School Reform Inferno
(The Bronxville Years: 1987-1993)
1. Formative Texts
In preparing for life in the “New World” of Coalition of Essential Schools reform, Judy Codding had advised me to go back and re-read Horace’s Compromise, which I did (as well as re-reading How to Survive). As I went through Horace, with its proposals that schools restructure, that teachers needed to remember that students were the center of the educational process, and that exhibitions of mastery were far more important than “objective” testing I was reminded of my teacher preparation program in Hamilton, New York 15 years earlier, so I scrambled over to my bookcase and dug out two formative tomes: Carl Rogers’s Freedom to Learn and Paolo Friere’s The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. When I first read those books, in the summer of 1972, they were still “new” (Rogers’s work was published in 1969, Freire’s in 1972). Like Sizer, they emphasized the importance of “liberating” students (and teachers) from an oppressive system.
In Freedom to Learn Carl Rogers uses several case studies to focus on what he believes are the most important principles of teaching/learning. His descriptions of the journey of a sixth-grade teacher and a college professor still ring familiar bells for me and, upon re-reading them now, in 2019, I realize how, like Herndon, they were clearly deeply embedded in my teaching consciousness and fit perfectly with Ted Sizer’s notions of school reform. In Freedom to Learn, Rogers’s 6th grade teacher’s journal recounts her “experiment” with student-centered learning, group work, “contracts” (essentially IEP’s!), and the resulting “coaching” (Sizer’s term) she got to do. As the teacher notes “I had much more time, so I worked, talked, and spent time with individuals and groups.” (p. 11) Later she says, “They have learned that they can teach themselves (and each other) and that I am available when a step is not clear or advice is needed.” (p.15) In the professor’s case, Rogers’s says: “he has, for years, created an island of opportunity --- of freedom to learn --- for his students.” (p.29) Most significantly, Rogers points out that the professor clearly discovered “A disparity between academic and rigor need not exist.” (p. 30) In fact, what Freedom to Learn emphasizes is the teacher’s agency in creating vibrant and engaging environments for his/her students. This fits hand-in-glove with Sizer’s emphasis on the role of teachers in school reform.
Rogers’s professor mentions the “mug-jug” analogy I referenced earlier, but Freire’s “banking” analogy was one that became embedded in my own practice as my years as a Coalition practitioner proceeded. Freire’s focus on “liberation” of the learner from the systemic oppression the existing structures imposed requires that teachers stop seeing their students as “receptacles” that need “deposits” --- only to be emptied in a year-end “withdrawal.” He also emphasizes how essential “reflection” is (p.53), echoing another of Sizer’s crucial points. In all, Sizer, Freire, and Rogers became the formative texts that guided my years not only at Bronxville from 1987 to 1993 but throughout the rest of my teaching career.
2. If you can’t stand the heat, don’t enter the Inferno: The First Circle
The first Tuesday after Labor Day in 1987 I arrived at Bronxville High School to meet the full faculty, expecting to find a staff that was raring to go regarding school reform. Having given my extremely laudatory interview about Judy Codding and Ted Sizer to the local newspaper, many of the staff had a pretty good idea where I was coming from. What I learned, rather quickly, was that, basically, Judy had her Assistant Principal, Sherry King, and what I can only describe as a “band” of school reform advocates on her side. The majority of the faculty seemed to have a “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude and a solid group of (distinctly male) faculty clearly loathed Judy and Sherry. It was neither easy nor pleasant that first year.
I arrived at Bronxville High School as a “smoker,” having acquired the habit as a bartender starting in 1984 (never having smoked before that --- not even a puff!). By Labor Day, 1987, I was smoking two packs of unfiltered Camels a day. I bring this up because in 1987 teachers could still smoke in the Faculty Room/cafeteria at BHS. In fact, there were two Faculty “Lounges,” one for smokers, one for non-smokers. Even though I already knew quite a few of the men who were coaches at BHS (some of whom were smokers) I quickly discovered who rigid the lines were drawn between “Judy’s” teachers and the rest of the staff. None of the “band” of teacher advocates were smokers, therefore my time in the Smoker’s Faculty Lounge was spent sitting totally alone for that first year at the school! The guys I knew from coaching would hardly talk to me and there was a distinct “us/them” division on the staff.
While Judy and Sherry were implementing changes in school structure and introducing the 9 Common Principles* of the Coalition of Essential Schools, a significant number of the faculty were digging their heels in against the move. As they saw, Bronxville was an “excellent” school, its best students were accepted at all the elite schools and the rest of the graduates all got in somewhere (many, for some reason, in various something-Wesleyan colleges). Whyi was there any need to change the place? In my zeal to convert the “non-believers” I was an abrasive zealot (I see in hindsight) and only furthered the divide. It took time for me to “soften” my approach and attempt to win people over through thoughtful conversations and not confrontational arguments.
