Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

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The Hourglass

October 19, 2015

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“The more sand that has escaped from the hourglass of our life, the clearer we should see through it.” ― Jean-Paul Sartre

Seeing one’s life clearly is never an easy task, even as the passing years mount. I have entered a period of deep reflection brought on by the startling deaths of two friends and furthered by my recent birthday. Both of these heightened my awareness of mortality, and both prompted thoughts about my own life.

So today on this Evaluate Your Life Day, I shall attempt to do that in some small way.

My life has been that of a teacher. It has been my calling and passion for as long as I can remember and my reality since I have been an adult. But when I look back, I dwell on my shortcomings, and I am often filled with regret by thoughts of my failures and disappointment over what I should have done differently or better, even if those things were in actuality beyond my ability to change.

I think back to my Peace Corps days in the Philippines walking through the abject poverty of the slums of Manila and the outstretched needy hands I walked by, the total destruction of the typhoons that swept through the islands with little help forthcoming while I had a safe place to be and food to eat, the bare schoolhouses in the barrios filled with children who lived with no electricity or running water that I was supposed to be helping. I walked through the village in which I lived knowing that my $75 a month salary made me the richest person there. I should have done more.

I think of my early years teaching in Newark, thirty-five kids before me in the classroom with a dearth of materials, an idealistic young teacher knowing the bleak path that lay before so many of those wide-eyed youngsters living in tenements where often several children slept in the same bed, no desk at which to study, no books on a shelf to read, surrounded by alcohol, drugs, and violence. I found myself in a war against disadvantage and poverty. I should have battled longer.

I think of those students in Rutherford who I did not reach, the athletes on the teams I coached that I failed to help, the colleagues with whom I worked that I might have done more for. I think of the times I could have shown more patience, better judgment, a cooler head, or simple kindness but did not. I should have tried harder.

I feel the weight of each person I let down, and I am ashamed.

But in the wake of the recent death of my good friend and on the day of my birthday I received some wonderful messages from former students. I am grateful to them for their kind words for they lifted my spirits at a time when I needed it, and they filled my heart. I think they helped give me a perspective of my own life in a way that I could never do on my own.

One of them spoke of the common phenomenon of carrying things unsaid inside and how it sometimes takes drastic circumstances to finally articulate them. I understand this, for I have done it far too often myself.

On the occasion of my retirement, I wrote a letter in which I did articulate many of the unsaid things I kept within me through all my years of teaching. I repeat them now for they remain true, and though they may not be the evaluation I find so difficult to make even as the sand continues to escape my hourglass, they lay bare my ideals and the standards I held for myself. I can only hope I lived up to them at least some of the time.

Here is what I had — and still have — to say:

I have always felt unable to evaluate myself as a teacher or what I had or had not accomplished. I don’t know for sure what I did, but I do know what I wanted.

In my classroom I wanted to be Hendrix, Coltrane, Picasso. I wanted to be Holden Caulfield protecting children from harm as they wandered in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff, to protect the vulnerable and the innocent and relieve the pain that circumstance so often has inflicted upon them. I wanted to disperse the tenderness of those who give comfort in times of need.

I wanted my students to recognize the power, the beauty, the joy, the mystery of language. I wanted them to understand that those weren’t just words on a page, the drudgery of the school kid’s routine, but were the wisdom, the experience, the heart and spirit of another human being and that somewhere out there exists a story or poem or novel or play that will reach into them and shake their very souls. I wanted them to know that the sometimes seemingly futile search is worth it.

I wanted them to be exposed to writing of all sizes, shapes, and origins beyond those contained within school books, to know that there is a sea of possibility beyond the horizon they are used to. I wanted them to meet and come to know Atticus and Jem and Scout, Romeo and Juliet, Buddy and his dear old cousin not just as answers to trivia questions but as beings that exist within them.

I wanted those who sat before me to open their eyes, see the world as it was, as it is, as it might be. I wanted them to recognize that improving one’s own skills in the art of using our wonderful, wacky language will contribute to the ability to express the unique and invaluable perspectives of what they see.

