High School Teaching

My High School teaching spanned three academic years.  Fresh out of college at U.C. Berkeley I was in need of a job.  High School teaching, on a provisional certificate, was an option while I finished writing my M.A. thesis.  So I accepted a position at a new school in the Merced, California, school district.  After one year at Atwater we moved to the Monterey Peninsula where we had lots of friends.  I taught in the Pacific Grove High School for two years. 

Atwater High School

I walked into the public school teacher recruiting office at the University of California one morning in early summer of 1959 eating an ice-cream cone and asked the woman at the desk if “any school district was hard up enough to hire someone with a provisional credential?”  She nodded and pointed to a mansitting at a table nearby.  He told me to finish my cone and come back.  I did so and soon was engaged in the employment interview for a 9th-grade social studies in a new high school built in Atwater, California.  This was to be its first year that it was open for classes. 

Atwater was a small town near the Castle Air Force Base north of Merced in the California central valley.  During the interview, I was asked if I drank [alcohol] and I replied “yes.”  He responded, “We would find it quite inappropriate if you were seen in the Mexican bars across the tracks.”  I was astonished and replied, “Do I also have to teach Sunday School?”  No.  So I was hired.

On arriving in Atwater Mary Ann and I found no apartments to rent so we ultimately had to purchase a house.  That was quite impossible as we had no money for a down payment.  Then Mary Ann admitted that she had $5,000 in a bank in Carmel, California where she was employed as an R.N. before I married her.  So we bought a house for $12,000 and made it our home for the following year.

After all the school-wide opening day activities I went to my homeroom and faced 28 new Freshmen.  I started my introduction and quickly noticed a group of Hispanic boys and girls in the rear rows that were not paying attention but rather chatting in Spanish among themselves.  My rostrum was three-sided with the open space facing me.  I picked up a yard-stick and smacked it against the side of the rostrum shouting “Caiyate!” as loud as I could [shut up].  The startled Hispanic kids must have jumped two feet off their chairs in astonishment.  I then proceeded in Spanish saying we are going to be good friends but we have to have a chat after class.  Meanwhile, be quiet so others can learn if they want to.”

And so began my first day at Atwater High School.  The Hispanics and I did become good friends but the agreement we had was that they could do anything they wanted to do in the rear of the room, sleep, read books, draw, etc. but they could NOT disturb class activities engaged in by the rest of the class.  I told them that they had every right to remain stupid and fail the class, that was their decision, but that they could not interfere with the other students’ right to get educated.  I offered to help them one-on-one or in small groups so they, too, could learn.  From then on we got along fairly well, most of the time.

Besides the Hispanic population,q there were other visible minorities in the community which included Mennonite and other fundamentalist church groups that were opposed to educating their youth beyond the state requirement to age 16.  To address this issue I began a series of meetings in our house for any faculty that wanted to participate and every second week I invited the pastor of a local church to come and explain to us the basic tenants of their faith and how that related to public education.  It was made clear that this was not an opportunity to proselytize but rather an opportunity to get to know each other better.  These meetings went very well until I invited the local Catholic priest.  He refused to visit our group and said that if we wanted to know anything about the Catholic Church we could attend catechism classes held at the church.  He also happened to be one of the village alcoholics.  Oh, well, you can’t win them all.

As every member of the faculty was new to the school Mary Ann and I developed a social event to get to know each other better.  We created the Sunday Breakfast Club where we invited everyone over to our house each Sunday for pancakes or waffles of all sorts: sourdough, whole wheat, rye, buttermilk, etc.  I did the hotcakes, others prepared fresh fruit, others prepared the coffee or tea, etc.  We always had nine to 15 participants between 9:30 a.m. and noon.  It was a fun event and we quickly got to know each other.

Not too long into the school year, the school district was holding an election for a school levy for faculty salary which happened to be fairly low in the state ranking.  One of the School Board was quoted as saying that “those who can do and those who can’t teach and raising their salaries was uncalled for!”  This may have been a minority opinion on the school board but I was pissed and wrote a letter to the editor of the local weekly stating that I would not teach in a community where such an attitude was held and would quit if the levy failed.  It failed so Mary Ann and I went to a place that actually invited us to become a member of their faculty, Pacific Grove, California.

Oh, by the way, the Principal who had hired me got fired when the school board found out that he had lied about his credentials, that he did not have a Ph.D. as claimed.

Pacific Grove High School Teaching: Fall of 1959 – Spring of 1961

When I got my job teaching 9th Grade Social Studies at Pacific Grove High School in California I was told that I would be the first teacher to introduce a unit on ‘Sex and Society’ for 9th graders.  The Home Economics teacher would teach the unit on the biology of sex to Seniors but I was to introduce the subject to Freshmen via a unit on the sociology of sex.

