CHAPTER 23

Lenin-like

Selected from Part 4: Trying Administrators

When I took a position teaching College Preparatory Chemistry (CPC) at SHS, it is fair to say that the school was not the flagship high school of the district. Of the six high schools in the district at that time, SHS would have had trouble finishing third in a race for district headquarters' affection. But, of course, no school district shows favoritism toward any school or schools in its jurisdiction. That would be inappropriate. Right.

Over the span of the nearly thirteen years that I spent at SHS, the school's image deteriorated substantially. By the end of my stay at SHS, realtors probably found it increasingly difficult to use a house's location in my school's attendance area as good reason to purchase the house. The details of my school's eroding image, however, are not directly pertinent to the point I wish to make in this part of my book. So, I will let it suffice to observe that SHS had come to bear much criticism during my concluding years there. In the interest of honesty, I admit that I agreed with much of the criticism, but not all of it. Furthermore, the criticism came from numerous sources: students, teachers, parents of students and the general public residing principally within the district's boundaries.

Regarding criticism from the general public, there was a man who was as prolific as he was articulate in his criticism of the school district, and he was very articulate. When state-mandated standardized test results for schools were made public, it would be a sure bet that this self-appointed watchdog would have a letter off to the local paper's op-ed page.  On at least one occasion, the paper printed a featured article by this man, whom I shall refer to as Fred. As I would read Fred's published criticisms over the years, I could imagine the reactions of various administrative types connected to the district as they read a given piece by him. And I can't imagine such folks didn't make a point of perusing Fred's missives.

I suspect SHS showed up on Fred's radar one too many times for my principal's (Larry's) liking. My suspicion is supported by the fact that Larry made a point of looking me up as we teachers were filing into the library to attend a professional development meeting one Wednesday afternoon after school. True to my attitude about being sought out by administrators, I cast a wary look in Larry's direction as he deliberately made his way toward me that day. I always hoped that my body language wouldn't betray my state of mind at such moments, but I fear that it probably did, at least occasionally. As I studied Larry's manner of approach, I concluded that his purpose was friendly, albeit mysterious.

As Larry took a chair next to mine, he made inquiry as to how I was of late. In so doing, he addressed me as Dr. Gaudio (pronouncing my last name, gow-dee-oh, as opposed to my family's preference of, god-ee-oh). I do not hold a doctoral degree in any area. I think Larry would address me in this "doctoral" manner when he wanted to be friendly and respectful toward me.  I was never insulted by the way Larry pronounced my last name. Instead, I kind of got a humorous kick of his choice of pronunciations. Indeed, his addressing me in such a manner probably meant that I was not in any sort of trouble with him because if he had issue with me, Larry would always simply call me Jim. But, even though I had no reason to think that I was in hot water, I remained wary. Larry might have been pondering some use of my time, energies and talents that I would find disagreeable.  I hate it when people try to find extra work for me, and I found principals (as well as assistant principals) to have boundless imaginations in this regard. Larry, as it happened, had a favor to ask of me that day.

After the exchange of pleasantries, Larry continued pursuing conversation by asking if I knew Fred Kritik, the gadfly.  I, of course, answered in the affirmative, making a mental note of Larry's having called the man a gadfly. Evidently, Fred had rankled Larry at some point(s) in the past by criticizing SHS (or the district, generally), and I was not surprised by Larry's apparent umbrage. The surprise came in the way Larry wanted to try to mitigate Fred's pen and mouth, particularly in regard to SHS. My principal was going on the offensive, and he wanted me to join him. Specifically, Larry intended to singularly invite Fred to attend a daylong, guided tour of SHS. One of the planned stops of this very guided tour would be my classroom when I was teaching chemistry. There are several things that should be noted at this time.

