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 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 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 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.

October 2012

Day 33: My first two literacy classes chose A Rip in Heaven for their read-aloud, followed closely by The Color Purple. Also, I will miss supervising our school radio station, which is hidden in the bowels of Hickman, with the infamous “tunnel to Jeff Junior.” Today, Brock Boland and Isaiah Cummings, two peers of mine, and I debated the promise of a David Bowie memoir vs. a Neil Young memoir (Brock held for The Thin White Duke), and a young DJ who is taking guitar lessons got to hear this cranked up really high (for full appreciation) after our shifts were over: Memphis Minnie’s “Me And My Chauffeur Blues.”

Day 34: Some fantastic spontaneous moments–in the morning, two seniors whom I didn’t even know wandered into the radio station (where I was hunkered down grading during my planning time, and where they’d never been before–they were lured in by my “Pop Hitz” Spotify playlist), and we proceeded to discuss Hickman and the complicated wonder that it is, touching on class, race, history, “the tunnel,” and the Grupe-Frissell experience; in the afternoon, a great student who’d just finished Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers and was a bit gobsmacked came to me for some assistance, and I think I actually helped (I have not read it, so it was a challenge). Another spontaneous moment that was not so fantastic: only seven people showed up for my fourth block lit seminar class.

Day 35: You have not lived until you have seen Science Olympiad contestants lay their eyes on a new manual. That yelling people heard coming out of 135 was Ryan Wood gleefully reading the specs for the new builder’s event. In other news, Hickman flautist Michele Sun was introduced to Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Marielle Carlos laid her ears on Peter Stampfel and Steve Weber’s “Euphoria,” and the literacy kidz started A Rip In Heaven.

Day 36: Items crammed into 95 minutes of Brit Lit today…

*Plug for The Graphic Canon; also, discussion of the idea of “canon” with accidental cuss word escaping….
*Explanation of “Whirlwind Tour of Early British Lit” assessment (kids have to creatively emulate their favorite piece or author from the unit)
*Quickest political/cultural/spiritual overview of first British millennium in public school history
*Reading and discussion of “Caedmon’s Hymn” (oldest English poem) in three versions (Old E, Latin, Mod E)
*Enjoying of Richard Thompson’s stellar version of “Sumer is A-Cumen IN” from his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show
*Group work and discussion of Brit-Culture changes to be inferred by the space between “Caedmon’s Hymn” (7th century) and Carol Duffy’s “Prayer” (1990s)
*Speculation on possible U. S. epic (Huck? Wizard of Oz? Star Wars?) as lead in to…
*Intro to Beowulf and first few lines from Grendel’s appearance (2nd block only for the latter)
*Scattered jokes
*Enjoying of Richard Thompson’s stellar version of “Oops…I Did It Again” (see link) from his “1000 Years of Popular Music” show.

THAT’s what I want to do EVERY day. Right there. Why did I get it right out of the blue?

Day 37: It’s Friday. I’ve had 3-4 hours of sleep. It’s overcast and chilly. It’s an “A” day, first-block, nap-time situation. But no! They explode UNCHARACTERISTICALLY, OUT OF NOWHERE, with DEATH PENALTY QUESTIONS, and we haven’t even started reading A Rip in Heaven yet! An ultra-quiet young lady who hasn’t said ANYTHING all year rolls her eyes and hollers, “How could a country that’s anti-death penalty sell chemicals (thiopental) used for execution to a country that’s pro-death penalty?” I don’t want to stop the discussion (and, by the way, they voice both sides), but we have to read. I stop 20 minutes later, and a kid right in front of me says, “Just a few more paragraphs?” These are the surprises you never count on, and they will be deeply missed. (Note: the next class had no questions and no answers.)

Day 38: After 28 years of use with 6th, 7th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders, I am retiring the following sentence, written by an actual student of mine who doesn’t know she’s legendary, which I have used to illustrate misplaced modifiers and the importance of precise comma use: “She is now living in Florida, pregnant with her aunt and uncle.” (I have never used the student’s name in conjunction with the lesson, by the way.) Soon to follow: “When my dog Baby died, the neighborhood kids balled in remembrance.” (What a wake!)

Day 39: I reflexively waved at a student I kicked out of class a little over a week ago, and she waved back and smiled. I say reflexively, because I did not intend to wave, which would have been a sign of weakness, which would have lent her the upper-hand in our psychological battle to the death in the classroom, which we cannot have on our Farewell Tour. Why am I so WEAK, so FRIENDLY? To quote Drake in Strangers with Candy, I wish I was smarter. Seriously, it was the highlight of my day. Leia Brooks, you know which student I am speaking of.

Day 40: Another weird Lit Seminar explosion, this time from the normally somewhat torpid B Day Core 4. I entered grimly, expecting our read-aloud of A Lesson Before Dying to be a blood-from-a-stone exercise in futility, and 45 minutes of conferences a series of grueling conversations. We started with a journal entry on the death penalty (same topic, different book from morning groups), and I asked a few folks to share. And did they! Then they took a right turn into incarceration inequities. Then a left into classroom inequities. Then another right into middle-school bullying. Then they drove across the median and suggested that, as the final seconds of class expired, we have a similar discussion at least once a month. They didn’t read, I didn’t read aloud, we didn’t conference, but they left happy–especially a kid who hadn’t shared all year and asked all the best questions. I received a $650 grant and taught a lesson in Brit ballads today, and those were second and third on the list. Sometimes you have to just…let go.

Day 41: If you will permit me a more abstract venture today, here are ten fears in no particular order of intensity that are associated with teaching on a daily basis that I will not miss.

1) Fear that nothing you did all day made any difference.

2) Fear that someone will actually act on something you mused about out loud and destroy his life.

3) Fear that you’re not as good as the other guy.

