.

After I finished the story, my mom laughed aloud. “No kindergarten teacher worth her salt would be caught dead without panties squirreled away somewhere. Kids that age pee their pants far too often!”

I exhaled loudly in relief. So my kindergarten teacher was not a very idiosyncratic sex offender after all!

Lesson: After time passes, many of your worst teachers magically become pretty damned good. Others remain monsters, but round into monsters who are at least prepared.

Fourth Grade

Moving on, let’s examine the question of how bad a teacher a constitutionally nice person can be. As far as my best friend Rob and I were concerned, her inability to construct a strategy to deal with us after we had raced to be the first one done with an assignment (and on which we still regularly excelled) resulted in us having the dreaded “free time,” and on a daily basis. “Oh shit!” is indeed the correct reaction.

I patiently wait for Rob to enter the classroom, as he has promised to bring us ‘materials’ for our new ‘project.’ He slides into the desk next to me, from which our kindly teacher has not wisely moved him, and secrets me his bounty: one of his brother Ted’s Playboy magazines. Belushi-like, I raise an eyebrow, at which signal Rob simply proffers, “Let’s create our own!”

We both loved to draw and crack wise, but we’d grown bored of sketching monsters and choppers and insulting our fellow rugrats. So—division of labor: Rob, being by far the most talented artist of the two of us, would handle the pulchritudinal portraits; I would construct an interview with a celebrity (us) and write the jokes that would immediately follow Rob’s centerfold (hey: there were Shel Silverstein books on the classroom shelves, people!). We would carefully, whenever we arrived at a half-hour with nothing to do, get out our portfolio and create the magazine, a chunk or two at a time, occasionally peering over the tops of our fellow students’ toiling heads to keep tabs on the teacher, but also wonder what exactly she would do if she caught us.

(Editor’s note: Yes, this really happened).

After a solid month of discipline and focus, we walk to the teacher’s desk and ask to borrow her stapler. Without asking us why we need it, she hands it to us with a cooing, “Here you are, sweeties.” Back at our desks, we proudly plant three staples along the fold of our artisanal soft-core example of realistic (and collaborative!) art, look at each other with amazement, hand it back and forth to each other for final approval, and begin to discuss—a bit too loudly, in retrospect—our rules for sharing our magazine with classmates. We find we are motivated by profit, just enough to purchase cinnamon toothpicks on a regular basis.

Suddenly, a shadow falls across the pages as I inspect them; upon a blink, Miss Smith is holding our piece of literature and thumbing through it. Without a word, she walks back to her desk, and dismisses the class to recess. Rob and I look at each other, get up, and shuffle with conspicuous expectation past her domain. She says nothing; she does not even look at us; however, she is not glowering into space, either.

We never see our precious Playboy facsimile again. Its existence is never mentioned again but between the two of us, and even then, out of sadness, even our acknowledgement of the document’s reality gradually dissipates. But today, I still wonder what became of it. Did it land in a dumpster? Or was it kept—is it kept still, by someone—as a bizarre memento of a difficult career?

Lesson: Sometimes bad teachers (and even great ones, like my old mentor Bob Bilyeu) either consciously or unconsciously employ a strategy known as benign negligence, which allows their students to access their own creativity, ideas, and motivations in order to create products which, while unconventional, would easily meet the requirements of any set of state or federal standards–and that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? Thus, without actually teaching, they lead their troops to excellence. No guru, no method. Right?

To wrap up this survey of teaching malfeasance and its paradoxical benefits, let us move on to the final pedagog of my elementary slog (the aforementioned inventor manqué) and away from puerile and lascivious deeds. In this case, I must shift tone.

I report to my sixth grade classroom having read my social studies assignment: one page of discussion of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. This single page is not an excerpt from our social studies Civil Rights text section; it IS the social studies text Civil Rights section. For one of the few times this school year, I am very interested in the subject matter: for one, our elementary serves not a single student of color, so I am confused about that fact after doing my reading, and for another, I love, and feel certain that I will always love, a rebel. This lesson, I figure, unlike the one our teacher has recently taught on human sexuality (the full lecture text: “Keep your pants zipped up!”), should be enlightening.

The teacher begins by passing around a postcard. On the postcard is this photo, which sears a brand into my brain:

king_jr-communist_school

I look at it, shaking my head in classic cognitive dissonance. The teacher begins (and ends):

“Students, your reading homework is an example of how textbooks lie. Martin Luther King, as you can see from the postcard, was a Communist and an enemy of the American people. You will do well to remember that. He is an enemy of the American people. Now, if you will return the postcard to me and get out your math, we will check that assignment.”

Wait! Not that other things he has done haven’t also smelled to high heaven (keeping me in from recess because I had said, “I screwed this problem up”; belittling fellows students who could not sing to his standards; threatening to call our parents but being too frightened to pull the trigger; taping a list of my regular offenses to my desk and asking me to put a tally mark next to each offense whenever I committed it–????), but this just feels—I am only 12, and an overachieving B+ intelligence at that—extremely wrong. My class numbers 30; I notice no one else looking bamboozled or otherwise uncomfortable. But I hold on to the feeling. I will wonder for years about what they were thinking.

The next weekend, I ask my mom to drop me off at the babysitter’s, aka the public library. I speed down the stairs to the kids’ section, and look up as many books on MLK and the Civil Rights Movement as I can find. I spend the morning and afternoon tearing through the pages. I am already reading relatively adult material, so I make it through multiple texts and notice what I am not yet able to identify as a consensus: Dr. King is not by any stretch of the imagination an enemy of the American people; if anything, he seems to be a fighter against the worst strains of the American “way.” In the midst of a blissful yet disturbing reading hangover—it will become one of my favorite feelings—I sit back, surrounded by three piles of books, and arrive at a different lesson than “Never trust a textbook” (I will get to that eventually, under more intelligent pedagogical auspices): “Never trust a teacher.”

I proceed to wreak havoc upon the teacher with imaginatively incorrigible behavior for the rest of the school year—except on those days when my mom is his substitute.

I am quite serious when I say that this particular experience with a horrible instructor was the first step I took toward the career I’d eventually embrace, however oblivious I was at the time. It was the beginning of a lifelong intellectual focus that shows no signs of ever letting up: social justice and “race” relations in the United States. It was incredibly important for me during my next six years of schooling—when for the first time I would sit side by side in a classroom with people of color, imperfect in my grasp of inequities though I was (and still am, but I’ll never cease working at it). And, all kidding aside, it gave me the opportunity to test myself against authority at a very young age; this man was very bad at his job, and I was given a real-life opportunity to confront badness and act against it, as opposed to just reading about it.

Lesson: Sometimes I think that the worst teacher I ever had just happened to be the most influential one I ever had. It’s the yin and yang, I suppose, and, though of course I’d encourage those of you who have bad teachers now to strive to comprehend their effects reflectively, I can’t help but remind current teachers to think about just what they might be remembered for–if this is what I vividly remember of that man 44 years later. It’s a scary deal, and it’s all too real.

PASSING TIME, PART 8: Playing the Hand You’re Dealt

One of the best and worst things about being a public school teacher is that, under ideal circumstances (funny phrase, that, as we shall see), your classrooms are random assortments of the American public. At this moment in time, the mere evocation of that latter entity is enough to put a shiver up even an American’s spine. I, however, enjoy—and enjoy being part of—the American public; the tendency of technology to thrust our worst moments into our collective faces 24 hours a day can sometimes make us seem monstrous to ourselves, but a pernicious selectivity is at work there. I have always loved the challenge of teaching a cross-section of 25 to 30 students at a time. How do you teach Macbeth to a group of kids ranging from the scion of one of your city’s most powerful and educationally-enriched families to a young scuffler in his third foster home whose learning experiences has been so frequently disrupted that he can barely read and write, despite considerable intelligence? I have no desire to mountain-climb, but I’ve always been attracted to finding the answer to a question like that. Why? Because it makes me feel like a committed, involved citizen who believes in the ideal of equality. I crave that feeling, and I hate processes (like tracking and segregation—the latter is still with us) that separate us from each other when we take our seats in the Church of Reason. But, sweet Jesus is it difficult to stay happy and be successful while pursuing that feeling!

I am often asked, “What’s the hardest class you’ve ever had to teach?” I’ve had some boogers, like an experimental history-language arts block class that started with 53 students and ended with 23, and featured classroom dust-ups and firearms arrests—as well as a fantastic feast of Greek cuisine after we’d survived a unit on The Odyssey and antiquity—in between. Or a 10th grade class where tracking had resulted in a population of 50% hostile white rural kids and 50% hostile black urban kids, none of whom had had much success with English. In that class was a student who’d set his sister on fire and was so dosed with anti-psychotic meds that he was barely conscious, as well as a student who, one day while we were discussing our class novel Shane (that’s right—Shane), stood up, yelled “FUCK THIS BOOK!” and threw it in my face. In that class, too, was a student who, twenty years later, is in my mental Student Hall of Fame for being a great critical thinker, a speaker of fiery honesty, and a friend who taught me twice as much as I ever did him (though I did turn him on to Cypress Hill’s debut album!).

Class from Hell honors, however, go to a class I taught in the mid-‘Oughts that, on the day I walked in to meet them for the first time, seemed quite normal. Most teachers will tell you that even the most incorrigible collections of ne’er-do-wells will lie low for the first week or so—then spring, and you best be steeled. By the time I encountered what I have since always known as “Sixth Hour”—I have taught at 25 sixth-hour classes, so that gives you an idea of the impression this one made—I had twenty years of experience and a reputation for stellar classroom control sans Stalinist tactics. In fact, I’d reached the point where I’d quit even worrying about or planning for classroom management; I’d walk in every day and do what most non-teachers think we do every day: just teach. And that was my plan as I first engaged “Sixth Hour.”

Now, this wasn’t a huge class; in fact, the classes I’ve always had the most difficulty with have been small ones. They numbered about twenty, a little over, I think. It’s fun now—and only now—to recall what I didn’t know about the students among them on Day One. There was a taciturn, ‘6 “3 white supremacist daily wrapped in a black trench coat who’d been in two “boys’ facilities” already. There were a set of terrible twins, one extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—but an excellent student!—the other extremely smart, loud, and ready, willing, and able to hate my guts—and an awful student! Their relationship? Close—and subversive. Joining them was their childhood best friend, who, unlike the twins, had endured a difficult raising, sported what I can only call a very raw attitude and an imaginatively filthy mouth—and would become the best pure writer of the whole bunch. There was an equally raw young lady whose uncle had committed a most heinous triple-homicide that was fresh not only in the town’s memory, but the young lady’s as well. There was a young man who would set the record for the lowest academic percentage of any student I have ever taught (11%, if you’re curious), who would happily and matter-of-factly not “do” assignments or “miss” classes, who loved to chat and didn’t mind being reprimanded, at all—and who would end up being my next-door-neighbor and landscaper. There was a young man from one of the rural communities outlying Columbia who loved George Jones, Gary Stewart (look him up), Merle Haggard, whiskey, beer, a student in one of my other classes (whom he would marry) and trucks—but wasn’t too sure about black people, and found a seat right next to my desk after sizing me up as an ally. There was a hip, artistically talented, and funny gal who would really, really enjoy drugs that year—as well as happily and matter-of-factly not doing assignments. There was one academic leader, one young woman who would make an A from start to finish, who would contribute intelligently and civilly to discussions, who would smile—believe me, that was a rare physical feat in this class if you don’t count psychopathic grins—who would do her homework, who would play well with others—and who would get pregnant second semester and go on homebound right as the dog days hit. That’s 45% of the class right there, folks. The other 55%? I would classify them as “innocent bystanders.”

After a quietly tense first three days, the twins launched their opening assault. I had put a group activity in motion, and was circulating to check their progress and, covertly, sharpen up on kids’ names. I paused to look at the “good” twin’s notes, and she jerked her head at me and snarled, “What do you want?” I remember laughing quietly and saying, in good humor, “Not much at this point.” From across the room, the bad twin hollered, “You don’t have to get smart-ass with my sister!” Her street-hewn pal, sitting next to her, stood up and added, “I don’t like you. I am going to my counselor.” A tension swept across the room, then a silence covered us liked a steamed towel, then I scanned the room and bawled, “What are you lookin’ at?” Not really (I wish!). Instead, I sternly counseled everyone to get to work, called guidance to be on the lookout for my escapee, and affected a dark grimace that, for the time being, kept most the class on task for the rest of the hour. In the back corner of the room, the white supremacist glowered.

