Teaching Evolution

 

When someone asks what kind of work I did before retirement, I boast that I was a middle school teacher.  I truly believe that facing middle school students one hundred and eighty-five days a year for thirty-three years renders me infallible.  The questioner generally narrows his eyes, tilts his head, and quizzically views me with a mixture of awe, respect, and perhaps sympathy, but never envy.  “What subject?” is a sensible follow-up question.  I am never asked why I left the profession.

“I taught in an alternative school, so I did a little bit of everything.  My last term’s classes were called Young Lawyers, Language Banquet, Showtime, and Just Japan.”  Then I have to explain, “No, it was not a private school.”  If I sense I’ve piqued some interest, I’ll attempt to explain how a Philadelphia public school allowed, and even encouraged, an English major to teach such disparate subjects.  You, the reader, must be interested in the answer, since you’ve arrived at chapter thirteen.  If not, move on to the Chapter Fourteen.  I will definitely be retired by then.

 

Toward the end of my disaster-free first year at AMY (Alternative for Middle Years) school, I entered the staff lounge seeking adult conversation.  A heated discussion was taking place.  Jay, a paunchy Black math teacher complained, “How can they do this to us?”

“They” were the School District of Philadelphia.  “This” was a directive: They were forcing us to divide our math classes by grade groups and use a standard curriculum.  Brahim (a.k.a. Bernie), a self-described scientific socialist, asked, “What’s going to happen to 3-D Math? Kids love it. And what about my Architecture course, and Sports Math?” AMY students were accustomed to choosing their classes according to their interests, and teachers were expected to develop new courses to add to our impressive catalogue.

Jay added, “No one wants a class full of nothing but squirming sixth graders, especially at the end of the day.  The way it is now, the new kids get their cues on how to behave from the eighth graders and fall into line.  It’s like having veteran ball players controlling a locker room, allowing the coach more time to game plan instead of wasting time on discipline.”  The district’s thinking was that the city’s standardized test scores were becoming a bigger part of the application process for the select high schools.  Our students would be exposed to new material during the test, placing them in an unfair position.

Dennis, our counselor argued, “We only have ninety eighth graders.  I always make sure they get into the best schools.”

When Brahim threatened to resign (for the two hundredth time), Tony Day, the sage of AMY who had been there since the school’s inception, looked up from his rice cake and bean sprout lunch and proposed, “Maybe we can take the sixth graders off of everyone else’s hands.”

How?  The question was answered with a question: “Does anyone want to work with me, taking on all the new kids, like a school within a school?”  Though no details were supplied, it reminded me of the old mini-school from early in my career.  I volunteered and immediately became part of a nebulous group labeled “Team Six”.  When I asked Tony about the curriculum, my new partner, eternally optimistic, told me, “Don’t worry.  We’ll figure it out, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they’re reading, writing, thinking, and learning.”  Brahim, always seeking autonomy, signed on.  So did Jay.  The plan morphed into the four of us taking all of the sixth graders every day after lunch.  We had a schedule, but no curricula.

With 1988 being an Olympic year, coming up with our first unit of study was easy.  Students chose projects that interested them and subsequently taught the rest of us what they had learned.  Topics included the proposed Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, the Munich Massacre, the 1936 Olympics and Jessie Owens. (After viewing the Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, we invited its director, Leni Riefenstahl, as a guest speaker, but she didn’t respond.)  This is where super-student Suzy Ensuliaman got to construct her Olympic sports venue.

Team Six continued for a few years until one day when I couldn’t help hearing furniture being tossed in the next classroom.  Jay was about to knock out sixth grader, Lawrence Torin.  Lawrence, a lanky sixth grader whose voice was irritatingly stuck in the screeches of puberty, had a knack for getting under people’s fingernails. (I first suspected he was trouble when he told me that he had no nickname.  “My name is Lawrence,” was forever accompanied by an angry Marlon Brando scowl, minus the dimples.)  Lawrence was barricading himself in the corner of the classroom for protection.  The student witnesses did not intervene because they, too, would have loved to see a bloody, unconscious Lawrence lying peacefully on the floor.  I positioned myself between Jay and his sparring partner, hustled Jay away, and whispered, “He’s not worth it, Jay.  You’re risking your career.”

Jay smiled with the satisfied smirk of a serial killer and answered, “I was thinking of leaving anyway.  This will be just icing on my retirement cake.”  By that time, Doc Richardson arrived, and the fight was declared a draw by all.  There would be no rematch because shortly after, thinking that tropical fish were less trouble than sixth graders, Jay left teaching to manage an aquarium.  Brahim moved onto to creating science courses.  Tony and I decided to stay together teaching Team courses, only we made them available to all of AMY’s students.  Students who liked the format stayed with us term after term.

We were rolling along, enjoying ourselves until Tony announced his retirement.  At least he was officially leaving the school system, though he planned to come in each day and take part in the aspects of the job he liked: counseling individuals, coaching budding writers, and overseeing AMY’s student newspaper.  He had written his final evaluation.

Would Tony’s new role mean the end of Team classes?  Identifying a new partner would be a challenge because it’s like a marriage: You have to know when to talk, when to listen; when to act, and when to wait and see if things will blow over; when to use a carrot, and when to use a proverbial stick.  I knew someone who was already the ideal partner I sought, but she was teaching across the city, in Germantown close to home at AMY Northwest, our sister school.  Fortunately (for me) Bette had just been acquitted of making racist remarks and may have been open to a change of scenery.  She confessed, “I’d love to get out of there, but I don’t want it to look like I’m running away.  They may see that as a weakness, or a confession of guilt.  And I’m still waiting for the staff to show me full support.”

I sprinkled the subject of Tony’s retirement into many conversations and hoped for the occasional sign that Bette’s resistance may be wearing down.  Our prayers were answered when the principal of AMY Northwest, like principals Joe Doyle and “Dizzy” Dean before her, surprised Bette by eliminating her position from the roster. As a reward for the farcical charges, Bette was placed at the top of the list for teachers’ seeking transfers.  As luck would have it, AMY school’s new principal, Eileen Dwell, had attended Fels Junior High with Bette in the 1960’s.  They used to chat when stopping by their lockers.  I put on my roster builder and union representative hats and worked with Eileen, creating an overly ambitious reading specialist position, knowing that no one but Bette would apply.

Thanks to false accusations of racism and a gentleman’s “pedalogical” concerns, AMY welcomed a new face for the fall trimester.   I had a new teaching partner; and, once again, we could bounce lesson plan ideas off one another as we pedaled through the streets of Philadelphia.   Bette had a fresh start without need of a Race Card. Her teaching skills, good intentions, and personality would be enough. We began to teach a Team class covering a different part of the world every trimester, looking closely at the lives of children.

An annual rite of spring appeared in the form of a letter from the IRS.  The auditors challenged the amount we spent on educational travel, by far the biggest chunk of our budget.  Once a year, I journeyed to the William Green Federal Building on Sixth Street right across from Independence Hall, bringing AMY’s course catalogue, our Team syllabi, travel photographs, magazines, games, and other artifacts.  Each time, I wore the auditor down, and the case against us was dismissed.  Or the inquisitor just decided that the I.R.S. could spend its time more wisely by going after bigger tax cheats.

 

Our union newspaper ran an ad seeking Philadelphia teachers looking for a free trip to Japan.  We researched and learned that an anonymous Japanese yakuza (organized crime boss) wanted to improve his image by becoming a philanthropist.  He treated thirty teachers, including Bette and me, to a first class tour where we met religious leaders, artists, politicians, writers, and other movers and shakers of Japan.  All we had to do in return was create a Team course called “Just Japan”.

The highlight of the term occurred when we broke the class into two groups.  My group used my study guide to plow through various sections of Hiroshima in order to script and present a Jerry Springer-style talk show. Guests included the five survivors featured in the book, the pilot of the Enola Gay, veterans, and President Harry Truman. We utilized archival U.S. government footage of Hiroshima’s destruction.  Planted audience members shouted out diverse opinions of the decision to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of a crowded city.

Bette’s half of the class dramatized The Year of Impossible Goodbyes, the story of a multi-generational Korean family during the harsh Japanese occupation.  As a result of the course, our students would never think of all Asians as being the same. Bette and I felt that history is often taught without regard to lives of ordinary people, but with all of our Team classes, we sought materials that would help history become relevant and therefore memorable.  And if students acquired a distaste for war, that would be a bonus.

One day at lunch, our counselor, Dennis, handed me an announcement and asked, “Do you want to attend a Temple University leap conference?”

“What’s Temple University leap?”  That’s not a trio of words I usually run together.”

Dennis explained that LEAP was an acronym for “legal education and participation”.  I consented when I heard that a substitute teacher and lunch would be provided.  As a result, I discovered a previously hidden world where teachers develop and share interesting, lively civics lessons.  The proliferation of judge shows on television taught me that most people sought a better understanding of the law.  As a result, I created a generation of “Young Lawyers”.

On the first day of each term, I whet appetites by asking for general questions.  My intentionally frustrating answers: “We’ll get to your privacy rights when we study the fourth amendment in week seven,” or “You’ll learn what’s required to win a civil lawsuit the final week of the term.”  The livelier parts of the course followed a fairly dry, detailed review of the Constitution.  And because students had to learn to persuade and listen to one another, courtroom procedure was part of my introduction. They needed to pass a “bar exam” entitling them to play the roles of lawyers when we got to the mock trials.  Each passed exam became a shingle displayed on the classroom wall.

For all mock trials, students were required to outline the evidence in order to write a closing argument (utilizing higher order thinking skills- my Penn State method course instructors would be proud!) at the end of each case.  When word got out that “Young Lawyers” was a lot of work but worth the effort, I usually had a group of self-motivated learners enabling me to feel like a real teacher.

We visited Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center to observe homicide trials.  Most cases involved drugs, a love triangle, or both.  Students were surprised to see that the lawyers chatted and joked when the jury was in recess, not like on television where they act like they’re ready to kill one another.  During the lunch recess, we cruised past the holding cells in the building’s basement.  No “tough love” lectures were needed to emphasize the moral of the story.  The obvious lesson was that, unless you were here on an academic mission, this was a place to avoid.  Only once did I receive a surprise greeting from one of an ex-students awaiting trial.  He had elected not to enroll in Young Lawyers, depriving him of the opportunity to learn that murdering a pizza delivery guy is a bad career move.

 

Meanwhile, Micole and Alana were enrolled at Mount Airy’s Henry School.  Like AMY, it was a desegregation school designed to keep middle class children enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. Every morning, a gathering of white families would congregate outside our neighborhood’s Kelly School for the yellow bus.  The girls quickly discovered their favorite part of Henry School.  Every spring, the school presented a complete production of a different Broadway play.  Our little song and dance girls acquired roles in “Oklahoma” and “Bye Bye Birdie”.

