Sunday, February 17, 2013

Making a Difference in Untestable Ways

AS ALL OF MY AVID READERS know (yes, I’m talking about both of you), I was a junior high and middle school teacher for 33 years.

That’s right. I spent my life in the company of hormonal teens.

So I learned to use some “unconventional” methods to keep students interested. Not that my lectures weren’t scintillating, I don’t mean.

I hated wasting class time for any reason whatsoever; but if I thought I could keep kids engaged I was ready to try anything. One day, Susan -----, a lively, funny young lady, made the mistake of telling me class was boring. She was an exceptional student. If she said class was boring it probably was.

I said we needed to liven up.

Susan foolishly agreed.

So, I picked up her books and threw them out a window onto the school lawn.

That woke Susan and everyone else up, even me.

Another time, the homework paper of a top student floated off her desk and landed in the center of the room. (We had desks in a horseshoe arrangement.) I walked over to pick it up and had an inspiration. Saying, “Here, let me get that,” I placed one foot on the paper, grabbed to pick it up and ripped it in two. I stood there staring at half a paper in disbelief.

“That was my HOMEWORK,” the owner of the dismembered assignment exclaimed.“What am I going to do now?”

“I’ll give you an automatic A,” I replied, and the class roared and that’s what we did.

IF I EVER WONDERED WHETHER these kinds of tactics were effective, the first great letter I received from a former student resolved the question. It came in the mail one day, after I had been teaching seven or eight years.

Joey was bright and impossible not to like but his grades in my class and every other were terrible. He missed homework diligently. He missed five assignments. We talked. He missed seven more. We talked. He ran his string of missing assignments to twenty—thirty—headed towards forty, like Joe DiMaggio in reverse.

Around that time, I hit upon the idea of fishing in my pocket occasionally and saying to my class in a game show announcer’s voice: “You can win all the money (jingling sound) in this pocket if you answer the next question.” Sometimes I would pull out the coins and show them for effect.“This entire thirteen cents, one dime and three pennies, can be yours if you tell me who wrote the Declaration of Independence.”

Every so often I offered “big money.” In morning classes one day I gave a quarter to the first student who could name the first astronaut to walk on the moon. In every class someone could. So it took a few dimes to generate a little enthusiasm. I started offering fifty cents—a huge prize—if anyone could name the three astronauts who took part in the first moon landing mission. The letter I received explains what happened next and shows how much teaching can matter.

If you will, try and think back 5 or 6 years…In your history class I received the honor of having the most consecutive zeroes in your teaching career, I believe it was 32 or 37. In class I also received 50¢ for naming the two other astronauts that were with Neil Armstrong. And I will never forget your ability to throw erasers at pupils who were talking while you were conducting class, namely myself. I was one of the worst students in the junior high that year. Can you remember.

The reason I am writing you is... to say thanks. You made me realize that if I didn’t straighten my life out I would end up being a bum.

It took me 2 years after having you for history to realize you were right. After my freshman year at Loveland Hurst, which was a joke, I moved to Grant County, Kentucky. I figured I would start out with a clean slate and settle down. I started doing my homework, a first, right? Believe it or not I was well respected there. I found enjoyment in excelling in my school work. I almost majored in mathematics in high school. I received an award in my poetry class. Get this I Joey ----- was the only student to keep an “A” average in poetry class. I also got a couple of awards in Band. I have graduated high school this year and I am now attending the University of Kentucky. You will never believe what I plan to study, I am a pre-medicine student. You didn’t faint did you? I am doing fine in college and I want to repeat a humble thank you. It seemed that you knew I had the potential and tried to bring it out of me but I would not allow you. Thank you.

Your friend forever,
Joey -----

You see: teaching always matters.

P. S.: IF THERE IS ANY TEACHER OUT THERE who wants to copy my “big cash prize idea,” I say go ahead.

I would warn you, however. NEVER offer $5 to anyone who can answer some question you consider hopelessly abstruse. When they do you will end up poorer and wiser.

Where do we lead students?
We may never know.
Drawing by Matt Mouser, former student.

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby: 50th Anniversary of The Feminine Mystique

YOU’RE NOT LIKELY TO HEAR RUSH LIMBAUGH celebrating this week. Fifty years ago Betty Friedan helped launch the modern feminist movement and change life for American women forever. 

The Feminine Mystique was published in February 1963. 

If you’re young or haven’t read Friedan’s book, it can be hard to understand how far women had to go to achieve equality in 1963. Life on the domestic front—the only front that really seemed to matter—was slowly improving. Fifty years ago the average housewife had an automatic washing machine and possibly a clothes dryer. She had an electric can-opener on her counter, a garbage disposal in her sink.

If she was rich she might have an automatic dish washer. 

What else did a typical housewife have to be thankful for? Wrinkle-free synthetic fabrics had taken the “iron” out of “ironing day.” Frozen foods, cake mixes, TV dinners and a growing fast-food industry were making mealtimes less taxing. 

