|Cover art by Vincent DiFate (per the HC)|
New York: Avon Books, October 1969
Here I've reproduced engineer Harold Groton's account of his eye-opening experience in a teachers' strike. Everything that follows (except the footnote) is quoted from the book (pp. 68-74.) Any emphasis shown exists in the original.
"Didn't you teach in the classroom once, Harold?" Beatryx inquired, breaking in so gently that it took Ivo a moment to realize she was intercepting a developing argument.
Groton had said something, and Afra had pounced on it while his mind drifted, and now somehow Groton was launched into a narration of his teaching experience. This had, it developed, predated his marriage to Beatryx. Ivo listened, finding to his surprise that he was interested. There was much more to Groton than he had thought.
"...volunteered. I suppose quite a number of professional people were as naive as I was. But the company I worked for then—remember, this was back in '67 or '68—had no sympathy with the striking teachers, and offered time off with full pay for any employee who was willing to give it a try. And of course the temporary salary from the school system was extra. So a number of us engineers set out to show the dissident teachers that we valued a functioning school system, even if they didn't, and that we were ready and able to preserve it, no matter how long they threw their collective tantrum. After all, we were as qualified as they were, since we all had BA's, MA's, or doctorates in our field, and plenty of practical experience too. That's the way it looked to me at the age of twenty-seven, at any rate.
He paused, and Afra did not break in with any irate remark this time. She was interested too. Beatryx had succeeded in pacifying things.
Twenty-seven. Two years older than Ivo was now. He could picture himself in that situation readily enough, however, assigned to fill in at a school where about half the regular teachers were out on their illegal strike. Technically, it was a mass resignation subject to withdrawal upon satisfaction . . . a transparent veil.
He dressed in a careful suit, trying to appear composed though his pulse was racing with stage fright at the coming confrontation with a juvenile audience. Would he remember what to say? Would he be able to present clearly what was so well-defined in his own mind? It was so important that the material be properly covered.
This particular high school had not been able to keep all the classes going, and some of the lower grades were home, but there seemed to be kids everywhere. Boys were running down the halls and screaming, throwing books on the floor and collecting in noisy huddles; there seemed to be nobody with the authority to bring order. As Ivo waited with the other volunteers for briefing and specific assignments he observed some pretty heavy petting going on in a doorway, but the passing teachers ignored it. He had forgotten how mature, physically, sixteen- and seventeen-year-old girls were. Two boys broke out in a fight directly in sight of the principal's office; the harried executive simply stuck his head out, yelled "Break it up!" and glared until they ran off. The lovers were also startled out of their preoccupation, and sidled to a more distant doorway before resuming their courtship. Otherwise, chaos reigned.
His classroom was at the end of a wing, in the technical section. He was lucky, as it turned out: he was "in his field." Some of the engineers from his company found themselves trying to teach English or History (sic), and one even wound up babysitting a Spanish class. The kids kept jabbering Spanish at him, and laughing, and he couldn't tell whether it was legitimate drill or dirty jokes at his expense. Ivo was to feel queasy, later, just thinking about that; it was like nakedness on stage.
He stood before thirty-five senior engineering students. They were, in that quiet before the storm, reasonably orderly, watching him intently. What should his first words be? How should he break the ice?
No problem: he called the roll. The principal had made that tediously clear. They could put up with a few firecrackers and water balloons in the halls, but they could not omit that roll. It seemed that the state paid so much per head per day in class, and the school mustn't miss a head. Still, it did help control the situation. A kid running up and down the halls or necking in a corner did not get credit for attendance unless he got into his classroom in a hurry. So roll call was not as stupid as it seemed at first.
Easier said than done. He did not know those boys by sight, and had to take their word when they answereed to the names he laboriously pronounced. There was increasing merriment that he thought stemmed from his errors in pronunciation—until two answered at once on "Brown" and he realized they were covering for an absent student.
He remembered, with relief, the seating chart. He could check them that way . . . as soon as each boy was seated where he belonged. "All right, engineers—you know where you sit. Move. From now on, I want every one of you in the proper place."
"My place is home!" one quipped, and the rest joined in with a too-boisterous laughter.