I wanted school not to be fear and boredom, but enlightenment, acceptance, and in those best of times, magic. I wanted to be of service to others, to be useful, to make some kind of difference in this life.

And I still do.

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The Curious Incident of the Ninja Turtle in the Daytime

May 5, 2015

I first noticed him in the hallway in his fourth grade class line on the way to or from gym or the library. It was not easy to miss him. He was two heads taller than his classmates and probably twice as heavy. His clothes were an odd mix and match of tie-dyed t-shirts or flannels and corduroy pants pulled up too high, his hair an uncombed bush above his chubby face.

But it was not his physical attributes that set Jonas apart. He would be in another world even as he stood amongst his classmates in the noisy bustle of the school corridor, his eyes looking off to an unknown destination, his hands moving as if conducting some invisible orchestra, quietly talking or humming to himself.

He seemed to be a harmless gentle soul, kind of a giant lost puppy. I did not know at the time that he was autistic, but when I learned that fact, I was not surprised. However, there was nothing particularly eventful about his presence until Halloween.

The school day Halloween is celebrated — a Friday, in this instance — is one of the greatest days of all for an elementary school kid along with Christmas and the last day before summer. The air of excitement is palpable the whole week before with parties to be planned (who’s bringing in the cupcakes? the popcorn? the drinks?), tissue ghost decorations to be made, and costumes to be decided upon. Being in an upper grade class with the adolescents who were now too cool to be bothered much (on the outside, at least) kept me a bit insulated from the festive atmosphere, but when the younger ones were about, the mood was contagious.

Walking back to my room after lunch on the Big Day, I rounded the corner to see Jonas facing the wall and wailing uncontrollably, his face beet red. He was gasping for breath from crying so hard, tears virtually shooting from his eyes the way they do when small children bawl. He was rocking forward and back in his agony, hands flailing about wildly.

It stopped me in my tracks, so heart-wrenching was the scene. He was surrounded by several teachers, kind and caring ones I was glad to see, who were trying their hardest to soothe him.

“Don’t worry, Jonas, maybe we won’t have to serve detention today.”

“Everything will be all right. Just breathe slowly. Take deep breaths. It’s okay.”

The nurse arrived, and the last glimpse I had as I retreated down the hall to my waiting class was Jonas being led down to her office.

The school’s Halloween parade was scheduled for one o’clock in the playground, an annual affair accompanied by parents with faces buried in video cameras and “Ghostbusters” and “Monster Mash” blasting from the speakers brought out for the occasion. The upper grade teachers led their jaded teens to the perimeter to watch the proceedings. Try as they might to hide it, they too got into the spirit as the little ones came prancing out grade by grade: Power Rangers and Little Mermaids and hobos and Barbies and even a few homemade creations (a laundry basket, a milk carton).

I saw one of the young teachers who had been trying to help Jonas, and I went over to her to ask what had occurred. She told me how in his excitement about the imminent festivities he had misbehaved in his regular class and got his Name Put on the Board. In his mind he thought it doomed his participation in the much-anticipated afternoon, and he reacted accordingly. I asked if the crisis was resolved and if he felt better, and she reassured me it was and he did. Any lingering doubts I might have had about her assessment disappeared immediately, for at that very moment, out came the fourth graders, Jonas in the lead.

It just so happened that the line stopped for some group singing and photo ops right in front of my class. Jonas’s beaming smile reflected his unrestrained joy as he looked about him, oblivious to the program, just basking in the moment, standing there swaying to the music in his jumbo-sized Ninja Turtle costume as if it were all the ecstasy one could hope for on any given day. As his peers sang along, he would contentedly look at his costume, poking the Ninja padding on his arms as if in disbelief that he could be so lucky to be thusly attired. The huge smile never once left his face.

