High School English, 1985

I was a junior this year, no longer a underclassmen.  English was a class I actually enjoyed, and this year we had a new teacher at school who would teach both junior and freshman English.  It was my first class of the day, followed by French, with the indomidible Mrs. Carothers.  She was a force of nature.  Unfortunately for much of my junior year, English class put me and my fellow classmates in such a funk, it was hard to focus.

He was tall, at least to me, with a balding head and a potbelly to go with it.  His hair was combed back in greasy swaths, still showing the marks of his comb on a good day.  There weren’t many of those.  He wore a mustache that would come to remind me of Hitler.  His eyes were dark, hard and sometimes didn’t even seem to be alive.

We were supposed to be following the same curriculum as the other Junior English A-Level classes, but it seemed the teacher (seems I’ve blocked out his name) had other ideas.  We didn’t do an awful lot in that class, and while some kids would welcome that, we were the smart kids who knew we were missing out on important learning.  The teacher started out hostile from day one, yelling at kids to “sit down and shut up”, ‘cuz he was a-talkin’.  It got worse from there.

This man would frequently show up late, or not at all.  He would not call in to the school or the district office, so one of us would have to go tell them he didn’t arrive. Off to the library on those days- at least I could get some reading or homework done.  On the days he did show up, often late, he was rumpled and smelly- like he’d slept in his clothes after getting drunk off of cheap scotch.

He reeked of alcohol on so many occasions, and he was a mean drunk.  He’d sit up at the desk in front, and start berating the kids in class.  Anything could set him off.  He especially liked hurling racial epithets at us, regardless of our color or race.  It was so shocking, none of us had ever witnessed a teacher behave like this before.

We started meeting outside of class to strategize how to get rid of this guy.  It seemed no one was listening to us.  We’d go home and tell our parents (at least I would) about how nuts this guy was, but work commitments and a belief their “grown up kid” could take care of herself didn’t prompt much of a parental response.   We talked to our French teacher, who confirmed the other teachers didn’t associate with the man, since he kept himself away from the other adults.  Likely drinking, I had no doubt.  She encouraged us to fight this fight ourselves, in that independent French way of hers.  We talked about recording his rants, but it was hard to hide a tape recorder back then- usually a big thing that would fit in a backpack, not the tiny little shirt pocket size recorders we have today.  We knew it was up to us, the only junior class he taught, to fix this.  His freshmen classes wouldn’t have a clue about how to fight someone like this.

This man took to throwing kids out of his classroom if he felt like it.  We’d have to go down to the office and tell them he’d kicked us out.  We’d spend the rest of class sitting on the hard bench outside the counselor’s office with the rest of the school’s miscreants.  Only once in a blue moon did they take time to talk to us, and they didn’t seem to believe it was that bad.  We were just being dramatic teenagers, surely.

In the spring one day, this man had a particularly rough start.  He was drunk, as usual, and his car had made him late.  His hands bore the signs of engine grease, as did his pants.  He was in such a foul mood, we all sat in silence simply afraid to move.  He started in on one of the kids, launching into a racial tirade like I’ve never heard.  Many of the kids had enough of this by now.  They were standing up, yelling back “You can’t say that!” and “You can’t do this!”.  He only responded with a bellowing, eyebrow-singing blast of, “I can do anything I want in this classroom, and no one can stop me!”.   In an out of character move for me, I simply raised my hand as the others tried to fight on his terms.

I kept my hand raised through the course of the screaming, and finally he noticed me.  He ordered me to put my hand down.  I quietly said “I have a right to speak, and I have something to say.”  The other kids turned and looked at me, sitting down, quieting down too.  His was the only loud voice now.

“I said PUT YOUR HAND DOWN NOW!”  he thundered.  Surely the teachers in rooms around us could hear this, but no one was coming to our rescue.  “No, I will not,” I responded firmly but quietly.  “I will be acknowledged as having the right to speak respectfully in this class.”  “Like hell you will!  Get your shit and GET OUT!!!”  The class was so quiet, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears.  I wasn’t crying, thank god, but I was angry.  I gathered my things and went to the office.

At the office, I demanded to see the principal, who was in a meeting they would not interrupt.  I waited, missing my next class.  I waited long enough for my counselor to notice my waiting and ask what happened.  I told him the story, and then when the principal finally saw me, I told him too.  I don’t know how many other kids or parents had talked to him, since all of this seemed to be news to him.  I told him everything, especially how upset I was the school and district could allow this man to abuse us this way, wasting an entire year of education.  I said I would not return to that classroom under any circumstances, and they would have to make arrangements for a transfer for me and anyone else who wanted out, or I would go to the papers with the story.  Of course, I didn’t know anyone at the papers, but it sounded good at the time.

I didn’t go back to that class, and neither did anyone else.  No one would tell us what happened, not even Mrs. Carothers could find out for us.  He just disappeared.  And good riddance it was.

To this day, I am missing formative English literature knowledge.  I didn’t get to read the Grapes of Wrath, or the Red Badge of Courage that year.  I missed out on more English Lit that I don’t even know about.   But I did learn how to speak truth to power, and how to have the courage of my convictions behind me.  I wonder if that wasn’t a more valuable lesson after all.

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