When Newt Gingrich declared last week that he wants to abolish laws prohibiting child labor so children could be employed to clean up public schools, he took me back to my own long ago experience as a school teacher. In fall 1968, I moved from my Southern California home to teach fifth grade in an all-black public school, Dr. Carter G. Woodson Elementary in Baltimore’s Cherry Hill section.
The Vietnam War was on and I was a young man of draftable age who already had had the privilege of a student deferment and a graduate student deferment from a war I was determined not to fight. Ever the thorough researcher even then, my research in 1968 had turned up the information that the Maryland State Draft Board was the most generous in the country for handing out occupational deferments for teaching at public schools serving the disadvantaged.
My belief was that the best way I could serve my country was not by participating in somebody else’s wasteful and futile civil war of attrition in Southeast Asia, but in trying to heal some of the very real wounds and injustices right here at home. So I traveled to Baltimore that summer for an interview, and was hired to teach that fall.
That September, I was one of three white men who showed up to teach at Carter G. Woodson. The principal and all the other teachers at the school were black women. When the principal met us, she gushed, “I guess you’ll be our 10%!”
Teaching there was a collision of cultures for me. I had attended public elementary school mostly in new schools in new suburbs on Long Island (NY) and in Southern California. The Baltimore school building was of indeterminate age, but was shabby and had broken windows that were not repaired until after the first snowfall. I conducted classes some days with everyone in coats and scarves. The cardboard in the windows failed to keep the strongest snow gusts out.
Once, another day, all classes were summoned to the school auditorium for a program. Before it could begin, the boys in the front row jumped up and began stomping their feet as hard as they could. As teachers do, I rose to my full height and prepared to confront them. But another teacher, a sweet woman with several years’ experience there, gently touched my arm and shook her head. She explained: “They’re just stomping roaches!” And sure enough, they were. So I let them.
A white teacher – perhaps a white person of any kind – was a novelty to many of the children. One especially liked to ask me a question about the lesson and then experimentally touch my fine hair as I bent over her desk to explain.
Over all, despite its difficult location in a poor neighborhood and its lack of resources, Carter G. Woodson was doing a pretty good job of educating – the girls. It had been, of course, a female dominated environment until we draft dodgers showed up. So the young women seemed to respond and to be working at grade level, at least by fifth grade.
So I found it puzzling that the standardized testing showed such a different profile for the boys. Most had tested at grade level, like the girls, through second grade. But by third grade there was a serious lag. And most of the boys were stuck at third grade level by the time I saw them in my fifth grade classroom.
I was reminded of the apparent reason for the boys’ indifference to school by Gingrich’s recent remarks:
Most of these schools ought to get rid of the unionized janitors, have one master janitor and pay local students to take care of the school. The kids would actually do work, they would have cash, they would have pride in the schools, they’d begin the process of rising.
But at Carter G. Woodson in Baltimore in 1968, this theory was given the lie. I came to realize as I observed the boys there more carefully that there was one other male at the school, and that was Mr. Moody, a black man who worked as the school janitor. And the highest honor the boys could be granted was permission to follow Mr. Moody around the buildings and help him.
The boys, I further realized, had given up on the female institution of school because the only positive black male role model they saw there was that hard-working janitor. None of them seemed able to conceive of anything higher than to grow up to be Mr. Moody. And since reading and writing and the rest of the educational drill clearly was not necessary to pursuing his career, they had given up on education at about third grade.
My job, I decided, was to find some way to motivate them, to help them want to better themselves. So I went shopping for wall posters of prominent black men of that era – Sidney Portier, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Mohammed Ali, and others.
One morning I posted the posters on the front wall above the blackboards and waited for the students to enter the classroom. “Wow! Who are THOSE guys?!?” was a frequently heard exclamation. “You mean you don’t KNOW?!?” I asked them in feigned astonishment. Their homework assignment was to find out.
When they finally knew who those men were, they knew that it was possible for someone who looked like them to aspire higher than just to Mr. Moody’s job. They seemed excited. The point was made that an education helped all of those men to prominence. There seemed to be a shift in the boys’ general attitude. Suddenly many of them were more serious about reading and writing and math.
Ultimately I found the conditions at their school and the peculiar irony of a white man trying to encourage black boys to (perhaps overreaching, considering societal barriers) greatness to be more than I was comfortable with. I did not stay in that job for a second semester. But I have always wondered what kind of lives those boys made for themselves. And if I helped any of them in any way.