“Who's The New
—Many True Stories, plus a Few Opinionated
Essays, Mostly about a Former Teacher's
Career in the Detroit Public Schools
Kuno Martin Guisbert
All facts that I state in this book are true to the best of my knowledge and memory. The
worst factual error that I might make, for example, could be accidentally putting an event into
an incorrect year, like saying, perhaps, that something happened in 1985 instead of 1986. I
have changed all names of Detroit schools, students, and staff members, plus the names of a
freeway bridge and two reading programs.
No permission or compensation is required for any college teacher to use any or all of
this text with his or her or her students, so long as credit is given to “Kuno Martin Guisbert”
for the materials used. Any television or movie writer wishing to use any of the plots of the
stories herein should contact this website. Permission will be given in exchange for citing
“Kuno Martin Guisbert” as the original author, plus a reasonable, negotiated donation to
the “United Negro College Fund.”
Table of Contents
Part One: Stories from the Earliest Days of My Teaching Career:
A Deceptively Easy Beginning 9
Two Strangers at the Door 14
False Prophets, Saboteurs,
and Real Life Heroes 20
Our Leader...My Dad! 25
The Rat 28
A Wee Bit of a Hangover 36
Murder on the Redmond Bridge 45
Part Two: A Student Teaching Experience and a Childhood Experience; Then, More
Years at Pickett Junior High:
The Donor 48
Golfing with Ward Cleaver 51
The Prank 55
Momma Lorraine 58
“Capping” and “Prevailing” 61
Developing New Lessons 64
Part Three: A Pool Playing Lesson; then, The Rest of the Years at Pickett:
A Pool Playing Lesson 88
Obstacles on Top of Obstacles 91
My Efforts at Solutions 94
Really Bad School Days 100
The World Turned Upside Down 102
How Two Felt about Their Fame 103
The Death of a Gang Leader 106
A Miracle...Put It on Ice! 108
Part Four: A Year and a Half at Dudley K-8:
Does God Really Want Us to Think? 114
When Idealism Slipped and Fell off a Cliff 120
Part Five: Mission Middle School—Where Rules and Common Decency were only
Deceptions Employed by the “Great White Conspiracy”:
Into the Land of the Zone-8‟s 127
Moving in 130
Black is Beautiful—But Not Necessarily the Rules 132
Black Beauty to the Rescue! 134
Frank Benjamin 144
The World Can Be a Very Cruel Place 146
The Costs of Keeping Mrs. Hancock 147
Odds and Ends 148
Prelude to the End 153
How an Old Liberal Belief is being Used to Destroy Urban Black Education
Part Six: “Edward Morey High School”:
Beginnings at “Edward Morey” 161
Switching the “Rules” in Mid-Stream 163
A Fox That Got Loose in the Hen House 165
Two Unmixable Cultures? 170
Part Seven: ―George S. Patton High School”:
One Last Year 172
Conclusion: Four Stories about Confident Teachers
What Goes Around... 175
The Golf Lesson 177
Marissa Green 182
A Great Teaching Story That
Nobody Wanted to Talk About 185
In 1974, I was admitted to Wayne State University, in Detroit, Michigan. I wanted to finish the
degree I'd started back during my party and hippie years at Michigan State. A person in Wayne‘s
admissions department—noting the aimlessness of my previous ―college work‖— strongly advised that
I should see a career counselor before signing up for any specific classes.
So, that afternoon, I sat watching as a middle-aged man, in a shirt and tie, looked over my
transcripts from Michigan State. He and I had already talked, briefly, about the various personal
problems I'd solved since leaving Michigan State. He had surprised me by not thinking that my
involvement in the hippie drug culture at Michigan State was any big deal. He even told me that his
own son had had a similar experience at a different college.
I wondered if his son's participation in the drug culture had been as enthusiastic as mine.
―A lot of you young people are just realizing it's time to grow up,‖ the man now pointed out, as-
a-matter-of-factly. ―Most of you are still pretty good kids; it's just been the Vietnam War that has
screwed up so many of you.‖
I didn't tell the man anything about the really serious problem I'd also had with amphetamines
and Quaaludes, which had so damned near killed me after I left Michigan State.
The career counselor hmmphed and hmmed for several minutes, then finally removed his
reading glasses and looked at me. ―According to your Michigan State transcripts,‖ he said, ―English is
the only subject that you're really any good at. Since you seem pretty outgoing and quite glib, too, my
best advice is that you could get a teaching certificate and become an English teacher. I think that
would be a really good way to use your kind of smart-aleck, talkative personality and your one
academic skill to make money, and maybe have a satisfying career.‖
―But I don't really want to become a teacher,‖ I responded. It sounded like the worst idea I'd
ever heard. ―I've never really liked too many teachers. They're usually such jerks...‖ I suddenly noticed
that this counselor was really glaring at me.
―With the grades that you earned at Michigan State,‖ he continued, after a moment, now with a
much more hardened jaw, ―it isn't like we're going to be putting you into the law or medical schools,
now is it?‖
―No, not really,‖ I admitted.
―Perhaps you have some hidden talents that might suit, say, our engineering department?‖
So I saw his point, already.
The man sat staring at me, hard. ―Would you like to someday have a job that pays money?‖ he
asked, markedly. ―Would you like to be good enough at it that you won't get fired the first week? Or
would you like to dick around some more, here, at Wayne State, just like you've already done for four
years at Michigan State? Then, when it's over, would you like to still be just another unemployed dumb
I could really tell, by now, that he was seeing quite a lot of his own son in me.
Okay, so before maybe two more minutes passed, I had realized that ―Dad,‖ the counselor, was
right. Two years later, after I graduated, I took a job subbing in the Detroit Public Schools—I went
there because that was the school system I'd grown up in, and more importantly, because it was the one
system willing to hire and keep me. Two more years passed, and then I accepted a full time Detroit
Public School contract, and all told, stayed thirty years.
Unfortunately, during that thirty years—in, as I did say, ―the Detroit Public Schools‖—it was
much too often like going into a war. Detroit's schools had undergone a massive decline and racial
shift, from white dominance to black, following the Detroit riots of 1967. Ever since, the whites had
been leaving the schools and the city in droves, and those people who were left were forced to witness
all the ―ill fruit‖ born by the city's long history of racial segregation and oppression.
I stayed despite all this, because, with my past history, I had already learned that I wasn't better
than anybody of another race, or better than anybody, period—and because I had no place better to go
So I taught for thirty years in Detroit‘s all too often ―war zone‖ of a school system. This was
where I always tried so damned hard to do what that counselor had recommended: to not be a ―dumb
ass‖ and to ―be good enough‖ at my always very difficult job so that I wouldn't get fired.
Most of the stories in this book are about my experiences during my thirty years as a Detroit
teacher, and, also, are often about the various helpers, heroes, villains, phonies, comedians and scam
artists that I met along the way. The helpers and heroes were the ones who kept me—and so many
others—going, through the worst of times—and I consider it an honor to write about them.
As for the lesser behaving individuals that I met, well, after all, I was just an ex-drug addict—
and a Christian one to boot: so I was never willing to be anybody else's judge. I've only written of my
encounters with them to make it clearer what their betters, and I, too, had to deal with and try to
overcome, in order to be of any worth, at all, in this all too often so very tough environment.
Part One: Stories from the Earliest Days of
My Teaching Career:
A Deceptively Easy Beginning 9
Two Strangers at the Door 14
False Prophets, Saboteurs,
and Real Life Heroes 20
Our Leader...My Dad! 25
The Rat 28
A Wee Bit of a Hangover 36
Murder on the Redmond Bridge 45
A Deceptively Easy Beginning
In the spring of 1976, I began substitute teaching for the Detroit Public Schools. My first
assignment was at what I'll call ―Ohio Middle School.‖ ―Ohio‖ was on the east side of Detroit, in an old
area which had a lot of factories. The homes were small and mostly pretty old, on narrow streets, and
the air was noticeably more polluted from all the nearby industry. Once 100 % white, the area was now
more than 95 % black.
When I arrived, a secretary in the office told me that I would be subbing for a teacher named
Mr. Brown, and she sent me up to his third floor room. I climbed the old dusty marble stairs, and
finding room 304, I opened the door. ―Mr. Brown's class‖ was in utter chaos.
A dozen or so students were madly running around chasing each other, while an equal number
were precariously hanging and teetering out of the giant wooden framed windows, screaming to
outsiders on the street. Paper wads and paper airplanes were flying all around the room. One really
nasty fight between two girls seemed ready to start in a corner. The worst was what one very tall boy,
over six foot five, was doing: dangling a screaming, very small boy out of a window. Seeing me, the
tall boy began yelling threats to drop the little boy if I came any closer.
I would fall for many gags over the years—including the unusually quiet class that waits for
you to sit on the tack that they‘ve put on your seat—but, for some weird reason, I saw through this one:
the very first ―trick‖ that students ever tried on me of my whole professional teaching career. Maybe I
saw through it because the small kid didn‘t look as scared as he should have. Whatever—despite how
dangerous it looked, in fact, was—I decided to ignore it. Sure enough, the big kid‘s arm soon got tired
and he had to bring the small kid back inside. Both of them looked really disappointed.
―Do you always try that on subs?‖ I loudly asked over the din of the rest of the students.
―Yeah,‖ the little one yelled back, with a wry little smile. ―It really freaks out almost all of
Well, those two hadn‘t fooled me (not for more than a few seconds, anyway), but that didn‘t
give me any more respect or control over the rest. They all just kept running around, arguing and
pushing and throwing, and when I tried to take attendance some kids answered ―Present!‖ eight or nine
I didn‘t know what to do; then I noticed a big magic-marker written note under the clear
Plexiglas shield on the teacher‘s desk. ―If you‘re the sub,‖ it said, ―and the kids won‘t obey you, go
next door, to room 322, and get Mr. Williams.‖ I dashed directly over there.
In the hallway I met a Mr. Emory; he was the sub in room 322, and he had just read the same
kind of note, left under the glass shield on Mr. Williams‘ desk, directing him to go ―get help from Mr.
Brown.‖ Emory was also a ―first day ever‖ sub. Neither of us got a lot of pleasure out of meeting the
When I returned to Mr. Brown‘s room, one of the kids saw the disappointed, stressed-out look
on my face and approached to ask what was wrong. He told me that he didn‘t like at all the way the
other kids had been acting. He seemed very nice and he volunteered to go get help from the office, so I
wrote him a pass.
He was the first of ten or so really nice-acting kids that Emory and I sent to the main office to
get help. None ever came back, and it was another hour of the kids running around and acting like total
idiots before, finally, a lady teacher came in the room and asked if I needed help. When I told her what
was going on, she sent for the assistant principal.
The assistant principal, Mrs. Armani, was there in about four minutes. She was a good-looking,
fiftyish white lady, wearing a snappy woman's business suit and a big smile. She walked back and forth
between Brown‘s and Williams‘ classrooms a couple of times, then, coming back, gave me her
diagnosis of the situation: she said that Mr. Brown and Mr. Williams‘ classes had actually switched
rooms—and each group had been trying to pretend they were the other.
―That‘s a first!‖ Mrs. Armani said, with a beaming smile. She seemed truly happy. ―Sometimes
the children in this school can be quite creative!‖ she added. My dismayed look didn‘t faze her a bit.
She told me and the kids in Mr. Brown‘s room to come over to the room where Emory and his
bunch were, so she could have all sixty of the kids who had ―played this little trick,‖ all together into
one room. There, in front of Mr. Emory and me, she verified the ―switch‖—making sure that every kid
had taken part. Then she amazed Mr. Emory and me by starting to laugh really hard with the kids about
how, ―You guys really made these two subs look like fools!‖ Between laughs, she kept telling the kids
how ―clever‖ they were, and how ―dumb‖ they had made Mr. Emory and me look. Emory and I just
stood there, in the back of the room, feeling like a couple of idiots.
The kids were nervous at first, but they soon caught onto Armani's spin on the whole situation.
Then they began doing a lot of pointing at us and laughing.
They kept laughing, until they saw two secretaries come into the room, each carrying a big pile
of official looking forms. Mrs. Armani directed the secretaries to sit at the two front teacher‘s tables:
one to the right side of the room, the other to the left.
―Mrs. Armani,‖ asked one of the kids nervously, ―why did these two secretaries just come in
Armani could barely answer; she was still laughing quite hard—though suddenly quite alone.
―Oh honey,‖ she finally said, ―they came up here—Ha! Ha! Ha!…Oh my!—They came up here to help
me with all of the paper work that we‘re going to have to do to exclude you all from school! Every one
of you will have to bring a parent up to get readmitted!‖
“What!!!!????!!!!!!” all sixty of the kids screamed at once. “But you said what we did was
Armani was very calm and relaxed, and clearly had enjoyed her little laugh-fest with the
students. ―I‘m sure all of you wonderfully clever students knew,‖ she said, still brightly smiling, ―that if
you switched classes and answered to other students‘ names, that that you would all be excluded from
school for ‗failure to properly identify yourself!‘‖
As the jaw of every kid in the room dropped wide open, Armani went on, ―Of course you did!
No children could possibly be as clever as you all were, playing such a wonderful trick on these two
subs, and not know that! Now come on!‖ She clapped her hands together twice. ―I‘ll need two lines: ‗A
to L‘ to the left; ‗M to Z‘ to the right! Let‘s go!‖ She clapped her hands together twice again. ―We‘ll
need phone numbers so we can inform your parents what happened! Give us your grandparents‘
number if your mom and dad are at work!‖
What followed I only saw once in my entire career, but I did see it then, on my very first day of
work: Nearly every one of the sixty kids in that room burst into tears: Next, they soon started begging
Mrs. Armani to not exclude them, desperately beseeching her for “Another chance!”
Later, Mrs. Armani told us the reason that these kids were so desperate to not get kicked out.
This was 1976, when there were still a lot of automobile factory jobs in certain parts of Detroit, and, as
Mrs. Armani said, in that east side neighborhood, the fathers of these kids invariably worked very long,
hard hours, and could be very brutal with their children if they got in trouble in school. After 12 hour
shifts on assembly lines, these kids‘ fathers had no patience with mischief at school. So there was no
way in hell that these kids wanted to be sent home to their fathers for being excluded for something like
One would have thought that kids with fathers like that wouldn‘t have pulled such a stunt to
begin with. But, as I was to learn, and see over and over throughout my teaching career, that is not the
way it works. Kids who have to face severe physical discipline at home don‘t necessarily ―think before
they act‖ any better than anyone else. I don‘t know why that it, but it certainly proved to be so.
It was at this point, while the kids all were crying and imploring Armani for mercy, that she
switched to how she really felt about all this.
“Do you mean to say that none of you thought of the consequences of your actions?”
Armani suddenly was livid and incredulous.
The sixty mostly pitifully crying kids admitted that they hadn‘t thought that far ahead.