4) Fear that you’re not simply any good, period.

5) Fear that someone will expose you as a charlatan.

6) Fear that THEY have seen right through you into something hideous you either haven’t realized about yourself or about which you are in denial.

7) Fear that on this day, at this moment, you will lose whatever it is you had or thought you had.

8) Fear that the one thing THEY will remember about you in 10 years was the worst thing you ever did in their presence.

9) Fear that you’re not getting it all done, and getting it all done well.

10) Fear that you COULD have reached someone, but just didn’t take the time because it wasn’t convenient.

Of course, the joke’s on me, because they aren’t that specific to teaching. HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!!!!

Day 42: In ’84 or ’85, a mere rookie, I won the faculty “Turkey Legs” contest at Parkview High in Springfield–I believe it was a fundraiser for Thanksgiving dinners for struggling families–and I was photographed wearing slacks, button-down shirt, and (horrors!) a tie. Today, I was pleasantly surprised to have been awarded the “Mr. Kewpie” spirit award at Hickman; truly, my spirit is dwarfed by not a few of my male peers. My garb today conveyed what prospects I thought I had: jeans, Chucks, a red and black flannel shirt (open) over a “Kurt Cobain” t-shirt–but no purple and gold. The ever-present shutter bug (and true Mrs. Kewpie) Terese Dishaw was there to snap a photo, so I guess I have my career bookends. But is what we find…devolution? Props to son-of-a-former-student Matt Matney for the photo!

Mr Kewpie

Mr. Kewpie, 2012-2013 Homecoming

Day 43: Some days, when the kids are lethargic (“lethargy” was a read-aloud vocab word in one of my classes today), your peers pull you through. I had a fantastic lunch with True/False Film Fest educational outreach heroine Polina Malikin, fellow English perpetuator Brett Kirkpatrick, and Nicole Overeem, the teacher from across the hall (among other things), and we plotted out the second installment of the True/False Hi-Def Academy, a program that involves students deeply in the art of filmmaking and the wonder that is the festival. I can’t wait to see which kids’ applications knock our socks off.

Day 44 (they are adding up quickly): I woke up on the wrong side of bed this morning, but was tickled by two incidents at school today. First, an office runner entered my room while my Brit Litters and I were listening to “Desolation Row” by Bob Dylan, and upon aural contact, she grimaced like she’d just smelled a fart. Second, immediately after school, I was witness to humor-ninja George Frissell North Dallas 40-ing (how ya like THAT verb?) our colleague Sam Kriegel. I don’t know if the humor of those two moments will translate, but I left smiling.

Day 45: After virtually assuring me they were going to hate A Rip in Heaven after its pokey expository opening, several students in my lit seminar class howled in pain when I stopped our read-aloud at the absolute peak of suspense….uh, just so we’d REMEMBER where we left off. If you are a former student and recall me having done this to you (my third favorite trick behind asking students, “I don’t know–CAN you go to the bathroom?” and constructing diabolical seating charts), LIKE THIS POST!

 Day 46: Hey, guess what? Chaucer is still relevant! Exploring the glorious Wife of Bath’s tale, Brit Lit had an uproarious time (both hours) discussing her warning never to point out a woman’s flaws–turns out a few of my students have learned it the hard way! Also, I was reminded of the first question a student ever asked me (Jessica Mee Kirchhofer will verify this) as I taught this tale in my very first student teaching lesson 30 years ago: “Mr. Overeem, what’s a maidenhead?” Apparently, some current students are still in the dark, though I am not sure the original interrogator was….

Day 47: It is helpful to remember, as I drag my fatigued carcass to the end of a work week, that, while today I am eagerly awaiting a music-filled road trip south to see my parents right after school, 29 years ago I would have been eagerly awaiting deep slumber by 7:30 p.m. on a Friday night. That’s far from a casual confession, as those of you who knew me at 21, who tried to pry me out of my apartment for hijinks, can attest.

Day 48: Another thing I will miss about Hickman is its distinguished tradition of excellent heavy metal musicians who are also scholars. This year, the honor goes to Sean McCumber and Daniel Johnston of Volatile, who not only shred, but give a damn about their work and studies. Sorry to embarrass ye, brothers, but ye deserve it. Step up on the pantheon next to Isaac Stickann!

Day 49: All teachers have a secret weapon or two in their arsenal for days when, for example, a school-wide test decimates a class to a quarter (or a fifth) of its usual size. For the last decade, one of mine has been a box set of Errol Morris’ intriguing First Person episodes, which force students to keep their eyes and minds alert and do some heavy inferential thinking. Today–maybe for the last time–I showed my two tiny classes what I believe is the best episode, “Leaving the Earth,” in which pilot and hero Denny Fitch recalls his experience being coincidentally thrust into the position of helping land a commercial airliner that’s lost its hydraulics at top elevation. The dang thing can be a life-changer.

Day 50: Sometimes, kids, you gotta get the heck out of Dodge. 29 years ago, The Replacements; tonight, Rosie Ledet, the Zydeco Sweetheart. Will return refreshed.

Days 51-52: Yesterday, as followers of this status may well have deduced, Nicole Overeem and I took a personal day and visited two sites in St. Louis associated with our educational experiences: The Pruitt-Igoe site (see The Pruitt-Igoe Myth by Columbian Chad Friedrichs if you haven’t already) and the Old Chain of Rocks Bridge (the site of tragedy in A Rip In Heaven, which my lit kidz are currently reading). We also visited Left Bank Books, where I successfully avoided buying new material for my stack. Today was a “slow news day” (other than a tale about our visit to Edgar Allan Poe’s home in Baltimore) but after school, we had a fun-filled dinner with my first excellent student teacher, Tasha Terrell, and her adventure-geared hubby Ryan Terrell. Mrs. Terrell made me realize I’d actually like hosting student teachers, and I’ve had four since her…though no way will I have one this year. But fellow teachers, you need to try it sometime.

