Two tales out of school

ERBIN CROWELL

Capitol East Gazette, 1967

Erbin Crowell was a public school teacher, our associate editor and resident poet, and who died well before his time after a long, difficult trip through the end of the 60s and beyond.

IT WAS A HOT afternoon and we were all tired, but I was bound and determined that they should learn the basics of tense. I had tried everything – it seemed like everything. They were the “slow class,” the “underachievers,” the “basic track,” and I had become used to the shotgun approach to learning: no lesson plan, just try to start something and then somehow bend it towards a grammar lesson. It worked better than a lesson plan, which they would smell a mile off and revolt against – another cold agency of society seeking to bend them to conformity or bury them alive. I had already tried the old “look, just ask yourself whether it occurred yesterday, it is happening now, or it will happen after this moment – like tomorrow” gambit.

Then I began writing Frost’s Fire and Ice on the board. It occurred to me that it demonstrated all the simple tenses in its compact lines. I wasn’t sure, but I had already started, so I continued, underlining verbs as I went:

Some say the world will end in fire
Some say in ice.
From what I’ve tasted of desire,
I hold with those who favor fire.

We went over the verbs and they caught on. By the end of the poem, all hands were being raised each time we reached a new verb. I let discipline go to pot. Everyone answered at once. We had done it. Then they wanted to talk about the poem. I had often tried sly maneuvers to get them to consider some of the subtleties of verse, but they’d have nothing of it. Now they wanted to talk about a tense-of-verb exercise as poetry.

Remembering Ciardi, I quickly pounced on them: the poem as game: the game as something made difficult, so that we could glory in making it look easy. Frost made his own game here apart from his rules of rhythm and rhyme. His big game was one of comparing big and small, the universe and frail human traits, the cosmos and the heart. In the comparison, I speculated, maybe Frost hoped to make both extremes more nearly their right size.

“What has desire got to do with fire?” asked one boy, “I don’t . . .” Then small flickers of puberty broke in on him. There was just enough science in our collective memories to mention the opposing theories of the end of the earth: but rather than pursue the probabilities of the earth crashing into the sun or drifting far enough from its distant warmth to freeze numb and still, we stuck with Frost and began trying to bring remote comparisons closer to home. Hands were going up. Arguments between students began-

“Oh yeah.”

“Now I see how he. . . “

“I don’t think that,”

“Wasn’t Frost at the inauguration of,”

“My uncle said that . . .”

We milked the poem as dry as a class of culturally deprived, backward, slow junior high students and teacher possibly could. The bell rang. As I walked back to the front of the room, tired and pleased, one hand was raised amidst the shuffle of books: “Mr. Crowell, uh, how do ya get to be a poet; d’ya have to get permission? Do you have to buy a license?”

JAMES WAS ONE of fifty students in a special District of Columbia school for the worst discipline problems from the city’s entire system. The school had been set up in a moment of congressional weakness (or oversight on the part of southern legislators). The plan was to put these losers with five teachers and see if small classes, progressive techniques and easier discipline could rehabilitate them. Psychiatric and psychological staff were to be provided. An employment officer was to serve the school. It was to be set up so a boy could pursue his own interests in a less rigid situation. Personal counseling, etc.

So much for the plan. It and the school were promptly forgotten. I asked to teach there, was accepted, and found it stuck away in the annex of a junior high. There were five teachers, fifty boys and eight rooms. There were no up-to-date teaching materials: my newest literature anthology was dated 1927.

There was no wood shop; there was no metal class: there was no print shop. The gymnasium consisted of a room with half a wrestling mat and a ping-pong table. We could use the playground only when the junior high didn’t need it. For psychological consultation, two volunteers came in once a week to talk to the teachers (who came to need it more than the students). The budget was barely enough to provide stamps and envelopes for the office. James was one of the wild ones.

Most of the boys were “tough guys,” whose bitter hatred of what life had done to them made them helpless with defensiveness. All the students were Negro with the exception of a white boy who was usually truant. I was the only white teacher. James freely admitted one day that he probably hated me because I was white and assumed that I hated him for the same reason. I convinced him otherwise only to the point that he could make small wry jokes.

