Category: Biographies and Memoirs, Educators
Tour Date: October, 2014
Available in: Print & ebook, 386 Pages
Over the weekend, I spent about nine hours correcting papers and getting the next lesson ready for English.
Most of Saturday and Sunday were spent editing the rough drafts from journalism. Many were overwritten and full of passive verbs, so I wrote a blanket critique that covered the largest sins with examples—wrong and right—and stapled one to each rough draft.
On Monday, I hit the copy machine room to copy the directions on an overhead for the student essay linked to the first chapter in Of Mice and Men.
A ten-word vocabulary assignment for the first chapter was due. We’d started board work in class seven days earlier to demonstrate how to do the assignment properly.
About half of the students didn’t turn it in.
I turned on the overhead projector to display the directions for the chapter one essay and read it to the class. While the students copied the directions and started their rough drafts, I made phone calls to the parents of the kids who didn’t turn in the vocabulary. Amazingly, I once again reached most of the parents and filled out the required district contact form for each call—even the ones I didn’t reach. I referred to each as “your son” or “your daughter” so the class would have no idea who I was talking about.
Fifteen minutes into fourth period and thirty phone calls later, Ramon stuck a hand in the air. I stopped in the middle of dialing a phone number. “What, Ramon?”
“What are we doing?”
The overhead was still on, and the directions that filled up most of one white board were easy to see from any spot in the room. I had also spent the first ten minutes of class going over the directions and answering questions.
“Ramon lives in another world,” Delores said. “He’s cute, but stupid.”
I wasn’t about to disrupt the class to point that out that she shouldn’t call anyone stupid. The slightest diversion might become entertainment and an excuse to stop working—and it could take ten to fifteen minutes to bring them back to what they were supposed to be doing.
I vaguely remembered that Ramon had been making gurgling noises in his throat while I was reading the essay’s directions to the class. I had ignored him for the same reason I had just ignored Delores’s offhand comment. Maybe I had made a mistake—maybe I should have stopped the lesson to deal with Ramon then.
Deciding, I said, “You’re going to BIC, Ramon.”
“Why? I didn’t do anything!” I watched the angry storm gather above his eyes and around his mouth. He was right—he hadn’t done anything and that included listening to or reading the directions for this assignment.
“You weren’t paying attention,” I said, “and if you say one more word, Ramon, you’ll earn another hour of detention after school. I’m going to suspend you from class tomorrow, too. When you come back on Wednesday, I don’t want to hear any of those noises you have been making.” I handed him the referral, and thought of what happened to recruits when they didn’t pay attention to the drill instructor in my summer in boot camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego. Compared to that experience, Ramon’s punishment was very light and probably wasn’t going to change his behavior.
“Oh, and on your way out, don’t slam the door, or I’ll call BIC and double the detention.” I added.
His face swelled and his complexion purpled, but he didn’t say a word or try to slam the door this time.
Maybe he didn’t know what he was doing. Maybe he had a learning disability or an attention deficit disorder. There was no way to know unless I stayed each day for a few extra hours—if I could find any—in the school’s vault reading through the cumulative files of each student and taking notes. But what would that knowledge do for me, anyway?
The school district had special education classes starting in grade school, but it wasn’t always easy to identify learning disabilities because of their wide variations. In addition, I didn’t have time to work with Ramon individually for more than a few minutes a day—I had twenty-four other students to teach with less than one hour of instruction. My job was to teach a regular, college-prep class and cover the state-mandated curriculum expected for a ninth-grade English class.
The link to learning disabilities begins in the womb. Prenatal smoking, drinking, and drug use can seriously damage the fetus. For instance, my mother and father both smoked before and after my mother was pregnant with me, and my father was an alcoholic. I was born with severe dyslexia, and it took my mother—and a wire coat hanger—to teach me to read at home. It wasn’t until age nineteen that the U.S. Marine Corps finished the job by instilling the discipline in me that I needed to overcome my learning disabilities.
