Recollections of a High School Teacher: 1962-1965
by James Opie,
I was hired as a teacher for two years at Shade High School, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in southeastern Ohio, and wish to note that being hired as a teacher and being a true teacher is not one and the same. What I was hired to be I was not, and at the very outset wish to apologize to anyone in the Shade Community whose best interests I failed to serve. I was young and lazy, though I liked young people and was well-meaning. Several members of the community may attest to one strength: I remember my friends and express gratitude to them. In this spirit, I wish to thank the Shade community now. Among you I learned more in two years of teaching than from four-plus years at Ohio University. My adult life began in Shade Consolidated School, in your community.
Shade was a twelve-grade institution then with a high school enrollment of seventy-five students and a 1963 graduating class of eight. I was hired with a bachelor’s degree in hand, but without having taken any classes in education. This was not the disadvantage one might expect, given that state law allowed a college graduate in any field to begin teaching, without submitting to an education curriculum.
In contrast to the students I would face, any knowledge I possessed in 1962 was theoretical. At Shade, every student possessed practical knowledge and everyone pitched in to help his or her family survive, if not thrive. As I will reveal, even the dullest student possessed highly useful know-how. While I had to be shown how to dig a post-hole—and then coaxed a little to try my hand at it—around Shade everyone was born knowing this, or readily learned. The baling-wire I inspected at arm’s length was a useful tool in the hands of most students. Not many Shade students knew as much about crops, animals, machinery and living harmoniously with the seasons as Manuel Greuser, a favorite student, did—and still does. But none were strangers to a solid day’s work. In many cases, school was what they did part of the year, on the side.
The path to my position at Shade was not straightforward. Having graduated from Ohio University in January of 1962, by summer I was not only married, but also awakening to the realization that an actual job needed to be found. (Getting occupation and matrimony mixed-up chronologically is not an invention of contemporary American culture, but in ‘60s we at least got married. Also we left home.) Speaking with a friend in Athens, I confessed my dilemma: a college degree in hand, I had never thought about what to do for a living. My friend, whose mother worked in the county education office in Athens, remarked that smaller schools out in the county were always desperate to hire teachers in August and early September. According to my friend, I had only to apply in order to be hired. He held up two fingers an eighth of an inch apart. “You’re this close to a job. You just need walk down Court Street to the county superintendent’s office and sign-up.”I did as he advised and soon was filling out an application my friend’s mother handed me. Two days later my phone rang and the caller introduced himself as Mr. Disco, from Shade Consolidated School.
Doing my best to sound intelligent, I cooperated in setting an appointment in the county courthouse several days hence, long enough away for me to gather my university transcripts, and nerves. Did I drop into the Union Bar and Grill a time or two in the days before meeting Mr. Disco? Did I, during those visits, drink two or three beers? Perhaps so, though not, of course, during the afternoon of my interview.
That afternoon arrived soon enough and the reader easily pictures my nervousness as, clutching Ohio University transcripts, I sat in the County Courthouse in the middle of the afternoon, trying with limited success to calm myself in moments of apprehension and anticipation.
Dressed in a brown suit, square-shouldered, with a square face, Mr. Disco was not a tall man. We met and shook hands in the county education office and he led me to a small room with only an oak table and several wooden chairs as furniture. Seated opposite each other, I handed my transcripts to Mr. Disco, saying that I had graduated with a bachelor's degree the past January. Mr. Disco examined the transcripts studiously.
"This is excellent," he said. "Look at all these credits in Spanish! You'll be able to fulfill the state's foreign-language requirement."
"By teaching Spanish?" I asked.
"Of course." He pointed to a block of Spanish credits. "Look at all these hours, plenty to teach Spanish."
"Mr. Disco," I said, "I want very much to teach in your school, but need to assure you that I cannot teach Spanish."
"Sure you can," he said, pointing to the transcripts. "You must have twenty hours here. More than enough."
"But if you look closely you will find four units of F."
"Maybe so," he said, glancing at the papers again. "But you must have learned something! You can teach Spanish. I'm sure of it."
Mr. Disco set down the transcripts to look seriously into my eyes.
"I need to explain something to you, Mr. Opie," he said. "Shade Consolidated School is a twelve-grade institution. The high school has only five teachers and the post now open is a fill-in position involving several subjects. You won't have to coach any sports, but during the first year you will need to teach three English classes, a remedial math class, and you will also teach Spanish. That's the job we have and it's the job you will need to fill. Do you want the position?"
With no money to my name and a young wife to support, I needed a job so desperately that even a young male sunk in profound levels of immaturity—not an irrelevant description in the context of this narrative—could see his predicament.
"Yes, I want the position."
"Very well. Let me ask you a few questions. Have you ever been in jail?"
"Do you like to communicate with adolescents and do you feel that they deserve a superior education?"
"Yes. Of course."
He glanced at the tie I was wearing.
"You clearly know how to dress professionally."
I nodded, and he hesitated, as if thinking deeply.
