Monday, April 17, 2017

Part 6: High School Twice

Not that the classroom failed to provide valuable lessons, but it was my extracurricular work that showed me the most about teenagers.

And about myself.

One teacher's bad apple was another's blue ribbon.

Not only did I direct plays, I had to get sets built and lights hung in the Commons because we had no theater.

Instincts told me which boys could be my assets: boys who were handy and spirited, however risky. Over six years, they were known as The Fly-By-Night Construction Company. They knew how to measure wood, swing a hammer, and wield a paintbrush. They fearlessly climbed into the rafters to hang lights. (Every now and then a girl helped, too, but those were different times, remember.)

Because modular scheduling provided free time each day, they worked between classes. Sometimes after evening rehearsals, they worked until midnight. A colleague once asked, "Aren't you afraid to be alone in the building with those boys?" That's how mislabeled they were. When I said they were often the highlight of my day, she was speechless. 

With no basement or warehouse, our platforms were stored at the lagoon, a fenced drainage area that housed goats to control the grass and weeds. Our stuff was stacked in the goats' shelter. In order to get what we needed, a few of the boys and I created a goat distraction at the far end by rattling soda cans filled with rocks. That commotion, accentuated by our jumping and yelling, gave the others enough time to jump the fence, grab the platforms, lift them over the fence, and stack them in the back of the maintenance truck.

This battered pick-up, a standard and not an automatic, had erratic brakes, at best. It was every boy's ultimate driving adventure on those campus gravel roads.

Because I gave the boys free reign, there were surprises.

At morning announcements, we were once asked if anyone had seen the missing ropes used as boundaries around the football field. Across the room from me, the crew caught my eye and surreptitiously pointed up. There they were--holding our theater lights in place. Because some of them were football players, they saw it as friendly borrowing. When the play was over, the ropes mysteriously reappeared around the field.

Another time when we ended up with a blank space on our set, two boys had an idea. They approached a local greenhouse about loaning us potted shrubs. The owner agreed but insisted they needed regular sunshine. Because that was impossible in the Commons, the boys had been faithfully carrying the plants outdoors after school, watering them, loading them into the pick-up, and driving them around in the bright Oklahoma sun. I had no idea about this until I spotted them joyriding the plants. All smiles, they honked and waved as they passed me. These devoted boys had once been accused of stealing from the theater treasury.

Sometimes schools get it wrong.

One afternoon I was desperate to get lumber delivered for scheduled crew work. The pick-up was out of commission. I searched the Commons for help, and a boy stepped forward. Not any boy either. He'd been labeled the meanest boy any faculty member could remember.

I took a chance.

An unrealized gentleman, he raced around opening doors for me, and when we arrived at the lumberyard, he insisted on taking the receipt and overseeing the loading into his mother's station wagon. On our return, he stopped at a convenience store, emerging with an Icee for each of us. "It's really hot out here, Ms. Clark. This might help." He refused my money.

Teenagers make all kinds of mistakes. But a golden heart defies negative labels. He needed someone to look past the tarnish because he was desperate to shine.

By this point I understood how easy high school had been for me the first time through. No one had ever labeled me as a throwaway. This time, however, in my second high school experience, I was deemed a problem child.

I felt the sting of not being appreciated.  

I vowed to see the kids. And to hear them.

That's how I discovered the humiliation girls felt in their uniforms: box-pleated skirt and middy. Boys wore regulated clothes from their own closets; girls wore turn-of-the-century outfits that had to be ordered. In public they received stares, jeers, laughter in get-ups making them look like identical dolls.

It's a complicated story, but I backed their decision to seek a uniform change. They were supported by boys, as well. Suffice it to say, all kinds of roadblocks were set in motion. They pushed through. A student opposition was instituted. I eavesdropped during play rehearsal while one side debated the other. In a forum with parent representatives, I explained that if we were genuinely supporting equality for male and female students, and if we felt the girl's uniform was appropriate, we should institute a similar look for boys: plaid knickers and middy.

