Arts &
  Arts Culture Analysis  
Vol. 20, No. 1, 2021
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Robert J. Lewis
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A sample of the complaints:
Too much homework. Much too much.
A nervous wreck.
Especially English.
What about their social life?
He used to love to read.
She had to quit the volleyball team.
He stays up ‘til three a.m. It’s killing him.
I hear your pain.

About ten minutes into this emergency PTA meeting, the Principal’s attempt to placate the parents had, instead, stoked their wrath. Now, twenty minutes later, he sat there with a shit-eating grin on his red face, leaving us to our own devices: “Maybe, she should take a lighter course load.” “How can A.P. French not have a lot of reading?”

I’m afraid I was on the fence about this one. As a first-year English teacher in my mid-twenties, I was sympathetic to the students’ non-academic needs. (What about their social life?) Personally, I subscribe to the old mens sana in corpore sano idea. As an undergrad, I played varsity squash at a small liberal arts college. Then, during my two years in grad school, I sang in a capella chorus and stood on street corners (with pretty women) buttonholing passersby to sign petitions.

Another reason I could see the parents’ POV was how much things had changed since my time at an independent secondary school on Philadelphia’s Main Line. Seven years later, students seemed to take so many classes they had no time to start their homework during the school day. Only the lucky or lazy ones even had a lunch period, and every teacher acted as if his/her subject were the one on which the fate of humanity hung (not ‘hanged’). A couple of Redwoods must have been chopped down to make each copy of the Ecology textbook. Even the P.E. teachers bragged about the reading assignments they inflicted, in units such as Personal Hygiene, Gender and Sexuality, and Fitness Science. At the faculty lunch table, one wag joked that he didn’t “neglect their reading muscles.”

The ultimate cause of this rigor (mortis), as I saw it, was capitalism. To compete for the big bucks, every independent school in the city had to be the best. And, if they were merely the twelfth or twentieth best, they would stop at nothing to get their students into prestige colleges. You must have seen the news stories about celebrity parents who were in the slammer for bribing college admissions officers, and about padded resumes that listed this imaginary team or that imaginary cause. The truth is, the border between puffery and larceny was becoming ever more porous, and no one was talking about building a wall.

Of course, as I listened to the parents’ homework complaints, esprit de corps also pulled me in the other direction. I mean, my poor, tired colleagues, forced to sit there taking this shit at 7.30 p.m. on a Thursday night. Besides, the French teacher was right: most academic disciplines are based upon reading. As many field trips to plays, poetry readings, and literary shrines, as many videos and guest writers as I could squeeze into my courses, in each case providing a pretext for a night without formal homework (just write something in your journals), there were still a hundred-plus days in the school year when my students came trudging into class red-eyed from preparing for the day’s quiz on ‘the reading.’

After all, the English Department mantra, “Respect the Text,” implies that students should read the text. Since respecting the text implies respecting the context, ‘excerpt’ is a dirty word for us. And you can’t teach Junior English without subjecting them to the rigors of “HMT,” Hawthorne, Melville and Twain.

So you could say I was monkey in the middle. But, just when the teachers’ cause seemed lost, when the parents looked like getting what they had come for -- a mandatory limit of three hours reading, total, per night, and one night per course without any homework -- the Lone Ranger rode into sight, guns blazing.

The ranger in question was a History teacher (I almost said professor) named Phil Bard. Not only his name, but his freckled face inspired the usual sophomoric witticisms (not just by sophomores). One of the more outrageous wags had dubbed him Mr. Spot, a clever sobriquet combining the freckles with a play on Mr. Spock, the iconic wise man. (And was there a sub-textual reference to pimples?) What’s more, Phil’s hairless dome (other than a tonsure) marked him as a member of what some of the younger teachers called The SPC (The Shiny Pate Club). The Principal was President.

As all that suggests, Phil Bard was a popular teacher. As far as I could judge, he knew his subject well and was an exciting classroom performer. His politics were radical, but not extremely so. Although I suppose he could be called a social democrat, at the faculty table once or twice, he had disparaged poor Bernie Sanders as quixotic. (I agree.) Finally, I discounted as unproven rumours about Phil having dated older students. In a school like ours, those rumours are legion; there may be some about me.

Anyway, that night, Phil did his cool-hand Luke bit. When a yuppie couple, the Bling-Entitlebaums (fictitious name), proposed that we take a vote on the motion of mandatory homework limits, Bard raised his hand in a way that looked tentative. Since every other teacher was trying to dig a hole and hide in it, no other hands were raised.

“Philip,” said the visibly uneasy Principal. My sense was that, since his eye was always on the bottom line, which made him an ass- kisser of parents and an uncertain ally of the faculty, the Principal was worried that this meeting could end up satisfying no one. Even the resolution to limit homework might prove unpopular among the 95% of the parent body not in attendance tonight.