Rip in Heaven Plaque St. Louis Bridge

Day 53: It was a between-the-lines day. The teachin’ and learnin’ were fine, but what was best were the conversations–with Isaiah Cummings and Patrick D King, about whether music is really losing its urgency; with Laurie Hoff, about the world’s largest pecan, Todd Akin signs, and medical insurance; with Arnel Monroe, about a mysterious football poem called “He” that we cannot locate n(help if you can!); with Sean McCumber, about the absurdity of the importance given standardized tests; with Michele Sun, about “twinkies” (not the kind The Candy Factory dips in chocolate, either); and with Nicole Overeem, about the worst scene ever in the series Treme that would have been a fantastic scene in Top Secret (clue: it involved the metal band Eyehategod). Now I am getting ready to get back to a book by Padgett Powell (You and Me) that’s one long conversation.

Day 54: You want theater? OK, I am reading aloud a passage from Ernest Gaines’ A Lesson Before Dying (set in 1948 Louisiana) in which a dying teacher tells the protagonist, his former student and also a teacher, that if he stays and teaches the local kids (who are destined for either SLOW death in the fields if THEY stay or QUICK death or incarceration if they flee to the cities), the controlling white culture will turn him (the young teacher) into “the n***** they want [him] to be.” The dying teacher is embittered from years of helplessly watching and enabling the vicious cycle; the young teacher is beginning to recognize that he is, indeed, enabling the cycle himself. I am reading the passage aloud to a group of students whose OWN futures are too uncertain, and who have their OWN cycles to cope with that I am none too sure I am effectively battling, and most of whom (I said MOST) are only dimly aware of the passage’s import. While I am reading the passage aloud, before I arrive at the word I censored above (but did not censor in my reading–I don’t do that) but after I have engaged the kids in some contextual discussion, the district suits roll in for a “walk-through observation” of about five minutes. The resulting situation was so meta- my brain almost imploded. Am I writing clearly? It’s hard to capture it sparely.

Day 55: Came to school dressed as Walter White, and was immediately identified by a honey bee and a French maid. Walter has come a long way. (Note: Hickman does an annual Halloween scavenger hunt where teachers dress up, and students have to get signatures from them on their master list of characters.)

Halloween Fire

 

Halloween 2012: left, waiting for trick-or-treaters; below, aping Walter White.

Walter White

 

September 2012

Day 13: Theodore Roethke, I bow to you and “My Papa’s Waltz.” I have used that poem what feels like a million ways in my career and it ALWAYS WORKS. ALWAYS. Today, it effectively helped 34 literacy seminar kids understand inference. Plus, I myself love it more every time I behold it.

Day 14: Overheard in the teacher’s lounge…

Stewart Johnson, speaking of a Texas high school’s football stadium: “I read in Sports Illustrated they are building a megatron.”

George Frissell, former Texan, not missing a beat: “But they have no library.”

Fortunately, I had not just taken a drink.

Day 15: Hands-down best moment–reading a personal essay authored by one of my literacy seminar students for another class in which he detailed his triumph over multiple heavy obstacles AND set EIGHT achievable goals for his senior year. Second-best moment–experiencing a creativity surge and designing a collaborative quiz in which groups in my Brit Lit class will have to project literacy criticism approaches upon a chunk of reading in Angela’s Ashes. Students, when the teacher says “This will be fun!”…DUCK.

Day 16: I do not like to linger over nostalgia or obsess over future speculations at a time like this–the moment is the thing–but I had wonderful reminiscences of my middle school sports experiences with Stewart Johnson and Pete Doll at lunch (particularly involving a certain gaseous initiation into the ranks of track coaching that is apparently quite common), and sat back in amazement as Brock Boland lined out my immediate post-ed future for me in specific detail (bringing a garage rock festival to Columbia). In student news, the interactive quiz worked, though it required a crash course in existentialism for two groups.

Day 17: Much for a Monday. You’d think administering diagnostic reading tests would be like having wooden wedges driven under your fingernails (for student and teacher), but they are often inspiring: the first eight kids I tested today showed measurable improvement over their last tests in the spring, and we had great conversations about how and why. Several are poised to be reading on-level, which is exciting (by the way, they haven’t been with me long enough for ME to have anything to do with it). Also, a student DJ with just a tad of training jumped near to the head of the class with a professional performance introing BOC’s “Cities on Flame,” The Clash’s “Stay Free,” and Elizabeth Cook’s “Camino” (only the last song was my suggestion). Also, solid feedback on our school’s rock and roll concert series that’s being facilitated by Michael Wesley Wingate and his co-conspirators at The Bridge. First show last night drew 30+ folks, and Odd One Down gave an inspired and rocking performance (thanks to future sponsors Bill Morgan and Brock Boland and former student teacher Vance Downing for coming out); next up, Volatile and a band to be named later, October 14! Finally, got to hang out with a fellow educator (Nicole Overeem) after school and watch an angering but informative doc about our economy, We’re Not Broke! I am grateful to have such days. (Sorry for the essay answer….)

Adriana

The author with Adriana Cristal, fellow Natural Child fan and T/F Film Fest Youth Brigade Homecoming Queen Candidate.

