This entry was logged on September 26th.
Many schoolteachers were poison to me, enough that at one point early in my academic career, a principal sat down with my parents and explained, in alll seriousness, that it would be best if I was transferred to another school, specifically a private one, to prevent my actions from damaging other students with promising futures.
I remember a fourth grade teacher explaining to her students in the middle of a science discussion, how it was a very bad idea for us to drink orange juice in the mornings, because the cold juice would cause damage to our intestines, and the shock of this cold beverage would make us unable to function properly at school. She said this easily, couched between lectures of how many planets there were and how molecules worked. During an event called “Hat day” where the young folks were encouraged to wear silly hats, I wore a boot, which caused some (appropriate) stir, and of course she confiscated the boot, and then launched into an explanation that hats, when worn inside, caused dangerous overheating to our heads and would make us not think.
Somewhere out of this muck and mire of folklore and despair I came into contact with one of my best teachers ever, Mr. Perks. Stephen Perks, that is, a marathon-running kickassery of a teacher who could make good time for twenty-five miles and yet still lose hours after classes to help kids, kids who needed help, like me.
I could take up way too much time singing Mr. Perks’ praises but I especially wish to give a specific example of where he ruled and, by combining forces, he was made to rule even more.
By luck of a draw that explains my never winning raffles since, Mr. Perks was transferred from 5th grade to 6th grade the same year I was; that means I got him twice. After an amazing year (where, among other things, he read us The Hobbit in class), he was one of my teachers yet again.
The 6th grade was the highest grade taught at Fishkill Elementary, and was in the old part of the school, which was what could only be described as a multi-story schoolhouse with bell tower on top. The rest of the modern, flat crap they built in the 50s was around the base of this little marvel, like sleeping dogs. When you went to the 6th grade, you literally walked up the stairs into another world. The ceilings were high, the doors massive, and just two classrooms were on each floor, with a staircase of enormous proportions. I could make a Harry Potter reference but it doesn’t quite fit, because the approach in this older location was modernity itself.
Mr. Perks came into his own, joining up with two other teachers who basically formed a triumvirate of educational power. One of these other two teachers was Mr. Foley. Mr. Foley was a rotund but not obese fellow with a beard and glasses, and a metric ass-ton of energy. He cared, and that was critical. I can imagine these three teachers sitting around a porch, sipping beers and trying to figure out how to make things even more kick-ass while staying within the guidelines.
The first thing they did was share classes, so that one teacher taught a subject that the others didn’t, and so on, and the students would have to walk between these classes during the day. This was not what a lot of sixth grade classes did; they did it, they told us, to train us for junior high school and up, when a bell schedule would be in effect. In other words, they looked ahead at what we were going to do and prepared us for that as well as their own requirements. This is how you end up with students who are in college and taking third-year courses while others are revealing that, in fact, they can’t conjugate verbs reliably.
Of all of the teachers, Mr. Foley was specifically worried about something that, in my later years, I realize is the root of my own interests: media and social criticism. No, I don’t mean we sat around and said the new movie was “good” or that we read a book and it was “good” or that crap. No, he took time to lecture us and specifically arm us against the absolute onslaught of misleading garbage that was going to come our way through television, newspapers and social interaction. In today’s world, 6th grade would be way too late, but at the time, it was just what the doctor ordered but the schools would never have prescribed.
He had a coffee maker way up on a shelf/closet in this room; a big old metal affair, probably good for a crowd of 30. At some point during the year, he pointed out this coffee maker and told the story of how he got it. The answer, you see, was a time share seminar, one of those terrifying high-pressure sales gigs where you’re promised a gift and a trip and whatever else, and they lay into you endlessly with how great a deal whatever they’re selling is. He wove a story, now lost in my memories, of how he and his wife sat through it, and what the person wanted, and how, after they resisted purchasing the product, they got treated meanly and grudingly. He wanted to open our eyes, and I know he did it for me, how not every transaction is out there to help you, that not every deal is a good one, and how exactly even your greatest resolve not to be taken could still be overcome. A great story.
Mr. Perks and Mr. Foley, along this line, cooked up this experiment. Looking back, it was a moment of sheer brilliance, one of those life lessons I got with my allowance instead of my mortgage.
They set up an auction between the classes. One would be buyers, one would be sellers. We were the buyers, and Mr. Perks’ were the sellers.
The sellers had to sell something, something inexpensive, that they owned. They would make a paragraph about their item (writing skills!) and then it would be put into a little newsletter (publishing!) and then that newsletter would go to my group, who would read it (reading skills!) and then we’d bid on them (mathematics! purchasing! games!) and then we’d get the items.
And, like the wave, it came out better as a lesson than I think anyone could imagine.
See, the secret was, the items absolutely sucked.They were broken, they were small, they were half of what was needed. They were sub-par items, you see. We were being, to some amount, had.
The language of the paragraphs, worked on with the kids by the teachers, were absolutely true. They were accurate and forthright, but they were hardly comprehensive, and they were in most cases misleading. You would read them and go “wow, what a cool toy” and then you’d get it and it just sucked.
I mentioned “the wave” because these items were meant to go at rates of, as I recall, a dime or a quarter, and some of the items were ultimately sold for a dollar or more, 10 times the original offered price. (I could be fudging that; it was, after all, nearly 30 years ago, but I recall debate among the teachers about the rising prices).
On the day of our getting the items, I remember opening my little box of whatever I’d bought, and hoo boy was it garbage. It was some flimsy piece of plastic that I, for all I could remember, should have been metal, 20 feet high and capable of lifting a truck. I remember toy cars missing wheels, and half a crayon box. The lies in the paragraphs were lies of omission.
What a lesson!
I don’t even know what passes for media criticism in many educational institutions; I remember running into college students in later years with what I considered a fantastic unicorn-filled outlook at the world, but I was, even by age twelve, wary, suspicious and careful about promises and deals. Granted, I still got conned into getting a credit card at 18, but I ascribe that to the underhanded techniques of Emerson College and their “partner” credit card firm than any wariness I had built in. One pitfall in my younger life, compared to the hundreds I negotiated around deftly thanks to the seeds planted by Mr. Foley and Mr. Perks. You guys ruled.
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