"Mr. Opie, I can't hire you on the spot. Only the Board of Education can do that. But I'll call a meeting in the next several days. You can come to the school first and look things over. I'll introduce you to the members of the Board and they will ask you questions. I will recommend that they hire you and it's likely that they will. By the way, the starting salary is thirty-eight hundred dollars a year. If you are re-hired the salary increases a hundred dollars a year."
I walked out of the courthouse "on air," but in a fog. I could soon be teaching English, remedial Math, and Spanish? But first I had to meet the Board of Education.
It was still light outside when that meeting took place in Mr. Disco's office, several nights later. The quiet dignity of the board members—men in their fifties and sixties who had lived in this community all their lives—impressed me. Several were dressed in bib overalls, fresh from working on their farms. Their treatment of me was not akin to recent experiences of a friend, newly hired by another rural school district in southeastern Ohio. For him, meeting with the Board of Education was, in his words, "a combination of the Spanish Inquisition and the Grand Old Opry." My own interview was brief and unthreatening. One board member asked how I would go about helping a student write a decent paragraph. When I answered vaguely, he said, "I think you can learn as you teach. You will have to."
That summed up a great deal.
The board unanimously hired me and two weeks later I entered the school building on the first day of school, unaware that my uncertain movements from the parking lot to the brick building and then up the steps to the first floor were first steps toward a real education—my own. No one in my shoes could have sensed how much he was about to learn in this building, from the memorable students I was about to meet.
On that very first day, with students filing in and taking their places, in parallel with responses already received from other staff members and several parents, I was impressed by the students’ acceptance of me in the role in which I found myself. Perhaps we all pretend a good deal, and not only when we are young. Why else would Shakespeare have said, “The whole world’s a stage?”
Having been through the routine of passing out textbooks and establishing a classroll many times as a student, no one had to explain how these activities proceeded. But if I slipped a little, hinting at being confused, one or two of the girls filled in gaps from their own years of these patterns, showing me the way. Thus, by the final bell of that first day of school I was surprised to find that no one had challenged me. No one asked, “Do you have any idea of what you are doing?” Without quite realizing it, I was learning several of life’s greatest lessons. The first is: “Show up,” and second, “Whenever possible, act as if you belong where the cross-currents of chance and necessity have placed you.”
The fact that Shade Consolidated School was then a twelve-grade institution led to an insight. Something most impressive from the first hour of my first day was the remarkable openness and eagerness of the first and second graders. Over many months a first impression was reconfirmed: enthusiasm, trust, and openness were inversely related to age. That is, the older students became, with few exceptions, the less open and eager they were. I reasoned that something in the educational system must bear some of the weight of this unfortunate pattern. But, being a salary-receiving cog in the system, I did not trouble myself greatly or reflect deeply about this at the time. Throughout that first year I had a young wife in Athens, and thus another mouth to feed. Self-interest was already dulling lines of inquiry regarding the world around me, and my place in it.
I remember many of the students and their unique personal characteristics. In the remedial math class—which, I may add, I was truly qualified to teach—was a sophomore whom I will call “Sam.” Day after day, Sam struggled over the simplest problems. The look of desperation on his face when confronting elemental addition or subtraction problems evoked sympathy in me and, little by little, I learned a bit about Sam’s life. Sam’s family were part-time farmers with a cow and limited acreage. On their farm he performed confidently and with obvious competence. He knew that by laying a fence post on the ground and measuring its length several times by turning it end-over-end, you could locate precisely where the next post hole needed to be dug. Digging that hole was easy for him, as was tamping rocks and earth into place, and then uncoiling and stapling the used fencing into place, using a rock and a hammer to straighten bent stables, when and as needed. He knew all about feeding animals, milking their cow, and deciding which chicken to kill next.
I had never killed a chicken but, visiting Sam’s family one day after school, he showed me how, explaining the need to tie the chicken’s legs together and, with this, the meaning of the expression, “Running around like a chicken with its head cut off.”
All this was quite informative for me and I expressed interest and appreciation. Yet, back in the math class, Sam was only slightly less fearful of the book, the class as a whole, and of me than he had been during those first days of the school year. The truth of the matter was that Sam wasn’t a “scholar” when it came to even the simplest mathematical operations. But he knew how to farm, how to help feed a family, while in these matters I was an outsider and, one might say, “dumb as a post.”
There was another student named Tom who was also placed in the remedial math class, though just why he was there was unclear, as he was competent and consistent in his work. Moreover, he, too, revealed qualities of knowledge, of possessing a kind of education that revealed a great deal to admire. Tom and his family will appear in a future installment when, learning to play the guitar, I often visited this family, most of whom were musicians.
In some subjects, Tom also squirmed some when a book was opened in front of him. But he was perfectly at home with practical applications of farm math, and he understood the psychology of horses well. He, his father and brothers still harnessed a team to plow, cultivate, and haul loads.
Yes, I didn’t know very much. But those were simpler times when students did not challenge someone who appeared in their eyes to be a teacher. Moreover, getting to know the students, meeting their families and seeing how they lived, I was learning…