Monday, March 17, 2008

A Letter from the Past

I finally began tackling the old file cabinet I purchased years ago. It is a lateral file that has to weigh a ton. The metal underneath is appalling; it's so heavy it is a perfect project for weight lifting. Among the many items I discovered hidden in the folders was a legal size envelope. Inside was a long-forgotten letter reminding me of a bad teaching experience.

In the early months of our marriage the only teaching job available was in a non-consolidated school 20 miles from the university. The students were from very poor families. Because of the small student population I agreed to be the "librarian" for several periods and teach three classes of English

I didn't think of my other responsibility until my turn for bathroom duty came along. Once weekly I (l) flushed the toilets after every two class periods and (2)cleaned and mopped the bathroom at the end of the day. With such a small group of students, I figured this was a pushover. My first day of duty revealed my low tolerance for odors. The five toilets had their tops and levers removed. I had to reach into the fresh water and pull the stopper (you know which one I mean). The students had never been encouraged to keep paper off the floor. After school I took the mob and bucket, filled it with water and soap to clean the floors, then wipe down the lavatories and toilet bowls. I learned to hold my breath long enough to rush in and out during the day.

The school day was a farce. When he felt like it, the superintendent called any group of students to his office, especially the football players, to "talk." Each of my classes had less than seven students. I brought the problem to him. How could I teach a missing student and get him to hand in his homework? He grinned and said his "talks" were more important than my class.

One day my one football player arrived late to class. I reprimanded him about his tardiness. He looked at me angrily and shouted "You can't tell me what to do, you xx??** teacher!" He turned to leave and stopped at the door long enough to pitch his text book in my direction. As he walked out of the room and down the stairs he continually slammed his fist on the walls, alerting everyone on both floors of his anger.

After school the superintendent asked me to explain my behavior towards his star player. After relating my side of the event, he began with an explanation:
"Mrs. N, you have to recognize how I run this school. I can call anyone to my office anytime of the day. As to this student, he is my star player and I won't have you being disrespectful to him. You should be glad he didn't throw you out the window! He tried that with a teacher once. John is the brother of a school board member and you have to be nice to him--or lose your job."

In the remaining week I heard warnings from the local teachers about the general behavior of this student. I was told to check my room each morning for any signs of snakes or bugs that this young man might put in the desk drawer. I feared my car engine might be tampered with, so I began riding with other teachers. The young man never returned to class. I stayed a total of two more weeks before resigning.

When I changed jobs I began to research the need for consolidation and planned to write an article in the state education magazine. I had discovered that a few superintendents still were holding on to their little fifedoms. I remembered the local teachers having told me how insubordinate they felt, embarrassment from the superintent they had to endure, how grades were changed for favorite pupils, how easily they would lose their jobs if they complained. I thought I had a good topic for discussion in print.

The letter I had saved was written by one of the teachers at this small school. She urged me not to reveal the behavior of this superintendent, as it would harm the remaining teachers and the town itself. I never finished the article, for within a few years that school was consolidated and the superintendent fired for sloppy leadership and failing students. That was proof enough I had vindication.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

A Masticating Memory

The Village Ladies are those in our subdivision who meet monthly for interesting programs and plan socials. Annually this group holds the egg hunt for all the kiddies in the neighborhood. After hours of "intensive" work one evening there was still a huge bag of candy remaining. I offered to carry the remainder home and purchase additional eggs to stuff. I was thinking deep within my soul that I could-- on the sly-- taste each type candy as a "reward" for my work. Today I was stuffing the last of the eggs with the assorted candies and gum, realizing how many more I could get into the larger ones. Digging down into the bag of candies I discovered a box that hadn't been opened. To my surprise it was my favorite chewing gum--Bazooka. Having given up this delicious gum eons ago, I had to have a piece to see if it still was easy to chew. It was, and I delighted in rolling it and pushing my tongue through it to see if I could still make a bubble.

Recently my dental hygienist warned me that my gum chewing days must end. When she found out that I was chewing Wintermint, a Wrigley sugar-filled gum, she tut-tutted that I should at least chew the sugarless type.

"But that stuff is like chewing sugar cane!" I moaned. I know the point of the gum companies is to sell their sugarless gum by making you exert your jaw muscles so vigorously that after 15 minutes of chewing you discover this chicle doesn't soften. So what? You just put in another piece of gum. At this rate, a pack won't last a day.

