A would-be novelist with a ravenous appetite needs a job. So I became an English teacher at Julia Ward Howe Junior High School, for girls, in the impoverished “pit” of Harlem on 120th Street and St. Nicholas Avenue. I taught girls who too often had sore or bleeding earlobes. It was the era of street gangs, and pulling earrings through the pierced lobes was a favorite girl-gang attack mode.
My teaching English there was an adventure greatly hampered by a detestable, white racist principal whose single education imperative seemed to be “A good teacher never sits down.” So I double-knotted the new orthopedic monstrosities on my feet and stood teaching girls to love books. Time passed; occasionally I timidly interspersed my own stories amidst the great ones and, eventually I moved on to try to write novels.
Over the years the cadre of rebellious young teachers like me grew bolder and consolidated; one brave year our unruly core faculty performed “A Christmas Carol” unofficially for our kids, our tallest male teacher – about 6’ 3”, playing Tiny Tim! Imagine his “father” – Bob Cratchit – carrying him onstage. The show was hilarious, a sensational success. The principal nearly had apoplexy and chastised us bitterly for what we had done to a “classic”. Her demise would have been okay by me because I had already preserved her viciousness forever, in acid, in my very first published novel: COME BACK ON MONDAY (Abelard Schuman, 1960).
Even in the seething, restless Harlem classrooms, a good story could often stop a fight or divert the wise guy or the bored troublemaker. We teachers – mostly young and idealistic – hoarded miscellaneous copies of interesting books and lent them. We solicited book donations. Though we kept no records, those informal lending-library books were usually returned, often in newspaper or brown paper covers.
In the crowded unruly classrooms, a good story could instantly divert and entertain; Julia Ward Howe Junior High was a great place to test original fiction and I often did. Sometimes the kids were brutally honest in their criticism.
During the many ensuing years, I wondered what had become of my junior high school girls, particularly my smart ones with the bloody earlobes. Remarkably, in 2011, one of those 1950’s Harlem seventh graders noted my daughter Perri’s name on a column in the New York Times and wrote to me in care of her.
My ex – student had, herself, become an English teacher! She had taught in New York’s high schools for thirty years.
“I always remembered your class,” she wrote, “and especially your funny terrible shoes!”
How the two of us rejoiced! She recalled with such pleasure how she’d borrowed my copy of LITTLE WOMEN. She was enjoying retirement immensely now, still reading a lot, which was how she’d come upon Perri’s name in the Times. It was delightfully odd to have a student who’d retired before me.
I am still having such a very good time!
Ah, Sheila – what a wonderful piece of memoir. As Nathan prepares for a career in writing / teaching (an aspiring novelist still needs to eat!) it is inspiring to be reminded of the lifelong gift a good teacher provides!