A few weeks later, we were in the midst of a study of one of my favorite books (it’s been mentioned a few times already), Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying. A moving examination of the Jim Crow South, personal responsibility, and the death penalty (it’s actually a little bit existentialist, too), I had purposely chosen to introduce it early in the year, as I had by then discerned that many in the class had what I call “melanin content issues.” Little did I know that this innocent masterpiece would contribute to three of the most disturbing incidents I have ever witnessed in public education, though with strain you might call them teachable moments. You be the judge.

 

Moment 1. On-line education had just begun to take hold at our school, and, after training the kids to use our Internet discussion platform, I set up a forum for them practice in. Students had already encountered aspects of Jim Crow in the novel, and I’d shared with them an article that listed and described the “devices” used to maintain separate inequality, linking it, too, on the forum. Not always the sharpest knife in the drawer, I asked them to isolate the techniques that they found most despicable. That’s a horrible prompt; I had called for little critical thinking, and (disorienting as this may sound) the request gave them no choice in how to think about Jim Crow taken whole. I know you know what I was thinking: Who’d actually write, “Well, I kind of like that separate swimming pools idea”? The hulking white supremacist, that’s who! In response to the prompt, he had actually written, “I think these laws are all pretty appropriate, except the ones that discriminate against the blind.” (Yes—Jim Crow had “solutions” for the sightless, too.) He didn’t give a damn about my prompt; he said it like it was. The big problem was, I didn’t get a chance to look at student posts until the next afternoon, 15 minutes before their class was to begin, after which time several students had already gotten a load of what the kid had written, and responded—including the girl with the murderous relative whose nerves and heart were still afflicted, who was needless to say, black. And she had unloaded on the guy.

Obviously, I couldn’t blame her at all—had I gotten on the forum quickly enough, I’d have deleted it, then set up a conference with the guy—but it had been rendered in all caps, written with such fury as to be nearly unintelligible, featured glorious obscenities, and closed with the information that she was going to kick the guy’s ass in front of class the next day. Nice! On one level, I was thinking, “Fuck yeah. It’s on! I think she can take him.” On the level of sanity, I was thinking, “I have to nip this in the bud, post-haste, and I have, oh, ten minutes to get to the classroom before they do!”

I managed to beat most of the kids to the room, and when our potential ass-kicker came in, she made a bee-line for my desk and told it to me straight: “I will kill him if he comes in here.” She was angry and crying, and somehow I was able to walk her outside and convince her to report the incident to her principal, and I’d back her up—though I quickly realized that, in my panic, lest more students see the dude’s post, I’d deleted it. There went the evidence—and I guess his right to free speech, though I am not sure even now how I would handled it had I left the post up and addressed it. I hustled back to the room, entering just as the potential ass-kickee was entering. I stopped him—not the easiest thing to do, as he had four inches and about forty solid pounds on me—and asked him why he’d chosen to post what he did.

“It’s what I think, man. I don’t like those people, honestly, and I don’t care whether they know it.”

Well, OK then. I kept level. “Uh, the problem is, this room’s and that Internet forum’s a place where learning can only happen when we address each other civilly, with some historical awareness of what certain groups have been through, and, honestly, it’d be easy for someone to call what you posted a threat against other kids in here. And that trumps free speech. You’re gonna get called to the office, so I’d get my ducks in a row.” I stopped and thought. “You know, I completely disagree with what you posted and I’m disappointed in you, but I think you’re smart enough to learn from this, and I still want to be your teacher.” He looked at me, slightly confused, nodded, and took his seat in the back of the classroom, awaiting the office pass. This was just September.

 

Moment 2, anyone? As I’ve mentioned, A Lesson before Dying deals with the death penalty. A young black man, falsely convicted of the murder of a white shopkeeper, is sentenced to death. The year is 1948. There will be no cavalry coming to save him. In order to engage the class’ minds more completely, I scheduled two guest speakers, one a vociferous and indefatigable death penalty opponent, the other a local prosecutor who had asked for death penalty sentences on numerous occasions. The activist gave an impassioned presentation, but did not employ much rhetoric—I think, from his point of view, he saw it as a trick—and was (this only makes sense as a weakness with this particular class) nice. The last kid out of the class muttered the verdict: “That guy was a damn hippie. He was kinda lame.” The prosecutor whipped out every rhetorical weapon snapped into his attaché case, made edgy jokes, made Eastwood eyes, and applied a dollop of meanness—all of which this class loved, even though his case for the death penalty was pretty weak. He was winning the class over to the necessity of the death penalty—until he revealed that he’d been the prosecutor who’d secured the death penalty for…the triple-murderer who was also Miss Ass-Kicker’s uncle! Who tended to be absent every other day but was very present on this one! And who launched a verbal assault on the area’s most well-known prosecuting attorney (and soon-to-be-judge) the likes of which he might not have had to weather before! Could I have known at that time that her uncle might have come up in conversation? Honestly, no—their shared last name was quite common, and I’d heard nothing about it from guidance counselors or juvenile officers or anyone at that point.

She soon exploded into an even more volatile level of turbo-rant, one of intermittent coherence that didn’t really challenge the idea of the death penalty but very effectively communicated that she was upset that the attorney had had anything to do with a trial in which a relative of hers was found guilty. The class was stunned, then, as was their wont, they began to turn—on him, rather than me (for a change).

The attorney tried to sneak me a “How many more minutes before class is over?” look, but the class knew that one all too well, and turned up the steam—not so much because they disagreed with his perspective, but because they could plainly see that he was a little shaken. “Bloody meat in shark-infested waters” is a metaphor that’s easy to apply in this biz, and just enough time remained in class (about five minutes) for the attorney to feel why.

 

Moment 3—and please remember: this is the same got-dang unit. First quarter was not even over yet! One of the assessments I’d devised for the Lesson Before Dying study was an essay in which students defined their idea of heroism by writing about a historical hero who represented it. As I have done often through force of habit and love for writing, I wrote a model paper for them (which I still have) about D. Boon, the ill-fated guitarist and singer of San Pedro’s ground-breaking punk band, The Minutemen. Also, as usual, I had an ulterior motive: to trick some of them into listening to The Minutemen! After I explained the assignment, everyone seemed clear on the expectations—even mildly enthused about doing the writing. By the next class period, they needed to have three “heroic” choices subject to my approval, and a little prewriting completed. Not an hour-and-half later, I was mysteriously summoned to one of the principals’ offices.

As I entered, I saw our young white supremacist slouching in one of the chairs, and the principal asked me to have a seat.

“This young man has me to understand you have assigned a paper on heroes in your English class.”

“Yup. Pretty standard, I think.”

“Mr. Overeem, he also has me to understand that you have approved his choice of subject matter, which is Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. I take it you know who they are?”

“Say WHAT??? No, I just made the assignment today! I’m supposed to approve choices tomorrow.”

“Well, our young man was caught looking at black market gun sites as well as images from the Columbine massacre, and he told his teacher you said he would have to do that for research purposes. Is that true?”

“You have got to be kidding me. Man, you know me. Why would I have said that?”

“Well, you do operate outside the box frequently, and our policy isn’t that the student is always wrong.”

I turned to White Supremacist Man-Child. “Dude, first, tell him the truth!”

He stared flatly into the principal’s eyes and said, “Naw, he didn’t approve it, but I knew he would because he treats me fair.”

Oh, thanks! “Man, why, oh WHY do you think I would have approved Harris and Klebold? How are they heroic? Seriously?”

“That’s easy. They quit putting up with being bullied and they made the bullies pay. To me, from what I’ve seen in school, that’s something I can look up to.”

I looked at my feet. I looked at the principal. I looked at White Supremacist Man-Child. “Um, that’s a very, very simplistic account of what happened. OK, I can understand your thinking, but I wouldn’t have approved it for several reasons. One is that material is too volatile right now—even though there are a lot of ways to think about it. Another is—well, if they were the only choice available, maybe. But can’t you think of someone else where there’s more historical perspective?”

“Charles Manson?”

I rolled my eyes, ignored him, and continued. “Also, as a result of the Columbine event, any student that accesses the kind of material you accessed today is gonna land in an office. So I guess it’s your heroes’ fault we’re sitting here, and that’s another reason I wouldn’t approve it. I am all for you choosing an unorthodox or rebellious figure to write about—I guess I question your sincerity in choosing these guys. I’m starting to think you’re digging the kind of attention you’re getting.”

“You may be right,” he answered, looking straight at me.

“How do you want me to handle this,” the principal asked.

“Well, he’s gotta pick a different hero—or, better yet, since he didn’t tell the truth about my involvement, I’ll pick his hero, and as long as he completes the paper and steers clear of questionable Internet research, we’re even.”

“No referral,” the kid asked, surprised.

“No,” I said, the principal nodding as I answered. Privately, I was starting to wonder if being reasonable and understanding might end up leading to something far worse. Still, I felt I’d handled it fairly.

I assigned him an essay justifying Malcolm X as a heroic character. I couldn’t resist. Sucker made a B, too, though I can’t quite confirm that he “learned something.” I’d also like to be able to say that was the beginning of my success with him, but he was expelled shortly after turning in the paper for being found with a machete in his gym bag during a pot bust across from school. He later got his GED, had success on the college level in psych classes, and ended up a marksman in the U. S. military. Comforting, eh? I really should print out these pages and send them to Mr. Gaines, for his amusement and, perhaps, edification.

 

You’d be excused for wondering how I survived the class after such a start, and I did leave many days feeling a complete failure—something I frankly was not used to. As nuts as the beginning was, I think you can see that I did my level best to engage them, force them to think, and refuse to run away screaming. I tried everything, from seating charts to redesigning the classroom to calling parents to differentiating instruction and materials to getting tough and mean to playing soft and gentle—I tried so much that didn’t work that, before I knew it, the year was over. Even on homebound and pregnant, my lone academic leader did incredible work. Even despising me for no reason—and she did warm up to me, almost against her will—the “good” twin ended up with an A- second semester, while the “bad” twin passed the class with a C and their good buddy began to take her writing (though nothing else) seriously. I didn’t work any magic, but I did not give up on them, and I refused to pull the “counselor card” and try to get one or more of them shifted into someone else’s deck. I admit: I did leave a note on the desk of the head of guidance that read, “These three girls should never be scheduled into the same class.”

PASSING TIME, PART 7: Extracurricular Fun, Part 3–Folk-Funk Visits the Hickman High School Little Theater

 

bobby-rush-and-us 

Sometimes great things fall into your lap, and you have to be ready for them.

In 2009, my wife and I had just returned from a trip to Memphis, and on the way down and back, we’d listened to a heap of Bobby Rush tracks. Bobby, a native of Homer, Louisiana, is the inventor of what he calls “folk funk”: music too funky for blues, too bluesy for funk, and designed for very down-to-earth people. He has also been incredibly durable. One could argue that not only his recordings but also his performances are more vital now than they were thirty years ago; currently in his eighties as of this writing, he shows no signs of slowing down. We’d barely unpacked when my phone rang. The caller was an associate of the Missouri Arts Council, and she’d gotten my name from an acquaintance who’d mentioned that I’d arranged rock and roll concerts at my high school.

“Would Hickman be interested in hosting a blues artist for a concert next month?”

That would seem to be a no-brainer, but as fans of the graphic novel and film Ghost World know, the wrong band or artist can give an audience the blues rather than relieve it of them. I wasn’t going to be held accountable for a Blueshammer-styled band, nor, I must be honest, a painfully sincere “bloozeman” of any stripe. Thus, I had to put on the brakes.

“Well, it depends upon whom. When we do these things, we like to do ‘em up all the way, and I’d hate to, you know, do up something anti-climactic.”

“Have you heard of Bobby Rush?”

I didn’t know whether to shit twice or die.

“Can you hear me ok?”

“Yeah, sorry, I was just a little overcome there. Hell, yes, we’ll do it! Give me the details!” Usually, I asked for the details before agreeing, but, in this case, I would have been a fool.

“Well,” she said, “It’s free of charge to you and the audience; a grant’s paid for it. Bobby’s got his own band and gear—you’d just need to provide a basic PA and monitors. And we’d like to schedule it for the evening so kids could bring their families if they wanted to. I tried to pitch this to Jefferson City Public Schools, but they wanted nothing to do with it.”

“You snooze, you lose. And this will be a huge loss for them. We’re A-OK on the equipment. And evening is great. But, regarding the kids and their families—is Bobby bringing the girls?”

I am sure this is a question anyone trying to book Rush is going to get asked. Bobby frequently performs with three triple-mega-bootylicious dancers to whom he often makes leering but strangely warm and charming reference throughout his shows, and a) I seriously hoped he was travelling with them, but b) I wasn’t sure the snug stage had room for them, and c) I was not sure a transition from high school performance stage to chitlin’ circuit showcase would be altogether without bumps (take that as you will).

She chuckled. “Oh no, he doesn’t have the girls on this leg.” I breathed a sigh of disappointed relief, as well as applied a mental Bobby Rush-like chuckle of lechery to her phrasing.