Day 18: My former student from eleven years ago, Neil lileazy Hayes, contacted me via Facebook to ask about some books I had asked him to/made him read when he was a sophomore, because he wanted to read them again! At the time, I couldn’t quite tell whether he liked them or not (he was a bit of a pistol), but now I know. Teaching = delayed gratification (if you’re lucky…but it’s so satisfying!) The books: Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins books, Nathan McCall’s Make Me Wanna Holler. If he were in class now, I’d be forcing some Chester Himes on him! In the latest installment of “B-Day Lunchroom Follies,” a certain educational philosopher-king was reduced to tears as we speculated about a Sunday Faculty Film Night double-header of Bang the Drum Slowly and Brian’s Song. Also, he could not regain his composure upon remembering this: “The National Lampoon did a brutal comic-book parody of “Brian’s Song” – at Brian’s funeral Gale glances at the now ex-Mrs. Piccolo, thinking “That fine lady’s gonna need some comforting tonight” as she thinks “I’ll ask Gale to comfort me tonight…”

Day 18 Footnote (well, I guess it’s a headnote): True story. I was teaching sixth grade at Smithton Middle School eleven years ago today and the news had broken (see Brittany’s post below for details). During my planning period, I was walking in a fog down the hall when, unsolicited, a fellow teacher barked at me, “We need to just blow their whole country up.” I walked straight out of the building, got in the truck, drove to Streetside, bought the brand new Dylan album “Love and Theft” and immediately stuck it in the truck CD player for my sanity’s sake. Driving around, I heard these lyrics creep out: “Well, George Lewis told the Englishman, the Italian and the Jew/You can’t open up your mind, boys, to every conceivable point of view/They got Charles Darwin trapped out there on Highway 5/Judge says to the high sheriff, I want him dead or alive/Either one, I don’t care/High water everywhere….” Bush would quote eleven of those words exactly not long after. Just chilled me. Still does.

Day 19: Every year, since I teach mostly seniors, I write a passel of letters of reference for kids applying to colleges. Today, I wrote one to Yale. It’s a strange experience: of course, you’re trying to represent the student in the best possible truthful light against serious competition, where, say, a 150 IQ and a 4.17 GPA might be the norm, but you are also very conscious of how YOU are being evaluated as a reference-letter writer. I ultimately said, “Screw it!” and just wrote it (it helped that the student is wonderful in a lot of ways)…but I did hold for tradition in the case of two supposedly defunct concerns: ending a sentence with a preposition and employing the subjunctive mood. *For late-breaking followers of my status: I am not going anywhere, nor am I ill; I am retiring from full-time teaching at the end of the year, and, in the case of the title I chose, I think like a rock fan, of course. But I will not be The Who, I promise.

Day 20: Fed students a dose of Angela’s Ashes, Jonathan Swift, and Richard Thompson. Last time I will ever teach “A Modest Proposal.” Gulp.

Dr. King

Day 21: Busted out one of the hoariest anecdotes in the old repertoire today to make a point to my reading class about thinking about texts–and questioning authority. The scene: social studies time in 6th grade at Columbian Elementary, 1974. The topic: the (few) paragraphs we had read about MLK (the first I’d heard of him–and I was hungry for more). The issue: our teacher passed around a photo of King at “American Communist Headquarters,” and pronounced that King had been an enemy of America. The resolution: I was dropped off at the babysitter (the Carthage library) at the next opportunity, went downstairs to the kids’ section, read everything I could cram in through my eyeballs about King, and, for the first time, realized I couldn’t trust my teachers. I’ve always wondered about the rest of that class….

Day 22: Pressed play on The Third Man (installment one in the course’s “Great Brit Films” series) and mentally ducked, knowing how atmospheric, dialogue-heavy, and relatively action-free its first 70 minutes are. Could it flop? Yes, it could. It definitely could. And it might have, but at least one kid–a kid’s who struggling academically–totally dug it and was all over the brief Q&A we had after Part 1. Another kid looked me in the eyes and quietly nodded, “Yes.” We ended today’s segment with this shining, mischievous moment:

 Day 23: A simple tableau. At the end of my second block literacy class, I got up to do some closing instruction with 10 minutes to go–usually the exact time they’ll start zipping up backpacks and looking at the clock–and, to a one, they were SO buried in their books I crept back behind my desk and let the bell shock them back into reality. A gem of a group.

 Day 24: A bittersweet revelation. I feel like I am teaching better than I have since my middle school days–and it seems solely because I am RELAXED and doing just what I want to do (as usual, the same ol’ lit-writing-music-film combo with a Brit flavor, but I am feeling no guilt about “enrichments” and just executing ideas with no self-fuss). I am enjoying myself so much that 95 minutes a class is not enough. I need more science between my ears to be having a similar experience in reading, but why did I wait until Year 29 to relax? I confess, I have often felt it an impossible state to achieve. But it is good to me. I hope that it continues….

 Day 25: Five minutes left in class. Me: “Let me tell you about the time I was kicked out of an assembly for heckling a magician–” Them: “WE HEARD THAT ONE!” Me: “How about when my best friend and I got kicked out of school for a day for fighting each other and went fishing the next d–” Them: “WE HEARD THAT ONE!” Me: “Uh, the time my kindergarten teacher pressed my face into her ’emergency’ drawer of little girls’ panti–” Them: “THAT ONE, TOO!” Me: “How about when I told on a kid for just scribbling during cursive practice and he proceeded to kick me in the nu–” SAVED BY THE BELL.

Day 26: I will genuinely miss observing moments such as my third block Brit Lit Socratic group provided today as they discussed the implications of a very delicate and complex subject in Angela’s Ashes: Frank’s sexual coming of age. They spoke with dignity, understanding, and intelligence that the non-education world often assumes are NOT the provinces of the young.

Day 27: No kids today. Therefore, I shall list the 10 things I love most about Hickman High School:

1) We are a microcosm of the world, in a lot of ways. And if you get through three years here, you will have learned something AND found kindred souls whether teachers help or not. No one has an excuse for not finding someone cool at this school.

2) We have the sharpest, hardest-working danged staff I have ever worked with. And they’re a nutty lot, to boot.

3) We have a class called “Classical Ideas and World Religions,” taught by the most highly evolved human I have ever met.

