Saturday, October 18, 2014

Teaching -- A Disciple of the Devil Teaches Literature
 
I look back upon my years as a public school teacher with gratitude.  They were fulfilling years.  I was dedicated.  I was permitted to excel.  Today, if I were teaching, I would probably leave the profession. 
 
I would resent being handicapped by lack of funding.  I would abhor being told what and how to teach.  I would excoriate the corporate and political toadies who attack school teachers, claiming they are the primary cause of mediocre-to-poor student achievement, hiding their real purpose, the privatization of public education. 
 
These critics maintain that teachers must be “held accountable,” as if in the past they weren’t.  Standardized test scores determine best a teacher’s effectiveness, they declare.  (Never mind the deleterious effects of poverty and parental disengagement)  If your students do poorly, you’re a bad teacher and should be fired  It doesn’t matter to them that experienced English teachers, for instance, can simultaneously activate thought processes and engage souls – essential accomplishments that standardized tests cannot measure. Why should a teacher have to waste valuable instructional time teaching to a standardized test so that he/she can survive?
 
I was extremely fortunate to have been employed 31 years by the Orinda Union School District.  I was a middle school English and occasional history teacher, mostly of eighth grade students.  Posted on the district’s current website is its 2013 California ranking: “On a 1 to 10 scale, all five Orinda schools received a statewide ranking of 10. This is the fifth consecutive year for all five schools to receive a ‘10.’” You would be correct in guessing that Orinda is an upper middle class suburban community.  It is located approximately two and a half miles east of Berkeley.  Parents expect their children to attend college.  Approximately 90% of them do.  Good inherited genes and high parental expectation contribute greatly to high public school district ratings. 
 
Ample financial resources are also a major contributor.  My colleagues and I used reams and reams of copy machine paper.  I created three-hole folder reading material booklets of short stories, poetry, plays, and excerpts of novels.  Standard usage drill, adjective and adverbial modifier placement, capitalization and punctuation exercises, student writing, spelling lists and vocabulary definitions, all sorts of subject matter tests: all of it I printed on copy machine paper.
 
I was able to order the purchase of class sets of hard-cover paperback books.  Imagine any financially strapped school district consenting to do that today!  The district trusted us.  It provided us ample resources that enabled us to excel.
 
I am extremely grateful that my administrators trusted my judgment.  Early in the 1960s, my colleague next door to me (Joan) and I requested that our school subscribe to “Literary Cavalcade,” a monthly publication printed then, I believe, by Scholastic Magazine.  The publication, geared for high school students, provided high quality short stories, plays, and poetry.  Our students read, along with other titles, Reginald Rose’s “12 Angry Men,” Daniel Keyes’s “Flowers for Algernon,” and William Peden’s “Night in Funland,” each a depiction of life that inspires insightful thinking and empathetic realization!
 
“Night in Funland” is an exceptional short story.  (http://www.amazon.com/Night-Funland-Stories-Literary-Cavalcade/dp/B001DKIPP8)  I didn’t think so at first.  Its two characters did not interest me very much and the story’s ending seemed pointless.  A father and his preteen daughter go to a carnival.  He is concerned about her health.  She persuades him to allow her to ride the Ferris wheel unaccompanied.  He watches her several times swing by and disappear into the night sky.  Greatly concerned, he tells the wheel operator to stop the ride.  He does.  She has disappeared.  Because the story had been printed in “Literary Cavalcade,” I suspected that there had to be much more to the story than I had recognized.  Reading it a second time, I discovered a number of clues that suggested an intriguing explanation for the girl’s disappearance. 
 
Each year thereafter every English class I taught read the story.  Beforehand, I told my students about my initial reaction and warned them that they, too, might respond similarly but that they should trust my reason for requiring them to read it.  After they had done so, I asked them to explain the girl’s disappearance.  I received answers that ranged from “she fell off” to “he was dreaming.”  The following day I had them follow along as I read the story aloud.  I encouraged them to speak up when I read something that they thought might be helpful in interpreting the story.  Throughout, I kept my interpretation to myself.  Student responses were such that I usually needed three class periods to complete the second and sometimes a third reading.
 