His emotional resurrection so filled my heart, I had to quickly wipe the tears from my eyes. As the line of children resumed their march and wound their way back inside, I thought of Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye and his desire to protect the children from harm as they played in the field wandering in their reverie too close to the edge of the cliff. I wanted Jonas and all the vulnerable and the innocent like him protected in the same way, impossible a task as it may be. I thought of the boy in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and the pain that autism and circumstance had inflicted upon him as well as the tenderness of those who watched over him. And I was glad that there really do exist such people who actually are real-life catchers in the rye, compassionate and smiling-in-the-face-of-adversity angels like those teachers in the hallway with Jonas that morning. I hope they are always around, just when they are needed, for there are so many Jonases in the world. Who else will give them comfort in their times of need? It is my prayer that one will always be there, just in the nick of time.

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No Ordinary Camps

February 19, 2015

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On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 was issued by the President of the United States. It authorized the internment (a less controversial term for imprisonment) of people of Japanese descent for the duration of World War II because of security worries. It had been considered by some to be a necessary precaution to be taken during a time of war. It is now considered to be one of the great miscarriages of justice in the history of this country.

The reason for this mass confinement on the West Coast had more to do with war hysteria compounded by racism, paranoia, and fear than it did any real threat. The 127,000 people who were incarcerated had done nothing wrong. They simply happened to be of Japanese heritage. They were small business owners and teachers and gardeners and stay-at-home moms. Not one crime had been committed. No spying at military installations. No sabotage of public works. No anti-American rhetoric. Sixty percent of them were American-born children and citizens of this country. Nonetheless, they were unceremoniously rounded up and shipped off to camps in remote inhospitable locations in Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Arizona, Arkansas, and California.

These were not the camps of our typical American memories. There was no making of brightly colored lanyards during craft time, no canoeing on a lake or splashing around along its shore, no fun-filled days of games and evenings toasting s’mores around a campfire. Instead these camps boasted cramped bare barracks, some of them former horse stalls with spaces in the walls where the brutal winter wind could whistle through. Rationed food and a minimum of coal to provide heat throughout the frigid winters. Overcrowding and a constant lack of privacy. A surrounding fence bristling with barbed wire and armed guards manning 30-caliber machine guns in watchtowers. Not just for two weeks either but all year long, for years on end, taken away from home, friends, and all that had been familiar.

The names of these camps are most likely unfamiliar to the vast majority of Americans who were not affected by this action: Manzanar, Topaz, Tanforan, Heart Mountain. Given the euphemistic name Relocation Centers, these were prison camps plain and simple, and the bitter memories of those camps and what they signified lingered for decades for those who experienced them. They echo still in their descendants who know the stories all too well. Unfortunately, the rest of America knows or cares little about this sad chapter in our history.

And why not, some would say. Let the past be the past.

The past is indeed the past, but its lessons must not be forgotten, for as we have seen all too often throughout human history, the past will otherwise repeat itself.

When I taught eighth grade English, I came upon a story in our literature anthology entitled “The Bracelet.” Written by Yoshiko Uchida who as a young woman had been one of those imprisoned, it told the story of one girl’s life during the internment. The distress caused by this abrupt uprooting of families and the difficult adaptation to their harsh new environment could be felt through the experience of this young girl as she tried to cope with the pain and confusion of an inexplicable injustice.

I was told by my supervisor not to use the story. Apparently the district felt that our fourteen year old students didn’t have the capacity to understand (or perhaps the recognition that they would). I used the story anyway; it seemed wrong not to. Hiding from the unsettling truths of the past does not eliminate them. Learning about them might help prevent future occurrences.

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The vast majority of the students knew little about that period of time. We examined together the mood of the country after the Pearl Harbor attack, discussed the newsreels shown in theaters across the country in the pre-TV era that portrayed the Japanese as ruthless killers, giving them a grotesque vermin-like appearance. We read articles that argued the pros and cons of imprisoning these people, including FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s own opposition to this action. I ended the unit with a persuasive writing composition in which the students could argue either for or against Executive Order 9066. The vast majority were against this mass incarceration.

