This is a little excerpt from my memoir Schoolboy, which I'm going to be uploading in the next few days to Amazon/Kindle. It's an account of the day I realized how the kids felt about Jim; it was the first "official" day of my career, the first day the kids came to school in the fall of 1966. Before classes begin, the kids, grades 5-8, gathered in the gym for an assembly ...
In the picture below, I am the last on the page ...
With some of my new colleagues I stand in line along one wall. I know that in just a few minutes I will be heading toward my classroom where I will somehow have to begin my career. I am very afraid. I glance into the packed bleachers where the students are arrayed by grade. There are so many—nearly 550. Some of them seem bigger and older than I. And tougher. One monstrous boy who looks thirty is staring at me with the intensity of a jungle cat. He already knows he can take me. I know it too.
Mr. Clough [the principal] is now introducing the faculty. He calls names; people step forward and wave. He begins with the fifth grade teachers, moves on the upper grades. Many of us are new.
Whenever Mr. Clough reads the name of a veteran teacher, there is a reaction among the older students—generally applause, especially for two women, Willetta Thomas (Reading) and Eileen Kutinsky (Sixth Grade Science). Later, I will learn why: These are two of the best teachers in the world.
But when he announces my name, and when I step forward and wave, there is silence, broken only by a few snickers, some muttering, some sporadic clapping from the grade-grubbers already launching their campaigns. I step back, feel the ignition of a blush.
Mr. Clough continues: Teaching eighth grade math … Mr. James Wright.
The eighth-grade class explodes. Many leap to their feet. They stomp and pound and clap and cheer and whistle and scream and make every sound of approbation and affection available to human beings. James—Jim—Wright steps out, waves, his lips creased only by a thin line of a smile. He is blushing, too, but for a much different reason. The demonstration goes on and on until Mr. Clough has to use the microphone to ask for quiet. It still takes a while.
Jim Wright. I look at him. He is a lean, erect fortyish man, about 5′ 7″or so. His flat-top haircut is going grey. He wears a white short-sleeved dress shirt and a tie, grey slacks. He looks firm, friendly, confident.
How did he earn that? I wonder. Why do they feel that way about him?
I look at Jim and Willetta and Eileen and a few others whom the students have greeted so warmly. And I know right then, my first minutes of my first day: I want to be like them.
As the years go on, I learn a lot about Jim. He was an ex-Marine (he always made a big deal of November 10, the Marine Corps birthday); he loved to camp and fish and hunt--and was always absent the first day of deer season. He was extraordinarily generous with me. When Joyce and I moved from our first apartment to our first (rented) house in Kent, he was there, helping us move, hooking up appliances. Being a friend.
I learned from Jim that if you're demanding with students, they will still like you--they might even love you. I remember observing his math classes now and then. They were on task, focused. But he would often stop to laugh, to tell a story, to connect.
Once he got in trouble. He had a boy at the blackboard, doing problems, and the kid just wasn't getting it. Jim grabbed the kid from behind the head (these were the days when teachers touched kids--all the time) and, playfully, said Just look at it! Somehow, the kid wasn't putting up any resistance and his forehead smacked into the blackboard. A red knot appeared. His parents weren't pleased.
Later--at our Christmas gift exchange--someone gave him a rectangular piece of sponge rubber, stained black with some math problems on it--a cushioned blackboard, especially for math class.
After a few years, Jim moved into administration, became the assistant principal. The kids still loved him, though I always thought he lost that intimacy with them that the classroom provides. It just wasn't the same.
His family life was falling apart, too. A divorce. A new relationship. And then that one fell apart, too.
One night in mid-February 1977, Jim called, came over to visit. He was in Kent seeing Dr. Gordon Vars; Jim was about to begin a Ph.D. program and wanted to talk with me about it. He'd already visited with Dr. Vars that night. I knew Jim was desperately unhappy about the relationship that had just collapsed; we talked a little about it. I tried to encourage him. I showed him all the research I'd done in my own doctoral work--my piles of dissertation note cards and so on. I was horribly unaware of Jim's despair, was focused entirely on my own work. I was blind.
That night he went home and took his own life.
That night he went home and took his own life.
He'd been planning it. There were notes, checks to be cashed. He'd thought of everything.
The news silenced the school. We had a memorial assembly for him at the end of the day. I threw some remarks together, at the principal's request. I said what I really felt--Mr. Wright believed in us so deeply that it was easier for us to believe in ourselves.
I think about him still. All the time. He was a master teacher. A committed administrator. A devoted friend. How I wish that we--all of us: friends, colleagues, students--could have seen his heart more clearly, perhaps saved his dear life.