A Lifetime of Luck: Teaching in Public Schools
by Robert L. Petrus
He stole a book from the seminary library. As a Jesuit novice he was supposed to be reading works about ascetic theology and spirituality. But that “secular” book, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, would hold more power than Thomas a Kempis or St Augustine or Alfonso Rodriguez, SJ. He would return the book secretly three days later after reading it, but Joyce’s novel, read more than forty times over the next four decades, would serve as a totem for his love of language and literature and art and academia.
So it was no surprise that, upon leaving the seminary, he would find himself eight months after purloining Joyce, standing in front of six English classes every day in an urban junior high school. As a rookie teacher he would be Daniel in the lions’ den since the school principal’s education philosophy centered on the simple idea that it was best “to put all the bad apples into the same barrel,” meaning of course that the most junior member of the English department was given the opportunity to teach the school’s most recalcitrant pupils.
Daniel possessed rare skills, whereas the rookie teacher had something even more valuable – Luck. On the second day of his teaching career, he offhandedly complimented a girl entering his classroom, ignorant that she was the toughest and most feared person in the building. From the moment of his compliment, she adored him. To everyone she said proudly, “Mr Petrus, he my man!” and nobody messed with her man.
He spent two years at that junior high, two in a Catholic boys prep school, and four years in a suburban, predominantly upper-middle-class high school where he learned to teach those who lived, literally, on the other side of the tracks.
There too Luck would smile upon him. Several of his senior vocational English students complained about their mistreatment at a nearby mall bookstore when they tried to buy books he had recommended to them. Luck. He suggested a ruse: Let’s invent a book title and, each time any of us goes to that mall, we stop at the book store and ask for the book. And that’s what they did.
They put the name of the fake book’s author and title on the cover of a notebook and, after each attempt to buy it, student or teacher would write an account, often hilarious, of the experience. Thompson Beckwith’s Storm over the Hebrides became a very important title at Summit Mall that year, as well as providing a joyous opportunity for students and teacher, he a Scorpio, to avenge at least one wrong.
Most of his career, however, he spent in a large New Jersey high school neither urban nor suburban, and with a diverse student body and faculty. Here too Luck and he were buddies.
After two enjoyable years with a newly-organized English curriculum, he and five other teachers founded their own school-within-a-school, naming it The Team School. He would burn out after seven years of 55- and 60-hour weeks. But he and his co-founders had created a school from scratch and, as a result, had created more than a few Renaissance men and women who, like them, loved learning everything. What flames of excitement! He would be the only English teacher many of these young men and women would have for grades 10, 11, and 12, and, when they would be accepted in colleges whether Ivy League or local, their success because of their solid preparation gladdened his heart.
What was most characteristic of The Team School was how its policies were made – democratically, every member of the school having one vote: 120 students plus 6 teachers equal 126 votes. Every Friday the school met using the New England town meeting as a model to discuss and to make policy. The wisdom of democracy manifested itself week after week. Every bone-headed idea was rejected after deliberation – as a bone-headed idea. Every wise idea was accepted after deliberation – as wise and fortuitous. One proposal, for example, came from an 11th-grader. She proposed that no drugs or alcohol be allowed on Team School trips. There was lively discussion, there was vociferous debate, and the issue was tabled for one week. The following Friday the proposal was re-introduced and overwhelmingly accepted. No trip was ever compromised by the use of drugs or alcohol. And this policy began in 1974.
After the exhaustion of The Team School, he returned to the traditional classroom – and had a miserable year: he injured himself and was out five weeks after surgery; his wife had two miscarriages; his father-in-law in England died; he was sick several times. Teaching, for the first and only time, felt like work. Then Luck blew away the clouds of anxiety and smiled once again on his professional life. The founder – and teacher – of The Alternate High School received a sabbatical to pursue his MA at Berkeley. “Would you like to fill in for a year?” the principal asked.
“Yes,” came the enthusiastic reply.
For twenty-three out of the next twenty-four years (the founder/teacher returned for one year before returning to California permanently) he would work with high school students for whom the traditional classroom had become a difficult academic environment. He loved it. He could give credit for English, history, and art history. More importantly he and each student would create together that student’s personal, unique curriculum. His students and he could study Langston Hughes and Alice Walker, Walt Whitman and Othello, Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Vietnam and the Battle of Lake Erie, architecture of local houses of worship and the etchings of Albrecht Durer. As in the life of the university (from the Latin universus “the whole”), anything and everything was appropriate inquiry. One parent put it well: “In the Alternate School my son went from Dr. Seuss to Dostoevsky in a year.”
Schools are academic institutions, of course, but schools are, fundamentally, people – the public – coming together. He would work with his public, called students, for four solid uninterrupted hours every day, but that period of time was not the end but the start.
Over the years he found himself doing other things with his clientele, the public. He helped mediate the return to his family of a student who had run away from home. On another Sunday morning, after a 6 AM phone call from a distraught mother, he searched for several hours for a student who hadn’t returned home Saturday night – and eventually found him on the grounds of another school in town! There were also the hundreds of home visits where he and his students’ families developed working relationships to enhance both academic and family lives.
There were many successes. There were failures. There were hopes fulfilled. And sadly sorrows could occasionally take center stage.
A seventeen-year-old student tells him one day that she is going for an abortion after school.
“Is anyone going with you?” he asks.
“Yes. My girlfriend.”
“What about the guy who impregnated you?”
“Oh, he can’t go.”
“He has a college interview.”
Two weeks later, still looking wan, she tells him: “I had this dream last night. I was sitting in my bedroom looking out the window. In the distance I could see a man walking toward me. He came closer and closer. Soon I noticed who it was. It was Jesus. Then he was right outside my window. He looked me straight in the eye. He knew what I had done.”
“Then what happened?” he asked.
“I pulled down the window shade.”
Daily encounters with high-school-age people provide innumerable and valuable insights into contemporary life and culture. His nephew Nicholas, a student in an English “public” school, understood that better than anyone else. When the American teacher would arrive in England during the summer, nephew Nick always posed the first questions: “Uncle Bob, what are they wearing? What words are cool? What music are they listening to? What are they reading?” Nick wanted to have a leg up on what would soon be occurring in England.
Combine the intellectual excitement of academics with being able to play an avuncular role in the lives of teenagers and their families, add more than a dash of Luck, and – presto! – here’s a recipe for creating a better town and a better country, as well as a better world.
In his retirement he takes satisfaction that that better world is populated by well-trained and humane filmmakers and psychotherapists, fire fighters and lawyers, costume designers and stock brokers, mayors and clergy, commercial artists and naval officers, writers and pediatricians, inventors and police detectives, social workers and musicians, nurses and college professors, teachers and poets, fathers and mothers.
And, it is safe to say, it is his fault.
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