Then, I finally got to look behind the curtain…
This is the fourth of a multi-installment, highly nostalgic reflection on my 3+ decades in public education, both as a student and as a teacher. This is also the last "student" installment, taking the reader to the end of my days as a high school student. Please enjoy, and share your thoughts, memories and feedback.
Part One is here.
On the last day of my sophomore year at Liverpool High School, some friends and I celebrated by turning all of the desks in our homeroom upside down. I’m not sure why, but at that age, it seemed an appropriate way to celebrate. For this we were given detention, to be served the first available day that detention would next be held: Monday, September 9, 1985. The following school year. I never served the detention. That summer, my mother got a promotion, and she and my stepfather moved me and my sister to California. [Note: In 2008, I returned to Liverpool High School, and tracked down the teacher who had assigned the detention, a Mr. Ball. He was still working at the high school at that time. I apologized for “cutting” his detention, and a good laugh was had by all.]
My new school, thankfully, was replete with the same kind of wonderful cast of characters that I had left behind.
Mr. Ulrich’s chemistry experiments of making soap bubbles freeze, or dropping metallic sodium into water, were just about the coolest things many of us had ever seen. In my senior year, so enamored was I with chemistry that I was allowed to hang out, tinkering around in the lab, setting up and performing experiments independently from an old college-level Qualitative Analysis textbook. I even cleaned out, catalogued and organized the school’s chemical supply room. (I’m sure there must have been a good reason why there was an old glass jar with a corroded lid with a large charcoal-briquette-looking thing inside and a crackling yellowed label reading “Arsenic – 1969.”) Nowadays, I would imagine that liability issues would prevent any public school teacher from allowing a student that kind of freedom of access and experimentation. Besides, it is wholly against the progressivist ethos to allow a precocious student to segregate him- or her- self from the collective; his/her expertise, insight, intelligence, and effort belong to all students, because, you know, sharing is caring.
Mr. Mitchell was my choir conductor for both of my final two years of High School, and also the co-director of our 1986 musical Bells Are Ringing, in which I played five separate bit parts (including a singing Elvis-flavored walk-on that still gives me the shivers to think about). Mr. Mitchell’s style was a bit, shall we say, laissez-faire, but I had a great deal of fun (girls outnumbered boys in choir some 8 or 10 to 1 and I was finally at the age to really appreciate that). Plus, Mr. Mitchell never seemed to mind my sneaking into all the football games for free with the Marching Band by holding someone else’s instrument.
I wasn't initially in Mr. Wallach's U.S. History class; first, I was placed in the class of a Mr. Neely. I petitioned to leave the class after a few weeks. Why? So glad you asked... The first day of Mr. Neely's class, he spent the whole period talking about his vacation with his wife to Germany, and about how he had been to East Berlin (you young folks will have no idea what I'm talking about, I suppose). Turns out, he and his wife and answered "no" to the customs agents' question, "Are you bringing any American money into East Germany?" and, according to him, a search revealed some small change at the bottom of Mrs. Neely's purse, which precipitated a cruel and abusive three or four hours of detention and interrogation. This was why, he proudly intoned, we were going to say the Pledge of Allegiance EVERY DAY in his class, loudly and proudly, and we were going to be graded on how "proudly" we recited it. It was his way of striking back at those - direct quote here - "goddamn commie bastards." Each day, he would select one person at random to "lead the class in the Pledge." That person would recite up through "United States of America" alone, after which, the class would join in. The grade would be based on that first sentence. I knew I had to get the hell out (read my thoughts on the Pledge here), but before my transfer could be processed, I ended up getting selected. In what remains one of the saddest and most shameful moments of my life, I caved, and began a half-hearted recital (I still refused to say "under God," and didn't even mouth the words, but I'm sure Mr. Neely was too lost in ecstatic patriotic reverie to even notice). I got a C-. Where's a cilice when you need one? Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa...
Mr. Wallach’s American History class was intense, but fascinating. Most of all, I remember Mr. Wallach’s final exam – it was a series of short essays: on the situation in Nicaragua. We had not talked about nor studied this then-current event. But he provided us with a quantity of background information, some articles to read, and then asked a series of questions that required us to repurpose and apply concepts we had learned from throughout the year’s American History lessons to the current situation, and analyze it through those critical lenses, comparing events in Nicaragua to events that marked our own history. It was a brilliant and innovative test, and one that would surely be harshly cast in the glaring light of the Common Core’s beneficent brilliance and roundly demonized (it’s missing half of Bloom’s Taxonomy! How dare he!) But it has become the model, conceptually, for almost all of the major tests I have given, in any subject, throughout my teaching career.
Mr. Wallach himself was a riot. He used to show up to my English class on his prep period (I took English 12 Honors as an eleventh grader because the standard California English curriculum at that time was a year behind the standard New York English curriculum – their English 11 was American Literature, the New York State norm for English 10 at the time, but that's a matter for another blog) to show off his latest gaudy ties – twice as wide as any tie should be, and with color patterns worthy only of 1970s sofas and drapes. His appearances were welcome distractions.
