Redefining Education

It is early in the morning. By all means I should still be snoozing away, but I am up and awake. I went to bed early, extremely exhausted after a full day outside. My son’s 2 friends (brothers) had a small party for their belated birthdays and I hung out. The snowstorm aftermath has kept most people away, so there were only a few of us. And it was the main activity of the day that wore me out. The walks in between restaurant and home were filled by a snowball fight.

It has been a long time since have been in a snowball fight. But as the boys went on the attack, the boy in me came alive, and I got into it. My friend Mariano, a college professor, joined in, and the fight was on. I knew the consequence would catch up to me later, and it did. I hit the sack at about 10 pm. but now I am awake 5 hours later, and a very interesting memory has taken possession of my mind. A story that I would like to share. It may be one of the only truly positive educational experiences that has stayed with me all these years.

School for me was never very good. Being an artist from day one, I was already tagged as an outsider. Not someone who was going to play the game, and as a result marginalized. When I got to Junior High School, it was evident how this labeling had caught up with me. I was relegated to a class of students who were all considered disciplinary problems. Interestingly enough, my academic life took an upward turn. I suddenly found myself more interested in being a good student. But the rogue in me was still very much active. And I had many allies in this environment to assist me.

To give you an example, my first day at Nathaniel Hawthorne Junior High was greeted by a speech by my homeroom teacher for the 7th grade. His name was Mr. Koppelman. He was a really nice guy, but he was not about to take any crap from us. It was evident that we were labeled problem kids by the nature of Mr. Koppelman’s experience. He had just come out what was then termed “Six Hundred Schools.”  The definition I could find via the internet on these schools is this: public schools for problem youth back in the day prior to Special Education programs. When teachers were allotted an extra $600 for their added woe. There is an article on these schools for delinquents here which notes that the first of these schools was established on Rikers Island, our local prison location. Mr. Koppelmans speech is remembered here as the famous “Heads will roll” speech where he told of the many objects hurled at him by students. The fights he had to endure. the troubles he had seen. But in truth, all of this blabbering was to establish his authority over the potential hooligans he was given charge of.

Nathanial Hawthorne JHS 74

But he was now in Bayside, Queens. A fairly benevolent neighborhood composed mostly of Jewish, Catholic and Armenian families. We had our portion of kids bused in from St. Albans so there was our share of African Americans as well, who were also labeled as you might expect for 1968 or any year.

But the memory I wanted to share happened a year later. In those days we had some fairly colorful characters who acted as teachers. Most memorable among them were the gym teachers. Mostly ex-military guys, ready to inflict their “I love America, and you’d better too, punk” attitude on us. One tale I recall was a of a boy who was lifted up and thrown on stage for not reciting the Star Spangled Banner by Mr Infantino, who is remembered as a WWII veteran with shrapnel in his neck. Mr Seewagon was the elder of this crew. He was a former semi-pro tennis player. His prop was a plastic baseball bat, which he would knock against the wall, to give us the idea that if we got out of line, the bat would be used in some manner. These teachers were not above ridiculing students for their lack of physical enthusiasm, and that is where my story begins. Before I do, I just hope that Mark Kinkleman will not hold it against me for sharing this.

Mark was a lanky and pale child. We were all a bit short of 13, in those days, so it is safe to say we were all pretty much pale and thin. But if you were not a physical type, then you were prey for the the gym teachers and other students. I do not remember what triggered this incident, but the phys-ed teacher made Mark K an example that fateful day. As I said, I cannot remember the specifics, but being sensitive young men (not,) other kids joined in after class teasing him about it.

I shared a math class with Mark, and was somewhat aware of all the teasing that followed the class. As I passed him on my way to my seat, I made a wise crack. Not turning, but continuing to my seat, I heard a commotion behind me. There was Mark, with twisted rage on his face, holding a chair over his head and ready to strike me with it. A few of the students calmed him down and the incident was put to rest. At least until the end of the day.

Our homeroom teacher that year was Mr. Doerr. Mr. Doerr was one cool guy. His hair was a bit long for teachers of his day. It was very blond, and he sported a small beatnik beard. The incident carried over into our end of day gathering before recess. It seemed that a few others were still teasing Mark, and the consequence was a fight that broke out right in class. Another chair was raised ready to strike. Mr. Doerr held a short council, and the players in this incident were all asked to stay after school.

It is still clear in my mind the names of the boys who stayed that day. Mark, Neil Weissman, Pat Powers, Glen Tomashaw and myself. There were others, but they seem blurry now in my memory. Mr. Doerr was going to sort this thing out, and his solution was this: we had to each sit separately at various desks around the room. We had to sit with our backs straight, hands flat on the table, feet square on the floor. We were not to look right or left, but only straight toward the front of the room. Mr. Doer would decide when we were complicit enough, to dismiss us. But here is the kicker. The teacher, once he had established that we were in position, went to the rear of the room, and out of our view, played Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto on a Victrola.

There I was, sitting there in all my guilt, with my insensitivity staring me in the face. The posture I was in, was evocative of meditation. And playing through this memory is the Brandenburg Concerto. Was this teacher insane?

As we sat there we all started to calm down. And as we did, Mr. Doerr came by and tapped each of us on the shoulder, giving us permission to leave. This single memory left a profound impression on me. I still love Bach, but that isn’t it at all. It seems to me, that with all the barking information at us, and trying to get us to conform to some “American” ideal, this single memory stands out as one of the true moments where I learned something. It was not for my head. It went deeper then that. It touched me in a way that nothing in my education ever did. Mr. Doer taught us something without preaching to us. He gave me an impression of myself, which has had a lasting effect. Here I am reflecting on it 40 years later.

The little I ever heard of Mr. Doerr was that he left teaching shortly after that and became a stage actor. It would seem that the school system had no place for a creative individual like this. This is the way I would like to to see education go. Teach to the human being. The facts and figures are easy to obtain. But the soul requires a much more artistic approach. On the eve of the New Year, I want to thank John Doerr for this, where ever he may be. Go in Good Health.


One Comment on “Redefining Education”

  1. Diane says:

    Great blog, as usual. What I got out of is:

    (1) I don’t remember Nathanial Hawthorne looking that beautiful;
    (2) Roy was obviously not the wuss that the gym teacher was trying to make him look like;
    (3) Mr. Doerr sounds like an amazing person; and
    (4) I’m very impressed that you remember all those names of people!!

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