War Stories from the Classroom

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How Quickly A Reputation Can Be Trashed

Key search words:  reputation, junior high teaching, Will Rogers High School, pun, play on words, jokes

I taught school for many years, mostly teaching junior high social studies. One of my primary methods of teaching involved using puns and plays on words. I found that students that age were not particularly interested in the subject matter but they were always interested in hearing something funny and my play on words and puns often did the trick. Students didn’t want to "turn off" completely because they never liked to be jolted awake by the laughter of their classmates and not know what was said to invoke the laughter….. which they had missed.

Over the years my reputation preceded me and those coming into my classes had often heard that "he tells jokes in his class." Any of the comments I made had a purpose and had some tie to the lesson at hand. Students often listened more carefully to the lesson material in order to catch one or more of the "added comments" which often flew by.

I taught those junior high students at the same school for 19 years and finally it was time to make a change. Our school district was reorganizing from a 6-3-3 plan with elementary – junior high – high school to a 5 – 3 – 4 plan with elementary – middle school – high school. Since I had taught more 9th graders than the other grades, I had a chance to follow the 9th graders from junior high to high school. I interviewed at two of the local high schools that my school fed into, hoping one would see fit to take me.

The week after my interviews, I received a call from the principal at Will Rogers High School to come back for a second visit so I made my way over after school that day.

Mr. Cox, the principal, told me he had requested that I be moved to teach at Rogers for the coming years, and wanted to know if I would like to look around and see the school. I was quite happy and anxious to look around and visit with some of the staff I would be working with. The school day was still going on for many of the students there and I got a chance to see several of the students I had taught in the past who had made it on to high school.

During the visit to look around, Mr. Cox took me down to the lower level and was introducing me to some of the teachers. While I was meeting Mrs. Archer in the Business Dept. the bell rang and students began passing to another class. Suddenly a girl passed us and she recognized me from the junior high school where I taught. She had attended there the three years past, although she had never been in any of my classes. I don’t even remember her name but perhaps I never did even know it.

She came up to where Mrs. Archer, Mr. Cox, and I were standing in the hall and she blurted out, "Oh, Mr. Pickett…….. What are you doing here?" Mr. Cox, in a very professional voice responded, "Mr. Pickett will be teaching for us here next year." And as quickly as a life can change in an instant she said, "Oh, you and your dirty jokes?"

How do I respond to that? Although she had never been in my class she had heard others talk about funny jokes that I told in class and in her world, the term "funny joke" meant "dirty joke." Of course, at that instant, with my reputation crumbling down around my feet, I was stunned.

If I were to respond, "I don’t tell dirty jokes in class" Mr. Cox would think, "He says that but how could I believe him?" If I don’t respond at all he would think, "Wow, what have I gotten myself into by hiring this guy?" I truthfully don’t think I said anything, as I was just too stunned.

When I returned to my current teaching assignment at the junior high the next day, I relayed the story to many of the folks I taught with. Of course they found that to be about the funniest thing they’d ever heard and I was the center of amusement for the faculty for the entire day.

Actually, the solution to my problem turned out to be easier than I expected. Several of the men on my faculty knew Mr. Cox quite well and they vouched for me and the fact that they’d never heard of any off color jokes or stories that I’d ever told in my classes. They verified to him that I would be a good teacher for him and not bring down the wrath of the public or the school board on him or his school.

I went on to have a wonderful teaching experience at Will Rogers High School and later had a chance to go to the district’s central office to work for years as the district computer coordinator. Mrs. Archer also came to the central office and I worked with her there too. Even Mr. Cox was elevated to a central office position and he loved to share, at break time or lunch, the amusing story about the girl who shattered my reputation within two seconds time.

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We Had Some Smokin’ Times

Key search words:  integration, junior high teaching, Bell Junior High School

I had been teaching since 1964 and during the mid 60s, the school district integrated the schools according to federal law. The system they chose was a well thought-out system whereby they first integrated the faculties and then the next year, they integrated the student body. This gave teachers who had not had a great deal of interaction with other races, a chance to get to know each out without the "stress" which was surely to come the next year.

I had experienced few dealings with other races in my earlier years and I wasn’t particularly pro or con but rather neutral. We welcomed the new teachers who joined us and I think, in the back of our minds, it would be a real plus to have them when the student body integrated the next year.

We had some particularly good new teachers who joined us at Bell Jr. High during that year the faculty integrated. One man in particular was the woodshop teacher, Mr. Edgar Guess. Mr. Guess was a quiet man, in his 50s, and I’m sure he’d have preferred to have not been in the center of the large social experiment but I never did see him show any unhappiness with his new assignment.

We tried to show our newcomers that we welcomed them into our group and tried to include them as we did all of the older group. I remember Mr. Guess always staying back in the background as we sat around in the men teacher’s lounge during our lunch hour (ooops…. make that our lunch ‘less than half hour’). Mr. Guess was always pleasant and nice but didn’t offer much to the conversation. I remember him mentioning one time during his college days where he said he had to enter a restaurant, always through the back door.

