Author: Malcolm McCollum
Becoming a teacher in the 70s where "the facilities and equipment and salaries were minimal, but that was far less important than the freedom and responsibility we had as instructors."
I'd started something I was pretending was a novel up in Denver, and I continued with it for a while. I'd been reading, or at least pretending to read, the "new novels" of Alain Robbe-Grillet, and catching the films of Antonioni and Bergman, so I was up to date on pretentious, intentionally obscure anti-narratives, and was manfully writing another of the same. I think I got through about thirty pages of it before I got so sick of it that I dumped it in the trash (one of my sounder decisions). Then I embarked on a long, sort-of-narrative poem. It actually had some events in it, I think, though one didn't seem to lead to the next. Or to anything else, for that matter. It was quite fashionable. This one I actually finished.
Next day, I took it down to the basement and sat in the old easy chair I had down there to write in, and read it over. I was reminded of a recording I'd heard of Orson Wells reading a commercial for "Fish Fingers." He got through the tongue-twisting intro, and all of a sudden stopped and burst forth, "This is a lot of shit, you know." So was my "poem," and it followed the "novel" to a grave among the garbage. Except for a few volunteer columns on nutrition for an alternative weekly, a subject I was qualified to write about by my extreme ignorance and matching arrogance, and a couple of short, largely plotless sketches, I'd produced nothing that I'd want to foist on my worst enemy.
It looked as if I ought to be looking for a job, and as fortune would have it, Nancy came home from her teaching job at El Paso Community College one afternoon in 1971 and told me there was a position available as lab instructor in the Developmental Studies lab. I'd previously applied for another position at EPCC, interviewed by Fred Struthers, the Vice President for Instruction. I'd still had my 1969 hair and beard, and in those days most people were still viewing long and facial hair as some kind of statement of rebellion. I wasn't hired, and word reached Nancy that my hair had sealed my doom.
Though I didn't really think of my hair, or anyone's, as a political statement, I wasn't willing to go back to my GI haircut. But I was willing to compromise, and Nancy's mother owned a wig shop up in South Dakota. Before long, I had me a short-hair wig and a newly shaven face, and these sniveling conformities got me hired, this time. I can't imagine the wig fooled anyone. I looked as if I was bearing an embalmed muskrat on my conk. But it apparently signaled a sufficient willingness to conform. In the Fall, I began what became a thirty year teaching career.
While community colleges had been around for a long time, the late '60s and early '70s saw them popping up like mushrooms after a rain shower. The open-door policy, allowing anyone admission, no matter what their previous academic experience had been, suited the spirit of the times. In those early days, EPCC dealt with the influx of ill-prepared or unprepared students by the creation of a Developmental Studies department, which offered classes in math, English and reading that ran from the lowest to high school senior levels. It also provided a learning lab that housed the reading machines and study space, and also contained my office. I shared tutoring responsibilities with Sister Reginald Zeller, a reading specialist.
Sister Reginald - "Z," as she was universally known among her colleagues - was a trip. She dressed in civilian clothes, carried her long-strapped purse around her neck, and always wore white leatherette fruit boots. She also brought unending patience to her students, the vital quality for a reading teacher.
I ordered books and supplies and kept the machines in working order, but pretty quickly I was spending most of my days in my office, tutoring a variety of students who were having problems that their teachers couldn't analyze or help them with. I became the unofficial catcher in the rye for the department, and that seemed important enough to the honchos that they turned my initially part-time gig into a full time position. The college at that time believed its role was education. They knew that college education - even for occupational students - required an ability to learn from the printed word, to communicate in writing, to understand at least basic mathematics, and knew it would need to provide access to those basics to many of its students who'd failed to obtain them from their previous schooling.
I can't imagine anyone teaching at the college today would believe the environment my office presented to any visitor. It was the early '70s, and I was a smoker, and no law existed to prevent me from smoking in my office. When I was hired, I was smoking Gauloises, incredibly strong and bitter black tobacco. Later I switched to Schimmelpfenincks, slender little cigars I'd discovered in Amsterdam.
My walls and furniture must have exuded their effluvia. On one wall I'd hung a Halloween mask of Nixon, with a replica joint inserted in one corner of his mouth and a string of airplane glue drool drooping from the other. On another wall, next to a large "My Fashion Secret? I Got It at Goodwill!" advertisement I'd framed, an 8x10 glossy of Ann Margret, in one of her Kitten with a Whip outfits, was inscribed "To Malcolm - Nobody Does It Better." In my handwriting, of course, but who could tell? As in all my previous and future domains, the rest of the walls were blanketed with various other artifacts, from old masters to Old Masters boxes. In all the years I spent during my first tour at the college, not a single administrator ever so much as mentioned my decor to me, let alone suggested I might want to beige it down a bit.