4) You can check out a Minutemen CD from our media center.

5) We have housed the most Presidential Scholars in our history of any public school in the country.

6) The principal has arranged for the faculty to make the calls on numerous important occasions. I bet she’s held her breath a few times, but I doubt she’s regretted it. Much.

7) My wife works across the hall from me. Directly.

8) We can beat ANY school in the nation over its head with our multiple clubs, from Gay-Straight Alliance to Philosophy Club to T/F Film Fest Youth Brigade to Zombie Defense League.

9) We have such support, through labs, the Success Center, special ed resource, essential skills, ELL, and a terrific and versatile guidance department, that your problem better be darned tough not to have a chunk taken out of its ass by our support personnel.

10) Nobody messes with our main office secretaries.

Nicole and Phil and David

Front to back: Nicole Overeem, the author, David Truesdell, on the beautiful Eleven Point River

Day 28: A few weeks ago, a kid got added to my second block literacy class (you’ve heard a few stellar reports from there). I was a little sensitive about it, because my lit classes are bigger than they should be, I’d worked to get that one in shape, and I’d already gotten two adds earlier that week. It didn’t take her long to flash (what I thought was) some attitude, and being cranky, I took her outside and growled at her, as is my wont. Well, turns out she just has that look on her face–it ain’t attitude at all, she’s just quiet and has a slow-burn appearance–and she’s outread almost everyone in that class in half the time they’ve had to read. With an extra-credit reading report turned in, she has a 106.5%. I goofed. Fortunately for me, she was graceful in accepting my apology.

Day 29: The plan WAS, go over items coming due, remind them of some neat resources, help a student by promoting the school “Read Banned Books” campaign, introduce the Brit song (“Watching the Detectives”) and poem of the week (Dame Edith Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain,” a dandy), then debrief on our Angela’s Ashes Socratic from last week. In my mind, all but the last item would take 10-15 minutes (typing it out, I see that was ridiculous), then I would spend 30-40 minutes on the debrief. All was going smoothly, until said student asked me about censorship. 30 MINUTES LATER, I finish three real-life stories about problems with To Kill a Mockingbird, The Catcher in the Rye, and “Giggle”mesh (inside joke). There goes the lesson plan. I am going to miss these kinds of days, though I suspect this one shan’t be the last.

Day 30: How Not to Do Things, Part II. I was really excited about the lesson I was presenting today. We were going to practice inferencing and visualization with the text to the short film I have linked for your enjoyment; the text includes no description of the speakers or the setting, so the reader’s forced to have to visualize imaginatively and infer constantly (then we look at the film to compare). Of course, two 17-year-old boys not too different from the kind I was had to be jackasses from the git-go, and, after taking one of them out in the hall to just get to the bottom of things, he forced me to send him to the office by refusing the openings I gave him. So, I walked back in, started over–more jackassatry. What do I do? This–to the whole class, in (early) Eastwood Style: “OK, let’s just get this over with right now. You have a problem, I want to take care of all of ’em NOW so I can teach. Anyone?” A kid gets up and walks out, muttering, “I don’t need this sh*t!” And, in a way, he was right.

Day 31: A hard day to reflect positively, but…here goes. I have been grading papers digitally for the first time (fun–but the enjoyment is doubling the time), and ran across a very nice one that sent me back, which student essays will often do. The kid wrote about being overconfident and failing his driver’s test–in the parking lot after returning from the drive! I had to mention in the comments that I failed mine, too. Twice. I purt-near had to be talked into even learning, totalled my first car a month after finally passing my test, and hit a pedestrian and sent her to the hospital (and later got sued by her) shortly after that. So it seems I still ended up sounding a negative note–but the point of good writing is connect with the reader and make him reflect. Well-done, student who is brother to former student of mine who used to drive him to school all the time…

Day 32: It’s a weekend, I know, but I’ve not been able to get school off my mind (tough day Friday), so I’m-a do one of these for therapeutic purposes. First, Banned Books Week’s coming up, and I’ve linked the American Library Association’s list of “Banned and Challenged Classics.” If you aren’t reading anything, I challenge you to just grab one off this shelf. Second, here’s a list of books (plus one outlier) I have had censorship “incidents” with since 1984: To Kill a Mockingbird (by Harper Lee), Angela’s Ashes (by Frank McCourt), Disgrace (by J. M. Coetzee), The Catcher in the Rye (by J. D. Salinger), Lolita (by Vladimir Nabokov), and a meticulously hand-selected set of lyrics by Chuck Berry. I am probably forgetting a couple, as well. Keep your mind out of cages, whether they are made by the forces of order or your own “hand.”

Introduction: Those Who Can’t, Get the Hell Out PDQ

cropped-pic1.jpg

 “Those who can, do.

Those who can’t do, teach.”

As someone who has perused 30,000 student essays in his career, bleary eyes peeled for elegance, I certainly admire the beauty of that construction.

As someone who has read vast libraries while trapped in classrooms overseen by the tucked-away incompetent, indifferent, incurious, and ill-educated—classrooms far rarer than supposed, but still too numerous, though longer green and better conditions might help that—I can definitely understand that thought.

As a proud American who is sometimes too exhausted to deal with our peculiar complexity, I can see why someone might want that bumper sticker.

As someone who for his first 21 years could not quite see beyond the chalkboard curtain, I can even imagine why someone might reach that conclusion.

Conclusions, though, seldom stand still.

Thus, as someone who taught, coached, supervised, sponsored, advised, and, mostly, importuned the public school students of these United States from 1984 to 2015, through turbulence and change I need not catalog (because had those decades been unaccountably halcyon and stagnant, the truth would not have changed), I can say this with authority:

That quote is bullshit.

