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Two households , both alike in dignity– or not

Romeo and Juliet (2016_12_08 14_56_53 UTC)Just Like Romeo and Juliet

While trying to decide what to do when I grew up, I taught high school English, journalism, and drama–for more than 20 years. When my high school became a middle school, I had to learn to shift my focus from masterpieces of literature to “do not stick that pencil in his eye.” Before long, I was transferred to the high school where I learned that the lessons learned are not always what the teacher thought he was teaching.

For example, I learned why I might have better chosen to teach the Scottish play than Romeo and Juliet. At least one of my students seemed to take away a unique lesson from the star-crossed lovers.

When the school was undergoing a dreaded evaluation team visit for Southern States accreditation, the “balcony scene” took on new meaning. Early one morning, a teacher heard noises coming from what should have been a vacant auditorium balcony. Entering, he found two students, one proudly (and manifestly) male, and the other, a female, kneeling in what appeared to be religious adoration of the pillar of flesh that rose before her. Some call it a “compromising” position. What was certain was that the young man enjoyed school, at least for the moment.

Their being at least partially au naturel naturally raised the teacher’s suspicions, even before the male member (and the associated person) bolted, awkwardly pulling up trousers as he—some would say less than gallantly—bolted from the scene, leaving his lady love to face the consequences.

The astute teacher perceived that something was afoot—and something evidently was not—and concluded that the two were not participating in a recognized student activity. Well, he recognized the activity, but it was not formally sanctioned by the drama department, even for team-building.

Calling upon a distaff faculty member to supervise the young lady as she rearrange her clothing—and to guard against her joining the object of her ministrations in rapid retreat, the first teacher gave chase to the gangly youth.

Despite the young man’s entanglements, the teacher, who had not had the same opportunity to warm up, was unsuccessful and the sprinter won what was later termed a one-sided three-legged race.

I heard the story at lunchtime. While various teachers expressed disgust and contempt,  amusement and a soupcon of jealousy lurked beneath their disclaimers. The discussion was among the most animated I ever heard in the faculty room.

Despite the words, jealousy and envy pervaded the conversation, providing a clear subtext.

The incident crossed my mind more than a time or two during the following class. I compared my sexual repression and backwardness throughout junior high and high school—and college and graduate school… and beyond—and was aware that my own annoyance at the lack of self-discipline and judgment was tempered by some degree of amusement and an unhealthy dose of envy. My Catholic condemnation vied with my admiration of their youthful passion and audacity. I was most troubled by the erstwhile Lothario’s abandonment of his lady love, leaving her to face humiliation alone. I could remember no equivalent tale of public display of amorous activity, other than the legendary tale of high school seniors Tommy and Becky in the shallow end of her swimming pool—before the admiring eyes of Becky’s younger brother and his friends from a covert coin d’avantage.

As students worked, I was circulating through the classroom when my attention was drawn to a student who was intently writing what appeared to be a lengthy note. Two factors contributed to his drawing my attention: First, as he was devilishly handsome and charming and not known for applying himself assiduously to his work, the intensity of his writing was out of character. Second, he looked up too frequently with eyes filled with mingled innocence and anxiety. Innocents don’t continually scan the area for observers.

I suspect that he saw my eyes light up. Notes are the single most exciting way for aging and listless teachers to catch up on gossip. They give up the goods without forcing teachers to admit to interest in the more lurid aspects of student life.

Gently sliding the note from the desk of the student, whose now bug- eyes revealed something a few degrees beyond abject terror, I told the young man that I would save the missive to savor at leisure. He released his grip and resignedly slid down in his chair.

During the next period, my planning period, I discovered the forgotten note when I opened my drawer. Making a student squirm for inattentiveness might break up the routine, but the thrill passes quickly, and I usually dispose of them unread. I drew it from the drawer and my hand hovered over the waste basket before curiosity moved me to open it.

The prose appropriately defined purple. In lurid and lascivious detail, Romeo revisited his most delicious memories from the morning’s tryst in the balcony. My non-sleuthing had revealed the identity of the (unsatisfied and fleet-footed) mystery cad. This was more invigorating than breaking up a fight between mean girls. And far safer.

After reading the note a dozen or so times to be sure that it was the evidence I suspected of the, um unlawful entry—and to commit some of the better turns of phrase to memory to substitute for my own relatively drab and dull existence, I cut along to share the wealth with the administrator charged with investigating the balcony caper. (Who says that school is dull?)

He purposefully donned his reading glasses with his wonted air of resignation and bored tolerance. (He always purposefully donned his reading glasses, as if it were a stage direction to self: “”purposefully don reading glasses.”) I saw his eyebrows dance a quick jig and his eyes widened as drops of perspiration formed on his upper lip. His eyes flicked to mine at intervals. I mentally reviewed the procedure for cardiac resuscitation, should the need arise.

