Two young, White teachers learn to live and work in a world where they are the minorities.
On a sunny day in May of 1970, I was pronounced a University of Wisconsin bachelor of arts in French. After four years pursing an unemployable major without paying attention to where life was leading me, I had no clue what would come next. Thanks to the draft lottery, it would not be Vietnam, and although I was celebrating right alongside the others who had lucky birthdays, I didn’t want my life to be about what I did not do.
I turned to the new American Teacher Corps, an organization that gave people willing to work in troubled schools two years of sink-or-swim training, a small stipend, a master’s degree, and a teaching certificate at the end of the road. The schools were, on the whole, located in poor areas, often weighed down by poverty and racial tension. Once accepted, I was directed to report to the University of Delaware for a two-year internship in Wilmington, home of DuPont, the chemical capital of the East.
The Teacher Corps interns assembled in a conference room for introductions and two weeks of preparation before being assigned to schools. Studying the racial breakdown in the room, I got my first small taste of life in the minority. A director led me to a tough-looking Polish kid: “Meet Ed. He’s from Pottstown, Pennsylvania. You two probably have a lot in common.” The assumption that people who look the same will hit it off is at best annoying and at worst insulting. Besides skin pigment, the only thing Ed and I had in common was a willingness to step into the belly of the beast that was inner-city education.
Interns bunked in dorms during the training. Ed and I began to bond because there were not a lot of other potential friends. And who could blame those who shunned us? It hadn’t been that long since Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated and riots tore apart Wilmington. The National Guard occupied the city. Wounds were still open. To many, we represented the problem, not the solution.
Following the suggestion that we live in neighborhoods where we taught, I bought a newspaper, circled some rental ads, and drove into the city to investigate. Later, we found out that other interns settled in nicer apartments in the outskirts. There were few spots where White college kids were going to fit in, but I found a promising place in a block of three-story houses. Children were playing in the street and adults were sitting on stoops, talking, and laughing in a friendly atmosphere. When I knocked on the door, an ancient woman, well into her 80s, answered. I assured her that I was quiet, and we struck a deal. The price was right, if I could find someone to share it. Ed was willing, noting with a shrug that it was “better than nothing.” It was a lot better than nothing.
Our new world
Ed and I lived in that house for two years. Dilapidated as it was, its majestic architecture seemed an affront to the rest of the neighborhood — as did its White occupants. On the first floor lived Muddy and her daughter. We were told that Muddy, at 107, was the oldest woman in Delaware. On weekends, the old ladies would sometimes hire Ed to sleep in their living room with a rifle. A family lived on the second floor. Although we never saw Ma or the kids, we occasionally interacted with Dad, a swarthy, compact fellow with an accent we were too young and unworldly to identify. We called him Mario. Ed and I were on the third floor.
Our front door looked out upon an elementary school. There were row houses to the right, and on the left a large city reservoir. The neighborhood offered no close-by stores except for a strip joint, a conspicuously White hangout in a predominantly Black neighborhood. Occasionally we would wander down for a drink. To this day, I can’t hear Bob Seger’s “Down on Main Street” without thinking of that joint.
Our world was small. We would drive to school, teach, then coach or work out, and drive home. Tired from the day and too burned out to look ahead, we had a couple of beers, watched the Johnny Carson monologue, and went to bed. That’s if we didn’t have classes in Newark, Delaware, which we did two nights per week. After my first year in the program, it appeared to me that no one was paying attention to my curriculum so I attempted to soothe my ennui by signing up for courses that interested me: History of Science. Death and Dying. (Attendance at a seance was required for that one.)
Ed and I shared an edgy wariness with Mario on the second floor. When we found that our electricity ran through Mario’s meter, Mario interpreted it as a confusing scam and refused to discuss it. Consequently, we never paid for our electricity. Our mutual distrust continued until the Night of Mario’s Charge With the Putter.
