The Vergara v. California decision against the existing system of teacher tenure has me capering and cavorting as I anticipate nationwide change. But I need to add a dance of mourning for the possibilities my childhood friends in rural Ohio lost a long time ago.
My parents, a professor and a social worker, steered me through mediocre public schools with such cunning and determination that I wasn’t hampered in earning an M.A. from Johns Hopkins, a Ph.D. from Harvard, and a Guggenheim Fellowship to write my seventh book. But since the teachers’ union looked out only for teachers, and no one looked out for the working-class and poor children among whom I grew up, my parents had to pull a quite disheartening stunt, of a kind I hope future students won’t need.
My parents had their open resistance to misconduct and inertia in the public-school system cauterized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, while I was at Liberty Elementary, the destination of my two siblings and myself as residents along the South Dixie Highway between Portage and Rudolf in northern Ohio. The problem wasn’t so much the teachers as the principal. While public-school teachers in America enjoy very sturdy tenure, many administrators apparently enjoy a kind of supertenure, an I’ll-take-all-of-you-with-me arrangement. There was no dislodging this man, much as he needed to be dislodged.
My education didn’t start propitiously. Mystified and at the end of our capacity to sit quietly with our hands folded, as ordered, we first-graders would search the building for our teacher and find her and the principal in his office, on the same chair. I’m not sure how much our parents ever heard about these incidents; I don’t think many of us understood well enough to chatter about them at home. But our parents were certainly disturbed at what whole classes witnessed, and what sometimes left physical evidence: The principal liked manhandling children.
No cellblock ever went quieter; no large collection of eyes ever tried harder to look at nothing than when he entered a room. And, as is typical in such situations, no proper discipline prevailed; the place was a Baltimore jail of scamming and bullying and — especially — featherbedding. On a typical afternoon, a teacher would march us into the auditorium for (yet another) screening of promotional films for Hawaiian vacations, with the films run backwards when we got tired of them.
The principal was somewhat cautious about articulate and stroppy parents; he only subjected their children to bizarre humiliations. I remember being ordered to carry an uneaten portion of Salisbury steak to the far corner of the lunchroom and give it to a boy my age, as the school shrieked with laughter at the man’s speculation about my romantic future with the boy. My brother was allotted worse, including the sniggering announcement, “Mrs. Schurr says all of you bigger boys had better stop hitting her son.”
But for the children from the trailer parks and the rickety rental houses, it must have seemed more like a turkey shoot. The principal threw a sassy boy up against a wall, pummeling him with his fists and hospitalizing him with a dislocated shoulder and jaw and other injuries. The principal’s union rode to the rescue in the subsequent lawsuit and kept him ensconced, though the facts were never disputed. Around ten years later I was home from college on a visit when a friend of my mother’s, a teacher in another town, quizzed me about my experience at Liberty; the school board had finally managed to get rid of the principal, because he had — the woman widened her eyes and wrinkled her nose — been proven to be “dating” sixth-grade girls.
The junior high and high school we attended in Bowling Green, a university town, were more open and accountable, and better staffed, partly with faculty wives, occasionally with graduate students on loan. But the worst of the teachers would take your breath away. “I had a wife once,” one muttered to my sister and the rest of an eighth-grade English class; “she was real cold.” The French teacher, a punctilious and hard-driving native speaker from Canada, couldn’t contain herself one day after a conversation with this same teacher. “He grades Moby Dick book reports year after year, but he’s never read the book himself. He kind of remembers the movie. He’s one of the highest-paid teachers in the school, because of his seniority.”
But my parents were no longer fighting. They were operating. They lanced the prematurely closed, infected wound of their outrage on our behalf, and the poison dripped out in the form of resolve to get us what they felt we deserved, by working the system in our interest, although they could do nothing for my less fortunate classmates.
I realized this after I was briefly placed in a couple of more or less motionless classes “by mistake.” After the start of a term, my father would vet my schedule for the name of any teacher he didn’t know or wasn’t impressed with; then he might confer with my mother and get on the phone. The next day, the principal would apologize for the “mistake,” and I would leave behind my neighbors from the countryside and the tiny towns and migrate to a course full of “faculty brats” from the nice suburb near the high school.
On paper, there was no difference between these courses; only a tiny number of AP courses were available back then, and none of mine were AP. But from freshman year at least, “good” and “bad” English and math and science courses emerged, segregated by social class. It had been this way for years; “mistakes” occurred in my family’s case because, although my father taught at the university, we lived far out of Bowling Green, and we children had not been in a good Bowling Green primary school; on one side of us, the nearest neighbors had no indoor toilet. The school administration wasn’t clear who we were. My father pointed it out.
This led to tasty courses for me (and for my brother, who became an Ivy League professor, and for my sister, now a research biologist). One was Intro to Philosophy; another, Comparative Government. The English courses saw me writing ambitious personal essays for frustrated local literati and choosing Shakespeare plays as subjects of my own private tutorials.
It wasn’t that the other realm of courses was more practical, better suited for young people without academic interests, who were headed for farming or the skilled trades or business, or just manual labor with some clerking on the side. Collateral relatives of mine in my parents’ generation had done fine across that whole range of occupations, because they had all had a good general education. No, now the children of the less-well-off merely eddied in school. Instead of reading about American history, for example, they did “group projects” (a week of goofing off and passing the buck), had “discussions” (repeated what they had heard on TV about an issue), and gave “presentations” (literally involving construction paper and crayons).
I knew this because I was experiencing it, too. My parents quailed at prescribing me chemistry or physics when ordinary math made me hysterical, so “the other” social-studies courses filled those class periods for me. At 16, bored, and nervous about what I would be doing in ten years, I hit on the idea of college courses and began to study Latin at Bowling Green State. I would leave school early for a 3 o’clock class meeting across town, and I did so well that the next year I added beginning German and advanced French to intermediate Latin, and was hounding one of the Classics professors to start me in Ancient Greek — which he did the summer after I graduated from high school.
I launched a fad. Other faculty brats were, as high-school seniors, moving to and from the university campus on bikes or on foot or in a family car, and eating lunch at a diner or a Bowling Green State café between courses aimed toward degrees in engineering, law, and medicine. The achieving end of the Class of ’81 was a bumper crop, heading off to MIT, Stanford, the University of Chicago — this wasn’t what kids from Wood County usually did.
By spring semester, however, our school’s administration (in response to unspecified “complaints”) cracked down: High-schoolers, even if enrolled at the university, needed special permission to absent ourselves from the school, and if we obtained that permission, we had to account for every minute outside school grounds. Our college courses were officially frowned on — why did we need them?
And so I was tapped hard on the shoulder and summoned back to a required civics course, where we painted a giant mural of Native American life without having been told anything about Native American life. I was no very insightful 18-year-old, but I knew that the exercise wasn’t for my benefit; it was to keep in professional status, as “educators,” people who had no chance at that except a highly artificial one supported by the teachers’ union.
— Sarah Ruden is a professor of classics at Wesleyan University.