This was the case each year until 2001 when this academic exercise took on a very real spin. After the destruction of the World Trade Center towers, a new wave of hysteria swept over America, only this time it was not against the Japanese-Americans. What followed was an often ugly reaction against Muslim-Americans (or anyone mistaken for them). I am quite sure that if a new version of Executive Order 9066 had been proposed, great support would have been voiced. The fact that the targets of this outcry had nothing to do with the attack mattered little. If you are a member of a group, you bear the burden of complicity for the action of any member of the group regardless of the superficiality of the connection to it. Such is the nature of stereotype. Suddenly the rational arguments took on a whole new meaning, resulting in a reexamination of what once seemed such an obvious conclusion.

I have no solutions to offer as I reflect on this latest anniversary of the imprisonment of the Japanese-Americans. I wish I did. I will note the following, though. The last prison camp closed in 1946. In 1988, the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law. This legislation offered a formal apology to the Japanese-Americans wrongly incarcerated. It took forty-two years to do so. Restitution was also paid, $20,000 to each surviving victim, this the price deduced for the loss of homes, businesses, dignity, and four years of their lives. The Civil Liberties Act is now displayed alongside the original Executive Order 9066 at the National Archives.

John Tateishi, a Japanese-American involved in the movement which campaigned for redress, said, “You can make this mistake, but you also have to correct it — and by correcting it, hopefully not repeat it again.”

Only time will tell.

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Christmas, Room 26

December 18, 2014

The Christmas season is one like no other. There is an infectious good spirit in the air, and for kids, an atmosphere of anticipation that is palpable. It is also a time of year steeped in tradition, and during my twenty-five years in Room 26, I came to institute several of my own.

That was the English classroom in which the eighth graders of Pierrepont School spent their agonizing days waiting for Christmas to arrive. Always a time of considerable rambunctiousness and lack of concentration, I thought about what lessons I could teach knowing full well that the battle for their attention would be fierce. I wanted something that would capture the humanity embodied in the Christmas season regardless of anyone’s religious affiliation or cultural background while still containing educational value.

At first I decided upon a story that happened to be in the literature anthology we used. “A Christmas Memory,” wonderfully seasonal, touching, and well-written, had all the qualities I wanted. The author happened to be Truman Capote, whom I knew only from In Cold Blood, a work most definitely not seasonal. I found out that this was the story of an episode from his own childhood, a time when his parents had left him to live in Alabama with strictly religious and somewhat cold-hearted relatives. The one exception was an elderly cousin, a woman who is written about with such tenderness even though we never even learn her name. Capote introduces her to the reader in simple but beautiful description (the point of the lesson, as far as the anthology was concerned):

“A woman with shorn white hair is standing at the kitchen window. She is wearing tennis shoes and a shapeless gray sweater over a summery calico dress. She is small and sprightly, like a bantam hen; but, due to a long youthful illness, her shoulders are pitifully hunched. Her face is remarkable—not unlike Lincoln’s, craggy like that, and tinted by sun and wind; but it is delicate too, finely boned, and her eyes are sherry-colored and timid. ‘Oh my,’ she exclaims, her breath smoking the windowpane, ‘it’s fruitcake weather!’

The person to whom she is speaking is myself. I am seven; she is sixty-something. We are cousins, very distant ones, and we have lived together—well, as long as I can remember. Other people inhabit the house, relatives; and though they have power over us, and frequently make us cry, we are not, on the whole, too much aware of them. We are each other’s best friend. She calls me Buddy, in memory of a boy who was formerly her best friend. The other Buddy died in the 1880’s, when she was still a child. She is still a child.”

Capote proceeds to tell how they went about making those fruitcakes, an annual enterprise that took quite a bit of time and effort, as well as their preparations for Christmas. During the many small adventures they encountered along the way, we come to know the heart and soul of this cousin well. On the surface this may sound torpid, but it is anything but. Such pure and simple beauty shines through both the words and the people who inhabit them. The relationship between Buddy and his friend resonates strongly for anyone who has had this kind of intimate connection with someone else, and I still remember passages from this story — especially the heartbreaking closing one —  to this day.

