My mother, Betty Thompson, died last week at the age of 89.
As such, I haven’t been in the mood for analyzing education policy, but rather predisposed to contemplating deeper issues. At some point, I’m confident the words will come for celebrating my mom’s contributions.
Now, the best I can do is share this account of my father’s passing. It is a passage from A Teacher’s Tale: Learning, Loving and Listening to Our Kids. (All student names are pseudonyms.)
Just before the October fall break, we had time to feel introspective. My plan was to leave for the mountains immediately after school dismissed. Most seniors were on a (poorly planned) field trip, and it was a great time to reflect on our first quarter. My students joined in celebrating our classes’ great year so far, while we also shared our worries about the school’s future.
As John Marshall H.S. lost more of its student leaders to magnet and charter schools, this left a greater percentage of teens who had endured more than their share of tragedies and who had less ability to control their behavior. As disciplinary infractions increased, assistant principals became more reluctant to assess consequences, fearing that their suspension numbers would be too high. In numerous classes, teachers found it impossible to maintain order. This drove out even more of the top students and educators, making it harder for the school to function, creating a downward spiral of disorder and violence.
Crises bring classes together
Then we heard about a car wreck involving two students from Marshall. Tim might not survive. I visited him in intensive care. He was unconscious, so my attention turned to his grandmother, the woman who was his deeply devoted guardian. She sat day and night at her grandson’s bedside, and I joined her there instead of journeying to the mountains. Had it not been for that change in plans, I would have been unreachable in the wilderness when my father suffered a heart attack.
In the aftermath of near-fatal crises with a student and my father, our classes pulled together even more tightly. In every class, many students said they had never known their fathers, while others described their alienation from their dads. As my students comforted me, they closely monitored the way father-son relationships played out in intact families.
In return, I admitted that many of my stories were not literally true. I acknowledged that I had not killed the bear that was on display in the school’s hallway. I had not reached down its throat, grabbed its tail and pulled it inside out, so that the bear tickled itself to death … It was my father who had done so — or had claimed to have done so. Seriously, I explained, the opportunity to pass down tall tales from my dad was one of the great rewards of teaching.
My first exposure to segregation
It became harder to tell one of my true stories. As a kid in the 1950s, I had been first exposed to segregation when our family went to a cafeteria that was being picketed. The owner said that whites were welcome in the fancier dining room, and we would not have to pay their premium prices. We kids were happy to eat in the rich dining room, but we also asked some difficult questions. Our parents were noticeably uncomfortable when explaining segregation to us. The owner came back, this time saying that we shouldn’t have to eat with “N****rs.” “Why did he say that word?” we asked, “Why shouldn’t we … ?”
My dad had been a boxer with a temper, and he shouted, “There’s not a god-damned reason.” It took every policeman on the line to pull my father off of the racist businessman.
Funerals bookend poignancy of teaching
My father died at the end of the Christmas holiday, and I returned to school a week later. I had my scheduled lesson sitting on my desk, but I had not given it any thought. I was on duty that Monday morning, accepting condolences, when a starving pit bull walked in the door and begged for help. Obviously the dog was beyond saving, so I coaxed it into my classroom while we waited for Animal Control. My first-hour class was moved to another room. I grabbed some of my prepared lesson and started to teach.
Ordinarily, this was a multimedia lesson. I would hand out transcripts of National Public Radio’s famous “Christmas Story” and then play an audiotape of John Henry Faulk reading his account of white and black sharecroppers sharing a Christmas dinner. This was a lesson that always was a great success, but the story reminded me of my father, so I knew I had to make a quick decision about whether I could handle the emotion. I only had one copy of the transcript with me, and I did not know if I was up to reading such a powerful narrative.
I did fine through the first page, which described the white sharecroppers’ kids, who had been warned to not get their hopes up if the promised dinner did not happen. By the second page, when the black sharecropper assumed that his family would be excluded, I started to cry. Matt, a little white kid, jumped in and read the rest of the story about the families sharing “the best Christmas ever.”
A few months later, I was on the verge of leaving the classroom for a more prestigious position. It was at Matt’s funeral that I realized I wasn’t emotionally ready to leave my students.