Memoirs of a Teaching Award Winner

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At 10:30 A.M. on Nov. 15, 1989, I was heading out the door, a pizza in one hand, our 2-year-old son in the other, our 4-year-old daughter trailing behind. We were off to the hospital, to meet their new sister, Evie, who had been born just a few hours before. The phone rang.

It was the National Endowment for the Humanities. The voice on the other end told me that I had been named Nebraska's 1990-91 Readers' Digest Teacher-Scholar.

What a day! First Evie, then a national teaching award. I headed back out the door, eager to share this good news with my wife.

The Teacher-Scholar Program is governed by the conviction that students benefit most when their teachers have mastery of the subjects they teach and are, like other professionals, actively engaged in their fields. One teacher from each of the 50 states was selected on the basis of exceptional teaching and scholarship. The award came with a stipend of $27,000, intended to replace the teachers' salary or supplement sabbatical pay, thus allowing a teacher to devote an entire year to research and study. As a high school English teacher, I had proposed conducting research on Shakespeare.

I learned about the award in one of my school district's professional-development newsletters. I was familiar with the work of the National Endowment for the Humanities from the writings of its chairwoman, Lynne V. Cheney. Soon before learning about the award, I had been holed up in my tiny office, reading Ms. Cheney's "American Memory: A Report on the Humanities in the Nation's High Schools'' (1987). It was one of those sustaining works that kept me going in a system of public schools that, as far as I could see, wasn't working.

"Teachers,'' Ms. Cheney's report begins, "tell of students who do not know that George Washington led American forces in the Revolutionary War; that there was a World War I; that Spanish, not Latin, is the principal language in Latin America. ...''

"The culprit,'' she goes on to say, "is 'process'--the belief that we can teach our children how to think without troubling them to learn anything worth thinking about.''

It all rang true for me. I saw it in my classrooms every day. The buzz words were "thinking skills'' or "higher-order reasoning skills.'' Whatever these things were, they were supposed to prepare students to be "effective citizens,'' "whole human beings'' in the "21st century.'' I just couldn't help but think that "thinking skills'' were the last resort of educational-policy scoundrels who had never mastered an academic discipline themselves, and were now, albeit unwittingly, doing all they could to insure that the children in their care never would either.

My experience in some of the worst inner-city schools in the nation made one point clear: Give kids something worth thinking about, and they'll develop the skills they need to think about it, as a matter of course. During my first teaching assignment in a public junior high school on Manhattan's lower-East side, I scrapped basal readers and introduced my students to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar.'' This taught me a number of valuable lessons.

First, students readily recognize quality. They knew Shakespeare was the real thing, just as they knew the pseudo-literature they had been reading was junk. Second, they were flattered by the challenge to read something worthwhile. Third, they took to literature like fish to water. Finally, they wanted more of the same and wondered why no one had given it to them before.

Soon after winning the teacher-scholar award, I reported to the assistant superintendent of personnel in my school district to tell him the good news. Our conversation was brief. If I accepted the award, he told me, I would have to take a year's leave of absence without pay and lose medical and all other benefits. This amounted to an $11,000 cut in salary, which would put our family of five on or just slightly above the national poverty level.

The district administrators could think of nothing else to do: There was no provision in my contract for a teacher winning a national teaching award. I was angry, unwilling to subject my family to hardship. My attempts to recoup my losses were all fruitless. I decided not to accept the award.

Nevertheless, my wife encouraged me to accept it. Even though I didn't like taking chances, I took her advice. In March of 1990, I was to fly to Washington for an awards ceremony at the White House.

Soon before my departure, however, something strange began happening to Evie. As she breast fed, she would turn her head away and wince, as though she were sneezing, although she didn't make a sound. My wife was immediately concerned. She suspected seizures. We spoke to a number of doctors who assured us that there was nothing to worry about. Nevertheless, my wife's intuition told her that something was wrong.