Armani harangued them for about twenty minutes; the longer she talked, the more sorrowfully
they wailed. Finally, she offered the sobbing lot of them a plan. She told them that Mr. Brown and Mr.
Williams were going to be absent all week because they had gone to a week-long educational
workshop. The school really needed subs in those two rooms for the rest of the week; she wondered if
Mr. Emory and I would consent to come back the other four days, if these children here would promise
to make our stay ―as comfortable as possible.‖ Then, she said, in a musing tone, she might not have to
exclude all of these kids.
The kids were immediately very enthusiastic for this plan, and begged us to come back, and told
us that they really would go all out to make us “comfortable.” Both Emory and I were quite broke and
in need of money, so we consented. Armani promised the kids that if we wrote up even one of them that
she would exclude all sixty of them—plus the kids who had disappeared after we sent them for help to
It ended up being the easiest week I ever spent in the Detroit Public Schools. The kids not only
behaved wonderfully (any kid the slightest out of line was corrected by the rest of the class), they also
brought Emory and me home-cooked meals—meatloaf, chicken, things like that—and salads and
desserts…our slightest whim was their ―command.‖ I‘m sure that Mrs. Armani hadn‘t planned for them
to feed us—but these kids were ―taking no chances,‖ and neither Emory nor I, two bachelors right out
of college, had been eating that great. Anyway, it seemed to make the kids happier when we accepted
Both Emory and I did a lot of teaching the rest of that week. But we both talked about how we
certainly couldn‘t have taught so well without Mrs. Armani‘s threat hanging over those kids.
What Emory and I experienced that week was something that was dying fast, and, soon,
wouldn't be seen anymore: a brilliant administration successfully running a school in a tough factory
neighborhood where almost all the fathers worked. Though Armani's pragmatic approach had been
inspiring to witness, the fact was that what she had used for leverage over the students was being
steadily lost. Hundreds of factories jobs were being lost daily in Detroit, and, and most of Detroit's
schools would soon mainly only see fatherless children, whose mothers were on welfare, with many of
the moms either in much worse shape than that, or missing, too, just like the fathers.
My career would all too soon place me firmly into that crime-ridden and drug-filled specter
Sadly, Mrs. Armani's wonderful tactics would be of no value, not there.
Two Strangers at the Door
Two years later I was still an occasional sub in Detroit. By then, I'd also had a stint as a regular
teacher in a Detroit Catholic high school, but let's just say I wasn't their ―cup of tea.‖ So I'd been
working as a security guard again, and as a sub, one, two, or three days a week, too. Subbing, I'd found
many very tough schools in Detroit. The sheer number of them seemed staggering.
In the fall of 1978, I got called back to sub quite a bit at an extremely tough, gang-ridden place
called Pickett Junior High, on the northwest side of Detroit. Nobody working at Pickett could fail to
recognize its huge problems.
Pickett was like ―Madness Incorporated‖—the kids were unbelievably wild and tough, and
some of them were openly very evil—including gang members who condoned ―murder‖ of their
―enemies,‖ and hit men‘s kids eager to ―follow in their dad‘s footsteps.‖)
To teach the classes was to risk your own safety. While subbing I was hit in the face or head by
flying books three times in the first several weeks. Each time, no one was willing to say who had done
it. Finally, one of the regular teachers told me that at Pickett it was often a bad idea for a teacher to take
his eyes off the class in order to read to the children. ―Look down at your own risk!‖ he told me. When
you accused one of the kids of some sort of malfeasance, his or her ―associates‖ might gather around
you with him or her, arguing that you were wrong about what you thought the kid had done, and then,
often, they would try to intimidate you, by getting up ―in your face,‖ to try to get you to change your
While subbing there it seemed that everything at Pickett was antithetical to good education. The
kids tried to avoid work if they could, but if they couldn‘t, almost every kid cheated. A sub could go for
days before finding one who didn‘t. Whole classes would often copy off of one kid; that would be the
only one that the group had designated to try to do the work for real. Unfortunately, nearly invariably,
that one kid had no idea how to do the work either, so the whole class would often hand in absolutely
identically copied and totally wrong work—it all amounted to mass-produced ludicrous caricatures of
real work. But, when you tried to tell the kids what they had done, they would berate you for being a
The few kids at Pickett Junior High who wanted a legitimate education—and who knew that
you had to listen and sit down and shut up to get one—if you tried to talk to them, the other kids would
get very loud, and would finally begin hitting each other, throwing things, or even running around the
room and knocking each other down—anything to stop the few nice kids from learning. There were
kids in that school who literally would have stopped at nothing to prevent education from taking place.
What was really different about Pickett from what I had seen at the Ohio Middle School—
where the kids‘ antics had rarely involved any sort of serious hostility, just a rubbery silliness—was that
Pickett was always a place where really violent student fights could happen at any moment. A lot of the
kids truly hated each other—a few because they thought many of the other kids were denying them an
education, but many more because of being with different gangs, because of ―old history‖ of trouble
from the past, or because their families really hated each other. Really nasty fights could occur at any
moment—it seems inconceivable, but sometimes you might get any where from three or four, up to a
half dozen fights in a single class period. It was very rare for a sub to go a whole day without a fight in
By far, the worst thing about the place was that the kids in that neighborhood periodically did
end up murdered. Every few weeks a new funeral for a ―Pickett student,‖ or a ―former Pickett student‖
would be announced. The gangs killed some of these kids, the police killed some, and there were other
reasons. But going to children‘s funerals was something people did quite often in that neighborhood.
What made the whole place remotely palatable at all was that there was a core group of teachers
and administrators who were some of the finest people that I have ever known. They were people who
refused to be intimidated and who fought bitterly everyday to help the kids who would accept it. I
admired that core group to the bottom of my heart—and it is one the proudest but most traumatic and
heartbreaking experiences of my life, that for thirteen years, I was one of them.
I had a very traumatic experience at that school while I was still a sub, a month or so before I
finally accepted a full time position there. It scared the crap out of me, but it also helped to define what
kind of a Detroit teacher I would become. At least that‘s how I saw it at the time.
One fall afternoon I was in a corner classroom on Pickett's second floor, and had been in that
same room for several days. These particular kids were as rough as anybody at Pickett, but, since they
were starting to get to know me—and had found that, though I would kick out extreme troublemakers, I
was pretty easy to please otherwise— they were beginning to allow me a little control.
By now, I knew all the ―bad apples,‖ and I had even pretty much figured out who all the normal
―trespassers‖ were—the kids from other classes (and sometimes the street) who liked to try to sneak
into a sub‘s class, usually to cause extra problems. I had the nice kids working, and the uncooperative
kids sitting away from the working students, having not that loud of conversations. It certainly wasn‘t
any award-winning classroom—but, for a sub-run room at Pickett, it was pretty darned good.
So I was feeling relatively competent when I heard a knocking on my door around 2:30 PM, a
half hour before dismissal. The door being locked and covered by a shade, I opened the door to see
who it was.
I found two young men standing there. They were wearing long coats and looked to be in their
late twenties or early thirties. They seemed very polite and respectful. I asked what I could for them.
The one to my left spoke up, in a polite and apologetic voice. ―We sorry to interrupt, but we
here because we gotta execute two of your students.‖ He opened his long coat to show me a sawed-off
shotgun. The other man opened his coat and showed an automatic pistol in some kind of a homemade
There were no choices about how to interpret their intentions. For a second I said nothing—I
was so frightened that I had to struggle to keep control of my bowels. But, after a few seconds of
dumbfoundedness, I managed a reply. ―Why?‖ I asked.
―One of the students burn down my house, and the other rape his daughter,‖ the guy to my left
said. He nodded his head toward the other man to indicate him as the father of the rape victim.
So they were vigilantes, not drug hit men. At least they had a legitimate grievance—but it didn‘t
change what their intention was. ―Who?‖ I asked. ―Which two kids?‖ I didn‘t know what else to say. I
was in shock, but I knew that I had to keep them talking.
The man with the sawed-off shotgun named two male students, both at least seventeen years
old, still in the seventh grade. I knew immediately who they were: two of the biggest ―fools‖ I‘d met at
that school. ―That figures,‖ I said, sighing. I was thinking that honesty was probably the best way to
keep these guys talking. ―I‘m sorry to say it,‖ I said, ―but that‘s exactly who I figured they had to be.‖ I
was trying to keep from shaking visibly.
The two men reacted to my statement by pulling their guns from their coats and moving
forward. They thought I had meant that it was okay to go ahead and kill those two kids now.
―All right,‖ said the spokesman, impatiently, though still polite, ―Since you feel that way, why
don‘t you get out of our way, so we can get this over with!‖
―But wait a minute!‖ I said. I instantly started totally panicking again. But I also, unexpectedly,
started feeling this ―You're now a Detroit Public Schoolteacher—and not just a stupid, dope-smoking
ex-hippie anymore!‖ message, from somewhere, and it kept saying, ―Your job is to protect every kid in
your room, regardless of their past, criminal or not!” I felt like I would have committed the worst kind
of cowardice if I had ignored this, and didn't stand up to these two men, somehow.
But what could I do? —The only thing I could think of was to be honest, and to remember that
these guys really wanted to believe that they were doing the right thing.
―Listen,‖ I said, searching my brain desperately for ideas, ―if it were just you and me here, I
would say just go ahead. I understand how you feel about all this.‖ I did frankly believe this—but I
knew the ―law‖ would hardly have agreed.
―I don‘t see where no one else is part of this,‖ said the guy on the right, speaking up finally.
―These two guys done us wrong, nobody else.‖
―Yeah, I agree they done you wrong,‖ I said softly, trying to be sympathetic, and making the
easy decision to not correct the grammar of a man with a gun. ―But there are other people involved:
the other kids who are in that classroom. If you shoot those two kids in front of those other thirty
children, then those other kids are going to be severely traumatized for the rest of their lives!‖
―You right about that,‖ said the man on the left. He was obviously terribly uneducated, but he
was by no means completely stupid or evil.
―And if you shoot them in front of that class, the police will chase you to the ends of the earth,
until they catch you! You will definitely spend the rest of your lives in jail.‖
There was a silence, then the guy on the right spoke up again, in a voice of quiet desperation.
―Then what can we do? We gotta do something to those two bastards!‖
Quickly searching for an answer, I kept thinking that that I had no choice but to ―play‖ this
―game‖ of theirs by the ―local rules.‖ These guys—living in that violent neighborhood, with its too-
often-corrupt police—merely wanted the same ―frontier justice‖ that so many of our forefathers,
pioneering across America, sometimes employed.
Recognizing their simple logic, with their guns in their hands, I realized in a second what to
say: it was so obvious.
―Why don‘t you just wait under they come outside after school, and shoot them out on the
street? Kids get shot on the street everyday, and nobody worries about it too much! Hardly anybody
ever gets caught!‖
Yeah, I really said it. And it had some credibility, too, because it was true: I had already
discovered that, in that neighborhood, kids were getting shot out on the street all the time, and most of
the perpetrators were never found. What I had just said was the only thing I could think of that might
stop them from shooting the two boys in my room right then and there in front of their classmates.
The man on the left didn‘t like it at first because he thought I would tell the kids or call the
police, but I assured him that I would do neither. I told him that I clearly knew ―what kind of people‖
these two kids were, and I said I figured somebody was going to be shooting them sooner or later,
likely in the near future, too. ―They‘re both dangerous and they won‘t even let the other kids learn,‖ I
I showed the two men the stairway and exit where the two kids would be coming out of the
building, and told them what time to expect them. After I again promised total secrecy, they both put
their guns back under their coats. Then the quieter guy looked me straight in the eye. I looked back at
him with the utmost sincerity. ―You cool,‖ he finally said.
―It were really very nice to meet you, sir,‖ the man to my left said.
Then they both left.
Obviously I didn‘t keep their secret. I immediately sent some kids for some help from the
office. A sleepy looking department head arrived; unfortunately, he wasn't one of Post's sharpest staff
members, and he simply refused to believe what I told him. He also refused to inform the police,
though he did finally tell me about a room where they sometimes hid students who claimed that
somebody was going to shoot them.
One of that day‘s intended shooting victims went with the department head and was hidden, to
await his ―uncle‖ coming to get him. The other protested, ―I ain‘t scared of those motherfuckers!‖ and
ran straight outside. He went so fast past the two vigilantes that he only got nicked a little in the
shoulder. But he did miss school for over a month—of course that didn‘t exactly upset his teachers or
Though there were a number of witnesses, the department head always maintained that the boy
was ―hit by a flying rock.‖ The principal bought his story. The police never came and no charges were
False Prophets, Saboteurs, and Real Life Heroes
One day while I was subbing again at Pickett, the English Department head, Duane Lambers,
came by and offered me a full time job. With nothing better to do, and a whole lot to prove—and a
growing admiration for a great many of the staff at Pickett—I accepted his offer.
Unfortunately, this also meant accepting a whole lot of new stress, and not merely from
Pickett's all too often absolutely nutso kids. A day or two later I was introduced to Mrs. Sappatt, the
supervisor for what I'm going to call the ―KORS Reading Program,‖ which she was supposed to show
me how to teach. (KORS was required for all first through eighth graders throughout the Detroit Public
I soon discovered what so many other Detroit teachers already knew: KORS was one of the
worst , most chaotic and senseless educational ideas ever invented. It was a series of little, disconnected
―reading skills‖ assignments like ―metaphors,‖ ―similes,‖ ―analogies, etc., which were taught
separately, away from any reading text which might have made sense of the mess, in these horrible,
messy little magazine-style books.
The most fundamental problem with KORS was that it had nothing to do with the kids‘ daily
lives, nor did any of its individual lessons have anything concrete to do with any other. No moving,
relevant lessons were ever learned, only little, bitty, separate “reading skills” that the KORS Specialists
claimed were “good for you.”
Some of the nicest kids tried really hard to do the stuff, but after a while even they figured out
what most of the tougher and nastier kids had known all along: KORS was a money-making scam that
never got you anywhere educationally. All the little foolish ―KORS skills‖ that you ―mastered‖—even
if you did the stuff without cheating—still added up to same old educational sum: KORS didn‘t
prepare you for college, nor did it teach you to carry on an intelligent conversation.
To make matters worse, Mrs. Sappatt always demanded that I divide my classes into two
groups—based on the kids‘ scores on the ―KORS Assessment Tests.‖ At Pickett, where the kids fought
over practically everything, dividing classes into two potentially antagonistic groups was either pure
insanity or pure sadism.
When Mrs. Sappatt wasn‘t there, I had to teach the two groups in the same classroom, at the
same time. Then I was required to juggle the official ―KORS Lesson Introductions‖ and ―KORS
Independent Work‖ so that each group was always doing something. Trying to do this with the many
wild kids at Pickett Junior High was a daily recipe for chaos.