 

The next day, the kids of the Academy of Rock, our music appreciation club, and I revved into PR gear. We made and posted flyers, we networked the hallways and school nooks and crannies, and we set up visits to the American history classes, where we planned to show a brief “teaser” segment on Rush from Richard Pearce’s “The Road to Memphis,” an installment of Martin Scorsese’s The Blues series. Because I have been a serious nut about music since I heard “Then Came You” float out of a swimming pool jukebox, I have always been careful to find a solid justification for connecting any school use of it to curriculum—probably too careful, but I am like a Pentecostal preacher when I get going, and may the Devil take the curriculum. In this case, the justification too had fallen into my lap: it happened to be Black History Month, and, as dubious as I consider the concept (I prefer Black History Year), I was happy to exploit it. I was also happy that, in my long experience at Hickman, I’d seldom seen a major event staged that directly and intentionally appealed to our 25% black population. Not that I could take credit for anything but saying “yes” to the proposal; in fact, that could accurately serve as my epitaph: “He said ‘Yes’ to life.”

We also got word out to the local press—who were underwhelmed as usual, for the most part—and the Columbia music community, which resulted in my fellow music maniac Kevin Walsh and his young pal Chase Thompson showing up to make a film—as yet unreleased, but I have a dub—of Rush’s appearance.

The day of the show seemed to arrive in an instant. We promptly set up the stage and PA—but, for some reason, the monitors, not exactly top of the gear list in complexity of use, were malfunctioning. We tried everything we knew (admittedly, not much), to no avail. At least we had a computer properly jacked into the PA to record the show, which Bobby’d happily agreed to let us do. Still—one of the few things we’d been asked for we couldn’t deliver. I was also nervous about the turnout, as we had no way of knowing how many folks would arrive, since admission was free.

Bobby and his band (also known as the crew—they hauled and set up their own equipment, which is no unremarkable habit, especially for road vets) arrived right on schedule, and, after finding him and introducing myself and my wife Nicole, I cut right to the chase: “Bobby, our monitors are screwed. That’s about all you wanted, and we messed it up.”

“Phil, Bobby Rush got this! You OK! Been on the road for sixty years and ain’t nothin’ like that ever stopped us! You all just sit back and relax and let Bobby Rush take care of business.”

I couldn’t argue with that. Would you have?

We did as we were told and took a seat. The space was an old-style “Little Theater,” capacity 150, with nice track lighting, comfortable seating, and just enough stage for a five-piece band (Bobby had seven). I am assuming it was originally built for student theatrical performances, but, in the ‘Oughts, it was just as frequently a concert venue. As I write, I feel a pang of sadness in not being there to continue using it.

Bobby and his band genially integrated our small crew of students into their own set-up and soundcheck—they’d also quickly jerry-rigged the monitors and had them working—and were thrilled to find that we planned to have one of the kids run sound for the show. This had been our philosophy since the club was formed in 2004: move over and let some students do the popcorn! An element of risk always threatened proceedings as a result, but that’s life, learning happened, and it’s more fun riding on The Wall of Death, anyway.

I had been in a bit of a nervous trance when I suddenly broke it, looked around, and noticed that the house was almost packed. Not only that, but the concertgoers were predominantly black—with a considerable number of parents and grandparents among them. As is my wont, I quickly twisted my joy into worry as I began to recall certain bawdy Rush routines that might be revisited that very eve.

bobby 2

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I needn’t have worried. Bobby Rush had this. 75 at the time, he must have set the record for pelvic thrusts in one show. The crowd went wild. He told raunchy stories, including one featuring his minister father. The crowd hollered. He plum-picked his sly repertoire: “Uncle Esau,” “I Ain’t Studdin’ Ya,” “I Got Three Problems,” “Henpecked” (“I ain’t henpecked!/I just been pecked by the right hen!”), “Night Fishin’,” “Evil,” “What’s Good for the Goose.” The crowd exploded. He produced a pair of size-75 women’s undies to demonstrate his taste in derrieres. The crowd went bonkers, and the grandmas stood up and shouted amen. He accused our sound man of being a virgin. The crowd—and our soundman—went nuts. He talked about visiting Iraq, about his prison ministry, about struggling up out of the Great Migration to Chicago, about being on damn near every black music scene for fifty years—and about coming through it all to vote for a black president who actually got elected. And the crowd hung, hushed, on his every word, as he delivered a brilliant, deeply personal history lesson we hadn’t even asked for. Even the jerry-rigged sound in that little room was hot as fire and deep as a well, with Rush playing harp like he was possessed by the ghost of Sonny Boy Williamson and snatching a guitar away from a band member to play some razor-sharp solo slide. As I continued to nervously scan what had become a congregation, I was thrilled to notice that the older the person was whom I spied, the wider his (or most definitely her) grin was. The students? They had clearly never seen anything like Bobby Rush before. Our soundman was so mesmerized he forgot to check the recording levels, so our aural document of the show is way into the red.

bobby-autographs

Photo by the great Notley Hawkins!

I know it’s a cliché, but it was, for damn sure, a religious experience. The audience, I think, was more drained than Bobby at show’s end, but not too drained to be shaking their heads in wonderment and giggling with glee. Several of those older folks swung by to tell me, “More of this, please!” The principal who’d drawn event supervision—lucky man!—asked me, “How in hell did this happen, and when’s the next one, ‘cause I’m calling dibs?” Of course, I’d liked to have met those demands with serious supply—but witnessing a bona fide, down and dirty, authentic-but-for-the-booze-smoke-and-BBQ chitlin’ circuit show at a Bible Belt high school, I’m afraid, is a once in a lifetime experience. God, I do love grants and art councils.

Nicole and I walked Bobby out into the February night, his arms around both of our shoulders. His eyes and jeri curls were shining, but he hadn’t seemed to have broken a sweat. “I want to thank you all for having us,” he offered, humbly. “I don’t know who had more fun, us or them!”

I quickly replied, “No, man, thank you! That show was so good you’d think you were playing for the president! And we’re just a high school in Missouri!”

He shook his head, smiling.

“I told you, Phil…Bobby Rush got this!”

PASSING TIME, PART 6: Extracurricular Fun, Part 2–Pierced Arrows Invade Hickman High School and Justify Their Legend

Fred in LT

Note: I did not teach this lesson.

“…they won’t wear your t-shirts now….”

Local H, “All the Kids Are Right”

Through a good friend, I had heard of Dead Moon in the mid-’90s: “They’re garage rockers, but their lead singer’s about 50 and has been playing since the ’60s.” I had checked out their album Trash and Burn, which was lean, mean, raw, and wiry, with vocals that reminded me of Bon Scott’s, but, at the time, I was being deluged by so much music and stuff-o’-life that the rekkid got lost in the shuffle, even though it spoke directly to things that matter most to me about rock and roll. When they played a club here around the same time, I knew about it–but it was on a weeknight and, being a good-boy teacher for the moment (I was erratic in that area, at best), I skipped it. To what will be, I am sure, my eternal regret.

Fast forward to the mid-‘Oughts. I am sure most owners of record collections numbering 5,000-plus will relate, but, one weekend, sniffing around for something to listen to, I fetched Trash and Burn from where it had been hiding for a decade, slid it into the player, and stood back as it lit our house aflame. Both my wife Nicole and I exclaimed, in spontaneous chorus as old marrieds often do, “Where has this band been all our lives?” With the Internet now at our fingertips, we delved deeper, and found out about a documentary about the group called Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, and immediately ordered a copy.

As will happen, I swear, to anyone who watches this film, we were stunned, then joined in lifetime loyalty to Fred and Toody, “The Coles,” as they are known to cognoscenti. Married for almost 50 years at this writing, successfully applying the DIY ethic yearsway before it was hip in the rock biz to everything from home improvement to instrument repair to music production and distribution to child-rearing, functioning as pretty-damned-equal partners in singing, playing and writing, these two dyed-in-the-wool rockers not only defined the rock and roll life in a way that didn’t get you looking at your shoes, but also served as a textbook case of true family values. I am not going to describe it; you just order the film, podnah. We have been pushing it on every vulnerable soul for seven years.

Concurrent to this discovery, at the Columbia, Missouri, teaching gig that was subsidizing my record collection, I was experiencing some surprising turns of event with an extracurricular club called The Academy of Rock, which a student of mine and I had founded in 2004. A couple of enterprising students had suggested that we try to convince bands who came through Columbia for shows to stop by our meetings and chat about songwriting, the rock life, and anything else fun. The worst that could happen was being told “No,” so onward we went, and, literally before we knew it, Amsterband (the future Ha Ha Tonka), Cary Hudson (former Blue Mountain and Neckbones), The F-Bombs (a local punk band), and–I had marks all over from pinching myself–eventually, The Drive-By Truckers and The Hold Steady had played–played, not stopped by to chat–in our school’s Little Theater, for free, with deep-ass Q&A, friendly autographing sessions, and invitations to come to their shows with guest-list privileges. So, when Nicole and I discovered that The Pierced Arrows, the Cole project that rose from the ashes of Dead Moon, were playing The Record Bar in Kansas City, we decided to go and maybe strike up enough of an acquaintance to ask them to swing by Hickman.

True to everything we had heard about them, Fred and Toody sat with the rabble through both of their opening bands’ sets, drinking beer, smoking, and obviously engaging with the groups’ music. Between sets, I tip-toed over to Toody, and begin shooting the shit. When I told her about our club and our (by now) tradition of bringing in bands, she enthused, but said, “Well, we’re heading for Europe next week, and we’ll be there for a few months, but, if you give me your phone number, I’ll get in touch with you when we’re back in the States.” Returning to terra firma after a shattering Pierced Arrows set (for the uninitiated, the only real difference between Dead Moon and The Pierced Arrows is slightly heavier guitar and slightly steadier drums) and hitting the prairie pavement back to Columbia, I turned to Nicole and said, “Well, we did get to meet them, we do have Toody’s phone number, and the show kicked ass–but surely after two-three months they’ll forget about us.”

Wrongo. Almost three months to the day of that show, Toody called me out of the clear blue sky and asked, “Hey, we have a day off coming up between Columbus and Kansas City, could we [YES–“could we?”–I shit you not] play at your school then?” I was so gobsmacked that about 10 seconds of silence followed before I Marv-Alberted a “YES!” into the receiver. We quickly agreed on details–we’d pay for their hotel room and food after the appearance, since they’d have to hit the road immediately following for the Kansas City gig–and I proceeded to pinch another red mark onto my arm.

The day before the band was due to play, I was moderating a Socratic seminar for my British literature students in our school’s office conference room when my cellphone began buzzing. I don’t get phone calls much, especially during the day, so I sneaked a look, and saw it was Toody. I put the temporary kibosh on the seminar–do you blame me?–stepped outside, and took the call.

“Phil, we are so, so, so sorry we are late! I think we can set up in ten minutes once we get there [they were 30 minutes outside of town] if you can still make it happen!”

“Toody–it’s not until tomorrow.”

“You’re shitting me! [Turns away from phone, shouts “It’s not ’til tomorrow,” is met by jubilant screams from the rest of the van’s occupants….] Fantastic! We are tired and hungry and need to decompress…but, hey, come by the hotel room and say hi!”

 

I am not making this up.

 

Nicole and I swung by to see them, but they were obviously beat, so we just gave ’em some dining recommendations and double-checked the details. We were particularly careful about the latter; when The Hold Steady visited, they arrived an hour after they were supposed to, and at the very moment that, in front of a packed theater, I was running out of steam stalling the crowd with their biographical details–sanssoundcheck and sans anxiety, since they drifted in on a cloud of cannabis cologne. Fred assured us they’d be on time for a soundcheck, so we left them to get their rest.

I had arranged to have a substitute take my afternoon classes the next day, and, late that morning, as some Academy of Rock club members and I were setting up the PA in the theater, my phone began buzzing again.

“Hey, Phil, we’re here.”

“But Toody, you didn’t need to be here for another hour-and-a-half!”

“Oh, that’s OK! We want to meet some of the kids and hang out if it’s OK […if it’s OK????].”

“Well, hell, I’ll send a couple of ’em to come get you.”

We spent the next 90 minutes not just sound-checking but actually hanging out and talking about everything under the sun, with Fred giving some of the school’s theater tech kids, who were helping us, tips about rock and roll sound. For example, since he had lost 70% of his hearing by that point [no big deal!], he preferred to have two monitors on each side of him, facing each of his ears. That was just one of the many things the kids learned from him in that very information-rich hour-and-a-half.