I too was dabbling in theater with an elective course called “Soap”.  Students wrote vignettes based on teenage problems and performed them for the rest of the school in our first floor multi-purpose room.  By the end of the term, we attempted to bring the differing plots together with varying success.  The material, though fun, was amateurish compared to what I saw at Henry and often in questionable taste as we incorporated topical current events into the show.  The friendly, neighborhood abortion clinic, pedophiles, and an unscrupulous minister worked their way into our drama.  To save on costly paper and provide as little evidence as possible if “trouble” arose, each actor was handed only the lines he or she needed for a scene.  Fortunately for me, like Shakespeare’s works, no original scripts remain.

When I volunteered to play the drums for the Henry School shows, I marveled at the director’s ability to get two hundred participants, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, to flow in one direction, all working for the good of the show.  I was called in during the final week of after school rehearsals, carefully dragging my old Ludwig drum set from our damp basement behind me.   I had prepared by studiously listening to my scratchy, old “South Pacific” album.  The director asked me to tone down my performances, so as not to overshadow the cast.  As I watched adolescent boys wearing coconut shell bras rehearse “There is Nothing like a Dame” for the sixth time, I wondered if I could create a musical theater program at AMY.  The talent was there, but I faced a lack of resources, parental support, a theater, and my own limited musical ability and directing experience.  The one thing AMY had going for it was our flexibility in planning a roster.

Ricardo Martin, AMY’s music teacher, left to form the Rainbow Company at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. Rumor has it that he left under auspicious circumstances.  He called to ask if we could fit a musical theater program into our school.  I volunteered, once again, not knowing where this was heading.

The first reward was a day off to meet with the Rainbow Company representatives. I knew they were well funded when we lunched at Bookbinder’s Original seafood restaurant.

The director, a short, squat Black woman with stringy, thinning hair, introduced herself as Miss Dianne.  (I was happy to hear that she worked behind the scenes.)  She explained her few rules: “You’ll work with Miss Pat to get me a script.  It’s my job to get the show onto the stage.  Now don’t you go giving me no dancing elephants or plane crashes.  I know what the Rainbow Company can do.  I know the budget.  I know the props.  You just get me a script in six weeks.  I’ll take it from there.”  Miss Dianne stepped aside as Miss Pat returned from a cigarette break.

After unsuccessfully attempting to constrain a cough, Miss Pat began.  “I’ll be at your school twice a week for six weeks.  If your kids want to see and hear their words and ideas on a real stage performed by professionals, we can make it happen.  All we ask for is a commitment from you and your students.  I’ll bring contracts for them and their parents to sign.  They can also audition for parts.  And don’t worry about the songs.  You’ll write the lyrics and let us know how you want it to sound.  Our musical director takes it from there.”

At our first writing session, three ideas were suggested: a ghost story, a war setting, and a cautionary tale of a bullied boy.  Somehow, Miss Pat combined the three and came up with a musical featuring a bullied victim encountering his deceased Vietnam vet grandfather in a haunted house.  It was original, and it worked!

The second year, we produced a musical about an abusive mother called “The Perfect Family”.

The grant was to last for three years.  For our third show, we wanted to try something different.  Some of the Showtime students had seen the French detective farce, The Tall Blond Man with the One Brown Shoe in our Team Europe class.  They suggested we write a moody, film noire piece about a detective working on a long dead cold case who discovers that she, herself, is the missing person.  The climax called for her to reunite with her estranged mother.  At a writing session, Miss Pat asked, “How are we going to get them together?  What possible reason would Mom have for contacting a daughter she abandoned thirty years before?”

Numerous ideas were considered, but none obtained a consensus until someone suggested, “Maybe the mother is dying, and she needs to make a connection while she still has time.”  Miss Pat smiled with the satisfaction of a teacher who knows the secret of leading students somewhere and having them believe they arrived on their own.

Her rarely displayed smile made more sense during one of the ensuing rehearsals.  Miss Pat had stepped outside for another cigarette break and caught up to me as she returned, “I’m glad this is going so well.  It’s my last show.”

I responded, “I’m sorry it’s just a three-year grant. We started out pretty good, and we’re getting better and better.”

Miss Pat looked me in the eye.  This took me by surprise as she was usually coolly detached and focused on script writing.  After three years of working together, I hardly knew her.  She repeated, “No. This is my last show.”  I have inoperable lung cancer. The doctors have given me six months.”

An affirmative hug might have been in order, but the well-established distance between us was hard to breech.  I had no response except for a weak, “If there’s anything I can do….” Miss Pat nodded toward the rehearsal and said, “You and your class are doing plenty.  Maybe you don’t realize it, but you’re doing a lot for me already.”  Her comment became even more appropriate when she added, “That’s my daughter, Ebony, playing the detective.”

 

My agreeing to take the Holocaust tour of Israel and Poland mandated that I would make the subject part of my curriculum.  At the end of my Holocaust Literature term, the students combined the most memorable sections of all of the books to create a script called “Danielle’s Story.”  The idea was borrowed from an exhibit at Washington’s Holocaust Museum.  I asked my new student teacher, Karen Thoma, who had given up on the legal profession to become a teacher, if we were plagiarizing.  She advised, “Since there’s no profit involved, don’t worry about it.” About the same time, Karen casually mentioned her background in theater and skill as a pianist.  Voila! “Danielle’s Story” became possibly the world’s first Holocaust musical.

We manipulated the school’s roster to team up on “Showtime”, a favorite with performers and our audiences.  All that was missing was a theater as AMY’s “gymatorium” was utilized all day for physical education classes.

More good timing: The union newspaper ran an article mentioning that Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater was looking for an introduction into city schools.  Again, I volunteered.  With student labor, we designed and built a stage in the underused multi-purpose room. Walnut Street provided permanent lighting and gallons of black paint.  They brought us to their warehouse where we found curtains and perspective props. AMY’s school custodian overlooked the contractual provision that regulated who could handle a paintbrush or a hammer in public schools.

Later in the term, I attended a Holocaust educators’ workshop.  While lunching with the authors of Ten Thousand Children (a book about German Jewish children being sent off to England to escape the rise of the Nazis but having to leave their parents behind) I proposed turning their Kindertransport stories into a musical.  I was surprised when the authors agreed.  I transferred one song “Shall We Stay?” (dramatizing a family’s difficult decision to send their children overseas) from “Danielle’s Story”; Karen and I composed a few others.  Walnut Street Theater provided professional expertise.  We had a short, successful run.

When a teaching position opened over the summer, we were happy with AMY’s designation as a school where we could select staff members.  Karen interviewed and was appointed, and “Showtime” became a permanent fixture on our roster.

If you work at something for thirty three years, you’re supposed to be pretty skilled at it.  I generally took it in stride when people said I was a good teacher.  I credited time and the wisdom to evolve as I encountered new ideas.

 

What could drive a pair of happy, successful, likable teachers into early retirement?  Four letters: NCLB (No Child Left Behind).  Though the law may have had idealistic, altruistic intentions, those four letters spelled trouble for AMY school.  Our general unspoken policy had been to stay quiet and hope the powers-that-be didn’t notice what we were doing.

A provision of NCLB required that teachers must be certified in the area we teach.  Sensible and innocent enough, but it meant that I had to take a Praxis exam to prove my ability to teach social studies.  It didn’t matter that my principals had been giving me rave reviews for thirty years.  It didn’t matter that I had received Teacher of the Year and Holocaust Educator of the Year commendations.  I saved a few bucks by eschewing the strongly suggested preparatory courses because I had faith in my abilities.  (I also applied and was accepted to fly out to a posh St. Louis hotel to sit on the committee that created the rubric for grading the exam.  NCLB had friends in high places.)  My Praxis test score was 100.  I had paid a few hundred dollars to gain the necessary certification to continue teaching “Young Lawyers” and Team classes.

The 2003 school year began like most with AMY’s staff sharing donuts supplied by the Home and School Association while reviewing our summer vacations.  The removal of jelly donut powder from my AMY polo shirt was interrupted when we received a shipment of hundreds of boxes containing required Language Arts materials and teaching guides to be used starting in two days. Every teacher welcomes new supplies, but the problem was that although the materials were shiny and new, this gift horse came with conditions.  They were mandated and dull.  Each grade had its own materials, ending the mixed grade grouping of our Team courses.  Each unit consisted of an isolated selection of literature along with grammar, word usage, punctuation, and vocabulary exercises.  We had supplemental CD’s, videos, artwork, and step-by-step instructions related to the theme.  Of course the pre-test, practice test, post-test, and retest were included.  New teachers may have been impressed with a wealth of materials making their lives easier, but this was overkill.

As Bette and I sorted through the boxes, my glazed apple cinnamon donut began to lose its sweetness.  What was to become of the fun, interesting units we honed over the last thirty years? “Just Japan” became just a memory, replaced on the roster by Seventh Grade Language Arts. All that effort was to be tossed aside and replaced by this endless morass at the cost of two hundred dollars per student.  Would our yakuza backer get word of our abandoning his homeland and put his criminal empire aside for a few days in order to torture us back into the fold?  Were Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai still looking for work?

A saving grace was that the Pennsylvania honchos had not yet agreed on a standard social studies curriculum. They could not easily decide what needed to be included.  Special interest groups lobbied for more African-American, Puerto Rican, and women’s history, Holocaust studies, and the contributions of Irish and Italian Americans.  Should the curriculum include Sally Hemings, Cesar Chavez, Jane Roe, or John Brown? The lack of standardized social studies tests gave “Young Lawyers” a reprieve.  Part of my teaching day remained satisfying, but the subject of early retirement began to creep into our conversations during our commutes back to Moorestown.

We had no fear of boredom because ten weeks of summer vacation had accustomed us to retirement mode every year.  We had no shortage of places to visit.  I knew I didn’t want to work until the day I died like my father and grandfathers, and Bette’s bout with leukemia definitely reminded us of our own mortality.  Those annual statements from the Pennsylvania Retirement System, revealing how much we could bring in without working, became more tantalizing every time we cracked open those weighty, glossy, dull textbooks or duplicated boring worksheets.

But in spite of those four letters, NCLB, hanging over our heads, we still liked teaching.  We looked forward to every day’s providing another chance to mold young minds and all the other clichés that drive idealistic, young people into the profession.

I recalled my conversion of Dr. Rivera a few years earlier.  Maybe he, or someone like him at the school board, would listen to reason and realize that AMY’s ways of doing things should be replicated instead of squashed.  After all, the “A” stood for “alternative”, and our ways had earned us a “Blue Ribbon School” designation.  Jim Murphy, our special education teacher, scanned the thirty-six page application and asked, “What’s it mean to be a Blue Ribbon School?  Can’t we just skip the application and call ourselves a Red Ribbon School?”  And there was the matter of a contractual provision where union members could vote to abrogate portions of the contract to improve individual schools.

This time the meeting was scheduled at AMY, so I anticipated a home court advantage.  I fortified myself with my numerous syllabi and AMY’s impressive course catalogue.  If needed, I could invite my adversary to my book closet to display the wealth of materials I had collected over thirty three years.  She could even meet AMY’s students who would freely offer testimony defending our school’s positive effects on their lives.

