Tuesday, April 6, 2010

A sometimes teacher takes a reading on his former students...and himself


I was between editing jobs 10 years ago, when I shook hands with a guy in a bar in the East Village and said I’d love to give it a try, to teach mostly minority junior and senior boys English at a lower-rung Catholic high school. The guy, 25 years younger than I, was head of the English department and we’d met in that bar to feel each other out. He was in a hurry to find a teacher. I’d seen an ad for the position on some do-good web site just the day before. It was late September and the teacher who’d started the year had--already--not worked out. He’d had real problems with discipline. But I was not worried or anxious about that, I said, over beers. I couldn’t wait to get started.

I had taught before. 30 years earlier. In 1969 I was fresh from college where I’d been married just before my senior year (a not that unusual occurrence back then; the Vietnam war intensified experiences and hurried along decisions, in a kind of ‘tomorrow is promised to no one’ way. My wife couldn’t come to my graduation; she was back in our off-campus apartment, in bedroom slippers, with our week-old daughter). And I then certainly didn’t want to go to Southeast Asia as a soldier. I didn’t even want to get in the National Guard. The only way I could figure to get out of being called to the regular army was to teach school.

Teaching was something I’d never really considered before then. As much as I liked books, and kids, and as much as I wasn’t cut out for the business world that my father had been a big success in, teaching seemed to me then like a Hush-Puppies, lunch-in-a-brown-paper-bag world, with no appeal to me.

But as graduation neared, I changed my mind. Teaching, beyond the certain deferment status it would give me, began to seem like the movie I wanted to be in. I had lined-up a job as a fifth-grade English teacher in an inner-city Catholic school in Cleveland where my wife was from. (I was from a rural western New York State small town that offered no prospects for teaching jobs; offered no prospects, period, other than an eventual job running my father’s [and grandfather’s before him] business, something I definitely didn’t plan on doing.) I was eager to teach in a gritty, urban school. It was just the thing for those times. And I already had all the gear. I had a corduroy sport coat, long hair, and a tan VW bug.

I loved the setting, the students (all Black), the fellow teachers. I read all the books about free schools, and devoured books and magazine articles about various radical approaches to teaching. I played basketball with the 8th graders in the gym after school. Many afternoons I’d go out for beers when classes ended with the other white male teacher; he was also there for a deferment.

I stayed in teaching for six years. While I had, during that first year, been called for an army physical and been given a medical deferment for bronchial asthma, which I really didn’t have (letters from my small-town doctor, making more of my chronic hay fever than was justified, must have allowed the military doctor to excuse me, a lucky white boy, from consideration), I decided to stick with teaching for the six years that I had planned to ‘use’ the profession to keep me out of the war. And, not to take too much credit for altruism, I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. Besides, I thought I was pretty good in the classroom. Even if I didn’t remedy what became shockingly, sadly, frustratingly apparent to me: Most of the kids in the school had a very difficult time with reading.

But let’s come back to my second attempt at teaching, at that boys school here. And let’s call it my second chance. Because in the intervening 30 years, I’d felt a little uneasy with how I had, in the na├»ve, idealistic way of those times, maybe not done all I could to actually teach those kids to read. I had, like many, if not most, young teachers back then, in inner-city schools, done everything but wear a dashiki, to ingratiate myself to the Black students. I wanted them to love me. I needed to be one with them. My white guilt over-rode my obligation. I was trying to learn from them.

So when I began my second chance as a teacher, I wanted to make amends. I was determined to take pains to teach the young men I’d meet in my classes the beauty of reading.

I festooned my classroom with cool-looking-to-me dust jackets of books I thought they’d like. I filled plastic milk crates with all kinds of magazines I’d scavenged from twined, about-to-be-recycled bundles outside apartment buildings all over town. Sports Illustrated, Rolling Stone, Vibe, XXL, Time, Architectural Digest, People, Slam, Entertainment Weekly. Even Vogue. Anything to let them see that heat rose off a page. That they weren’t limited to TV and headphones. That reading was better than just sitting and staring, or, as too often happens in school, putting their head down on the desk and sleeping.

Out of my own pocket I went up to Strand and bought multiple copies of paperback books I thought we’d like. Drown by Junot Diaz, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer. I read out loud to them. I gave them free time to read on their own. The magazine crates were kept neat and were replenished frequently, and they could read them whenever they had time. I gave them lots of time. Sometimes, when they’d all have a book or magazine in front of them, the room was quiet in that great stimulating way. My eyes watered a few times.

I caught shit from the authorities, of course, when one of them would walk by and notice the silence. They’d poke their head in to see what was going on. They didn’t like what they saw. They didn’t see the value in the kids reading magazines and books of their choosing. They were shocked, I know, to see me reading too. They wanted worksheets and vocabulary drills. They wanted what they were used to.

The kids were terrible readers. All those years of worksheets and underlining adverbs and answering questions at the end of the story in big, heavy anthologies, hadn’t helped, as far as I could see. The kids could not read easily; some hardly at all. And yet the school was going to see to it that almost all of them got into some college. That seemed crazy to me. The standards and the state tests and the college admissions departments had to be kidding. These kids could barely read. And the kids knew it. They didn’t want to read out loud. They didn’t want to write either. How could they write well, if they couldn’t read? How could they do anything in school really, other than a few of them who could draw in art class, without knowing how to read?

What must it be like in the public schools? I wondered. It had to be even worse. I grew cynical. I still am. I don’t trust any of the numbers in the paper. I don’t trust the tests they take. I don’t trust the authorities. Once I told the seniors that if a group of freshmen from Harvard came to town and they were paired off with you guys for the weekend, you’d find that you could beat them at just about any sport. You‘d be stronger than they are. Your teeth would be straighter. You could sing better. Be funnier. Know how to get around the city better. Find drugs for them. Finds girls. The only thing they could do better than you is read.

I don’t know if that made a dent. I don’t know if anything I did that year did. I know I left with a big impression. The kids, 30 years later, couldn’t really read any better than Mattie Townes or Howard Smith or Julio Taylor or Leon Anderson or Janice Troulierre or Jerry Watts or Loretta Hight or Joseph Pollard or the other kids in the 5th grade at St. Agnes School on Euclid Avenue in Cleveland, Ohio in those wide-eyed, hopeful years when young men in Volkswagens thought they could change the world.

Photo Caption: My attempt. Some of the magazines I brought to class. I hope it worked.

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