Monday, June 13, 2011
RETURN OF THE NATIVE: PART II
As a student at Strong Vincent, I had been sent to the office for disciplinary action on more than one occasion. Would things be different now that I was a teacher? Hardly!
I was assigned a girl's homeroom in the girl's gym. Those were the days of gender segregated homerooms and gym classes, and also a time when girls wore dresses and skirts to school. The girls sat in the bleachers and I was down on the floor looking up and taking attendance. You can imagine what kind of a view I faced every morning.
One morning all home room teachers were given a district form to fill out and turn in to the office. On that form we were to classify our students as being either white, black, red, brown or yellow. As far as I was concerned, it was an utterly ridiculous survey, serving no discernable purpose whatsoever. Consequently, I didn't complete it or turn it in. And that resulted in my first summons to the office as a teacher.
I walked into the school office where the secretaries were at their desks working and Mr. Lubowiki was standing behind the counter. No one else was in the office at the time.
"I hope you brought your completed form with you," he said.
"No I didn't because I find it doesn't really make any sense. You see…"
"I don't want to hear it. It's not my form. It's from district. If you have a problem, call the superintendent. The phone is right there on the counter. The phone number is on the sheet next to the phone."
"Okay," I said as I walked over, picked up the phone and dialed the downtown office. The secretary answered the phone. I identified myself and asked to speak to Superintendent Joseph Zipper. Amazingly, he took the call.
"This is Dr. Zipper. What seems to be the problem?"
"I'm not sure how to fill out the district form asking us to categorize our students in terms of color."
A long pause followed. I glanced up to see that the office had stopped, as everyone stared at me in disbelief. I heard Zipper's voice asking, "Are you serious? Is this some kind of a joke?"
"No sir, I'm dead serious. I have what appear to be white students who have either a ruddy or swarthy complexion that confuses me. I have brown students who perhaps would be classified as black. And it is even affected by the weather. On sunny days, some students look different in color than on cloudy days. I honestly don't know…"
"All right I've heard enough!" he said in an angry voice. "Where the hell did you go to college?" he asked.
"Grove City College, sir," I responded.
"Well, they didn't do a very good job of educating you. Did you ever have a course in anthropology?"
“No, Sir, I haven’t.
"Well, that's pretty obvious. If you had had such a course, you would have learned that white people come from Europe, black people come from Africa, brown people come from the Philippines, yellow people come from China and red people are Indians. Now just do what you're told and fill out the damn form."
With that he hung up. Probably a good thing that he did, too, because I was about to tell him that I thought they were all born in the USA. Those were the days when I was truly free: no kids, no house, no responsibilities and jobs were a dime a dozen.
I looked over to Mr. Lubowiki. Even he had a smile and mentioned something about a brass monkey. I completed the form in the morning. I had made my point.
There is one other incident that occurred that year that I should mention. It was a warm spring day in May and the classroom windows facing Eighth Street were open. The students were working quietly at their desks. Suddenly, a loud voice pierced the warm air and intruded upon the quiet classroom: "I hate this f**in' school!" It probably came from a student who had just been suspended and was leaving the building.
No matter, the entire classroom paused as students looked up to see my reaction to this word that was seldom used when we were in high school, but whose usage exploded during the 60’s. I said nothing.
"Did you hear that, Mr. G?" asked a student.
"I think everyone heard it," I answered.
"Well, what do you think?" asked another student.
"I think that kid hates this f**in' school," I said with absolutely no aforethought.
The kids laughed and tension was broken. One kid said, "You are really cool, Mr. G.” Incident over, all went back to work.
Later, as I thought about that incident, it suddenly occurred to me that this was the first time since I'd arrived at Strong Vincent in 1958 that I was regarded as cool. Wow! I was finally cool! I began to ask myself, how cool was I? Was I Ed Tansey cool? Or maybe Terry Jones cool? Unfortunately, the class of ‘61 would never know that I had achieved coolness. And I could never tell anybody because that wouldn't be cool. Besides, I'm only high school cool. Adult cool remains beyond my reach.
Anyway, that school year ended with a picnic kegger at Bobby Brabender's farm. There is nothing like pounding brewskis with colleagues who are your former teachers. One indelible memory remains from that event. Football coach John Krkoska had been the target of various wisecracks all afternoon until the combination of brew and needling brought him to the breaking point. As John was carrying a roaster full of hot sauerkraut from the grill to a picnic table, somebody made a wisecrack that sent him over the edge. Yelling, "You guys don't like me," he heaved a pan of hot sauerkraut high into the air. Everybody scattered as it rained sauerkraut. It was as funny as it was pathetic. While people were appeasing John, I said my goodbyes and left, holding onto a final Strong Vincent memory.
In the spring of ’66 my wife got a position with the National Teacher Corps at Temple University in Philadelphia. (That was my first wife, but hey, who's counting?). I resigned from the Erie School District (no, I wasn't fired), and got a job in southeastern Pennsylvania, where I taught high school for the next forty years. Consequently, my emotional development remains at the high school level. That’s why I never achieved adult "coolness" (so relax, Ed and Terry).