Not because English was a chore – quite the opposite, in fact; Mr. Fischer’s English 12 was an incredible class, and Mr. Fischer himself was rather like a hybrid of Robin Williams’s Good Will Hunting character and Mr. Kotter. We analyzed characters in Hamlet and Antigone using Kohlberg’s scale of morality (why, I have no idea), filmed short movies of the Canterbury Tales (my group landed the Physician’s Tale; I played the accompanying music – my group’s video was shot silent-picture style – on an even-then dated Casio keyboard), and a group of friends and I were allowed for a day to turn the class into the totalitarian world of 1984. I even prepared a batch of Victory Cookies (I swapped the quantities of sugar and salt in the recipe; the cookies ended up pretty foul) and Victory Ade (a standard batch of Kool-Aid, but without the requisite cup of sugar; don’t ever try this at home, kids.) The students were instructed to eat on command, after paying due homage to our version of Big Brother. One student in particular scarfed down his rather welcome-looking cookie, only to realize how wretched it was; the full cookie partially chewed, he could do little else but look up helplessly as the Snacktime Facilitation Guards insured his proper enjoyment. He quickly, but appropriately appreciatively, reached for his cup of red punch, quaffing the whole thing at a draught. His eyes told the story of the realization of the mistake he had made. Of course, he didn’t dare object, as we had cooked up punishments for rebels far more grisly than even Stanley Zimbardo could have imagined. (Perhaps I exaggerate slightly.) It was, as they say in those commercials, priceless. I’m sure that in the modern climate, something like this would be seen as too extreme, and the teacher would almost certainly get into trouble for allowing students to do this.
My 11th and 12th grade math teacher, Mrs. Dillemuth, was an absolute treasure. She would host holiday parties every year at her rather spacious home, with an open invitation to all of her current and former students. Her parties were well-attended, with guests stretching back several years. A picture of how dedicated Mrs. Dillemuth was: Towards the end of the summer of 1986, she tripped and fell on her front porch, breaking both of her arms. She refused to take time off, however, and when the school year began, there she was, in front of the class as always, with both of her arms in wrist-to-shoulder casts stretched out in front of her, zombie-style. She had arranged for an aide to be placed in her classroom to handle the writing of class notes on the board (which the aide did simultaneous with Mrs. Dillemuth’s lectures and discussions, in impressive fashion), the grading of papers and, well, anything else that required arms or hands that actually worked. She did this for five or six weeks until the casts came off. She just didn’t want to miss her students. (I’ll claim a tiny fraction of the credit for that; there was a small crew of us who were juniors in her Pre-Calculus class in 1985-86 that were moving on to her Calculus class in 1986-87, and we were, if I do say so myself, pretty special.)
Once, a calculus classmate and I were incredibly frustrated by a homework problem for which we just could not seem to reach the correct answer. I only recall that it took a full page of intermediate steps to reach our incorrect answer, and we could not find the error(s). I also remember, for some unfathomable reason, that it was problem #20. Strange, the things the mind clings to. We asked Mrs. Dillemuth if we could go to the back of the classroom, where there was a long chalkboard, and try to hash out the problem together. She graciously allowed us to do so, and the rest of the class proceeded as normal, while we were off in our little world, trying to get mathematically unstuck. I don’t remember how it ended, if we figured it out, or if Mrs. Dillemuth had to come help us after class. I just remember the feeling of - and I never could have expressed it this way then - being allowed to work unimpeded by the artificial strictures of the class period, and appreciation of our teacher recognizing the value of what she allowed us to do, even though it might have been contrary to whatever she had planned for us for the day. I wonder if teachers are even allowed that kind of autonomy anymore, or would dare exercise it if they were.
Mr. Miller, my physics teacher, had the annoying habit of answering a question with a question. Usually, it was some version of “Well, what does your group think?” It was perhaps this (and the fact that he drove an old Peugeot) that led me and 13 confederates to T.P. his house at two o’clock one morning. Mercilessly. We celebrated our coup at a Lyon’s restaurant nearby (similar to Denny’s, but with less tacky décor, Lyon’s offered free refills on orange juice, chocolate milk and hot cocoa, which Denny’s did not; sadly, the last Lyon’s closed forever, in Sacramento in 2012) until well past four, and thought ourselves the lords of all creation. Later on, much later on, when I became a teacher, I found the wisdom of Mr. Miller’s “annoying” ways, and now am proud to say that, as far as teachers go, I am more annoying than most. I wonder if there aren’t some parents complaining somewhere that there exists a teacher like Mr. Miller who makes their children think things out on their own instead of giving them the answers or rubber-stamp passing them.
But Mr. Perlman, my twelfth grade English teacher, gave me one of the most unforgettable experiences of my high school career. As I had taken English 12 as a junior, the school literally did not know what to do with me during my senior year; after all, I needed four years of high school English to graduate, and I had had, officially, but three. I ended up studying with Mr. Perlman on a self-paced, semi-independent-study basis. I had a small stack of major pieces to read, and we would meet once a week or so in his prep period, just the two of us, to discuss them. Up until that point, I had never really had the experience of having “scholarly” conversations in one-on-one fashion (as opposed to participating in a class discussion with 25 other students) with an instructor. As advantageous as most educators will surely say large-group discussions are, and they are, no doubt, I found the level of focus and continuity – my ability to be able to explore one topic, one discussion, one angle, without a dozen other people raising their hands waiting to inject their two cents – delightful. I had always had positive relationships with (most of) my teachers, but Mr. Perlman’s was the one that actually crossed over into something like friendship, even though I was just 16 at the time. Seventeen years later, he attended, and even spoke at, my 2004 wedding. We just recently re-connected, five years after I left California to move back to upstate New York.
I have left out so many teachers in this waltz down Memory Lane, out of sheer necessity. But all this reminiscing has a solemn purpose: to contrast, in cruelly high relief, the side of public education I saw when I became a teacher.
Then I learned that I wasn’t in Kansas anymore…