What I even dreaded worse was when Mrs. Sappatt came in the room and decided to run one of
the two reading groups for me. Whenever she started teaching ―KORS,‖ she would get this weird
―possessed‖ expression on her face. At first I thought it was almost ―zombie-like,‖ but I later realized
that it was caused by the fact that, she, a black woman, really believed that “KORS” was something
that might rescue her people—including my students—from the throes of their historically imposed
ignorance. Thus, I finally realized that her wild look was more that of John Brown‟s famously heroic
demeanor, witnessed by so many, when he, before his gallows‟ stairs, made his famous speech—
predicting that his martyrdom would signal the start of the war that would finally end slavery...
Unfortunately, she would take her group over to one side of my room, and then direct them in
such a loud, passionate, and peremptory manner, that the kids in my group couldn‘t really hear me or
concentrate—even if they wanted to.
Then crazy Mrs. Sappatt—who cared so desperately for the futures of these children—would
blame me for my inability to control my group—something that I was considerably better at when she
wasn‘t there. But, whenever I tried raising my voice to anywhere near her level, she was also quick to
ask me to bring its level down. I guess she figured that one ―John Brown‖ in the room was enough.
Besides the KORS program, Pickett Junior High provided another enormous obstacle. This was
the counseling department, to which all the teachers were supposed to send disruptive students.
To say the least, not all the counselors particularly cared how badly a kid had misbehaved in
your room. (In their defense, the counselors at any inner-city school can be severely over-taxed by the
sheer number of insubordinate, trouble-making students that the teachers will send to them.) If you
wrote up a student for absolutely thwarting your attempts to teach (The worst kids were quite creative
in their many different approaches to achieving this goal!), you could very often expect to find that
very same kid, returning to your class, only minutes later, armed with a counselor's note demanding
that he or she be taken back in, and calling you either a liar or a pansy for having kicked that child out
in the first place.
Kids armed with these counselor-written ―return to class‖ notes would come back with the
triumphant air of General MacArthur returning to the Philippine Islands in 1945. Then, celebrating with
their cohorts, they almost always would go back to the same behavior that had gotten them kicked out,
often now assisted by a newly emboldened ―supporting cast.‖
With a counseling department that so often refused to help me with my discipline problems, I
often found it nearly impossible to teach. The truth was, however, that there was a small group of
teachers in that building who taught relatively quiet classes, and rarely wrote up anyone. It took me
awhile, but little by little, I found out the ―secret‖ of each.
One morning I found the men teachers‘ lavatory locked, and having forgotten my key, tried the
door of the nearby boys‘ lavatory. It was locked. I really needed to use the lavatory, and I had the time
because it was my second hour free period, so I traveled around the building, finally finding a second
floor lavatory open, on the building‘s opposite end.
Inside I found a very strange sight. Donald McNance, a very friendly and often funny social
studies teacher, was in the bathroom with four of his male students. These students included two of the
worst, most way over-age, and most aggressively criminal acting kids I had seen at Pickett. (These two
would ―shake down‖ smaller kids all the time—making them give up their lunch money, and taking
their school supplies, and some of the kids said they did way worse things than that, outside on the
McNance had taken off his shirt, and put it over a privacy partition, and was standing bare-
chested, with his fists up. ―Com‘on, all four of you!‖ he was demanding, ―Let‘s fight! Com‘on! Nobody
has to know!‖ The kids, blocked from the door by McNance, had nowhere to go but through him.
Though McNance was a pretty large guy, these particular four kids were a whole lot for McNance all
by himself to take on, especially since one could tell by the scars on some of them that they had been
no strangers to physical violence. (I learned later that the two oldest looking guys had scars from being
shot—one of them multiple times.)
When I walked in, McNance turned back for a second, saw me, and without comment went
back to making his challenges to the group before him. The four boys‘ reaction wasn‘t much different:
they quickly realized that I was no help for their cause. Then I was amazed to see them start whining
and begging McNance for mercy. But McNance kept demanding for them to fight, and the boys in their
whining tone asked why they had to fight him.
―Because you‘ve been disturbing my class, and not allowing me to teach,‖ he told them. ―That
obviously means you want to fight me!‖ McNance also told them that he had been raised in the south,
and he said that where he lived, black kids like himself had been denied access to the best education.
―And with what you guys did in my class,‖ he said, ―you all were denying the ‗civil rights‘ of
my students, and I‘m just going to tell you this one time—‖ McNance paused for emphasis, then roared
in their face: ―That is definitely worth fighting about!” And then McNance really got serious about
crouching into a lower, stronger, and more aggressive fighting stance, and started moving right into the
face of the four large, over-aged, and whining ―students.‖
The four young men collapsed into a begging, swooning, and sighing heap on the floor—
pleading with McNance to leave them alone. They said they had had no idea how serious a thing it was
to misbehave in his class. He stood over them, angry—and really majestic, frankly—until his ―total
victory‖ over those poor characters had to have been obvious even to any of the bugs crawling on the
Even before the incident in the boys' bathroom, Donald McNance had become a friend of mine:
it happened the first time I ever stepped into a staff meeting, in the school's library, when I heard a
voice across the room say, ―Who's the new white boy?‖ I looked over, and saw his smiling face. Seeing
me look right back, he came over and shook hands, and told me that although I obviously looked way
out of place, that if I was a ―big enough lunatic‖ to be willing to work at ―such a crazy black school,‖
he'd be my friend and support me. He meant it, too, and I was always welcome—just like every other
teacher in that building—to sit down with him and talk, eat, or drink. He was certainly one of those
people who made me want to stay at Pickett Junior High.
McNance was very friendly, but also completely realistic. Just like every other experienced
teacher in that building, he knew that the counselors were inconsistent at best, often ineffective, and,
too often, subversive to good education. So, seeing how bad the odds were in that school, he put his
own body on the line—often against far superior numbers and odds. There was no way that he was
going to quit and run away from a fight that had been waged against him right from his birth.
The kids in his classes mostly loved him and always learned a great deal. It devastated an awful
lot of people at Pickett when he died suddenly, in 1984, lifting weights, of a massive heart attack, at the
age of 39. His desire to stay ―strong enough‖ to physically confront the most negative, defiant, and
aggressive students at Pickett—to force them to ―do the right thing‖—had cost him his life.
Our Leader...My Dad!
The principal at Pickett for most of the thirteen years that I was there was a man that I am going
to call ―Winston Ferguson.‖ I liked him, but not everybody else did. He certainly could be a pain in the
butt, but I always thought his heart was in the right place.
Anyway, ―Winston Ferguson‖ was a truly well-educated man, with a real ―M.A.‖ in English,
and a fondness for quoting Emmanuel Kant, and because he was an African American who had started
teaching school in Detroit in the 1950‘s, you had to assume he had been more than a little of a
―pioneer‖ for his race in that school system.
I liked Ferguson for a number of reasons, first and foremost because, despite their difference in
race, his personality was so much like that of my adoptive father. Both he and my dad were critical old
―fuddy-duddies‖ who were seemingly dissatisfied with practically anything you could ever do for them,
but both had smiles that lit up like a thousand Christmas trees at the slightest hint of a sincere
Now, my adoptive father was a purchasing agent for a welding company in the suburbs. There,
the stress of his career caused him to get plenty drunk…seriously drunk, thousands of times. But
Ferguson, the hyper-caring ―old fuddy-duddy‖ principal of a very dangerous, ghettoized Detroit junior
high school, never showed any signs of alcoholism. Instead, he went around clutching his chest a lot
and often seemed about to have a heart attack.
In fact, he had several heart attacks while he was the principal at Pickett. But he kept coming
back to his job as principal.
Winston Ferguson‘s biggest problem was that he cared desperately, and he passionately wanted
to run Pickett Junior High the way he thought a good principal ought to. But nobody could have done
that, not during the era when he was there.
Ferguson sure tried. He put himself squarely in the middle of any gang conflict that arose, no
matter how large, and he ran to the sounds of gunfire outside the school. If a Pickett kid was down out
there, he sprinted to the scene—clutching his chest the whole way. One always suspected his fragile
heart might give out, every time he did that.
What veteran members of Winston Ferguson‘s staff deplored most about him was his tendency
to hold very long staff meetings. One of the older teachers would make a comment that Ferguson
thought held a challenge to his authority, and Ferguson would react by keeping the entire staff another
thirty, forty minutes or more, until he felt he had re-established his ―authority.‖
The fact that Ferguson could talk endlessly, anytime he wanted, on any subject, didn‘t make this
situation any better. This really infuriated the veterans, though I must say I personally thought he could
be pretty interesting. (But I didn‘t have a wife and kids to go home to yet, either.)
The craziest staff meetings we had with Ferguson happened when the school district would
schedule whole afternoons for staff meetings, and we‘d hold morning classes with the kids, and go out
to lunch before the afternoon meetings. Many of the veterans would come back from lunch pretty
drunk, stressed out from their jobs and knowing they were going to be stuck with Ferguson for several
hours. One of the older teachers would say something that Ferguson found objectionable, or vice-versa,
and then the fireworks would start. Some of the younger teachers thought all this could be quite
entertaining, too, but, looking back, I know that Ferguson and the veterans felt they were arguing about
real issues. I just wasn‘t mature enough yet, as a man or as a teacher, to really understand what it was
Ferguson was an old U.S. Navy man—he liked to talk about how, in the military, a good leader
made sure that his men were more frightened of him than the enemy. No doubt that was how he saw his
role as principal: he knew damned well how dangerous some of our students and their parents could be,
and he was damned if he was going to give us a whole lot of time to complain and whimper about how
tough of a place Pickett Junior High was.
So Ferguson was constantly on the staff. If we had had a particularly tough day with gangs
fighting, or something even worse—and everybody‘s nerves were particularly shot—so we were really
feeling “psychotic,”— you could count on Ferguson to hold an especially long and annoying staff
meeting. And he didn‘t expect to hear any complaints: he didn‘t tolerate hearing about how ―bad,‖ or
―tired,‖ or ―stressed out‖ we felt. When we were really upset, that was when he would really try to
annoy us. Those were the days that, for example, he might rant and rave about how we were late on
some kid of state-required attendance reports; then he‘d demand that we finish them all by the very
next morning—which wouldn‘t give anyone any time to try to recover from the day‘s trauma. When
Ferguson noticed that all of our blood pressure was up and our spirits were on the floor, that was when
he would really jump on us. I guess he wanted to show us that we could take way more than we
thought. Surprisingly, he was always right to a degree. And many of us always did hate him more than
we hated the worst of the kids.
So it was never a mystery about why so many people hated Ferguson. But, ultimately, I learned
to feel differently, even though I thought some of the things he did went too far.
I later met a lot of different principals—after Ferguson retired—when I began transferring
around the district. Compared to several of them, Ferguson wasn‘t really such a bad guy, not at all.
Besides, the man always reminded me of my adoptive father—the only father I ever knew.
Robert Mashford was our tall, lanky, and very tough school police officer. He was an African
American who liked to talk about racially based conflicts and problems, though, in his own way, he
was quite non-racially prejudiced. One of his favorite topics was about what happened when members
of one race strayed into the territory of the other.
To him I was clearly a ―stray white lamb‖ who had strayed into the ―wrong woods‖ with the
local ―black wolves‖ at Pickett Junior High. At least he thought that this was how I viewed the
situation, and he didn‘t like it.
This was because he truly despised ignorance and confrontational attitudes by black people (or
anybody else) who knew they were wrong, and he sometimes told stories about ―breaking in rookie
white cops,‖ teaching them that they actually could stand up to ―ignorant-acting black citizens who
need a lesson.‖ He seemed to view me in a similar way—as a ―white rookie‖ who needed to be taught
that, if I was going to do any ―good in the ‗hood‖ (one of his favorite expressions), I needed to learn to
stand up to such people. ―It‘s for these people‘s own good,‖ he would always say. ―A lot of guys in the
‗hood need to learn some respect. That‘s the first thing they need to do if they are ever going to become
Sometime in early November, Mr. Mashford showed up at my classroom door, about ten
minutes before the end of my free period. ―Guisbert,‖ he said, ―in about five minutes there‘s going to
be something happening out in the hall, and I want you to see it.‖
―What‘s that?‖ I asked. I tried to sound polite, but I was quite positive that there were very few
things in the totally crazy hallways of Pickett Junior High that I really wanted to see.
―You know how you so scared of some of these crazy black parents?‘
I mumbled something defensive (I certainly did know that, occasionally, one of the parents
would assault a teacher), and he continued.
―You know your next-door neighbor, the little white guy, Mr. Phynordie?‖
―Sure, he‘s really quiet.‖ Actually, I had heard that Phynordie had a reputation for ―quietly‖
cursing at individual students—like in a little whisper, just between him and whomever he was cursing
out at the time. He was known as a ―mean little son of a bitch‖ who, sooner or later, would ―get his.‖
―His classes are quiet, too, unlike yours. Have you ever wondered how he keeps such strong
―I dunno how he does it.‖ I was no ‗fink.‘ I was passing along no rumors to a cop. ―I guess he‘s
just really experienced so the kids leave him alone.‖
―That ain‘t it.‖ Mashford gave me a look that made me think he knew a whole lot more about
Phynordie than I did. ―Listen, in about three minutes he‘s going to be confronted by a very large and
angry black parent who thinks he‘s going to intimidate him. But this large black parent is in for a big
―How do you know that?‖ I personally wondered if this would be the day that Phynordie finally
―I know about the parent coming because I got a little call on my radio.‖ Mashford patted the
radio strapped to his side, with its microphone clipped on his shirt a little below his chin. ―As for
what‘s going to happen—you‘ll just have to trust me. Let‘s just say that I‘m quite positive that this big
black parent ain‘t going to scare our man Mr. Phynordie. That‘s what I want you to see. So come on out
in the hall.‖
I dumbly followed Mashford into the hallway, and we found Mr. Phynordie already there,
standing by his classroom doorway, his little reading glasses down on his nose, reading a personal
paperback book. For such a ―son of a bitch‖ he wasn‘t much to look at. He was a small man, barely five
foot six inches tall, and I doubt that he topped 135 pounds. He was a pretty pale guy, balding, with a
large Adam‘s apple, and red cheeks. He was waiting for his own free period to end, and had the same
engrossed, bored-with-everyone-but-himself look that, along with his ―son of a bitch‖ reputation had
always kept me from bothering him. He looked up at us and then showed us his trademark: his
condescending dull stare followed by a yawn. This told you everything about him, I‘d thought from the
first time I‘d ever seen it; then he looked down, once again ignoring us completely, and went back to
Phynordie‘s conceited yawn had always angered me—but at that particular moment it didn‘t
make Mashford react that way at all; instead, it put a big grin on Mashford‘s face—he looked like he
was going to giggle: as if he knew some big hilarious secret. ―Come on,‖ he motioned to me, let‘s go
down the hall.‖ I followed him and his big wide giggly smile, and, turning back, I saw that Phynordie
was still completely back into his book, no longer giving us a thought.