I believed that it was right—in fact, my only responsible option—to share the note with administrator, but in my heart, I knew that I was sadly exhilarated at breaking the most scintillating case we had had at school in memory. And the associate principal was the only one with whom I could justify sharing it. Showing it to anyone else would have been unprofessional and inappropriate. I was aware that I felt more excited than was healthy, and visions of Major Burn’s sneering tattling danced a pathetic ballet in the shadows of my mind.

Recall that we were under the scrutiny of a visiting team whose purpose was to find fault with our school. That is the only fun in serving on an accreditation team. Therefore, it is no surprise that faculty had been sternly admonished to keep a tight lid on the scandal while our visitors were on-site.

When the initial excitement wore off, the administrator decided that both students should be removed from school until the scandal died down and they had a chance to collect themselves, so he suspended both of them for ten days.

This must be scanned.

That it might be a mistake was evident from the moment the students were informed and the boy sat up straight and grinned, his dimples prominent. They looked at each other and, although they tried to suppress their glee, the corners of the young lady lips definitely rose in a demure smile. The prospect of having to spend the next ten days alone together did not appear to depress their collective spirit.

They appeared eager to get on with their punishment with all due haste, and I doubt that it was coincidence that, while Juliet left the office with averted eyes, Romeo left the office with his literature book held in front of him.

Their return at the end of two weeks saw them as relaxed and happy as a couple fresh from their honeymoon, and their stature among peers was clearly elevated.

As the subplot of this affair had been keeping the accrediting team ignorant of the embarrassing incident, faculty and staff had been warned not to breathe a word of extracurricular activity in the balcony. (The etymology of “obscene” sprang, unbidden, to mind.) The visiting team was concluding its examination, and we breathed a collective and metaphorical sigh of relief at our success in keeping the secret from the grown-ups…visiting team. Tension among the school staff was almost palpable. The principal was unwontedly stiff and unsmiling.

The faculty gathered in the auditorium for a summary of the team’s findings; the principal’s face seemed rigidly set as we approached the study’s climax. (I heard it.) Before a tense and silent faculty, the chairman solemnly intoned that after considerable deliberation the team had decided not to include a recommendation to  install cots in the balcony.

The stillness of the room was broken with a whoompf of faculty guffaws, and the crimson glow emanated from the vicinity of the principal, spreading from his neck to his hairline.

It probably says more about my own maturity–or lack thereof– that although I did what I thought I had to, I carried a niggling sense of having betrayed a young man of whom I was very fond. We have remained in contact in the 40-plus years since, but never in four decades have we alluded to that incident, although I often wonder whether he thinks about it when we talk.

Certainly, it has not entered my mind since.

“Some girls have sex for fun, but others think she is falling in love.”

I started a career in journalism when I was a teacher. I always had enjoyed writing, and serving as the editor of my high school newspaper whetted my appetite for publishing my every thought…and believing the world better for it.

One day I was teaching a writing class when the voices in my head (it turns out okay) whispered that I was a hypocrite. How can I teach writing when I haven’t published since before I finished even my undergraduate degree. Why does everyone (Wrongly. Quite wrongly.) believe that all English teachers are qualified to teach and judge writing. Even before I wrote a “Learning Language Through the Newspaper” (under a different name) other English teachers told me that they were reluctant to write a note to me. One said that she was intimidated because I was stickler for grammar.

Before anyone hastens to note that I already have used several sentence fragments and violated numerous rules of grammar in this piece, let me add that I also believe that once was has mastered good grammar, he has permission to violate whatever rules he chooses for impact or effect.

All of the preceding is to say that my feelings of inadequacy—or charlatanism—drove me to submit a few articles to local newspapers, which prompted an editor to offer me a regular spot on the opinion page. For 15 years, I wrote opinions that called down the wrath of pretty much every faction, sect, ethnicity or nationality. For example, at a time when I was raising and supporting two students, one from Mexico and one from El Salvador, a colleague who was married to a Latino wrote a letter to the editor accusing me in the harshest terms of being anti-Hispanic as evidenced by a recent column.

A column I wrote about the extraordinary number of teen-age mothers or mothers-to-be drew unwonted vitriol. For example, I noted that teen-age mothers and mothers to be often used pregnancy or their babies as a reason that they should not be held accountable for excessive absences or for not turning in work. The high school, T.C. Williams (Yes, “Remember the Titans”) in Alexandria had support groups and parenting classes, both of which are good, but they were conducted during the school day which made keeping up even more difficult and further hindered attendance.

One teacher who had a class for single mothers and mothers-to-be read them the offending column and told her students that they should let me know how angry they were. Imagine my surprise when a gang of pregnant girls pounded on my door during class and proceeded to berate me in loud and profane voices for the error of my thinking.