I spent hours every day working with one student after another on math or writing. After a few months, I began to realize that many of these "problem" students were having trouble for one common reason. Some so-called teacher, most frequently in the 4th grade, where they begin separating the sheep from the goats, had told them that they were "no good at math," or "couldn't do math," or that they were "stupid." The destruction such teachers wrought on their students was awful. I began to see that a big part of my job was to somehow make up for what these evil oafs had done, to give my students a belief in their own capacity to learn.
The first student who alerted me to the vital role of confidence in learning was a young man from Detroit, Charles Erskine, sent to me by his beginning algebra teacher. Charles, according to his instructor, couldn't solve equations "the right way." Indeed, he couldn't. He had his own method, which he demonstrated to me, and which made absolutely no sense to me. But it worked - we went through a fair number of equations, for all of which his method produced the same results as my conventional approach did.
As we talked about his life, I learned that he'd always had trouble with his math teachers in high school, though he'd managed to graduate. He'd gotten a machinist's job in one of the auto factories, where he'd soon become a lead machinist. This hardly indicated someone handicapped in math, since he was working with tolerances in the ten-thousandths of an inch. When the war in Vietnam began heating up and the draft looked imminent, Charles enlisted, and in his three year hitch got promoted to E-6, unlikely progress for a dummy. (I'd never risen above E-4, and was certain I never would have had I stayed in the service.) Nevertheless, he'd accepted his teachers' assessments of his abilities, and he was convinced he'd never "get it." I tried to persuade him that his successes in life ought to convince him of his evident intelligence, but, to him, the experts had spoken. I also tried to persuade his math teacher to accept Charles's unconventional methodology, but to no avail. He had his principles. I think Charles wound up failing the class and leaving college.
Another student I've never been able to forget was Marven Harris. When he came to us, he was nearing thirty, and though he'd been passed through the grades and received a high school diploma from the St. Louis school system, he couldn't read at all and could only write at an early grade school level. He'd been working diligently, painfully through the reading program, and was this quarter taking the lowest level of writing class we offered, with which I was trying to help him.
As we worked on his writing, Marven told me what some of the difficulties of an illiterate's life had been, and how he'd learned to cope with them. At this time in my life I'd yet to spend time in Missouri, so his high school graduation puzzled me, and he explained how he'd achieved it. Back then, it seemed, if you'd successfully "passed" all 12 grades (meaning you'd kept your head down and not been convicted of any felonies), you still had to pass a comprehensive final exam, a day-long multiple choice test. Since Marven couldn't read at all, this posed something of a challenge, and he told me how he'd met it.
His salvation, he said, was that you could re-take the test as many times as you chose to. After he got the results from his first attempt back, he simply (!) memorized the numbers and letters of all the questions he'd guessed correctly and all the numbers and corresponding letters he'd incorrectly guessed. Then he took the test again, marking the answers he knew were correct first, then marking choices different from his original incorrect choices. I think it took him four goes at the test before he arrived at enough correct answers to pass and receive his diploma.
Like most of the students who came to me for tutoring, Marven had early on been told he was stupid by one or more of his teachers. He had accepted that his job as a student would principally be to disguise his stupidity from his teachers so that he could pass through the system with his contemporaries and not be publicly labeled a failure.
He had no way to become aware that his efforts at disguise would require far more complex thinking and far greater feats of memorization than his literate classmates needed to master, or, for that matter, than most of his teachers could have mastered.
No - he'd been officially labeled "stupid," and so he would feel condemned to be, and a world of unreadable signs and one-time written tests required for all but menial employment, or to get a driver's license, or to rent any place but the most desperate of fleabags, confirmed that condemnation daily. After he'd fetched up in Colorado Springs, he did a lot of drinking to dull the pain, which hardly improved his situation. Fortunately, his minister happened to know about the community college and was able to persuade Marven to enroll there.
I'd been taught early in life to memorize, and got pretty good at it, but Marven's feats of memorization astounded me, as did his ability to survive in an urban world which I couldn't imagine navigating without being able to read.
The last piece of writing Marven brought me expressed his reaction to the "earthrise" photo that was featured on the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog.
He wrote something to the effect that often it took looking at something from a new angle or a new distance to perceive how beautiful it was. He said that far better and more simply than I have, and he equated that experience of seeing the earth from afar for the first time with his first experiences of understanding written words, and the new world that experience revealed to him. EPCC and a bunch of caring teachers had saved his life.