The performance? Titanic. Also, easily the loudest in Hickman’s history (the DBTs and Hold Steady had played unplugged–but you don’t unplug Fred Cole). We recorded it, but, unfortunately, we screwed up Fred’s vocal levels; it’s still power-packed and worth a listen, though (see below). The band played all of their then-new album Descending Shadows, plus the best of their previous record, Straight to the Heart.

After the sixty-minute show, they then took student questions, which–if they weren’t already excellent, which most were–they would cannily reconfigure for the best possible responses. I would recap it, but, if you search intelligently, you can read the Columbia Tribune cover story about it. The amount of wisdom shared in the nearly three hours they were in the theater was mind-boggling, and, even when the bell rang to dismiss students for the day, they were not yet done.

Toody

I sidled over to Fred, Toody, and their awesome drummer Kelly Halliburton, who matched them word for word, note for note, gesture for gesture in sheer rock-band fan-care, and said, “Well, district rules forbid us from getting gift certificates for visiting ‘educators,’ but here’s $40 to go eat some pizza and drink some beer at the local-favorite pizza joint. Let me draw you up some direct—-“

Fred: “Hey, just bring some of the real big fans and come eat with us.”

“You’re serious?”

“As a heartattack! Just let us have one of the kids to navigate!”

As it happened, one of the kids was already thoroughly inured to the ways of The Coles through our having forced Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story on him and his having avidly explored their discography. (Oh yeah: we also took him to the aforementioned Pierced Arrows shows in the guise of our nephew, since it wasn’t all ages and the manager had given us permission–don’t try that one at home, fellow teachers!)  So we sent him along, and, people, I have never seen a student happier. He even got to bum a cig off of Fred!

At the pizza joint, we bought several pizzas, the band knocked back a few pitchers, and we had a total blast. To the end, though, the Coles and Mr. Halliburton were fan-centered. I had expected dinner to be a barrage of questions from the kids about rock and roll history (Fred goes back to the mid-Sixties through his involvement in The Weeds and The Lollipop Shoppe, and knew Janis Joplin well), but, instead, the trio queried the kids about their lives, their tastes in music, their experiences in bands, and…just life.

PA + Kids

That kid on my right was a ninth-grader. As I drove him out to his folks’ house, neither of us could keep from shaking our heads in amazement that, along with rocking our asses off, they lived up to their advance notice and more. And as he told me,”I can’t believe they came to my school!”–it wasn’t his yet, but it would be the following year–I realized that it was probably the finest moment I’d ever experienced (could probably hope to experience–and, no, it ain’t been topped yet) as a public school educator. Beyond the educational impact, the encouragement the Coles’ chemistry and commitment gave Nicole and me, who have approached marriage unconventionally in more than a few ways, continues to resonate.

Fred had successful heart surgery earlier this year, and just turned 66 last week (Author’s note: Mr. Cole passed away in 2017). I am sure, however, that he will be back on the road with The Pierced Arrows soon, and, if they come to your town–go. They are about rock and roll, but so much more. Be sure to bring t-shirt money, whether you are a kid or not.

PASSING TIME, PART 5: Extracurricular Fun, Part 1–Sponsoring Clubs and Beating Myself Over the Head with Them

Teaching five or six classes a day is a heavy enough load itself. Add a school club or competitive team to that weight, and the job can truly become one’s life. Young teachers quickly intuit this, and hope to avoid being assigned extracurricular duties. When I began my career, “assigned” was the operative concept; newbies were expected to accept happily such responsibilities as a part of dues-paying—not to mention because their energy level had not quite yet been sapped to brown-out levels. The trouble was, this acceptance usually wasn’t addressed in teacher training, so it had a tendency to take the average greenhorn by surprise.

Such was my introduction to club sponsorship. Before the start of my sophomore campaign, I was called down to my supervising assistant principal’s office. We’d hit it off fairly well during my insane first year, but he had consistently chided me for wearing jeans and staff sweatshirts too frequently, to which I’d responded that it was a strictly a matter of economics, not sartorial aesthetics. I barely made enough money to pay rent, eat, and medicate myself with beer, so assembling a slick wardrobe was out of the question. He wasn’t impressed that I’d countered with an excuse, but, back then, on final evaluations, the teacher was given a space for “rebuttals,” so I repeated the explanation in writing, and I was pretty sure he hadn’t admired that. So I was already wary as I responded to this particular summons to his office.

“Phil, we need you to sponsor a club that’s having a little trouble staying afloat.”

“I’m not interested, really. I’m enjoying the teaching, and I keep myself pretty busy after hours and on weekends.”

“Phil, I don’t think you understand. We need you to do this. Also, the kids have gotten wind that you enjoy what you’re doing here and think you’d be a good sponsor for them. Last year’s sponsor moved on.” Translation: “Phil, you don’t have a choice. You are going to do this. Also, the old sponsor ran away screaming.” Unfortunately, I was a BLL: “Bureaucratic Language Learner,” emerging division.

“No, seriously, I don’t think club sponsorship is my thing. I appreciate you and the kids thinking I would do a good job, though.”

A look someplace between severe constipation and bottled rage tightened and darkened his face. Clearly, he didn’t want to have to tell me I was going to do this; he wanted me to make it easy for him and just accept it. He did not know he was dealing with a guy who had always been a little slow on the uptake. I thought I had a choice—I’d inferred it from the language of his request.

“Look, this will look really good when you’re evaluated at the end of the year.” Now he was communicating in a tongue I understood. I wasn’t happy about the clothing issue from the year before, nor about his giving me an informal “B+” for my year’s performance (in retrospect, that was very charitable), but I also thought that, should I continue to refuse the offer I actually couldn’t refuse, I would end up bumping my hard head on a glass ceiling of sorts.

I folded. “Alright, I’m in. What’s the club?”

“Have you heard of Canterbury Society?”

My eye began to twitch.

“No.”

“Well, that’s the problem. The club is way under the radar and hasn’t done anything of note to be on the radar for a long, long time.”

“So, uh, is this a club of…Chaucer admirers?”

“Actually, Phil, I am not sure what it is at this juncture. But I’ve taken the liberty of setting up a meeting for later on this week for you and the five or six remaining kids from last year, so you can find out then. I think you’re smart to accept this position.”

Walking out of his office, I thought to myself, “Well, the main problem is that the idea of a high school club apparently designed to celebrate Chaucer will never be a hot proposition. At least for long.”

 

When I met the kids, many of whom I wasn’t too surprised to find were or had been my students, I was slightly relieved to learn that Canterbury Society was a club for kids who generally liked literature, but, when I asked what they’d come up with for activities, they responded quizzically. Did they know what a club was? I suggested that we get together maybe once a month to share excerpts from what we’d been reading, but that was met with blank stares. They’d tried that, and it’d had the effect of chasing off members, with which the club wasn’t teeming to begin with. They felt they needed to really do something.

“We could do a fundraiser,” someone chimed in, apropos of nothing.

Curious, I asked, “What would we be raising money for? Usually, the need comes first, doesn’t it?”

Someone else piped up. “The Developmental Center for the Ozarks always needs some funding, according to my parents. They train disabled adults to work and contribute to society. We could raise money for them.”

Always an annoying nit-picker when it came to relevance and practicality, I posed another question: “How would said fundraiser connect with, y’know, reading?”

Silence.

I lurched into the void with an idea that, had it come from an experienced teacher, would have given one cause to question his mental well-being: “We could do a 24-hour read-a-thon, and collect pledges based on each individuals’ pages read. They could just lock us in the library on a Saturday morning and let us out on Sunday.” Someone clearly needed to object to such a proposal. And fast.

A month and a half later, we stood staring as a janitor locked the school library’s doors from the outside, a group now grown beyond 40 and hoping that our coolers of soda and piles of snacks would hold out—and that the Domino’s delivery guy wouldn’t set off the school alarm. What I’d already discovered (and should have remembered from my own high school experiences) was that, outside the classroom, students were even funnier, more interesting, and energetic than they were in it, which had the welcome effect of balancing the frustrations I was experiencing trying to make learning happen as an English teacher. The 24 hours passed surprisingly quickly, as we played cards and games every three hours or so to keep ourselves awake and fresh, traded stories from our respective trenches, shared what we were reading, and shifted over to mathematics to try and project how much money we might raise. Knowing the bare minimum about the ground rules for school activities and letting my enthusiasm drown my already sketchy common sense, I’d not arranged to have other teachers or a few parents help me supervise—I think the principal assumed I’d done so, because I can’t imagine she would have otherwise allowed me to go it alone—so I had to stay awake keeping them awake—and monitoring for clandestine romantic interludes within the stacks. As well as waiting for the pizza.

The night custodian let the Dominos delivery boy in with the pizzas mid-evening, and after chowing down we’d found we’d overordered—grossly. At least it wasn’t coming out of our fundraising; we’d chipped in together and gotten a boost from the office to pay for the pies. Still, it’s depressing to see a tall stack of full pizza boxes you’re too full to eat. Suddenly, one of the kids burst forth out of a burgeoning brainstorm.

“There’s a speech and debate activity in the Commons tomorrow morning. Let’s sell cold slices for breakfast for 50 cents apiece!”

The rest of the group exploded in laughter, and even I thought the idea was even more cuckoo than a 24-hour read-a-thon with no supervisory backup, but, well, I’m often wrong. Happily, I was also wrong about the idea being cuckoo—never underestimate the pull of pizza—as we spent our last hours, with the morning custodian’s assistance, rotating into the Commons to sell all the leftover pieces and adding cash to the charity coffers.

All told, we raised over $2,000 on nickel-a-page pledges and who-knows-how-many total pages read. I wish I still had the paperwork after 30 years. And it felt good to set out to do something and actually end up with cold, hard evidence that it got done, and got done well, all the while with all involved having a blast. That’s not quite so easy to replicate in the classroom. Also, I didn’t have to commandeer the activity with the intensity teaching required; I could relax a little bit, kid around, tell some stretchers, and be myself. We repeated the activity the next year, with almost twice as many students (as well as some backup chaperones), and raised almost $1,000 more than we had before. True: the read-a-thon was our only activity of the year, other than planning meetings for the read-a-thon, but, hey—we did something.

 

Of course, no good deed goes unpunished. I was soon very comfortable in my role as the sponsor of Canterbury Society, and, after a rough second and third year, I was getting my pedagogical footing. Those are also the years when young teachers begin to feel deeply the mental, emotional, psychological and even physical cost of the job, and begin wondering how long they can keep it up. For the first of only three times I can remember, I had been considering another profession, but my involvement with kids outside the classroom had helped me come to my senses.

I had also weathered my first career controversy: during a first-hour class, with several female students surrounding me at the front of the classroom, I had taken out my wallet to buy some fundraiser cookies, and a 10-year-old condom, probably turned to powder in its weathered wrapper, flew out of my wallet and onto the middle of my meticulously clean desk. After the deafening laughter died down, I begged the young ladies to please keep a lid on the unfortunate occurrence. That was like asking a pyromaniac not to ignite a river of kerosene, and by lunch, I knew from my second, third, and fourth hours’ razzing that my mishap was already the talk of the halls. Then came the inevitable call to the office–the principal’s office, occupied by an administrator, Dolores Brooks, whom I very much liked, thoroughly respected, and feared not a little.

I shuffled sheepishly into the main office and reported to Mrs. Brooks’ secretary, who was sporting what I quickly interpreted as a Puritanical glower. She waved me in with disgusted officiousness, where Dolores, who’d been a basketball player at Purdue and towered over me, was standing glaring at me, arms crossed and lips pursed.

“Sit down,” she fairly ordered me.

I sit down and stared at my lap, unconscious of the meaning that might have conveyed.

“We have a problem, don’t we?” she asked, funereally.

“Yeah. I screwed up.” You know, I actually hadn’t. In fact, had I not been mortified and 25 years old, I would have alchemized it into a teachable moment. But this was Springfield—my friend Frank called it “Banks & Bibles, Missouri” with good reason—and I feared the very worst.

Mrs. Brooks went on. “I have a very serious question for you.”

“Yeah, I figured.” I knew she was going to ask me if I wanted to keep my job.

“Do you need a fresh supply of condoms?” she asked, poker-faced.

She proceeded to lapse into a convulsion of guffaws, tears glazing her eyes. They don’t make principals like that anymore.

She came out from around her desk, put her arm around me, and said, “C’mon, I’ll buy you lunch. Some of your peers would like to harass you in the teacher’s lounge.” And did they.

 

But it wasn’t this call to the office that is relevant. A few days later, Dolores called me into her office again, where she was visiting with my evaluating principal, who was also the administrator charged with overseeing school activities. He’d formerly been Parkview’s student council advisor, a position that’s frequently a rung on the ladder out of teaching and into administrating (wherein the big money lies). I still had a touch of the fan-tods from the condom incident, and since I hadn’t quite made an effort to dress more fashionably—this was the Miami Vice Eighties, so I had another reason to drag my heels—I was a little leery of Brooks’ underling. They wasted no time getting to the point.