Mashford stopped at a stairwell two classrooms away. ―This should be perfect,‖ he said, and
leaned against the wall.
Less than two minutes later what Mashford was expecting showed up: an extremely tall and fat
black man came up a stairway from way down the other end of the hall, accompanied by a much
shorter fat black kid—the boy I recognized as one of the local trouble makers. He was an
argumentative, disrespectful kid who was fond of bumping quiet, studious girls, and he liked to bully
some of the very smallest boys—never anything larger—though he loved also to disrupt classes and
accuse teachers of picking on him. He cursed constantly, and normally would have been a target for
somebody to beat up just on any one of a number of principles, but he was affiliated with one of the
worst gangs, so he got away with a lot of stuff without the normal consequences.
The man with him, who I gathered was his father, was one of those instant ―explanations‖ that
too many parents of bad kids in the Detroit Public Schools provide upon their arrival in a school
building: simply by their appearance and attitude, which immediately ―explain‖ pretty much all of their
child‘s problems. He was about six foot, eight inches tall—nothing wrong there—but fat and slouching,
and wearing this sixties style ―super fly‖ get-up that had been out of any sort of ―style‖ for almost ten
years: a huge very wide-brimmed hat with maybe about eight long feathers hanging out of it, perhaps a
dozen gold chains draped around his neck, with a purplish fur coat that I suspect was dyed mink, with
brightly colored yellow leather pants, pointy pink shoe boots…a silk shirt…maybe a dozen diamond
rings…you can surmise whatever I‘ve missed.
The man had a hell of a lot of money invested in that wardrobe—a little strange, not only
considering his out-of-style taste, but considering, too, that his kid never brought anything to write with
or write on to school, being one of the many who always demanded ―free supplies.‖ And you had to see
the way this man was walking. He was doing the most exaggerated ―pimp walk‖ you could ever
imagine—he thought he was the baddest thing out there…Coming up the hall I could hear their
conversation, especially as they spotted Mr. Phynordie standing by his door, reading.
―That‘s him, dad! That‘s him!‖
―You sure? Positive?‖
―I‘m positive. That‘s Mr. Phynordie. That‘s the one who did it!‖
―I got this dude! Don‘t you worry! I‘ll fix him right up!‖
The man‘s ―pimp walk‖ and the whole ominousness of what he seemed about to do became
more and more exaggerated until—Oops!—he and his son stepped up next to the stairwell where Mr.
Mashford and I were. Mr. ―Pimp Walker‖ had seen me from the first, ignoring me as irrelevant, but
Mashford had stepped back, out of sight, and had been leaning against a wall, relaxing.
When ―Dad‖ saw Mashford standing behind me in the stairwell his whole attitude changed.
―Oop…Hey now, how ya doin‘, officer?‖
―Just fine. How‘s you?‖
―Okay, just came up here ‗cause of a little problem with a teacher disrespecting my son. That
why you here? To make sure I don‘t do nuthin‘ scand‘lous?‖
Mashford, still leaning on his wall, stared at the man quietly for a moment. There was no doubt
that this man was scared of him—Mashford wasn‘t as big as him, but he had a hell of a reputation as a
fighter, and it was clear that this guy wanted no trouble with him.
―Look man,‖ Mashford said. ―I already know why you came up here—any fool can see that.
But I ain‘t gonna give you no problem. You just go ahead and do what you gotta do, and I won‘t get in
―Really? You don‘t mind if I put this guy in his place?‖
―Sometimes a black man‘s gotta do what a black man‘s gotta do. We both black, so I
understand. I know whatever you do will be the right thing. You go right ahead and solve this problem,
so‘s your son can be proud of you. That‘s all that‘s important to me.‖
―Thank you sir!!‖ You cannot imagine the surprise and gratitude that was in the father‘s voice.
So ―Dad‖ and ―son‖ walked past us, the father leading the way, his ―pimp walk‖ more
exaggerated than ever.
When they got down to Mr. Phynordie, the father walked straight up to him and bumped into
him and his book with the lower part of his chest.
―Hey man, I need to talk to you!‖ the father said, his face and body towering over Phynordie.
Phynordie, whom I could see pretty clearly from my position, stopped reading and took off his
glasses and brought a handkerchief out of his pocket to wipe them. ―What do you want?‖ Phynordie
asked. Despite the sudden confrontation, his voice was quite calm, and still had its conceited quality.
―Listen, man, I came up here to find out if something my son said about you is true.‖
―And what would that be?‖
―Did you call my son a ‗mother fucker‘?‖ The father‘s voice was full of threat, and he was
clearly implying by the way he was crowding Phynordie and the tone of his voice that no one in their
right mind would call his son anything but his proper name, and in a proper tone. This was kind of an
ironic point for him to be making, considering the way he was dressed, but it was clearly his point.
Phynordie was quiet for a moment, looking up at the towering man who stood so close to him—
for a weird moment I imagined the two of them as Sesame Street‘s ―Big Bird‖ trying to intimidate
―Kermit the Frog,‖ but considering the present context, it wasn‘t that funny—and then Phynordie
finally responded, and in his same calm and conceited voice. ―Yes, I called your son a ‗mother fucker,‘
The father did the biggest ―double-take‖ I‘ve ever seen. “What?!!” he screamed at Phynordie.
“What did you say to me?! I dare you to repeat what you just said to me!!”
But though ―Daddy Big Bird‖ was leaning into and on top of the much smaller and much
shorter Mr. Phynordie, and screaming his lungs out, the small teacher didn‘t seem like he was worried
at all. Then he said, in a very quiet, still quite conceited, but suddenly quite ominous voice: ―You heard
me, Mister! You ain‘t deaf!‖ And now Phynordie, alias ―Kermit the Frog‖ suddenly started a staring
contest with the feathered father, who continued doing double takes and leaning all over the top of the
smaller man, trying to show this teacher how much bigger he was.
The bigger man‘s neck looked almost bent double as he tried to stay low enough to stay eyeball-
to-eyeball with Phynordie, and he made heavy breathing noises as if he were about to explode and tear
the little guy limb from limb. But Phynordie stayed calm and just kept staring up and back.
The staring contest continued for perhaps a minute—with all sorts of noises and movements
coming from the father—all meant to be warnings of impending doom to ―Kermit,‖ but none seemed to
impress the little fellow. Next there was a long silence, a freezing of the two figures, the big one higher,
the smaller lower, for a minute…then, without warning, the much bigger man exploded—
The bigger man whirled around and slapped his son hard across the face. This was the last thing
that the boy, standing close behind—hoping to see violence done to the teacher—had expected.
―What did you do that for?!‖ the boy cried out in dismay, holding his face.
His father had turned completely around, and, now, for some weird reason, it was quite obvious
that he was finished dealing with the teacher, Mr. Phynordie. ―I have told you and told you to never
disrespect these teachers up here!‖ he yelled at his son. The father‘s voice had changed: no longer
sounding like a ―street thug,‖ he had suddenly switched to the tones of an angry, but caring and
responsible parent—at least that‘s what he was trying to sound like.
―You never told me anything like that! Not ever!‖
The palm of the father‗s right hand leaped out again, slapping the boy even harder. ―Don‘t you
lie on me boy!‖ he said in his most ―high and mighty‖ pseudo-good parent voice. ―You know I don‘t
tolerate that at our house!‖
―You don‘t even live at our house!‖
Well, to make a long story short, the father ending up slapping the boy down the hallway, and
out of the school, something that, normally, somebody would have protested, but, as various staff
members came out to investigate the ruckus, when they saw who was the object of all this ―parental
discipline,‖ they realized it wasn‘t so objectionable after all.
As the father and the son went past Mashford and me, the father, pulling his protesting son
along by the ear, looked over at us, said: ―I‘m going to take this boy home and straighten him out! I
promise you, none of y‘all will have any more problems with him!‖
Mashford was still leaning on his wall, and hadn‘t even come off of it to watch the
confrontation—only listening and nodding his head occasionally in approval. He looked at the father
now speaking to him, and returned him a look of ineffable sympathy and kindness—tinged with a
whole lot of sarcasm. ―I told you brother, I knew you would do the right thing!‖ Mashford told him. ―I
knew you would solve the problem!‖ Mashford paused. ―And I guarantee that someday your son will
be proud of you for this!‖
―Dad‖ probably thought that Mashford was making fun of him, at least a little, you could tell
that by his expression, but he quite obviously wanted to leave the school and wasn‘t interested in
discussing the nuances of any of the ironic verbal communication going on around there. So he left,
and the bell rang as he exited our halls, still slapping and admonishing his son. Mashford came off his
wall and stretched, yawning some, and I noticed Phynordie staring down the hall at the two of us.
Phynordie eyed us for a second, then shook his head in his typical nasty disapproval—probably a
criticism of us just as much as of the man who had just left. He went into his room.
―Well, what did you think of that?‖ Mashford asked me, after Phynordie left. ―Did you learn
I looked at back at Mashford in total confusion. ―How could I learn anything? I don‘t even
understand what just happened here!‖
Mashford smiled happily. ―What do you think just happened here?‖
―Well,‖ I replied, ―it looked like the big black guy came up here, like you said, to try to scare
the guy…I think he thought he was probably going to assault the man.‖
―Very true, very true. So what‘s the problem?‖
―Why did the guy suddenly back off of Phynordie and start smacking his kid? That‘s not what
he came up here to do! You gave him a ‗free ticket‘ to do whatever he wanted. Was he just scared to use
it? Did he think you didn‘t mean it?‖
Mashford had his giggly expression on, and for a moment I didn‘t think he was going to explain
it to me, but then his face became more serious. ―Okay, Guisbert, I‘ll tell you. It had nothing to do with
him not trusting me. The man knew I wouldn‘t go back on my word. What really happened here is that
the big black fellow saw a little white guy and thought that that was all he needed to know. But he was
wrong. There was something else he needed to know, and he did find it out.‖
―You remember when they were staring at each other?‖
―The fact is that when the big guy looked into Phynordie‘s eyes he finally recognized something
that he had never expected to see…‖
―Why would he see that?‖
―Because Phynordie was a ‗tunnel rat‘ in Vietnam. He killed probably hundreds of people with
guns, knives, and even his bare hands. Our big dude finally recognized the ‗killer‘ in Phynordie‘s eyes;
so, he had no choice, if he wanted to live: he had to turn around and smack his kid. He did that to save
his own life. He knew he couldn‘t get into a fight with that crazy little white man.‖
Mashford had this smug look on his face, like he had just taught me the greatest lesson I could
ever possibly learn. But while it was certainly interesting, I didn‘t think it was going to be so helpful as
―There‘s one big problem here,‖ I told him.
―What‘s that?‖ Mashford‘s smug face remained unchanged.
―What the hell has this go to do with me?‖ I asked. ―I didn‘t kill anybody in Vietnam. I didn‘t
even go there! I was a draft protester. This guy today would have beaten the shit out of me. What could
I have done with him?‖
Mashford‘s smug look was gone, and, for the first time I think he saw me honestly for who I
was. He just stared at me for a long moment.
―Ah, fuck you, Guisbert,‖ he finally said. ―Go to hell.‖ Then he turned around and walked
A Wee Bit of a Hangover
Despite my great desire to try to help my students, most of the time I found it nearly impossible
to handle both Pickett's children and the KORS Reading Program at the same time.
Something was always stopping me from talking to whatever group of kids that I was supposed
to be talking to at any particular moment. Either the KORS Reading Specialist would get so loud that I
couldn‘t be heard, or she would tell me that I should quiet down, or from one to a half dozen of the
kids, suddenly, in the midst of a lesson, would have to borrow ―another pencil‖ (they‘d been given one
thirty seconds ago), or somebody had lost their little ―KORS Skills‖ book, or several kids would start
demanding to go to the bathroom ―right now,‖ or somebody would start bothering somebody else, or
somebody would threaten that they were ―getting set to kick somebody else‘s motherfucking ass,‖
or…one of an infinite number of other choices!
It was amazing that in 1978, when so many of Pickett's kids were three, four, or even more
years over-aged (which was no longer true only a few years later), that so many of the kids could be so
childish and yet so over-sized and potentially dangerous.
I finally realized that—since I was not the dynamic, intimidating, forceful sort who by sheer
size, athletic skills, or attitude could control my class—my only solution for teaching the KORS
Program to these kids—and thus, helping my students and keeping my new job—was that I needed to
prepare full ―Directions Sheets‖ for every KORS skill (for both groups, too), so that even the kids who
couldn‘t talk to me right away about whatever they thought their personal needs were at that moment,
would know what they were supposed to do for the DORT lesson.
I had some immediate success with this approach. True, some of the kids did just throw the
directions sheets on the floor, or take them to their desks and then ignore them, but many were glad to
get them. These kids did start using the sheets to work hard and learn what they could while I battled
their less cooperative classmates.
Creating the ―Directions Sheets‖ was the first important advance I ever made in that school
toward identifying some of the better and more cooperative students. In some classes they were the
majority, in others only a handful, but the sheets gave me a much more realistic appraisal of the many
different kinds of kids at Pickett. There were a surprising number who really wanted to learn
something—if only somebody could find the means to break through all the obstacles that blocked you
from communicating with them.
The ―Directions Sheets‖ did have a couple of ―downsides,‖ unfortunately. The first was that,
after all, the sheets only told my students how to do ―KORS Lessons‖—so neither my students nor I
could ever really believe that anything substantial was being accomplished. The second problem was
how hard it was to produce the things, and the huge cost to my health and personal ―teaching
This problem was caused by the fact of when I would have to produce these directions sheets.
Everyday when I left Pickett I was so stressed out that there was no way that I could just sit down at a
typewriter and start writing lessons right away. Perhaps only urban middle school teachers who work in
really tough schools understand this, but by the end of each school day I was so upset, had such
crashing chest pains and dizziness, that it was all I could do to drive home, make dinner, and get really
drunk. Most days when I left school I couldn‘t imagine ever going back to that horrible place, and
totally defeated by the negative circumstances of the day, I would stagger toward a meal and toward
what I had suddenly decided what okay to replace my once daily drug addictions with: at least half a
bottle of scotch whiskey, every night.
Getting drunk, I watched a lot of half hour comedy shows. In those days, ―Mary Tyler Moore,‖
―The Odd Couple,‖ and ―Barney Miller‖ were three of my favorite shows. Watching them, roaring
drunk, with a big steak dinner (I was single; the one thing I could afford was a whole lot of cheap
steaks) seemed truly a lot of relative fun—especially after what I had been through during the day.
Drinking and watching those shows was the only thing that kept me coming back to crazy Pickett
Junior High that first year.