We did a lot of that, I think. The instructors in Developmental Studies were a caring bunch. We spent a lot of time talking about our students, trying to devise approaches that might help them overcome whatever deficiencies they'd brought with them, trading anecdotes about them, sharing things we learned from them.
The Army had instituted a new policy called "Up or Out" about the time EPCC was starting up, a policy of terminating non-coms who hadn't been promoted within a certain number of years. A pretty significant number of people who'd planned to be lifers were going to become sudden civilians, and the college responded by creating a self-contained program for them. Since most of them hadn't spent time in an academic setting for many years, the program was housed in Developmental Studies, since it seemed likely most of the rejected soldiers would need some remedial or refresher classes. In addition, a number of instructors across the department's disciplines were asked to create a class called "Introduction to College" that would help these students acclimate to civilian and academic life. I got recruited as one of the instructors.
I had spent the last couple of years of my life in two grad schools, and I couldn't help but believe that I knew everything, plus. I'd been reading a great number of history-of-ideas books, a lot of history in general, a good many Marxian analyses. Everything reminded me of something I'd read, and how readily I shared my insights. I should have had a sweatshirt with "Insufferable" in large, red letters emblazoned on it. "Introduction to College," a rather loosely defined seminar class, gave me the perfect opportunity to regurgitate my recently acquired erudition, and, boy, did I ever take advantage of it.
One of the students in the first of the seminars I team-taught was Sgt. Smith, or at least he had been. Now he was just Smitty, though he'd retained an air of quiet self-confidence and a long-time non-com's air of amused superiority. One day I had occasion to voice one or other of my then strong opinions - I had a million of 'em, in those days - and Smitty's hand popped up from his desk in the back row.
"Mistah Malcolm," he said, "What would Play-toe think 'bout that?"
Everybody in the room cracked up, including me. It was such an elegant, genial put-down. Surprisingly, I got it, and that little moment marked the beginning, for me, of becoming a teacher, as opposed to a talking head. I'd begun to learn what the great musician Charles Mingus expressed to an interviewer: "Making the simple complicated is commonplace. Making the complicated simple - awesomely simple - that’s creativity."
I'd begun the long struggle to find simplicity and clarity. Whatever Play-toe might prefer.
In those early days at the college, curriculum and methodology were felt to be primarily the responsibilities of faculty. We had a union, and we defended our powers and rights vigorously, not without frequent acrimony. Many of us were essentially children of the '60s, operating on the principle of the mythical Irishman who, washed overboard off his ship, comes striding up the first beach he can find saying, "Who's the gov'ment here?...Oi'm ag'inst 'em." While I was more of a beatnik than a hippie, I probably had more automatic resistance to authority than most.
Years of protesting the war in Vietnam and the outright lies of both political parties had put me into a state pretty close to permanent rage. Ford's pardon of Nixon really set me off. I abandoned my Donnie Osmond wig and dressed solely in black for about six months. Another student told me a story that helped cure me of some of this useless angst. George Alcantara and I were working on quadratic equations, as I recall, when one night we got talking about our respective fathers, both multiply talented workmen.
George's dad was a mechanic, and one day a neighbor came by his shop and asked to borrow an expensive, highly specialized wrench. George's dad gladly loaned it to the man, since it wasn't the sort of tool you needed every day, or even every month.
But the day came when he did need it, and he went over to the neighbor's and asked for the return of his wrench.
"What wrench?" was the neighbor's response.
"Okay," George's father responded. "God will take care of it," and he walked away without another word.
A year or so later, the neighbor was working way up at the top of a silo, from which he fell unimpeded to the concrete floor thirty feet below. Broke about every bone in his body, though it didn't quite kill him.
George's dad went to visit the man in the hospital, where he was lying with his whole body and head in casts, with just a couple of holes for his eyes and one straw-sized slit for his mouth. George's dad moved to the bedside and peered down into the man's eyes and said, in a cheerful tone, "You see? I told you God would take care of it."
Somehow, this anecdote has helped reconcile me to the many outrages any citizen - any human, for that matter - must endure with no immediate redress available.
I'd long ago learned that "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord," but somehow the gentle glee of Mr. Alcantara's formulation was much more comforting - in fact, quite cheering.
Those early years at EPCC, when the whole institution was still mainly focused on its primary purpose, the education of people who'd for all sorts of reasons not been prepared properly or had the opportunity for a college education, were wonderful ones.
Nearly all the instructors were there because they loved to teach, and they were allowed to teach according to their own lights and systems, not forced into State-mandated game plans or servitude to the Microsoft Empire. Our students taught us how to teach them. The facilities and equipment and salaries were minimal, but that was far less important than the freedom and responsibility we had as instructors. They were worth wearing that damn wig for.