In fact, alcohol use during pregnancy is the leading cause of mental retardation in children. Some experts believe that alcohol has in some way harmed between one-third and two-thirds of all children in special education. (Substance Abuse and Learning Disabilities … The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, September 2000)
At fourteen, Ramon was responsible for his behavior and his learning; I was responsible for holding him accountable for his behavior and teaching him. Without cooperation from the student and/or parents, a challenging job quickly becomes impossible.
In journalism, I passed back the corrected rough drafts with the critique stapled to them, then stood in front of the class and read the blanket critique to the new reporters. The editors and reporters from the previous school year sat off to one side, quietly working. They knew what was going on, because most of them had gone through the same experience last year. They had learned and seldom, if ever, made the same mistakes.
When I finished reading the critique, I scanned the faces of the new students. No one said a word, and I just couldn’t read their expressions to determine how they felt.
“If there are no questions,” I said, “then get busy with your rewrites. When you finish the next draft, bring it to me, and we’ll see how you did.”
The stampede left the five working Macs claimed with a line behind each. A few of the cub reporters stayed late to finish, and I heard one say, “Getting these passive verbs out while writing to an exact length is hard.” She stayed until 5:00 pm to fix her rough draft.
Ethan—a Rush Limbaugh fan, and the sports editor, although the job wasn’t official until he passed the textbook exam—wanted me to okay his opinion piece on President Clinton and the Democratic governors. The piece was biased, unfocused, and needed more examples and facts to support his opinion. The problem that I saw in his writing was that he thought like Limbaugh, and that wasn’t good journalism.
“Come on, Mr. Lofthouse, just sign it,” Ethan said. “Us guys have to stick together.”
I had to sign each rough draft before Amanda or one of her other section editors would accept it. Of course, they’d read it and might still make suggestions for changes.
“Sorry, Ethan, but I’ll not sign this; you’ll have to take it to Amanda. Without my signature, it will be her decision as editor-in-chief to publish this in Scroll as it is.”
Amanda was working at a desk not far from where Ethan and I were talking. At the sound of her name, I saw her perk up an ear. She was careful not to look our way, but I could tell she had tuned in to the conversation.
For her benefit, I repeated what I’d already told Ethan about the lack of focus in his opinion piece. As he crossed the room to Amanda, I heard him mutter: “I don’t have any power around here. That isn’t fair. Why am I the sports editor, then? Editors are supposed to have power.”
I think Amanda also heard him, and I fought the urge to smile.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
First of all, I am a teacher, so know that I come into this review somewhat biased. I have read other books by this author, but this was a bit different–in a good way. Chronicling a tough year in high school education made this an intriguing read for me. I was constantly impressed with how this teacher handled his students without backing down and giving into the pressure of the students, parents, and the administrators. Having been there myself, I know all too well how easy it is to give in, and my hat goes off to this man. I would not have been able to do what he did. That’s why I am a substitute teacher which seems to go much better for me in today’s society.
My only real caution is that there is some profanity. Direct quotes from students for the most part. The writing is exceptional, and the book is detailed (that could be a problem for some). But it is possibly the best education memoir I have ever read.
I was sent a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. I was not financially compensated, and all opininos are 100 percent mine.
About Lloyd Lofthouse:Lloyd Lofthouse
Little did Lloyd Lofthouse know in 1999, when he married Anchee Min, that he was beginning a journey of discovery. His first trip to The Middle Kingdom was on the honeymoon with his bride, who introduced him to China and Robert Hart (1835-1911), the main characters in Lloyd’s first two novels, My Splendid Concubine and Our Hart. The next decade was a journey of discovery. Lloyd now lives near San Francisco with his wife–with a second home in Shanghai, China.
Lloyd earned a BA in journalism in 1973 after fighting in Vietnam as a U.S. Marine. While working days as an English teacher, he enjoyed a second job as a maitre d’ in a multimillion-dollar nightclub. His short story, A Night at the ‘Well of Purity’ was named as a finalist for the 2007 Chicago Literary Awards.
Lloyd has won 15 awards for My Splendid Concubine and 5 awards for Running With the Enemy.
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