EDUCATION HAS SO MUCH TO LEARN
It was 1968 and with my degree in hand I went searching for a job. The school board was my first stop to apply for a position and furnish a transcript and teaching certificate. They then gave you a list of schools with openings and it was your responsibility to contact schools and make an appointment with the principal. If he/she were interested, your file would be reviewed and, if favorable, would continue to the next level of securing a teaching position. I started my search in June and I became increasingly alarmed that even after a number of good interviews, not one call back. Late August found me still searching and after I swallowed my pride, I called and made an appointment at the last school where I wanted to be teaching. By reputation, the school was “on the other side of the tracks”. It pulled from lower to middle class neighborhoods. I did a semester observing at the school through my educational classes so they were aware of me. I remember walking into the principal’s office and was impressed with the number of guitars hanging from the walls. He took one instrument down and handed it to me and said, “No one can tune this one. Give it a try.” While I worked on the guitar, his secretary entered and announced that there was an opening in the English department due to the transfer of one of the teachers. Turning to me he inquired about my visit and I didn’t hesitate informing him of my search for an English teaching position. Days later I received a call from him. He had reviewed my file and told me that the personnel director had “blackballed” me because he suspected that I was “queer”. I was crushed. I knew that I was different but never acted on it. I was a virgin at 22 and accused of a “sordid” lifestyle. My parents did not like the news. Dad called the lawyer who helped them when buying the house. He was now a county judge and remembered my father. Upon explaining the situation he surprisingly mentioned that he golfs weekends with the superintendant of schools and that he would speak with him. Days later I was called by the principal to continue the interviews with the department chair. I landed the job – but with one caveat. Watch what you do because the personnel director’s suspicions were ignored and he’s out to get you fired. The next 12 years were spent working with the clubs I sponsored at the school: Pegasus literary magazine; drama club; chess club; surf club; poetry club. My nights and weekends were spent on fundraising, tournaments; conventions; productions; building homecoming floats . . . it kept me busy. I devoted myself to my students and their well being. I was still living with my parents and they were happy to see me so involved with my profession. There are many memories that I have but three are most memorable.
Penny S. was enrolled in my freshman composition class and in her senior year wanted to take my Science Fiction literature class, but due to the extensive reading requirement, her guidance counselor strongly advised against it. She had been labeled with learning disabilities and the counselor thought that she was setting herself up to fail - but she was resolute in her resolve - knowing that if she failed the class she would not graduate. Much to the surprise of her counselor, she completed the class and earned a "B". In reviewing her grades, the counselor called me into her office and wanted an explanation. I explained that I recorded the grade that she had earned on her own, thus defying her skeptics. It was only after I presented her final exam and term papers that they permitted her grade to be recorded and she graduated.
Joseph T. had been in my composition, creative writing, and science fiction literature classes. He was now enrolled in drama and was maturing into a young man. It was during rehearsals for the spring musical when word came that he had died from inhalation abuse. At the funeral, I met his mother who collapsed in my arms and confided that I was the only father image in her son’s life. She had divorced years ago and parental duties were shared with the grandmother. Little did I know that the talks Joseph T. and I had over the years made such an impression. On opening night of the spring musical, I went to the cemetery to lay blue carnations at his crypt. Joseph was working on the production at his passing and blue carnations were given to each cast member since it was mentioned in the production script. We also dedicated that year’s literary magazine to him and included a number of poems he had written.
Michael P. transferred into my class in the middle of the year. He was legally blind with poor social skills and self image – a true introvert. The guidance counselor and I met before he appeared, warning me that his future looked bleak unless he could change. Before he graduated, he not only starred in the supporting lead of the spring musical but was editor-in-chief of the school’s literary magazine. His parents confided to me at his graduation party, that they worried that Mike would never have a normal life and end up living a depressing and lonely existence. They thanked me for making such a change in their son. Recently, Mike and I have reconnected and he is married to another student of mine - Valerie J., is a father, and runs a successful Massage Therapy business.
