My Boston “Album”
Dr. Gonzo meets Dr. Sizer
The second year in Boston/at Winchester High continued at a breakneck pace. As the 1985-1986 school year began, an Assistant Principal approached me, asking if I would be interested in directing the Fall play. (yes, but I insisted on producing/directing Sam Shepard’s Buried Child). Around the same time, the Athletic Director inquired as to whether I would want to coach the boys' tennis team in the Spring (Yes, I’d love to!) All the while I was still bartending on Thursday/Friday or Saturday/Sunday Brunch, creating a seriously bifurcated life! Unlike Rye Brook, where I socialized with my colleagues (and some of the parents in the community), my life in Boston was sharply divided between the professional (teaching) realm and my personal (non-teaching) affairs. Dr. Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise became “the text” that guided my classroom practice, while “Dr.” Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas provided the “soundtrack” for my personal life. 1985-1986 became a bizarre, self-produced “concept album.” Side One was Dr. Sizer & Mr. Johnson and Side 2 was Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil . And that’s where we pick things up as the needle drops on 1985-1986.
Dr. Sizer and Mr. Johnson
Track One: Horace’s Compromise
Published in 1984, Ted Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise entered my life at some point during my second year at Winchester and it struck a number of responsive chords. There were philosophical echoes of Herndon while focusing disciplined school reform proposals in a manner our Sixties “alternative school” movement never did. Sizer creates “Horace Smith,” a veteran English teacher in a suburban high school as his vehicle for examining the state of high schools across the United States in the early 1980s. In his introduction, Sizer notes: “This book urges renewed public attention to the importance of teaching in high schools and to the complexity and subtlety of that craft.” (p 4) AMEN!, I thought. Sizer echoes Herndon by declaring, “High school is a kind of secular church, a place of national rituals that mark stages of a young citizen’s life.” Needless to say, I was sold on Sizer right from the start.
The author then takes us through Horace’s day, the rhythms and patterns clearly recognizable to anyone who has been a teacher. Sizer also notes this about his character:
Horace is a gentle man. He reads the frequent criticism of his profession
in the press with compassion. Johnny can’t read. Teachers have low
Graduate Record Examination scores. We must vary our teaching to the
learning styles of our pupils. We must relate to the community. We must
be scholarly, keeping up with our fields. . . . Horace is a trouper; he hides
his bitterness. Nothing can be gained by showing it. . . . He will go with the
flow. What alternatives is there? (p. 19)
And that’s where Sizer elucidates how Horace Smith, in order to do his job and still be able to look at himself in the mirror, must make compromises.
Even after adroit accommodations and devastating compromises --- only
five minutes per week of attention on the written work of each student and
an average of ten minutes of planning for each fifty-odd minute class ---
the task is already crushing in reality a sixty-hour week. . . . Furthermore,
none of these sixty-plus hours is spent replenishing his own academic
capital. That has to be done in addition, perhaps during the summer. (p.20)
Indeed, this was not unlike the position I found myself in teaching English at Winchester High School! Happily, as the book proceeds, Sizer makes a compelling (and persuasive) case for student-centered teaching/coaching, as well as a much larger scale school reform proposal (which would enter my life in a big way sooner than I expected!). Encouraged by the text, I charged ahead, holding my students to high expectations, breaking kids into small groups, and, most importantly, listening to their ideas! I was an anomaly at WHS but, like Horace Smith I was trying to get by with the fewest compromises while being able to look at myself in the mirror each morning.
Track Two: In the Classroom
My degree from Yale was in American Studies (an interdisciplinary major) but my “area of concentration” was Literature, so I relished the opportunity to (finally!) teach English. I discovered Winchester had more than enough copies of Hemingway’s In Our Time and Stephen King’s Nigh Shift --- the first collections of short stories from both authors and perfect material for my (supposedly “low track”) students. I supplemented those authors with the short stories of Breece D’J Pancake (a little known but brilliant short story writer). The students ate it up. The stories were, indeed, short (On the Quay at Smyrna, Hemingway’s opening stories is only two pages! --- but brilliant), the language was easily accessible, and the students had lots of ideas about symbolism, character, and all the “classic” elements of literary analysis. What sent the class into overdrive, though, was my sharing a couple of stories by Josh L. Brounwin, an unpublished author. (If you re-arrange the letters of “Josh L. Brounwin” you get “Wilbur Johnson” --- a device I learned from researching Vladimir Nabokov in a course at Iona College). When the students were told this was my fiction, they got excited about writing their own short stories, and we were off!