First, Larry probably wanted Fred to observe my chemistry class because he wanted this critic to go away thinking that chemistry as I taught it was the common face of chemistry instruction in our building. This was not true. At the time of Larry's escapade, I was teaching only one section of chemistry, consisting of nineteen students. There must have been at least sixty kids in the building taking chemistry by a much less rigorous route. The way I taught chemistry had become the exception, not the rule, to chemistry instruction at SHS. During my earlier years at this school, the top enrollment for my chemistry course was one hundred and thirty-seven students spread over five sections. I will always believe that this precipitous drop in my number of chemistry students was principally due to the lack of commitment to quality chemistry instruction on the part of the two principals I worked under at SHS. To guide Fred to my chemistry class was to deliberately mislead him. I thought, "What a farce!" Larry had followed Mark's (the former principal) lead in undermining my chemistry course, but wanted to use what was left of it to try to make himself look good.  The situation smacked of hypocrisy, from my point of view. Yet, I wryly noted that there was a small victory for me in this deception. Larry was admitting that he didn't have much confidence in the travesty that passed, for the most part, as credible chemistry instruction at SHS, a travesty of instruction that his own instructional philosophies and decisions promoted!

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Second, Larry requested my involvement in this ruse, but he could have ordered it. Larry's nature is to be courteous, as I have always acknowledged. However, Larry is no fool either: A volunteer can be expected to perform at a higher level of commitment than someone who has been pressed into a role. The irony here is that I was so fussy about my performance in the classroom that I would have given my best if I had been forced to host the devil itself!

Third, the choice of the chaperone surprised me. The gentleman who would serve in this capacity was a man who was currently sitting on the school board. Moreover, this school board member's daughter was one of my chemistry students.  This meant that I would be, in effect, hosting three points of view on tour day: that of one of the district's severest critics, plus that of a parent, plus that of a school board member (the second and third being rolled into one person).  I suspected that Larry and the board member were in cahoots, but I didn't know which of the two first thought of the plan.  Anyway, I had every intention of welcoming my two visitors with open arms. My agreeable attitude, however, was more self-serving than gracious: I intended to use their visit as much to pursue my agenda as Larry did to pursue his. Two could play at this game.

At just ahead of the start of seventh period on the appointed day, Fred and his chaperone made their way into my classroom and sat where I directed them to do so. The lesson that day was kind of complicated, dealing with the half-lives of radioisotopes, but it went very well. One of the reasons that I readily consented to Larry's request was to see if I could make a favorable impression on Fred.  I purposely concluded business for the day with about three minutes left in the period, so as to allow an opportunity to get some feedback as to how the other two adults in the class thought things went. Like a gymnast who had just finished a flawless routine, I knew the judges were going to give me scores of ten, but I wanted the satisfaction of seeing the scores posted, so to speak. Fred, whose professional background is technical in nature, was clearly impressed. The board member/parent couldn't find enough good to say about me, either. I didn't mind helping SHS shine a little brighter, as long as doing so would automatically benefit my luminosity, too. Also, I liked taking on a challenge of this nature. I taught in a public school. To me, this meant that any member of the public who helped finance the district, and who was legally in the building, could come into my room at any time to see how I was spending tax dollars. The only thing that I would make clear from the start is that the visitor(s) was to stay out of my way once I got started. The observer could watch the show, but the show was for the kids. I told Fred that he could come to my classroom, announced or unannounced, any time he felt like doing so. Fred thanked me, and he said that he could understand my being comfortable with visitors in my classroom.

Judging from the e-mail Fred sent the school the next day, Larry and the board member got what they were looking for.  The guided tour left Fred feeling much better about SHS. He acknowledged in his communication that SHS certainly had some problems, but what he had seen the previous day allowed him to be optimistic about the way education was conducted at my school. I never knew of all the visitations and stops that comprised Fred's tour that day, but I learned of some of them.  Indeed, Larry had the matter choreographed very nicely, judging from the details that I heard "through the vine."  Truthfully, there was some good teaching that went on at SHS. As I said earlier, a lot of the criticism the school got was deserved, but not all of it.

Larry, I'm certain, was delighted to forward Fred's e-mail to the entire staff. In his moment of triumph, Larry graciously extended his personal thanks to the whole staff for helping to make the gadfly's visit successful. He expressed a special word of gratitude to all of those who directly participated in the effort to impress Fred. And in my opinion, I think that Fred did in fact leave the building after his visit with a considerably improved view of SHS.

I know that Fred wrote critically of the district after his visit at SHS, but it seems that his letter writing campaign trailed off very substantially after Larry's coup.

When Larry decided to grow a goatee, he took on an uncanny likeness to Vladimir Lenin, at least to my eyes.

The end justifies the means.

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