Each spring the Pegasus staff prepared for their annual convention hosted by the Florida Scholastic Press Association (FSPA) in Tampa, Orlando or Daytona Beach. Those cities are located in the middle of the state & for those traveling from the northern or southern most cities would only have to journey half the distance of the long state. After the convention concluded we always went to Disney World and stayed in the tree-houses - two story accommodations with balconies and terraces located in the middle of a pine forest. Students would be entered in "on the spot" contests for photography; lay-out; talent; and design theme - and we usually swept competing teams away with our first place trophies & plaques. The magazine would be crowned "All Floridian" and we'd notch another prize winning publication for our school.
Fire Drill was the name of our annual talent showcase at the high school. Fellow English teacher Don Shipman started the same year & together we formed the "Shades of Id" poetry club that would sponsor the event with proceeds being used for class sets of poetry books. It was rewarding to see our students - black & white - singing & dancing together in 1969. We were honored with the brotherhood award from the local Jewish service organization B'nai B'rith. Of all the productions I think Fire Drill II stands out - our opening was "Aquarius" from "Hair" and we closed with "Candles In the Rain" from the same musical complete with smoke machines & visual effects - spinning mirrored balls lit with follow spots that reflected points of light out into the audience making it feel like the room was in motion. We chose the name Fire Drill to commemorate Assistant Principal Lloyd Aaron - my first year he was expressing disappointment with the time it took to evacuate the school during an unannounced emergency fire drill. He then announced over the PA system that when the alarm sounds to see if we could break the record. Needless to say we did - but unbeknownst to the administration & staff, a number of students went around breaking pencil points off in classroom locks throughout the school - it took us longer to resume classes then to clear the building! He was not happy!
"Carnival" was difficult - after ardouous auditions the music director & I finally agreed to have two students sharing the role of Lily and the same with the part of Jacquot. The student who was to appear in the lead as Marco announced two weeks before opening and that he & his father were going away & he'd return on opening night. It ended up with me playing the lead & directing at the same time. Alec, a friend from UCLA was visiting his relatives in Miami and helped with the production. UCLA had donated costumes, banners, backdrops, bolts of fabric, and the puppets for our show. People noted that the California university was providing our "off Broadway production by 3,000 miles" with a head start - by graciously thanking them in the program along with the Lake Tahoe Casino that donated a gold lame curtain for one of our sets. That previous summer the UCLA theater workshop musical was "Carnival" & I was lion tamer and a lead dancer in their production - transporting most of the items with me on my flight back to Fort Lauderdale. Michael P. was one of our Jacquots and did an outstanding dance routine complete with time steps & jazz splits.
Weekends were often spent at a Fort Lauderdale swap meet where the staff sold donated items for the publication's print bill & end of year banquet awards. We'd get up at 5AM and meet at the school & caravan to the outdoor event. We often cleared $300+ each time and it was fun watching the students act as country fair barkers enticing the passing buyers with the treasures they would wave in hopes another purchase would soon be made.
Beachside bar-b-cues would be a great time to bond with the staff. We were a big family and everyone had a place - Doreen would normally cook the hot dogs and was able to roll a number of them into the sand until she mastered the tongs - earning the nickname "Hot Dog!"
One Thanksgiving vacation I attended a Columbia Scholastic Press Association (CSPA) workshop for high school magazine sponsors in Estes Park, CO. Prior to beginning we placed our publications on the desk for the moderator to review. Once the seminar began, she held Pegasus up and asked whose is this? I raised my hand & was promptly told, "get up here and teach us!"
The staff was often invited by the state organization to workshops & discussion groups about their publication. One meeting in Daytona had our 7 students facing a room full of students & teachers. Down the line each staff member answered the first question: "How are you able to produce such a publication?" Money, money, money, money, money, money, money. The audience became incensed - most staffs & sponsors, we found out, didn't want to do: plane washes; candy drives; swap meets; candle making & sales; dog washes, etc. - they wanted their magazine to look like ours but they weren't willing to invest their time, energy, work, persistence & creative financing into their own publication.