By the end of the second reading it was clear to most of them that there was more to the daughter’s disappearance than that the father was having a bad dream.  Illness was clearly an important factor.  His extreme concern for her health was repeatedly demonstrated.  Early in the story we were told that he had promised to take her to the carnival after she had recovered from her illness.  Eventually, a student would venture that her disappearance represented her death.  That produced a new direction of thinking.  He had promised to take her to Funland when she was well, but she had become worse.  The Ferris wheel was the wheel of life.  Her rotations between being seen and disappearing represented her final moments of life.  Assuming this to be true, what then was real, and what was imagined?  The trip to Funland, delusional?  Beneath the carnival story, pushing its way through the father’s denial, in distorted forms, the real story?  At the end of the story -- the father’s anguish – recognition at last that his daughter had died?
 
Besides subscribing to “Literary Cavalcade,” the district purchased specific works of fiction that Joan and I wanted.  In the 1960s our classes read Marjorie Rawlings’s “The Yearling,” John Steinbeck”s “The Pearl,” and George Orwell’s “Animal Farm.”  Later, our best classes read Harper Lee’s “To Kill a Mockingbird.”  I had the district buy a class set of “Three Plays by Horton Foote” (published in 1962) to use Foote’s adaptation (which I had seen on television) of William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow.”  (The adaptation would be made into a motion picture starring Robert Duvall)   Having my students develop an understanding of and empathy for people less fortunate than and far different from their parents and themselves was a primary objective.  Years later, for that reason, my top classes read Richard Wright’s autobiography “Black Boy.” 
 
Additionally, upon my recommendations, the district purchased class sets of quality juvenile fiction including Robert Lipsyte’s “The Contender,” Glendon Swarthout’s “Bless the Beasts and Children,” and Cynthia Voigt’s “Dicey’s Song.”
 
One book that I have not mentioned is Dick Gregory’s autobiography “Nigger.”  I assigned two of my classes to read most of it in December 1972.  A father of one of my students interfered.  I was called into the principal’s office to meet the man and hear his objections.  The first question he asked me was “Are you a Christian?”  He was a strict fundamentalist.  Not only did he not want his daughter reading Gregory’s book.  He didn’t want anybody else reading it.  I told him I would be happy to substitute another book for his daughter to read but everybody else would read the autobiography.  He demanded that the school board stop me.  He submitted examples in the book of what he considered to be inappropriate language and behavior.  I was provided the opportunity to respond. 
 
Dick Gregory was a comedian and civil rights activist in the 1960s.  Because he had appeared on television, white people like me knew about him.  He had grown up in East St. Louis in abject poverty and had managed to carve out a career as a comedian prior to 1963, the pivotal year of the civil rights movement.  Because he was a black celebrity, he had been asked by movement leaders to participate in demonstrations in the Deep South.  I wanted my students to experience vicariously the racism that he had endured growing up and appreciate the efforts of movement leaders to achieve for their race social advancement.
 
The father’s objections were mostly about specific language that Gregory used.  “Goddamn” especially offended him.  I opened my defense with this statement. 
 
Mr. … has objected to the use of ‘Nigger’ by Dick Gregory in our schools on religious grounds.  For this reason alone his demand should be rejected.  One’s own adherence to a religion and interpretation of scripture must never influence the curriculum of and material used in a public school.  The reasons are obvious and need not be stated here.  Since he may cause some people now to question my judgment in using this book, I will, however, comment on all of Mr. …’s exhibits, the merit of ‘Nigger,’ and the value of one of the two books he has suggested as substitute reading.”
 
The father had provided several “exhibits”: examples of what he believed were foul language.  I answered his exhibits first with questions.  Examples:
 
“Is this scene significant to your understanding of Richard’s condition of existence or is it included only to excite the reader with crude language?”
 
“Are the ‘bad’ words here used unrealistically?  Do they seem part of the natural expression of the people speaking?’
 
“Why is the father, at one time good-natured, then suddenly violent, then remorseful, and then proudly defensive of his wife?”
 
“Which more effectively makes the point – a textbook statement that American society places so many restrictions upon the black father’s attempts to fulfill his responsibilities that many abandon their families and their responsibilities, or this specific example of it and its effects upon the members of his family?”
 
I categorized the words that the father had cited.  The first category included words like “damn,” “hell,” “ass,” and “pee.”  49% of the words the father objected to I placed in this category.  The second category included “bitch,” “bastard,” goddamn,” and “bullshit” -- 35 % of the words the father listed.  The third category featured words identifying the sex act.  16% of the words the father objected to fell into this category.
 