Resistance began crumbling.

The day I wore a girl's uniform to school, the tide turned. I looked ridiculous.

For two years, the students battled against a 50-year tradition. One group of senior leaders passed the torch to the next.

They won.

More than achieving some semblance of clothing equality, I wanted them to learn their power. I wanted them to know city hall could be defeated.

After I invited my former students to catalog what had mattered about their time at the school, I didn't know I'd be changed. All over again. By them.

That shouldn't have surprised me.

They were always my saving grace.

In meaningful, disparate ways, it turns out I was theirs, too.

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Friday, April 14, 2017

Part 5: High School Twice

Somehow I thought quitting would be the end of the story.

Of course not.

Eventually, I heard from a distraught student who confessed she'd spread lies about me for years. A teacher told her I'd been fired because of her.

There it was--a missing clue to my seven-year ordeal.

Inquisitions with agendas I never understood.

Student names I was hot boxed to reveal.

Accusations written about me. 

Unannounced classroom visits from a glaring administrator determined to get the goods.

Goods that had never existed. 

History is littered with victims punished by those who fall in love with the lies of desperate children. Her words expanded a narrative that people wanted to spin about me.

I assured her I had not been fired, that I was fine, that I did not hate her.

Ironically, her campaign of lies had set me free.

Why had that teacher lied to her about my departure? Why would he drop that kind of guilt onto a student? It certainly revealed the toxic climate that threatened all of us during those years.

When I finally spoke with the woman who replaced me, she asked, "How did you do this impossible job?"

Despite the storm clouds above me, I always had the wind at my back.

And that wind taught me great lessons about what it means to be a teacher.

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Thursday, April 13, 2017

Part 4: High School Twice

The school stuck labels to me like neon post-it notes.

Apparently, I wasn't doing anything correctly.

Yet, I refused to believe I was a train wreck.

Fortunately, I found helpers, what Fred Rogers showed his TV audience in the acclaimed Mr. Rogers Neighborhood. He once said: "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me,
'Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.'"

My first helper was a consultant who was heralded by the administration as the last word in teaching school. Around this time, I noted excellence started appearing on our marketing brochures, making me wonder if he'd been called in to cement this distinction. He was given a schedule of classes to observe; mine was not among them. After he attended our English department meeting, he asked if he could visit mine.

I assumed he was a spy.

When the classroom emptied, he complimented me for engaging students in a meaningful, exciting way. And he proceeded to outline the dismal teaching he'd witnessed at the school. Although it had nothing to do with his consulting work, he explained I was a change agent, someone always three years ahead of the status quo, someone whose ideas are never welcomed. I'd always face an uphill climb there, he added. At his closing presentation, in front of the entire faculty, he said, "Holland Hall is a very good school, but it is not an excellent school," and glanced at me knowingly.

This man, about whom we'd heard endless praise from the administration for months, was never mentioned again.  

Another helper, and here I use the term loosely, called me in for an annual review and asked why I pushed so hard. "Why do you always have to do everything to an A+ level? Couldn't you settle for a C?" I was dumbfounded. I was supposed to embrace mediocrity. I should set an example to my students by showing them how to be average, instead of appealing to their best. Was that how he defined excellence?

My world flipped upside down.

An unusual helper came in the form of a prominent father whose children had all graduated from the school, allowing him to hold a lengthy historical perspective. Out of the goodness of his heart, he talked privately with me about the way different headmasters had molded the program and what he predicted for its future. He praised my contributions and said, "You are an attractive, smart young woman with a sense of humor about the human condition. They will never let you succeed."

At a crossroads, I understood my challenge.

I'd have to sit still and keep quiet or persist at my peril. Martin Luther King, a witness to the price of silence, said: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

In February when I began this series, I told my daughter Maggie about the points I wanted to cover. An empathetic listener, she noted my rising distress as I relived those critical years, and said, "Mom, it's called White Male Privilege. They wouldn't let you succeed on your own terms."

