Back-to-School Special – Writings on Teaching and Schools

EMPATHY

When I taught English in a small-town high school, one tenth-grade class included three tough girls. Theresa was bright and literate but she hung out with Laura, who was attractive, hard as nails, and totally uninterested in anything I had to say. The third member of the trio, Charlene, had neither Theresa’s intellect nor Laura’s looks. She was actively resentful of any attempt to interest her in books or similar objects of instruction.

None of the three was openly defiant, but their looks of Why don’t you get lost? when I tried to suggest the joys of literature or self-expression were disheartening. At the same time, I couldn’t mind their resistance too much, since this was the Sixties and I was engaged in my own rebellion against established notions and directives.

Also in the class was Margie, who always looked sad and defeated. She was overweight, afflicted with acne, and friendless. While the rest of the class merely ignored her, the tough-girl trio made faces to each other on the occasions when Margie dared to speak up in class.

One time I thought I heard Charlene in the corridor telling Margie, “Out of the way, Lard-ass.” I glared at Charlene, and Charlene glared back at me.

In a couple of years of teaching, I’d found a few ways to get students, even the least motivated, to do some writing. That winter I assigned them in pairs to interview each other in order to write each other’s profile. Since this meant talking to each other instead of listening to me for two or three class periods, they settled down quickly to getting details, as assigned, about families, ambitions, accomplishments, worries—whatever would make their interviewees interesting to read about.

I had explained that I was matching up the pairs from the class roster, first on the list with the last (Adamic and Woolsey, Atkins and VanDam, and so on). Margie’s and Laura’s last names were somewhere in the middle, so with a little underhanded manipulation, I assigned them to each other. Laura, when she heard whom she’d be working with, smirked, but she liked talking and liked the chance to act like a professional, so she set to work interviewing the apprehensive Margie.

The day the papers were handed in, I didn’t have a chance to look at them until the evening. I leafed through the pile until I came to Laura’s. It was the clearest, most accomplished work she had ever done.

More importantly, it began: “I used to make fun of Margie but now Ive gotten to know her. Shes had a tugh time of it. Now I won’t make fun of her.”

You could say, if you were cynical, that Laura was pulling her teacher’s strings. I was, after all, misty-eyed as I read the essay. But Laura wasn’t, as far as I knew, shrewd enough to do that. And her treatment of Margie’s family background and state of mind showed genuine empathy for her classmate.
The rest of the school year, I sometimes saw the trio letting Margie tag along with them. Margie, who seemed a little more relaxed and confident, would laugh with the others.

I didn’t want to know what, or whom, they were laughing about.

MY GREAT-UNCLE’S HORSE
 
The best time of a deadly relatives’ Sunday
was to walk with him to the stable and watch him feed
the quiet animal, to give it sugar
from my own hand and jump back away
from the big, warm tongue,
to smell the hay and manure,
to see the white horse in the next stall
with tail and mane like yellow silk.
 

If my mother and I ran into him as he and the horse
were making their rounds, buying up the wonderful junk
they hauled in the wagon, he’d lift me to the seat
and let me hold the reins and yell “Giddy-up!”
 

In the spring of fourth grade, one afternoon of silent
division, we heard a clanking and looked outside.
My great-uncle! I could tell them all how I
had held those reins! But everyone laughed
at the hunched old man, the obsolete wagon and horse,
the silly, clattering junk. I did not tell them.

CLASS BEAR 

A pre-school magazine has published a teacher’s note
about Mr. Huggy, the class bear. She sends him home
with a different child each day; they also take Mr. Huggy’s
diary, for a parent to write a page detailing activities
of the ursine guest—a nice idea for reading readiness,
 

though I see it asking for trouble: “All right, I’ll write
in the book—Mr. Huggy can watch me getting drunk!”
But I really like the idea of a class bear. Does this mean,
after 30 years of marriage, I downgrade human contact?
Of course not. But think about dogs, for instance:
 

what spouse could you tie up outside the market,
to whimper while watching the door, greeting you
with the canine equivalent of awe at the Second Coming?
In the evening, alone with you at home, he looks with sad eyes
that say: “I love you so much—what a tragedy
 
that we are different species.” Meanwhile, why can’t my office
have a Mr. Huggy? He’d be there when we need consoling,
ready to be squeezed when the world gets hard and humiliating,
and every night a lucky colleague, each in our turn,
takes Mr. Huggy home.