This was the situation for several months until we were sitting in the lounge eating lunch and swapping jokes and stories. Suddenly during a break, Mr. Guess said, "I remember one story about a black family driving down in one of the southern states. The man drove into a service station (this was back before do-it-yourself pumping) where the service attendant was rocked back in a chair leaning against the station’s outer wall. The attendant had a bucket of apples beside him and was pealing one with a pocketknife. He also had a rifle leaned against the station beside him.

The black man patiently waited a minute for the attendant to come out and wait on him but the attendant continued to lean back and peal his apple, obviously not planning to help the driver. Finally the black driver asked the man, "Could you fill up my gasoline tank?"

The attendant reached down and picked up an apple and tossed it high into the air. He grabbed his rifle and shot a hole right through that apple.

At that, the black driver quietly got out of his car, walked over and picked up another apple. He threw it into the air, whipped out a razor, pealed it, cored it, and quartered it, said, "Could you check the oil too?"

With that sharing of humor, we knew we had succeeded in making Mr. Guess feel comfortable with our group. We had many more great times in those short lunch period get-togethers. I believe I’m a better person for having know him and having him as a friend.

Another story, which also involved Mr. Guess, happened at Bell. I don’t recall if this was the first year of the faculty integration or a year or two later but it was a story we loved to bring up and all have a good laugh. I’m sure the black teachers tried to be especially careful about doing anything that could cause an unnecessary riff among the students. Some students were from homes where prejudice, sometimes even to the point of bigotry, was practiced and the black teachers tried to walk a fine line to keep things on an even keel and keeping some sibilance of education going.

We had some really great students at Bell but, like any collection of people, there were some bad folks. In fact, I think I could even go out on a limb and say we had some ‘mighty bad’ folks. One boy in particular was a 9th grader who went by the name of "Blade." Try as I might, I have not been able to remember his real name. I did have him in one of my classes and I know I did NOT humor him by calling him "Blade" but his actual name has long-since escaped me.

Blade was also in Mr. Guess’s woodshop class and as with many shop classes, discipline had to be strictly enforced. This was back in the days where this enforcement was often done with a wooden paddle. One day, Mr. Blade had been particularly ‘non-social’ and he was to be rewarded by a swat from Mr. Guess’s paddle. Blade bent over and Mr. Guess let go with a good swat and suddenly, smoke began to pour out of Blade’s back pocket.

It seems that he carried his smoking paraphernalia in his back pocket and there were several loose wooden matches. When he was swatted, the matches somehow were ignited and, hence, the smoke. Of course, in the pocket there was insufficient oxygen to support combustion so there was no fire but it made quite an impression on some of the other students who could see what was happening.

For Mr. Guess, it was also quite a shock, especially for a teacher trying to keep a fairly low profile in the midst of this new social experiment. When the others on the faculty heard about what had happened, it was the source of major laughs and entertainment for us for weeks thereafter.

Now that I’ve mentioned Blade above, I thought of another story that involved him. One day I heard loud commotion outside my classroom while I was trying to teach. I quickly went out and there was that fine upstanding citizen, Blade, involved in a major fight with another boy. I guess I should also mention that it never was a disadvantage, during my teaching career, to be a large man so I grabbed Blade to pull him off the other boy. I’ll never forget what he said to me – and that was, "I could have killed him if I’d wanted to. I know he’s got a heart problem and I could have hit him good right in the chest and it would have killed him." Keep in mind that this was a 9th grader and this was back in the mid-60s so that would make him about 50+ now. Perhaps he’s the fellow who lives down the street from you, or in that house on the other street behind you. Nah, come to think about it, he’s probably in prison now or has long-since been killed by someone who wasn’t nearly as impressed by his black leather jacket, his slicked-down hair, or his "smokin’ jeans" as he thought they should have been.

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Is Hallmark Missing a Golden Opportunity?

By Jim Pickett – K5LAD

Just a slight departure from the typical ham radio-related articles, but I was just musing over some interesting recent events.  I believe that Christmas-time is a time to think about family and friends and reflect on one's life in general.  I was recently at a store to buy a Christmas card for an individual.  The store had several aisles of racks and racks of cards for all occasions and for almost any group you could imagine from the man who cuts the lawn and distributes the lawn preparation chemicals to the person who brings your mail or cuts your hair.  There are even specialty cards for specific ages and even cards for graduates from the barber college, etc.  In particular I was looking for a special card so let me explain the activities leading up to this. 