“Judy Brunner will be taking an administrative position at another building next year, and we’ve been talking to our student government about whom they’d like as their sponsor next year.”

Uh-oh.

The AP chimed in. “They didn’t even take time to think about it. They would like you to do it.”

I’d like to interject at this point that these student desires had little to do with any quality teaching I might have been doing. I was young, full of energy, easily manipulated, and liked to have a good time whatever I happened to be doing. By and large, the bulk of the rest of the faculty at Parkview, as much as I had learned from them, was a bit worn out, cynical on a regular basis, and not totally invested; I would understand all of that later. As for the moment in question, as you will see, I had learned very little and understood even less.

I countered, confidently, “Well, I have a club, it’s doing pretty well, my classes are huge, and I am working very hard. Plus I’m a lit guy, not a government guy. I’m going to have to pass.” I looked at them for a response. They appeared lightly dumbstruck. They said nothing.

I continued. “I need to grab lunch because I have to set up an activity before my next class comes in. Good luck with the sponsor search.” I hurried out, with a creeping suspicion that the interaction had been too easy.

Later, on my way out of the building, Dolores saw me and waved me into her office again. I started to sit down, but she told me, “This won’t take long. We appreciate your reasons for not wanting to sponsor student council, but we figured that by now you got the concept that you don’t have a choice. We were a little stunned, or we would have corrected you last time you were in here.”

that council

Parkview High School Student Council, 1988-19898: A great one. Author on far left.

Thus began my tenure as a student council sponsor, an experience that would lead me directly out of Springfield to Columbia, where I now live. My first year was exhilarating and absolutely draining. Parkview’s student government model put the group in charge of assembly scripting and execution, the school blood drive, elections, decorations and events for homecoming, and interviewing and selecting top leadership for the following year. In addition, members were expected to read, obey, and augment file folders documenting past years’ responsibilities for their positions—a nifty idea, especially when you’re a new sponsor working with a 12-member council of strangers. Unlike many student council sponsors today, I was fortunate to have my final class of the day dedicated to meeting the group for planning and working (one less class of essays to grade!), but that was just enough time to get settled, crack wise at each other, and brainstorm—by the time we were ready to work on a script, compose memos to faculty, or paint a sign, the school day was long over.

The kids were bright, hard-working, creative, and witty, and thus a true pleasure to work with, but, after working at the school for 85 hours during my first five-day week of homecoming, then awakening at 4:30 a.m. the following Saturday morning to load the gang onto a bus for an all-day state student council conference, I was able to accurately measure the cost. I have always been a high-energy person who’s never needed much over six hours of sleep a night to run at full capacity, but two moments from that week communicate just how draining my responsibilities were.

I happened to be showing my fifth-hour class the film version of To Kill a Mockingbird on the climactic Friday of homecoming–the fourth consecutive hour I had shown it, and, since my fifth hour took lunch in the middle of the period, I had to dismiss them, since no bell was sounded. At 12:05, five minutes after lunch dismissal, I awakened from a deep sleep, head on my desk in the back of classroom and drooling, to the whole class laughing and pointing at me—I’d passed straight out.

The next evening, after returning from the student council conference, my housemates and I were hosting a Halloween party and, though I had the energy to don a costume (I was a dancer from Madonna’s MTV voting commercial), I made the mistake of kicking back in a recliner to chill a second and have a beer, and within seconds was dozing soundly for the entirety of the crowded soiree. I awakened at 7 the next morning still in the recliner.

However, I was just the overseer. Imagine the drain to the students’ system! They even had to stay after the homecoming dance Friday night—with their parents—and clean up, a long-time student council tradition from which I was mercifully excused. Fortunately, I was still in my 20s; I’d never survived it at 50!

 

The second year was not so nice. For one, Dolores Brooks, who’d visited our class after every major event to express her admiration and written notes to specific commissioners when an assembly or election had gone swimmingly, had retired, and her successor was the AP who’d been my evaluator for my first five years, who’d “asked” me to sponsor Canterbury Society and balked at my daily ensembles. He’d been the student government sponsor before the sponsor I’d replaced, and I’d heard he’d controlled it with a mandarin grip. I soon realized that grip extended to his strong emotions about student council. It’s not that I ran a loose ship; I operated on a principal of trust and made a point to always know what each member was supposed to be working on, plus I had gotten good results from a peer’s advice. Bob Bilyeu, the legendary Parkview speech and debate coach, upon learning I had ascended to a challenging supervisory role, had pulled my coat about his concept of “benign negligence”: you work closely with them early to make sure they have a grip on the basics, then you hang back—at times, disappear—and let them do it and, very important, figure out their own solutions to problems which arise in the process. Again: trust. It’s an element that’s taken a back seat (if it’s even in the car) in many 21st century public schools, between student and teacher and between teacher and admin, but I speak the truth when I say it worked for me. Did I ever get burned? Once. To that in a moment. Suffice it to say that the new principal did not approve of “benign negligence,” but he chose “passive aggression” to communicate his disapproval.

Exhibit A: we’d set a city record by collecting 180 pints of blood the previous year during our spring blood drive. Plus, we’d run the drive efficiently, and even had fun—though I’d fainted while being asked questions about yellow jaundice and never made it to the stretcher. Our president asked, “Hey, why don’t we do one each semester—we have a great organizational scheme, our kids like to give, and we had a record number of faculty show up as well.” I think that’s the first time (of many times to come) as an extracurricular advisor that I’d invoked the Wild Bunch credo: “Let’s go. Why not?” We received a slightly grudging approval from the new boss, spaced the first drive a reasonable set of weeks away from homecoming, and broke our own city record with 189 pints. However, as we began planning for the spring drive, the principal showed up to the classroom to tell us two drives was too many.

“But wait, you already approved us for two, and we’ve set city records two drives in a row,” our president replied, hurt.

“I’ve changed my mind. You guys have been doing too many things.”

I dove in. “What’s too many things? We’ve had exactly zero failures, I can’t staunch these guys’ creativity, and I’ve heard no faculty complaints.”

Irritated, the new boss stiffened and made a pronouncement: “One event per month. That’s the rule.”

The kids looked at me. I looked at him. “Since when? We didn’t observe that last year and nobody said a peep.”

“That was last year. One event per month.”

Not a little outraged, I blurted, “We’ve already made our contacts and set up a date with the Red Cross, and they’re thrilled, and we’ve got no major events anywhere near the drive. We’ll look extremely weird cancelling it.”

“Have the drive at your own risk,” he warned us, and he turned on his heel and was gone.

 

We had the drive at our own risk. 191 pints: another city record. But that marked the end of congratulatory notes from the principal after events, and of his classroom visits to praise us and participate in our regular debriefings and post-event critiques. It was the beginning of a kind of harassment, typified by the loose-leash situation to which I previously alluded. In order to hold on to some energy, I seldom attended athletic events at Parkview, but the student council kids were almost expected to be there, and likely would have gone even had they not been. I had no reason to think that any one of them would have needed to be on any kind of leash in public, nor that it was also my responsibility attend every big game. At a contest shortly after the principal’s huffy visit to the classroom, one of our commissioners unwisely hollered at the opposing team, “You guys are asses.” The principal fell upon on him like a Fury, kicked him out of the gym, and called me at home.

“Get rid of him. He’s not student council material.”

“I agree that his behavior was inappropriate, but I don’t think it’s cause to kick him off. How about we suspend him from events for a month. Even that’s a little harsh.”

“I want him gone.”

“I don’t think I can do that. But you are welcome to kick him off yourself, since you are in charge.”

That did not go over well.

“We’ll talk tomorrow,” he said, his words sounding like air being slowly forced out of a balloon.

The next day he stormed into our classroom again while we were meeting, upbraided the wayward commissioner in front of the class, and announced that the student was being suspended from activities for two months. He reminded us of our hallowed obligation to be perfect due to our position within the school, glared at me, and left. The students and I looked at each other without words, in clear, foreboding telepathic communication: “We still have three and a half months left.”

 

The conflict came to a very intense head during our process of selecting commissioners for the next school year. In Parkview’s model, the president, vice-president, and secretary were to be elected by the student body; those three members and the sponsor were then to interview candidates for the remaining nine positions during the three weeks leading in to spring break, select the best possible candidates for each position and obtain the administration’s approval (usually of rubber stamp variety—remember that), post the results on the bulletin board in the student commons three minutes before the bell rang to excuse the student body to spring break—and disappear. It’s a pretty good model, if you ask me, other than the time expended on interviews, which, in a large high school like ours was a chunk.

The applications had come rolling in, and, the afternoon after the deadline had expired, the three new officers and I sat at a table and gave them a cursory look. One applicant stood out like Custer in a sweat lodge: the principal’s tenth-grade daughter. Since all three of the elected officers had come from that year’s commissioners, they understood exactly what that meant.

“Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”

“Easy. We will interview her, and if she’s tops at either of the two positions she applied for, we put her on. If she’s not, we don’t. Plus, she’s a sophomore, and the unwritten rule that we only put a sophomore on if she’s a genius was one that our lovely current principal invoked back in the day. I’m not saying we won’t get any kickback, but it is that simple.”

They looked at me dubiously.

In what seemed a flashing moment but most certainly was not, we’d interviewed everyone. During a different year, the selections would have been a breeze—a clear frontrunner materialized for each position. The trouble was—though it shouldn’t have been—that the principal’s daughter, though a very sweet kid with solid potential, had submitted a drastically subpar portfolio for each of the positions she was vying for.

Again, the question: “Mr. O, what are we gonna do?”

“Kids, we’ve done it. We are submitting our list as is to the activities AP, she’ll pass it on to the principal, and he’ll have to accept it. Otherwise, he’ll be exposing himself to charges of nepotism, which he does not need, being a rookie boss. He gets his marching orders, too.”

They bought it, and I did, too—pretty much. But doubt lurked as I slipped the list into the AP’s mailbox.

 

She called me at home about an hour after school was out, her voice panicked. Despite our difficulties with the head cheese, this assistant principal had been extremely supportive of us throughout the year, which had to have brought some black rain down on her head.

“Phil! HE. IS. LIVID. He cannot believe his daughter’s not on the list. He was literally screaming at me to do something and stomping around my office. If you’re going to go with this list, you better come in with full ammo.” That metaphor spooked me.

“OK, I’m going to get the kids back together tonight or tomorrow night, since that’s all the time we have left, put the situation to them, and go with whatever they decide—though I am going to advise them that, while sticking to our guns will not necessarily help us sleep better, it will make our faces more attractive the next morning when we look at them in the mirror.” That metaphor didn’t make me feel much better.

The kids and I met for pizza the Thursday before we were due to post the results. We laid out the situation as accurately as we could: if we stuck to our decision, we very likely would be harassed even further than we already had been, and lose approval for new projects, not to mention simple support for our existence—but we’d know we’d acted with pure integrity. On the other hand, if we changed the list and put his daughter on the council, the rest of the selected group was versatile enough to easily compensate for her deficiencies—and help her hone her talents—and this would cheer the boss up, possibly—but only possibly, we recognized—regaining his full support. The cost? We’d always know we’d folded. These were high school kids who just wanted to have fun and not be at war, so I didn’t blink when they unanimously opted to fold. At home, I typed up a new list to post, drank several beers in anger, fear, frustration, anxiety, and anticipation, and slept a few minutes. At 7:30 the next morning, sobered and recharged by two pots of coffee and emboldened by an hour’s meditation with a Johnny Cash best-of, I walked into his office, dressed cornily in black and visibly unshaven.

“Here’s our list.” I remember unwisely tossing it on his desk. I was tenured at this point, though because I didn’t quite understand the timing of the process, I didn’t even know it yet.

He crumpled it up and tossed it back at me. “I want the real list.”

“You saw the real list, and I heard very vividly from Pam what your opinion of it was. Let’s not play games. You have what you said you wanted.”

He slumped, and seemed to deflate. He began to cry. I am not making this up.

“I know she’s not good enough,” he blubbered.

No! She’s is a good kid! She has excellent potential—she just is not ready yet. She has two more years—good grief, man!”

“I haven’t been a good father…I have to get to a meeting at the central office and I’ve got to get myself together. I want the original list, Phil.” I could believe neither my eyes nor my ears.

“Look, this has nothing to do with your abilities as a father. But if you accept the original list, you can’t ride us next year. It’s not fair. We’ve done a very good job this year, but it’s been in spite of your lack of support rather than because of it. They need you behind them, and—”

“Fine, fine, I know what you’re saying. I have to go. Please just put up the real list.”

