Two score and three years ago, a senior class in American history met on the top floor of the Parthenon at Tucson High School. It was sixth period, the last class of the day, and as fate decreed, the summer semester.
I introduce fate into our colloquy because so many matters of coincidence, or conspiracy, colluded to try the subject matter to its utmost power to engage a room full of the most elsewhere adolescents.
It was May. It was the third-and-a-half floor, an almost-attic where cobwebs and dust motes floated on sepia shafts of twilight. As heat rises, heat rose, to make it sleepy-time regardless of time. It was half-past 2, post-meridian. Fate again intruded to schedule the class’s lunch shift last.
What happens after one consumes three cheeseburgers, two chocolate shakes and a jumbo order of fries? Blood vacates the brain, fingers and toes to engorge the belly and digest the indigestible.
If Sally Hemings herself materialized out of the gloaming, glistening with sweat and naked as the day Thomas Jefferson promoted her to upstairs maid, she would barely have gotten a rise out of a glassy-eyed lad or lass of the class. Try as we might – I was there and I tried – we couldn’t keep our eyes open for the hour.
Nor did we get any help from the lectern.
There stood the rock of ages, Sump’n or other Taylor, 98 years’ worth of tenured mediocrity. Just as well leave the old fossil in anonymity: Truth cannot treat him kindly. He was the eldest of a faculty proofed by tenure and contract against the vicissitudes of administrative ax-wielding.
The first day of the semester, and every day thereafter, Mossy Old Man Taylor shuffled in after the tardiest of us, set his gladstone on the table, oh so gently lifted a yellowed bundle from within, and padded to the lectern.
There he unfolded sheets like parchment, dried, shredding at the margins and brittle along the folds – an original of the Magna Carta perhaps? These were the lecture notes the old goat had written longhand back when those sheets of three-hole were but a few days beyond being a tree.
Day one, and the fickle finger of fate pointed at me and then at the desk directly in front of – and 4 feet away from – the professor’s lectern.
Get away from here tomorrow, I said to myself, then the Old Man said to myself, and every other self, “Stay where you sit for the rest of the school year.”
This was his system for grading our work. We weren’t flesh and blood, not even names. We were positions on a grid he had traced with pencil and ruler, the day before he began to write his lectures.
The first few days we watched and waited for him to lift his face from the page, to speak from knowledge, even memory. But he never did, and one by one we lost hope, lost interest, lost the United States of America, 1774 to 1946. Day by day Mr. Taylor lifted packets of papyrus from a briefcase, unfolded them and begin to read. Monotonous, hypnotic, somnolent.
My cue. Within two weeks I surrendered any semblance of interest, gave up the ruse of resting my chin on my fist, lay my head on my desk and went sound asleep. Every day for the rest of the semester.
And the worst of it all: Mr. Taylor didn’t care. Once I woke long enough to hear snoring from other positions on the grid. The teacher never interrupted his monologue.
But every few years when the teachers’ union, fought the school board to a standstill and won a few percentage point up the pay scale, Mr. Taylor got the same raise every other teacher in the district got.
Nobody got ahead on talent, enthusiasm or plain old hard work. Nor, apropos of Old Man Taylor, was any teacher denied a raise on grounds of grinding, relentless mediocrity, shading into outright theft of an income, ostensibly paid for teaching.
He didn’t teach. Hell, half the crap he read to us already had been replaced by new doctrine as new powers assumed authorship of history.
If this vignette alarms you, it should. This sort of immovable fossil is the quality of teacher an across-the-board pay scale such as the Tucson Education Association and Tucson Unified School District have grown accustomed to and comfortable with over the past five decades, the type of teacher given access to your child’s mind.
Teachers such as Man Monolith and his lifeless sheets of paper, yellowed as his nicotine-stained fingers, and like them, dangerous to the health of curious young minds.
Jeffyboy has been through a 12-step program for histori-phobes and now has 14 feet of Civil War books. He may be reached at (520) 455-5667 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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