His next task was to discover where they stood in engineering, so that he could begin teaching meaningfully. It was a general course, mostly electronics, and the textbook was good except that it was sadly out of date. He would have to extrapolate from it, filling in the advances of the past decade, or the training would be almost useless.
One of the boys casually took out a cigarette and lit it.
Ivo snapped to classroom awareness. "Hey! You—" he looked at the seating chart—"Boonton. What are you doing?"
"Smoking," the boy replied, as though surprised at the challenge.
"Isn't there a school rule against student smoking?"
"It's permitted for seniors in the technical wing, sir."
Ivo looked about, suspecting that the boy was lying. Others in the class were covering smirks. They were trying the substitute out, as he had been warned they would.
This was the time for toughness. The principal had put it plainly to the group of volunteers: "Either the instructor rules the students or the students rule the instructor. If you're weak, they will know it. Put your foot down. The whole authority of the public school system stands behind you. Most of our kids are good kids, but they need to be governed firmly. Don't let the few bad apples take over."
Platitudes galore, he had thought at the time—was it only an hour ago?—but probably good advice. Now was the time to apply it. He affected a boldness he did not feel and laid down the local law.
"I don't care what the technical-wing rules are for what grades. I will not permit the fire hazard of smoking in my classroom. Put that weed away immediately."
Then they were all on him. "What do you mean?" "Mister Hoover lets us smoke!" "How do you expect us to concentrate?" "Cheeze!"
Ivo hesitated, suddenly unsure. He did not want to be a martinet. "All right, Boonton. You may smoke in class"—there was a spontaneous cheer—"if you can show me a note from the principal approving it."
Then the boy jumped up. "I'll go see him right now! He'll tell you it's okay!"
Ivo let him go. He spent the rest of the period trying to pin down how much the boys knew about engineering of any type and how far into the text they had progressed. It was hard, taking over a functioning class from another teacher, and he could see that much effort would inevitably be wasted in the changeover, simply because of the differing styles of the two men.
Boonton never came back. Ivo didn't have time to be concerned with that. Probably the principal had been busy.
The bell rang for the end of the period, and he realized that he had really accomplished nothing. All he had done was call the roll and argue about smoking and try to find some place to start. As they cleared out and the next bunch came in, he remembered that he hadn't even given them a homework assignment. What a beginning!
The room was a mess. Balls of paper littered the floor, chairs were scattered, assorted slop was on the desks and strands of colored wire lay in odd places. And here he had to do it all over again with a new class!
Somehow he made it. But that afternoon he received a note from the principal suggesting that he try to settle his problem in class instead of aggravating the students and involving the front office. That was how he learned that Boonton had simply gone home for the day with a story about being prejudicially kicked out of class by a temporary teacher. His mother had called the principal in a fury, and the reprimand was being duly relayed to the concerned teacher.
Ivo reread the note, appalled. No one had bothered to check his version of it. It appeared that any student could make any charge against any teacher—and be believed without question.
There were limits. He went to the principal's office at the beginning of his daily free period, but the man was too busy to see him. Finally he settled down in the teachers' lounge and wrote a report covering the situation. That neatly used up the time he had planned to use for reviewing the lessons for the following day, but at least it would settle the matter.
"Ha!" Afra said.
Ivo was jolted back to reality. This was Harold Groton's experience, not his own.
"I was dead tired the end of that first day," Groton continued. "As nearly as I could tell, I had cleaned up enough debris and mispronounced enough names to last me for a normal year—but I hadn't taught anybody any engineering. And to top it all off, I received three calls at my home from irate parents complaining about my mistreatment of their hard-working angels. The last one was at one a.m. I think that was when I really began to understand what it meant to be a teacher."