It was a warm fall night. Windows were open. Sounds of the city drifted in on a soft breeze, gently riffling grease-stained taffeta curtains. The tap of a basketball, laughs and trash talk, sweet harmonies of the Temptations on a radio, and squeals of kids on the playground were set against the hushed roar of the freeway overpass. Then I heard something ugly: cussing, a smack, and a howl. A couple was arguing. The man’s large hands almost encircled the woman’s throat, choking her. I croaked, “Hey,” but I was in a nightmare, the kind where you yell for help and nothing comes out. I ran down the fire escape and asked the girl, “Do you need help?” She gurgled as the boyfriend turned. He was tall with striated muscles, taut and stringy like bridge cables. Bad news. He cocked his head, looked at me with dead eyes, and advanced, saying in a lazy menacing voice, “I’ll give you some help.” A thunderous, “YO!” shook the night. Mario charged down the fire escape with a putter. The assailant held his hands up, “Whoa, be careful.” The girlfriend got to her feet and screamed, “Stop!” Mario slowed, and I put my hands on his arms. “Let’s go.” We clambered back up the fire escape and never spoke again, but from then on, we exchanged respectful nods in passing.
Ed and I were painfully aware that we were part of the culture that had perpetuated the inequalities that left these schools in such poor condition.
Life at school
The school we were assigned to had an abandoned feeling. Maintenance was bare bones and the hallways were sometimes chaotic, despite the dedicated efforts of the staff. Kids coped by adopting a “don’t mess with me” attitude or staying in the shadows, like the school ghost. Ed learned about the school ghost when he heard a tapping with an unmistakably human rhythm in the hallway. When he came to a stairwell, he found other things to worry about, like the cherry bomb bouncing down the stairs and the flood of panicking students running to get away from the explosive little ball. A few days later, a friendly janitor solved the mystery. The ghost was a student so small that he could squeeze into a hole and crawl into the tiny space behind the lockers. Once there, he scurried back and forth, scaring passersby while remaining safe from apprehension.
Ed and I struggled as disciplinarians. Ed remembers a student who said, “I could shoot you. No one would care!” It is painful to be looked down upon and disrespected because you are different, but we couldn’t blame the kids for their attitude or the adults in the school for not reaching out. Ed and I were painfully aware that we were part of the culture that had perpetuated the inequalities that left these schools in such poor condition.
We gravitated to the one place where we felt comfortable — the gym. Ed had played football and I was a swimmer, so Ed volunteered at community weight rooms and I offered myself up as a swim coach. Quickly, we went from “Hey you ” to “Coach.” Coaching became an island of respect in a sea of abuse.
While coaching, I became close to an African-American swimmer named Steve, a tough kid who had pretty much taught himself the breaststroke. He was too far along to smooth out his technique, but what he lacked in style he made up for in strength. He was a lion in workouts and a warrior in competition. Most of our kids would fall behind in races, but Steve would consistently place, racing on guts and heart.
The swimmers worked hard, but none worked like Steve. I ran extra practices with him when he found the time, and he continued to improve. I’ve rarely experienced the feeling of having someone listen to you as intently as Steve did to me. He’d finish a series of grueling intervals, and I would lean over the pool edge and talk to him. I’ve never seen clearer eyes than his as he focused on my words. His hard work paid off when he qualified for a large meet at the University of Delaware. He didn’t win, but he performed admirably.
Steve assumed I would be around to encourage and coach him for awhile. He didn’t know I was a short timer, counting days until I could push a reset button on my life. As the end of the school year approached, I knew it was time to level with Steve. He said little, but I sensed his disappointment. Is there ever anything to say when you pull the rug of friendship out from under someone? I took him out and bought him a new pair of tennis shoes and a steak dinner. It was a cheap all-you-can-eat place, but it seemed extravagant for both of us. (I was making $2,500 a year.) We talked about his plans. He was optimistic. I wished him well.
The next fall, back in Wisconsin, on my first job as a licensed teacher, I got Steve’s letter. I wondered if Steve had ever written to a White person before. He told me about his football team, how much he was looking forward to swimming, and how his life was going. We exchanged a couple more letters, but, for reasons I can only attribute to immaturity, I procrastinated answering Steve’s third letter and eventually forgot. I did not get any more letters.
Ed and I used our experience to contribute to the lives of children the best we could. Lessons I learned in Wilmington were of great value, and I wish I had been able to apprehend them from the start. Johnny Cash said you build on failure and use the past as a stepping stone. That is not comforting if the stepping stones are children.
Ed is 72, still teaching, and doing it in the poorest city in Pennsylvania. I don’t know what happened to Steve.
Citation: Woll, D. (2019, Oct. 28). Memories of the Teacher Corps. Phi Delta Kappan, 101 (3), 57-59.