After two years in college, it rolled off her tongue easily, knowingly.

It took me seven years in the trenches to accept.

And to resign.

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Friday, April 7, 2017

Part 3: High School Twice

When I say I turned out to be an above-average teacher, you'll have to take my word for it, unless you picked up a hint of my reach by reading the 12 reflections from former students.

Of course my daughter Maggie, who has a wicked sense of humor, read those posts and said, "Mom, I can see you helped lots of kids, but I wonder what happened to the ones who are still in therapy because you were their teacher?" Her eyes twinkled.

She makes a good point.

I made mistakes left and right.

Many were the result of impulsive decisions I made without having all the information. Or believing the words of colleagues who did not have my best interests at heart. Or not paying proper deference to my superiors. I was young, with all the arrogance that surrounded being the one who pointed out the emperor had no clothes, thinking my words would be appreciated.

I had a world to learn about teaching, and the school, for better or worse, made that possible.

For a faculty professional day, we listened to a brain researcher from Yale, I believe. He lectured on thinking styles: Concrete, Sequential, Random, Abstract. We took a lengthy test to determine our  personal pattern and charted the numbers on graph paper. He asked if anyone ended up with a perfect square. As I recall, two of us raised our hands. "These are the best minds for teaching. They can present material from all four angles," he said.

I was sure the other man never faced the assaults I did.

Capsulizing the assaults is difficult after 35 years, but I've carried those critical stones long enough. When my 12 guest bloggers examined their pasts at the school, I believe they emptied their pockets of sharp rocks that had nicked their hearts for decades. 

Those students and I had something in common that no one realized at the time. We were Baby Boomers, with me at the early end while they accounted for the last wave. We listened to the same music. We'd grown up on the same TV shows. We were like-minded in ways that distinguished us from our elders residing in the building.

We were a voice for change in that buttoned-down atmosphere.

I taught among people who were at least 20 years older. They were focused on spouses, children, and mortgages. Many already dreamed of retirement. The few colleagues my age were men who coached and/or held administrative slots. Mostly they were math/science/language teachers.

I pointed out once that all administrative upper school decisions were made by men with the same background. The same brain. "That's one side of the coin reinforcing itself repeatedly," I explained and went on to illustrate the girls saw no leadership role models. Nor was an arts' opinion ever part of the official equation. Those assembled in the room stared at me. Blankly.

You see my predicament.  

In a male-dominated system, I was a marked target. They came after me constantly. I once went for three months without being called on the carpet and breathed a sigh of relief, thinking my worth had been realized.

No such luck. The onslaughts picked up speed.

My drama program was criticized because I didn't use the talent developed in the middle school program. My play selections were too ambitious, chosen to entertain me and far beyond the grasp of high school students. In fact, it was alleged that the demanding role I'd given one boy would surely drive him to suicide. I contended the role offered him a constructive way to counter his virulent case of senioritis.

Because we had no theater, we built sets on the patio and moved them into the Commons for our performances. The building designers had given us no closets, so costumes and props were stored on the faculty lounge pegs and shelving. The official assessment: "It's a constant mess."

I was hounded for my demanding English classes and for overly emphasizing writing with standards only reachable by graduate students. A well-respected boy returned from a college search at an Ivy League school and gleefully reported visiting an English class "like ours because they got on a roll discussing a poem and lost track of the time."

When a colleague and I reshaped the sophomore research program that we'd inherited, we reduced the time spent on library scavenger hunts for reference material. The fill-in-the-blank worksheets ceased being the centerpiece. This was deemed unacceptable because it watered down the curriculum, but we saw little merit to papers that were a patchwork of secondary sources.

The toughest indictments came in a letter specifying my personal unsuitability. I was not sufficiently sunny, nor was my body language acceptable. The way I held my head was of particular concern. Worst of all, I was not a team player. There were more charges, but these were the prominent accusations that I recall.