An incident that best typifies just how divided the faculty was at this time involved a workshop we did with Grant Wiggins, the first Director of Research for the Coalition and a beacon of thoughtfulness (his Understanding by Design text --- with Jay McTighe --- and consulting firm became a mainstay of progressive education reform until his untimely death at the age of 64 in 2015). Grant was a master at facilitating workshops, particularly regarding “authentic” performance-based assessment. He visited Bronxville at Judy’s request to lead a workshop on the concept of “Less is More” and “Student-as-worker, Teacher-as-Coach” and, after what seemed like hours of intense opposition (and haranguing) from the Faculty, totally blew up --- and stormed out, swearing never to work at Bronxville again! It was a disturbing moment, to say the least.
So, there we were in 1987-1989, my first two years at Bronxville (and Judy’s last two, as it turned out. She left after the 1988-89 year to become Principal at Pasadena High School in California). In Dante’s Inferno two of the circles of hell are Anger and Heresy and that’s would be my overall characterization of that time. I certainly was an angry (somewhat young) man who wanted school reform now! Many of my faculty colleagues seemed to believe that changing Bronxville was heresy and should be fought to the death. It was not a fun time, overall, except for a brief escape on Columbus Day weekend, 1987.
3. Dr. Gonzo goes to Caracas
Before everything hit the fan, I did have a moment that harkened back to Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil --- an adventure without the substance abuse ( I was regularly attending AA meetings in NYC) but was certainly worthy of Fear and Loathing. In August 1987, as I was writing my one-act play for the NEH and reading Sizer & Freire & Rogers, I got a phone call from my childhood friend, Bill Harrison, who lived on Long Island. “Johnson, do you have a Passport?” Me: “No.” Harrison: “Get one.” Me: “Why?” Harrison: “A guy just backed out of fishing trip I’ve got planned for Columbus Day weekend, so you are going to take his place. You only have to pay for plane fare.” Me: “Where are we going?” Harrison: “Caracas, Venezuela. Flying out Friday night of Columbus Day weekend.” Me: “Okay.”
As I discovered, the planned weekend was to run from Friday night until Tuesday morning, meaning I would not be able to attend school right after the Columbus Day long weekend. I asked Judy and Sherry if that was okay and they said, “No.” I also asked if I could leave school early that Friday because my plane out of JFK was leaving at 6:00 p.m. for Caracas and I was going to have to “take the train to the plane” --- a New York City trek that also involved a bus transfer from the subway stop to the airport. If you ever lived in New York there are several things you know are several implacable laws. You can never be too rich; you can never be too thin; you can never leave enough time to get to JFK!
I left school at 3:00 pm on Friday, raced home in my leased Plymouth Sundance, grabbed my bag and jumped on the subway, which dragged its way out into Queens. I then transferred to the JFK bus, frantically looking at my watch as the time sped closer and closer to 6:00 pm. I finally hit Saarinen’s gorgeous TWA terminal at about 5:30 pm, ran to the “check-in” (thank god we hadn’t been terrorized yet) where I was told that everyone was on board and they were preparing to shut the cabin door. Doing my best O.J. Simpson impression (older folks will remember those Hertz commercials where Simpson dashed through airports, before he became a double-murderer) I sped down the jetway, where Harrison, always the lawyer, was convincing the flight attendant not to close and lock the cabin door yet! I made it. But that was just the beginning.
We got to the Hotel Macuto-Sheraton around midnight. Lugging two huge plastic tubes (that held Harrison’s deep-sea fishing poles), we reached the front desk, where we were informed that, in fact, there were no reservations for Mr. Harrison on the books! We also discovered, in that moment, that Columbus Day Weekend was the biggest holiday in Venezuela and there were NO rooms available for us! (I couldn’t make this shit up) So, there we are, two bedraggled gringos, holding their huge plastic tubes and not speaking one word of Spanish. As luck would have it, though, the ever-resourceful Mr. Harrison called the folks he chartered the fishing trip with, and they just happened to have built several motel-like rooms right on the dock we would be leaving from on Sunday morning. We could catch a cab and stay at their place for the weekend. And that’s when I learned how deep-sea fishing works.
Saturday morning broke and our hosts (their names escape me now) had a lovely breakfast of fresh fruit and juice waiting for us by their pool. It was a glorious morning and, after some discussion with the fishing charter captain, Harrison arranged for us to get a local “tour,” back into the rainforest, etc. By 10 a.m. we were in a jeep, guided by (no kidding) Juan and Juan. Their English was only a little better than our Spanish but we set off for our day of adventure. First we visited a coastal beach and then headed inland, toward the mountains and the rainforest. We saw some lovely waterfalls and small rivers and then Juan and Juan decided to drive deeper into the forest. As we drove under an ever-darkening canopy of trees we began crossing a series of small streams --- each a bit wider, and deeper than the last. Bill and I recommended we turn around (“now”) but Juan and Juan had a destination in mind. We proceeded to ford a stream/river that lapped over the hood of the vehicle --- not good. We did make it to the other side but the Jeep dropped dead.
I’m picturing a Monday or Tuesday New York Times story (around page A7 or A8) with the headline “Two Men Lost in Venezuelan Rainforest Outside Caracas.” As we contemplated our fate, I told Harrison, “Maybe it’s the points. Maybe they’re wet. I’ll take a look.” I asked Juan and Juan if they had a tool kit. They indicated they did not. So, using only my Swiss Army Knife (the Philips Head screwdriver unit), I took off the distributor cap and used my bandana to dry off the points and the inside of the cap. I screwed it back in place and told Juan to “turn it over,” still imagining the NY Times headline. But the Jeep fired up! Amazing Grace!
