I want to suggest another New Year’s Resolution: Speak up for teachers! The bashing and the budget cuts continue, the new tax bill undercuts public education in a major way, children and teachers in Baltimore City are forced to spend their days in unheated public school buildings, and teaching is–understandably–losing quality women and men. We can fight back in lots of ways, starting with organizing to see that schools are adequately supported.
Please take a moment to think about the teachers who helped make you who you are today. I’m sharing memories of two teachers who changed the way I think about education and (I hope) the way I conduct myself. I hope you will share your own stories in the comment section
Good leaders keep good teachers in the field, and bad leaders drive them out. It’s almost that simple. In forty-one years of reporting about education, I must have visited at least five thousand classrooms and observed an awful lot of really good teaching. My all-time favorite teacher is George from Maine. To me, George embodies the best in the business, because of what he stood for and how he stood his ground when the going got tough. We met at his public high school in the late 1970s. At the principal’s recommendation, I sat in on George’s ethics class, which was lively and interesting. Afterward we had a cup of coffee at my request, because I wanted to hear his story. Ethics, he told me, was one of a bunch of elective courses that seniors could choose from for their final semester of high school. He had taught it for the first time one year earlier.
Although the principal had already told me the basic outline of George’s story, I asked him to tell me what had happened in his class. He agreed. “I set the bar high because it’s an ethics class,” he said. “I tell the students that I accept only A or B work. Anything else, they get a grade of incomplete. I make it crystal clear to them that they cannot flunk the class—or even pass with a D or a C.” He told me that he did this because he wanted them to approach their lives and careers that way.
How did the kids react? “They’re seniors, and so a lot of them blow it off, of course,” he told me, “but I make them sign a letter of agreement up front. If they won’t sign, they can’t take the course.” He had cleared this approach with the principal, who agreed to support him. Midway through the semester not even half of the kids were doing A or B work, and so he reminded them of the contract they’d signed. He told me he could see their eyes roll.
With a few weeks left, many were still well under the A/B bar. And that’s when it got really interesting, he said. When the guidance counselor spotted all those incompletes on the interim reports, she called those students to her office and told them their diplomas were in jeopardy because no one with an incomplete was allowed to graduate.
Panic ensued, he told me. The students came clamoring to his classroom. “Please just flunk me,” some kids begged. They told him that they had enough credits to graduate, so an F wouldn’t hurt. “Remember the contract,” he responded. “No grade of F, D, or C allowed. Go back and do the work,” he advised. Now, remember that George had obtained the principal’s approval in advance, probably because he anticipated some problems. But he couldn’t have imagined what happened next. One student with an incomplete went home and complained to his father, who just happened to be the chair of the school board. That gentleman made an appointment to see George.
He came in, George recalled, with a mix of bluster and unctuousness. “I’m so proud of my son,” George remembers him saying. “My boy has been accepted at Colgate, he was voted most likely to succeed, he’s interning this summer at the local bank, and he’s spending all his time working on his speech for graduation—he was chosen to be class speaker. He’s on track to graduate, so why don’t you just give him a D? Or even an F, if that would make you feel better?”
“This is an ethics class,” George told the father. “And are you certain that’s the ethical lesson you want me to teach your son: that contracts don’t matter, that his word doesn’t matter, and that all that really matters is who you know?” Chastened, the father went home. The son did the work.
For me, George and his principal became models for the profession: high standards and expectations; clear rules; choices for students; academic performance as the constant, with time the variable; intellectual courage on George’s part; and solid leadership from the principal.
The best teacher I had outside of school and home was a coach for the St. Louis Cardinals. I’ve been a baseball fan for as long as I can remember, but I’ve been only a fan, not a player. In my case fan is short for fantasy, not fanatic. As a kid in the 1950s I spent hours being the hero of imaginary baseball games, throwing an old tennis ball against the barn wall and pretending to be Johnny Logan or Red Schoendienst in the field, Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron, or Stan Musial at bat. In real life, unfortunately, I was pretty awful, invariably one of the last chosen for pickup games and almost always the right fielder. But I had one glorious moment when I was twenty: an accidental invitation to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals, and a brief—very brief—chance to sit in the Pittsburgh Pirates’ dugout during a game.
In 1961, during my year off from Dartmouth, I was working in Kansas as a reporter-photographer for the Leavenworth Times. I was restless, enthusiastic, and energetic, and I managed to get myself fired in February 1962, largely for being a pain in the neck.
Jobless, I was free to do whatever I wanted, so I decided to hitchhike around the country. I took to the road, intending to wend my way south, toward warm weather and, more important, spring training.
I had read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road at least twice and was ready for adventures. Carrying only a sleeping bag and a dark blue flight bag with a Pan Am logo on it, I headed for St. Petersburg, Florida, where I knew I’d find the Cardinals, and Bradenton, where the Braves trained. Along the way I found places to sleep where I could: in fraternity houses, in the jail in West Memphis, Arkansas (my choice, not theirs), and under the stars, snug in my sleeping bag.