Pegasus was 100 pages in length plus cover, printed with 4-color pages, dye cuts, hand-tipped vellum pages, and perfect bound. It was accompanied by our sister magazine with display & patron advertising along with games, puzzles, jokes, & mazes that were constructed & created by the staff. That way the magazine would be ad-free & present a better appearance. Often when I would show my friends the publication they would ask, "Which college is this from?" they were amazed when I told them it's a high school literary arts magazine - written & illustrated with the students submitted work and then designed & created by the staff who completed all pre-press work with creativity & panache. Editor-in-chief was Michael P. one year and featured light blue parchment paper and wood-cut designs on the cover. This was the one dedicated to Joseph T. Our publication received no funding unlike the school newspaper & yearbook. All costs for the production of the annual had to be generated by a staff of 20 or so dedicated students. I found it strange since the studentbody used Pegasus as an autograph book at the end of each year due to the fact that the yearbook wouldn't be release until late summer to include graduation & prom photos.
Our magazine staff would assemble for yearbook pictures - everyone standing at attention with a smile painted on their beaming faces - one year we asked the yearbook staff if we could submit our own photos with captions, they agreed & so we planned the photo shoot. Birch State Park was beachside in Fort Lauderdale & featured a miniature train visitors could ride throughout the grounds. We ambushed the train with the cap guns we brought and got a photo with the engineer, with the caption "Fundraising Committee". Another had Doreen (aka Hot Dog) tied to the tracks while another had Sue (Mushroom) biting Art Editor, Louis Clark's neck - "The Lay-Out Committee" - the yearbook staff didn't appreciate our humor but they did run our club's page with just a few alterations. We had spoken with park officials & asked permission to do the shoot. The "Shades of Id" club yearbook photo features Don Shipman & I holding a trash can with club members gathered around us all flashing peace signs with our defiant upraised hands - my tie securely wrapped around my knee!
The magazine staff & I always knew how to get attention - during our homecoming celebrations one year the staff volunteered to decorate the outside walkway by our classroom - the decorations were great but the principal thought it inappropriate with our signs saying, "Break Tradition - WIN!"
Marketing our theater productions at the school brought all types of tricks - when presenting Thornton Wilder's play, "The Skin of Our Teeth" our costumed mammoth & dinosaur sat on the bus stop bench in front of the school handing out flyers or the cast members would do street drama while re-enacting scenes from the current production during lunch periods for the students gathered on the courtyard between the gym & lunchroom facility.
Creative Writing classes always made the administration wonder what I was doing. I instructed my class with an exercise in trust & sense perception. Students would be paired off, one being the blind person - the other sighted - and perceive the world through their other four senses. The grassy tree shaded lawns offered the field experiment to continue - after a while roles would switch. Throughout the experiment there would be a running dialogue between the two having the sighted one asking questions or placing objects in the blind person's hands & describe what they were feeling or tasting, smelling or hearing. It was a way of waking up the students to experiencing the world from a different perspective - a sort of "stopping to smell the roses" time. One unfortunate event happened when the sighted jock thought it would be funny if he led his blind girl partner into the boys locker room during their showers. Dean Gassett once caught my students out in the high school gardens - smelling flowers, stroking leaves, playing with rocks & twigs, hugging trees, & approached me asking, "What are they doing?" I replied, "They're experiencing the world!" He walked away with a puzzled look.
Pembroke Pines has a small private airfield and in our hunt for magazine funding found an exciting way to fundraise by having a plane wash. Pilots would taxi to our washing area & have the team of students scrub down the plane from propeller to tail fins. - I had the dubious honor of returning the planes back to their hangers while trying to remember what I'm not supposed to do when in the cockpit. Once we had a car wash for the local police department. Each patrol car was scoured inside & out and presented with pride at the end of the process. Once while cleaning the windows in the backseat of a squad car one of my staff thought it funny to lock me in and take photos for the scrapbook - all that was missing were the handcuffs.