My classroom was in the basement of the building and had a very high ceiling as the school was on a hill.  Well, what I did was to have the students clip advertisements from magazines and newspapers that were in their living rooms.  They were not to clip advertisements from magazines that daddy hid in the bedroom.  The advertisements were to illustrate how sex is used in advertising: from selling cars, vodka, toothpaste, underwear, etc. I then plastered the large wall in my classroom with these advertisements which the students mounted on 8-1/2 x 11” sheets of paper.  To say the least, that was not the normal décor of a high school 9th-grade classroom.

We then discussed the meaning of this in terms of societal values.  Wow, were the students ever interested!  I first had them prepare a list of questions that they wanted answers to regarding the display, e.g., why were 95% of the ads using female figures, why were the females scantily dressed while the guys were in cowboy costumes, etc., what did this say about prejudice, etc.  It got them thinking and some great discussions and library follow-up resulted.  But one thing I did not expect was the reaction the wall of advertisements generated on ‘parent’s night’ and as the story spread throughout the building it seemed that all parents ended up visiting my room.  Some parents laughed, some were very thoughtful, some were outraged.  I’ll tell you one thing though, the kids were really ‘joining issue’ with the subject and initiating study on their own through this impetus.

Soon after arrival at PG High School, I became ‘informal’ advisor to the marginal kids, the children of the Portuguese and Sicilian fishing families, kids of families on welfare, from broken homes, kids who were having trouble with the law, etc.  For whatever reason they felt that my room was a safe hang out for them, and it was.  Several times a week we would close the door to the “goodie-goodies” and have a group discussion of some matter of concern to the bunch.  We pulled our chairs in a circle, no empty chairs allowed and when one left their chair was removed from the circle.  The kids chose the topics of discussion.  One time they wanted to form a club and compete as a club in school activities.  I suggested that their club would have the same status as they did in the school and would be at the bottom of the pecking order.  No, I suggested, if they wanted to raise their status and acceptance in the school pecking order what they should do is to infiltrate a ‘good’ club, especially one with a budget, and then take it over when new officers are elected.  They loved the idea so plans were made to do just that.

The woman who taught Home Economics was aghast when I informed her that I had encouraged the ‘marginal’ girls to join the Home Economics Club and hoped that she would be able to instill in them some good family values.  She was afraid that these rough-and-tumble street wise girls would destroy her nice girls club.  I told her that she could not refuse them permission to participate and that she had to do her best to make them feel at home in the group.

One morning she called me aside and in a very troubled voice told me that she was afraid the girls were up to mischief, that at the end of the club meeting the night before she overheard one of ‘my’ girls say “Let’s go over to my house to see what we can cook up.”  I was a bit concerned when one of the girls saw me in the hall that morning and said that we had to have a meeting at noon, that the group has something they want to tell me.  I said “OK, I’ll be there.”  I sat with my back to the door and chit-chatted with the kids as the circle grew larger, waiting for Jeanne Maitre, one of the ‘ringleaders’ of the girls group to arrive before we got down to the concerns of the kids.  Then I felt two arms come down, one on either side of my head and in the hands of Jeanne Maitre was a lovely cake in the shape of a heart.  It was Valentine’s Day and the cake decoration said “To Our Valentine George– thanks!”  I blushed, my eyes watered and the kids cheered.  Ah, yes, they had truly “cooked something up” the night before.

At 2 a.m. I heard a tapping on my bedroom window and heard a voice softly call “George.”  I went to the door and found one of the kids, really shook up, wanting to say ‘good by’ as he was running away from home.  His mother had another “uncle” spending the night with her who beat him up and threw him out of the house.  He was fed up with this life and was going to ‘hit the road.’  I asked how much money he had in his pocket and what he was taking with him.  He had less than a dollar and was taking nothing with him.  I told him that was stupid, that he should sleep in the garage and return home in the morning and see me at noon when I would give him some advice on how to ‘hit the road.’

Well, the word passed among the group that I was giving advice on how to ‘hit the road,’ i.e., how to run away and by noon I had about 12 kids in my informal seminar.  Of course all of this had to be very hush-hush.  I had years of experience hitch-hiking in many countries, finding food, finding a place to sleep, etc, etc. so I was able to bring some reality to the table.  We met each noon that week and on Friday I said, “Enough of the bull.  Now it is time for experience.  Jim, you go to the Schnitzel Inn, Jeanne-you go to Sambo’s, Bill you go to the Black Angus, etc,etc”  I assigned each kid a restaurant and told them their assignment was to get a free meal over the week end AND NO STEALING!  We would meet on Monday and discuss the experiences.  Well, Monday came but the kids didn’t.  I didn’t see any of them.  On Tuesday I saw Jeanne and called but she merely waved and ducked into the girls’ room.  On Wednesday I cornered one of the kids and said I wanted all of them in my room at noon.  Well, what had happened was that not a single one of them did their homework.  The subject was dropped and no one ran away.