I rolled my eyes, picked up the wadded-up revised list from the carpet, and got the hell out of there, thinking of Captain Queeg in The Caine Mutiny: “Where’s my strawrberries?” Could I survive another year under this man’s authority? I gathered the three new officers and discreetly told them he’d changed his mind and accepted the original list. They high-fived, and began to prepare for their spring breaks, decompressing mentally and emotionally before my eyes. I posted the original list in the commons at 2:44.45 and hit the fucking road.

Alas, this was not the end of it.

 

The next evening, visiting with my parents on the first day of my low-income vacation, something happened that I would assign to fate if I actually believed in that. My dad’s fishing buddy and best friend had come by. He was the local principal—and also the head of the state principals’ association. I’d known him long enough to trust him, he was one wise and funny son of a gun, so I told the tale of our rocky year, which still had two months left.

He shook his head in amusement and disgust. Then he brightened and asked, “You ever heard of Hickman High School in Columbia?”

“Oh yeah.” Having subbed for Bob Bilyeu as a speech and debate coach, I’d learned of the school’s reputation, which was considerable. At the time, I was impressed that Sam Walton had attended Hickman.

“You think you might want to teach there? Their current principal, who’s retiring, had an English opening which he may have already filled, but if you’re interested, I think I can convince him to interview one more candidate.”

“That sounds like a long shot, but sure! Thanks!”

I didn’t think even a remote possibility existed for my being hired, but I was definitely game to go. 36 hours after witnessing Parkview’s principal’s meltdown, I was having trouble imagining that I wouldn’t pay for having witnessed it. It occurred to me that I’d be abandoning the kids on the council to bear the brunt of his emotional instability, though they’d have a new sponsor to run interference for them whom I could prepare, and in no time they’d be graduated and on to bigger and better things. If I stayed, who knows how long I’d have to stay?

I got an interview.

I was offered the job.

But, in Springfield, on the other end of the phone call from Columbia extending the offer, I was informed that the teacher I was replacing was on sabbatical, and when she returned, she had a right to her original job. I’d still be teaching in Columbia, but they couldn’t guarantee where I’d land. This aggravated me to no end, as they’d known this and could have informed me when I’d come to Columbia to interview. Clearly, their strategy was to get me on a long-distance phone call mulling a sudden job offer and bet I wouldn’t care about being uprooted. They bet wrong. I turned it down, because it felt shady. I accepted my lot and began to prepare mentally for a long year—or possibly a long decade—at Parkview. My anxiety increased when the student body president’s band began opening for mine at a couple of local clubs—perhaps a first in the annals high school president-sponsor relations—for, even though his wealthy, well-connected, supportive, and influential parents were on board, I couldn’t help thinking that if the boss caught wind of the arrangement, I’d be further over a barrel. But you don’t fade on rock and roll because you’re worried about your straight job, man.

Alas, this still was not the end of it.

 

In the middle of the summer, as I was heading down the main hallway of Kickapoo High School, where I was teaching a summer school class of lovable sweathogs, I passed the office of the school’s principal, who’d been an AP at Parkview and the first face I’d seen when I’d reported to the building as a rookie. She was packing up. She’d just accepted a new principal position—at Hickman in Columbia.

I congratulated her, and told her we’d almost ended up working together.

“Yes, they were very disappointed when you turned down the job. They still haven’t filled it, can you believe that?”

I explained my reasoning for walking away, and with her characteristic spunk—she was another of the good ones—she said, “What if I could guarantee you’d stay at Hickman?”

“Hell, you just got hired! Do you have that much clout yet?”

“Let me see what I can do.”

24 hours later, I was offered the job at Hickman a second time—with a specific promise I’d be staying safely put. I took it without hesitation, even though the promise wasn’t in writing. Folks, I usually think in musical references: as Exene Cervenka and John Doe of X once plangently harmonized, “It’s who you know,” and as Steve Earle once wrote, “You know the rest.”

Except you don’t. That still wasn’t the end of it.

Turns out the girl we selected instead of the principal’s daughter for one of the positions she’d applied for was caught making the beast with two backs with a math teacher after hours in a classroom—she was probably supposed to be there working on a student council project. So I am kind of glad I missed that, and chose not to follow the story further. I still don’t know the ending—so, for me, I guess that is the end of it.

 

Except to say, to the untenured teachers who may be reading this, that you should step up and ask for an extracurricular duty, rather than duck it. For me, the excitement, improvisation and creativity involved, and the chance to work with kids in a different context as a different kind of teacher, helped balance the uncertainties and fears and energy drain of those early years. And, needless to say (but I will say it), you will learn much more fully how the worlds of a school building and a school system operate and, while it may feel like, even be, a baptism of fire, you will likely be much better battle-tested for the challenge of a multi-decade career. You might want to watch The Caine Mutiny, though—it has a rather surprising ending, given my own tale.

PASSING TIME, PART 4: Brothanogood

Then

Brothanogood, back in the day

By the 2002-2003 school year, I had returned to high school teaching after an intense, rewarding, and embittering seven-year stint at middle school, and was having difficulty regaining my footing. Sixth and seventh graders are never short on energy and have little else other than school—cars, romance, parties, jobs, and serious athletic competition are, largely, in the future. Aside from being tired of a decade or more of instruction, not all of it imaginative, high schoolers are far more withdrawn and skeptical, and can withstand the most exuberant and creative attempts to motivate them. I was missing middle school kids sorely, and literally wandering the halls before school and between classes in a daze, looking for some kind of catalyst; I was putting out plenty of pedagogical energy, but I was getting barely more than a faint pulse of intellectual response in return. For the first time since my second year as a teacher, I was questioning how long I could stay in the profession.

Being a habitual early riser, I typically arrived at school about an hour and a half before classes began. Relaxing in my classroom, turning on some great music, and doing some informal meditation upon my daily goals were—and are, though I only work part-time—essential parts of my day. I could never have enjoyed the work as much if I’d shown up a minute before the bell and hit the ground running. But I was also restless, aimlessly taking laps around the hallways a few times a morning for no good reason. By the time a few weeks had passed, I’d noticed a somewhat unusual chap hanging around outside the business teacher’s classroom next door to mine. No self-respecting student showed up to school that early; no other student in the school (which normally pushed a population of 2,000) had a fully-blown ‘fro; no student I’d observed seemed so excited to see his first teacher and get started working. I made the mistake of inferring he was a high-gainer, and introduced myself one morning for gits and shiggles.

“Hey, man, what’s up,” I asked, affecting a cool-dude casualness.

His near-uni-brow arched almost to the base of his puff. “Excuse me?”

“Ah, never mind, man. I see you playing the wall every morning and thought I’d say hi since we will apparently be seeing each other every morning. No biggie.”

He stared at me as if I were an alien being. “Uh, I’m Joseph Fessehaye. Sorry, man.” He cautiously stuck out his hand, and I shook it.

After a brief chat, I learned he was a 10th grader (he seemed more together than that, though) and that, though he wasn’t a business nut, he rather enjoyed the teacher, Mrs. Thompson, and liked to visit with her as she was preparing for the day. I complimented him on his hair, and carried on with my morning preparations.

Over the course of the year, we talked almost every morning for a few minutes: about sports, television, school, rap and r&b, and race. The latter subject was an obsession for both of us, and, before long, we were kidding each other about the stereotypical traits our social groups had assigned each other: he quizzed me over arcane facts in the career of Billy Joel (I flunked), and I asked him why he didn’t have a Black Power pick in his back pocket (his coif was as meticulously sprayed solid as a Ken Doll’s). We agreed heartily on two things: the respective mastery of Michael Jackson and Richard Pryor. In fact, Joe, doomed to failure but destined to take his future classrooms down with him, yearned to ascend to the mantle of the latter. As for the former, I was impressed he never (and has never, to this day) tried to dress like, sing like, and move like The King of Pop. I don’t think I ever walked away from him that year without chuckling, and I encouraged him to take my American literature class the following year.

Why, oh why?

Sure enough, as the bell rang to begin my initial first-hour American lit class of 2003-2004, Joe had staked out a spot in the back left corner of the classroom, and would proceed to behave as if he were on The Hollywood Squares. When I saw him on my roster, I had hoped he’d help me anytime our discussion turned to being black in America (an unfair expectation, I know); instead, his goal was to launch at least one successful laff-line a class period, his Pryor influence exercising itself. Though his funniness percentage was a shade above the Mendoza Line—Joe was a 175-pounder—his habit did give the class a flavor my others lacked, and he maintained a “B” all year long. And I never had to move him.

What does all this have to do with my struggles? Well, I’d forged an enjoyable connection with a very unique kid, which had come so easy at middle school but at which I’d become rusty with older students. Joe was adept at making friends with everyone, so that led me to further student connections that would prove momentous. In addition, in class, he played that catalytic role I’d been seeking—not exactly to my specifications, but it was a start. Trapped together in a 7:45 a.m. to 8:35 a.m. class, our repartee at least kept things lively, which is a must when, say, a class is wading through the Puritan era or non-Twain realism. But most important to the return of my mojo and a major shift in his personal growth was what transpired after he popped into my classroom one day after school and launched this question:

“Do you think I should run for student body president?”

Um.

“You have the charisma, you have the connections, your Afro gives you visibility, we need a black president, but. Your other teachers are always asking me, ‘Are you having any difficulty with Fessehaye?’ And, uh—do you have any ideas?”

“Like what?”

“Well, you need a platform, and you need to be able to promise achievements you could conceivably pull off. As far as your behavior, you know, teachers don’t vote for student body president, but you would have to work with your sponsor and interact with the faculty.”

“It’s my understanding that’s just talk and no president really does anything.”

“So why would you want to do nothing?”

He looked at me like I was insane for asking that, then paused to consider.

“We could bring the school radio station back.”

“Not exactly a pressing political issue at Hickman, but, OK. Still, you really need to go think about this.”

“So are you telling me ‘Yes, run!’?”

“I am telling you ‘Yes, run!’” but I am not going to share any responsibility for disaster should it ensue. On the other hand, I want some credit if you win and do stuff. And I do think you could win. You gotta get your people out, and make a few splashes.”

On that we shook hands. After he left, I strolled down to the student council advisor’s room. Jami Thornsberry had really taken Hickman High School’s student government and energized it. Fundraising, entertaining assemblies, service—she’d taken it to such a high level that the organization was taken seriously by many students and most faculty. And, in the face of this, I pulled up a chair in front of Jami’s desk and admitted, “I just encouraged Joe Fessehaye to run for president.”

“Goddammit, Phil! Why would you do that? He can’t possibly win, but just the thought of the havoc that would result is making my stomach do flip-flops. I thought we were friends. You know he’s an ass.”

“He does have his moments, but that’s a little harsh. I just think he has untapped potential. He can lead, and given the chance, he might surprise us. And we’re a school that’s 25% black that hasn’t had a black president, to my knowledge.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter, because he can’t win. He’ll be lucky to come in third.”

He won. Shivers went up the administrative and extracurricular backbones of the school.

Joe walked in the morning after the results were announced and very humbly thanked me for giving him a push. I congratulated him, reminded him of our deal, and wished him luck. I’d gotten very informally plugged in, and helped something into being for a student. Jami swung by my room later in the day, stuck her head in, and looked daggers at me, but eventually forgave me. She was a pro.

 

I’d hoped to be Joe’s advisor-in-the-shadows during his 2004-2005 term, but I seldom saw him during the first half of his senior year. From the grapevine and the school newspaper, I’d gleaned that he wasn’t going the Nero route, and Jami hadn’t been by to complain; on the other hand, I wasn’t sure he was working on any legacies. One day, in late fall, I was grading after hours in my classroom when Joe blew in, clearly rattled, carrying some paperwork.

“Oh, so you need me, do you? What’s up?”

“I have to make a grant proposal to the PTSA tomorrow night. How do you write a grant?”

“Wait, what? Tomorrow night? A grant for what?”

“A new school radio station.” Ah—a legacy.

“Oh, no problem, we should be able to knock that out in, oh, about five days! What the hell were you thinking, waiting this late?”

“I’m a senior. You’re the only one who can help me.”

“Well, definitely not really, but let’s not waste time.”

For two hours, we scoured web pages for the materials we thought we’d need, neither of us knowing a thing about radio station equipment. Our theory was, if Joe’s grant could just persuade a fair amount of money out of the PTSA coffers, we could make adjustments later if the grant was actually funded. We came up with a $2,800 plan for an antenna, a transmitter, boom mics, a mixing board, cable, speakers, and some furniture, and printed off some merchandise web pages, and I sent Joe home to fill out the paperwork. I still can’t believe we were home by 7.