Let’s hear it for the wisdom and judgment of teachers and the teenagers who interrupt a lesson to teach me about respect.

Another teacher told his students to write me letters to express their displeasure. And that brings us to this juncture.

I have chosen some excerpts to share. Although they require little comment, I find it hard to resist. Keep in mind that for many years I was a single parent who also “parented” more than 40 kids, abused, cast out, illegal (shh); kids who had nowhere else to go showed up at my door. Word spread among the kids and the school social worker started to bring them by. Eventually, social services asked me if I would take formal placements as well. My qualifications were that I lived near the school and don’t know how to say no. But, I was not naive.

So, on with the show: The names are fictitious; the quotations are unchanged. I am not using sic to indicate that each error in grammar, spelling or syntax is exactly as written, because doing so would double the length of this essay.

Melissa cut directly to the central issue: “I don’t think any man should be critisying a women when she gets pregnant when its not all the womens fault anyway. Were not walking around the street one day, trip, + all of a sudden were pregnant.”

At a rough count, I found eight serious issues with the two sentences. Now, my point is not only that the writer seems to concede at least partial responsibility for her pregnancy—at least that she is aware that it is not solely the result of tripping—but also that the exercise might have been more beneficial if the teacher had used it as, let’s say, a teaching moment. How does one construct an argument? How does one support one’s thesis? How does one proofread? I submit that the sole purpose of the exercise was to give me what for. (I don’t pretend to truly understand that expression, but it seems to work here.) She went on:

“Where I come from a reporter stated the facts. If I knew when I moved to virginia that you let anyone with half a brain write a article I would of taken more English + writing classes.”

Now, given that I think the “half a brain” assessment is too generous for her, I would like to explain the difference between a reporter and an opinion columnist. Apparently no one else had. In doing so, I add that I generally made two or three points in an introduction, supported them in ensuing paragraphs, and concluded with summarizing how my points support my hypotheses, preferably with a clever or provocative closing sentence.

Shantel said, “If you get pregnant…you should suffer the consequences [which is how I always refer to my children: “Come sit on Papa’s knee, my insufferable consequence.”], don’t uses your being pregnant as an excuse in life or you will ever suceed.”

Okay, writing prowess could use some punching up, but at least she seems to agree with my premise.

She continued: “As far as mothers being irresponsible [Do you feel the uh-oh coming?] I think that you are more ignorant than I expected.” [Ummm. Yeah.] I assumed that you knew it take two to make a baby [I do: and in many, nay most cases of unwed single mothers, too much unsupervised time; too few morals and character lessons; too much attention to hormones and too little to judgment.] What about all those guys that are making…[Okay, I did not need to know that she thinks it requires “all those guys.” One will do…and probably with great alacrity.] Before you can talk about all the mommies in the world, you need to know everybodies situation.”

Right. If I start interviewing now, I might know “everybodies” situation in…Oh, dear, more will keep being born as I work my way around the globe. Never mind. I’ll never be able to talk about “all the mommies in the world.”

However, I will grant that girls were not getting pregnant without a male accomplice somewhere along the line, and lest I appear to be targeting girls—the original article after all was about schools nurturing irresponsibility—let me add a word of contempt for the unwed fathers: I knew a high school senior who had fathered six children by six different mothers. He and another chum (and they would serve humanity better as such] were in a competition to see who could sire the most children by different mothers. They were not alone. I found that most boys were quite proud of their demonstrable virility and the manifestations of their masculinity popping up like tulips in the spring all over town.

Let me also say that I am aware of the conditions that sometimes make kids—and adults—seek love, or least intimacy, wherever they can find it. That is why adults—parents, teachers, clergy, Scout leaders, neighbors—have the responsibility to help children and teenagers to understand self-discipline and responsibility.

Warning: soap box ahead.

Every time a student who has done nothing to meet class requirements is passed on to the next grade, every time we focus on making teenagers feel good about making their bad decisions because it is more important to validate their feelings of self-worth than it is to teach them that doing it because they want to or it feels good is not always in their best interest, we fail. Sure, it is easier for us to go give in—schools have done that for one thing after another so that any standards that remain are artificial and typically unrelated to real life success afterward.

Those students who are successful in school, successful in life—not only with high paying jobs, but as good and decent people—have or had parents who held them accountable for their actions. Certainly there are children from poor families with drug-addicted abusive parents who become spectacular successes and kids from loving families with strong morals and character and a comfortable lifestyle who become wastrels or scoundrels or whatever we consider an adult problem or non-contributing member of society, but those are exceptions, where individuals made decisions that were not formed by their parents or environment.

I do not hold my family out as an exemplar of either, but I don’t expect any awards for how they turned out, either. I made an honest, earnest effort to raise my family, including all those fosters, with good values and ethics. Sometimes the magic works—and then there are those other times.