  
HOBBY SHOW 

This is my scrapbook of food labels from the 6th grade. They came from all over the world– well, Pennsylvania . . . Norway– that was sardines. My 6th grade teacher, Miss . . . Miss Purpose—that was really her name— Miss Purpose believed everyone should have a hobby. She had lots of them herself. She went to a class where they molded and baked figurines and painted them. She showed us the things she made– mostly flowers and ducks. I guess in those days maiden ladies had to have hobbies so they wouldn’t get in trouble. She kept insisting we children should have hobbies, and she ordered us to have hobbies by some date in March or April so we could have a Hobby Show.

Of course, none of us had the kind of hobbies we could bring to school. Tony’s hobby was watching his older sister undressing. Johnny used to do dodge-the-old-man’s-beer-bottles every weekend. So she gave us suggestions. For some reason, postcards and food labels were big in the maiden-lady hobby world.
 

I couldn’t think of a display to go with my daydreams of world domination. So I had to cram for the Hobby Show. The night before, I tried doing a postcard album. But all I could find were reminders from the dry cleaners and “Special on Pork Chops” from the butcher. So late at night I snuck into my mother’s pantry and cut off all the international food labels– or at least the labels from Pennsylvania and Norway–
 

— oh, and Minnesota. I got a C minus for my unimaginative hobby. And I got hell from my mother for taking all the labels off her canned goods. For months she had to cook with random ingredients.
 

But here’s what I always remembered: Joseph DeMarco. He was only in our class a couple of months. Then they realized he should be in the special class they kept next to the boiler room, which we only saw if the teacher sent us to find the janitor.
 

He always tried really hard to do the right thing. So he figured out he was supposed to collect something. So he brought in a box for the Hobby Show and I asked him to show it to me. It was pieces of broken glass! I recognized a 7-Up bottle from a part of the label. It was green, of course. And he had clear glass and brown and blue, I suppose. Milk of Magnesia? I asked him what was special about these pieces of glass. He said– I’ll never forget this– “I found them. They’re pretty. It’s my hobby.”
 

Poor damn fool.  When he showed his hobby to the class, I stood behind him, and I showed my fist to anyone who was starting to laugh at him. That was my day to grow up a little.

 
JOHN’S QUEST 

John was one of the students who seemed to begin to think
the year he spent in my class. He called me in New York
when John Lennon was killed; I had presented Beatles lyrics
for analysis as poems, and he thought I’d have something wise to say.
I didn’t, but a few weeks later he came to our house for the weekend.
 

He told me of the old crowd: one never left his room
in his parents’ house, others took drugs and had dropped out
of college. John himself was getting his head together and worked
in a factory–selling drugs had gotten too dangerous; now
he could stop carrying a gun.
 

He wanted to thank me for opening up the world
to him and his friends. Sure, I said to myself,
who knows where they’d be without me? 

John didn’t seem to sleep; he stayed up with books
and Southern Comfort. On Sunday he took the New York bus
and encountered one of the city’s mythic figures:
you probably remember him, the blind musician
in Viking hat and cloak who sat by the CBS building.
 

John knew the encounter was important. 
He paid 25 cents for the man’s poems
and asked what he should do with his life.
The man gave him a card for a bar on 45th Street
and advised him to pay one of the girls
10 dollars for a blow job.
 

One way or another, the world gets opened up for us.                  

  
ADVICE FROM THE RABBI      
    
Boyiss, I am happy for this opportunity to speak with you.
Soon you will each be bar mitzvah and then . . .
will we see you again?
You have good intentions–the best intentions–but even the most pious,
the good boyiss who say they will come back to us,
well, we will see . . . . Saturday morning
you’ll be playing baseball, you’ll have saxophone lessons.
 

So I’m pleased that your teacher, Mr. Levine,
is permitting me to chat with you today.
 

Many boyiss–good boyiss, pleasures to their mothers, promising boyiss –
throw away their backgrounds; and now I’ll show you what
they come to.
 