"The next day was worse. The word was out that I could be taken. Everyone seemed to know that I'd had trouble with the office, and the students were determined to run me down. They talked out of turn, they slept in class, they looked at comic books; I couldn't make all of them pay attention all the time. I saw that few of them cared about the subject or had any real thought for the future, and the ones who needed instruction most were the ones who refused to listen when it was offered. They drew pictures of girls and hotrods in their notebooks, and there was always some obscene word on one of the blackboards. I'd erase it, not making an issue of it—as I'd been advised—but another would be there again next period. There'd be an anonymous noise while I was talking—a clicking or a harmonica note or something similar—and it would stop the moment I did. I couldn't ignore it because every time it happened the whole class got out of control and became noisy, and I couldn't pin it down either. And the thing was, they knew as well as I did what would happen if I cracked down on anyone and sent him to the principal's office for discipline. I'd get spoken to, not the student, for letting things get out of control. It was my responsibility."
"Hell," Groton said, "is a roomful of rebellious juveniles—and a pusillanimous administration. I was committed, and I refused to quit—but I became obsessed with the progress of the negotiations between the state authority and the FEA."
"FEA?" Ivo asked.
The first statewide teachers' strike in America was the one in Florida during February and March of 1968. State government was underfunding education while school attendance was rising. The walkout stemmed from a rally of 30,000 teachers in August 1967. Sporadic strikes occurred immediately afterward, but the actions were not coordinated and most lasted only a week or two.
An emergency session of the Florida legislature granted more funding, but the teachers felt it was not enough. Hence the general strike the following year. Although the government did not bow to these new demands, the 1968 strike led to the NEA reversing its ban on such actions.
"Florida Education Association.1 That was the teachers' group, and they still may be, for all I know. I really came to appreciate their stand. I never worked so hard in my life, in the face of such abuse. Oh, the newspapers were full of editorials! 'Wonderful Volunteers Filling In For Errant Teachers,' 'Nobody Cares About Our Innocent Children,' 'Governor Unavailable For Comment' and so on. But I was in a position, as I had not been before, to comprehend the truth. The boys were a lot less innocent than the editorialists!! I was a scab—a strikebreaker—and while I think there may have been some better way to protest, the teachers certainly had compelling arguments on their side.
"The extra pay had seemed nice at first, like so much lagniappe. It enhanced my normal gross by a good fifty percent. But it wasn't worth it! For one thing, my time was never my own; I was grading papers every night and trying to do something about the ones with identical mistakes—pretty sure sign of cheating, but not proof—and preparing for the next day's sessions. I had trouble sleeping. I kept seeing those vulpine young faces peering at me, waiting for any slip, eager for my attention to wander so they could sling another spitwad at the windowpane. And I realized that their regular teacher had to do this all the time—for no more pay than that fifty percent!"
"But the worst shock came at the end. The teacher walkout collapsed after a couple of weeks, and most of them came back to fill their old places. I went back to my own job with voluminous relief. It was the weight of the world off my shoulders! But I paid one more visit to that school, after things were settled, because I wanted to meet the man I had replaced. I wanted to apologize to him for my ignorance and interference, and congratulate him for being a better man than I was. The education had been mine, really, and I had learned a lot of respect for him knowing how good a job he had done under such conditions. I had seen his books and records, and knew he was a very fine engineer, too; he was right up to date, even if the texts he had to use weren't."
"But he wasn't there. His classes had been redistributed among other teachers. The school board had refused to hire him back. It turned out that he was an officer of the FEA, and one of the organizers of the walkout. So the board had its revenge on him and those like him, even though they were among the best teachers in the system. The mediocre teachers they kept; those were not 'troublemakers' who insisted on pushing for school improvements. I learned that this was happening all over the state, and I knew that the educational system there was never going to be the same again. They had brutally purged their most dedicated men and women, the ones who cared the most, rather than admit that the teachers' complaints were valid."
"Why didn't they pay their teachers more?" Ivo asked. "Buy better texts, and so on? Why did they let so many other states forge ahead where it counted?"
"The state was in a financial bind at the time. If they had allocated more for the teachers, they would have had to do the same for the other neglected professions—the police, the social workers, even migrant labor. That would have meant an increase in taxes—"
"Or a closing of tax loopholes," Brad added. "And that would have been even worse for the special interests in power at the time."
Ivo had a sudden vision of the proboscoids of planet Sung, abusing their resources into extinction. This is how it happens, he thought. Public apathy led to control by the special interests and unscrupulous individuals, and the trend was disastrous.