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Several years later, I discovered quite by accident another story that I knew I just had to use with my classes. We spent Christmases with my wife’s family, and while we were at my sister-in-law’s house, she brought out a book of Christmas stories with the idea that somebody should read one to enhance the Yuletide spirit. However, these stories from a collection entitled Children of Christmas by Cynthia Rylant were not the traditional ones I had expected. I thumbed through it and saw a title which drew me, “All the Stars in the Sky.” Since no one else had volunteered, I began to read aloud.

It was the story of Mae, a homeless woman and her three dogs (sadly only one of whom had a name), who had been on the street for so many years she no longer remembered her past. That included Christmas. Feeling poorly and in search of food, she stumbles into the unlocked door of a library closed for the night.

After finding food for herself and the dogs, she comes upon a Christmas display. She sits on the floor in the liquid light of a fish tank and sees a basket of books. She begins to look at them, first one with pictures about a snowman who comes to life and flies off with a boy, and then another:

“It has words, so Mae nearly puts it back down, but the pictures of the woman and the baby and all the stars in the sky hold her and Mae turns the pages slowly, curled into her cushion, and breathes deep and quiet, and looks.

Mae looks at every book in the basket while her dogs sleep. Every Christmas book in the basket.

Then she lays her head against Marty and she sleeps too.”

Some small ember still alive deep within Mae, some distant memory of her own childhood and Christmases past, is stirred even if Mae is not conscious of it. She leaves the library in the morning:

“Mae walks with her dogs, her stomach full, not sick anymore, and a sign in a store window says ‘Merry Christmas!’ but Mae sees only a snowman flying and a woman and a baby and stars and stars and stars.”

It brought me to tears as I read, voice quavering with sobs, startling my wife and sister-in-law, some deep well of emotion within me tapped by this story. I’m not sure why this was so. It has the same effect on me to this day.

When my students read it, I could see many of them felt the same way. I always asked them to answer a question about whether or not this story should be read by kids. A few of them said no because of its sadness, but the majority said yes. They believed it served as a reminder to those of us who have families and a warm home and people who care about us not to take those things for granted. That recognition alone made this lesson worthwhile.

One last addition was made to my December repertoire that became a real favorite both for the students and me: A Christmas Story. For years during breaks in our holiday dinner at my mother-in-law’s house, I had watched together with my young niece and nephew Jean Shepherd’s whimsical tale of childhood desire for the perfect gift. When I came into possession of a VCR copy, I immediately installed it as a permanent part of my pre-Christmas lesson plans.

It was perfect. It had the timeless humor of the misadventures of a kid growing up: struggles with the neighborhood bully, attempted manipulation of parents and teachers, stupid acts spurred on by the dares of a friend, and navigating the oddities of the various personalities surrounding us as we grow up. But there was also great tenderness between the very people who sometimes experienced a clash of wills, all of this in the delightful atmosphere of Christmastime in small town America.

My only worry was that my students would have already seen it. This turned out not to be the case. Some students were totally unfamiliar with it. Others had seen bits and pieces but never the entire thing. Those that had seen it in its entirety were enthusiastic about seeing it again. I understand why; I must have watched this gem scores of times and have never tired of it. Each Christmas I along with my now-grown niece and nephew laugh anew at so many of the unforgettable scenes: Ralphie’s bunny pajama present from his aunt, his father’s “major award” leg lamp with fishnet stockings, Ralphie’s first big curse in front of his father, Flick’s triple-dog-dare-caused tongue stuck to the flagpole, the dinner at the Chinese restaurant. Each vignette becomes a reference point to episodes in our own lives as we watch the trials and tribulations of Ralphie in his quest for that Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle. In spite of the time period of the story, so much has remained the same about childhood Christmases, and this story manages to capture it.

