By Albert Shanker
THE INFLUENCE of schools on children and the adults they become is enormous. Take me, for instance.
There are sound reasons for where I come out on today's great issues in education. But if I peek around the corner of memory, some of those leanings were obviously shaped early on.
Not everybody remembers the first day at school, but I have a special -- and specially painful -- memory. My parents, poor immigrants, prepared me for this great event by telling me how proud they were going to be to have a really American son -- one who would speak and write well, understand mathematics and science, read great books -- someone who would turn out to be far ahead of them in every intellectual way, someone who wouldn't have to scrub and scrimp as they did in those dark days of the Depression. I set off with high hopes, and not a little nervousness.
There was one small problem. Everything they told me, and everything I responded, was in Yiddish, the language of my home and the only language I spoke. I arrived at the elementary school speaking not a word of English. But neither my teacher nor any of the other adults I came into contact with spoke a word of Yiddish. The day was a nightmare I'll never forget -- one which reached its nadir when I was un-able to communicate effectively that I had to leave the room. By the time the teacher figured out what was happening and managed to indicate that I had permission to go to the bathroom, it was too late. There was a mortifying accident en route, and for several days afterward my parents couldn't get me to go to school. I was too embarrassed to show up, or even to explain why to my mystified family.
Some people might assume such an experience would have made me a proponent of bilingual education. But it didn't. What I needed wasn't to be taught my subjects in Yiddish -- that's another issue. It was just someone to communicate with on, clearly, the most mundane things. But without a great deal of pressure to learn English quickly -- and, boy, did I have that pressure! -- there's no question that I would have stuck much longer to the comfortable language of home and family, been fluent much later, if at all, in the language of my parents' adopted country and mine by birth. I can't support the kind of bilingual programs that retard progress in English, nor should there be federally mandated bilingual programs. For some kids, good bilingual education is an answer; for others, it's not. But the choice should be made by those closest to the scene, not some bureaucrat in Washington. Wisdom From on High
THEY DID great things for me at that elementary school. By the time I was to graduate, I had taken the test for New York City's specialized high schools and made it into both Brooklyn Tech and Stuyvesant. I chose Stuyvesant, but it was a struggle at first just keeping up with all my brilliant classmates, many of whom had had a much bigger jump than I on the things we were learning. I worked hard, nose in the books on the subway ride from Queens to Manhattan.
In my senior year I was president of the school's debating club, a rather informal group that would meet a couple of times a month after school, watched over by a faculty advisor who spent most of the time catching up on his own paperwork. It occurred to me that it would be more interesting for all of us if we could test our skills against our peers in other schools, so I asked the advisor if we might invite debaters to come from the other high schools with the idea of setting up regular contests. He looked up from his papers long enough to mutter, "Sure."
Excited, I went home, emptied out what passed for my piggybank, added some of my allowance and spent $1.50 on postcards (inthose days -- when 40 cents an hour was the minimum wage -- that was a lot of postcards). I pored over telephone books and mailed the cards to all the public and private high schools in New York City, inviting the school debate club leaders to meet at Stuyvesant on such and such a date and time.
The day arrived, and so did the students -- among them a number of girls (apparently the first to pass through the portals of then all-male Stuyvesant). As they were filing into the auditorium, an assistant principal, very agitated, started shouting, "Who did this? Who did this?" "I did it," I said, and explained that I had invited the students as president of the debating club. "Who gave you permission?" he screamed, adding: "We don't permit girls in Stuyvesant." I said I'd had the advisor's permission, but he was nowhere to be found. The assistant principal then told all the visitors to leave the school.
I was suspended -- but a worse punishment was yet to come. It was 1946. All the returning World War II veterans were going off to college under the GI Bill, and competition for places at college was fierce. For my violation of school rules in inviting female debaters to Stuyvesant (albeit unwittingly), I was permitted to apply to only three colleges. That is, the Stuyvesant administration informed me that it would only provide transcripts at three institutions -- as opposed to the virtually unlimited number it was providing for other seniors! Fortunately, a school secretary took pity on me, decided I had to get into college and provided additional transcripts . . . surreptitiously.
Today I'm pretty tough on discipline issues and believe we've gone overboard on student rights. But if you ask me whether there should be a return to the good old days (never as good as some people imagine), I'd be the last person to say yes. There have been plenty of times when students were right and administrators were dead wrong. Outsmarting the Superintendent
ADMINISTRATORS are also pretty blind if they think smart teachers over the years haven't found ways of dealing with some of the silliness that passes for supervision. I found that out in my first teaching job.
I'd completed all the course credits for a doctorate in philosophy at Columbia and was trying to complete the dissertation when patience and money ran out at the same time. It was 1952, the postwar baby boomers were coming into the schools and teachers were needed. The $38 per week in take-home pay wasn't exactly a fortune, but it was, after all, my first full- time job. So I took and passed the teaching exam (yes, New York City had and has exams for teachers) and joined the faculty at P.S. 179 on Manhattan's Upper West Side. It was a mixed school -- some more affluent kids from Central Park West and West End Avenue, but mostly working class and poor youngsters from black and Hispanic families.
I was there a couple of days when suddenly one morning a gong sounded. I asked the kids if it sounded like a fire drill. They laughed. And then one child got up, went to the closet, retrieved a large poster display, opened the classroom door and pinned it with thumbtacks to the outside of the door. Then the student came back in and sat down. Astonished, I asked what was going on. I got the following briefing.
The district superintendent was given to making unannounced visits to the school. This particular superintendent believed the most important thing about a school was that it display evidence of what was going on in each classroom -- evidence outside the classroom. So at the beginning of each term, each teacher would spend several hours having the kids create displays of whatever was to be taught during a specific unit, say on the geography of Latin America. These posters were then stored in the closet, because if you tacked them up, mischievous students would immediately tear them down.
Every day a student was assigned to stand on the top floor and look out a window at the space where the superintendent invariably parked his car. When the student spotted the superintendent, he would sound a gong throughout the school. A pre-assigned student monitor in each class would retrieve one of the posters and mount it on the door! Then the real work would resume in class, while the superintendent made his rounds -- of the halls!
Is this still going on today? I dunno. I haven't asked any students lately. Protecting Albert
SUPPOSE there are people who think of me as a scrapper. I've led some tough strikes and spent some time in jail for doing that. But any pugnaciousness I have was learned at an early age.
I was always tall for my years, but I was also clumsy, the product of some childhood illnesses that delayed proper motor coordination. In a tough and anti-Semitic surrounding, I was a natural target -- the opportunity for some shorter kid to get bragging rights for having beat up this giant. I had my share of being beat up.
And there was one kid who was my most frequent tormentor. His name was Johnny. I remember that when things finally got out of hand, Johnny's mother made mine an offer. For 25 cents a week, Johnny would "protect" Albert on his way to school, because, clearly, Albert was getting whipped constantly.
My mother turned down the offer, but Johnny did ease off a bit.
Now it was more than 30 years later. In New York City I was leading a strike that was long and bitter, what came to be known nationally as "Ocean Hill-Brownsville," for the school district that had abruptly dismissed 19 teachers in a fight over community control. Passions were running high, and there were threats against me and my family.
One day I had a particularly heavy schedule, with meetings in various parts of the city. My secretary suggested that I call a limousine service and have them cart me around. In the morning the limousine came to pick me up. Soon after I climbed in, the driver turned around .
"You don't remember me, do you, Albert? I'm a fireman now and I work part time for this limousine outfit. When I heard you called, I took the day off to drive you. I'm Johnny. I protected you then, and I'm going to protect you now."
This essay continues the series of memoirs which appear in the Education Review.