During this time in America, women began successfully challenging discriminatory workplace treatment through the courts. An attorney read my letter and insisted we had a winning case but added, "Honestly, if this is the mentality you're working for, it isn't a job worth having."


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Thursday, April 6, 2017

Part 2: High School Twice

Frustration, fear, and fury marked my seven years of teaching at Holland Hall.

My experience was not atypical for working women back then.

Questions asked of me during that early summer interview would be illegal now but were standard practice then for hiring women. Did I have a boyfriend? Did I plan to marry and have a family? Did I belong to a church? Did I have a long-term commitment to Tulsa? Society assumed marriage and full-time homemaking were the ultimate female ambitions.

A large part of my appealing candidacy, I was told, was the fact that I was single.

I got the job but didn’t meet my teaching partners until August.

The first one said he’d agreed to my hiring, despite my master’s degree. He delivered a pronouncement about the unsuitability of overly educated people for teaching. (He was the only member of the English department without an advanced degree.) He warned me against deviating from his curriculum. All lectures, classroom discussions, tests, and assignments would be determined by him. To keep my students aligned with his, I’d need to meet with him before each class and take notes about how he presented every lesson.

His closing words: “Don’t get any of your own ideas.”

My other counterpart was visibly discouraged to learn I’d be teaching material I hadn’t read since my own high school years. She’d devoted her personal and professional life to studying and traveling abroad, visiting the haunts of these illustrious authors, only to be handed someone who just fell off the turnip truck.

Explaining she had little time for me, she delivered a clear message:  I was on my own.

Welcome, Karen.

My other responsibility was competitive speech and debate. Because I’d participated in tournaments in high school, I had some background and drove our participants to Saturday events where I served as a judge. Fortunately, a staffing change the end of that year allowed me to escape into the drama program, an area where I was better suited.

Several months into my first year, I crossed the Commons after school, apparently looking pale and hopeless. Carlos Tuttle, wise and wonderfully independent Upper School Head during my first years there, ushered me into his office and asked how things were going.

Tearfully, I admitted I couldn’t do the job.

He laughed. “Of course you can’t. We knew it was impossible. Now let’s talk about how to help you.” That’s one of the rare moments when anyone understood my perplexing assignment or offered constructive assistance. Carlos patiently accepted my many mistakes and generously congratulated my successes.

Much of that initial juggling year remains a blur to this day.

However, I vowed to succeed.

The students were incredible. Quick, funny, sweet, smart. They captured me, heart and soul. 

A classic overachiever, I’d never failed in school yet. I could see how to improve my work.

I’d soon learn that didn’t matter.

Eventually labeled as a problem, my second high school experience was about to be viewed as anything but brilliant.

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Monday, February 13, 2017

Part 1: High School Twice

No one escapes high school.

Graduate or drop out, but the memories linger. You smile at them or puzzle over them or imagine how you could have handled issues differently. Like it or not, those formative years are never far from you.

The same is true for high school teachers, too.

I discovered this recently when my friend Laurel encountered one of our high school English teachers who is now 100 years old. She told Laurel she was sorry the department did not give me the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Essay Award. They chose someone who wrote a standard academic response to that year's writing prompt. Mine was more moving, deemed "emotional" by some faculty members. Yet she still believed my determination would have prevailed all the way to Nationals.

That had happened 50 years ago, and her regret continued.

Laurel secured her address. I sent the teacher my book and a note assuring her that I had persevered as an ambitious writer, despite that early loss. Honestly I hadn't thought about that missed nomination in decades. She had. More than anything, I hoped my reply set her free at long last.

Sometimes schools get it wrong. 

It did, however, make me consider many of my former high school students and how they remembered those turbulent years. I wondered how their choices had impacted their lives and how they'd made peace or not with what they'd done or what had been done to them. Their written reflections, beginning in January 2016 and ending in December, were astounding but not surprising, based on how I knew their uncommon teenaged selves. My blog readers, who'd never met them or ever been to Oklahoma, were undone by their observations.