On my way to school, I recalled previous meetings in principals’ offices, beginning with the fifth grade me who accidentally tore a hole in the American flag.  I escaped serious punishment then and learned that the principal’s office was a place to avoid.  I succeeded until I became a union representative.  Then I was asked to represent teachers accused of various misdemeanors.

One was a substitute who reported to work so drunk that she might have been recorded on a Richter scale.  She explained, “Oh, thas my med-, med-, med- ication.”  I tried to remain the neutral party, merely there to confirm that her contractual rights were being upheld, but the medication smelled just like the kind of wine usually concealed by a wrinkled paper bag.  I merely observed and took notes.

I also represented a teacher who was a strong believer in animal rights.  After a PETA representative spoke to her class, students were encouraged to write letters to companies who utilized laboratory animals to test their products’ safety.  The letter writing campaign would have been more effective if a Gillette vice president did not telephone the principal to complain that one of the letters threatened to blow up the company’s headquarters.

Once I had to defend myself against the charge of insubordination, a catch-all phrase like “disorderly conduct” which administrators use when they can’t think of something more specific.

The affair started innocently enough with an American History lesson on Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line that changed the world by making the automobile available to the common working man.  I asked my students what they would pay for a Philadelphia hoagie sandwich.

“About three dollars.”

“And how much to you think the store pays for all that

stuff that goes into making a hoagie?”

“Maybe a dollar.”

This led to a fund raiser, a “Have It Your Way Two Dollar Hoagie Sale” where ninety percent of the school’s students and staff pre-ordered sandwiches prepared to their individual tastes. Considering that the competition was federally funded “space pack” school lunches, our success was not surprising.  Students did the math and decided how much inventory we needed to purchase.  I purchased latex gloves, caps, and hand sanitizer.

All went according to plan with my fourth mod students eager to play their parts on the assembly line until a recently appointed vice principal appeared.  He said, “Bob, may I speak to you in the hallway.”  The use of the nickname was supposed to show that he was there on a friendly mission, but those who know me know that I am never “Bob”.

“Sure.”  I resisted using the vice principal’s nickname, “Wiggy.”  Some students called him that because his toupee, resembling a rodent which had been dropped from above, matched his brownish green vintage high-finned Cadillac.

“Bob, I can’t let you go on with this hoagie sale.  There was a botulism outbreak at Howell Elementary last week, and we just can’t take a chance.”

I then detailed the safe restaurant practices which had previously been reviewed by the home economics teacher.  I informed Wiggy, “I managed a restaurant.  (I didn’t mention that I was paid $1.25 an hour to “manage” a fifteen-cent hamburger joint in the sixties.  No need for the whole truth sometimes.) You don’t have to worry.  Every health precaution has been taken.  We’ve collected money from three hundred people, including some members of the administration, who are counting on us for their lunch.  And take a look around.  I can’t return all of the meat, cheese, rolls-”

“I’m sorry, Bob, but I can’t let you go through with the sale.”

I thanked Wiggy for his concern.  After he waltzed away with an air that must be taught in administrators’ courses, a student asked, “Mr. A, what are we going to do?”

My ace in the hole: I knew that the sale was in my lesson plans which had been dutifully signed and approved by the principal, Doc Richardson.  I also knew that Doc rarely scrutinized the plans I submitted.  He once signed off on my Language Banquet class spending two days translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Aramaic!  Like Henry Ford himself, I ordered, “Let’s get this assembly line rolling!”

The sale went well.  Customers were happy.  We raised money for the underfunded Home & School Association.  Every objective of my lesson was met.  And even though my fears of forever being known as “Botulism Bob” were allayed, I avoided Wiggy for the next few days.  Eventually I received notification that he wanted to meet with me in the principal’s office.  He threatened placing a negative report in my file.  I knew that files were destroyed at the end of each school year, so I didn’t worry.

As I entered the office I noticed a bead of sweat streaming down from what would have been Wiggy’s hairline if his toupee had been properly placed.  He rose, weakly shook my hand, and said, “Bob, I’m glad your sale went well, and there were no health problems as a result of your insubordination.  I spoke with Doc Richardson, and he’s agreed to let the matter drop.  You do not have to worry about repercussions.”  I smiled and performed a small, ritual victory dance once I cleared the doorway.

My final meeting in the principal’s office also began with another brief, cold handshake and an introduction:  “Good afternoon.  Stephanie Anderson from Analytics,” a division I didn’t know existed.  I introduced myself and, not knowing how much time I had, I asked if I could review what my typical teaching day was like.  Ms. Anderson listened, nodded occasionally, and generally looked as if she had somewhere else to be.  When I described my Language Banquet elective, Ms. Anderson asked her first question.  “Do you really think students can learn a new language every week?”

“Of course not, but they gain an appreciation of language itself, in addition to lessening their fear of learning a foreign language later on.  They gain a greater respect for people just learning English.  Developing lifelong learners is a stated school district objective.  And their spelling and vocabulary skills improve every day.”

Ms. Anderson cut short my intended lengthy description of Young Lawyers.  “Mr. Allekotte, you have provided much anecdotal evidence, but can you provide me with anything to validate what you say?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, the provisions of No Child Left Behind require evaluative tools to substantiate student improvement.  Do you have any pre- and post-test results to validate your opinions?”

“Of course not.  I’ve always believed that any time spent testing takes away from teaching time.”  I was proud to be quoting Tony Day.

Ms. Anderson’s response surprised me.  “Do you know that I represent Houghton-Mifflin Analytics?  My job is to ensure that our materials and your teaching conform to the standards required by the law.”  I saw her in a different light.  She should have been wearing an executioner’s mask as each provision of the law was driving another nail into AMY’s coffin.

I asked, “Can you help us develop tests to validate our successes?”

“I’m sorry.  That is not my department.”

Another question: “Are any schools exempt from the new standards?”

The answer was, “No.  Not public schools anyway.”

To quote the Grateful Dead, I was “Set up like a bowling pin.  Knocked down.  It gets to wearing thin.  They just won’t let you be.”  I dragged myself away from the meeting with the certainty that NCLB would spell the death of alternative public education.  If one of the goals was to drive experienced, costly, pro-union teachers into retirement, it was succeeding.  I had entered the meeting hoping to make Ms. Anderson envious of my students who envisioned themselves arguing cases before the Supreme Court.  I wanted her to observe the great things taking place at AMY school.

 

mismatch                                                                    Mismatch Day at AMY

 

Shortly after my meeting with Ms. Anderson, I submitted the required papers to join the ranks of former teachers.  I began to compose my retirement song to the tune of the obvious choice, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin,” the longest song I knew.

 

Teachin’, the one job for me.  Started way back in 1973,

And now, I’m finally free to just be movin’ on.

 

Followed my dear older brother to Penn Treaty,

Two hundreds kids and sixty two dollars a day.

Teachers, disgusted, most of the students, needy.

I joined a mini-school to do things my way.

 

Teachin’, but no one cared what I taught.

Youthfully I entertained and I fought.

Broke rules, and rarely got caught.  I just kept movin’ on.

 

A new reading teacher was in my brother’s position.

Got a notion to go check her out at lunch.

Asked her to sign a bicycle rider’s petition.

To this day, I’m glad I followed that hunch.

 

Wond’ring, she gave her autograph.

Thought I was part of the custodial staff

Thinking I’d be good for a laugh, and she’d be movin’ on.

 

Sometimes the kids would rattle my cage.

Blame it all on a Piaget stage.

Rememb’ring me when I was that age.

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

 

What in the world ever became of laughter?

There is no room in the curriculum.

Fill them with facts, so they can recite them after.

Seems the goal of the plan is to keep them real dumb.

 

Bette, thirty years satisfied.

Even had fun teaching Genocide.

We never felt too frenzied or fried.  We just kept movin’ on.

 

Endless, senseless directives from our new bosses.

Like “Is there serious rigor displayed on your walls?”

My teaching guides are sprouting rare molds and mosses

While numerous kids are wandering through the halls.

 

Teachin’: Comply with Act 48*         (*PA version of NCLB).   Try our best to keep our school first-rate.

But really nothing’s changed ‘cept the date.

We just keep movin’ on.

 

Standard curriculum, every new thought from a text book.

I knew right away this was not for me.

Soon as we breathe, go right onto the next book.

By the way, did we make our AYP*?

(*adequate yearly progress- what a joke!)

 

Most days, I still felt pretty good.

Proud to be standing where I stood.

Would you leave there if you could?

What a long, strange trip it’s been.

 

Truckin’ onto Brigantine.

No uniforms, just faded, cut-off jeans.

No more pretending to be mean.

I’ll just be movin’ on.

 

At my farewell dinner, I planned to explain my decision to retire, but the din of late-night crowd in the chosen venue was so loud that the lyrics had to serve as my swan song.  I quit trying to out-yell noisy rooms decades ago.  Couples out for a romantic dinner or singles attempting to impress others at the bar did not want to be interrupted by me; and those who knew me already knew how I felt about leaving the profession.

I would have displayed the report card showing the seventh grade me.  I would have avowed my appreciation for those teachers who didn’t give up on this misbehaving young man who had his mind on his acne, his cowlick, wondering if he’d ever kiss a girl, and rethinking if he hid his lunch money in a secure place.  Anything but the seventh grade curriculum!  I would have thanked my country’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, for it was that fateful event (and my determination to avoid going there) that transformed me into an honor student overnight.

I thought I had retired, but Fate had another plan for me.  During AMY’s annual January ski trip, Bette damaged her meniscus with a tumble and was eligible to collect worker’s compensation until she recovered from the surgery.  I offered to spend my first few months of retirement as her substitute teacher.  I enjoyed covering her favorite classes, “Coming to America” (history through the study of immigrant groups), “Maps & More”, and an elective called “Manners”.

Bette returned in the spring, and Marie, our secretary, may have sensed that I wasn’t ready to say good-bye.  I agreed to move downstairs to cover classes for Jim Murphy’s autistic support program.  After thirty three years of teaching, I learned far more than I taught in this parallel universe.  Assisted by two aides, I witnessed a young man who continually warmed his right hand in his butt crack in between offers to shake hands with everyone he met.  Another finished his work as quickly as possible in order to spend time at a computer screen, identifying the year, make, model, and engine size of every car that came across the monitor.  The most interesting case was a twelve year-old with zero communication or social skills.  He spent much of the time rolling and sobbing on a gym mat.  The biggest triumph of the term was an aide’s getting him to indicate whether he preferred peanuts or raisins for his snack by pointing to a cupped hand.

By the end of the term, Bette submitted the set of forms needed to ride into the sunset with me.   I composed her retirement song to the tune of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette”. (If you don’t know the tune and don’t feel like opening a YouTube tab, it also works well as a rap song.)

 

I’ve been known to have a heart of gold

And ladylike ways, I’ve been told.

The kind of gal who wouldn’t harm a flea.

But you don’t want to be on the street

If me and a certain character meet.

The man who first proposed NCLB.

 

I’ve witnessed teenage melodrama

And even survived leukemia’s trauma,

But there’s one thing I couldn’t overcome.

It seems that every new regulation

Brings me nothing but frustration

Making sure my students stay real dumb.