I always fell asleep pretty early—always by 8 p.m., and I would wake up anywhere between 1
AM and 4 AM. By then, though terribly hung over, I would finally feel human again, and the chest
pains would have stopped enough for me to now try some schoolwork. So I would drink a lot of coffee
and have breakfast while I created those damned directions sheets for KORS. By the time I got to work
that morning, I would be recovering pretty good from the scotch; I would be just another ―hung-over‖
teacher in a school that was mostly staffed every morning with teachers with hangovers.
One morning, however, I didn‘t wake up until ten minutes before my first hour class was to
begin. I decided to rush straight to work, just as I was. I went in to work in the same clothing that I had
worn the day before and had fallen asleep in. I didn‘t eat breakfast. I hadn‘t even made the directions
sheets for that day‘s lessons.
It didn‘t occur to me, in my still drunken state, that my school dress clothing was not only
terribly wrinkled from having slept in it all night, it was also soaked in sweat—sweat that stank of
scotch whiskey. I hadn‘t shaved, which is always very noticeable with my very dark beard, and my hair
was sticking out in about eighty directions. Since I had only been able to afford second hand clothing
from the local, Christian ―Good Will‖ store—now completely wrinkled and scotch-sweat soaked—I
really looked and smelled like a bum off the street.
Driving to work, however, I felt like a big hero for dragging my sorry, pounding head and
aching body to my very tough job. But, all too soon, my students sure pointed out exactly how I looked
Realizing how bad it was, I didn‘t try to lie about it. I just told the truth that I‘d had too much to
drink the night before, and that I had a pretty severe hangover. Almost all of my students were
sympathetic; one boy said that his ―old man‖ did that sort of thing once in a while, but he knew that his
―old man‖ worked really hard, so he just left him alone when he got like that.
I appreciated his kindness; I was receiving more and more of that all the time from some of my
students. But there was one student who wasn‘t so kind about it. I‘ll call her ―LaTonya Green.‖
―You remind me of my ‗old man,‘ too,‖ LaTonya said. ―My old man a stinkin‘ drunk and I hate
his fuckin‘ guts. He drunk all the time, and he useless. I don‘ want for my teacher to be a fuckin‘ drunk,
I tried ignoring her profanity, and apologized for my condition. I said I would do a lot better in
―Why should anybody believe that shit?‖ she asked. ―You been coming in here wit‘ a hangover
pract‘ly every day. Maybe they don‘ notice it but I sure does. You ain‘t fuckin‘ foolin‘ me ‗cause my old
man just like you!‖
I apologized again and said I was serious: I really would do better. I didn‘t contest LaTonya‘s
contention that I‘d had hangovers before—she obviously knew the truth.
Unfortunately, Latonya wouldn‘t stop with her profane tirades against my condition, nor would
she stop comparing me to the father she obviously disliked so much. Finally, it became absolutely clear
that I wasn‘t going to be able to teach anything at all with her still in the room. Reluctantly, I sent her to
the counselor‘s office.
It turned out that the principal, Mr. Winston Ferguson, had been hanging around the counseling
department that morning, because five minutes prior to the end of my first hour class, I got the
following note from him. I read it standing outside my classroom door, where I‘d gone, because of my
hangover, to get some air.
The young lady that you sent to the Guidance Center has been down here making
some pretty serious allegations about your present physical appearance and decorum.
You are to appear in my office promptly at 9:OO AM, at the beginning of your second
hour free period, to answer to her charges.
Well, at that point I figured I had lost my career. I didn‘t know much about Ferguson, but the
kids had really made it clear that I was a mess. I had been planning to try to wash up a little, maybe
find a razor on my second hour free period, but now I had like… five minutes… before Ferguson
would see my condition and fire me. I was a ―probationary teacher‖—I didn‘t have a chance.
―What the fuck is your problem? Damn! You look like shit! What happened to you?‖
It was a man that I‘m going to call ―Mr. Bradley.‖ He was a math teacher in his fifties. He was
skinny, strong, and one of the other young white male teachers at Pickett had warned me that Bradley
was very prejudiced against whites. No doubt, Bradley had an attitude and kept few opinions to
Right then I didn‘t give a shit about who was prejudiced and who wasn‘t. All I was thinking was
that my whole teaching career was down the toilet. I handed Bradley the note from Mr. Ferguson. He
―What you do?‖ Bradley asked, handing it back to me. ―Stay up all night drinking?‘
―Pretty much. I finally fell asleep in my clothes, and I woke up too late to change before work.‖
―Why the fuck you drinking so much and so late? Some female?‖
―I wish.‖ I paused, a little embarrassed. ―It was because of stress from this crazy place. I‘m sure
that experienced guys like you don‘t have that kind of problem, not any more, but I‘ve been having it,
big time. ‖
Bradley gave me a funny look, like I had just said something stupid. Suddenly I thought I knew
―You mean you‘ve never had problems with stress here?‖ I asked. Now I was really impressed
with this guy.
―She-e-e-t-t-t!!!!!!! Everybody that work here get drunk because of this fucked up place—at
least once in a while—even if we been here a long time. But, the ‗experienced guys‘ don‘t come in
lookin‘ like you do right now!‖
I hung my head. I was certain I was screwed. But Bradley didn‘t leave. He just stood there,
staring at me. ―There‘s just one thing I want to know,‖ he said to me after a short pause, ―and if you
give me the right answer I‘m going to help you.‖
I looked over at him. I was kind of shocked. I had thought he had come over, like a vulture over
the body of some fresh kill, a prejudiced black guy celebrating the demise of a young white upstart. I
was so surprised I confronted him with what I had heard about him.
―I've heard that you‘re prejudiced against white people. Why would you be willing to help me?‖
Bradley wasn‘t really upset with my question. ―I ain‘t none too fond of a whole lot of whites,‖
he said, conceding some of my point. ―But this thing here, right now, is only about one issue: Have
you joined the DFT?‖
He was referring to the local teachers‘ union. ―Of course I have,‖ I answered. ―After my last
experience, teaching in a Catholic school, with no union, I came to really believe in unions.‖
―That‘s all I need to know. ―‗DFT‘ mean way more to me than what color people is around here,
so you qualified to receive my help as long as you smart enough to accept it. If you doesn‘t want to get
fired you better come with me right away.‖
―But what about my class? I can‘t just leave them—not even for the last few minutes of the
Bradley waved a quiet and very large passing ninth grade boy over. ―Go in and watch Mr.
Guisbert‘s class while we go get him cleaned up!‖ The boy instantly did as he was told, and in like
three seconds he had better control over that group than I'd had all year.
―Don‘t get jealous of that boy‘s ability to control your group,‖ Bradley told me, seeing me stare
into the doorway, in wonderment over the boy‘s easy mastery of the situation. ―He don‘t read or write
that well, and we really do need people like you around who do, so kids like him can get helped.‖ The
boy heard Bradley, and looking out toward us, gave Bradley a single, quick nod in agreement.
Bradley took me down to the Home Economics room where Mrs. Brown was teaching.
The ninth grade kids in that room were walking all over the place, but almost everybody seemed to
have some sort of purpose. Those that didn‘t weren‘t bothering anybody.
―We got a young teacher to clean up, before Mr. Ferguson fire him,‖ Bradley told Mrs. Brown.
Brown looked at me and obviously understood the whole situation immediately. ―Get him into the
closet,‖ she ordered.
Well, it was a pretty big closet—a couple of people could have stood up in there, pretty
comfortably—but it really was a closet. I was thinking they were going to hide me in there so Ferguson
couldn‘t find me and fire me. It seemed like a pretty stupid idea.
―Get me his pants, his shoes, his shirt, and his sports jacket,‖ Brown said to Bradley, just
outside the slightly open door of the closet.
―Huh?‖ I said. I didn‘t understand why she wanted that stuff.
―You better take that shit off so I can hand it to her, if you don‘t want to get fired,‖ Bradley said,
walking into the small closet with me. He had an electric razor in his hand, and a rag and some black
shoe polish. ―We gonna fix you up really quick, so you look like you should have when you come in
here this morning.‖
I handed out all the requested articles to Mrs. Brown. Bradley told me she was taking them to a
back room where she had an ironing board and a hot iron.
Bradley made me shave really quick and he handed out my shoes for a kid to shine up with the
polish. They came back looking gorgeous.
Mrs. Brown handed in mouthwash, deodorant, and aftershave. By the time the whole process
was done—which took maybe four and a half minutes—I came out looking like a Marine on parade.
Bradley made me look at myself in a big mirror.
―When you speak to Mr. Ferguson,‖ Bradley warned me, ―‖Don‘t get too close. There‘s still a
scotch smell here that the deodorant and the mouthwash haven‘t totally hid. But he shouldn‘t notice it if
you give him a lil‘ room.‖
―Have you guys done this before?‖ I asked in amazement. ―This is incredible.‖
―Yeah. We done this before,‖ Bradley replied. ―But this ain‘t something that we can be doin‘ all
the time. Ferguson ain‘t stupid. You can fool him today, for sure. But you can‘t make no career out of
foolin‘ him. Get goin‘!‖
So I went downstairs and found Ferguson in his office, with LaTonya Green seated next to his
desk talking to him. She was really looking comfortable and important until she saw my ―new look.‖
Then her jaw crashed down to the floor, like she'd just seen a dead man outrun a rocket.
Ferguson immediately got this look on his face like he had really been bamboozled by what he
had thought was a reliable and seemingly charming young lady.
―Miss Green,‖ Ferguson said standing up. ―I am greatly perplexed by what I am now looking at
with my own two eyes. Do my eyes deceive me, or is Mr. Gusibert not properly clean, well-shaven,
with his clothes pressed, his shoes shined…?‖
Poor LaTonya Green could only stare dumbfounded. ―I don‘t know how he did it,‖ she kept
saying. Her eyes glazed over and she looked like she might go into a trance.
―Mr. Guisbert,‖ Ferguson said in a now very ‗serious and extremely disappointed‘ voice. ―Do
you have any idea why LaTonya would make up allegations about you being drunk and disheveled?‖
―Sometimes,‖ I replied, ―I think LaTonya‘s got problems distinguishing between reality and
fantasy. That‘s all I know.‖ I didn‘t really feel that bad saying this about the poor girl. She had been a
constant pain in the neck, threatening people and using profanity to describe everything. Since she did
seem to think that such behavior was acceptable in school, I supposed you could say she had “problems
distinguishing between reality and fantasy...”
―Should I exclude her from school? Would you like to have a conference with her parent? I
think this sort of dishonesty is really serious.‖ Ferguson glared at the girl.
―I don‘t think that will be necessary. Could you just counsel her? I‘m sure you can explain to
her the potential seriousness of what she did.‖
Ferguson‘s whole expression came alive with my implied compliment that I knew he could
―handle it from there.‖ He got this heroic ―Mount Rushmore‖ look on his face and when I left I could
see him start really going at it with the girl. He was pompous, but basically a decent fellow, and I knew
he wouldn‘t do her any more harm than maybe nearly boring her to death.
The girl was already starting to roll her eyes as I walked out, but you could tell she had no
intention of arguing. Most of the kids around there knew that if you could endure Ferguson‘s lectures,
you could avoid any really serious trouble.
* * *
LaTonya Green never gave me any more trouble. She came back to class the next day and told
me, ―I don‘t know how you did that yesterday, but anybody smart enough to pull a trick like that is
nobody I‘m gonna mess with!‖ And she always got high grades after that. We never became close, but I
did hear about a decade later that she had a nice job and was doing okay.
―Mr. Bradley‖ became a friend, one of three people that for many years I would go out to lunch
with whenever we had half days. I didn‘t ever try to learn his whole life story, nor he mine, but it
became clear that he had good reasons for his distrust of many whites. But he was a man who firmly
believed that people could transcend their prejudices, if they really wanted to.
I didn‘t totally stop drinking until I married my beloved wife several years later. But, after the
―LaTonya Green‖ incident, I slowed it down considerably and never reported to work in such a
I soon found that hard exercise was a far better way to deal with the stress of teaching at Pickett.
I also became a better teacher later, and that also started cutting down on my stress, at least somewhat.
Murder on the Redmond Bridge
By far the most infamous event of 1978-1979, my first full school year at Pickett Junior High,
was the murder of one of our students on what I'll call the ―Redmond Bridge‖ over a nearby freeway.
This occurred right after school, in front of hundreds of students.
A seventeen year old used a shotgun to kill a fourteen year old who had allegedly stolen
somebody‘s expensive ―Max Julien‖ coat. (A ―Max Julien‖ was a very popular, black leather, short-
waisted coat, with a fur-lined hood.) The coat's owner had previously taken out a twenty-five cent
―insurance policy,‖ with one of the local neighborhood ―tough guys,‖ so that he was assured of getting
revenge if somebody tried to steal his popular coat.
So, after the theft, the coat's owner ran to his insurer, the ―tough guy,‖ to report the theft; and the
―tough guy‖ then came out with a shotgun and gunned down the alleged perpetrator—in front of about
a quarter of Pickett's student body. You may have heard that people in rough urban neighborhoods don‘t
like to testify in court, but, for this case, more than 350 willing and cooperative student witnesses made
themselves available to the prosecutor.
Winston Ferguson made many speeches to the staff about the incident—you could see that it
had really shaken him up. The problem for me was that because I was a young teacher, and in many
ways very immature, I didn't understand why this one was supposed to be so different from the rest of
the very large number of student and ex-student murders that we'd been hearing about all year. Sure, a
lot of students had seen this horrible murder, but our students often saw gunfire—and shootings—on
their way home from school. Another kid was dead, just like all the other ones: Why was this one so
special when we hadn't gotten that worked up over the other ones?
What I hadn‘t grasped yet was how many kids in that troubled school were actually pretty
normal—despite being raised in such an awful neighborhood with all those other really terrible kids.
Ferguson knew very well that many of the kids were normal and decent—he knew that those normal
and decent kids who had witnessed this thing had been truly traumatized; he also knew that even the
other more messed up kids who had seen this particular murder had been traumatized.
Ferguson rightly realized that it was the context and of this crime, plus its implications—not
merely its typical result—that made it so bad. Not only had the victim of this crime been killed openly,
without any thought of trying to hide the killing from the several hundreds of witnesses, it had been
done for merely twenty-five cents. After that, what could anybody‘s life in that school be worth?
Ferguson was right to be totally appalled. But I was too busy trying to figure out how to teach
DORT, too busy trying to dry out before school from my nighttime drunks—and, finally, too busy
trying to quit drinking—and too busy trying to deal with my living students to be anywhere near as
worked up as he got. Kids got killed in that neighborhood, periodically; it was horrible, but we all knew
it was part of the landscape. I hadn‘t known the victim or the perpetrator, so how could I do any really
Later, after my wife gave birth to our two sons and I became a father, I started understanding
what Ferguson, a man who was so proud of his own children, had felt about the ―murder on the
Redmond bridge.‖ Back at this point, however, I was still trying to figure out ―How to Get Real.‖ That
process had a long way to go.