We found a safer return crossing, discovered a local village, ate a fabulous lunch of fresh fish and returned to our dockside abode late in the afternoon, happy to be “home” safe. We had dinner at local restaurant and retired to our room where we were able to watch a television (with periodic “snow” interference) broadcast the Major League Baseball Playoffs (Detroit was playing Minnesota & St. Louis faced off against the Giants). It didn’t matter that the narration was in Spanish --- baseball is baseball and just a year earlier we had actually attended the World Series. We were happy campers.
Sunday morning, we set sail on the Caribbean Sea in search of marlin. We had a more than competent crew (as far as I could judge) and it was fun, if a little scary, to sail out beyond the sight of land. Flying fish and dolphin entertained us until we reached a spot the Captain thought would provide us a chance to catch some fish.
I had never been this far out in any Ocean before , much less “deep-sea fishing,” but I had seen footage of people catching swordfish and marlins, where the fish leaps high out of the water and the fisherman rapidly reels it in. What I didn’t know was that, as the fisherman was reeling in the airborne fish, the boat is quickly moving (in reverse) to shorten the distance between the prey and predator, decreasing the time one was engaged in this aerial aquatic ballet. I learned about that on Sunday, when the pole I was sitting next to began swaying, the reel singing and its line shooting out into the Caribbean! Before I quite realized what was going on, a crew member had me standing up and was sliding a leather vest over my shoulders, so I could put the butt of the fishing pole in its waistline holder --- and wait for the fish to leap. Harrison was instructing me as all this went on and, before I knew it, we had a 125-pound White Marlin on the deck, where I was kneeling next to it, getting my picture snapped. It was an exciting moment but a bit of blur, even at the time and, while a 125-pound fish is substantial, the crew was pretty nonchalant about it (they’d seen plenty of 125-pound White Marlins before, apparently). Nonetheless, it was the only fish we caught that day.
After another evening of watching baseball on our snowy screen, we left the dock around 9 a.m. on Columbus Day morning and chugged back out into the Caribbean. More flying fish, more dolphins, and, around 10 a.m., as I was writing in my journal, “Looks like we might have a beautiful slow day sailing . . . . “ my reel began singing again! Unlike Sunday, I knew what to do this time and quickly stood up, put my arms out, and the vest slid on. As I began to grab my rod and place it in the waistband holder one of the crew members on the bridge began shouting and pointing: “Grande Azul! Grande Azul!” Unlike Sunday, I had apparently landed a Blue Marlin this time --- and a big (“Grande”) one! And that where this story takes an interesting turn.
The first time the Grande Azul leapt, I began reeling in (as I had been instructed), I heard the engines below me fire up, to accelerate in reverse toward the big fish ---- and then, BLAM! --- a minor explosion. The boat came to a sputtering halt. The fish was back in the water, I was holding the taut line and, within a few minutes I was told that one of the engines had blown a gasket. The boat would not be able to move in reverse while it was being repaired. As a result, it was me against the fish until we were up and running again. I asked Harrison how long that might be. “Twenty minutes,” he said. Okay….I’ll hang on and reel in when he leaps.
There was a 250-pound Blue Marlin on the other end of my line --- and he was, quite literally, fighting for his life. In October of 1987 I probably weighed 175 pounds soaking wet and, while wiry, I needed all the help I could get if I were going to reel this guy in. I hung on, variously standing and sitting in the bolted deck chair, with my thumb on the line. I kept asking, “How much longer?” and kept being told “Twenty minutes.” By the end of the first hour the fish was still at least one hundred yards from the boat and the engine wasn’t fixed. He was still fighting. My thumb could now feel his vibration as he accelerated underwater and I was beginning to be able to anticipate his leap, preparing myself to reel in. The battle lasted well over two hours. By the time the engine was finally working the Big Blue was right next to the boat, exhausted. He had swallowed the hook. If he hadn’t (he was going to die of internal bleeding) I would have let him go. A crew membered conked him on the skull with a mallet (it sounded like one of David Letterman’s rooftop watermelon drops) and he was dead when they lifted him onto the deck.
There was a strange mix of emotions in that moment --- exhilaration from “winning” the battle and intense sadness, as if I had lost a friend. I’ve always described the fishing line connection as “umbilical” and, even as I posed for a classic “Hemingway” dockside pose with the fish I felt badly for him. The crew was more than happy to butcher him and have him for dinner --- I couldn’t. It would have felt cannibalistic.
When I returned to New York (having missed school on Tuesday!) I pulled “The Old Man and the Sea” off my book shelf and tore through it. I also got a copy of the Gregory Peck version of Moby Dick and watched it. The Caracas trip was a signal moment, a memorable one, and I immediately connected it to literature, to texts, upon returning to the “Real World,” where my school reform crusading would now continue.
Next: The Second Circle - 1988-1991