 

Teach, teach, teach: I’m in a bind.

Never a chance to use our minds.

If I meet George W. Bush,

I will kick him in the tush.

Then one fine day, we’ll all leave him behind.

 

 

After a lazy summer by the beach in Brigantine, I received a call from Marie.  “Rob, Troy’s going to be out for a few weeks at the start of the term.  Do you want to take his eighth grade American History courses?”  Troy had come to AMY as our student teacher and ended up being appointed.  As our only young male teacher, he worked hard and deserved his great success.  Like most new teachers, he was happy to have a wealth of materials at his disposal.  I considered returning, but regretted that social studies had become exclusively “history”.  Geography, culture, economics, music, civics, and tasty ethnic foods would have to be squeezed between endless names and dates and strategic battles.  And classes now traveled by grade, stratifying AMY’s once homogeneous population.   On the other hand, I knew the eighth grade students, and the subject of American History was right up my alley.

We could do without the salt, sea, and sand of the shore for a time, but the early morning sixty-five mile commute didn’t seem like fun.  Marie suggested I call Troy to see if we could work something out.  Troy told me, “We are heading out to Phoenix for a few weeks.  At least, I hope it’s only a few weeks.  Taylor’s finally getting her tumor removed.  Anyway, if you could sub, I’d know the kids will be in good hands, and my classroom won’t be destroyed.”  When I mentioned the long daily commute from the shore, Troy added, “I’ve got another idea.  Why don’t you and Bette house-sit for us?  That would solve your transportation problem and give me one less thing to worry about.”  I consented.

When I repeated the conversation to Bette, she asked, “What kind of surgery is Troy’s daughter having?”

“I don’t know.  Some kind of tumor.  I didn’t ask.”

“How could you not ask?  The man’s daughter is flying across the country for an operation, and you don’t ask about it!”

I apologized.  “Sorry.  I’ll ask next time.”  Bette returned to whatever she was doing, muttering something about men.  I didn’t ask her to speak up.

I visited my old book closet to dust off the “Young Lawyers” lessons I had left behind.  Like before, we reviewed the Constitution and prepared for mock trials.  Since they will cover the Civil War, I chose trials from that era.  I use the word “cover” because you can prove what’s been covered, whereas what has been learned often remains a mystery.

After reading an excerpt of the Gone with the Wind scene where Scarlett shoots a Yankee intruder in her hallway, I rewrote the scene from the soldier’s point of view.  The prosecution and defense teams received the two differing versions.  Simultaneously, two more groups prepared to put slavery on trial by recreating the 1857 Scott vs. Sandford Supreme Court case.  They invented friends of the court by using the actual narratives from To Be a Slave. The book also included well-worn defenses of slavery from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.  I could sense the excitement mounting as students built their cases.  As my retirement loomed, at least I could go out with a bang of a courtroom gavel.

Most of Troy’s students looked forward to the upcoming week of trials.  But there were always exceptions.  As I tried to explain that Washington and Jefferson’s views on slavery were self-serving because their fortunes depended on free labor, I noticed a spitball war taking place between two familiar combatants, Barbara and Mark.  I had previously attempted to teach Barbara’s two sadistic older brothers who made her life miserable.  I recalled that Mark’s father had died suddenly during the winter.  His interest in school waned. If I had time the following week, I might share memories of my older brother and me tormenting our little sister but eventually coming to regret it.  I could tell Mark about hearing of my father’s dying when I was teaching in Scotland.

I noticed a lanky, pimpled, bespectacled boy leaning way too close to a girl resembling a young Michelle Obama.  They were sharing ideas to present to the Supreme Court.  I was reliving my first crush, and I was thankful that interracial dating has become not only accepted but fashionable. Another familiar face, Dan, stared out the window.  Maybe next week, I’ll learn why he preferred to spend a day hiding in a woodshed (yes- a woodshed, in Philadelphia) rather than AMY school.  I returned to the present when Alexis, wearing pink fluorescent socks and a matching bandana, approached my desk.  (It was “Dress Down Day”.  Alexis had paid a dollar for the right to express her individuality.)  She demurely asked, “Was Georgia under martial law at the time of Scarlett O’Hara’s act of self-defense?”  Questions like that made me feel like maybe I was retiring too early.  I spent the first part of the weekend glad to be part of the fray once again, but I was living in the past.  This type of learning was condemned to the past under NCLB.

What if the principal or school district honchos happened by and saw the ensuing lively debates? I could defend our detouring from the standard curriculum because topics such as of slavery, property rights, self-defense, and military law were being discussed.  This was much more fun than teaching the Civil War from a textbook.  That was how many in my age group studied- and forgot- too much history.  I imagined Ms. Anderson dropping by, congratulating me on my imaginative approach to social studies, and asking how to get her own children enrolled in AMY.  She’d pull magical strings and return AMY to its heyday!  She’d retire from Houghton-Mifflin after firing off an angry letter to the New York Times.

But on Sunday, Troy called.  “Rob, I have some news! We’re heading back tomorrow.  They had to delay Taylor’s operation because the surgeon is overbooked, and we have to wait a few more weeks.”  The bang ending my career was reduced to a whimper.  We cleaned Troy’s sheets, straightened up, and headed back to the shore to begin life as retirees.

A few weeks later, I stopped in to see how Karen was faring with “Showtime” rehearsals.  On the way, I observed class after class of students’ filling out worksheets, providing short answers that are easy for a teacher or computer to check.  Discussions were becoming relics of the past as students prepared for tests to prove that they were mastering the standard curricula.  I passed Troy’s American History class to witness another skirmish in Barbara and Mark’s spitball war.

By finally leaving No Child Left Behind far behind us, Bette and I were free to plan an off-season vacation.  We knew we would be heading somewhere to the west so we could visit Alana in Santa Barbara, a college she chose because it was rated the country’s most beautiful campus in a Newsweek poll and had a stellar acapella group.  Frequent visits were planned to help relieve our empty nest syndrome. At a travel agency, I picked up an Overseas Adventure Travel brochure just to get ideas.  Their top-of-the-line trips had always been too expensive and too ritzy for us, but I saw a promotional rate on a new itinerary to Vietnam that turned out to be cheaper than just booking a flight on our own.

Regretfully, Newsweek was accurate in its assessment of UCSB.  While weaving up U.S. One toward San Francisco, Bette and I marveled at the crashing waves, looked to one another, and lamented, “Getting Alana back East is not going to be easy.”  Twenty five years ago, my mother said the same thing after visiting my brother, Steve, in San Francisco. She was right.

We left the car in Steve’s driveway and headed to Vietnam, nearly as far away from NCLB as possible while still being on Earth.  We did our best to escape the aged O.A.T. tourists whenever the busy schedule allowed.  I mastered two words of the lyrical but challenging Vietnamese language, thit cho (dog meat).  I avoided fast food frankfurters as a precaution.

After the tour, we booked a trip to Angkor Watt, the complex featured in our Junior Scholastic Southeast Asia texts using Cambodian currency. As we watched the sun set over the sprawling complex, a ten year old girl, carrying a tray of Pepsi Cola, approached us.  She asked, “Where you from?”  After I answered, she asked, “What state you from?”

I answered, “New Jersey and Florida.”

My new friend recited, “New Jersey.  Capital Tren-ton.

Florida.  Capital Tall-a-hass-ee.”

I told her, “I’m still not a fan of Pepsi Cola. Too much sugar.”

She frowned and whimpered, “Don’t you make my brown eyes blue.”  What sales technique!  Transaction completed!  Her mastery of English (and the languages of every other tourist nearby) brought to mind many of the students I had taught.  I wished they had all been so motivated.  As I sipped the cool drink, I stifled thoughts of how what we were learning could have contributed nicely to a Team Asia class.  Teaching was out of my system, until….

The next summer, I telephoned Marie, to see if any per diem substitute work might be available for the upcoming term.  I agreed to a three-week social studies position subbing for the teacher who replaced me.  He was due to return from his National Guard tour of duty in Iraq.  Easy money.  I could teach the new curriculum in my sleep.  I would make phone calls and find a place to stay in the city.

I was surprised when I received a follow-up call from Marie.  “Rob, I submitted your name for the position, but the computer wouldn’t let me.  When I called Human Resources, they said that you were removed from the list.  Apparently if you want to sub this year, the NCLB rules stipulate that you’ll have to pass a background check, a police check, and also get a child abuse clearance.”  I needed to provide the government’s assurance that I wouldn’t molest the adolescents that I had been teaching for the past thirty three years.  A little research revealed that these hurdles would set me back a hundred dollars or so.  This was another side industry milking the NCLB regulations.  I declined.  I told Marie, “Looks like I’ll just be movin’ on.”

 

As a final farewell, Bette and I attended AMY’s graduation ceremonies.  We joined the rest of the staff on the front row.  Troy attended with Taylor, who showed no effects of her recent surgery except an uneven haircut.  We should not have been surprised that there was no mention of our retirements or of our combined thirty years of service to the school.  But one student, Colleen, sporting spiked hair, black and white, prison-striped panty hose, and a tattoo commemorating her promotion to high school, stopped me afterward.  She asked, “Mr. A., back in sixth grade, when we were learning about Family Court, you told us a riddle.  Then you said, you couldn’t say the answer until after we graduated.”  Waving her diploma, Colleen added, “Now I’ve graduated; and I’m still wondering, what’s the answer?”

I apologized for my lack of memory and said, “You’ll have to remind me.  What’s the question?”

“Why did Mickey Mouse divorce Minnie?”

“Oh,” I recalled.  “She was fucking Goofy.” Thus, my teaching career ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with sharing a laugh over a slightly obscene, old joke; but no joke is old if you haven’t heard it.

 

I left my course outlines and materials neatly filed in cabinets.  My sets of Young Lawyers books, Berlitz language guides, and Team materials remain stacked in the book closet.  Those who sold a bill of goods of teaching and testing materials to the school district rendered my stash useless.  But, there’s always hope.  I believe that every pendulum swings back and forth.  Experienced teachers know never to discard any old lessons.  When NCLB is repealed, some curious new teacher will perform an archeological dig into my book closet and file cabinets and discover the wealth that an ancient civilization left behind.  A Digital Age scholar will unearth these relics of the Paper Age and fill in some link in the evolution of teaching.

That teacher won’t be Troy, as he bid farewell to the School District of Philadelphia and gladly accepted an alternative education administrative position in Florida.

Thanks to the advent of social media, I don’t have to rely on my questionable memory to recall my contribution to society. Through the magic of Facebook, I keep an eye on thousands of former students.  Occasionally, I read their posts.  Barbara writes of her own bouts with her rambunctious two year-old.  Mark served two tours of duty in Iraq before becoming a police officer.  Colleen serves drinks at a yuppie bar in New Hope, Pennsylvania and has made certain that my Mickey Mouse riddle lives on.  Stephanie sends me a photo she took with the mayor of Philadelphia.  She is part of the city’s legal team.  In her hand is a copy of the Constitution she received as a Young Lawyer.  Alexis writes, “Mr. A. although I am majoring in electrical engineering at Drexel, I am minoring in education.  When we discuss good teaching practices, I talk about you.”