Birth control pills had been on the market for three years and usage was spreading. It was still a crime to send birth control information through the mail, however. Something to do with “pornography,” you understand. Experts—male experts, anyway—reported that America’s females had never had it so good. 

In reality a revolution was brewing.

THE PATRICK HENRY OF THE MOMENT was Betty Friedan, mother of three small children, a stay-at-home mom (pretty much the only kind in 1963) and college graduate. Growing up she heard the same message again and again:  “A woman’s place is in the home. A woman’s place is in the home.” A girl must learn to cook and sew. A girl must make herself attractive to young men. Still, she had to be careful. She must not be too aggressive or act “too smart.” She must not curse. She must not engage in activities which made her sweat. She must not discuss sex! Mercy! No mentioning that word! 

She must be a “lady.” 

At times, it seemed, nothing mattered more than looking good for and finding and roping in “Mr. Right.” The husband was the key. Landing him was like reeling in a prized fish. Looking good was as important to a woman, as bait is to a fisherman. Slogans like: “Blondes have more fun.” said it all. American women were trained to think that happiness could be found in a bottle of coloring. Even the first Barbie dolls (which sold in 1959) helped bolster the message.

 Barbie was all body and no brain. Her hair was perfect. Her clothes were lovely. Her head was empty. 

Still, Barbie had her Ken.

Marriage was the only real goal for any sensible young woman. Caring for a family would be her career. A female who went beyond this role was flirting with disaster. She would be deserting her family, a gentleman of the period warned. Nothing would be left but an “empty house and empty cookie jar.” What, for her poor children, could be worse? 

Even the vows recited in almost every wedding ceremony made the limits on a wife’s world clear. A bride promised to love, honor, cherish and obey her husband. A young wife explained what this meant in an interview:  If he [the husband] doesn’t want me to wear a certain color or a certain kind of dress then I truly don’t want to either. The thing is, whatever he has wanted is what I also want...I don’t believe in fifty-fifty marriages.” She had attended college herself, she told Friedan, but only long enough to find a husband. When it became clear she was going to marry, naturally, she dropped out, putting off graduation, probably forever. Now she explained, she “never disputed [with] her husband in anything.” 

A doctor’s wife and mother of three described a similar way of living: “I always knew as a child that I was going to grow up and go to college, and then get married, and that’s as far as a girl has to think.  After that your husband determines and fills your life.” 

ASKED IN 1963 WHAT THEY MIGHT HAVE THOUGHT about “careers” for daughters, almost all fathers and probably most mothers would have laughed at such a ridiculous idea. School books, television shows, and magazines supported this view. Women were meant to serve as housewives and discover happiness as mothers. Advertising focused on this theme. Commercials showed women who enjoyed getting laundry white and understood the joys—the joys—of giving dirty kitchen floors a spotless shine. 

In working on her book, however, Friedan ran into countless women who admitted having trouble accepting such limitations. They did because that was what was expected. But these were wives and mothers who tried their best to find happiness in such roles, but for whom nothing worked. Not even matching pillows and drapes brought contentment. Peanut butter sandwiches in lunch boxes wouldn’t do. Not dusting, not making beds, gave pleasure. Sadly, one woman explained:  “I feel so empty, somehow, useless, as if I don’t exist.” Do you know what America is?” a frustrated housewife asked Friedan. “It’s a big, soapy dishpan of boredom.” 

A third woman told how she turned to gardening, hobbies, and the PTA to fill the emptiness she felt: 

I like it, but it doesn’t leave you anything to think about—any feeling of who you are. I never had any career ambitions. All I wanted was to get married and have four children. I love the kids and Bob and my home. There’s no problem you can put a name to. But I’m desperate. I begin to feel I have no personality. I’m a server of food and a putter-on of pants and a bed-maker, somebody who can be called on when you want something. But who am I?

FRIEDAN CALLED THIS FEELING “the problem with no name,” or “the feminine mystique.” This was the myth that said women could find happiness in life only in roles as wives and stay-home mothers.

It was, Friedan warned in 1963, a belief that had “succeeded in burying millions of American women alive.” The “dull routine of housework” was not enough to give meaning to their lives. The typical American home was no more than a “comfortable concentration camp.”

Disgusted by what she found, Friedan launched a broad-based attack. It was time she said to “stop giving lip service to the idea that there are no battles left to be fought for women in America, that women’s rights have already been won.” Women should accept nothing less than full participation in school, work, sports and government. “If women were really people, no more [and] no less,” Friedan thundered, “then all the things that kept them from being full people in our society would have to be changed.”  

The Feminine Mystique stormed up the best-seller list and stayed there . The book helped unhappy, thinking women focus their anger. Friedan had issued the rallying cry for the “war” which was fast approaching.


If you teach and might be interested in more materials, written in a similar fashion, aimed at middle school students, feel free to visit my page: Middle School History and Tips for Teachers.