One of the subjects I was to cover in the 9th grade social studies classes was race.  Well, I told the class, we are not going to spend time discussing Apartheid in South Africa, nor would we discuss race relations in Little Rock, Arkansas where the High School had recently been blown up.  I said, let us take a good look at our own town of Pacific Grove, California, this nice little Methodist Church community (the West Coast copy of Ocean Grove, New Jersey.)  PG still had ‘blue laws’ and no alcoholic beverages were sold in shops in PG.  You had to go across the border to Monterey to buy a bottle of wine or spirits.  And, of course, the town had lots of lovely old churches.  But underlying all this pious façade was a racist attitude that reflected many values to be found in American communities in the 1950s and 1960s.

Sure, we did the intellectual trip but I wanted the students to experience race prejudice so I assigned the class the task of locating the Relator’s ‘red line’ beyond which a home would not be sold to a minority person.  I brought to class the deed on the property that I owned on which was written “This property is not to be sold to or occupied by any person of African lineage, Native American lineage, Oriental lineage or whose ancestors have ever lived under the domain of the Ottoman Empire (that kept out the Jews.)  Samuel Morse, founder of Pebble Beach and formerly owner of all this property placed these covenants on all his property.  I then related to the students several public protests when a Chinese or Korean instructor at the local Army Language Institute tried to purchase a home in Pacific Grove in the area protected by these covenants.

The students went out in pairs to do their field research.  Two girls went to the Chamber of Commerce where they were met with indignation by the secretary there.  She was outraged that their teacher was spreading lies and stirring up trouble.  She insisted that there was no such line and sent them to see the City Manager who should know these things.  Well, the City Manager was new to town so he called a friend who was a Realtor and asked him about the race line.  His friend said, “Of course there is a line.  Beginning at … “ he described the line as the City Manager marked it on a small city map.  When he was done talking with his friend he got out a very large city planning map and with a red marker made a heavy line indicating the Relator’s ‘red line.’  The City Manager was appalled at this information and wished the girls luck in their research.

Well, as you can imagine, the ‘stuff’ hit the fan.  Not only did the Board of Realtors get after the Principal of the high school, they protested to the School Board and all of this became part of the class lesson on “Race in America.”  The Principal told me that I had been called some very uncomplimentary names but he agreed that the students certainly got a vivid lesson on the role race plays in their own small town, but, “Please George, stick to South Africa next time!”

Another time I got in trouble with the School Board was when they decided not to renew the contract for the school psychologist and use the money freed up to hire an additional staff person for the grounds department.  I went to the board meeting and spoke up for keeping the school psychologist and letting the grass grow over the roof of the school, that the mental health of the kids was more important than the aesthetics of the school grounds.  They disagreed with me and terminated the position of school psychologist.

Well, not too long after that was another “Parent’s Night.”  My social studies students did some demographic research and we prepared a large poster on ‘butcher paper’ about six ft. tall and about 30 inches wide.  It was directly opposite the entrance of the room and VERY visible.  On it we wrote “PG High School has 750 students (as I recall) and of these during their life: (then line by line we wrote) 150 will end up in a mental hospital classified as psychotic,  420 will be divorced, 35 will commit suicide, 225 will spend time in jail,  they will have 300 illegitimate children, etc, etc.  We had a footnote by each figure and on the bottom of the poster indicated how we calculated the figure.  I don’t recall all the social ills we listed nor the actual numbers but they were impressive.  Next to the large poster with the demographic characteristics we had another poster saying:  “Exam for Parents = which is your child?  NOTE: the school board just removed the position of the school psychologist so they could hire a gardener.  Do you think this is a wise choice?  What are you going to do about it?”

Every school board member visited my room that night.  One of them said to me in a low voice “You bastard!.”  At the next meeting of the school board they reinstated the position of the school psychologist and fired the school nurse.  I was next.  The Principal called me into his office for an “evaluation” session.  He told me that he was disturbed that students who were expelled from school by the vice-principal were found ‘hiding’ in my classroom.   [the vice principal came into my room one day and found three kids that he had expelled earlier in the day sitting in the back of my room.  “They are not supposed to be on the campus.” He exclaimed.  “They will disrupt your class.”  “No,” I explained, “this is their home.  They will not give me any trouble and later when school is out, we will talk about their problems.  Leave them alone.”]  After a bit of discussion with the Principal of the problems that I was causing him with the community and the school board he suggested that it might be best for my own professional career to seek employment somewhere else.  He indicated that he was not going to fire me, yet, but that such was imminent if I did not shut up and behave.  So I went job hunting.