Part Two: A Student Teaching Experience
and a Childhood Experience; Then, More
Years at Pickett Junior High:
The Donor 48
Golfing with Ward Cleaver 51
The Prank 55
Momma Lorraine 58
“Capping” and “Prevailing” 60
Developing New Lessons 64
In 1975, while I was getting a teaching certificate at Wayne State, I did some student teaching at
a Detroit high school with 80 % Polish kids, and mostly Polish teachers. It was the only time in my
career that I worked with anything less than 99% African American students.
One of the teachers at this school, a man that I‘ll call ―Mr. Madrosky,‖ was in charge of the
school's ―auto shop.‖ Nearly all of the students who elected to take his class, did so because they had
failed in every thing else in that school, and Majorsky's ―auto shop‖ class was often their last chance to
gain any kind of an employable skill.
Madrosky fully realized what his class meant to these kids, and, because of his class's
overwhelming importance, he did something that was well outside both the school's (and probably the
legal system's, too) guidelines for what his class should offer.
What Majorsky did was offer his ―last chance‖ students a different automobile each and every
school day, to tear apart, and put back together. He offered them everything, from small compacts, to
sport cars, to the finest luxury cars in the world. Many people, including the school's principal,
marveled at the sheer array and diversity of the different machines Majorsky offered his students.
Majorsky always gratefully acknowledged the ―many wonderfully generous donors‖ within the
Polish community who, he said, were always helping him out.
The truth, however, was that Majorsky's ―donors‖ were really his ten or so brothers, all Detroit
police officers, mostly all working in the same nearby police precinct. Every school morning, between
5 and 6 AM, one of his brothers, or their friends, would bring Majorsky a different stolen car, hooked to
a cop tow truck, straight out of the impound lot. Like clockwork, the cop tow truck would drop off the
new car, always before 6 AM, when practically nobody was at the school, and take away the car from
the day before, which the kids had disassembled and then put back together.
When the cars arrived in the morning, a number of the kids in Madrosky‘s unorthodox little
group would already be there, warming up their teacher‘s coffee, and they would then drag in the new
car, in preparation for the day‘s new activities.
I can safely assure you that that Madrosky‘s students were getting one hell of an education in
The principal of Majorsky's high school, a man that I shall call ―Mr. Black,‖ was not exactly
popular. Mr. Black was a nit-picker for the smallest details, and always insisted on ―going through
channels‖ with his directives to teachers. Sometimes his orders would take so long to ―go through
channels,‖ that by the time they reached his intended object the original problem had long since turned
into a major catastrophe—not that Mr. Black would give a damn. He was like a bureaucratic sadist who
really enjoyed people's discomfort and frustration in dealing with him. To top it off, Black also loved to
stand by the exit doors to make sure that the tired teachers with last hour free periods couldn‘t sneak
out a couple minutes early to avoid the end of the school day traffic snarls.
Mr. Black found lots of small ways to aggravate both the staff and the students, and while the
staff simply despised him, the students for quite some time had been retaliating by writing things all
over his car, in its designated ―Reserved for School Principal‖ spot out in the lot, with permanent magic
markers. But Black felt he had the kids outsmarted: he had bought an old beat up Plymouth Duster,
rusty as all get out, and he always drove it to school and couldn‘t have cared less what the kids wrote
on it. The more they wrote, the more he bragged, ―My Cadillac is at home; that‘s my real car. These
kids will never get near that!‖
Unfortunately, one afternoon Mr. Black‘s Duster just wouldn‘t start and he had to have it towed
to a garage near his home; the fact it was such a piece of junk had finally caught up to him. So, the next
morning he had to drive his “real car,” his Cadillac, to work. To make this situation even worse, he
had just traded his older Cadillac in for a brand new one—this new one that he had to drive to school
was less than a week old.
Black was no fool; he knew he couldn‘t possibly park this beautiful car in his normal principal‘s
―reserved‖ parking spot. The kids would have known immediately whose Cadillac it was—he had
bragged to them and the staff about owning a Cadillac enough. The kids would have had a field day.
Black also knew that he couldn‘t bring the car in at the regular time. Someone would have seen
him; he couldn‘t even trust the staff members not to spread the alarm that he had arrived with his oh-so-
vulnerable and yet so-wonderfully-treasured brand new Cadillac.
So Black came skulking into the school‘s parking lot around 5:25 AM, lights off, looking for a
spot to park where no one would suspect his new car‘s true owner. Then he spotted the area behind the
school‘s auto shop. He knew there were lots of different cars there all the time, and he knew that there
was so much activity around there that no one would have the necessary privacy there to steal or
vandalize his precious secret. So he parked there, and walked around the building to another entrance.
He believed that no one had seen him: his secret seemed safe!
When the Polish cops with the tow truck came by to drop off the car that they had, they were
surprised to see the brand new Cadillac parked in their drop-off spot. But they just figured that Mr.
Madrosky had lots of good friends—somebody was sure being generous, letting the kids work on this
car! So they left, taking their much less impressive offering back to the precinct‘s pound.
At six AM, Madrosky‘s sleepy students started their teacher‘s coffee pot and then went outside.
They found the Cadillac, put it on a shop jack, then dragged it inside the auto shop.
Around ten AM, Mr. Black the principal came wandering through the shop. He often did that,
always fascinated to see the latest generous ―donation‖ that Majorsky had received. Right away, he was
qutie surprised to see the boys working on a car so similar to his own. The parts of the ―similar car‖ lay
sprawled across the shop—everything that could have been disassembled already had been. From a
good distance it would have looked almost like one of those ―Revell‖ plastic car model kits, just out of
its clear plastic wrap, prior to any of the assembly steps.
After ten seconds or so of marveling at the similarity between this and his own vehicle, Mr.
Black's eyes momentarily settled on the car's rear bumper, sitting off in a corner, with the license plate
still attached. The truth of the situation suddenly became manifest.
Of course, because of the manner of Mr. Black's subsequent reaction, all students‘ hands and all
possible haste were put into trying to reassemble his beloved Cadillac, as fast as possible. (Rumors,
however, did immediately begin leaking out into the rest of the school, causing teachers who heard of
the ―situation in the auto shop‖ to erupt into bursts of hysterical laughter, hugging, tears, and other such
displays. ―Everybody in this school is in such a good mood today,” I heard one teacher say. “Well,
everybody except for Mr. Black,” she added. Then she burst into another fit of laughter. )
Sadly, Mr. Black‘s Cadillac did not go back together as easily as it had come apart. In fact, after
―reassembly,‖ the car always made some pretty strange clanging and crunching sounds as it came down
the street. It was so bad that Black ended up driving the damned thing to school all the time. He didn‘t
see much reason to protect it anymore. Funny thing was that the kids never got to writing on the thing,
the way they had on his Duster. I guess they liked it exactly the way it was.
Golfing With Ward Cleaver
Almost two decades before I became a schoolteacher, when I was seven years old, my next-
door neighbor gave me an old wooden shafted set of golf clubs. I took to golf immediately—and gained
a love for it that will continue to my dying day. It wasn‘t that I was any damned good at golf, but I
didn‘t care. Knocking a ball around with a stick has always appealed to something really basic in me.
At first, getting out to play was a problem, because nobody I knew, including my neighbor and
my parents, actually played golf. But I really wanted to play, very badly. Finally, after much begging,
when I was around nine, I got my dad to start taking me out to various public golf courses on his way
to work. He was a big shot and could always leave work, later, to go pick me up. Then he would take
me home, then go back to work. (Yes, sometimes my dad could be a really nice guy!)
I was pretty young, but, whenever we would arrive in a golf course parking lot in the morning,
my dad would always start talking to golfers coming in, and he always found some respectable
business-style guy to take me around. (Keep in mind that this took place in the 1950's: it was a very
different and much safer and friendlier era than now!) Usually my dad and whomever he chose had
mutual business friends or acquaintances (my dad knew an awful lot of people); by the time he got
through talking to some of these guys, they were always really happy to take me around.
One day at one of the local Detroit city courses my dad found this guy who really reminded me
of ―Mr. Cleaver‖ on the old ―Leave It to Beaver‖ TV show. This guy was really calm looking and with
his pipe and ―wise-looking demeanor‖ was the kind of guy that you would have thought ―any young
boy‖ would have ―done quite well, thank you,‖ had he gone to him for any important advice.
It turned out that he was an excellent golfer, too, the best I‘d ever seen. The first hole we played
(we played the back nine) was a par five; he was on the green in two shots. I hadn‘t even known that
was possible: I hadn‘t ever played with anyone who had hit a par five in less than five shots.
The second hole was a very long par four, nearly as long as the par five. ―Mr. Cleaver‖ hit an
extremely nice drive.
―How long do you think it is from here to the green?‖ I asked him, when we got up to his ball. I
had already hit my ball somewhere between fifteen and twenty times—I guess. I never kept count.
―Oh, I‘d say about a hundred and eighty yards,‖ he replied, taking his always lit pipe from his
mouth. ―Why do you ask?‖
I was pretty proud of my answer. ―Well,‖ I said proudly, ―I‘ve read a lot of golf books that my
mom brought home from the library. The last one was by Sam Snead. He had a chart that told what
distances that golfers should use their clubs for. He said that from a hundred and eighty yards you‘re
supposed to hit a three iron. So that‘s what you‘re going to hit, right?‖
I was really confident that I was right; so, I was especially surprised that ―Mr. Cleaver‖ didn‘t
immediately agree. He looked at me with these sad, kind eyes.
―I think we‘re going to have to ignore Mr. Snead‘s advice for today,‖ he said in a very
sympathetic, apologetic voice. ―Actually, today I want to try a little ‗strategy‘ here, and that will require
a different club choice. Today I‘m going to use a pitching wedge.‖
He took out the pitching wedge, placed his pipe carefully on the grass—where he had been
putting it for all shots—then hit a nice little shot about halfway to the green.
―What did you do that for, mister? What did you do that for?‖ I was confused: I knew he could
have easily hit the green from where he‘d been; what was the point of this?
―‗Strategy,‘ son, ‗strategy,‘‖ was his answer. And the kindly man picked up his pipe, and
patiently walked forward with me as I took another dozen shots or so to reach the new position of his
When we got to it I was really positive now that I had figured out his ―strategy.‖ ―Practicing the
ol‘ wedge today, ‗ay sir?‖ I asked. That had to be the answer.
It looked like the man had almost exactly the same distance to the green as he‘d hit his last
shot. What else could he do?
―I‘m not going to be playing another wedge here,‖ he responded. ―My ‗strategy‘ requires that
three iron you wanted me to hit a minute or two ago. Now is the time to hit it.‖ I noticed that he had
gotten a really serious look on his face—this ―strategy‖ stuff was really important to him.
What the heck was the point of hitting the three-iron now? I didn‘t get it at all.
―Are you going to try a ‗British pitch and run shot‖?‖ I asked, suddenly thinking of Snead‘s
discussion of that ―special alternative for very windy days.‖ But it wasn‘t windy today, not at all.
I give him credit. ―Mr. Ward Cleaver‖ was always very patient with all my nagging questions.
He never got angry. He took a final few puffs on his pipe and placed it on the grass.
―We‘ll know in a second whether my ‗strategy‘ works out okay or not,‖ he said. ―Stand back.‖
The man addressed the ball, and as I remember now the kind of a shot that he hit, he must have
left a lot of weight on his left side, and he probably had his hands pretty far ahead of their normal
address position. That‘s because he hit a very low shot. It was low, but it was absolutely crushed.
I‘ve never seen another shot in my entire life that was hit as hard. It took off screaming, but was
no more than a foot high for maybe forty, fifty yards. Then it started climbing, very slowly, almost
When it reached the green of the eleventh hole it was maybe three feet high. It scorched over
the green like an F-14 fighter in pursuit of a bandit. It seemed to be accelerating, and still rising very
slowly. I was stunned to see it just clear the fence behind the green, with no room to spare. So it had it
left the golf course property. It crossed the street behind the fence and went zooming across a
homeowner‘s front lawn. A very large, Victorian-style, living room picture window jumped up in front
of its path, offering us an impressive and heroic aspect, similar to that of a mobile and long-armed
middle linebacker moving to intercept an exploding running back…
The picture window made a great ―tackle,‖ but the enormous “KERRRASHHH!!!!!!!” told us
that its ―playing days‖ were now over.
I was astonished by the shot, by the incredibly loud sound of the crash at 5:45 a.m., and even
more so by the fact that when the window exploded, ―Mr. Cleaver‖ finished his golf swing with a
showy, flourishing finish, spinning the club and all, like this was the exact objective that he had hoped
for. I looked at him with very wide eyes.
―Perfect!‖ the man said, exulting over the results. ―Now, let‘s go see how the rest of my
‗strategy‘ works out!‖ And he put his club back in his bag, picked up his pipe, and began walking very
fast toward where his golf ball had just destroyed somebody‘s very expensive living room picture
Before he could make it all the way to the fence, a woman in her forties, wearing a bathrobe and
hair curlers came flying out of the front door. “What the fuck?! What the fuck?!” she was screaming.
“What fucking asshole did this?!”
―Ward Cleaver‖ was quickly into range, and responded in kind. ―You bitch! You bitch!” he
yelled at her, through the fence. “This is what you get, you bitch!”
What was really bizarre about the way he was yelling at her was that though he had increased
his volume, his tone was still relatively civilized. He still looked and sounded like “Ward Cleaver.”
I did see some anger on the man‘s face, but, over-all, it was still controlled by a seeming
fatherly kindness—though he was quite clearly very glad that he had done this. He was obviously quite
proud of his golf shot, and, interestingly, he was also glad that I, a very young boy, had had the chance
to witness it.
Ward Cleaver and the woman in hair curlers went on yelling and cursing at each other for
another five minutes, or maybe even more, with him still sounding pleased and fairly calm, despite his
cursing and screaming. But the woman sounded pretty demonic, frankly.
After a while, even I, as dumb and naïve and young as I was, was able to figure out from their
conversation that they had just finished a nasty divorce. I also was able to figure out that she had just
won ownership of this, their home, in court, the day before. (He told her, amidst all the yelling, that the
broken front window was her “new house warming present.”)
Finally the police arrived. Neighbors who came outside, then said things like, ―Oh my!‖ and
―This has really gotten out of hand!‖ had clearly summoned them.
Seeing the police coming up the street, ―Mr. Ward Cleaver‖ decided enough was enough, and
decided to disengage from the argument. Ignoring his ex-wife who continued screaming obscenities,
insults, and various threats, ―Mr. Cleaver‖ put his arm around my shoulder as we walked toward the
―Did you like my fucking ‗strategy‘?‖ he asked, beaming. ―That was the best mother-fucking
shot I ever hit in my entire life!‖ he bragged.
I told him I thought it indeed had been quite an impressive shot. And, frankly, considering what
his objective was, I have never seen a better shot, not in the more than forty-five years that I have
played and watched golf since.
