Pause, and Reset
(1984 to 1987)
In the spring of 1981 David Schein informed me of a unique opportunity for summer professional development --- and it paid! Basically, there was a Federal Grant available that would fund schoolteachers to attend Harvard University for four weeks (and 8 graduate credits) and work with renowned Professor Lawrence Kohlberg to develop an Ethical Issues in Decision-Making syllabus for K-12 students. Needless to say, I jumped at the opportunity and won one of the grants (just before the Reagan Administration drastically slashed Education funding). I got to live in Cambridge for four weeks, study with Kohlberg (and leave with not only 8 graduate credits but also a complete one-semester course for my students!), become friends with Judy Codding, the Principal of the Scarsdale Alternative School who was an assistant to Kohlberg, and would later become a very important figure in my life, and got paid. The only negative of that summer was that Major League Baseball was experiencing its first “modern” labor dispute and the players were on strike --- depriving me of my first opportunity to go to Fenway Park. What I also learned, though, is that there were professional development summer opportunities for teachers and that would prove incredibly important in my future growth as an educator.
By the spring of 1983 David Schein was no longer the Principal at Blind Brook High School and we had a new District Superintendent who was more a Corporate Manager than an Educational Leader. On the heels of a life-altering personal setback (I had blown up my marriage & my wife had moved out) I was finishing that school year with questions about whether I should stay at Blind Brook or not. What made my last year (1983-1984) in Rye Brook workable was that my antenna was up in Spring 1983 and I applied for an inaugural National Endowment for the Humanities Seminars for Secondary Teachers being offered on 15 campuses around the country. The brainchild of Secretary of Education William Bennett:
A Seminar for School Teachers enables 15 NEH Summer Scholars to explore a topic or set of readings with a scholar having special interest and expertise in the field. The core material of the seminar need not relate directly to the school curriculum; the principal goal of the seminar is to engage teachers in the scholarly enterprise and to expand and deepen their understanding of the humanities through reading, discussion, writing, and reflection.
Basically, the NEH was going to pay a tidy sum (about $3000 to $3500 for 4 to 6 weeks) for selected teachers to be students during the summer. Too good to pass up. It happened that one of the 6-week seminars offered that first year was being run by Professor Michael Cooke at Yale. I applied. I got in. I spent the summer living in New Haven and working with Professor Cooke and 14 other teachers from all over the country. It was exhilarating! Two of the teachers were published poets (one was Prince’s high school English teacher!) and the others were from all over the U.S. Cooke was a brilliant professor and we read Conrad, Ellison, and Garcia-Marquez, dissecting the texts during our five to six-hour daily seminars Monday through Thursday. Friday was a morning session, a group luncheon, and the weekend off.
The value of treating high school teachers like thoughtful, intelligent professionals can’t be overestimated. I returned to Blind Brook in September 1983 with renewed energy, even as I knew it was going to be my last year at the school. What was lurking in the back of my mind was that in three years (1986) I would be eligible for another NEH fellowship --- and that became crucially important in my professional “reset.”
As it happened, I wrapped up the school year as the Graduation Speaker for the Class of 1984 and, on July 1st, moved into a one-bedroom apartment on Commonwealth Avenue, along the “B” Line, in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston. I didn’t have a teaching job. In fact, I didn’t have job at all. My “plan” was to find a bartending job and get serious about being a writer (I had already written a 415-page novel --- back in 1979, as I turned 30 --- it was sitting in a folder). Right after the 4th of July weekend I literally hit the street, putting in bartending applications all over Boston. Within a couple of days, I was hired at Annie B’s, a chi-chi bar/restaurant on Boylston Street across from the Boston Public Library and Copley Square. It was a fun job but the money wasn’t great and, by late August, I realized I was going to need to find a teaching job if I was going to pay rent, keep gas in my car, and eat. I picked up the Boston Globe and started looking for teaching jobs. On the Friday before Labor Day weekend I was hired to teach 11th grade English at Winchester High School, 12 miles north of my Brighton apartment --- an easy commute in my Datsun F-10.
So, the Tuesday after Labor Day I met my colleagues at Winchester High, a 1600 student public school in a fairly affluent town (Yo-Yo Ma and former CIA Director William Casey lived there) that had a “wrong side of the tracks” neighborhood bordering the town of Woburn. My Department Chair, an ensconced spinster who loved that I had gone to Yale, apologized that I would, as the last hired and least “senior” in the Department of 16 teachers, have to teach the “low track” students. Typical of my “Pro’s from Dover” attitude (which hadn’t faded over the years) I simply said, “Great, I think the best teachers should work with the kids who are most challenged by being in school.” So, even though Winchester wasn’t a new or innovative school, I was going to be able to find my inner-Herndon working with kids the school had written off.
In 1979, as I was about to turn 30 years old, I panicked that I wasn’t “famous” yet, particularly as a writer. An aspiring author, I had yet to publish anything and couldn’t believe I was now turning 30! So, I proceeded to write a 415-page novel entitled “No Deposit, No Return,” about a 30-ish schoolteacher named Wiley Baer and his (mis)adventures as a teacher/interim Dean of Students at Delham High School, a Boston suburban educational institution. Thinking I was writing a satire, I described my fictional school this way:
Symmetry. Look at it. I bet this corridor can hold the entire student
body. A big Mother corridor with all its babies suckling off it. Here’s
the English baby, with Social Studies right across. Wings. What a
concept. Schools with wings --- never getting off the ground. (p.2)
Winchester High School didn’t have “a big Mother corridor” with Departmental wings suckling off of it but the school was designed so that each department did have its own set of classrooms with Departmental offices and conference room located there. Not exactly what I had imaginatively created but pretty close. In fact, the Departments at Winchester were insular and territorial --- and my habit of having lunch in the Faculty lunchroom (with Math teachers, coaches, administrators, et al) was questioned early on in my tenure at WHS. Despite that, my Yale pedigree, great rapport with the “difficult kids,” and ability to teach writing on the 20 brand-new Macintosh computers (no one else in the Department had any facility on the new machines) quickly made me the Department Chair’s “fair-haired boy” --- much to the chagrin of several of the veteran members of the staff.
So, starting in September 1984 I began my “new” career, living in Boston, teaching at Winchester, bartending at Annie B’s and still believing that I was going to become write the Great American Novel, an aspiration that wouldn’t be fulfilled (sort of) until a decade later.