But, back to my fan mail:

Shantel was not finished with me: Also as a teenage mother by now if not later you should have more respect for yourself because you are the one’s who makes the decision how you want your child to grow up.”

Now who’s being silly. As a single father for many years, I have given up my dream of becoming a teenage mother, now or later. I was not aware that it is destined that all girls will be. Notice that I have not addressed the fact that the sentence is a non sequitur, even internally.

But she has a P to her S:

“I am a junior with a two-year-old daughter making A’s and B’s and I work and playing to start Georgia University.

“What if you were pregnant?”

First, let me say how proud you must be of a two-year-old who is making As and Bs. Second, “Georgia University”? I see, you said “playing.”

I am tiring. Let’s hear from a guy:

“It is my concern to let my opinion be known about the article that was published last in your Journal. I believe that it’s my duty as a student to let the author now that his comments were too strong. [Got it.]

“Although some of his points made sense and were good [I do believe I am getting the vapors.] it was not necessary to go to that Extent.” And later: Well, there it is.

I loved Nadeah’s comments: “First of all not all teenage mothers are trifling because they pregnant at a young age or got pregnant by accident.” I should add that most of these arguments take issue with something I never said. I begin to think that the teacher didn’t read it but summarized through his own filter. “If a girl comes to school to get an education why deprive them of that?” Recall that my argument was that they need to attend regularly and do their work or to get a GED. “It all depend on you.” As if I don’t have enough on my shoulders.

Sandra: “I’m against your opions….You are a teacher and your job is to grade then in what they turn in and give them NC (No Credit because of excessive absence) when need it. [Now that I understand that my job is grading rather than teaching, all the standardized tests make sense.] You should not waste talking.

“For example in one of my classes there is a student who is always late, I mean every day [Aha. Always takes on meaning for me.], but the teacher can’t do anything. She talked to him, but it didn’t work But she doesn’t waste her time because she has other students to teach. I think you should try to help then and support then….

[In “Their feet are roasting by an open fire,” I discuss the rare administrator who disagreed.]

Kris was less tactful: “First of all I did not like the way you sounded in your letter. [See, I knew they weren’t reading opinion columns in the newspaper!] you made it sound like you know everything. [well, I was an opinion columnist. That is sort of in the job description.] In this world where there really is no such thing as right or wrong….[!] As long as you support your feelings that’s all you need in this world. [That single sentence explains so much.] So I think you need an apology [Now we’re getting somewhere!] to those girls you wrote about. [Well, that took an ungrammatical and unsurprising turn.] We girls are very sweet. [Never mind easy. Oh, dear. Address your letters to the Hon. John Boehner. He has nothing to do with anything, but if we occupy him….]

We wrap up with Elizane. “We girls are very sweet and sensitive [You did not see the gang of sweet and sensitive pregnant girls shouting obscenities as they chased me down the hall way. Oh, for a hidden camera.] It all begins when you are small your parents talk to you about life. They tell you….not to have sex before marriage.

“Some girls have boyfriends at early age between 13 to 17. They think they cool because they have a boyfriend….If a boy tells a girl that he loves very much. [Warning!] she might go crazy. [Go on.] And then a boy will ask her to come to his house to let’s say do homework and study. [Yes, let’s. But we all know where this is going.]

“They study for a while but then they will start kissing and doing things. [Study?] and the boy says he loves her very much. [And, let me guess, she goes crazy.] He never seen a girl like that. And then they do it. [Those sweet-talkers.]

“Then 2 months later. The girl starts feeling things. [No comment.] Then she go to the doctor and she finds out she is pregnant.

“Well some girls have sex for fun and pleasure, but others think she is falling in love. [The audience, I assume?] Well but the thing is if she gets pregnant she has to make a decission, will she keep the baby or will she adopt the baby.” [Ummm….]

“It’s a very difficult life to have a baby. In the first few months it’s ok. [Girl, that much time for a delivery is excessive!] But then you have put them in daycare. So you could go to school. And then run to work. Other girls like me would never do such a thing like that, have a baby in such a young age. One problem that the girls might have might be that they don’t have any person to talk to. So they go and do it.

“I think you shouldn’t say anything about people or girls like that.”

Lesson learned. I will not talk about either people or girls like that. Mainly because these missives, completely off -target, have convinced me that school isn’t doing anyone—people or girls—enough good to make an issue of it.

I also want to mention that I taught in Alexandria City Public Schools for 20 years. In that time, I had at least a score of students whose grandmothers had been my students. Somebody didn’t have any person to talk to.

I guess at bottom, Sandra was right. I should not have wasted talking because it did no good; most schools are still determined to pass students through the machine regardless of whether they learning along the way.

Anyway, that was ten years ago and I am sure that things are much better now.