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I often wonder if my students remember any of these stories from back then, or if encountered again now do they recall their experience with them in my class. Even though I’m no longer in that room at this time of year, I still think back to those days sharing both the sorrow and laughter of Buddy and Mae and Ralphie in the spirit of the season, and at least for me, these stories we savored together are forever part of the fabric of my own Christmas memories.

 

 

 

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The Last Class

June 23, 2014

It is June. Summer weather is finally upon us. A perceptible shift in attitude can be felt as people’s vacation plans grow closer to becoming reality. It is a season of beaches and weddings and college students returning home. And, as it happens each year, it is when another high school class graduates.

This year, though, it is not just another class that is graduating. It is my last class, the one I had four years ago as eighth graders. This is the group of youngsters who helped me write the final chapter of my forty-year career in the classroom, and a special group it was.

It was a fitting class to be my last, one that left me with so many fond memories, one with so many unforgettable students — good scholars, creative thinkers, free spirits, and kind-hearted souls. And some of them were amongst the best young writers I’d ever taught.

This means quite a bit to me, and not just because I was an English teacher. Through their writing, I learned much about these developing minds as they struggled to make sense of this crazy world. I witnessed their growing sense of how they fit into it and the many possible paths that may lie ahead of them. I got to know them, and that is why I will remember them even as they move on into their futures.

I saved copies of many of their compositions, and looking back at them makes me both proud and happy. They wrote about a great variety of topics, often pushing themselves far beyond what could have been just one more school assignment. They put their hearts and souls into their words, writing about 9/11, what it is like to experience the injustice of prejudice, the true meaning of Memorial Day, how it’s not easy being green. They listened to me ramble on about the road to real learning, what John Dewey said and the kitchen table vs. the file cabinet. They visited the Little Rock Guys with regularity, depositing the results of their ruminations for me to marvel over. I hope they know how much I appreciated their efforts. I hope they know how much I miss them.

I was fortunate to be able to watch their continued growth through high school. Some of them became part of the track team on which I was a volunteer coach. Others continued writing for the school newspaper or in the literary magazine. Chance encounters revealed the many changes they had undergone, and I couldn’t help but think of the profound ones looming ahead as they become adults.

Part of me is saddened, for their departure is a symbol of my own. I had felt a connectedness to the school and the community that I’m not sure will remain. Tomorrow they will walk together one final time to receive diplomas and venture forth into the next chapters of their lives. I know that as they make their own way in the world, my last year together with them will fade in their memory. But in the end, I feel most fortunate to have had the opportunity to share, even if for just that short time, a part of their journey .

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What’s Love Got to Do With It

May 4, 2014

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May 6 is National Teacher Day, but most teachers will probably not be basking in well-deserved recognition. More likely they will be in the midst of preparing for their Summative Evaluations or reshuffling their lesson plans to accommodate the annual onslaught of standardized testing. But teachers can count on my salute, for as I observe the prevalent trends encumbering the profession with its proliferation of alphabetic interventions — DEAC, SGP, SGO, PARCC — I can only shake my head in dismay at the current state of affairs.

I am proud to say I was a teacher. For forty years I dedicated my life to the proposition that I could have a positive impact on the lives of my students and thus contribute to the greater good of society. During the course of those forty years I witnessed the growing imposition of bureaucracy on this noble profession. Well-intentioned though it may have been, it only served to erode the efficacy of teaching which is, at its best, a delicate art — a fine balance of content knowledge, facilitation skills, and most important of all, human caring.

The good teachers that I had worked with have often passionately expressed their disheartenment to me. So much of their time has been diverted from actual teaching to testing and documentation tasks that many feel powerless in their quest to get back to what really matters — the kids in their charge.