Oh, the times I have wished to Barbara Eden-blink an insufferably certain boor into a classroom of 30 variously motivated and inclined 15-year-olds, who are oh-so-simply waiting for something cool to happen—and keep that boor in place for 180 days.

Oh, how I have wanted to point out that, if teaching were that much of a soft option, why aren’t people stampeding in to get that easy money, that three-month vacation, that panoply of benefits, that podium behind which one need only stand and talk while urchins copiously take note of one’s unassailable wisdom?

The fact is, from my current retired vantage point, I deeply understand that I loved teaching because it isn’t a cakewalk. Maybe I can’t count money or prognosticate its movements. Maybe I can’t build a house, take a car apart, or help folks heal. I definitely respect and admire those that can. But I must say the doings of teaching are manifold—and, more than that, layered in a way that would cause most jugglers to drop their hands to their sides in defeat. Beyond the challenge, it is also very frequently fun, and always worthy.

My hope for this account of my final year of full-time teaching is to try to support those contentions beyond refutation—especially that such as the sophistry expressed above.

“Those who can teach, do.
Those who can’t, get the hell out–
PDQ.”

There. That’s at least a shade truer. Take it from me.

Though I am descended from several teachers on my mother’s side (she was a teacher herself), that I’d become one was far from a foregone conclusion. In fact, I had a bizarre stamp on my forehead from a very early age: “NBA statistician.” This may have stemmed from my father taking me to a Los Angeles Lakers – Kansas City Kings game in 1973, when I was 11—I was dumbstruck as I watched Wilt Chamberlain lope stiff-kneeded up and down a court for one of his last times, then pass within a yard of me coming out of and going back into the locker room. However, in my recollection, I’d begun a strange habit before that moment: designing my own statistics sheets and scoring televised games, then typing them up—little fingers hammering an old manual—hole-punching them, and keeping them in a notebook. Soon after, I began inventing players and creating box scores for imaginary games in which they, for example, grabbed 30 rebounds, scored 30 points, and passed for 11 assists. Fantasy career statistical profiles followed, and, before I really realized it, my notebook had stretched beyond 1,000 pages. Though my parents knew about it, I showed it to only one friend, and was still working on it when I became the statistician for the Carthage (Missouri) High School baseball, basketball, and football teams—while playing on the former two!

In a later time, someone would have suggested medication.

None of this seems to point to a classroom. Truly, it seems to point to loneliness. I did not see that; I saw myself gaping at the greatest basketball players in the world every night of the season for free while getting paid to do what I’d already been doing obsessively since I was 10. The fabled no-brainer. The reader’s familiarity with Malcolm Gladwell’s commentary on repetition might lead him to suspect I walked away from good fortune—but Gladwell really often misses points.

A teacher interfered with my brain. A teacher who did many different things extremely well, unlike anyone else—unlike any teacher—I’d ever known: Howard South. Technically, he was an art teacher, and he actually painted and showed us his work. Every time I’ve written an essay or done an assignment to provide students a model, I’ve thought of him and smiled. But he was more than an art teacher—just as most in our profession are, out of necessity, teachers of things beyond our certification. Perhaps because he had accurately identified me as a cocky moron with a sand-grain of potential, he dropped a folded slip of paper off at my workspace almost every day, and I didn’t see him do it for anyone else. I’d unfold it to behold—well, I remember the very first one, scrawled in his eccentric, loopy hand: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. THOREAU.” I didn’t know from Thoreau; I dimly apprehended the meaning of the phrase, mainly because I was desperate to get in about 50 girls’ knickers, desperate to find someone who wanted to talk seriously about Bob Dylan, desperate to locate the delinquents who spray-painted “Ramones” on the baseball stadium walls, desperate not to be terrified while I was driving a car. That wasn’t exactly what Thoreau was getting at, but I was within shouting distance. I looked him up, and immediately figured something out: Mr. South had told us he’d built his own home in the woods, and ol’ Hank had done something of the same thing back in the 19th century. A-ha. Convinced of his authenticity (I didn’t know that word then), I took Mr. South’s art instruction seriously—how else to explain a cubist painting of Indiana Pacer star Billy Knight (I wish I still had that)?—but the quotes and my private research were a irresistible driving force that released my thoughts from the captivity of teenage self-involvement. Also, I was thinking about what weren’t known yet as triple-doubles a whole lot less frequently.

Not that everything was liege and lief between Mr. South and me. In his class, as in most others, I had jerkoid tendencies. The difference was in his responses. When I accidentally ripped a lightning bolt-shaped tear into one of his large-scale paintings with the leg of a stepladder and didn’t tell him, thinking I could sneak out undetected, he found me in English thirty minutes later and assigned me a 15-page research paper on the differences between objective and subjective art. Teachers aren’t supposed to punish recalcitrant students with writing, because that might condition them to hate writing. In this case, however, I was fascinated with what I learned, and my thinking is still influenced today by my discoveries then. Also, the paper was easily the best I had ever written, and the post-paper conference I had with him taught me more in 15 minutes than I learned that entire month elsewhere.

On another occasion, I made an honest if colossally stupid mistake. Just outside the back door of the annex in which South taught was a stump. Mr. South kept a sledge hammer leaning against the stump and, if a student became frustrated with a project, the student could step outside and hammer on the stump to release the frustration. I am telling you, he was a genius. I must confess, though, that I was easily the most frequent visitor to the stump, and the frustrations I was exorcising were seldom artistic. A summer had passed, and I was a week or two into South’s Art II class when I became vexed at something, likely a girl’s indifference to my cool. I slipped out the back door to find…no stump. Mr. South had ground out the stump over the summer and built a storage shed. Wind whistling between my ears, I picked up a large rock and two-hand-overheaded it into the shed’s cinder-block foundation. Literally. Into. As in, embedded in. This time, I fessed up, and South gave me a list of materials to buy at the hardware store; the next day, he taught me how to mortar up a hole by making me mortar up the hole. Like I said, he was a genius.