And my favorite comment is from Eric, a merchant marine stationed at McMurdo Base in Antarctica: “Mr. A, you were the biggest influence in my life.  Next to Ronald Reagan.”

 

Where’s Waldo?  He’s retired.

Chapter Thirteen: Teaching Evolution

When someone asks what kind of work I did before retirement, I boast that I was a middle school teacher. I truly believe that facing middle school students one hundred and eighty-five days a year for thirty-three years renders me infallible. The questioner generally narrows his eyes, tilts his head, and quizzically views me with a mixture of awe, respect, and perhaps sympathy, but never envy. “What subject?” is a sensible follow-up question. I am never asked why I left the profession.
“I taught in an alternative school, so I did a little bit of everything. My last term’s classes were called Young Lawyers, Language Banquet, Showtime, and Just Japan.” Then I have to explain, “No, it was not a private school.” If I sense I’ve piqued some interest, I’ll attempt to explain how a Philadelphia public school allowed, and even encouraged, an English major to teach such disparate subjects. You, the reader, must be interested in the answer, since you’ve arrived at chapter thirteen. If not, move on to the Chapter Fourteen. I will definitely be retired by then.

Toward the end of my disaster-free first year at AMY (Alternative for Middle Years) school, I entered the staff lounge seeking adult conversation. A heated discussion was taking place. Jay, a paunchy Black math teacher complained, “How can they do this to us?”
“They” were the School District of Philadelphia. “This” was a directive: They were forcing us to divide our math classes by grade groups and use a standard curriculum. Brahim (a.k.a. Bernie), a self-described scientific socialist, asked, “What’s going to happen to 3-D Math? Kids love it. And what about my Architecture course, and Sports Math?” AMY students were accustomed to choosing their classes according to their interests, and teachers were expected to develop new courses to add to our impressive catalogue.
Jay added, “No one wants a class full of nothing but squirming sixth graders, especially at the end of the day. The way it is now, the new kids get their cues on how to behave from the eighth graders and fall into line. It’s like having veteran ball players controlling a locker room, allowing the coach more time to game plan instead of wasting time on discipline.” The district’s thinking was that the city’s standardized test scores were becoming a bigger part of the application process for the select high schools. Our students would be exposed to new material during the test, placing them in an unfair position.
Dennis, our counselor argued, “We only have ninety eighth graders. I always make sure they get into the best schools.”
When Brahim threatened to resign (for the two hundredth time), Tony Day, the sage of AMY who had been there since the school’s inception, looked up from his rice cake and bean sprout lunch and proposed, “Maybe we can take the sixth graders off of everyone else’s hands.”
How? The question was answered with a question: “Does anyone want to work with me, taking on all the new kids, like a school within a school?” Though no details were supplied, it reminded me of the old mini-school from early in my career. I volunteered and immediately became part of a nebulous group labeled “Team Six”. When I asked Tony about the curriculum, my new partner, eternally optimistic, told me, “Don’t worry. We’ll figure it out, but it really doesn’t matter as long as they’re reading, writing, thinking, and learning.” Brahim, always seeking autonomy, signed on. So did Jay. The plan morphed into the four of us taking all of the sixth graders every day after lunch. We had a schedule, but no curricula.
With 1988 being an Olympic year, coming up with our first unit of study was easy. Students chose projects that interested them and subsequently taught the rest of us what they had learned. Topics included the proposed Black boycott of the 1968 Olympics, the Munich Massacre, the 1936 Olympics and Jessie Owens. (After viewing the Nazi propaganda film, Olympiad, we invited its director, Leni Riefenstahl, as a guest speaker, but she didn’t respond.) This is where super-student Suzy Ensuliaman got to construct her Olympic sports venue.
Team Six continued for a few years until one day when I couldn’t help hearing furniture being tossed in the next classroom. Jay was about to knock out sixth grader, Lawrence Torin. Lawrence, a lanky sixth grader whose voice was irritatingly stuck in the screeches of puberty, had a knack for getting under people’s fingernails. (I first suspected he was trouble when he told me that he had no nickname. “My name is Lawrence,” was forever accompanied by an angry Marlon Brando scowl, minus the dimples.) Lawrence was barricading himself in the corner of the classroom for protection. The student witnesses did not intervene because they, too, would have loved to see a bloody, unconscious Lawrence lying peacefully on the floor. I positioned myself between Jay and his sparring partner, hustled Jay away, and whispered, “He’s not worth it, Jay. You’re risking your career.”
Jay smiled with the satisfied smirk of a serial killer and answered, “I was thinking of leaving anyway. This will be just icing on my retirement cake.” By that time, Doc Richardson arrived, and the fight was declared a draw by all. There would be no rematch because shortly after, thinking that tropical fish were less trouble than sixth graders, Jay left teaching to manage an aquarium. Brahim moved onto to creating science courses. Tony and I decided to stay together teaching Team courses, only we made them available to all of AMY’s students. Students who liked the format stayed with us term after term.
We were rolling along, enjoying ourselves until Tony announced his retirement. At least he was officially leaving the school system, though he planned to come in each day and take part in the aspects of the job he liked: counseling individuals, coaching budding writers, and overseeing AMY’s student newspaper. He had written his final evaluation.
Would Tony’s new role mean the end of Team classes? Identifying a new partner would be a challenge because it’s like a marriage: You have to know when to talk, when to listen; when to act, and when to wait and see if things will blow over; when to use a carrot, and when to use a proverbial stick. I knew someone who was already the ideal partner I sought, but she was teaching across the city, in Germantown close to home at AMY Northwest, our sister school. Fortunately (for me) Bette had just been acquitted of making racist remarks and may have been open to a change of scenery. She confessed, “I’d love to get out of there, but I don’t want it to look like I’m running away. They may see that as a weakness, or a confession of guilt. And I’m still waiting for the staff to show me full support.”
I sprinkled the subject of Tony’s retirement into many conversations and hoped for the occasional sign that Bette’s resistance may be wearing down. Our prayers were answered when the principal of AMY Northwest, like principals Joe Doyle and “Dizzy” Dean before her, surprised Bette by eliminating her position from the roster. As a reward for the farcical charges, Bette was placed at the top of the list for teachers’ seeking transfers. As luck would have it, AMY school’s new principal, Eileen Dwell, had attended Fels Junior High with Bette in the 1960’s. They used to chat when stopping by their lockers. I put on my roster builder and union representative hats and worked with Eileen, creating an overly ambitious reading specialist position, knowing that no one but Bette would apply.
Thanks to false accusations of racism and a gentleman’s “pedalogical” concerns, AMY welcomed a new face for the fall trimester. I had a new teaching partner; and, once again, we could bounce lesson plan ideas off one another as we pedaled through the streets of Philadelphia. Bette had a fresh start without need of a Race Card. Her teaching skills, good intentions, and personality would be enough. We began to teach a Team class covering a different part of the world every trimester, looking closely at the lives of children.
An annual rite of spring appeared in the form of a letter from the IRS. The auditors challenged the amount we spent on educational travel, by far the biggest chunk of our budget. Once a year, I journeyed to the William Green Federal Building on Sixth Street right across from Independence Hall, bringing AMY’s course catalogue, our Team syllabi, travel photographs, magazines, games, and other artifacts. Each time, I wore the auditor down, and the case against us was dismissed. Or the inquisitor just decided that the I.R.S. could spend its time more wisely by going after bigger tax cheats.

Our union newspaper ran an ad seeking Philadelphia teachers looking for a free trip to Japan. We researched and learned that an anonymous Japanese yakuza (organized crime boss) wanted to improve his image by becoming a philanthropist. He treated thirty teachers, including Bette and me, to a first class tour where we met religious leaders, artists, politicians, writers, and other movers and shakers of Japan. All we had to do in return was create a Team course called “Just Japan”.
The highlight of the term occurred when we broke the class into two groups. My group used my study guide to plow through various sections of Hiroshima in order to script and present a Jerry Springer-style talk show. Guests included the five survivors featured in the book, the pilot of the Enola Gay, veterans, and President Harry Truman. We utilized archival U.S. government footage of Hiroshima’s destruction. Planted audience members shouted out diverse opinions of the decision to drop an atomic bomb in the middle of a crowded city.
Bette’s half of the class dramatized The Year of Impossible Goodbyes, the story of a multi-generational Korean family during the harsh Japanese occupation. As a result of the course, our students would never think of all Asians as being the same. Bette and I felt that history is often taught without regard to lives of ordinary people, but with all of our Team classes, we sought materials that would help history become relevant and therefore memorable. And if students acquired a distaste for war, that would be a bonus.
One day at lunch, our counselor, Dennis, handed me an announcement and asked, “Do you want to attend a Temple University leap conference?”
“What’s Temple University leap?” That’s not a trio of words I usually run together.”
Dennis explained that LEAP was an acronym for “legal education and participation”. I consented when I heard that a substitute teacher and lunch would be provided. As a result, I discovered a previously hidden world where teachers develop and share interesting, lively civics lessons. The proliferation of judge shows on television taught me that most people sought a better understanding of the law. As a result, I created a generation of “Young Lawyers”.
On the first day of each term, I whet appetites by asking for general questions. My intentionally frustrating answers: “We’ll get to your privacy rights when we study the fourth amendment in week seven,” or “You’ll learn what’s required to win a civil lawsuit the final week of the term.” The livelier parts of the course followed a fairly dry, detailed review of the Constitution. And because students had to learn to persuade and listen to one another, courtroom procedure was part of my introduction. They needed to pass a “bar exam” entitling them to play the roles of lawyers when we got to the mock trials. Each passed exam became a shingle displayed on the classroom wall.
For all mock trials, students were required to outline the evidence in order to write a closing argument (utilizing higher order thinking skills- my Penn State method course instructors would be proud!) at the end of each case. When word got out that “Young Lawyers” was a lot of work but worth the effort, I usually had a group of self-motivated learners enabling me to feel like a real teacher.
We visited Philadelphia’s Criminal Justice Center to observe homicide trials. Most cases involved drugs, a love triangle, or both. Students were surprised to see that the lawyers chatted and joked when the jury was in recess, not like on television where they act like they’re ready to kill one another. During the lunch recess, we cruised past the holding cells in the building’s basement. No “tough love” lectures were needed to emphasize the moral of the story. The obvious lesson was that, unless you were here on an academic mission, this was a place to avoid. Only once did I receive a surprise greeting from one of an ex-students awaiting trial. He had elected not to enroll in Young Lawyers, depriving him of the opportunity to learn that murdering a pizza delivery guy is a bad career move.