He drove me nuts the next day about what he should wear to the PTSA meeting and how he should speak to them—I think he was picturing blue-haired old white ladies, when in fact our group was a diverse, excited, generous and relatively free-thinking group—and I dismissed him with a simple, “Just be yourself. But no jokes.”

He convinced them to fund the grant. When he told me the next morning, I felt like busting the cap on some Moet, then remembered where we were and how old he was. I was still a little aggravated with him, but my payback was that it took so long to get the materials together and create the station (in a basement room that had previously served as the men’s lounge, the smoking lounge, in-school suspension, and one fondly-remembered janitor’s secret nap space) that, by the time we made our first broadcast in January of 2006, Joe was a freshman at the University of Missouri. We never did order the gold plate he asked to be inscribed with “Joe Fessehaye Memorial Radio Station”—I had to remind him, “Joe, you’re not dead!”—and nail it above the door. But it was, and still is, the location of student talk-show broadcasts, interviews, music programming, and rich conversation, as well as a brief escape from all that rat-race noise up in the halls. Joe has much to be proud of, but he did more than he knew: he helped me get back in stride professionally, and make it to my first finish line. Tonight, I am due as a guest on the college radio show he has hosted for years—now, as a Mizzou employee—and I am planning to read an excerpt from this encomium.

Joe and I, relatively recently, on the air at KCOU

Lately

PASSING TIME, PART 3: Rookie!

23 years after I started teaching, I finished a master’s degree in education administration with an action plan to increase teacher retention at my school. Though the main thing I had learned from my studies is that I did not want to be an administrator, the process of researching my action plan helped me realize that my mostly fun and exciting ride through teaching was not the norm. How did I not already know that? Well, for one, I wasn’t in the habit of hanging out with teachers—that can be trying after a long week of teaching—and, for another, the ones I was hanging out with really enjoyed it. Still, forced me to consider objectively the forces that were spinning (and still are spinning) young people out of the profession, I often wondered how I’d made it as far as I had.

Entering the profession is indeed a crap shoot. It’s hard to know how much you’ll love it until you have your own class, in your own building. Though both my supervising teachers abandoned me completely after watching half a lesson a piece—I believe they covertly “collected their data” (we didn’t talk like that then) through moles—today’s student teachers are probably oversupervised, which I’d argue doesn’t help with retention once they’re in the biz. I had always pictured what teaching would be like by putting myself behind the eyes of my best teachers, but then I tended to imagine looking at 30 students who were exactly like me, which was a monstrous distortion. From day one of my student teaching experience, though, when I introduced a Chaucer unit to a class of very jaded seniors, I felt more myself than I did in normal social settings (my buddy Ken tells me, “That’s power, man,” but I hope it was more complex than that). Classroom control, the thing all my cohorts in education at what was then Southwest Missouri State University were worried about, seemed a snap, though when I shifted to teaching 7th graders my last eight weeks I was forced to think harder, faster, and more imaginatively than I had wth 12th graders. Still, I walked away from the experience thinking, “Dang! That was fun and easy!” You will note that I had only been assigned two classes to teach, each of them with fewer than 25 students. Also, I taught at Greenwood Lab School, where there was reputedly a long waiting list mostly made up of professors’ kids. I had definitely not been put in touch with reality, and my methods classes hadn’t taken up the slack.

My first day teaching at Parkview High School in Springfield was, um, quite different. My first class opened with a local television station’s camera rolling into my room for a “first day of school” shoot—I had not been warned, but, in retrospect, I might well have been set up. Already nearly paralyzed with fear by the 33—33?—ninth graders confronting me, waiting to be entertained and possibly educated, I begin bleeding sweat into my grey three-piece suit; I felt like a 19th century British imperialist in the heart of Indian heat. I asked a student to pass out copies of my syllabus and turned to get a stack of To Kill a Mockingbirds off the shelf. The shelf was about seven feet high. Common sense having apparently flown from my being, I attempted to bring down a stack of 20 in one trip, which I did, but upon my head, as the stack immediately toppled. The camera still rolling and my students, who still had not heard me say my own name, giggling as politely as possible, I picked up the books from the floor in extreme panic and began sending them down the aisles.

“My name is Mr. Overeem.”

Rather less impressive an introduction than Eminem’s, wouldn’t you say?

Back then, teachers often got hard copies of their rosters on the first day of class. I hadn’t even had a chance to peruse mine, and, by the time I had crawled across the seventh-hour finish line, I was forced to come to grips with these numbers: 150 students. In five classes. 125 of them freshmen. Only my ignorance kept me from trying my hand at self-immolation; I assumed that what I had just survived was normal. I didn’t know I’d walked into the schedule no one else wanted, the schedule that traditionally awaited the “new meat.” Deluded in thinking that everyone had such a schedule, that this was the job, I put down the kerosene can and carried on.

I was also so absorbed with the challenge of just controlling so many freshmen that I had not fully considered some other unsavory aspects of my schedule. I’d been assigned two sections of 12th grade “Personal English”; any experienced teacher knows exactly what that euphemism means, but I wasn’t experienced: this was the last-chance class for seniors who’d already blown several credits and weren’t exactly the reading and writing type. (“Wait? You mean everyone doesn’t love to read and write?” Such are the thoughts of the previously self-absorbed when they embark on a career in public ed!) Sure, I’d inspected the materials beforehand: Forms in Your Future—that title is making me tear up in laughter as I type—the complete works of S. E. Hinton, a very thin Scholastic magazine delivered in the middle of the week, and—well, that was it. I had inferred from said inspection that that class would be “the easy class.” Silly, silly, silly boy.

Most disturbing was the amount of grading entailed in properly educating such a mass of humanity. I wasn’t calculating that accurately, if at all, because the homework of two classes (not taught concurrently, I might add) had barely interfered with my beer-drinking regimen when I was student teaching, and no mentor had suggested tricks by which I might reduce my grading load while still giving students necessary practice and holding them to a high standard. Then again, I never asked for suggestions. It was guesswork to me, and my arbitrary standard of eight full works of writing per student per year would carry to my final year of teaching, clearly demonstrating my taste for S&M. You do the math: 135 students a year x eight papers/writing-intensive projects x 30 years that you can’t really grade at school. The contract’s from 7:30 to 3:15, you say?

No choice was available but just to do it. In the opening weeks (though, actually, this phenomenon has never quite vanished), I was aided by the waves of sheer intensity, fueled by my fear, insecurity, panic, and nervousness, which I sent rippling out through the rows. I remember the eyes of front-row kids reflecting fear right back at me, which was fine by me. Fairly soon, though, my enthusiasm for literature and writing wedged its way into my attack—that’s exactly what it was. Attack, or be attacked. Within a few more weeks, I felt comfortable enough to crack the occasional joke, the earliest ones followed first by students exhaling with relief, then laughing. It helped, too, that my sense of humor roughly approximated that of a 14-year-old. However, just as I was beginning to feel that my teaching was actually working, serious difficulties began to arise.

My first paycheck was stolen out of my mailbox. By one of my seniors. He was caught trying to cash it at a convenience store about three blocks up from the school. Fortunately, I had enough Ramen to get me through the three days I had to wait to get my hands on the check; I’d taken a pay cut from the $880 a month I earned working in a cheese factory over the summer to the $865 that was my monthly teaching wage, and I was already running on financial fumes. On top of that, I was trying to figure out how I was going to keep teaching the kid. I went to my principal for advice, and she just shrugged and said, “Oh, he won’t be back.”

Not even counting the theft, “Personal English,” predictably, was not “the easy class.” These kids were rough as cobs. Initially, they would be attentive for my fancy set induction, then as soon as we moved to the real action, they zoned out. Before class and after class, they were quite friendly, but when it came to being asked to read and discuss a story or book, fill out a 1040EZ form, practice balancing a checkbook? No can do. And once they saw I was in quandary about what to do about that, they began ignoring my opening monologues, especially one student, Steve Patterson. As soon as opened my mouth to explain a lesson or begin a discussion, he would turn and start talking at party volume to the girl on his right. Like clockwork.

One day, I just lost it. Without any conscious consideration, I yelled, “Steve, you get up here and lead the lesson. Clearly, I am not making The Outsiders an interesting experience for you, and clearly, you must know everything Ms. Hinton has to teach us in the book, so you help us understand it and get better at reading it.” In retrospect, I can see why he—if not the entire class—might have been bored by the subject matter.

Brow furrowed for the first time in my experience with him, Steve replied. “Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack. I can’t do this as well as you can.”

I held out the book.

He scanned the faces of his peers, most of which seemed equally stunned, though a few others sported excited grins. “So I can get up and take the book and teach the class? I haven’t quite finished reading the assignment, though.”

“Don’t worry about that. You’re smarter than I am, so you’ll figure it out.”

He got up, walked up the aisle, took the book, and turned to the class with eyebrows raised. I walked back and sat in his seat.

He actually began. Or tried to. “Well—”

I immediately started chatting up his favorite listener. “So, how’s your school year going? Think you’ll graduate? Think Steve’s going to graduate?”

Steve looked up from the book in annoyance, our eyes met, and I became silent.

He continued. “So—”

“Um, what kind of car do you have? I have a Lynx. It’s pretty rad.”

“Uhhh, Mr. Overeem…can you let me get started?” I had to give him credit: he was trying. I admired that.

After a few more ritual repetitions, which I ceased when Steve’s pal asked me if I got high, I stood up, walked back to the front of the class, took the book from him, and asked him, loudly, “How’d that feel?”

“It was frustrating as hell.”

“Indeed. So, could you give me a chance to teach? You might be surprised.”

To this day, I cannot believe that gamble worked. It was barely even a gamble, as I had not calculated any risk. Steve went on to make As and Bs for me; he needed my credit to graduate, and got it. Though he didn’t quite reform, he was very enjoyable to have in class, and too smart (as I had suspected) to be in “Personal English.” We stayed in touch for many years afterward, and he even invited me to his wedding. Most important, since it was clear he was the sole leader in the classroom, once he gave me breathing room, the rest did, too.

The class remained difficult to inspire, but few failed. They brought in their actual 1040EZ forms in February and knocked them out. In a job simulation, they interviewed each other, then I interviewed each of them, then Steve interviewed me—and had to explain to me that he couldn’t hire me: I was overqualified. Balancing checkbooks? I am not sure they mastered that skill.

 

Despite the fact that my ninth graders were far more numerous—those three classes housed an average of 32 souls—I found them far easier to work with. I fed off the collective restlessness they radiated, and, being less jaded, they were far more fun. If I was excited about a lesson or a project, most of them would be, too—and since I was designing all my own lessons, I was purt-near always excited. They, too, however, presented obstacles, ranging from pebbles in the road to boulders. One day, as students were finishing the first test I’d given them and possibly feeling altered from the fresh duplicator ink fumes rising from the pages, I strolled up and down the aisles. A scrawny, scrappy kid named Andy Rittershouse was chilling to the max in the seat nearest the door, hands cupped behind his head and, like Huck Finn, “gapping and stretching.” Before him lay a completely blank test.

“Andy, you haven’t even filled the test out.”

“I didn’t have a pencil.”

He was serious.

I’d barely begun my first unit, a study of To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was presented with my first parental conflict. The school day had ended, and, as usual, I was slumped, totally drained, at my desk, staring into space that, while empty, still reeked of sweaty freshmen (my students and I would not enjoy an air-conditioned classroom until 1996—12 years later). Suddenly, a strange man strode into the room and up to my desk, glowering at me the whole way. He slammed a copy of Mockingbird down on my desktop, jolting me out of my catatonic state.

“My son is not gonna read this trash!”

“Come again, sir?”

“MY SON is not gonna get sex ed in his P.E. class!!!”

OK, now I was really confused. To Kill a Mockingbird, trash? Yes, well, reading is a very subjective experience. But, um, P.E.? Sex ed? I was thinking, “What the fuck, dude?” and standing on the precipice of actually saying it, when I realized, “Ohhhhhhhhhhhh. I am a man. No man with any pride would teach anything but physical education; all others are pussies. Ah, yes, I get it. He thinks I am a coach!” One puzzle solved, on to the more titillating one!

“Sir, I am not a physical education teacher. I am an English teacher. So, can you explain what you mean when you say, ‘sex ed’?”

He slammed open the book to a page he had bookmarked. Taking a pen from his shirt pocket, he began repeatedly underlining a phrase, exerting so much pressure that the pen tip was tearing through the pages. He turned the book toward me and said, with utter moral indignation, “Right there!”

Readers of Ms. Lee’s famous novel may remember that, early in the book, a new teacher at Scout’s school, Miss Caroline, has a tense encounter with a poverty-stricken student named Burris Ewell. Lacking the community wisdom to handle the encounter gracefully, she blows it, and Burris calls her a “snot-nosed slut.” Ladies and gentlemen, meet the offending passage.