It saddens me to say that I’ve been hearing this kind of lament quite a bit. The educational pendulum has been swinging in this direction over the last several decades and dramatically so in the past few years. Hopefully it will swing back before it has too great of a deleterious effect on good teachers. Test scores and SGP/SGO pressure are anathema to the practice of nurturing the development of “the whole child” which has apparently fallen by the wayside. The narrowing of focus on “academic standards”  has sadly neglected those crucial aspects of children that will be important to them in their lives — self-esteem, integrity, creativity, a respect for real learning, tolerance, a strong moral compass — regardless of the career path they pursue.

I recently saw a piece on TV about this year’s National Teacher of the Year, Sean McComb of Baltimore. He is a thirty year old, eight years into his career, and his passion for teaching is thankfully still intact. It was said of him that he would “do just about anything to get his students fired up about learning.” In the course of his interview, he revealed that he had not been a stellar student himself. There had been struggles in his life — as there are in so many kids’ lives — that took precedence over school, in his case parental unemployment and alcoholism, but he’d had some teachers who showed they cared about him, and that made all the difference. They saved him by “shining a light into his darkness,” and it compelled him to pay it forward by doing the same.

When asked to describe his philosophy of teaching, he simply said, “Kids before content and love before all. My first task is to make sure that they feel loved and cared for and feel safe to take risks.”

What? No mention of SGPs? No testimony of test scores? Strange, but I do not recall hearing any mention of love and care from administrators at faculty meetings or Education Commissioners at press conferences or politicians discussing educational fixes in the halls of congress. Instead there is a litany of tasks that have little to do with the passion that is at the core of teaching and learning. What good are the cures proposed by those in power if they kill the patient? I am not opposed to accountability or evaluation, but both must be done in a common sense manner that recognizes the essence of good teaching, those very truths voiced by the Teacher of the Year.

Sean McComb humbly insisted that his award was not just for him but instead for teachers across the nation who put their heart and soul into their job. I’m glad he expressed this for there are indeed many who do what he does in anonymity, at least as far as the public goes. Not so for their students, all of whom know exactly what these teachers have meant in their lives, SGOs be damned. I know this because I see it taking place in the school at which I taught. My fear is that this love and care which is at the heart of good teaching will be squelched by some assembly line or “business” model that is more and more becoming the face of modern American education. And that would be a shame. I too was saved by teachers who cared, not by an SGO or standardized test score, and I hope that students to come can be exposed to that same possibility before frustration and stultifying bureaucracy drain the very life out of our best teachers.

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The Year of the Unknown

June 11, 2013

I know that “spring cleaning” is a time-honored tradition in many households, including mine. However, since I had been a teacher and a track coach, spring brought far too many distractions to be able to focus on that much-needed chore. Therefore I always tended to do it in the summer, a perfect season with plenty of time to devote to the major task of purging my perpetually cluttered (and thankfully always cool) basement. I have since retired, but old habits die hard, and so I recently embarked on my annual rummaging through piles of boxes as I always had done.

I tend to keep everything, which sometimes leads to the dreaded “hoarder” label, but I prefer to think of myself as an archivist. If ever there were a need to establish a museum in my honor, the job would require no more than the unloading of various containers. Everything is already organized and sorted. I do realize the more likely fate for all of this stuff is a trip to the junkyard, but I don’t have the heart to be the one to execute that action, inevitable though it may be.

The Archives

The Archives

There are cardboard boxes of many sizes and shapes as well as plastic tubs of all kinds. Inside them is the history of my life. Photographs and slides and old black and white albums. Brochures and maps and souvenirs from trips. Boy Scout badges and kerchiefs and paraphernalia. Childhood artifacts from a button collection to school artwork to a complete Viewmaster kit. Peace Corps memorabilia from the Philippines. Bric-a-brac saved from my parents’ house. Trinkets made over the years by my niece and nephew. Letters and notebooks and assorted scribblings of a would-be writer. And newspapers of all sorts. It was there, amongst them, that I found The Unknown.

My 1987-1988 school year was the year of The Unknown, an unforgettable year to be sure. This is far less dramatic than it probably sounds. The Unknown, you see, was the name of the school newspaper I moderated that year at Pierrepont School.

