When I first signed up for his 10th grade history class in 1970, the teacher was already a legend. David (as his students were instructed to call him) taught U.S. history and government at Berkeley High School, and his courses were "relevant."
I knew David was different when I walked into his "learning environment." He had, we were assured, worked hard to knock down barriers that for decades had impeded student-teacher communication. His classroom had few desks. There were a couple tattered sofas, and some large pillows and worn out rugs on the floor. The walls displayed Indian artifacts and an array of "political" posters, ranging from "Uncle Sam Wants You" to 1930s admonitions that the "evil weed will kill." David's class was a place to feel comfortable and "laid back."
David himself was a picture of the new, socially conscious teacher. Tall and good-looking, he sported a well-trimmed beard. Instead of a suit, he wore slacks and a blue work shirt, always with a wide, bright paisley tie. He had "rap sessions" at his house after school, attended by a loyal student clientele.
I was delighted by David's accessibility. I made him a blue and green beaded necklace to match his paisley ties.
In the political and social frenzy of that era, naive sophomores like me sought out teachers like David with a vengeance. It wasn't that we wanted to avoid hard work. We just wanted to learn "what was really important" about U.S. history.
I learned from David, for example, that traditional U.S. history was boring and impractical. I was delighted to find out that our course would omit the usual examination of dull events in our nation's history and focus instead on two relevant topics: American Indians and constitutional law.
Although I spent approximately 150 hours under David's well-meaning tutelage, I can't remember any books we read or any papers I wrote in his class. But I do recall the educational highlights: building a tule canoe (American Indians) and listening to a high-powered San Francisco defense attorney explain our rights in cases of arrest or drug busts (constitutional law).
By the end of my sophomore year there had been no mention in my U.S. history class of the Mayflower, the American Revolution, the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, Jacksonian democracy, the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, Reconstruction, the Progressive Era, Populists, Theodore Roosevelt, World War I, Woodrow Wilson, the League of Nations, The Red Scare, the Great Depression, Franklin D. Roosevelt, the New Deal, or World War II.
I was reminded of David during the recent uproar over educational standards. That I learned nothing valuable or practical from him (I was never busted) is obvious. As I reflected, however, I became angry about the emptiness of his course and felt an urge to indict as useless all the educational experimentation of that era.
But I realize there is a danger in such criticisms. Although David's class might be the worst example of what can happen without a standard curriculum in the public schools--his class was really a caricature of those chaotic times--it was not the sole example.
Another teacher I remember at Berkeley High had equally inventive ideas.
Miss Wilson (no one dared call her Thomasine) taught U.S. history, world history and a rigorous course called American Political Institutions. She was as unconventional as David. She assumed history and literature and culture were interesting and fun and useful to learn. She assumed that everyone shared her enthusiasm. And she demanded that students push to their intellectual limits (she believed all students had intellects).
Unlike David, Miss Wilson had desks in her classroom and she relied on textbooks. But she did not confine herself to standard texts or predictable questions. In one semester in 11th grade I read philosopher John Locke and theorist Franz Neumann and historian Richard Hofstader and wrote three long essays. She required an hour of private discussion with each student to review individual papers. Late papers were marked down.
As students my age grappled with questions about authority and democracy and civil rights, she responded by having each of us design our own ideal form of government. She used the experimental fervor of the era to construct a course on world history and literature that successfully integrated the different disciplines.
Miss Wilson has taught Berkeley High students (black, white, brown, yellow, docile and rowdy) for almost 20 years. She thrived in the atmosphere of experimentation because she knew the strengths and limits of both academic freedom and traditional education.
I now heave a sigh of relief that I found my way into her classroom. While David's classes represent some of the failings of nontraditional education, hers represent the successes. I hope that in the current frenzy to return "basics" to the schools, her example will be a reminder that teachers, more than curriculum, ultimately make the difference in the classroom.
I never made Miss Wilson a beaded necklace. But in my mind she is the real legend of my schooling.