“Sir, have you read the entire book?”

“No, I don’t have to. It’s right there in black and white!” And blue ink, for emphasis.

“Sir, the young man is not held up as a character for admiration. In fact, he’s more to be pitied.”

“I don’t care. My son will not get sex education at school. Period.”

“Sir, I can’t excuse him from the unit.” Out of the clear blue sky, just like the impulse that pushed me to ask Steve Patterson to teach The Outsiders, an electric jolt of problem-solving mischief was visited upon me. “However, I could assign him alternative reading, something with similar themes and style.”

“As long as it doesn’t have sex education. What do you suggest?”

“Have you read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn? By Mark Twain?”

“Oh yes. That’s perfect. That’ll do. Way better than that book.”

Feigning disappointment, I blurted, “Oh wait, he can’t read that. It’s got the word ‘nigger’ in it on almost every page.”

“Oh, that word’s fine.”

Oh, it is? Just as I suspected. Not that I have any issue with Twain’s usage; you understand me on this, right? The imp of the perverse within me just had to see a little more of what this fellow was made of.

We shook on it, but, the next morning, when I explained to his son that I was assigning him an alternative book, I saw the face of heartbreak. If you teach, you eventually will.

“But Mr. Overeem, I love this book.”

“Your dad paid me a visit, and he doesn’t want you to read it, and I could not convince him otherwise. I can’t force the issue, because no one will back me up. But I did assign you a fantastic book, in fact, one of my personal favorites, and I’ll work with you on it independently while we finish up Mockingbird.”

“Do I have to leave the room?” This was uttered in abject fear—the fear of missing out.

“Of course not. If we distract you, though, you are certainly welcome to.”

“No, no, I won’t be distracted. I want to stay in here.”

“OK. Don’t worry—you’re gonna dig Huck Finn, and I’ll write you a great test.” Cold comfort, that.

So, as we finished the unit, the young man sat at his desk, pretending to read Huck Finn, but in actuality absorbing every drop of discussion and reading we engaged in as we moved through Mockingbird. Peering over the top of his alternative book, his eyes met mine about five times a class period, and it made me mad and sad, and worried for him.

After we finished the book and students took the test, I rewarded them for being very decent learners with a viewing of Robert Milligan’s screen adaptation. After I announced the event and the bell rang, I saw our young man still lingering in the room. He shyly shuffled up to the desk and, eyes on shoes, asked a question I had saw coming:

“Can I watch the movie, Mr. Overeem?”

I thought for a second.

“Yeah, but if you tell your dad—I will kill you.” The mid-Eighties were less sensitive times.

The kid sat so close to the VCR I thought the cathode rays would burn his retinas out. I don’t think anyone has ever watched a film so intently. I never did hear from Pap, and I have always wondered if our young man ever checked the book out later in life and read it on his own. I suspect and hope so.

 

Oddly enough, To Kill a Mockingbird was also the springboard for the most difficult problem I encountered that year—and it ranks with the most difficult I’ve ever had to solve in a classroom. In my most populated class sat a young lady who vibrated with tension. Blonde, troubled with acne, astoundingly gifted and naturally pugnacious—I had witnessed her thoroughly kick the ass of the class bully under the bleachers at a football game—she’d identified with Scout, the novel’s protagonist, and actually bought in to the class. She’d also, following with a heavy tread in the footsteps of her literary kin, found her way to the office multiple times by mid-first quarter (a few of them at my expense—and it was indeed at my expense). Julie’s nervous system featured many subtle triggers a mere greenhorn like myself could not divine, and I had an oaf’s tendency to trip one nearly every class. I would be sailing through a lesson, or she would be working (sometimes, not so quietly) on an activity, when, upon a mere guiding comment to another student or a mild wisecrack on my part, she would erupt, springing out of her chair by the window and spewing verbal lava in my direction. Sometimes, I later realized, she was perceiving an injustice I’d committed, and she was so acutely sensitive she may have been right; I blanch when I think back on some of the things I casually said and did when I was paying my dues. Sometimes, she was looking for an excuse to blow out build-up from her difficult home life. Sometimes, it was too quiet in the classroom and she felt an explosion was required. And sometimes, she just wanted to assert her existence. Trouble was, I had a class to teach, and, as classes will, this one was looking at me to seal up the mouth of the volcano. I could feel my ever-so-tenuous control slipping.

I knew I had to act, but I honestly had no answers. I’d tried everything: rap sessions, calls home, referrals to the office, incentives, classroom responsibilities, seating chart chess moves. I lost sleep dreading Julie’s next outburst, and, inevitably, it came. I was handing back a test and explaining the curve I’d applied—a curve that left Julie a mere point away from an A-. Her overall grade was still an A-; believe me, I’d checked, anticipating her dissatisfaction. Upon scoping her score and letter grade and absorbing my explanation, she informed me, and the class, in a serrated tone, “This sucks. You just made up that curve.” I patiently reminded her it wasn’t made up; I curved it to the class’ top score, so everyone benefited.

“Nope, it sucks, I got the shaft. Fuck this!” The F-bomb had made its first appearance in my journey, as it does in every teacher’s.

Breaching the cardinal rule of disciplinary engagement, I replied, as she sat there steaming, arms crossed, “It’s over. I’m done having to cater to your every whim at the expense of the other 32 kids’ education. Get out in the hall—I’ll be there in a minute.”

She flipped me off, spun out of her chair, and ran out the door.

After begging the shocked class to simply talk amongst themselves quietly for a few minutes, I headed out the door myself, having no clue what I was going to do now that I’d drawn a very faint line in the sand, and hoping she hadn’t just bolted for home.

To my somewhat ambivalent relief, she was waiting, red-faced, outside the door. The crimson shade was not wrought by shame; she clearly wanted to kill me. I inhaled—and winged it.

“Look, Julie, I love you, kid. You are smart, passionate, funny, and talented. You never miss a class and I’d miss you if you did. I know things aren’t easy for you outside of here, and that pretty much the whole world is pissing you off. On top of that, I’m not perfect. But seriously, this can’t go on. I am losing them just trying to keep you. And I have tried everything.”

I clammed up as a student runner zipped past us. And inspiration hit.

“So, how about this? What if, when you feel you are about to lose your shit [I have cussed in speaking to students in the hall—many times—because, sorry, it works like a charm in the right situations], you just get up, quietly walk out of the class, and just do a few laps, then come back in when your blood pressure’s normal?” I said this with the ease and matter-of-factness of one who had it all figured out.

Julie narrowed her eyes. “You can’t be serious.” Yes, I have heard that response many times in three decades, but probably more often my rookie year than any other.

“Yeah, I absolutely am. I know you could just leave the grounds. I know you could just go hang out in some nook and cranny in the building and not come back to my class. I know you could fake it just to blow off work or hearing me yammer. But I am going to trust you on this. I know you could get busted, but I am going to make you a permanent pass.”

“You are kidding me.”

“You think it’ll help?”

“I hate to admit it, but I think it will.” She liked me, but she really didn’t like me to win.

“OK. Starts tomorrow. Can you come back in and let me salvage the last seven minutes of class?”

“Nope, just let me stay out here and I’ll listen to you through the door.” I was just smart enough to recognize this as face-saving, so I went back in to finish class.

Next day: no blow-ups.

Day after: no blow-ups.

That Friday: stealthy exit, fellow students barely noticed, back in 5, raised her hand to answer a question (correctly!) that she hadn’t been present to be able to know.

And that was it. For the year.

 

Later, I realized that student runner had helped me subconsciously tap in to something buried in my memory: my great high school art teacher Howard South’s strategy of letting us go out in back of the art annex and take his sledge hammer to a stump when we became creatively frustrated. It had worked for me, though I was stupider and less volatile than Julie, and though it would also lead me to one of the most egregious and imbecilic acts of my high school career (more on that later). In this case, it sealed the deal between me and one of the best students I’ve ever taught. What’s more, it convinced me, finally, that I was going to make it to May.

PASSING TIME, PART 2: Advice for Young Teachers

  1. Stay out of teachers’ lounges. They have a tendency to attract bitterly bickering bitter-shitters (I stole that from Ed Sanders of The Fugs) and student-bashers.
  2. The best classroom control technique is a combination of deep knowledge of your subject matter, genuine passion for your subject matter, and the ability to communicate how your subject matter changed you for the better to your students.
  3. Patience is a virtue.
  4. Respect your elders. If they are still in the biz and haven’t evacuated to an admin job or some educators’ rehab job, you have something to learn from them.
  5. Figure out quickly how to balance your life and teaching, which can become your life. If the latter’s what you want, fine—it can work. I would argue that continuing to have experiences without having to punch in your building security code will make you a better teacher, not least because they rejuvenate you and keep you honest. Teaching is a job that can always expand to as many hours in a day that you want to devote to it. It is a job that is never completed.
  6. Eagerly pay your dues. They will help insure your survival, and enhance your love and understanding of the profession. Volunteer for a couple committees and ask if a club’s available for you to sponsor. If one isn’t, create one around your own interests.
  7. Set a goal to be human in the presence of your classes once a day. Once a week might be fine at first, but “don’t smile until November” is a crock. You can be kind and challenging, warm and tough, encouraging and demanding. It takes dedication—then it begins to feel natural. All my best teachers and peers had that complex core, and I always tried to.
  8. Never forget why your own worst teachers were bad—and avoid their habits. It goes without saying that you should emulate your best teachers, but that’s more complicated—their power often derives from an external je ne sais quoi, and you have to figure out how to give your own wellspring air.
  9. I can honestly say I never suffered by admitting I was wrong or deeply misguided in front of a class. First of all, they will sense you are lying; second, they will relate to you. I can think of three situations, in fact, when my relationship with a student radically improved when I confessed I had wronged him or her. Heather Porter, it’s been many years since our extra-credit argument, but you won, and I am glad, because it made all the difference.
  10. Don’t think you can win a disciplinary showdown in front of a classroom. You can’t. If there is a way at all, sic the class on an academic problem and have a calm discussion with the unruly one in the hall. Goals: keep them in the class learning, and handle your own business. If you need a motivation, it’s that achieving those goals will gain you freedom to be trusted, which does not come cheap or frequently these days.
  11. Reflect daily. (I hope you will see the value in that by the time you’ve finished this book; reflection is really the secret.)
  12. Screw professional reading. Yeah, I said it! It’s bad for the brain and rots the soul. Read exciting books on your subject matter or your personal interests. I’ll go out on a limb and say reflecting on your practices on a daily basis is the most important tool in improving yourself as a teacher. Besides, 99% of those writers can’t write to begin with and aren’t even in the classroom anymore, so why waste precious seconds of life? (Exceptions: Jonathan Kozol and Alfie Kohn, but I am not sure the former writes “professional literature.”)
  13. If you don’t like your situation, get out and/or move on—there’s always a school looking for a good teacher. Don’t punish yourself, buffet your soul with pain, and become a martyr. As a great colleague of mine, Becky Sarrazin, once said to such a martyr’s face, “Climb down off the cross. We need the wood.”
  14. Abjure competition. No matter how great other teachers in your building are—and there will be some great ones—you will be able to do things they can’t. The difficulty is in figuring that out. Another thing: rather than sit stewing about how awesome they are and how much you suck, STEAL FROM THEM! It’s completely legal. All great artists are accomplished thieves, so you might as well hone that skill.
  15. It’s well worth the time and effort to learn about your students’ lives and interests. That seems like common sense, but the Herculean amount of other things you will have to do may distract you. When you know about their lives, you will understand the demeanor with which they enter your room (whatever their attitudes, they are seldom “about you”); when you know about their interests, you can more skillfully and honestly make connections.
  16. Look for the best in kids. And you may have to squint. Just remember the great things within you that your teachers couldn’t see and that you just couldn’t articulate.
  17. If you’ve made it this far without having developed a sense of humor about yourself, for Pete’s sake get started now. That lacking will lead to you being eaten alive, if anything will.
  18. Find a way to communicate weekly (at least) with your students’ parents. It’s simple now that we have email. Over the last decade of my career, I made a practice of sending out the coming week’s curricular overview, with some comments on the previous week’s activities. Though I mostly enjoyed talking to my students’ parents, that habit cut my parent calls and emails down to a trickle. Believe me, I found constructive uses for the saved time.
  19. Your administrators get their marching orders, too. It’s tempting to fall into an “us vs. them” mindset, but your building principals don’t have as much control as you think. You want to be a rabble rouser? You’re going to have to aim higher, and get your ass to board and teacher’s union meetings. I’m not discouraging that—it’s valuable as can be. Just make sure your aim is true.
  20. Be prepared to drink (or smoke—you may pick your own poison, child) heavily.