By Don Pelton
I had a slightly melancholy experience this morning. I ran across a webpage describing all my old high school teachers and what became of them. I graduated in 1959. I was especially interested to know about the one teacher — an English teacher — whom I have spoken of ever since as among the three greatest teachers of my life. His name was James Gray.
The quality I most remember was his contagious love for his subject, a contagion which infected many of his students. Delight always seemed to be bubbling just beneath the surface with him, as if he had discovered the secret of the universe, and it was pretty damn funny, and he knew that you were just gonna have to find it out for yourself.
He liked to use us as experimental subjects. From time to time, he’d play different sorts of music — classical, pop, jazz — while we wrote essays in class. Then we’d read the essays and talk about how the music might have affected the quality of the writing.
I was happy to learn that, after his stint as a high school teacher, he went on to become a Senior Lecturer in Education at UC Berkeley, and also founded the National Writing Project, “an influential and highly regarded educational reform network.” His work lives on.
When I noticed that he died only a few years ago (at age 78) I realized that although I told scores of people over my lifetime that he was a great teacher, and why he was a great teacher, I never told him.
So, if any of the teachers you loved are still out there, tell them!
Here’s an excerpt from his memoir of his early years taking the writing workshop on the road:
Our first invitation was for a workshop at San Francisco’s Polytechnic High School. The principal invited me to bring some teachers who had participated in the first summer’s program to talk to the English department. I handpicked a strong group: Cap Lavin, BAWP’s codirector; Miles Myers, a highly regarded Oakland high school teacher; and Flossie Lewis, a teacher at San Francisco’s esteemed Lowell High School. Poly was not esteemed at the time. The papers regularly carried stories of faculty unrest and political and social tension on the campus. We weren’t really surprised to find graffiti-filled halls. One inscription shouted at us, “Black is Beautiful; Yellow is Mellow; White is Shit.” The teachers were waiting for us. I introduced my colleagues and began describing what the Bay Area Writing Project was all about. Suddenly, I was hit in the face by a paper wad thrown by some guy sitting in the second row. I ignored it and plowed ahead. Another paper wad. I was dumbfounded. Here we were, excited by this first invitation and the start, we hoped, of a long line of such invitations, and things were out of control. I reasoned that the situation could only get better, so I continued on. Another paper wad! Miles jumped out of his seat, went to the board, and began charting out some plan or model when someone else in the room shouted out: “Miles, go on back to Oakland where you belong!” Cap and Flossie were agitated. Cap, who suffered from angina, popped a nitroglycerin pill; Flossie was close to tears. Nothing made sense. The paper wad thrower shouted: “Gimmie some pencils! If you want to help us, give us some pencils; we can always use pencils.” The workshop was clearly over, and the four of us left the room.
We went across the street to a bar and tried to figure out what had happened. It should not have happened—not with the group I put together. All three of the teachers were well known and even revered in San Francisco. Cap was raised in San Francisco, where he had become a basketball legend. Miles was the senior vice president of the California Federation of Teachers (CFT) and the founder and editor of California Teacher, the CFT newspaper these teachers would have read in this strong union town. And Flossie Lewis was one of their own—one of the best-known, most-respected, and feistiest English teachers in town. It was beyond understanding why we’d been treated that way. The following week, one of the teachers called me. It seemed that the principal, a very unpopular actingprincipal who was at war with the faculty, had told teachers to show up for this workshop or else! The teachers showed up, not only to keep their files clean of reprimands, but also to get even by keeping this program from succeeding. They had nothing against us. They didn’t know me. They did know Cap and Miles and Flossie, and they liked all of them. But they hated that acting principal.
That afternoon, we learned something about how to conduct a Bay Area Writing Project workshop and how not to. We vowed never again to have anything to do with mandated programs. Our workshops for teachers would from then on always be voluntary. If teachers didn’t want to attend a Bay Area Writing Project workshop, they didn’t have to, and we would make this very clear to teachers and administrators.