Meanwhile, Micole and Alana were enrolled at Mount Airy’s Henry School. Like AMY, it was a desegregation school designed to keep middle class children enrolled in Philadelphia public schools. Every morning, a gathering of white families would congregate outside our neighborhood’s Kelly School for the yellow bus. The girls quickly discovered their favorite part of Henry School. Every spring, the school presented a complete production of a different Broadway play. Our little song and dance girls acquired roles in “Oklahoma” and “Bye Bye Birdie”.
I too was dabbling in theater with an elective course called “Soap”. Students wrote vignettes based on teenage problems and performed them for the rest of the school in our first floor multi-purpose room. By the end of the term, we attempted to bring the differing plots together with varying success. The material, though fun, was amateurish compared to what I saw at Henry and often in questionable taste as we incorporated topical current events into the show. The friendly, neighborhood abortion clinic, pedophiles, and an unscrupulous minister worked their way into our drama. To save on costly paper and provide as little evidence as possible if “trouble” arose, each actor was handed only the lines he or she needed for a scene. Fortunately for me, like Shakespeare’s works, no original scripts remain.
When I volunteered to play the drums for the Henry School shows, I marveled at the director’s ability to get two hundred participants, ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade, to flow in one direction, all working for the good of the show. I was called in during the final week of after school rehearsals, carefully dragging my old Ludwig drum set from our damp basement behind me. I had prepared by studiously listening to my scratchy, old “South Pacific” album. The director asked me to tone down my performances, so as not to overshadow the cast. As I watched adolescent boys wearing coconut shell bras rehearse “There is Nothing like a Dame” for the sixth time, I wondered if I could create a musical theater program at AMY. The talent was there, but I faced a lack of resources, parental support, a theater, and my own limited musical ability and directing experience. The one thing AMY had going for it was our flexibility in planning a roster.
Ricardo Martin, AMY’s music teacher, left to form the Rainbow Company at Philadelphia’s Prince Music Theater. Rumor has it that he left under auspicious circumstances. He called to ask if we could fit a musical theater program into our school. I volunteered, once again, not knowing where this was heading.
The first reward was a day off to meet with the Rainbow Company representatives. I knew they were well funded when we lunched at Bookbinder’s Original seafood restaurant.
The director, a short, squat Black woman with stringy, thinning hair, introduced herself as Miss Dianne. (I was happy to hear that she worked behind the scenes.) She explained her few rules: “You’ll work with Miss Pat to get me a script. It’s my job to get the show onto the stage. Now don’t you go giving me no dancing elephants or plane crashes. I know what the Rainbow Company can do. I know the budget. I know the props. You just get me a script in six weeks. I’ll take it from there.” Miss Dianne stepped aside as Miss Pat returned from a cigarette break.
After unsuccessfully attempting to constrain a cough, Miss Pat began. “I’ll be at your school twice a week for six weeks. If your kids want to see and hear their words and ideas on a real stage performed by professionals, we can make it happen. All we ask for is a commitment from you and your students. I’ll bring contracts for them and their parents to sign. They can also audition for parts. And don’t worry about the songs. You’ll write the lyrics and let us know how you want it to sound. Our musical director takes it from there.”
At our first writing session, three ideas were suggested: a ghost story, a war setting, and a cautionary tale of a bullied boy. Somehow, Miss Pat combined the three and came up with a musical featuring a bullied victim encountering his deceased Vietnam vet grandfather in a haunted house. It was original, and it worked!
The second year, we produced a musical about an abusive mother called “The Perfect Family”.
The grant was to last for three years. For our third show, we wanted to try something different. Some of the Showtime students had seen the French detective farce, The Tall Blond Man with the One Brown Shoe in our Team Europe class. They suggested we write a moody, film noire piece about a detective working on a long dead cold case who discovers that she, herself, is the missing person. The climax called for her to reunite with her estranged mother. At a writing session, Miss Pat asked, “How are we going to get them together? What possible reason would Mom have for contacting a daughter she abandoned thirty years before?”
Numerous ideas were considered, but none obtained a consensus until someone suggested, “Maybe the mother is dying, and she needs to make a connection while she still has time.” Miss Pat smiled with the satisfaction of a teacher who knows the secret of leading students somewhere and having them believe they arrived on their own.
Her rarely displayed smile made more sense during one of the ensuing rehearsals. Miss Pat had stepped outside for another cigarette break and caught up to me as she returned, “I’m glad this is going so well. It’s my last show.”
I responded, “I’m sorry it’s just a three-year grant. We started out pretty good, and we’re getting better and better.”
Miss Pat looked me in the eye. This took me by surprise as she was usually coolly detached and focused on script writing. After three years of working together, I hardly knew her. She repeated, “No. This is my last show.” I have inoperable lung cancer. The doctors have given me six months.”
An affirmative hug might have been in order, but the well-established distance between us was hard to breech. I had no response except for a weak, “If there’s anything I can do….” Miss Pat nodded toward the rehearsal and said, “You and your class are doing plenty. Maybe you don’t realize it, but you’re doing a lot for me already.” Her comment became even more appropriate when she added, “That’s my daughter, Ebony, playing the detective.”

My agreeing to take the Holocaust tour of Israel and Poland mandated that I would make the subject part of my curriculum. At the end of my Holocaust Literature term, the students combined the most memorable sections of all of the books to create a script called “Danielle’s Story.” The idea was borrowed from an exhibit at Washington’s Holocaust Museum. I asked my new student teacher, Karen Thoma, who had given up on the legal profession to become a teacher, if we were plagiarizing. She advised, “Since there’s no profit involved, don’t worry about it.” About the same time, Karen casually mentioned her background in theater and skill as a pianist. Voila! “Danielle’s Story” became possibly the world’s first Holocaust musical.
We manipulated the school’s roster to team up on “Showtime”, a favorite with performers and our audiences. All that was missing was a theater as AMY’s “gymatorium” was utilized all day for physical education classes.
More good timing: The union newspaper ran an article mentioning that Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Theater was looking for an introduction into city schools. Again, I volunteered. With student labor, we designed and built a stage in the underused multi-purpose room. Walnut Street provided permanent lighting and gallons of black paint. They brought us to their warehouse where we found curtains and perspective props. AMY’s school custodian overlooked the contractual provision that regulated who could handle a paintbrush or a hammer in public schools.
Later in the term, I attended a Holocaust educators’ workshop. While lunching with the authors of Ten Thousand Children (a book about German Jewish children being sent off to England to escape the rise of the Nazis but having to leave their parents behind) I proposed turning their Kindertransport stories into a musical. I was surprised when the authors agreed. I transferred one song “Shall We Stay?” (dramatizing a family’s difficult decision to send their children overseas) from “Danielle’s Story”; Karen and I composed a few others. Walnut Street Theater provided professional expertise. We had a short, successful run.
When a teaching position opened over the summer, we were happy with AMY’s designation as a school where we could select staff members. Karen interviewed and was appointed, and “Showtime” became a permanent fixture on our roster.
If you work at something for thirty three years, you’re supposed to be pretty skilled at it. I generally took it in stride when people said I was a good teacher. I credited time and the wisdom to evolve as I encountered new ideas.

