I saw "Porgy and Bess" recently. I had seen it before, many years before, when Cab Calloway played Sportin' Life and Leontyne Price was Bess and I was just 12, a kid taken with his class to the theater, not knowing what to expect, knowing, of course, that it would not be like a movie but not knowing that when the curtain came up on Catfish Row I would simply be knocked out. This was a lesson taught by a teacher named Jerry Schlicter.
Porgy, Bess and everyone on Catfish Row stayed with me a long time after that. My heart broke for Porgy and I imagined him on his goat cart vainly heading for New York. I imagined Bess in New York, in Harlem to be precise, and I thought she had probably come to no good there, although at 12 I knew little about Harlem or the cocaine that Sportin' Life was feeding her.
After I had exhausted my imagination on the show, I turned my attention to the composer, George Gershwin. I went to the library, the children's library with the mean librarian who was forever telling you not to talk, and took out a biography of Gershwin. I remember the book, but remember almost nothing from it except that Gershwin died when he was 38 and I felt, as many have since, absolutely cheated by that. The music he could have written!
I remembered all this the other night because I have been thinking of teachers, of the controversy about them, and a column I wrote about how there ought to be such a thing as merit pay. I mentioned some of the awful teachers I had had and some I had encountered since and then concluded that merit pay would not be such a bad idea.
The column came out the day I was to give a graduation address and a teacher approached me. She said she was disappointed in me. She said I had not mentioned all the good teachers. This is why I thought of Schlicter. He was a young man when I knew him and he came into the school when I was in the fifth or sixth grade. He taught physical education and spelling, of all things, but he taught something else--something more. He taught that learning was fun and that the world was a schoolroom.
One day, for instance, he walked into the classroom holding a newspaper that said the Supreme Court had struck down school segregation as unconstitutional. We had never even heard of school segregation, could not envision it, and so, in spelling, Jerry Schlicter taught us about it and about Jim Crow and how it was wrong.
He taught lessons on the value of friendship and honor and he even gave us dancing lessons. We started with the waltz and proceeded to the tango and the foxtrot and then to the Lindy. Then I got sick. By the time I was better, everyone could Lindy but me. I still can't.
I think probably everyone has had teachers like Schlicter. Certainly my son already has and his schooling is far from over. The fact that they exist is news to none of us and, I suppose, it changes nothing. You can honor these teachers and be for merit pay or you can honor them and be against it. It does not hurt, though, simply to honor them, to note that there are many of them and that the norm of the profession is not incompetence and lack of caring, but competence and caring.
After Schlicter, I had other good teachers, but none--until college--who meant as much to me as he did. The college teacher was named John Tebbel and I came to him after a minicareer in the insurance biz (claims) and some time in the Army. One by one, career paths kept closing off for me and so I found that I was a writer--a tentative writer, a scared writer. Tebbel, who taught writing, knew that and so he handled me carefully, criticized deftly, brought me along slowly, gave me his respect and his friendship. I write today because of what he did then.
There is nothing more to this column than that--a salute to two great teachers and to great teachers everywhere. June is their month, too. The teacher who reproached me reminded me of that--reminded me further than there was something that needed to be done. I needed to remember two teachers and say thank you.
Thank you both very much.