My third year at Pickett, I began staying after school a lot. I played basketball with some of the
other younger teachers, and with some of the nicer kids who might hang around, and the exercise was a
good way to deal with the enormous stress of working there.
One day, maybe twenty minutes after the final bell, after I put some assignments on my board, I
heard that there had been a gang fight. I walked up to near the main office to try to find out what had
happened. A history teacher named Henry Lake and the policeman, Mr. Mashford, were coming down
the hall. They were carrying an unconscious boy, and said they were taking him to the new head
―What happened to him?‖ I asked.
―Somebody busted him in the jaw during the fight outside,‖ Mashford said. ―He‘ll be okay in
maybe about a half hour.‖
―How do you know that?‖
―Mr. Mashford used to be a ‗fight doctor‘ for boxing matches,‖ Mr. Lake interjected. ―He
knows. I guarantee it.‖
―The boy just got his ‗bell rung,‘‖ Mashford said. ―He be fine in a little while. We just putting
him down on the carpeted floor in the head counselor‘s office so he can lie there safely until he come
to. We didn‘t wanna just leave him lyin‘ out in the street.‖
I had seen the two of them bring in hurt and unconscious kids before—though I‘d never been
this up close to one of them—and I also really needed to use the lavatory, so I left them to carry out
their solemn-seeming task. Obviously, there was nothing I could contribute to the situation. When I
came back from the bathroom, maybe five minutes later, I found the same two men coming down the
hall, carrying yet another unconscious male student.
This time they told me that, well, it had been a rather big gang fight, and that, in fact, this was
not the second, but the fifth unconscious student that they had brought in…fortunately, this was finally
the last one.
Mulling those facts over, I suddenly noticed that the two of them had little devilish looks on
their faces. Then it dawned on me that something wasn‘t so totally kosher here. There was something
that they were hiding from me. They clearly weren‘t worried about any of these kids; they seemed to be
up to some little scheme of their own.
―Just what are you two up to?‖ I demanded.
Lake, who was holding the unconscious boy by his arms and back just couldn‘t hide a little
impish grin. Even through Mashford‘s dark complexion, I could see that he was red in the face. He was
hiding the same little conspiracy, too.
―Okay, okay,‖ Lake said. ―We‘ll let you in on it, but you have to be totally quiet if we show
I agreed and I followed the two of them into the hallway of the main office, where entering the
head counselor‘s carpeted office, they placed the fifth of the unconscious boys down on the floor. All
five of the boys looked peaceful, and I couldn‘t but suppose that Mashford really had been a ―fight
doctor‖ and that all the kids would soon wake up, then be sent home.
The only really odd thing was, the new head counselor herself, the wife of a very prominent
local minister and politician, a man I‘ll call ―Reverend Dandell,‖ was also asleep in that room. She was
asleep at her desk, her head against a glass partition, snoring quite loudly.
Lake and Mashford motioned for me to say nothing and to follow them back outside.
―Is she okay?‖ I asked.
―Sure,‖ Mashford said. ―She just takin‘ a little afternoon ‗constitutional,‘ that‘s all.‖
―Does she know those kids are in there with her?‖
Mashford shook his head, choking back giggles and chuckles. ―Nope.‖
―Isn‘t this kind of mean?‖ I asked.
―Wait until you meet her,‖ Lake said. ―Once you know what‘s she‘s like, then you‘ll have a
better definition of ‗mean.‘‖
―Actually,‖ Mashford put in, fighting a losing battle to keep a straight face, ―we being a little
‗mean,‘ too. We know somethin‘ ‗bout Mrs.Dandell. Tell him what that is Lake. ‖
―The thing you gotta know about Mrs. Dandell is that she is very afraid of dead bodies,‖ Lake
said. ―She‘s one of the most superstitious, backwards people you could ever imagine of.‖
―You‘ll see. Follow us back in there, but don‘t say anything.‖
I followed, then watched as Mr. Lake re-opened the door of the counselor‘s office, then stood
there a moment before knocking pretty loudly on the glass partition that ran all the way over to where
Mrs. Dandell was sleeping. Mrs. Dandell, a heavy-set African American woman, probably in her later
fifties, woke up, saw him and me and smiled.
―Is it time to go home?‖ she asked. She stretched out her arms, yawning. Then she sat up at her
desk. This motion caused her to see the five unconscious, sleeping boys on the floor.
―What happened to them and why are they in my office?‖ she nearly shrieked.
―Sorry,‖ Lake said. ―They‘re all dead. We didn‘t know anywhere else to put them. Can you
watch them for us until Wayne County morgue come to pick them up?‖
There was nothing halfway about Mrs. Dandell‘s shrieking now. She shrieked so loudly that
everybody anywhere nearby in the building came running in to see what was the matter. They found
Dandell out in the hall acting like the entire rat population of North America had just crawled up her
leg. She had bolted quickly out of her office and had refused to go back in.
It took a little while for Lake to finally tell her the truth. I found out later that Henry Lake was a
Baptist minister himself, and had known Mrs. Dandell for years, and he had always loved pulling ―little
pranks‖ on her. He told me later that this one was probably his ―best.‖
Amazingly, Dandell‘s screaming had awakened none of the kids, but they all awakened soon
enough, and outside of temporary headaches, all were okay enough, especially considering what had
happened to them on that particular day.
I went on to find out that, despite his little jokes, Lake was an incredibly dedicated minister. I
would see him countless times run straight out into the midst of gang fights and even gunfights, to ―try
to save the children.‖ He would merely say, ―Praise the Lord,‖ and walk or even run straight out into
the midst of the worst imaginable violent situations. He was absolutely fearless, and had the most
absolute faith in God of any human being I have ever encountered.
Henry Lake was the greatest and most heroic Christian man that I have ever known. But he sure
loved playing his little jokes—sometimes I thought he was from another, more down home century,
like right out of a Mark Twain book. Mrs. Dandell was a very different kind of a person, and I will have
a little more to say about her in a while.
One mid October morning of 1981 found me standing in the hallway of Pickett Junior High,
talking to a heavy set, dark-complected black lady in her early sixties. She called herself something like
―Momma Lorraine.‖ She had come to my classroom door that day with a male student of mine who had
been excluded from school for a really bad fight. She had stated that she was his mother and said that
she had come up to get him readmitted to his classes.
The problem was, not only did she seem much too old and too dark-complected to be the
mother of this youthful and very light-complected boy, this was also the fourth time I had seen her in
the last several weeks coming up to readmit four very physically dissimilar boys. She had claimed that
she was the mother of the other three, too, and I had been suspicious of her truthfulness from the first
time I had met her.
So, this time I asked Momma Lorraine if, perhaps, this boy was her adopted son.
―He definitely my child,‖ she responded, and she slapped the boy across the side of his face, I
guess to prove her point. ―And I ain‘t havin‘ no more of this stuff out of him, I guarantee you!‖ The boy
cowered under the blow.
―Do you hear me?‖ she said to the boy, and she turned in a confrontational pose toward him,
making threatening gestures to slap the boy again.
―No ma‘am,‖ the boy said, his head hanging down.
The boy came back to class later that afternoon, and behaved much better than he ever had
before. But something still seemed amiss to me, so I tried asking him whether he was adopted.
―Well, actually Momma Lorraine be really my godmother,‖ he said. ―But don‘t tell her I said
that. She like to tell everybody she really my regular mother!‖
―Does she like to pretend that she‘s the blood mother of some other kids around here?‖ I asked.
―Is she the godmother to some other kids around here, too?‖
The boy got a guilty look on his face. ―I don‘t know nuthin‘ about that,‖ he replied. ―Can I
please go back to my English work?‖
Near the end of the day, I saw Henry Lake in the hall with his good friend, Mr. Johnson. I asked
them if they‘d ever heard of or met this ―Momma Lorraine.‖
Both men broke into wide grins and shared knowing looks. ―So you‘ve met the famous
‗Momma Lorraine,‘‖ Mr. Johnson replied. ―Just exactly what is your educated opinion of her?‖ Mr.
Johnson had this mock serious expression, as though he were addressing a great, scholarly authority.
I knew Mr. Johnson was making fun of me, but it was pretty friendly. ―I don‘t know what the
hell to make of her,‖ I replied.
―If you keep mentioning ‗hell‘ like that,‖ Lake said, ―you‘re liable to end up there someday.‖
―Sorry,‖ I apologized. ―Does she really have so many different children? She brought back one
of my students today, and he ended up telling me that she‘s really his godmother. Is that what she really
is to all these kids she‘s been bringing back—their godmother?‖
―She ain‘t even that,‖ Mr. Johnson replied. ―She‘s just a lady from off the street that the kids
bring in to pretend she‘s their mother, so‘s they can get back in school.‖
The whole notion scandalized me. ―That‘s terrible,‖ I said. ―I guess I better report this.‖ My
imagination was filled with images of kids being kicked by out, police reports, ‗‖Momma Lorraine‖
handcuffed, being taken off to jail…
―You might want to ask yourself a few questions before you go and do that,‖ Mr. Johnson
replied. ―First, have the kids that she brought back been better or worse after she brought them in?‖
―Well, better, frankly—―
―Then, second, why make a big deal out of it? It‘s been successful, hasn‘t it?‖
―Had you ever called any of their real parents before they got kicked out?‖
―Did that improve those kids‘ behavior in your classroom?‖
―No, not really.‖
―Then maybe you better leave Momma Lorraine alone.‖
―The Good Lord works in mysterious ways,‖ Mr. Lake added, ―and right now Momma Lorraine
seems, at least for you, to be a real blessing in your classroom.‖
―So, I should look at her as just a nice lady from the neighborhood who helps us to keep in line
some of our more troubled kids?‖
―Well,‖ Mr. Johnson answered, ―she ain‘t that nice. She does charge the kids $50 for coming up
here. She charges $75 for a return visit, if they get kicked out again.‖
―So she only does this for the money?‖
―That ain‘t the only reason. She gotta eat like everybody else.‖
I thought about it for a second. ―But why are the kids willing to pay her that much money? Why
do they want to get back into school so badly?‖
―They want to get back in for a variety of reasons, and all of them have some kind of problem
getting their parents up here. They usually want to get back in to see their friends, to come off the
street, out of the cold—stuff like that. Lots of times they just get bored staying at home or wandering
―It‘s true that Momma Lorraine has got a little business goin‘ here,‖ Mr. Lake added, ―but it
works okay, and frankly it works better than having a lot of the real parents come in. Why mess with
I took their advice, and as long as Momma Lorraine kept coming up there, she continued
causing the students that she brought back in to behave better in my room. Finally, the following
spring, some moron put in an official complaint, so there was a big fuss about her, and the school told
her she had to stop coming up.
The teachers at Pickett Junior High lost a real ally when she stopped coming up there.
'Capping‟ and „Prevailing‟
Another way that I suppose Henry Lake could have fit into a Mark Twain book was the way he
always traded humorous insults with the kids. He told me it was a ―black thing‖ that some people
called ―capping.‖ (There is an African tradition called ―the dozens,‖ based on trading retorts that seems
clearly similar.) The object was to get in such a ―good cap‖ on somebody that they just had to shut up
because they couldn‘t beat what you had said. According to Lake, ―you had to have the last word.‖
Lake engaged in this constantly, especially with some of the worst behaved and most deprived kids. He
always won, and, honestly, the kids loved it, because it let them know he was in charge, so that they
could relax in his classroom and do their work.
Though ―capping‖ clearly worked well for Lake—and for some of the other black male
teachers, too—I avoided using it for a long time. At first, I thought it was kind of demeaning. Later, I
continued to avoid it because I especially didn‘t want to lose a ―capping contest‖ to some crappily
Then, one day, the Wayne Country Health Department sent a young, attractive, nurse into my
classroom to briefly review some then current ―health issues.‖ Her references to any sexual diseases
were meant to be extremely brief, but one of my students, a ―comedian‖ who played on the basketball
team, wouldn‘t let her get off the ―sexual subject‖ once she started. He kept bringing up his girlfriend,
who he said, ―really needs to be given some kind of birth control, because she just can‘t keep her hands
off of me.‖ When the young nurse tried to ignore him, he got lots of laughter by asking, ―What kind of
birth control is recommended for an extremely horny female?‖
Something kind of snapped in me, and I interrupted the very flustered young nurse. ―I think that
a very good pair of eyeglasses would be a very effective method of birth control. I‘m quite sure that
those would solve the entire problem.‖
The class exploded into much louder laughter, and the boy was deflated. Interestingly, though,
he wasn‘t angry, and now the nurse‘s little talk proceeded much more smoothly.
For me, something ―new‖ was born: I had delivered a humorous insult to a misbehaving kid,
and he hadn‘t fallen apart. I had successfully employed Lake‘s ―capping.‖ And Lake was right: it
worked. Once I picked it up, I would never put it down again. Though the years I have been careful not
to use it on overly sensitive kids with low self-esteem. But there are some kids who crave being ―shot
down‖ by a teacher‘s ―cap.‖ Many kids feel that ―letting them have it‖ just shows you care.
Henry Lake was clearly both a hero and a friend to me, but I don‘t mean to suggest that his
conduct and style were the only important models that I had at Post. For one—among many others—
there was a white, very Christian man whom I‘ll name ―Mr. Richard Sennett,‖ who couldn‘t have been
more different from Henry Lake, but whom I ended up admiring greatly.
While I always liked Mr. Sennett, I certainly didn‘t admire his teaching style, not at first,
because he really had a lot of problems with classroom control. The kids at Pickett were really difficult
to keep in line, and Mr. Sennett was just too nice to do it. His room always looked like a catastrophe
with kids running in and out, running all over his classroom, and disobeying him right and left.
But, the strange thing was, he always had a reputation with his students for being ―a great math
teacher,‖ even with his worst classes. This was a mystery to me, because anytime you went past his
room, you saw utter chaos. Then one day, with the girls from one of Sennett's worst ever classes at a
meeting with a counselor, some of the boys from that class (who were skipping, because a sub was
running Sennett's classroom) made a bet with me (If I lost I had to buy them some pizza) that they
could do some really intricate basic math, by hand, involving ratios, fractions, and decimals—so that I
could complete a stupid, state-required attendance form that, due once every year, had always driven
me absolutely nuts. The boys did it the first time through, with ease, something that I had never come
close to accomplishing.
I was shocked: I hadn‘t thought these particular kids could do anything right, and though I had
always kept them relatively quiet, I had been having a lot of trouble teaching them much of anything.
And I knew for a fact that they were an absolute disaster every single day in Mr. Sennett's math
class…—The only thing I could figure was that they had had another much better math teacher before
having Mr. Sennett.
But when I asked them who had taught them how to do all these different mathematical
operations, every single one of them attributed it to Mr. Sennett.
How? I asked. I told them it seemed impossible, since they had always acted so horribly in Mr.
