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, long designated as outstanding, 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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  1. Unsure of the author, ut I read this quote not too long ago. "Parents fear I will turn their children into Communists, when, historically, I can't even get them to do the readings."

    The change was in the air of a teaching and education revolution. They were scared, Karen. You represented the change they feared the most.

    1. True enough, Janet. I was too young to realize that at first, but by the time the helpful father presented his insight about my predicament, I understood. Recently, I encountered a James Baldwin quotation: Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.