On March 8, 1990, we took Evie to see a pediatric neurologist. By this time we were both frightened. We thought Evie might have epilepsy. The "seizures,'' or whatever they were, were increasing in frequency. She was having episodes every 20 minutes, with as many as 50 or 60 of those silent little sneezes every episode.

After the neurologist gave Evie what seemed to be yet another perfunctory physical examination, she turned to us and said that Evie had a rare neurological disorder. "There is an 80 percent chance,'' she said, "that your daughter will grow up and never be able to take care of herself.''

Evie was admitted to the hospital the following day. She began three months of drug therapy. Her development stopped. She cried continually. My wife and I took turns staying up nights, holding her, walking the floors, but nothing we could do would comfort her.

Her appetite was enormous. The drug caused her body, especially her face, to become freakishly bloated. Her only source of relief was a bath. We put her into the tub four or five times a day. I held her, leaning back into the tub, looking into her eyes. Evie didn't look back. She had stopped tracking her world and stared blankly, reacting to nothing. Evie didn't smile anymore.

Two days after she entered the hospital, I was supposed to fly to Washington to accept the teacher-scholar award. I didn't want to leave. But my wife reminded me that I had won the award the day Evie was born, and she thought it was significant that I now accept it.

Sitting alone on the plane, I became frightened. On the one hand, I realized there was nothing I could do to make Evie better. On the other hand, I wanted to be with her, to make everything all right, to protect her. But now, even her doctors were powerless over whatever was happening to her.

I sat back and remembered a recent visit with a friend. He had spent years in medical research. On this particular night he stood up and announced that he had discovered the cause and location of Evie's disorder--something four neurologists hadn't managed to do. He tapped me on the forehead and said, "It's right here, between your ears. Evie is just fine. And when she grows up, she'll be fine. If there is any problem at all, it's right in here,'' he said, tapping me on the forehead.

At 32,000 feet, my options suddenly became clear: I could either be immobilizied by fear or believe that Evie would be all right. I chose the latter, but continued to call the hospital.

The award ceremony at the White House, hosted by Barbara Bush, was impressive. It was good to meet the other teacher-scholars, a group of teachers dedicated to the subjects they taught, engaged in serious research, learning more about their fields, and sharing their enthusiasm for learning with their students. I had never been among a more intellectually vibrant group of teachers. Their students were lucky. So were the school sytems they came from. These teachers, I thought, would transform their schools.

In October, Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, devoted his weekly New York Times editorial to the financial problems I faced accepting the award. I had long respected Mr. Shanker as a national leader of educational reform. His was a voice of integrity, a call for honesty. Early on, he had urged teachers to speak the truth about what was going on in their schools in an effort to win credibility for the profession and initiate real reform. Now he was helping a teacher who was in trouble--a teacher who was not even a member of his union.

Within two days after the editorial appeared, my phone rang again. It was Mr. Shanker. He said that an anonymous benefactor had presented an opportunity that would allow me to recoup my losses. This opportunity, as it turned out, also put me in touch with a national network of teachers and education policymakers, many of whom were working on real reform. I began to feel grateful that I had run into problems accepting the award: If I hadn't, if things had worked out the way I thought they should, I would not have found my way into the reform movement.

All this while, my research on Shakespeare was moving along at a clip. A Shakespeare Folger Library Fellowship allowed me to do a month's research at the Folger Shakespeare Library--home of the world's premier Shakespeare collection. To date, my research has resulted in a book and four articles on Shakespeare, with more to follow.

And Evie is doing just fine. When my fears return, we spend more time together. No one is more delightful to be with. No one has taught me such a wonderful and terrible lesson. During my year as a teacher-scholar, she taught me more than I would ever have been willing to learn: She taught me the meaning of acceptance.

The public schools are another story. They are something I work to change, so perhaps, one day, Evie can attend a school that really works. That, I think, is in everybody's interest.

Vol. 12, Issue 08, Page 36

Published in Print: November 4, 1992, as Memoirs of a Teaching Award Winner
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