Help me, Dovid, I’ll tack up this picture.
 

This picture that I am unfolding now, this is a shiksa.
A shiksa. You see: blond hair, blond with curls; a little button of a nose;
a bosom like Marilyn Monroe.
Study this diagram. This is a shiksa. You like her?
 

You like this . . . person? Mordecai Rubin,
you said yes–you like this person? This person,
which if you even touch your lips for one second even, to her cheek
next to its blond curls–even once–I guarantee you –
it will . . . break . . . your . . . mother’s . . . heart.
 

Enough? Enough said? Memorize this . . .
this shiksa. Think of your mother,
prostrate with a sick headache for many years,
ashamed to show her face on the High Holidays,
deprived of the joy of loving her grandchildren,
because of you. Because of your obsession with a shiksa.
 
So? Come, Chiam, help me fold up
this picture. We’ll practice now
the brochas.

 
PROF. EDITH MILLWRIGHT  

Before I retired to our old family home,
I taught at one of the excellent women’s colleges
in the western part of the state. Chemistry
was my field—rows of sparkling flasks
filled with bubbling acids and then cleaned
to a sparkle again. Over and again
for so many years.
 

Martha was the student who fascinated me.
It was her hair—light auburn in color,
almost ginger—very straight, very
long—and her eyes. They sparkled
when she smiled at you.
 

A year after she took my course, and after
many conversations, I told her of my feelings.
It was a spring night, the air so soft
you could wrap a breeze around you
like a velvet shawl. And, of course,
stars sparkling in the sky.
 

Martha was so mature and kind to me;
she said:
 
“If we become more to each other,
a day will come when something will change.
You’ll sit at night somewhere and remember,
and feel an emptiness.
 
“Or you can remember how we spoke on an evening
like this, when the world was ours to embrace.
We mustn’t risk losing that memory.”

                                               
And she was right.
 

ETHICS

When we moved up to the junior high for seventh grade, I was assigned to a homeroom that was some kind of catch-all. While all my friends and the high achievers were in other homerooms, mine consisted of everyone repeating seventh grade, all the hard-core discipline cases, several precociously mature girls, and boys who appeared to have some kind of mental illness.

Our teacher, Miss Baxter, seemed ancient. She was very stout and walked with a limp. The rumor was that one winter she’d broken her ankle on school property and couldn’t be forced to retire.

She divided the boys from the girls. No other teacher did this in 1955. Maybe it was prudent, since the boys on our side of the room kept saying what they wanted to do to the girls on the other side. Miss Baxter’s moral vigilance extended to sending any girl to the restroom to wash off her lipstick if she came to school wanting, in Miss Baxter’s words, “to look like a clown.”

Because of my place in the alphabet, my seat was at the back of the room, next to Buddy, a big kid who had stayed back at least once. He had a slicked-back d.a. haircut and the moves of a movie juvenile delinquent. He intimidated me, a studious non-fighter, so I acted as though I appreciated everything he told me. I was, in fact, in awe of his indifference to all that anyone tried to impose on him, especially Miss Baxter.

She wasn’t just our homeroom teacher. We had her for English five times a week—diagramming sentences and other useless exercises—plus four times a week of Literature, which was antiseptic 19th century writers. Knowing that Longfellow, Hawthorne, and Whittier had lived, like us, in towns near Boston didn’t make them interesting.

Also Spelling twice a week—and something called Vocational Guidance, which gave Miss Baxter additional opportunities to lecture us on how hopeless young people were, especially the sorry lot imposed on her. She didn’t say it openly, but we were the children and grandchildren of immigrants and therefore should have been trying extra hard to behave like civilized creatures, instead of the delinquents and degenerates we were in the process of becoming.

After hearing this message—explicit or implied, day after day, class after class— and wanting to fit in, even with the crowd I’d been tossed into, I struggled to be a bad character. I let my hair grow long enough to Vaseline into a d.a. and had my parents buy me a leather jacket. I wrote obscene rhymes for Buddy, including his name as protagonist opposite one of our classmates on the other side of the room.

Each minute with Miss Baxter was boring to the point of insanity—45-minute periods of sensory deprivation, waiting for the advance of the old clock on the wall, with its minute hand that clicked as a minute passed.