I provided context. 
 
It was “too cold to study in the kitchen so I did my homework under the covers with a flashlight.  Then I fell asleep.  And one of the other five kids must have peed on it.”
 
After a joke that Gregory had told a white audience: “Wouldn’t it be a hell of a thing if all this was burnt cork and you people were being tolerant for nothing?”
 
Thinking of his fear while walking alone through a Southern town at night after a day’s demonstration, Gregory wrote: “And I thought about [what President Roosevelt said] that there was nothing to fear but fear itself, and I said: ‘Bullshit.’”
 
Afterward, I wrote these comments:
 
“Words like damn and hell used 25 times in 209 pages of reading matter seem harmless when I consider the experiences that Mr. Gregory speaks about and the reasons for their use.”
 
“Most of the words in class two are used because of strong provocation or by people who are intended to be looked upon unfavorably by the reader.  How can an author portray accurately a despicable person by withholding part of that which is despicable?  How can an author present an ugly but important condition of existence without presenting the people that make it so or are destroyed by it?”
 
“Class three words appear eight times in the book.  On seven of the eight occasions the people using this language had provocation.”
 
“I am … surprised that Mr. … finds more objectionable a word or expression than the action or condition which caused it or of which it is a part.  Example – p. 171.  Mr. Gregory is involved in a civil rights demonstration in Greenwood, Mississippi.
 
     “The police seemed disorganized.  They tried to break us up again and one of them shoved a woman pretty hard.  She stumbled and smashed her head against a brick wall and fell on the sidewalk.
     “One of the SNCC workers couldn’t stand that, and he turned on the cop.  They dragged him off into a police car, and five cops climbed in after him and started working on his head and stomach.  One of the cops was saying in a loud voice, mostly for the benefit of the other demonstrators; ‘George, gimme ma knife …  I’m gonna cut the balls right off this little nigger, he ain’t never gonna do nothin’ no more.’”
 
“Which deserves more censure – a particular condition of existence or action that is cruel and dehumanizing or a word or expression from a person involved?”
 
Concluding his written presentation, the father gave specific reasons for wanting the book banned.  I answered this way:
 
“Who is Mr. … to say that any person’s life must have at its highest purpose pleasing God?”
 
“Who is Mr. … to say that Dick Gregory’s words and actions indicate he is not following the commandment “Love your neighbor as yourself”?  How can this be said of a man who in the contents of this book tried to help juvenile delinquents in Detroit, performed before convicts in prison, fought against discrimination in the North, co-sponsored the delivery of 14,000 pounds of food to poor blacks in Mississippi, initiated the release from prison of a black man whose crime was attempting to enroll in an all-white university in Mississippi, and risked his life many times in demonstrating his opposition to Southern racism?”
 
“Who is Mr. … to suggest that children be sheltered from what is wrong and unjust in society?  It is a cruel fact that many of our problems persist in large part because of the lack of awareness or apathy of a large segment of our population.  How can you correct much less want to correct problems when you don’t know what they really are?”
 
“It is clear to me that Mr. …’s religious convictions will not permit him to see beyond certain words, phrases, and incidents to assess, as thirteen and fourteen-year-old students do, what is truly significant.”
 
I went on the state what I believed to be the merits of “Nigger.”  The superintendent of schools and my principal were pleased with my rebuttal.  The school board appointed a committee of several objective-minded, respected residents of the community to read the book and present their opinions.  These individuals sided in my favor.
 
This bizarre experience had two ironic outcomes.
 
First, after my classes had finished reading “Nigger,” all of the paperback copies were placed in the librarian’s safekeeping until the school board reached its determination.  The next fall I decided to use the autobiography but found that, due to the dilapidated condition of the books, the librarian had thrown away all but three or four.
 
Second, the father at some point during our dispute stated that he wanted to “bring down the wrath of God upon Mr. Titus.”  In his eyes I was a “disciple of the devil.”  Near the end of the Christmas vacation I strained my back and shortly thereafter contracted pneumonia.  I missed about two weeks of school.
 
Try as I had to divert student attention away from the man’s daughter, I wonder to this day how much embarrassment and anxiety the girl must have felt during those several weeks of strife.
 
Speaking for my colleagues as well as for myself, thank you, Orinda Union School District, for making a career teaching your community’s children such a fulfilling achievement.