What could drive a pair of happy, successful, likable teachers into early retirement? Four letters: NCLB (No Child Left Behind). Though the law may have had idealistic, altruistic intentions, those four letters spelled trouble for AMY school. Our general unspoken policy had been to stay quiet and hope the powers-that-be didn’t notice what we were doing.
A provision of NCLB required that teachers must be certified in the area we teach. Sensible and innocent enough, but it meant that I had to take a Praxis exam to prove my ability to teach social studies. It didn’t matter that my principals had been giving me rave reviews for thirty years. It didn’t matter that I had received Teacher of the Year and Holocaust Educator of the Year commendations. I saved a few bucks by eschewing the strongly suggested preparatory courses because I had faith in my abilities. (I also applied and was accepted to fly out to a posh St. Louis hotel to sit on the committee that created the rubric for grading the exam. NCLB had friends in high places.) My Praxis test score was 100. I had paid a few hundred dollars to gain the necessary certification to continue teaching “Young Lawyers” and Team classes.
The 2003 school year began like most with AMY’s staff sharing donuts supplied by the Home and School Association while reviewing our summer vacations. The removal of jelly donut powder from my AMY polo shirt was interrupted when we received a shipment of hundreds of boxes containing required Language Arts materials and teaching guides to be used starting in two days. Every teacher welcomes new supplies, but the problem was that although the materials were shiny and new, this gift horse came with conditions. They were mandated and dull. Each grade had its own materials, ending the mixed grade grouping of our Team courses. Each unit consisted of an isolated selection of literature along with grammar, word usage, punctuation, and vocabulary exercises. We had supplemental CD’s, videos, artwork, and step-by-step instructions related to the theme. Of course the pre-test, practice test, post-test, and retest were included. New teachers may have been impressed with a wealth of materials making their lives easier, but this was overkill.
As Bette and I sorted through the boxes, my glazed apple cinnamon donut began to lose its sweetness. What was to become of the fun, interesting units we honed over the last thirty years? “Just Japan” became just a memory, replaced on the roster by Seventh Grade Language Arts. All that effort was to be tossed aside and replaced by this endless morass at the cost of two hundred dollars per student. Would our yakuza backer get word of our abandoning his homeland and put his criminal empire aside for a few days in order to torture us back into the fold? Were Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai still looking for work?
A saving grace was that the Pennsylvania honchos had not yet agreed on a standard social studies curriculum. They could not easily decide what needed to be included. Special interest groups lobbied for more African-American, Puerto Rican, and women’s history, Holocaust studies, and the contributions of Irish and Italian Americans. Should the curriculum include Sally Hemings, Cesar Chavez, Jane Roe, or John Brown? The lack of standardized social studies tests gave “Young Lawyers” a reprieve. Part of my teaching day remained satisfying, but the subject of early retirement began to creep into our conversations during our commutes back to Moorestown.
We had no fear of boredom because ten weeks of summer vacation had accustomed us to retirement mode every year. We had no shortage of places to visit. I knew I didn’t want to work until the day I died like my father and grandfathers, and Bette’s bout with leukemia definitely reminded us of our own mortality. Those annual statements from the Pennsylvania Retirement System, revealing how much we could bring in without working, became more tantalizing every time we cracked open those weighty, glossy, dull textbooks or duplicated boring worksheets.
But in spite of those four letters, NCLB, hanging over our heads, we still liked teaching. We looked forward to every day’s providing another chance to mold young minds and all the other clichés that drive idealistic, young people into the profession.
I recalled my conversion of Dr. Rivera a few years earlier. Maybe he, or someone like him at the school board, would listen to reason and realize that AMY’s ways of doing things should be replicated instead of squashed. After all, the “A” stood for “alternative”, and our ways had earned us a “Blue Ribbon School” designation. Jim Murphy, our special education teacher, scanned the thirty-six page application and asked, “What’s it mean to be a Blue Ribbon School? Can’t we just skip the application and call ourselves a Red Ribbon School?” And there was the matter of a contractual provision where union members could vote to abrogate portions of the contract to improve individual schools.
This time the meeting was scheduled at AMY, so I anticipated a home court advantage. I fortified myself with my numerous syllabi and AMY’s impressive course catalogue. If needed, I could invite my adversary to my book closet to display the wealth of materials I had collected over thirty three years. She could even meet AMY’s students who would freely offer testimony defending our school’s positive effects on their lives.
On my way to school, I recalled previous meetings in principals’ offices, beginning with the fifth grade me who accidentally tore a hole in the American flag. I escaped serious punishment then and learned that the principal’s office was a place to avoid. I succeeded until I became a union representative. Then I was asked to represent teachers accused of various misdemeanors.
One was a substitute who reported to work so drunk that she might have been recorded on a Richter scale. She explained, “Oh, thas my med-, med-, med- ication.” I tried to remain the neutral party, merely there to confirm that her contractual rights were being upheld, but the medication smelled just like the kind of wine usually concealed by a wrinkled paper bag. I merely observed and took notes.
I also represented a teacher who was a strong believer in animal rights. After a PETA representative spoke to her class, students were encouraged to write letters to companies who utilized laboratory animals to test their products’ safety. The letter writing campaign would have been more effective if a Gillette vice president did not telephone the principal to complain that one of the letters threatened to blow up the company’s headquarters.
Once I had to defend myself against the charge of insubordination, a catch-all phrase like “disorderly conduct” which administrators use when they can’t think of something more specific.
The affair started innocently enough with an American History lesson on Henry Ford’s development of the assembly line that changed the world by making the automobile available to the common working man. I asked my students what they would pay for a Philadelphia hoagie sandwich.
“About three dollars.”
“And how much to you think the store pays for all that
stuff that goes into making a hoagie?”
“Maybe a dollar.”
This led to a fund raiser, a “Have It Your Way Two Dollar Hoagie Sale” where ninety percent of the school’s students and staff pre-ordered sandwiches prepared to their individual tastes. Considering that the competition was federally funded “space pack” school lunches, our success was not surprising. Students did the math and decided how much inventory we needed to purchase. I purchased latex gloves, caps, and hand sanitizer.
All went according to plan with my fourth mod students eager to play their parts on the assembly line until a recently appointed vice principal appeared. He said, “Bob, may I speak to you in the hallway.” The use of the nickname was supposed to show that he was there on a friendly mission, but those who know me know that I am never “Bob”.
“Sure.” I resisted using the vice principal’s nickname, “Wiggy.” Some students called him that because his toupee, resembling a rodent which had been dropped from above, matched his brownish green vintage high-finned Cadillac.
“Bob, I can’t let you go on with this hoagie sale. There was a botulism outbreak at Howell Elementary last week, and we just can’t take a chance.”
I then detailed the safe restaurant practices which had previously been reviewed by the home economics teacher. I informed Wiggy, “I managed a restaurant. (I didn’t mention that I was paid $1.25 an hour to “manage” a fifteen-cent hamburger joint in the sixties. No need for the whole truth sometimes.) You don’t have to worry. Every health precaution has been taken. We’ve collected money from three hundred people, including some members of the administration, who are counting on us for their lunch. And take a look around. I can’t return all of the meat, cheese, rolls-”
“I’m sorry, Bob, but I can’t let you go through with the sale.”
I thanked Wiggy for his concern. After he waltzed away with an air that must be taught in administrators’ courses, a student asked, “Mr. A, what are we going to do?”
My ace in the hole: I knew that the sale was in my lesson plans which had been dutifully signed and approved by the principal, Doc Richardson. I also knew that Doc rarely scrutinized the plans I submitted. He once signed off on my Language Banquet class spending two days translating James Joyce’s Ulysses into Aramaic! Like Henry Ford himself, I ordered, “Let’s get this assembly line rolling!”
The sale went well. Customers were happy. We raised money for the underfunded Home & School Association. Every objective of my lesson was met. And even though my fears of forever being known as “Botulism Bob” were allayed, I avoided Wiggy for the next few days. Eventually I received notification that he wanted to meet with me in the principal’s office. He threatened placing a negative report in my file. I knew that files were destroyed at the end of each school year, so I didn’t worry.
As I entered the office I noticed a bead of sweat streaming down from what would have been Wiggy’s hairline if his toupee had been properly placed. He rose, weakly shook my hand, and said, “Bob, I’m glad your sale went well, and there were no health problems as a result of your insubordination. I spoke with Doc Richardson, and he’s agreed to let the matter drop. You do not have to worry about repercussions.” I smiled and performed a small, ritual victory dance once I cleared the doorway.
My final meeting in the principal’s office also began with another brief, cold handshake and an introduction: “Good afternoon. Stephanie Anderson from Analytics,” a division I didn’t know existed. I introduced myself and, not knowing how much time I had, I asked if I could review what my typical teaching day was like. Ms. Anderson listened, nodded occasionally, and generally looked as if she had somewhere else to be. When I described my Language Banquet elective, Ms. Anderson asked her first question. “Do you really think students can learn a new language every week?”
“Of course not, but they gain an appreciation of language itself, in addition to lessening their fear of learning a foreign language later on. They gain a greater respect for people just learning English. Developing lifelong learners is a stated school district objective. And their spelling and vocabulary skills improve every day.”
Ms. Anderson cut short my intended lengthy description of Young Lawyers. “Mr. Allekotte, you have provided much anecdotal evidence, but can you provide me with anything to validate what you say?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, the provisions of No Child Left Behind require evaluative tools to substantiate student improvement. Do you have any pre- and post-test results to validate your opinions?”
“Of course not. I’ve always believed that any time spent testing takes away from teaching time.” I was proud to be quoting Tony Day.
Ms. Anderson’s response surprised me. “Do you know that I represent Houghton-Mifflin Analytics? My job is to ensure that our materials and your teaching conform to the standards required by the law.” I saw her in a different light. She should have been wearing an executioner’s mask as each provision of the law was driving another nail into AMY’s coffin.
I asked, “Can you help us develop tests to validate our successes?”
“I’m sorry. That is not my department.”
Another question: “Are any schools exempt from the new standards?”
The answer was, “No. Not public schools anyway.”
To quote the Grateful Dead, I was “Set up like a bowling pin. Knocked down. It gets to wearing thin. They just won’t let you be.” I dragged myself away from the meeting with the certainty that NCLB would spell the death of alternative public education. If one of the goals was to drive experienced, costly, pro-union teachers into retirement, it was succeeding. I had entered the meeting hoping to make Ms. Anderson envious of my students who envisioned themselves arguing cases before the Supreme Court. I wanted her to observe the great things taking place at AMY school.
Mismatch Day at AMY

Shortly after my meeting with Ms. Anderson, I submitted the required papers to join the ranks of former teachers. I began to compose my retirement song to the tune of the obvious choice, the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin,” the longest song I knew.

Teachin’, the one job for me. Started way back in 1973,
And now, I’m finally free to just be movin’ on.

Followed my dear older brother to Penn Treaty,
Two hundreds kids and sixty two dollars a day.
Teachers, disgusted, most of the students, needy.
I joined a mini-school to do things my way.

Teachin’, but no one cared what I taught.
Youthfully I entertained and I fought.
Broke rules, and rarely got caught. I just kept movin’ on.

A new reading teacher was in my brother’s position.
Got a notion to go check her out at lunch.
Asked her to sign a bicycle rider’s petition.
To this day, I’m glad I followed that hunch.

Wond’ring, she gave her autograph.
Thought I was part of the custodial staff
Thinking I’d be good for a laugh, and she’d be movin’ on.

Sometimes the kids would rattle my cage.
Blame it all on a Piaget stage.
Rememb’ring me when I was that age.
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

What in the world ever became of laughter?
There is no room in the curriculum.
Fill them with facts, so they can recite them after.
Seems the goal of the plan is to keep them real dumb.

Bette, thirty years satisfied.
Even had fun teaching Genocide.
We never felt too frenzied or fried. We just kept movin’ on.

Endless, senseless directives from our new bosses.
Like “Is there serious rigor displayed on your walls?”
My teaching guides are sprouting rare molds and mosses
While numerous kids are wandering through the halls.

Teachin’: Comply with Act 48* (*PA version of NCLB). Try our best to keep our school first-rate.
But really nothing’s changed ‘cept the date.
We just keep movin’ on.

Standard curriculum, every new thought from a text book.
I knew right away this was not for me.
Soon as we breathe, go right onto the next book.
By the way, did we make our AYP*?
(*adequate yearly progress- what a joke!)

Most days, I still felt pretty good.
Proud to be standing where I stood.
Would you leave there if you could?
What a long, strange trip it’s been.

Truckin’ onto Brigantine.
No uniforms, just faded, cut-off jeans.
No more pretending to be mean.
I’ll just be movin’ on.

“Remembering when I was that age” (My 7th grade report card)
At my farewell dinner, I planned to explain my decision to retire, but the din of late-night crowd in the chosen venue was so loud that the lyrics had to serve as my swan song. I quit trying to out-yell noisy rooms decades ago. Couples out for a romantic dinner or singles attempting to impress others at the bar did not want to be interrupted by me; and those who knew me already knew how I felt about leaving the profession.
I would have displayed the report card showing the seventh grade me. I would have avowed my appreciation for those teachers who didn’t give up on this misbehaving young man who had his mind on his acne, his cowlick, wondering if he’d ever kiss a girl, and rethinking if he hid his lunch money in a secure place. Anything but the seventh grade curriculum! I would have thanked my country’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam, for it was that fateful event (and my determination to avoid going there) that transformed me into an honor student overnight.
I thought I had retired, but Fate had another plan for me. During AMY’s annual January ski trip, Bette damaged her meniscus with a tumble and was eligible to collect worker’s compensation until she recovered from the surgery. I offered to spend my first few months of retirement as her substitute teacher. I enjoyed covering her favorite classes, “Coming to America” (history through the study of immigrant groups), “Maps & More”, and an elective called “Manners”.
Bette returned in the spring, and Marie, our secretary, may have sensed that I wasn’t ready to say good-bye. I agreed to move downstairs to cover classes for Jim Murphy’s autistic support program. After thirty three years of teaching, I learned far more than I taught in this parallel universe. Assisted by two aides, I witnessed a young man who continually warmed his right hand in his butt crack in between offers to shake hands with everyone he met. Another finished his work as quickly as possible in order to spend time at a computer screen, identifying the year, make, model, and engine size of every car that came across the monitor. The most interesting case was a twelve year-old with zero communication or social skills. He spent much of the time rolling and sobbing on a gym mat. The biggest triumph of the term was an aide’s getting him to indicate whether he preferred peanuts or raisins for his snack by pointing to a cupped hand.
By the end of the term, Bette submitted the set of forms needed to ride into the sunset with me. I composed her retirement song to the tune of “Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette”. (If you don’t know the tune and don’t feel like opening a YouTube tab, it also works well as a rap song.)

I’ve been known to have a heart of gold
And ladylike ways, I’ve been told.
The kind of gal who wouldn’t harm a flea.
But you don’t want to be on the street
If me and a certain character meet.
The man who first proposed NCLB.

I’ve witnessed teenage melodrama
And even survived leukemia’s trauma,
But there’s one thing I couldn’t overcome.
It seems that every new regulation
Brings me nothing but frustration
Making sure my students stay real dumb.

Teach, teach, teach: I’m in a bind.
Never a chance to use our minds.
If I meet George W. Bush,
I will kick him in the tush.
Then one fine day, we’ll all leave him behind.