Many of the
cast members were in my classes - while preparing for "Carnival," with me as Marco the Magician, my Rosalie - played by Ingrid - worked on her part by slipping into the bitchy snide comments her role called for while I tried to be suave with a devil may care
attitude & cutting wit throughout the class & beyond. Other students stared in shock to hear such a conversation between student & teacher. During the final curtain call on opening night she creamed my face with a plate of whipped cream
- I got her back the next night by leaving her imprisoned in the magic sword box with no way of escape while she struggled to dislodge the fencing foils I had placed in their precise slots while practicing our carnival act - afterwards she was to exit the
box to sing her melancholy romantic reprisal of, "It Was Always You!". I watched from the wings as one by one the metal swords dropped to the stage floor with a resounding clang - her face turning red with fire smoldering in her anger filled eyes - I
soon entered & scolded her for messing up the act - she ad libed - idiot, you forgot to remove the swords. She never forgave me for that one!
The part of the fortune teller in "Skin of Our Teeth" was played by Sharon - she also was one of the editors of the magazine that featured a fold-out front cover with circular dye cut revealing the illustration below & dedicated to Henry David Thoreau - the four hand-tipped illustrated vellum pages were a new addition. The art & writing of Don Lee Shearer were included - Don since has become a noted artist with his politically charged work. Sharon is employed at a Florida university working with their publications.
I have a habit of reinventing myself - in my afro-perm days of the 70's I sported a new hairstyle that had every black student in the school visiting my classroom to confirm the rumors true. I overheard one remark by a passing student, "I told you he had black blood!" Once during a drama class I received corn rows from a budding black actress demonstrating the art of hair weaving as if for a TV info commercial.
On a return from an FSPA Orlando convention, I decided to have the students fly home rather than have me drive the rental van for hours and chance road problems - we had spent a longer time at Disney World and winging our way back would be ideal - capping off a successful weekend! Our editor Cheryl remarked that it was her first time in a plane. We sometimes took Amtrak to Orlando & Daytona - catching a taxi to the convention site - and the onboard contests conducted by the train attendant made the five hour trip enjoyable.
Orientation days always were troublesome - scheduling 2,500+ students in classes each semester was detailed and nerve wracking. One year it was compounded by a former student who had brought his loaded gun to school and stood in the middle of the parking lot discharging rounds into the air. Calls to the local police department advised us that unless he pointed it at a person or threatened someone they couldn't do anything. Amazing!
When the Classroom Teachers Association (CTA) called a strike we had reached the end of the rope when our 7% pay increase was responded with a 1% raise from the Broward County School Board. The group's president wore a t-shirt shouting "Here Comes Trouble" & for the next two days we walked the picket line at every school stopping delivery trucks & postal carriers at the gate - many honoring our demonstration by turning around & leaving. Scores of students joined our ranks with signs & flags. My job was to photograph every teacher that violated our picket - some becoming irate with the flash bulbs going off in their stunned faces. We soon were called back & told that the results of negotiations would be announced once we were in the classrooms. That year we received a 2% raise and docked two days pay for striking - resulting in my annual salary to diminish by a few hundred dollars. "Education has so much to learn."
That line appears at the top of this chapter and was taken from a postcard I received from Adam M. one of my students & a chess club president who received an MIT scholarship upon graduation. The other card he sent informs us that, "EVIL CAN'T BE ALL BAD!" He always had a unique way of seeing the world - wise beyond his years.