In much the same way, my Senior Elective in T.V./Media became a great deal of fun once it was turned over to the students. We had a basic (read “primitive”) television “studio,” with two cameras and a control board that could switch from camera to camera and do some limited “special effects.” After studying commercials, the students reveled in making their own satiric versions of what they had seen on t.v. Fabulous and fun! At the same time, my Sophomores quickly got the hang of the Macintosh computers and were busy either writing assignments for other classes or creating their own fiction. I was beginning to really understand Ted Sizer’s notion of “teacher as coach” as a result of the classroom work at Winchester High School.
Track Three: Buried Child
Having accepted the assignment of producing/directing the Fall Play --- on the condition I could do Sam Shepard’s Pulitzer Prize winning Buried Child --- I quickly found myself holding auditions. Winchester had a tradition of doing Fall plays that included rather large casts produced what I saw as “hackneyed” material (I told someone,” No one needs to see Arsenic and Old Lace again.”). I also saw using Shepard as an opportunity to make the play another “class” for the students. Let’s be clear here, though --- I had never produced/directed a school play before. Having gleaned a great deal from watching the work of my brilliant Blind Brook colleague, Peter Tarshis, I dived into the task with great energy and a headful of ideas. The work of Viola Spolin and Sandy Meisner proved essential to working with my young actors and the Industrial Arts teachers (Dave Miller & John Fusco) and their stage crew created a beautiful set for the play. I winnowed out the seven actors needed for the drama and then chose seven understudies (who would have their own performance as a Saturday matinee --- a first for Winchester). Our numbers were small, given Winchester’s Fall Play history, but the talent was enormous, and both casts provided wonderful performances.
Track Four: Tennis
As springtime rolled around, tennis season was on the horizon. Unlike the drama production, I did have experience coaching tennis, having served as the Boys Varsity Coach at Blind Brook for five or six years. It goes without saying that affluent suburbs invariably have good tennis teams and, indeed, my Blind Brook teams were more than competitive (only Bronxville stood in our way of the League title year after year). Winchester, though, was another level altogether. There was aa array of banners in the gymnasium heralding Tennis team League Championships going back to the early 1970s. I told the Athletic Director that I feared a blank space or a banner saying “Johnson F-ed Up” being raised if I didn’t come through. Luckily for me, I was blessed with some really great players and we went 13-0 in League play, 18-0 for the season, and made it to the semifinals of the State championship before finally losing. Led by Senior captain Shawn Herlihy and some sterling underclassmen (Joe Palumbo, Gavin Barton, Scott Herlihy) the team was a pure joy to work with, far beyond the winning.
Track Five: The Golden Apple
During my first year at Winchester someone (the PTA? Administrators? Department Chairs?) thought it would be good idea to “recognize” teachers by giving an award in the Spring. It was called “The Golden Apple” and the student body voted on it and, after administrative approval, a teacher was “recognized” at the Spring Awards Assembly. It was a very well-kept secret with people on the Faculty speculating as to who the recipient might be. My first year, having created sufficient “buzz,” I thought it would be very cool to win the Golden Apple --- but how many Rookies win the MVP (very few)?
In 1984-1985 the award went to a colleague in the Math Department and, to the credit of the Faculty, there was no gossip or backbiting about the winner. By my second year, the students were assuring me that I would be the Golden Apple recipient. I, of course, knew better than to believe student scuttlebutt and actually believed my Department Chair when she told me I had to accompany her to the Spring Awards Assembly because, as the least senior member of the department, it was “my turn.” That, of course, was a ruse and, to my delight and surprise, I actually did win the Golden Apple! It was gratifying, even if it seemed to be a “popularity” contest. My English Department colleagues seemed pleased that we had wrested the award away from those math barbarians, so that also made it a fun “win.”
Track Six: The NEH Application
As the second semester began in early 1986, I went online and found the list of NEH Summer Seminars for Secondary Teachers offerings. What immediately caught my eye was a seminar at Columbia University on Modern American Drama taught by Howard Stein, the first permanent chair of the Oscar Hammerstein II Center for Theater Studies, and the head of playwriting at the University. No-brainer. I had to wait until almost April to find out if I would be included in the group of 15 selected to study in New York City. My classes and tennis coaching proved a suitable distraction --- though I wanted this second NEH more than I had the first. Happily, in early April, I was accepted, and I began looking forward to what I thought would be an exciting summer --- little knowing that it would actually be a life-altering experience!
Flip it over!
Dr. Gonzo and Mr. Bil