When I walked out of my last class with him, I walked out with a heavy heart. He’d shaken me up. As I approached graduation, I was still thinking about statistics, and what a guy had to do to see Julius Erving on television, but not nearly as often.

Arriving at the University of Arkansas via the spin-the-bottle method of college selection (it was the only school I had visited, and, even then, I was giving a friend a lift down there for his college visit), I took what I thought were the typical boring gen-eds and, through a fellow Carthaginian who’d been recruited by the Razorbacks, landed an unpaid position as the college baseball team’s statistician, a stroke of luck which thrilled me, even if I did have to tutor my pal in college algebra. As fate would have it, the excitement quotient inherent in these undertakings was the reverse of my expectations.

I had accidentally enrolled myself in honors composition and literature, and, after nearly vomiting when I came back from the university book store with 12 novels and a textbook for that class alone, then learning I was required to write an essay a week on top of the reading, I figured the jig was up and I would flunk out. I didn’t really know what drop-add was, but neither was I a quitter, so I figured I’d just take my lumps. The class and the excellent TA, however, picked up where Mr. South had left off, galvanizing my attraction to pure thinking and berzerking me into an English major by the time I walked out of my final exam. Slaughterhouse Five. We. The Crying of Lot 49. Emma. The Great Gatsby. Those are the novels I remember most, and they exploded my mind; in my six years of secondary school, the entirety of my reading (aside from weekly close inspections of Sports Illustrated and The Sporting News) had been an abridged Great Expectations, Of Mice and Men, Hamlet, and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the latter two left squeaky-cleanly unexplicated by my senior English teacher, who preferred telling stories of his war experiences. After that freshman year baptism of literary fire, I was hooked on lit.

Meanwhile, the statistician gig bored me stiff. Part of this stemmed from no longer being an athlete myself; part of it was the daily wiping of tobacco off my shoes (even if the spit had originated from the lip of future MLB kinda-star Kevin McReynolds); part of it was the sheer torture of the tutorial obligation. The biggest, and saddest, factor was that keeping stats had lost its luster for me—particularly when juxtaposed with the challenge of reading Zamyatin and Pynchon. I’d known what career was in store for me since I was in elementary school, and I recognized quickly that that had vanished. The question for me had now become, “Can I just read for a living?”

Maybe I was under the influence of Flannery O’Connor—actually, I still am—but I did have an epiphany, and remember the exact moment it emerged from my progressively brightening consciousness. At this point, I was a sophomore. I’d characteristically changed majors twice, from journalism to psychology to English. But I was just having fun in the moment. I don’t remember giving much thought to a career, and, as great as Mr. South and that freshman-semester TA had been, I was still locked into the idea of a solitary job. Much of my life’s grand excitement had really happened in my head, and I pictured myself working by myself. Right there, the reader should see how important this epiphany was going to be.

I was sitting in Mr.—that’s Mr.—Soos’ English literature class, and he was leading us in a discussion of Wordsworth’s “The World is Too Much with Us.” Soos had already won me over by a) making deceptively difficult essay assignments (“Write a 1000-word personal essay around the word ‘vacillation.’ That is all.”); b) digging my argument that “Layla” was the greatest rock and roll song of all-time (he argued for “In the Still of the Night”—I’d bow to that now over my own choice); and c) really taking time to break literature down with us—not for us. In the case of Wordsworth’s poem, he was on fire, and fellow students were making modern connections like a string of Black Cats popping. I watched, listened, thought about his smart, funny, and encouraging comments on my essays, and realized, “This would be a fun a job. This is for me.” Helping people see, think, communicate, and appreciate—for one, those tasks were unselfish and paid dividends for humans in the future, and, for another, one could enjoy oneself thoroughly while performing them. I can still see Soos wildly waving his arms as he homed in on a line, suddenly came to a stop and slammed his hands to his hips, leaned forward, and stared at some mesmerized student for a response, then exploded in joy when the student articulated a powerful thought, scanning the class to make sure we had heard what our peer had just said. Yep, I thought, I think I can do that.

And I did. My professional career carried me first to Springfield, Missouri’s Parkview High School, where old pros like Charlie Smith and Jim Dunlop taught me the dos and don’ts in the faculty smoking lounge, where speech-and-debate legend Bob Bilyeu, the first of the “great ones” I ever met, explained the pedagogical concept of benign negligence to me, and where a great principal named Dolores Brooks forced me to sponsor two different extracurricular clubs—as it should be for the newbie, as it isn’t often enough done today. Now, they get a choice. What’s up with that?

After a difficult wrangling with a new and high-strung principal who thought my student government was doing too much (more on that later), I found my way to Columbia, Missouri’s Hickman High School, a much larger school where class, academic, and racial tensions throbbed through the hallways and the competition between teachers might have finished me had I been a rookie. For the first time, I drank from the well of teacher leadership, ever so briefly, as we debated the issue of tracking as it (truly) existed in our school; I was also introduced to the concept of team teaching, specifically the CWC (“class within a class”) approach, through which my partner Karen Downey would train me to be twice the teacher I was coming in.

Karen and I followed an excellent principal, Wanda Brown, to a newly constructed middle school named Smithton, where I fell in permanent love with 6th and 7th grade humans, entered a skill zone that sometimes seemed unconscious, served as team representative, after-school detention supervisor, basketball and track coach, building philosophy committee member, and unwilling mediator of 97% of team discipline issues—all at the same time, and I never felt too tired. It was great fun, until certain adults ruined it with their narrow insights into pedagogy, personal responsibility, race, and special education, and Karen and I split for our old Hickman haunts (more on that later, too).