I was always happy to welcome past students back to their old alma mater sharing stories & experiences along with their employment history since graduating. Their observations of my classroom though stirred an unrest in my soul - I was still using the same books, the same lessons plans, the same jokes - one-liners & banter as I did when they occupied those very same desks years ago - but they had moved on while I was stationary - performing with the same actions, props & words just different faces - and they were earning two & three times more without a college degree or state certification. I soon began to think of what life would be like beyond the classroom and how I would accomplish such a maneuver.
SCHOOL DAZE MEMORIES
During those years in the classroom there were numerous times when I was faced with homophobia - the science teacher, Mr. Princeton was fired because a photo of a Miami gay celebration was printed in the local newspaper with him dead center - guilt by association. Our art department had two wonderful women who worked with me in the creation and design of the literary arts magazine. They would assign stories & poems to their classes and collect the finished works for submission to the publication. They were joined by a third teacher who didn't last but a few months. He was terminated because he was gay. I remember having a conversation and hearing him plead me to say something on his behalf - I looked at him with remorse and lamented what good will it do except get me fired as well - I explained my encounter with the personnel director a few years before - and he understood.
The legal drinking age in Florida was 19 and a number of my students would hop across the street to the 7-11 and consume a six pack at lunch on the school's front lawn. My visits to Zelda's, a gay bar in Deerfield Beach were curtailed when I notice three of my students entering the establishment on a Saturday night. I ended up frequenting a south Miami bar called "Warehouse 8". Each weekend I noticed a white limousine parked at the entrance and asked the doorman who is the limo waiting for - he confided that it was Anita Bryant's husband. That was a shocker since she was on a crusade to rid the state of gay and lesbian teachers - I wondered if he was there doing undercover work for his wife or for himself.
The year we had Florida Fantasy as our theme for homecoming - we constructed a 15 foot tall snowman - having us maneuver around hanging signs, wires and low hanging tree branches as we made our way to the staging area. In 1970 the magazine staff did a Greek theme with the flying horse and toga clad goddesses. They also had a year with a 12 foot rocket with a "Star Trek" theme with me being one of the astronauts.
DEMISE OF THE FAMILY
I had just turned 33 and booked my Christmas trip to Pennsylvania. I hoped to see mom’s family and see the places I enjoyed as a child on summer vacations. My aunts, uncles and cousins all welcomed me with open arms. The last time we were together was when I was 19 years old. But, on December 30th my vacation came to abrupt end. Mom called with the news that Darryl had died and Jackie and Mrs. Wells were injured in a traffic accident. On their 33rd wedding anniversary everything changed. In a moment of alcoholic anger, Jackie and Darryl had a heated physical argument leading to he collapsing with a massive heart attack. He had endured four earlier heart attacks so he knew of his serious medical situation. 911 was notified and an ambulance dispatched. Mom soon received a call from Jackie at the hospital telling her that Darryl had passed away. Mom rushed to the hospital in hopes of driving them home, but Jackie refused and on their way home crashed into a concrete pole, Mrs. Wells dies soon of injuries, and Jackie sustains a broken shoulder and internal injuries. Mrs. Wells always said that she lived for her son and that if he were to die, she would rather be dead than live without him. That was the day my family fell apart. One poignant memory was at the funeral services - Fred and Darryl were old drinking buddies for decades and had agreed that a bottle of Jack Daniels would be placed in the coffin of the first to go. Fred kept the promise. Over the years, my nieces and nephews and I grew further apart. As children we were very close but as we matured the distance grew substantially. Patty had run away with her boyfriend, Peter when she was 15. He later died in a car accident leaving her with two toddlers, Peter Jr. and Brenda. Sherry was the beauty in the family and dated a number of men. At Martha’s wedding she attended the church ceremony with one and the reception with another. She ended up pregnant and placed the infant girl up for adoption. The family wanted to keep and raise the baby but Sherry would not agree to such an arrangement. Now, with the two deaths, family gatherings were no longer held. We had nothing to celebrate - the family had dissolved and we were left to remember the bittersweet memories of past celebrations.