After a lazy summer by the beach in Brigantine, I received a call from Marie. “Rob, Troy’s going to be out for a few weeks at the start of the term. Do you want to take his eighth grade American History courses?” Troy had come to AMY as our student teacher and ended up being appointed. As our only young male teacher, he worked hard and deserved his great success. Like most new teachers, he was happy to have a wealth of materials at his disposal. I considered returning, but regretted that social studies had become exclusively “history”. Geography, culture, economics, music, civics, and tasty ethnic foods would have to be squeezed between endless names and dates and strategic battles. And classes now traveled by grade, stratifying AMY’s once homogeneous population. On the other hand, I knew the eighth grade students, and the subject of American History was right up my alley.
We could do without the salt, sea, and sand of the shore for a time, but the early morning sixty-five mile commute didn’t seem like fun. Marie suggested I call Troy to see if we could work something out. Troy told me, “We are heading out to Phoenix for a few weeks. At least, I hope it’s only a few weeks. Taylor’s finally getting her tumor removed. Anyway, if you could sub, I’d know the kids will be in good hands, and my classroom won’t be destroyed.” When I mentioned the long daily commute from the shore, Troy added, “I’ve got another idea. Why don’t you and Bette house-sit for us? That would solve your transportation problem and give me one less thing to worry about.” I consented.
When I repeated the conversation to Bette, she asked, “What kind of surgery is Troy’s daughter having?”
“I don’t know. Some kind of tumor. I didn’t ask.”
“How could you not ask? The man’s daughter is flying across the country for an operation, and you don’t ask about it!”
I apologized. “Sorry. I’ll ask next time.” Bette returned to whatever she was doing, muttering something about men. I didn’t ask her to speak up.
I visited my old book closet to dust off the “Young Lawyers” lessons I had left behind. Like before, we reviewed the Constitution and prepared for mock trials. Since they will cover the Civil War, I chose trials from that era. I use the word “cover” because you can prove what’s been covered, whereas what has been learned often remains a mystery.
After reading an excerpt of the Gone with the Wind scene where Scarlett shoots a Yankee intruder in her hallway, I rewrote the scene from the soldier’s point of view. The prosecution and defense teams received the two differing versions. Simultaneously, two more groups prepared to put slavery on trial by recreating the 1857 Scott vs. Sandford Supreme Court case. They invented friends of the court by using the actual narratives from To Be a Slave. The book also included well-worn defenses of slavery from Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. I could sense the excitement mounting as students built their cases. As my retirement loomed, at least I could go out with a bang of a courtroom gavel.
Most of Troy’s students looked forward to the upcoming week of trials. But there were always exceptions. As I tried to explain that Washington and Jefferson’s views on slavery were self-serving because their fortunes depended on free labor, I noticed a spitball war taking place between two familiar combatants, Barbara and Mark. I had previously attempted to teach Barbara’s two sadistic older brothers who made her life miserable. I recalled that Mark’s father had died suddenly during the winter. His interest in school waned. If I had time the following week, I might share memories of my older brother and me tormenting our little sister but eventually coming to regret it. I could tell Mark about hearing of my father’s dying when I was teaching in Scotland.
I noticed a lanky, pimpled, bespectacled boy leaning way too close to a girl resembling a young Michelle Obama. They were sharing ideas to present to the Supreme Court. I was reliving my first crush, and I was thankful that interracial dating has become not only accepted but fashionable. Another familiar face, Dan, stared out the window. Maybe next week, I’ll learn why he preferred to spend a day hiding in a woodshed (yes- a woodshed, in Philadelphia) rather than AMY school. I returned to the present when Alexis, wearing pink fluorescent socks and a matching bandana, approached my desk. (It was “Dress Down Day”. Alexis had paid a dollar for the right to express her individuality.) She demurely asked, “Was Georgia under martial law at the time of Scarlett O’Hara’s act of self-defense?” Questions like that made me feel like maybe I was retiring too early. I spent the first part of the weekend glad to be part of the fray once again, but I was living in the past. This type of learning was condemned to the past under NCLB.
What if the principal or school district honchos happened by and saw the ensuing lively debates? I could defend our detouring from the standard curriculum because topics such as of slavery, property rights, self-defense, and military law were being discussed. This was much more fun than teaching the Civil War from a textbook. That was how many in my age group studied- and forgot- too much history. I imagined Ms. Anderson dropping by, congratulating me on my imaginative approach to social studies, and asking how to get her own children enrolled in AMY. She’d pull magical strings and return AMY to its heyday! She’d retire from Houghton-Mifflin after firing off an angry letter to the New York Times.
But on Sunday, Troy called. “Rob, I have some news! We’re heading back tomorrow. They had to delay Taylor’s operation because the surgeon is overbooked, and we have to wait a few more weeks.” The bang ending my career was reduced to a whimper. We cleaned Troy’s sheets, straightened up, and headed back to the shore to begin life as retirees.
A few weeks later, I stopped in to see how Karen was faring with “Showtime” rehearsals. On the way, I observed class after class of students’ filling out worksheets, providing short answers that are easy for a teacher or computer to check. Discussions were becoming relics of the past as students prepared for tests to prove that they were mastering the standard curricula. I passed Troy’s American History class to witness another skirmish in Barbara and Mark’s spitball war.
By finally leaving No Child Left Behind far behind us, Bette and I were free to plan an off-season vacation. We knew we would be heading somewhere to the west so we could visit Alana in Santa Barbara, a college she chose because it was rated the country’s most beautiful campus in a Newsweek poll and had a stellar acapella group. Frequent visits were planned to help relieve our empty nest syndrome. At a travel agency, I picked up an Overseas Adventure Travel brochure just to get ideas. Their top-of-the-line trips had always been too expensive and too ritzy for us, but I saw a promotional rate on a new itinerary to Vietnam that turned out to be cheaper than just booking a flight on our own.
Regretfully, Newsweek was accurate in its assessment of UCSB. While weaving up U.S. One toward San Francisco, Bette and I marveled at the crashing waves, looked to one another, and lamented, “Getting Alana back East is not going to be easy.” Twenty five years ago, my mother said the same thing after visiting my brother, Steve, in San Francisco. She was right.
We left the car in Steve’s driveway and headed to Vietnam, nearly as far away from NCLB as possible while still being on Earth. We did our best to escape the aged O.A.T. tourists whenever the busy schedule allowed. I mastered two words of the lyrical but challenging Vietnamese language, thit cho (dog meat). I avoided fast food frankfurters as a precaution.
After the tour, we booked a trip to Angkor Watt, the complex featured in our Junior Scholastic Southeast Asia texts using Cambodian currency. As we watched the sun set over the sprawling complex, a ten year old girl, carrying a tray of Pepsi Cola, approached us. She asked, “Where you from?” After I answered, she asked, “What state you from?”
I answered, “New Jersey and Florida.”
My new friend recited, “New Jersey. Capital Tren-ton.
Florida. Capital Tall-a-hass-ee.”
I told her, “I’m still not a fan of Pepsi Cola. Too much sugar.”
She frowned and whimpered, “Don’t you make my brown eyes blue.” What sales technique! Transaction completed! Her mastery of English (and the languages of every other tourist nearby) brought to mind many of the students I had taught. I wished they had all been so motivated. As I sipped the cool drink, I stifled thoughts of how what we were learning could have contributed nicely to a Team Asia class. Teaching was out of my system, until….
The next summer, I telephoned Marie, to see if any per diem substitute work might be available for the upcoming term. I agreed to a three-week social studies position subbing for the teacher who replaced me. He was due to return from his National Guard tour of duty in Iraq. Easy money. I could teach the new curriculum in my sleep. I would make phone calls and find a place to stay in the city.
I was surprised when I received a follow-up call from Marie. “Rob, I submitted your name for the position, but the computer wouldn’t let me. When I called Human Resources, they said that you were removed from the list. Apparently if you want to sub this year, the NCLB rules stipulate that you’ll have to pass a background check, a police check, and also get a child abuse clearance.” I needed to provide the government’s assurance that I wouldn’t molest the adolescents that I had been teaching for the past thirty three years. A little research revealed that these hurdles would set me back a hundred dollars or so. This was another side industry milking the NCLB regulations. I declined. I told Marie, “Looks like I’ll just be movin’ on.”

As a final farewell, Bette and I attended AMY’s graduation ceremonies. We joined the rest of the staff on the front row. Troy attended with Taylor, who showed no effects of her recent surgery except an uneven haircut. We should not have been surprised that there was no mention of our retirements or of our combined thirty years of service to the school. But one student, Colleen, sporting spiked hair, black and white, prison-striped panty hose, and a tattoo commemorating her promotion to high school, stopped me afterward. She asked, “Mr. A., back in sixth grade, when we were learning about Family Court, you told us a riddle. Then you said, you couldn’t say the answer until after we graduated.” Waving her diploma, Colleen added, “Now I’ve graduated; and I’m still wondering, what’s the answer?”
I apologized for my lack of memory and said, “You’ll have to remind me. What’s the question?”
“Why did Mickey Mouse divorce Minnie?”
“Oh,” I recalled. “She was fucking Goofy.” Thus, my teaching career ended not with a bang or a whimper, but with sharing a laugh over a slightly obscene, old joke; but no joke is old if you haven’t heard it.

I left my course outlines and materials neatly filed in cabinets. My sets of Young Lawyers books, Berlitz language guides, and Team materials remain stacked in the book closet. Those who sold a bill of goods of teaching and testing materials to the school district rendered my stash useless. But, there’s always hope. I believe that every pendulum swings back and forth. Experienced teachers know never to discard any old lessons. When NCLB is repealed, some curious new teacher will perform an archeological dig into my book closet and file cabinets and discover the wealth that an ancient civilization left behind. A Digital Age scholar will unearth these relics of the Paper Age and fill in some link in the evolution of teaching.
That teacher won’t be Troy, as he bid farewell to the School District of Philadelphia and gladly accepted an alternative education administrative position in Florida.
Thanks to the advent of social media, I don’t have to rely on my questionable memory to recall my contribution to society. Through the magic of Facebook, I keep an eye on thousands of former students. Occasionally, I read their posts. Barbara writes of her own bouts with her rambunctious two year-old. Mark served two tours of duty in Iraq before becoming a police officer. Colleen serves drinks at a yuppie bar in New Hope, Pennsylvania and has made certain that my Mickey Mouse riddle lives on. Stephanie sends me a photo she took with the mayor of Philadelphia. She is part of the city’s legal team. In her hand is a copy of the Constitution she received as a Young Lawyer. Alexis writes, “Mr. A. although I am majoring in electrical engineering at Drexel, I am minoring in education. When we discuss good teaching practices, I talk about you.”
And my favorite comment is from Eric, a merchant marine stationed at McMurdo Base in Antarctic.  He wrote, “Mr. A., You were the biggest influence in my life.  Next to Ronald Reagan!”

grade 7                                   “Remembering when I was that age”   (My 7th grade report card)

Waldo

                                                        Where’s Waldo?

                                                He’s run off with Drew Carey’s Mimi