“Is it true blondes have more fun?” he would whisper and break into uncontrolled laughter. He, like most of the other boys, was hip to psychological jargon, having gone through several sessions with reassuring counselors and their big words. “The reason we don’t get along, teacher, is that it’s hard for me to accept you as a father figure,” he said one day and then ran down the hall,

One day I goaded him into reading a book. He thought the title was hilarious when I said it. “Do you know what Black Like Me is about ?” I countered as he roared, “you sound like Linus in Peanuts who laughs at anything he can’t understand.”

“Gimme the goddamned book,” he finally said, “I can read it.” It hit him hard. We were able to talk about it. In his own tough words, he asked me to explain how a white man could care enough to go through such danger and degradation in order to understand the personal emotions of being a Negro in the South. “Man, he must have been crazy,” he repeated in disbelief.

This white man with an artificial black face became a small bond between this defeated colored boy and his lily-white idealistic teacher. The boy’s behavior didn’t change much, except when he was away from the other students when he would try to drag out whatever understanding I had of such a “crazy man.”

We began to talk of the meaning of words and how the author had pretty well captured the bite of pain that “nigger,” “spade,” “white only,” and “coon” could mean to a man. James began to wonder why mere words could hurt. He finished the book. His conduct was little changed. We forgot about it.

Then one day I was trying to trick his class into reading some short stories. “I found these books in the bookroom. I don’t know if they’re worth a damn, so I want you guys to read one of the stories and tell me if you think they can be used in the younger class. Be honest now. If you think they’re lousy, tell me, and I’ll throw them away.” It seemed to work and soon they were all reading. One boy suddenly broke the relative quiet by throwing his book as hard as he could, barely missing me.

“What’s that for?” I shouted, grabbing a book to defend myself from the additional shot that was sure to come. My attacker was a boy named Tom, who seemed embarrassed that he had come so close. He had obviously thrown the book in blind anger – not at me specifically, I hoped – and that anger seethed from his sullen face. He wouldn’t speak. I had learned that Tom was to be left alone when in such a fit, so I went back to grading papers. I didn’t notice that James had silently picked up the book and taken it back to Tom. I only noticed them when their whispers rose and then suddenly James let out a horse laugh.

“Hey, come here: there’s what it was,” he shouted, pointing at a page in the book. And there it was: “nigger” – the word seemed to stand out on the page. “Well,” I stumbled, “You see, Tom, I didn’t know that . . . I mean, you’ve got to . . .”

“No, it’s all right,” James broke in almost merrily, “you see, he doesn’t know what we know . . . that nigger isn’t what you are. Nigger is just the way you act. Even white folks can be niggers, can’t they?”

“Right man,” I said and James put out his hand. We shook in that knowing cool sliding way, and I went back to my desk. The year ended with James in trouble as usual. I lost track of him. I found myself, during the years that followed, often remembering and retelling about this small reward (you know: the sort of thing we teachers are supposed to prefer to salaries), this small feat on my part as a teacher.

One boy released from a crippling fear of at least one word. I hoped that it had got him to looking at words for what they were. Perhaps he might have found a way to use them to his own advantage. But I never knew. Until he called the other day. “You probably don’t remember me, but I wanted to tell you I got into vocational school and I’m gonna be a printer.”

“I remember you, James, and that’s great.”

“I graduate this year. I have a part-time job. I might come by and see you sometime.”

“Do that, James.”

“Oh yes, do you remember Steve and Tom? Well, they got sent to reform school.”

“That’s too bad, James. Why didn’t you straighten them out?”

“Darn, .I had enough trouble with myself. Well, I better go. I’ll call you again sometime.”

I hung up the phone. A printer. I wondered if he would ever have to set type for a book he didn’t like, He might even someday have to fix up the word “nigger” for thousands of sheets of white paper. I wondered if he’d remember. He might even capitalize it. I hoped he’d capitalize it, just for the hell of it.

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