Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Inspiring Teachers

erickson

Scanned photo of Norman Erickson. Source, 1972 Lariat (photographer unknown)

Believe it or not, kids in many communities will be starting back to school in the next few weeks. In elementary school, we would always stand around outside on the first day of school, waiting for the bell to ring, and asking each other who we were going to have for a teacher and wondering what he or she was like. Some kids would always have the “down low” and could tell you who was interesting, fun, or mean. Then the bell rang, and there was the moment of truth. You took your seat, the teacher took the role and you started figuring out just what kind of year it was going to be.

I’ve been thinking about inspiring teachers recently because of a book I’m reading that talks about the beauty of math. It brought back memories of Mr. Erickson, who taught algebra, geometry, and computer science at Chaney. I didn’t always enjoy math, but I enjoyed his classes because he enjoyed math. He’d come up with great illustrations, sometimes corny, as when he used the imaginary friend “Harvey” to talk about imaginary numbers.

That set me to thinking about all the inspiring teachers I’d had during my years of school. It all begins with Mrs. Smith, who taught first grade at Washington Elementary. She taught me how to read, opening up worlds of wonder I continue to explore to this day. Mrs. Vidis was tough and strict as my fifth grade teacher. I could be lazy at times and she pushed me to do my best when I was willing to settle for “OK.” I had terrible handwriting. It is marginally better today because of Mrs. Vidis. In sixth grade, Mrs. Welch opened my eyes to the world. I still remember a mock United Nations unit we did, and having to learn about so many countries. She made world affairs and geography come to life.

Miss Stephenson taught music at West Junior High, and I think it was here that I realized how much I liked choral singing. I’m only sorry that I was too busy being “macho” to admit it until much later in life. Mr. Crann taught English and I remember how hard he worked to help us express ourselves clearly and to inspire us with great ideas. It was in his class that I first encountered William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus” with its closing verse:

It matters not how strait the gate, 
      How charged with punishments the scroll, 
I am the master of my fate, 
      I am the captain of my soul. 
When Mr. Crann read it, he made it sound like the anthem of his life. Perhaps it was.

I’ve already written about Mr. Erickson, my high school math teacher. I also remember science teachers like Mr. Tanoff  in Chemistry and Mr. O’Connor in physics. Mrs. Stamler was a young English teacher who introduced us to the classics and helped us relate what we were reading to our own lives. Miss Foster taught an innovative Art of the Motion Picture class that taught us to really watch rather than passively enjoy a film. Mrs. Bisciglia and Miss Kemp both taught me about writing, mostly through a lot of red ink!

I went on to Youngstown State for college. Dr. Mark Masaki in psychology (my major) was always the toughest but whether we were talking about the uses and abuses of statistics, behaviorism, or neurophysiology, he pushed you, made you think, and brought his “A game” to every class. Dr. Leslie Domonkos made history interesting for the first time in my life and it has been ever since. Dr. James Houck in English did the same thing. I only took his class in the Romantic period of English lit because my girlfriend (now my wife) was and I still love the works of Coleridge, Wordsworth, and T. S. Eliot because of him. He also led a discussion group over Lent one year on the works of C. S. Lewis who I was just then discovering.

Our parents sent us to school because they wanted us to have a better life than they did. It will be an interesting question on the other side of eternity as to who really has had the “better” life. What I do know is that I was inspired and enriched by a number of teachers along the way who taught me not only how to do things, but also helped me understand the world I live in and delight in it. They helped me ask big questions and aspire to high standards. As I remember them there are two words that summarize my feelings toward all these men and women who passed along to me their passion for what they loved:

Thank you.

Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown — Washington School

Mahoning Youngstown Washington

Washington School. Source unknown, reproduced from Old Ohio Schools website: http://www.oldohioschools.com/mahoning_county.htm (no attribution given)

Labor Day marked not only the end of summer but the beginning of a new school year. I grew up on North Portland Avenue on the lower West side. For my first seven years of school (1959-1966), this meant walking down the street to Washington School, at the corner of North Portland and Oakwood Avenue. My mom bought our house while my dad was in the service during World War II and she and her father chose it to be near the school.

Washington School was an old building even when I started school. The original part of the building was built c.1912 with possible additions in 1914 and somewhere around 1918-1920 when longtime superintendent of schools N. H. Chaney retired (from whom Chaney High School got its name). At that time, there was a twenty room addition in process. The building formed a giant L and my hunch is that the side facing N. Portland was built first. The east-west wing connecting to the south end of the wing on Portland was probably built later. There was a drive or alley between the school and houses on Portland and Lakeview Avenues.

Like so many of these old school buildings, Washington had big windows, high ceilings, wood floors in the classrooms and steam heat that heated classrooms through radiators. No doubt there were huge amounts of asbestos and lead paint (how did we survive?). There were two floors of classrooms. The school office was just inside the front entrance off of Portland. There was a basement with a cafeteria. What I most remember about the basement was the PTA Bazaars that were held there every year. When I was young I looked forward to those bazaars because they sold small toys, candy and would also have prizes.

School assemblies and class pictures would take place in the auditorium which was way down in the sub-basement. It seemed like we would descend endless flights of stairs whenever there were one of these functions. I think this was also one of the places we would go for civil defense drills (this was the era of the Cuban missile crisis).