Now it falls to me, in all fairness, to evaluate my seven years with them at the school.

I never wanted to be a teacher.

I resisted the occupation from the time I was in first grade when I started being encouraged to consider the profession. I wanted to be a writer and thought I was headed that way when I landed an editorial job after graduate school.

Not so.

After almost a year at the company, I discovered it was in financial trouble, deeply and dangerously. I sought a way out. Through a series of unexpected events, I was hired to teach at Holland Hall Upper School. Keep in mind that independent schools typically function under guidelines exempting them from hiring state-certified teachers.

The Head of the English Department invited me to his house to meet the woman I was replacing. He assumed she'd be helpful. She was. But not in the way he intended. The curriculum discussion quickly ended when she began outlining her personal experience there as a teacher. As he attempted to change the subject, she leaped to her feet, charged toward the door, and snapped, " Of course I'm right! Look what they've hired! An innocent young girl!" 

I reeled.

I didn't think she was misleading me about the job I'd landed (out of desperation, not desire), but I had no way to understand the ordeal she'd described.

Schools had always adored me.

I was that polite, quiet girl who made perfect grades easily. Teacher's pet. Respected by my peers. I was some sort of editor for every printed publication. I wrote the school's monthly radio show. I was either in every play or headed a technical crew. I was awarded Best Girl Whatever in all kinds of clubs. The drama teachers permanently extricated me from study hall to serve as their assistant for anything that needed doing, which covered plenty in a large public high school. (Nevertheless, as straight arrow as this all sounds, my Saturday night hijinx were alarmingly risky, but I kept that under wraps, as clever teenagers often do.) 

In graduate school, English professors frequently admitted they saved my papers for last to spur themselves forward.

Exemplary. Competent. That's how I'd always been perceived in schools.

Things were about to change.

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Monday, February 6, 2017

Hail Mary Pass

Every year we watch the Super Bowl, although I'm mostly interested in the snacks and half-time show.

I don't know a thing in the world about the game itself, but I know a metaphor when I see it.

It looked bad for the New England Patriots on Sunday night. Tom Brady threw pass after pass that overshot the mark, when he could even get the ball into the air. Time and again he was knocked down.

As successful as he'd been over the years, nothing worked for most of the game. The camera often showed him slumped on the bench, looking baffled. Who could blame him? But he never looked defeated. He'd get up and run onto the field once more when his team had the ball. And he'd watch his plan slip out from under his fingers yet again.

People said Brady couldn't do it. He couldn't fight the odds as the Falcons' score charged ahead.

He did though.

That's the part about football that takes my breath away.

I know they practice relentlessly. I know a plan requires someone to break loose and run left as
someone else tackles so and so and the quarterback throws a ball. But in the tangled collisions, as the quarterback steps free, every pass looks like a Hail Mary to me. With hope sailing on a wing and a prayer, a teammate rises above his own doubt. He catches the ball and runs. Weaving through those stampeding mountains, he sprints across a thin white line of disbelief.

You can say it's all about muscle and strategy.

To me, it's a matter of faith.

That's what happened at the critical second when Brady threw and James White caught. 

I say this, not because I have any insight into sports, but because I know that slumped-on-a-bench feeling.

Authors famously recount tales of receiving dozens of rejections, searching for that one editor who rises up, contract in hand, to seize the project.

Talent aside, it's a writer's resilience, sometimes spanning decades, that gets a manuscript over the thin white line.

Recently I tacked note cards with colored stars on my bulletin board. They chart my effort. Every time a rejection arrives, I have a choice to stay on the bench or run onto the field. No cameras. No crowds. Just me, a story, and another Hail Mary Pass.

But you don't have to be a writer or a quarterback to understand facing impossible odds.

Someone eating popcorn in the stands will always think you can't do it.

But someone will think you can.

Go on.

Throw. 

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