During the final decade-plus there, I taught decently (I’d give myself a “B”—after middle schoolers, I was spoiled for older students, and never quite regained my mojo), but did co-found, with a horrible English student named David Kemper who also happened to be genius networker, a club called The Academy of Rock, that achieved many of the heights with which I am most proud to have been associated with in this business. Somehow, I also ended up coaching Science Olympiad—I am science guy, but a “C” student in the field—which, though I did little but paperwork and bus-riding, put me in contact with some of the brightest, nicest, hardest-working, funniest students I’d ever known. Then the convertible of my career rear-ended the 18-wheeler of retirement. What followed is the nougat of this book.

 

Today, as a retiree who likes to work and can’t give up a longtime habit, I tutor college students when they have difficulty with any writing-related project. One thing I hear from them on a regular basis is how scared they are that what they think they want to do, what they are paying great gobs of money for the paper that says they can do it, will end up not being what they want to do, and they’ll be S. O. L. Every time I hear that, I reflect on how grateful I need to be that I ran into these three teachers in particular. They disrupted and rechanneled my thinking, and saved me from sitting on my ass watching sports events (albeit getting paid to do so) for 30 years, which I can honestly say would not have been as enriching as what I ended up doing instead: teaching.

Even after my epiphany in Soos’ class, I was still shooting craps: you can’t know if you’ll like teaching until you are left alone with your own classes and have enough time to work through the initial shocks, which can last a few years. However, the moment I stepped in front of a class of seniors at Greenwood Laboratory School in Springfield, Missouri, a student teacher charged with selling Anglo-Saxon and Medieval lit to a passel of jaded seniors and knowing precious little about either the lit or the kids, I knew that space was home. In time, I’d feel more comfortable in front of a class than any other place (until I got married); I am still not sure why that’s the case, since humans fear public speaking just a little less than dying. I speak more clearly, think more freely, respond more spontaneously, and laugh more frequently when I am running a classroom than when I am doing anything else. In fact, it hurts my heart to realize I just wrote that sentence with present tense verbs, because I don’t run classrooms anymore. But teaching has been a gift I have been able to enjoy for 60% of my days on the planet, and I am deeply thankful.

For most teachers in current United States classrooms, the game has changed a bit: their preparation time, organic collaboration time, and recovery time have been clogged up with tasks invented by people who’ve either never taught or got out into the big money of administration as soon as they could (“Teaching: where the major financial rewards are in getting out of teaching!”). In addition, today’s teachers are regularly not trusted to do what they are trained to do, and their so-called evaluators, often with no background in the subject matter at hand, render potentially career-altering judgments based on five-minute observations of 50- to 90-minute lessons. In the district I just retired from, these judgments are made under the rubric of “rigor” and “relevance.” The two best teachers I have ever taught with, one a classical ideas and world religions expert whose classes for the adult community in our city are in high demand, the other a history teacher who’s visited damn near every country in the world and structures her lessons around not only her direct experience but also classroom reading that would give college upperclassmen pause, were both judged to be offering lessons lacking both rigor and relevance by administrators half their age with a tenth of their experience and none of their background. A damn shame.

Fear not, reader who might want to teach, or who is teaching under the above yoke. Trends cycle through; the current one has cycled a little more widely, but it’s recently been exposed—unsurprisingly, in massive cheating scandals and plummeting standardized test scores—for the sham that it is. That doesn’t mean the next trend will be any more, um, rigorous and relevant, but it is sure to be a reaction against a method that’s seems designed to suck all of the joy out of our profession. All jobs have such obstacles, but for us this is the truth: in teaching, if you are passionate, if you know your subject matter, if you like the young, if you aren’t allergic to hard work, if you can reflect and adjust, if you’re joyful, if you can take a bad day and know the next one might be (and often is) fantastic, if one academic victory in seven hours can sustain you, if you’re not afraid to play and improvise, if you really believe that all humans can learn and change—nothing can touch you. Also, if that string of ifs applies to you and you aren’t teaching at present, you might want to think about filling out an application today.

What follows is a day-by-day account of my final year of public classroom teaching, which, as I described above, came faster than I ever could have expected, and which I did not exactly meet with relief. It was originally published in different form in 2012 and 2013 on Facebook, where my audience was composed to a great extent of fellow teachers, current and former students, and many others who’d been in my educational orbit. Knowing it was my last year, I wanted to remember the best moments of every single school day. I could have been more discreet and written in a private diary—“How public – like a Frog – To tell one’s name – the livelong June – To an admiring Bog!”(Emily Dickinson, you ol’ spoilsport!)—but my instincts told me that, for one, the journey might be entertaining, and, for another, it might reveal an educator’s reality in an appealing way at a time when we were under a bit of political fire. I’ve never been one to grouse much about student behavior or tsk-tsk across the generations, so I chose to pick an instance each day that was simply piquant. Initially, I feared I wouldn’t finish it, but when I named it “The Farewell Tour” and began numbering the days, I provided myself a sense of obligation and appealed to my old statistician self (it’s still down in there, somewhere). To occasionally break up the marching-by of days and elaborate on some of their happenings, I have inserted some useful advice for future and current teachers, humorous and frightening career anecdotes that may defy belief but are verified true (I assure you), a few Top 10s (because who doesn’t love those?), and a few encomiums to colleagues and students without whom I probably wouldn’t have gotten here.

I hope you enjoy the journey as much as I did, and encourage some of you to consider sharing your knowledge in a classroom. My biggest hope for this book is that it will convince you that teaching is a very fun profession, and please keep in mind while you read that, according to ol’ Fessler’s career cycle for teachers, I was allegedly in a stage accompanied by stagnancy, cynicism, disengagement, and—I love this one—the wind-down. Make any interpretative adjustments as you see fit, folks.