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Behind the Times

By Neal Lerner — September 01, 1994 3 min read
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Mrs. Duffy was from Scranton, Pa. Coal country. Rolling hills atop rich strands of crushed prehistoric plant life. She kept a lace hanky stuffed up one sleeve of her dress; she would blow her nose loudly and then stuff it back home. She seemed ancient, with her short, blue-gray hair and fleshy skin that hung on her face in jowls. This was a misconception, though, since she taught school for another 10 or 15 years after she was my 5th grade teacher.

Mrs. Duffy liked her classroom to be neat. When she would inspect our desks every Friday, we’d lift the hinged, wooden lids to reveal order or chaos underneath, and she’d nod in approval or, in her booming voice, demand improvement. Perhaps it was because of Scranton: coal dust everywhere, the house never clean enough, never white-glove clean.

Once Jonathan Greenberg, the egghead kid from the neighborhood whose parents taught him to read at age 3 and who was a hopeless slob, didn’t pass muster; in fact, he incited Mrs. Duffy’s rage. She toppled Jonathan’s desk with a swift kick, spilling its contents to the linoleum floor, revealing wads of parent notices never brought home and half-finished art projects—pipe-cleaner families with Pilgrim outfits made from construction paper, and book markers fashioned from pine cones. Jonathan was in tears.

Yet I can also remember the kindness that she showed Jonathan on a different day, after he had thrown up into the water fountain in the back of the classroom from eating a bad tuna-fish sandwich for lunch. That was Mrs. Duffy: a combination of strength and discipline, tenderness and sincerity. We all idolized her, preened for a touch of her fleshy, warm hand, a kind word, the assurance that all was OK. With these, she was fair but not overly generous.

The outstanding feature of Mrs. Duffy’s 5th grade classroom was a row of desks, side by side, in the back of the room. These were reserved for the seven or eight best students who then had maximum view over those whom they would dominate (at least academically) for the rest of the school year. I’m not sure what the criteria were for membership in this “genius row” (as dubbed by those not in it), nor do I remember any personnel changes. This was merely the start of the ability grouping that would be with me and my classmates for the remainder of our public schooling.

I still have my 5th grade class picture hanging on my office wall. Mrs. Duffy is there, looking strong and tall, reigning over the 25 kids who would go on to a wide range of activities: dropping out of high school (Ryan Johnson), practicing law (Jonathan Greenberg) or engineering (Zyg Gorgol), and teaching college English (me).

It’s hard for me to admit that I was a member of that row. It wounds my populist sensibilities. How many hopes were dashed, how many 11-year-olds humbled by a year spent with an elite looming over them like a billboard?

I have often wondered how my life would have been different had I not been placed in that row, if I had instead been among the masses in Mrs. Duffy’s 5th grade class. Would I be a seller of men’s slacks like William Bailey? An accountant who still lives with his parents like Robert Morris? Did these two ever overcome the diminished expectations?

Linda Lawton had been in that row. My 6th grade sweetheart, Linda was a stellar elementary school student. But the brutality and expectations of junior high were too much for her, and she faded into academic mediocrity. Membership in the genius row was no clear indication of future success.

I feel no anger toward Mrs. Duffy. We all loved her very much—she was a kind of mother figure—and we learned the facts and figures that the 1971 5th grade curriculum promised. By placing us in categories, she was merely accomplishing a non-stated goal of public schooling: reinforcing the “proper” social order and preparing her minions for their subservient or dominant roles beyond the Cranford, N.J., school system. The remaining seven years of our public schooling entailed further weeding out based on gender, race, and class. Expectations could always be downgraded.This was the way Mrs. Duffy had learned to teach, and this was a function of schooling as she and her generation knew it. Yet, though Mrs. Duffy didn’t see it from her 5th grade classroom, those assumptions and the whole social order on which they were based were rapidly disappearing. The world had changed and left Mrs. Duffy behind.

A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1986 edition of Education Week as Behind the Times

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