Coming into St. Petersburg toward the end of one afternoon, I asked the driver I had hitched a ride with to drop me as close as he could to Al Lang Field. He did so, and I still remember feeling awestruck, standing outside the park.
I walked right in—no guards, no passes, no questions. My awe turned to confusion because dozens of ballplayers were walking off the field, clad in nondescript, ragtag uniforms that looked more high school than major league. Still on the field standing around home plate, however, were several men in full Cardinal uniforms. Later it occurred to me that they must have been comparing notes on the hopefuls who had just tried out, would-be ballplayers who had paid their own way to St. Pete. That explained their uniforms, as well as what happened next.
Suddenly one of the Cardinals, seemingly one of the coaches, spotted me at the edge of the field. At six feet two inches and 185 pounds, I must have looked like another young hopeful. He walked over and said, “You’re too late, kid. I’m sorry.”
I had no idea what he was talking about and was too intimidated to ask. He must have taken my silence for shyness, and so he put his hand on my shoulder.
“Where’d you come from, kid?” he asked.
“Kansas,” I answered truthfully.
His expression grew sadder. “Jeez, I’m real sorry, but we just finished. It’s all over.”
I didn’t say anything, and after another minute he asked me how I’d gotten to St. Pete. I’d hitched, I told him.
“What position you play?”
“Right field,” I answered truthfully, “and third base,” I added, not so truthfully—my favorite player, Eddie Mathews, was a third baseman.
“You look like you can hit the long ball,” he said. That didn’t seem to be a question but an assumption suggested by my athletic build. I wasn’t about to tell him the truth.
After another silence, he smiled. “Tell you what, kid,” he said. “We’ve got a game tomorrow with the Pirates. You come here a couple of hours early, and I’ll let you hit a few. See what you can do. Whaddya say?”
I was stunned. He was mistaking me for a ballplayer, and he thought I had major league potential! I thanked him and left in a daze. I had just been invited, sort of, to try out for the St. Louis Cardinals. A genuine major league coach had looked at me and concluded that I might be a long-ball hitter! For a few minutes I was eleven or twelve again, in a coiled batting stance like Stan the Man, hitting against Lou Burdette or Warren Spahn.
Slowly I came back down to earth. Not only was I not a major league prospect, I was in a strange city. It was dusk, and I had no place to sleep.
I hitchhiked to Florida Presbyterian (now Eckerd College) and met some guys who agreed to let me crash on the couch in their apartment. At dinner we all laughed at the prospect of my actually trying out the next day—wouldn’t it be funny if I held the bat by the wrong end or threw the ball underhand? In fact, I had no intention of embarrassing myself by going through with the charade. But we all decided to watch the Cardinals-Pirates game anyway.
Spring training was relaxed and informal in 1962, not the cash cow it is today. The elderly man taking tickets glanced at my old press card and let me in. He didn’t seem to notice when I handed the card back to the next guy, who used it and handed it back to the next guy, until all six of us were in. We sat in the sun for a few innings, but I was feeling cocky and wanted more excitement. I went back to the field entrance and stood near the Pirates’ dugout, watching the game and stealing glances into the dugout at more of my heroes. While I was there one of the Pirates left the dugout, crossed in front of me, and went under the stands. He lit a cigarette, and when he took off his cap I saw his nearly bald head and realized that he was Dick Groat, one of the best shortstops in baseball.
I walked over to him and asked for a cigarette. He gave me one, and I told him about my invitation to try out for the Cardinals. Groat was amused, probably because I made fun of that Cardinal coach for having been taken in by my appearance. When he had finished his cigarette, he asked me to tell the story to some of the guys in the dugout. A minute later I found myself sitting on the bench. Bill Mazeroski was there, and so was Roberto Clemente, and I hoped my new college friends could see me. Groat told me to tell the guys my story. I started to, but I never got the chance to finish.
“Who the fuck is that?” a loud, gravelly voice demanded. “Get him the fuck out of here!” It was the tough-talking, cigar-smoking manager of the Pirates, Danny Murtaugh.
I waited for Groat or someone else to speak on my behalf, but no one did. Murtaugh advanced, glowering at me, but then dismissed me with a derisive wave. “Get your ass out of here. This is the big leagues.”
I left, but not before hearing Murtaugh say, “What are you clowns up to? If you guys want to win, then pay attention. That kid doesn’t even look like a ball player.”
Every story should have a hero, the person who teaches an indispensable lesson. It took me a long time to figure out who the hero was. It wasn’t Groat, Mazeroski, or any of the other Pirates I’d sat with during my brief major league career. No, the hero was that Cardinal coach. I doubt that he’d seen major league potential in me; instead, he saw a kid with big dreams, and he wasn’t going to break my heart simply because I was a few hours late.
I wish now that I knew who he was . . . and that it hadn’t taken me so long to appreciate his gesture.
Excerpted from “Addicted to Reform: A 12-Step Program to Rescue Public Education” (The New Press, 2017)