The Unknown

The Unknown? What kind of name for a school newspaper is that, you may ask? And why would it be such a big deal? Good questions, and they will be answered in due time. But the beginnings of the story of The Unknown started long before 1988.

I think I have always been a journalist at heart. Newspapers have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have lasting memories from my childhood of the Daily News spread out all over the kitchen table on Sunday mornings. I delivered The Bergen Record for many years during my youth. I keep folders of old newspaper articles of events both important and quirky, some now yellowed and crumbling around the edges. I could not part with copies of my high school and college newspapers (The Mighty Hi Times and The Setonian, the latter edited by the legendary Bob Windrem, recently of NBC news). Even now my morning would not be complete without the N.Y. Times and Star Ledger accompanying my morning coffee. And I mean the old-fashioned kind of newspaper, not the new-fangled electronic stuff. I want to feel the paper in my hand, hear the rustle of the pages as they are turned, smell the scent of newsprint. So when I arrived as Pierrepont School’s new eighth grade English teacher in 1985 and was asked to create some kind of elective, it was no surprise that I immediately seized upon the opportunity to start a journalism class.

Thus the Pierrepont Press was born. Or, more precisely, reborn. There had previously been a school paper which had become defunct, and I took it upon myself to resurrect it. In the subsequent years, the newspaper carried on even though the elective did not. It took on a life of its own, dictated by the interests and desires of the particular group of students involved that year. The paper was variously called the Pierrepont Press, Journal, and Post, but my favorite of them all was that year it became The Unknown.

The Best Staff Ever

The Unknown thrived under the direction of the best editorial staff I ever had. They had been very involved in the previous version, The Pierrepont Press, as seventh graders, so when their turn came to take over, they were bursting with new and different ideas about how to proceed. The enthusiasm of these students fueled the growth of this project. I was blessed with so many creative and hard-working kids who were open to learning all of the aspects involved, from photography to layout to production. My goal had always been to have any student who was interested participate in whatever way they could best contribute, to learn something about the process by which news is gathered and communicated to the public, and to have fun while doing it. And that they did.

There were the usual columns, of course, covering school news such as elections, dances, and special events. But there were also many creative and innovative ones as well. One such column, “An Inside Look,” asked an insightful question of both students and faculty. The editors did not steer clear of controversial issues; as a matter of fact, they felt those were the ones that were essential. “Write On” contained creative writing from staff members as well as the general student population, and a separate section called “The Young Edition” incorporated the creative writing of the lower grades. Something for everyone was included — “At the TV Set” (commentary about television shows), “What’s Your PIQ” (testing knowledge of the Presidents), the “Puzzle Page” (fun activities contrived by the staff), “Dear Dr. Sez” (an advice column with equal portions of satire and wisdom), “You’ve Got the Cutest Little Baby Face” (a contest identifying teachers’ baby photos), and “Cartoon Corner.” We sold them for twenty-five cents a copy to cover the costs of film and materials, and they sold out every single edition without fail.

And the name of the paper? This unique group wanted a departure from the ordinary — Press or Journal or Post just would not do — but no consensus could be reached, and after much discussion that elusive title remained unknown to us. “Hey, wait a minute!” someone suddenly exclaimed. And thus The Unknown was born.

Twenty-five years have passed since the final edition of The Unknown rolled off the press. The students I worked with are now grown, many with school-aged children of their own. I am still in touch with a few of them, I’m happy to say (Facebook does have some redeeming qualities). Several even turned out to be English teachers themselves. We spent so many lunches and after school hours together, working and laughing and arguing and brainstorming to create this most uncommon and exceptional experience. When I come upon these copies, my mind wanders back to those days, and a smile crosses my face. I know I will never forget this group and the joyful effort they put forth. The Unknown may have only existed in print for one year, but it will live on forever in my heart.

A Final Farewell, June 1988

A Final Farewell, June 1988