Given that Tara Smith and I live close, we get together for coffee, movies and dinner not as often as we’d like. Just Saturday we brought along our SOs and saw the latest, The Great Gatsby with Leo. LOVED IT! We also caught up on what we’ve been writing. Both of us with news coming from Stacie, signed up for the Sketchbook Project and while I’ve been thinking about my story, Tara’s been writing and revising hers and guess what, it’s due to be done and set out in the mail by June 1. So with a day of rain, I’ve been writing and revising in the last 24 hours. I am sharing my memoir with you if you are up for a read.
Please, please let me know what you think. I want the best story I can write and I’m asking the best circle of writers I know for help. Tara is on board when she can end her work day. I actually loved writing it, returning to my teaching roots.
I Stand on Jack’s Shoulders
I was not the kid who lined up her dolls, preparing to teach them everything I knew at 5. No, I was the kid who loved to dream with her mom when she shared her dashed dreams of becoming a lawyer. Together we watched Perry Mason, the Defenders, movies about Clarence Darrow and I came to love Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch even before I read To Kill a Mockingbird.
But even though her lawyer fantasy was so appealing, she urged me to keep an open mind and follow my own passions. College in the late 60’s was all about pursuing and experimenting and some time between my freshman and sophomore years I fell in love with European history and the trappings of the college professor . BA at Hofstra University, grad work at SUNY Albany, I was on my way to a PhD with mentors who encouraged me to suffer through the long road to a doctorate and a job that would be hard to find but it would all be worth it in the end. I was up for the challenge until I spent a summer in Rochester, New York, teaching social studies on Jay Street in Operation Young Adults with a group of my graduate school friends
Operation Young Adults, on paper it might resemble an early draft of Teach for America if it hadn’t been for Jack Harnishfager, the educational leader of our team who was tall and lanky with long arms, who lived for basketball in his free time. Even though none of us were planning to teach public school, we were fired up with the spirit of adventure and it was hard not to get caught up by Jack’s passion for the program he had created in the middle of Rochester’s slums. A program supported by the corporations of the city, primarily Polaroid, Jack’s school was a renovated pickle shop. The pickle aroma was gone but a respect for the neighborhood of the past was everywhere. But make no mistake, this was a space created for kids to learn in an environment very different from the traditional city public school. Students accepted into this program had already been expelled from traditional high schools and this was their one last chance before they were set free to fend for themselves. In this work-study model, they spent the morning with Jack and his staff in classes, earning their missed credits for graduation and in the afternoons they worked with jack-of-all trade contractors, learning how to renovate burned out buildings in nearby neighborhoods. Their finished houses were then sold to back to members in the community. They created works of art.
It didn’t take me long to salivate for this unique opportunity, especially when we were offered $150.00 a week for our contributions, more than I had ever made in a week before in my life. I was in, even though I didn’t know anything about how to teach. I rested on the memories of my favorite teachers burned in my brain but then they had made it look easy and I soon learned , it wasn’t.
We returned to Albany to finish the semester and plan for an unexpected summer in Rochester, New York. I started having nightmares about what I would do in the classroom. I was not an education major. Jack instinctively sent us some curriculum materials and a list of his favorite education books by John Dewey, Jonathan Kozal and Peter Elbow. The authors were new to me but I raced to the school’s book store to take action. Little did I know then, that I would be resting on of the shoulders of this trio throughout the next 40 years.
We rented a large apartment in a complex not far from the school on Jay Street and arrived on opening night when the students and their parents were invited to meet the summer school staff and sign up for their courses. I was listed as the Social Studies teacher who would be teaching Black Studies. As I was catching my breath as a tall boy of color with a dose of style and swagger made his way over to me.
” Scuz me, Miss, are you the one who’s teaching social studies this summer?”
I said, “Yes, hi.
” My name is Prince Jana Taylor. It’s gonna be Black history?”
“Yes.” Where was he going with this?
“But… he paused… you’re white.”
“Correct, but don’t worry, I’m qualified.” I smiled and tried to keep from staring a the scars the covered both of his uncovered arms.
He didn’t smile back. Was I really qualified? ” We’ll learn together.”
“Hmm…” and he turned a swaggered away.
Would they see me for the fake I was? What did I know about teaching high school, kids living in poverty with serious problems? But I was in.
Jack appeared as the evening ended. “Hey lots of kids signed up for your class. I heard that Prince met you. He signed up.”
I smiled nervously.
” Hey, don’t worry. I have a good feeling about you. Just be honest and kind and firm. Don’t let them play you.but keep smiling. They’re pussy cats.” Before you leave help yourself to copies of books that might work for you in our library. We have lots of copies of most for of them.
I jumped at the chance to spend our free week preparing now that Prince had made the upcoming experience real. Short stories written by leading black writers, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, etc. I filled my bag and left ready to stay up all night reading, prepping rereading the trio of great educators for tips.