The playground was located on the inside of the “L” filling the space bounded by Oakwood and North Lakeview. The playground and the sides of the building bordering it looked out over the steel mills as well as an entrance ramp to I-680 off of Oakwood, once this was built. Many of us might look at those mills and think of fathers or relatives who worked there or of the expectation at the time that someday we might work there. I still have memories of dodge ball, kick ball and all the other games we played. In the summers, my friends and I would play baseball there, until we had matured to the point that we were constantly knocking the ball onto Oakwood or the freeway.

What I most remember is all of the teachers I had and the foundation of a good education they gave me. Kindergarten was Mrs. McDermott. I missed about half of that year due to repeated illness, until I had my tonsils out. First and second grade were Mrs. Smith who could be stern but really cared and recognized even then that I loved to read. Third grade was Mrs Fusek. Between her and the school nurse they figured out that I was seriously near-sighted and needed glasses. Miss Adamiak was my fourth grade teacher. I particularly remember her love of science, and sitting in her classroom in November of 1963 when the announcement came over the PA that President Kennedy had been shot. Mrs. Vidis was our fifth grade teacher. She was strict and tough and when she saw I was being lazy pushed me to work harder and up to my ability. In sixth grade, I had Mrs. Welch, who was somewhat thin and wispy but could control a class of rambunctious pre-teens. For some reason what I most remember of that year was a unit we did on the United Nations.

Miss Stage was the principle during much of the time I was at Washington. She was a formidable gray-haired woman and you didn’t want to be sent to the office. Discipline was strict, you walked in lines to cafeterias and bathrooms but under it all, I had the sense of having teachers who really cared about teaching us and giving us what we would need to succeed in life. I also remember Mr Kollar, the custodian, who kept the heat on in that old school and kept it spotless. That must have been hard work!

The site where Washington School once stood is now a gently sloping field. In 1964, there were 26,000 baby boom students in Youngstown schools. With declining enrollments, Washington School was closed sometime around the early 1980’s, and I believe the students who would have attended there were sent to West Elementary or Stambaugh. For a time there was talk of it being turned into apartments but I suspect the costs would have been prohibitive. The windows were broken and boarded up. For a time, it continued to serve as the neighborhood precinct as a room off of Oakwood was opened for voting. Finally, the heating became unreliable and that, too, ended and the building was torn down, like a number of other schools.

While I was saddened to see the school go, I understood. Times had changed. It was too expensive to operate with inefficient heat and other problems. One could dwell on this, but I prefer to remember the good teachers, the classmates, and experiences that made this a good place when I was there.

Scapegoating

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

“The Scapegoat” by William Holman Hunt

Scapegoating. It’s a favorite political activity these days. You identify a particular group of people and blame them for some or all of the nation’s woes. Right now it seems that teachers, public service unions, immigrants, and the police are particularly popular ones. A few years ago “welfare mothers” were popular but that seems to have passed.

The term “scapegoat” comes from the Bible and it is an apt one for what politicians and pundits are doing. The story is in Leviticus 16 and it has to do with dealing with the national sins of the people of Israel. As part of this, two goats were selected. One was sacrificed and the other was the “scapegoat”. The priest would confess the national sins of Israel over the goat, and then it would be led into the wilderness, “bearing” those sins.

The idea is one of making a particular person or persons responsible for the sins or problems of a nation and then sending them into the “wilderness”–socially ostracizing them in some way, treating them as a lesser class of human beings.

It trades on this haunting awareness that nations aren’t what they think they ought to be, that there is something wrong with us. Instead of acknowledging that the problem really is with all of us, in all of the complexity that involves, scapegoats make life simple. For example, one candidate said if he were king, not president, he would abolish teachers lounges.

It’s interesting that we scapegoat the people we trust to teach our children. I suspect most people, when asked, actually think their own children’s teachers do a pretty good job, it is just those “other” teachers. Is what we are dealing with an awareness that our schools, our children are not turning out as we would want them to, which may be a far more complex problem than just our teachers? Could this not also involve school leadership, education funding, media usage, and parents themselves? But that’s complicated, and may put the spotlight on us. Let’s just blame the teachers.

One of the reasons scapegoating works is that you can always find an individual example because, among a group of people, there will always be one. And thus the whole group is suspect, a specious form of logic at best.

I, for one, think this is far from a harmless activity. It can have consequences that impact the liberty, livelihood, and even life itself of people. Nurtured over time, it can even become genocidal as was the case with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Tell a lie long enough, loud enough, repeatedly enough and people will believe it to be true and you can use it to incite people to action.

Scapegoating is playing God. Only God could designate scapegoats in the Bible, and there were only two in all of history–the scapegoat of Leviticus, and his own Son, who bore the sins of all humanity. Christians believe that this was enough to deal with individual sins and national sins. No more are needed.

Every country has its problems, but it seems to me that we need the genius and efforts of all our people, and even the industry of those who want to make their home in our country, to address these. A culture of blame and scapegoating will prevent us from seeing the truths about ourselves that may be the real first step to progress. Let’s leave scapegoating to biblical times and to God who may know better about these things.