I taught for many years in the public school system.  Most of my years were in the junior high and middle school year groups but I did spend one year teaching in a high school.  At that time, the grades served by this high school were grades 9 through 12 and most of my scholars were in the younger age group.  I did, however, have one class of the upper grades with a class called, "Applied Economics" that was a 1 semester class supported by the Junior Achievement organization.   For those unfamiliar with this group, the curriculum was designed around having the class members actually create a small company, sell stock to finance it, design and build a small product, which would then be sold to others, and they would distribute the profits from the sales of said products.  This was all done on a miniature scale and the amount of money at any level was quite small.  Also each class was adopted by local company who would provide a genuine business person who would come in weekly and advise the students on adapting what they learned in miniature, to the real world.  It was an excellent example of a practical learning experience.

The two classes I had that year had students from many backgrounds and levels of achievement.   Interestingly enough, some of the students who struggled in typical academic areas really shined in this more practical, 'where the rubber meets the road' environment and some who were leaders in the academic arena had to learn to look at things differently than they had in their previous school endeavors.  I had students from all social, financial, and knowledge areas, including a boy who was an exchange student from Germany.  The classes, I believe, were successful and provided some insight to these students who would soon be heading out into the cold, cruel 'real world'.   

That year, with the two separate semesters of classes, I had a total of about 65-70 students and most of them went their way at the end and I never heard from them again.  The only two I later heard from was a girl who I spoke to on the phone about 7 or 8 years later.  She had married and she and her husband had started and were running a successful business in town.  She thanked me for what she had learned in the class and it was a joy to learn that I had, perhaps, played a small part of their success.

The other contact I had with one of the Applied Economics ex-students was after I had left the classroom several years later and was working in the school district's central office where I visited all of the schools and had a chance to help teachers.  I happened to be going to one of the high schools in town and stopped by one of the McDonald's facilities to be treated to a gourmet lunch.  I was greeted by one of the employees, a boy who had been in my AE class, and he called me by name.  He had been, and still was, a quiet, soft-spoken person.  I had remembered him as being not particularly scholarly but he did participate in the classroom activities and played a part in the 'company' activities.  We chatted for a bit and then I finished my lunch.

The next time I heard about this second student was to read in the newspaper that he had been involved in a terrible crime, along with another man; and had been captured, tried and was sentenced to more than 300 years in prison.  Teachers always are happy to hear about successes of their previous students but are devastated to hear about failures like this.  Even though I really don't deserve much credit for the successes, I hate to be saddled with the failures too.

The thought of being sentenced to several centuries with little or no chance of parole was only exceeded when the ex-student's name came up again several years later.   This time, the newspaper was reporting that a local judge had given improper and incorrect instructions to the juries during several trials and all of these 10 or so cases had to be completely retried.  This time, the juries "threw the book at all these cases" and Allen received more than 3000 years for the same crime.  It somewhat reminds me of the story about the defendant who was sentenced by the judge to "99 years" and he optimistically and cheerfully replied, "Well, it could have been life."

I cannot condone the crime or the activities that led to this sentence.  Still some years ago, I still could not get this out of my mind.   The ex-student, who now was 40+ years of age, often crossed my thinking and I wondered if I could have said something to make him more aware of right and wrong.  7 or 8 years ago, I did some searching on the Internet and discovered this individual who was then in one of the state's minimum security prisons (he was never a mean or violent person when he was in my class).  I wrote to the warden, identified myself, and asked permission to contact him and that was granted.   Primarily I just thought a card at Christmas and his birthday might be nice, just to let him know that teachers still remember and are concerned about their students.

I don't think it's necessary to identify the crime or the individual.  He knows he made a terrible mistake and will pay for it for the rest of his life.  I know it was a terrible mistake and that he will pay for it.  When I’ve written to him, I have never mentioned blame or praise and I think it has been important for him to know that I, as a teacher, remember the better times and think about him frequently.

I wrote to Allen and just let him know that regardless of what you might think of your teachers when you are in their classroom settings, they really had feelings and I just wanted him to know that I thought about him.  I have never mentioned his crime nor made any comment on his reason for incarceration.  I send him a card several times during the year and receive occasional cards from him.  I discovered that he had no family and my cards were the first and only mail he had received.

He has sent me performance sheets, received from his superiors, documenting his good behavior and good work skills while in prison since he had no one else to share his good things.   He sent me an article that was in a newspaper showing him working at the area that created the new Oklahoma license plates.

The thing that prompted this article and set me to thinking again was when I, once again, was searching for a good Christmas card to send him.  Again, Hallmark has cards to cover nearly every holiday and activity for almost any group you can imagine............... except one.  Next time you're looking over the card rack at a store, read some of the messages and imagine how appropriate that card would be for someone in prison serving a 3000+ year sentence.  Words of Hope, Encouragement, and Happiness --- they all seem a bit useless to a person in that situation.  Perhaps Hallmark is missing out on a great opportunity to produce cards to fill this niche.  Still, if they did I would certainly hope that it would be a very small printing run.

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Created Jan. 31, 2007  -- Updated 02/09/2012

 

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