Memorization, repetition, copying notes from the blackboard, and sometimes the reading aloud of works we were told were good literature, droned aloud by my struggling classmates.

My family didn’t make waves, so no one complained to the principal’s office that I was in the wrong class. Every lunchtime, meeting my old friends from the other homerooms reminded me that the hell I was burning in was just for me.

Speaking of burning . . . . As winter settled in, the angle of the sun was low enough to shine through the big windows directly behind Buddy and me. Although it was 15 degrees outside, Buddy and I were hit by a force like a blast furnace aimed at our backs.

As the minutes of excruciating recitals from Tressler‘s English Grammar ground on, we felt as though we were—literally—baking. Finally I raised my hand and asked if I could lower the window shades. Miss Baxter gave a demented grin. “People pay good money to go to Florida to get warm,” she said. “Stop complaining.”

We continued to bake till the bell rang and we could escape to Mr. Whitman’s math class. But we’d be back to the same seats for Spelling in less than an hour.

Mikey, who had barely passed sixth grade, was my only friend in the class. After school one day, complaining to each other about the torments of Miss Baxter, we decided our only recourse was to hold a voodoo ceremony.

At Mikey’s house we sculpted a figure out of clay. We used cotton from the bathroom for her white hair, and Mikey found a flowered rag to wrap around her, like the flowered old-lady dress she wore every day.

We knew very little about voodoo. We dimmed the lights and drowned her in a pan of water. Then we stuck his mother’s pins all over her body. At the end, we pulled off her head.

This was exciting because we were susceptible to thoughts of magic and divine intervention. Everyone around us invoked God for everything that happened. Maybe we could cause magic to enter our lives—evil magic, of course, but Miss Baxter’s presence in our lives was evil that we didn’t deserve.

After a few days, since Miss Baxter wasn’t suffering or dead, we knew our voodoo wasn’t working.

Later that winter, one day when Buddy couldn’t stand being in school a minute longer, he went to the nurse’s office and said he didn’t feel well. She did what she always did, whatever the complaint, and stuck a thermometer under his tongue. Remember? You could taste the rubbing alcohol it soaked in.

While the nurse went back to her paperwork, Buddy was inspired to put the end of the thermometer on a hot radiator. She was suspicious when she pulled the thermometer from his mouth and it read a hundred and six.

So she sent him to the principal. Buddy decided he had some ammunition, something about Miss Baxter that would get her in trouble instead of him. As his witness, I was called to the office.
This had happened a few days before. Buddy came to school with two fingers in a splint and tape covering half his hand.

Miss Baxter was clumping her way up the aisle. We had to sit silently while she checked to see if we had our homework on our desks. She enjoyed giving zeros to those who didn’t, which was almost everyone.

When she saw Buddy’s bandaged hand, she quipped, “So the law caught up with you.” Then she recorded his zero and clumped her way down his row.

Buddy told the principal that Miss Baxter’s remark was: “So the Lawd caught up with you.” In the Boston area the vowel sound in “law” is the same as the vowel in “Lawd.”

It seemed to me that this would constitute a major crime. In a community where most people went to church every Sunday, even a public-school teacher with a legal dispensation from retirement wouldn’t be allowed to talk that way. Almost everyone was Catholic now instead of Puritan, but 300 years before, 15 miles away, didn’t they hang witches for this kind of thing?

The principal asked me if Miss Baxter had said: “So the Lawd caught up with you.”

I was faced with the biggest decision of my 12 years. Buddy was at risk, and he was pretty scary. Furthermore, getting Miss Baxter in trouble might free us of her for the rest of the school year. On the other hand, I’d heard Old Witch Baxter clearly, and I knew she hadn’t taken the Lawd’s name in vain.

Bearing false witness was one of those moral wrongs that could lead to some kind of damnation. Calling on supernatural intervention in a voodoo ceremony didn’t seem to work, but we heard a lot about God keeping an eye on our misdeeds.

Would I confirm Buddy’s version and get Miss Baxter in well-deserved trouble? Or would I do what was supposed to be the morally correct thing and tell the truth, which would get me on Buddy’s wrong side?

Every time I’ve thought about that day, I’ve regretted my decision.

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