Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Tears for the Tigers

I was reviewing an article in the Austin paper regarding four schools in Texas which are on the chopping block. These schools have consistently performed so poorly on state required examinations that they are supposed to be closed or have a “change in management”. By change in management I understand that to be not firing the principal, but having the state take over the school. The Austin article focused on our city’s perennial problem child, Johnston High, but the most intriguing part of the story, for me, dealt with Sam Houston High of Houston.


Sam Houston probably began its descent in 1976, the year they hired me as an English teacher for a semester. The school had been around since 1878 and had an illustrious history, one of its former faculty members was a future President of the United States, Lyndon Johnson, who taught speech there in 1930.The faculty was somewhat less illustrious when I served on it, but I, myself had a dragging down effect on that group. I had just finished up my undergraduate work at the University of Houston and was awaiting word from the various law schools I had applied to. I was assured of getting into several of those schools, so I knew that I would be engaged in my new calling the next fall. In December of 1975, I applied for a position as a substitute teacher in the HISD, meeting all the qualifications for the job which paid (to me) the princely sum of $30 a day, when called for duty. Since I would get off at 3:00, I could still keep my job at the campus bookstore and so would be able to put some money aside.


I got a couple of calls right before the Christmas break and found the work to be as easy as I had imagined. Then, the day after the district Christmas break ended, I got a call to report to Sam Houston. I was taken aside by the assistant principal and asked if I was an English major. I equivocated a bit before stating that I was a very strong English minor. Even that was not true, but I figured that a positive response was needed. In that case, asked the assistant principal, would I like to teach English Lit. to Seniors for the whole semester ? The ill teacher that I was to replace that day had had a stroke and would not be coming back until at least the fall. I accepted on the spot and it is a good thing that I did. As I was filling out the paperwork, another substitute was being asked the same questions by an office worker. I am sure that she was more qualified, but it was too late. I was on the faculty at $30 a day which came out to $150 a week. An incredible sum.


The Austin paper indicates that the Sam Houston of today is over 90% Hispanic, 6% African American and 3% white. In my day it was probably 40% Hispanic, 40% white and 20% African American. I could be wrong, that was 32 years ago, but that is how I remember it. The classes I was given were not exactly made up of aspiring scholars. Many ditched class frequently, some more than they came. At least a couple could not read at all. How they had gotten to Senior status I will never know. It was too late for me to change anyone’s academic career and be recalled as a later day Mr. Chips. That was a good thing. I certainly did not have the teaching skills to do it anyway. I was an enthusiastic but indifferent instructor. I tended to teach the things that interested me, whether they were strictly part of the curriculum or not. It was one of the more colorful times in my life and I probably should write a few blogs on some of the funny things that happened, but that’s for another time. Today I am just focusing on my part of the inevitable downfall of Sam Houston. You can imagine that if a school was hiring people right off the street to teach their kids, they probably made a few more mistakes along the way which brought them to the sad circumstance they now find themselves.


About halfway through the semester, most of the kids had figured out that I was going to law school the next year. One day a young African-American student, whom I really liked, asked me if I had a degree in education. I replied no, I had never taken an education course in my life. The young man exhibited an exasperated look and said , “wow, talk about the blind leading the blind.” I told him something to the effect that the Houston Independent School District and their High School felt that I was good enough and therefore, I should be good enough for him. But I’m sure I wasn’t.  Oh, I was smart enough, I knew the material well enough and I enjoyed the job, but that did not make me a teacher.  No one cared. The school and district were saving a fortune, I was making more money than I ever had, and the students had a much easier time with me than they would have with some old battle ax that had been teaching the same thing for forty years. But that’s not the point of public education. The truth of the matter is that those responsible for public education in this country have never, for one minute, taken it seriously. They generally have a constitutional mandate to provide one, and they do so in the cheapest way possible. The only public schools that ever succeed are those with overwhelming parental involvement. Those work quite well, but there are not very many of them.


I wondered today about my old students. They would be only four years younger than me . All in their early 50s.Did my name ever come up at a reunion ? Did they ever figure out the flim- flam the school pulled on them by slipping me in ? Did any of it ever matter at all, or was it just one more step down toward the abyss which the school now faces ?


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