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True Stories by Steve Keely
April 28, 2005
I rolled off the trail into Blythe, Ca. yesterday with an empty stomach. Today I went to the Kitchen that feeds for free street people and low incomers. I got more than a meal.
The new server, a silver-haired gent, winked over a dollop of rice, ‘Gravy, sub?’
‘Mr. Wheat! I subbed your English class years ago.’
‘I retired in June, ’00 and look at me now,’ he smiled.
He was fit and prosperous, less grim than I recalled. Mr. Wheat was the Blythe high school teacher most disliked by students and most admired by his peers. ‘He gives homework,’ one student complained when I asked why Wheat was always in the doghouse. ‘And makes us do it,’ another added. ‘He controls the classis like no other teacher,’ a secretary told me. I left him class behavior reports written in mirror image. He wasn’t gone much but began to request me as a sub. Once he left an advance note, ‘Assert yourself today. You’re the teacher!’
I jotted a report once suggesting he take it to the men’s room mirror where, if he did, read, “The class manner today was excellent, as usual, but the grammar used is atrocious. Which is correct to say: Three and four IS eight, or three and four ARE eight?’’ I didn’t get an answer before he retired.
He ladled the gravy and I took a seat at a table among the rough homeless, single mothers, and urchins fresh out of high school. There I ruminated.
In line for seconds, he became animated at my questions. ‘Mr. Wheat, when did you start teaching and what went wrong in education.’
‘I started in ’69 and taught for over thirty years. The first ten years were wonderful, and toward the end – the last twenty years – less so. I think the seventies changed American education: The Love Generation, drugs and Spock.’
‘Please pinpoint the problems,’ I asked.
‘Permissiveness. Large classes. Sexual distractions such as girls in bikini tops and guys in muscle shirts. A third of the students were ‘high’ in the past 24 hours. Administration. The kids are smart and know the rules inside-out to manipulate the teachers. One time one shouted in class, ‘I don’t give a ‘F___’ about your class, and I don’t give a ‘F___’ what you do about it.’ He was right; there was nothing I could do about it.
‘Large classes are a dilemma. In my last year of teaching I had 190 students in six classes per day. The college-prep English class alone had 37 students and you can’t teach that many, much less control them. It isn’t hard to work with a headache or cold and I never missed a sick day. The students begged me to stay home just one day to give them a break but I said I was so mean that germs wouldn’t come near me.’
‘What power does the teacher have over the students?’ I posed.
‘I’m sorry, there is none as the system stands. A decade before retirement, I gave up sending misbehavers to the office since it did no good. There’s nothing at the office that students respect or fear. So I explored other avenues. I was one of the few teachers who gave homework as punishment but few did it. I kept them after school to no avail. I threatened to flunk them and they shrugged. The core of the problem is administration and parents who give no backing to discipline. It’s been a cover-your-ass administration for many years where people who don’t make waves stay on the job. I used to break up fights, a teacher’s duty. One day my watch was broken in a fracas and I went to the principal for reimbursement. It was denied and that was the last fight I broke up. When I used to call in parents for discussions they demanded, ‘Who are you!’ I looked them in the eye and asked the same thing, but the conference got the student nowhere. So, we graduate poorly educated kids.’
I returned to the table to eat with the others. Then rose and walked for thirds.
‘It’s not just Blythe,’ Mr. Wheat stated. In my opinion, the problem is state and country-wide for the same reasons.
‘Your reputation as the best disciplinarian was widespread,’ I praised.
‘I failed,’ he replied. ‘Look around you.’
It was a beautiful day outside as I dropped my paper plate into the trash and waved goodbye to Mr. Wheat. ‘Your English classes were mannerly but the grammar upsetting,’ I raised my voice for the room to hear. ‘Which is correct to say: Three and four IS eight, or three and four ARE eight?’’
‘I’m retired!’ he exclaimed. As the screen door slammed behind me, he added softly, ‘Three and four ARE seven.’
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