When that piece of Bazooka gum began to squirt its sugary taste, my memory bank tapped into a time bubble gum was so important in my life:

Summer camp in North Carolina during WWII. I was nearly 13 years old and getting mail had always been the highlight of any camper's morning. Parents knew how much packages meant to their camper kid. One camper, the biggest in our "tribe" opened her package one morning to discover a box of 144 pieces of Bazooka bubble gum. She shrieked, drawing the attention of the rest of us.

Manna from heaven. Food fit for little princesses. We salivated through our "ahh-hhs" as this suddenly Most Popular Girl rolled around in her mind how to leave the premises without dozens of starving-for-gum campers ploughing into her to grab a piece. She held the box above her head and announced "Anyone with a quarter can get a piece!"

In those days a quarter was almost unheard of. We thought in pennies and nickels. A few rich campers immediately assured MPG that they had the coins. The rest of us sighed, left to imagine the taste of this forbidden fruit.One of the rich kids, a little New Yorker who thrilled me with tales of her living in a high rise home in the city, was kind enough to split her piece of gum with me. She was to be my friend forever. Unfortunately, I never wrote her after that summer. But I did get to chew that gum for several days, being careful not to have it in my mouth at meal time.

Gum was a rare commodity during the war. Stick gum was always wrapped in aluminum foil, which was needed for the war. Eventually when we could get stick gum, it was wrapped in paper. Bazooka didn't come in aluminum foil. It's rounded shape, the size of a spool of thread, was always cuddled in waxed paper. Somehow the chicle in bubble gum became a commodity needed for the war. I believe more foreign kids got gum than any American kid during the mid forties. GI's gave away our gum. Photographs printed in magazines showed soldiers demonstrating to these kids how to blow bubbles.

Today, many years later, I carefully opened a piece of Bazooka, whose shape had shrunk considerably, and chewed it slow--ly. Ah, the juice was just as I remembered. As the juice disappeared, the pink gum became more pliable. And...I was transported to childhood.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Mandates Lifted from Madison County

Recently the Federal Court of Appeals in New Orleans lifted the guidelines for full integration of the Madison County, MS, public schools. Almost forty years have passed since the federal government forced integration of a district school system divided mostly by demographics and culture. The southern portion of Madison county steadily grows upward, having added one additional new high school and several new grade school buildings in recent years. Physical improvements have been made in schools of the northern portion where there’s little to no growth.

The federal mandate was lifted by the Court after the superintendent through intervention of their lawyers ask for a review of the integration attempts made to provide every school with the necessary learning tools and transferring teachers and students to balance the white/black ratio. The mandate created havoc when new buildings were needed to accomodate a surging student population, bonds for construction couldn't advance, or changes to curriculum were put on a back burner. Lacking these advancements caused excessive crowding of schools in southern Madison county.

The struggle to integrate this county has had its successes and its failures these years. During much of that time I was a member of the high school faculty in the city of Madison and watched compliance with changes that were instituted. Transportation was a major struggle. Parents, but not the federal government, understood that under no circumstances would they have their children bussed all over the county, regardless of the benefits, to satisfy just the government. The distance meant no parental support for night meetings and student activities.

Two magnet schools were organized many years apart in different sections of the county. Besides new buildings, up-to-date equipment, sound curriculum, time and resources were spent establishing a bi-racial advisory committee, implementing procedures to recruit minority teachers-- creative ways to fulfill federal guidelines. Students used to the local shopping, movie theaters, and variety of school activities in the southern area couldn’t fathom leaving their happy high school life for a place considered “country” and isolated from two cities’ attractions(Madison and nearby Ridgeland). Demographics and culture were the culprits. Fortunately, now the facilities of one magnet school are being utilized for summer training of teachers.

Now, with mandates lifted, within five years the district will begin to move forward. The Court recognizes that this district has done its best, because the county is naturally divided in black/white population and culture. Expansion northward will occur as families look for new places to build homes and small towns get a second life.

The biggest lesson the government learned is the old adage: "You can't make a silk purse from a sow's ear."

(Note: information was gathered from an article in the local newspaper,The Clarion-Ledger and the author’s memory of her small involvement in the process.)