Sunday, October 15, 2017


“What should I do if a student pulls a knife in class?”

“Get a new job at a better school!”

That was the 1961 exchange between me and my NU teaching methods professor who had been giving us tips about stuff like kids who chew gum or won’t take their hats off.  I wanted him to get real.  He wanted to entertain the class, which was mostly jocks, either as camouflage for being on Bobcat teams or with the vague intention of becoming coaches.  When the prof himself was in high school, he had probably been the kid in charge of towels and keeping the stats.  Though — quietly — such a kid would always get more prestige out of keeping secrets and carrying messages — in those days probably substances not so much.

My student teaching was at Evanston Township High where my supervising teacher, Wallace Smith, who had a fabulous deep voice, answered the phone by announcing,  “This is God.  What can I do for you?”  Unless they knew him, there would be a long pause.  He did not have this voice because he was Black, because this was one of the best high schools in the country and they did not have Black faculty.  There was a beautiful Black female student whom Mr. Smith told sadly that though she was a better actress than any white girl in the school, she could NOT expect to have a career.  Luckily, it turned out he was not God after all.

If Mr. Smith came to any color of girl turning the corner in the hall, he would demand, “When are you going to start losing weight?”  Even the skinny ones would stammer out some excuse.  He loved throwing people off balance.  He said to me, “Well, you know, once you start to talk you seem a lot smarter than you look.”  

Used to my mother’s family’s idea of humor, I took it in stride.  Anyway, it seemed true.  I don’t know what challenge he issued to Laird Williamson, who was the other student dramatics teacher along with me.  Laird went on to be a pillar of the Ashland Shakespearean Festival.  I don’t know whether he ever really taught high school.  Since I taught on the Blackfeet Reservation, almost everything I learned was pretty irrelevant.  Except the acting courses — it’s impossible to be irrelevant to acting.

Anyway, it’s beyond ironic that when I googled “Wallace Smith” I brought up a successful black actor (male).  I have no idea where the white high school teacher ended up.

Karl Robinson was in charge of the Speech Ed department.  He was a slightly geeky, conscientious, earnest sort of man who worried about me wanting to take so many religion courses — or acting courses, either.  (Maybe they were signs that I was unstable?)  If there is still an NU course of study for teaching high school dramatics or “speech” in the present Communication Arts curriculum, I couldn’t find it online.  But I was pleased to see that in the department devoted to speech and audiology pathologies, there are associated studies of learning disabilities.

There’s also a thing called “Rhetoric + Public Culture” which may be remnants of what was once a dominant emphasis on debate and public speaking.  In general the whole "School of Speech" territory is not just divvied up in different ways, but also spread out — you might say “globalized” since much seems to include post-colonial French-Algerian thought.  

In my day Dean Barnlund’s “Language and Thought” class upset all the rational, logical, either/or guys by introducing S.I. Hayakawa’s semantics.

“The original version of this book, Language in Action,[later "Language in Thought and Action”] published in 1941, was in many respects a response to the dangers of propaganda, especially as exemplified in Adolf Hitler's success in persuading millions to share his maniacal and destructive views. It was the writer's conviction then, as it remains now, that everyone needs to have a habitually critical attitude towards language—his own as well as that of others—both for the sake of his personal well being and for his adequate functioning as a citizen. Hitler is gone, but if the majority of our fellow citizens are more susceptible to the slogans of fear and race hatred than to those of peaceful accommodation and mutual respect among human beings, our political liberties remain at the mercy of any eloquent and unscrupulous demagogue.” 

Hayakawa was a Republican senator from California between 1977 and 1983.  He was the nephew-in-law of Joseph Stalin, in that his wife Margedant's brother William Wesley Peters was married to Stalin's daughter Svetlana Alliluyeva, so he could probably mediate with Russians.  He was a definitively inclusive guy, which may have come from being a Japanese Canadian by birth.  Rather like Obama, he depended on calm, honor, and hanging out with ordinary folks in South Side Chicago blues bars.  Here he is, speaking.  At that point he was President of San Francisco State College.

Powerful liberal forces in politics have somehow been diminished, but the thought has continued, as progressive (emergent) thought has always persisted down through the centuries.  Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.  Journalists did not take “Language and Thought,” so therefore they don’t see one large sector of America.

My education at Northwestern was right on the cusp of a major shift in the United States, one that went along after WWII for decades with bumps and set-backs, until now when aged retro Republicans are making one last heave-ho, hoping the past will return — along with their youth.  Ironically, while they try to resurrect the past economic patterns of coal and Hollywood, the big picture is shifting quickly, and when they get what they want, like a grandpa with a teenaged bride, it will be useless.  Coal is replaced; Hollywood is obsolete.

The first classes I taught in Browning did include a student who pulled a knife on me.  He threw it at a desktop, intending it to stick in a twanging message of danger.  Instead, the formica desktop just bounced it off and it slid into a corner.  I went to get it, folded it (it was a pocket knife, but long and wicked enough to be illegal most places) and shoved it into his jeans pocket.  (Jeans weren’t as tight then as they are now.)  “Now sit down and get to work.”  He did.  Later he worked with us in the foundry and we got along fine.  He’s dead now.  So many of them have died.

“Professor, what should I do about students who are murdered, hooked on drugs, drive drunk, die young of preventable disease?”  The honest answer is that we don’t know.  The even more honest answer is that not many people care.

In the meantime, the students of both Browning HS and Blackfeet Community College have somehow shifted from shyness to eloquence.  I’m dazzled by their plays and speeches.  I used to say to kids who complained that their teachers hated them, “If you can’t learn because of them, you must learn in spite of them.”  They did.  Both.  Me, too.  Enough to get out of teaching.

1 comment:

DDx:dx said...

A retired teacher in my community used to say of teaching, "I came to understand I could not force my students to drink from the fountain of knowledge. Instead, I learned my job was to make them thirsty."