“If I may,” Bard said, “before we vote on the proposal, I’d like to ask the Bling-Entitlebaums one or two questions.” Turning to the couple, a particularly well-heeled pair of serious donors in their mid-to-late forties, he added, “May I?”

Since they were accustomed to deference from the Administration and from their children’s teachers, the B-E’s looked a bit surprised, but not really alarmed -- yet. Of course, they may just have been trying to ignore Phil’s reputation as an iconoclast.

“Well, then, folks, if I may . . .” he repeated, sounding as if he were verbally rubbing his hands together. Mr. B-E offered a shrug that meant, ‘if you must.”

“Well, good people, just a few questions. First, I assume that yours is a household with two earners?” He hurried to justify this rude rhetoricae quaestio. “I so assume because I don’t see how any family with less – fewer -- than two incomes could afford to send their children to a school like this.” (The combined cost, assuming that both B-E kids were paying full tuition, was somewhere north of eighty thousand.)

“Of course,” Ms. B-E briskly replied. “Jay and I are attorneys.”

“Ah, yes,” Phil said with relish, as if she had fallen into an obvious trap. “And I think that also means you’re both very well-educated? Harvard? Yale? Stanford?”

Mr. B-E angrily seized the baton. “Yes, that’s right,” he said. “But why . . .?” I was probably not the only one who noticed that this riposte did not immodestly name their prestigious alma maters.

“Ah, yes, ‘why?’ ” Phil sprang the trap. “So. To get into prestigious institutions like those must mean you earned excellent grades? Which, in turn, must mean you both were very diligent about completing the demanding assignments in your own secondary -- school classes, not to mention those that our prestigious post-secondary institutions are known to inflict upon their students.”

That was the gist of Phil’s case, which out-lawyered the lawyers. I’ll limit my summary of the rest to one or two zingers, which came near the end.

“So. Let’s say, then, for the sake of argument, that I agree with you that ___ and ___ [names of B-E daughter and son] can’t stand the grind of four-to-five hours of homework every night. What should they do?”

“You tell us,” barked Jay B-E, implying that he would have liked to add, “smart-ass.”

“Well, if they don’t do the work, they’ll probably wind up with B’s and, God forbid, a few C’s, on their report cards. There will still be plenty of good colleges -- pretty good ones -- they can get into. Of course, with degrees from those places, their earning potential . . .” His shrug implied a steep drop from the lofty parental level.

“Are you suggesting . . .” Ms. B-E started to say. “Or you could just tell them to take easier classes -- is a senior, right? Of course, she is, she’s in my AP American History class! How many other APs is she taking? And I bet that, as a junior, which we all know is the most important transcript-building year -- is no slouch, either.”

How did Phil’s spiel make his colleagues feel? I must wax metaphorical. Speaking for myself, it was as if I were a fan watching from a seat directly behind home plate as his team won the World Series for the very first time in a long, sad history. And there may even have been a few parents in the crowd.

When the gales of laughter had subsided, the Principal was able to re-occupy his favourite position, man of the hour. He readily affected one of those apparent compromises for which he is known: no more than forty-five minutes’ reading per subject per weeknight, and two hours total for the weekend -- that kind of compromise.

Of course, as every teacher, and all but the dimmest parents, must have realized, the ‘compromise was meaningless. Forty-five minutes at whose reading speed? Academic subjects, or all? Would the rules apply equally to the student who took five classes and the one who took nine? In other words, the Principal’s Solomonic solution was a palliative. But, by now, it was after eight, and most people were ready to go home.

Once the parents, the Principal, and the majority of teachers had gathered their belongings and hurried out into the night, the few remaining teachers -- myself, included -- gathered ‘round to offer Phil our plaudits and support.

“Way to go, doctor!”
“You saved our bacon, baby.”
“Our hero.”
“As always, a gentleman and a scholar.”

There was one comment, however, that expressed a concern we all must have shared. It came from a senior colleague who taught Music and directed the jazz band. “That took major cojones, Phil. But aren’t you afraid [Principal’s first name] will come back at you? You could be facing fifty hours of lunch-room duty next term.”

“No, no, not that!” cried Mr. Spot, lifting a hand to his brow in mock-realization that he had neglected to cover his backside. But, a moment later, his freckled face lit up with glee. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, in an official voice, “I haven’t told anyone this yet, but I’m pleased to announce to you my retirement in three weeks, at the end of this semester. And, thanks to our wonderful Teachers Association (of which I happen to be a founding member), my generous pension cannot be challenged by [Principal’s first name], on any grounds, including, of course, perceived insubordination.” Presumably, the last assertion had been checked with the Association’s legal team. We pressed forward to kiss the hem of our champion’s garment.

Not to be a killjoy, but I must end this account with a slight demur. To be completely honest, I‘m not too crazy about Phil Bard, and I bet that few of my colleagues are, either. For, when it comes right down to it, who loves a smart-ass?


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