Our classrooms were all on the second floor, the newest addition to the building. I could still smell fresh wood. Probably some of my students had worked on their own school building. What a great way to feel ownership. Kids entered the room promptly a 8AM, following a key rule of Jack’s. He was sweet with the kids but strict about the school’s clearly mapped out rules.
Fifteen boys and girls found seats around the circle I had created in my small room. A diverse group of kids that I would have for two hours every other day and then share them with my friend Jane who would teach them English. It was an easy way for them to make up for failed classes if they ended the summer with perfect attendance. So I would be seeing them a lot. With the help of Peter Elbow I began the class with writing even though it was Social Studies class. I had journals for them to use and leave in class. I had one for me as well. I loved journal writing but I had never shared my writing with anyone and I knew if I wanted them to buy into this daily practice I would have to write and share with them. Honestly this was an idea I floated to our team during an orientation session with Jack and everyone was game. So I wouldn’t be on my own. Every day we would be writing and sharing. Would they cooperate? More than anything else, Jack stressed the need to make our time with them significant, meaningful- modeling good citizenship for them, beyond the classroom.
I was a nervous wreck. We were all nervous wrecks but excited and comforted that we had Jack be there with us. We spent most of that first week planning together. I was teamed with Jane, who was staying on in school for her doctorate in psychology but what she really loved was literature and together we worked on an interdisciplinary project, centered around the Black experience in America. Jack had been working with us, sharing what he knew about the kids we would be working with and sharing his teaching tips. He had been a social studies teacher in Brooklyn and Rochester for 20 years before he moved out of the classroom. He never really moved out of the classroom.
Both of us would be focusing on building our classes into interdisciplinary communities that we could move back and forth with. So on day one Kenny, Prince, Tyrus C. Pointer, Helen… and the rest of my very first class, arrived and found a seat in my circle and waited for me. It was quiet. It would never be that quiet again. Jane poked her head in during that first session, I found my way into her room to do the same. But in that first writing and sharing together something wonderful clicked for me. It was a simple prompt: tell me about yourself. I talked a bit about how writing into the class would kick off our class each morning and I had my copy of Elbow’s Writing without Teachers. Prince wanted to know more about that, but held him off for now. I felt a bond with him after our first conversation. We wrote for 10 minutes. Keep writing no matter what…change the topic is you have to. I kept writing. I looked up from time to time. Most of them were writing. Some were done, but waiting patiently. When I called time and I asked for volunteers to read, Prince raised his hand.
” Are you going to read too?”
” Of course. Do you want me to start?”
“No, I’m gonna read first, but I wanted to know about you.”
Of course he did. Makes sense.
He had written a lot- two full journal pages and he read every word to us. He had a lot to say from that first day on. Prince was the right person to meet first and win over. He led the way. He read, Tyrus read, Helen read, finally, I read last. It took almost an hour, but it was the best hour I’ve ever spent in a classroom. My very first was the best.
As I remember that first summer of teaching, that first summer that led me to career in classrooms with chairs in circles, I was prepped for success and even though the kids were sometimes more than I could handle, there was a team, a network behind me and that made all the difference.
Of course there was that time when I was getting close to my birthday and the kids knew it and someone left me a gift in the top drawer of my desk, something that was a sign of affection but really, an envelop of pot? Here was a issue our teacher team had to deal with without Jack’s knowledge. It was too serious. We brainstormed as a group and it was decided that I would make it known that while I was complimented that they had a gift for me, it was something illegal and inappropriate. I spoke for about 10 minutes to a silent group.
But Prince had something to say.
“Hey, Ms K. we don’t get it.” We like you and we all chipped in.”
“Stop there. I appreciate the effort but I know that you are hearing me. You know this is not correct. I did not mention it to Jack, because he would come down hard on everyone of you. So someone is going to make this disappear before the start of school tomorrow.Everyone understands, right?”
Everyone nodded and finally Prince too.
I’m sure Jack knew about this but didn’t say a word. He let us take care of it and the envelope was gone when I looked the next morning. Thank God.
It was an amazing summer with these kids. I was the firs of our team to seriously reassess my post grad plans. Of course, I would need certification and student teaching, but no doctorate would be necessary.
I was thinking… we were all thinking. I wonder what would have happened if Jack had offered us jobs as the summer ended. It was hard to leave, really hard to leave.
I saw Jack once after that summer. I was back in Rochester when I finished my masters in Albany, visiting my friends Betty and Sam who had introduced us to Jack in the first place. I was wondering if I should work first before I returned home to go back to school for my certification. Jack had a job for me. I spent the weekend deciding, ultimately turning him down and but not the change in my life. Jack on Jay Street. I’m thinking about him now. Remembering where I began.