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Three score and ten or more

Tuesday, December 06, 2005


I have been thinking it over, and have concluded that, other than whining about how the  distance from almost every public place to the closest restroom is always too far, that there is perhaps a place when one is over three score and ten years old,  for demonstrating some perspective relating to NOW, and BACK THEN.  While standing backstage at A Christmas Carol (for one of the few moments I wasn’t ON stage, I overheard a cast member who is a recent recruit to the teaching ranks comment about how much more difficult student discipline is than it ever was before. (I am sure he picked that up from some Education class, and, thanks to a generic tendency on the  part of many parents nowadays to blame the teacher for everything, there is a kernel of truth in it).  The truth is, that for the most part it just aint so.  I can give you one example from the beginning of my teaching career, extend that a bit and let you draw your own conclusions.

My teaching career began in a relatively small city in Idaho named Twin Falls.  It is a wonderful city, and the high school there was, for me, a wonderful school, and I am still a bit non-plussed  about having made the decision to leave there to go get my Master of Fine Arts degree.   I was a teacher of Speech (now generally amplified to Speech Communication, as if all speech isn’t at least an attempt at communication) and Drama (my real enthusiasm).  It is a given, that for many in the schools, Speech and or Drama are/were frequently regarded as, what we called, “gut courses.  (The place where you send a student who can’t cut it in regular English classes).  It is easy to disabuse students of this concept, and you can judge your success, when you first start, by the number of apparent dipsticks who quickly drop your course.  The fact remains that academic advisors (faculty) tend to send those who can’t cut it to Speech, as if it were Underwater Basket Weaving, or some related course.

My first Speech class had a fair supply of those who had been shunted there (I found out later that students used to enjoy making my predecessor cry).   In my very first class, I turned to the board and wrote my name thereon, only to hear a loud voice behind me say, “F##k yourself Johnson.”  I turned, and shouted “Who said that?”, only to see a young man with a black leather jacket, with a buzz cut on top of his (probably bleached) blonde head, curls above his ears and carefully spaced spit curl bangs across his forehead waving his hand casually at me.  (It is important to know that some rules in school were slightly different in 1959 than they are now, and that in our classrooms, each room had two doors, side by side, that opened in different directions- one out, and the other in).  I stormed down the aisle, grabbed the miscreant by the seams in his black leather jacket and jerked him up out of his seat.  When my hands reached my head level and I realized that his feet were not only still on the ground, but his knees were still bent, and that his shoulders were, perhaps, four inches wider than mine (as I looked up at them) I quickly drew the conclusion that perhaps my movements had been both premature and poorly chosen.   Wondering what my fate would be if he chose to resist, I shoved him up against the out-opening door, pushed it open and shoved him out into the hall, and sternly said “Don’t come back without a note from the Principal.”  I then closed the door and said (in my mind only) “Please!!!!”.  I was not small, but, had he chosen to, he could have dribbled me down the hall like a basketball.

He didn’t return until the next day, when he returned with a note from the Principal informing me that he could return to class and was on detention for several days.  Apparently Gary (we will call him Gary Jones for the moment) had told the Principal approximately what happened and had apologized (or something).  From that moment, for the next month or so he was an acceptable, if not really enthusiastic, student who did some of his assignments, sloughed others, and fit generally into the mainstream.

A couple of months later I was “asked”, (read drafted), to be the chaperone at one of the school dances, which was held in the school cafeteria.   The dance went on for an hour or so.  If I remember correctly there was a pretty good student band fronted by a student named Gary Puckett,(who later became a well known singer nationally with his band, Gary Puckett and the Union Gap—He was NOT the Gary of this tale).  Suddenly a panicky looking young girl came running up to me to tell me that there was a fight out behind the cafeteria.  I ran outside to find about a hundred students standing in a circle.  Within the circle was standing my old friend Gary Jones, facing another black leather jacket clad young man, of about his same size.  They each had switchblades (or some other long narrow blade knives with eight to ten inch blades).  With more guts or stupidity than common sense, I walked up almost between the two and shouted (and I CAN shout) “All right you two, break it up and get out of here before I call the police.”  The other young man disappeared almost in a flash, but not Gary.  He faced me, and mumbled something that I can’t remember in a voice which made me clearly aware that he had been drinking something much stronger than the high school punch.  He then moved in closer to me and began, sort of, randomly thrusting his knife toward me.  This probably only lasted for twenty or thirty seconds, but to me it seemed interminable, hours maybe.   Finally I looked at Gary and told him that if he was trying to scare me, he had succeeded,  I was so frightened, I thought I might wet my pants, and that I couldn’t take it any longer.  He had better, I told him, stick that knife in me in front of a hundred witnesses, and reconcile himself to a long prison term, or put the damn thing away and get out of there.  He looked stunned for a minute, backed up and then folded up the knife and went away.   In retrospect, I did it all wrong, I should have called the police the minute I saw that knives were out, or I should have at least called the police after it was over, but I didn’t.  I just told the students around to break up the crown and get back in the dance before I started taking names and giving detention.  As close as I could see, they broke it up and went back, and that was the end of it.

The next Monday , Gary came early to class (He was in a first period class).  I don’t mind telling you that seeing that great hulk in the door was not one of my best moments.  He came in and said (roughly), “I’m really sorry for Friday night.  I was drunk out of my mind, and didn’t even know who you were at first.  I would never pull a knife on you.  You are the only one around here who doesn’t treat me like an idiot, a@@hole, juvenile delinquent, and I think you’re pretty cool .  I will really try to do a lot better”.

From that moment on, he was a changed man in class.  He worked hard (didn’t get great grades but. . . ) and I don’t think anyone had much trouble with him till he went to a basketball game in December, and as the opposing team was leaving the floor for halftime he stood up and broke a full whiskey bottle over the head of one of the opposing players. (He actually may have only tried to, but the result was the same).  Gary then left the confines of our school, and I suspect that he continued whatever education he got in much more restrictive circumstances.

This is as much space as I have, but I will have to tell you about directing the play Rebel Without a Cause in that school.  It was a story in itself, but I have to come up with a lot of phony names to avoid --- well, whatever you avoid with phony names.


At 3:04 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

What a wonderful story. I was just about to take a cat-nap and I saw your comment on my blog and popped over here. Glad I did. Have you ever read Right Wing Prof's teaching stories? Well he was a college prof and they're a bit more depressing.

At 3:05 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I mean his stories are depressing - not college profs although some of them can be too.

At 5:51 PM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

Well, after a few years teaching high school, I starte teaching college (not quite forty years.)

At 7:56 PM, Blogger Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

Then you might be able to sympathize with the Prof.

At 2:58 AM, Blogger Davo said...

I admire your fortitude. I chickened out. Spent 9 months at Teacher's college (primary), then we were given 4 weeks 'prac' (practical) teaching in a real classroom. After the third week, I looked at the 40 kids and thought 'sheesh, there is only three kids here that want to learn and those are the ones I relate to.' Not the most appropriate attitude for a teacher in a public school, so I gave it away. (Well, the more accurate version is that I was involved with a theatre group that took up most of my time, and preferred that to teaching, so got booted out.. but that's a long story).

At 5:57 AM, Blogger Ed Abbey said...

Excellent story. I know I can relate to Gary from a person I knew I high school.

At 7:35 AM, Blogger Saur♥Kraut said...

What an impressive story.

I quickly drew the conclusion that perhaps my movements had been both premature and poorly chosen. I really laughed over this.

I have the same reckless stubborness that you seem to have had. So far it's paid off, but there have been times that I've asked myself "What was I thinking???" Glad you survived to tell the tale. ;o)


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