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. For every flaw I found, I offered a solution. To no avail.

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 about 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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  1. Karen, the boy with the virulent case of senioritis (long since in remission) remains grateful to you for your wisdom and emotional support at a difficult time. Thanks too for writing this piece, which is brave and thought provoking. I've come to feel that HH made us all better people, though not always in the ways intended.

    1. Cliff has always called it some kind of Stockholm Syndrome that has yet to be identified. Those of us wrongly labeled knew to stick together. That play was remarkable, making the audience scream with laughter and sigh wistfully at the end. I had enormously talented students who could have tackled any script. And did. Tom Stoppard and high school kids. Who'd have believed it?! I did.

  2. No matter where we are, who surrounds us, whatever may befall, it's all a lesson. One thing that makes learning bearable is being surrounded by people who are overjoyed to watch personal growth in themselves and others. Unbearable pain becomes bearable when we have community. Thanks for this piece. Obviously you created community for some grateful students. Treasure the contribution you offered others, even as you fought to remain true to your purpose.

    1. Perfect words. Thank you. It takes a long time to see the greater truth in an ordeal. A therapist friend once said that when you're in the soup it's hard to find your way around the carrots to reach the bowl's rim. Or something like that.

  3. Oh Karen--So many ungrateful people in this world. Difficult life you led for 7 years. I will say that I never thought you gave us anything we couldn't handle. We were challenged. That expanded our horizons more than anyone realized. There are many ways to get a mind to grow. You used every stop. So proud you are sharing these stories.

    1. That incredible consultant who spent valuable time inspiring me, on the school's nickel, promised that teenagers would rise to the level of my expectations. Indeed they did.

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