The answer was simple, according to the boys. Sure, they did act terrible in Mr. Sennett's‘ room,
but “Every time we settle down in his room,” one of them said, “he teaches us math. Mr. Sennett is the
only teacher we have, that no matter how bad we have been will still teach us something, even if we‟re
only quiet for a minute. Everybody else gets too mad at us and won‟t teach us after we‟ve been bad.”
It was clearly the truth, they all agreed, and after my having thought for two years that I was a
far superior teacher to Mr. Sennett, I now realized he was the better teacher, and also the better man.
These kids went on to say that Mr. Sennett taught them more ―in five minutes‖ than many of their
teachers ―in five months.‖
I never forgot the lesson I learned from this experience: that it is an extraordinary and difficult
requirement, that good teachers in bad schools must be able to rebound, without hostility, from horrible
distress and disruption to be able to ―teach something,‖ no matter how bad a class or the day has been.
Mr. Sennett became one of my greatest heroes because he always taught his class ―something‖—
despite his having had every excuse for getting mad and frustrated and refusing.
A decade or so after I first met him, as he bordered on a nervous breakdown, Mr. Sennett finally
retired after twenty-six years of teaching; so he didn‘t make it all the way to thirty years for a full
pension. After twenty-six years, he was a very tired and worn-out man, but I know that many of the
kids from Pickett—who didn‘t end up dead or in prison, as so many did—will remember him as a man
who fought hard to ―teach us something,‖ often in the worst of circumstances. It was also because of
teachers like him that a surprising number of Pickett's most ―rambunctious‖ students later went on to
lead productive and decent lives, in one way or another.
Developing New Lessons
(A fair warning: This section isn't really a story—just a description of a couple of pretty basic
ideas I had about teaching English, plus a description of an innovation I used very successfully to teach
complex vocabulary to students who seldom read. Please feel free to skip this section if you're only
interested in reading stories.)
While I admired so many things about so many teachers at Pickett, unfortunately, as I continued
teaching there, I saw certain educational practices, by teachers in my department, and in others too, that
I really objected to.
One of the worst things for me—and one that I really thought contributed heavily to the general
disrespect for education that abounded in that school—was teachers allowing students to write ―short
answers‖ to reading, social studies, and science questions: basically letting the kids answer questions
with sentence fragments.
An example might be if a kid answered the question, ―Why was Rodney sent home from
school?‖ with, ―a fight.‖ I wouldn‘t even accept ―He got into a fight,‖ or ―Rodney got into a fight.‖ I
insisted on ―Rodney got sent home from school because he got into a fight.‖
My thought was that if a kid could write such full responses (which I called ―Combining
Questions and Answers,‖ or ―C.Q.A.A.‖ for short), then they would be much less likely to use poor,
incomplete sentence structure later in longer essay writing. Always insisting on ―C.Q.A.A‖ became one
of the best ideas of my career, and I did find over and over that it indeed led to far better essay writing.
Something else that the Detroit Public Schools would soon begin insisting on for middle school
students—and which was actually a good idea—was having kids write ―story maps‖ about their short
fictional readings. Something that I added to the basic, prescribed ―story map‖ list of setting,
characters, conflict, etc., was ―Deeper Psychological Causes of the Story‟s Main Problem.” It was easy
to teach the kids the meaning of ―psychological,‖ the definition of which isn‘t complicated, and the
kids liked being asked to delve into the ―deeper‖ motivations of their stories‘ characters—which we
could do when we weren‘t forced to be doing DORT. This allowed us, of course, to talk about how a
character‘s ―anger‖ might have hidden, deep roots, and thus could be being inflicted unknowingly and
unfairly on an innocent person.
A lot of kids got the hint about some of their own personal problems, and this enabled my
classroom to become a little more peaceful place, throughout the years.
Finally, once I asked a class to use the words: ―recognize, recognizable, recognizably, and
recognition‖ in sentences, and, in return, I got dozens of sentences like ―John recognizable his mother,‖
and ―Mary recognition her uncle at the airport.‖ Dismayed, I talked to Dennis Lambers, my department
head, who gave me a set of ―common grammatical patterns‖ to show the kids. Once I found out that the
kids would never actually use the patterns on their own, I also invented a series of steps to force them
to use the patterns.
With the steps I got the kids to start writing something I called ―New Vocabulary Sentence
Problems.‖ Here is something like what the big yellow sign of ―Common Grammatical Patterns‖
(which is what I got from Duane Lambers) looked like. (The students were supposed to put each
vocabulary word into its appropriate part of speech position.)
A Facsimile of My “Big Yellow Sign” of “Common Grammatical Patterns”
1.) The NOUN of
2.) Someone‘s NOUN
3.) (Preposition) NOUN
Basic Verb Patterns
1.) Someone will BASIC VERB
2.) Someone BASIC VERB + s
3.) To BASIC VERB
4.) Is/was BASIC VERB + ing
1.) (Someone/Something) (is/was) ADJECTIVE
2.) The/His ADJECTIVE + noun
1.) Someone will ADVERB + basic verb
2.) Someone ADVERB basic verb (+ ed or s)
3.) Someone is ADVERB (+ adjective or ―ing‖ verb)
(Please note: I believe that only nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs are necessary for listing in
“Common Grammatical Patterns,” because included in these four parts of speech is nearly all of
the suffix-added, complex vocabulary in English.)
Next, here is an example of what the steps in ―New Vocabulary Sentence Problems‖ looked
like. (―D.S.‖ means ―Dictionary Step‖; ―P.S.‖ means ―Pattern Step‖; and ―S.S.‖ means ―Sentence
Step.‖) (This is what I invented to force the students to use the common grammatical patterns that
Duane Lambers had given me.)
D.S. verb, to know from past experience
P.S. John recognized*
S.S. John recognized the bank robber from the picture in the
(*The ―Common Grammatical Pattern‖ used here is “Someone BASIC VERB + ed.”)
D.S. adjective, able to be recognized
P.S. The bank robber was recognizable*
S.S. The bank robber was recognizable from his picture.
(*The ―Common Grammatical Pattern‖ used here is ―Someone is ADJECTIVE.”)
D.S. adverb, in a recognizable way
P.S. The bank robber talked recognizably*
S.S. Under his mask, the bank robber talked recognizably.
(*The ―Common Grammatical Pattern‖ used here is ―Someone verb + ed + ADVERB.” (The adverb
can be moved around to different locations; the students must pick a verb to go with it.)
D.S. noun, the act of recognizing someone or something
P.S. John‘s recognition*
S.S. After John‘s recognition of his long lost brother, he
(*The ―Common Grammatical Pattern‖ used here is ―Someone‟s NOUN.”)
Doing the ―New Vocabulary Sentence Problems,‖ the kids copied the dictionary step (the
―D.S‖.) from off the board (or got it from dictionaries when those were available), then they picked out
the appropriate ―Pattern Step‖ (the ―P.S.‖) by using the word‘s part of speech and looking for a pattern
on a big yellow sign that I kept in the room. Then they used the definition and their own creativity to
expand the ―Pattern Step‖ into the ―Sentence Step‖ (the ―S.S.‖) I soon learned to also require the kids
to use the words in their own stories, after doing the initial ―New Vocabulary Sentences Problems.‖
This type of lesson, coupled with the story writing assignments, and with numerous ―fill-in-the-blanks‖
vocabulary stories that I wrote for the kids myself, was probably the most successful idea that I ever
came up with.
The kids respected the assignment enough that the big yellow sign of the ―Common
Grammatical Patterns‖ survived without a single mark on it for almost thirty years, in some of the most
graffiti-ridden schools imaginable. Even the gangs left it alone, scribbling their gang-signs elsewhere.
The ―New Vocabulary Sentence Problems‖ had a major impact on teaching complicated
vocabulary to my most interested students, who turned out to be a much larger group than I had ever
imagined—once I figured out how to teach them something worthwhile. I offered many times to teach
other teachers how to use the New Vocabulary Sentence Problems, but no administrator ever allowed
me to. I fear that this extraordinarily successful teaching stratagem of mine will probably die with me.
Many great ideas die in the isolated and lonely urban classrooms of America; this single good
idea of mine will likely be just one more. The tragedy is that I successfully used this method to teach
complex vocabulary to students of many different levels for almost thirty years, and I could teach any
English teacher with functional grammatical knowledge how to teach it. But my racial color was
always an obstacle in Detroit for allowing me to teach it, plus the fact that it would line no one's
pockets with money, as the KORS Reading Program did.
At the highest decision making levels educational issues regarding impoverished city children
are all too seldom decided by what will really help the students. Experienced city teachers who
disagree with that are either fools or liars.
As my third year of teaching at Pickett continued, it was quite apparent that my overall
discipline of my classes had really improved: I was much more in charge of most of my classes now, I
knew a lot more of what I wanted to teach, many of the kids were much more interested in what I had
to offer, and for a long time I hadn‘t tolerated the ―KORS‖ reading specialist turning my classroom into
chaos; so, I was starting to feel much more confident in my relative importance in that impoverished
and dangerous neighborhood.
Pretty much everything was better except for one really major problem—my third hour class.
This was comprised of the worst behaved group of kids that I would ever teach. The school counseling
department had purposely put this bunch of kids together, into a single ―class of the damned‖ (as one of
the other teachers called them), isolating them into one group so that they couldn‘t ruin the other
classes: if the kids in the ―class of the damned‖ sharpened a pencil it was only so they could stab
someone with the new point; they only picked up books to throw at each other or to break windows; if
they settled down for a minute—which was always merely to catch their breath, preparing for more
deviltry—soon someone‘s ―Afro‖ hair would be afire. I ―taught‖ that class surrounded by curses,
screams, threats, flying objects, and crashes, with clouds of black smoke drifting above us, about the
My other classes being often teachable, or at least, relatively ―tame,‖ I concentrated on trying to
get this class under control, and the first thing I tried was writing up one of the worst behaved kids. I
had talked to the boy‘s father, and found him to be an angry drunk who had no intention of being
useful, so I wrote up his son for his next group of offenses. I had to wait less than a minute the
following day for him to punch a girl in the stomach and hit a small boy in the face with a flying book.
I sent the boy to the office, and sternly warned the rest of the class that I had only just begun ―cleaning
house,‖ and that I wasn‘t going to tolerate ―any more of this craziness.‖
The class was actually fairly quiet, for around twelve minutes; then, abruptly, the door burst
open, and there was the boy, returning triumphantly, with a note from Mrs. Dandell, the head counselor
stating, ―I am taking over the discipline for the eighth grade students now, and I have decided that you
must keep this boy in your classroom. You can talk to me about it later, if you wish.‖
Naturally, with this kid bragging, ―Mr. Guisbert isn‘t allowed to kick us out of class!‖ the rest of
the period was a mess, with the usual misbehaviors, topped off by a celebratory mood of triumph over
my inane effort to control and educate them.
On my free period I paid an angry visit to Mrs. Dandell, but she was surprisingly poised and
charming in our introductions to each other. Then, when I asked for an explanation as to why I had to
keep such a totally disruptive boy in class, she told me, in a voice of the greatest conviviality, ―I cannot
allow you as a young white man to write up and exclude any of our young black children from your
classroom. You need to keep them in your classroom so you can learn more about them and their
I was dazed by her racist logic. I asked her whether if this boy had been white if I could have
written him up. She assured me that if there were any white children in my classes then I could write
them up, because she could then be sure that I fully understood them. I told her this didn‘t make much
sense because all 175 of my students were black.
―Be that as it may,‖ she replied. ―I certainly will not allow any young white teachers to write up
our young black boys and girls. It just wouldn‘t be fair.‖ She said this in the kindest, gentlest voice you
I tried telling her that there was no way that I would be able to teach in a school where I wasn‘t
allowed to write misbehaving students up, so she offered me the example of our 320 pound, ex-middle-
linebacker gym department head, who she had heard, ―never writes anybody up.‖ —Of course he
didn‘t: he had a wooden paddle about four feet long, and use it to play ―tunes‖ on the backsides of the
thugs. I was less than half of his weight, couldn‘t bench press anything near 500 pounds, and was a hell
of a lot lighter complected—how was I supposed to use him for my ―discipline role model‖?
Somebody else in the English Department said that she thought Mrs. Dandell was ―a nut case‖
and said that I should talk to the principal. So I did. Mr. Ferguson seemed very sympathetic, and I
asked him if he would come into my classroom third hour and see for himself if that terrible group of
kids was merely ―culturally different,‖ or if something a little more heinous was afoot.
He came a couple of days later, and I busied myself trying to teach a lesson to the class, and
simply let him watch all the monstrous things that the kids did. That day this included the usual
screaming and hollering, threats, book fights, setting hair on fire, pencil stabbings, and a host of other
infractions. Winston Ferguson busied himself the entire period, observing and furiously taking notes.
The next day I received the ―teacher‘s copy‖ of what he had written. He hadn‘t written a single
word about the students‘ terrible behavior. He had only written up a yearly ―Teacher Observation
Report‖ on what I had been trying to teach. It was very critical of my performance, and attributed all of
the ―student inattentiveness‖ to the ―vagueness of Mr. Guisbert‘s teaching.‖
One of the teachers said she thought that this ―dirty trick‖ by our principal had a simple
explanation: the new head counselor‘s husband was on the school board, so, of course, Ferguson had to
take her side and make me look bad instead. ―Welcome to politics in the Detroit Public Schools,‖ she
At that point, I was really lost for what to do about my third hour class, and now I had been
given a poor yearly evaluation as my reward for even trying to so something about it. I had no idea that
the solution for how to fix my third hour class was actually right around the corner. The only new
problem was that the solution was going to be infinitely crazier than the original problem.
About three weeks into the school year we had a new girl, coming from out of state, who was
put into my third hour class, despite having a high grade point, because of a lack of space anywhere
else to put a new student. The name I will give her is ―Brenda.‖ It will shortly be quite obvious why I
can‘t call this person by her real name.
―Brenda‖ was very small, being only a little over four and a half feet tall, had to weigh less
than seventy pounds, and would always wear ―little girl‖ style dresses—a choice of clothing that was
unique in that school in 1981. Her records showed that she had always kept a grade point of well over
3.0, even though she had always had severe problems with absenteeism. Two minutes after arriving in
my room, she told several of my crazier students that they needed to be much quieter so that she could
concentrate on her work.
Her aggressiveness toward the disruptive students surprised me. I would have thought anybody
could have seen that telling any of the kids in that class to be quiet would get exactly the same result as
telling some ―Hell‘s Angels‖ that they needed to shut off their motorcycles because the noise was too
bothersome. Naturally, these kids only got louder. But Brenda started scolding them in what sounded,
strangely, a whole lot like my own mother‘s voice. That caused the two ―Hell‘s Angels‖ to get
At that point I interceded and moved Brenda across the room to an empty area where several of
the students hadn‘t been coming, due, according to some of the other kids, to skipping and some recent
arrests. Brenda worked on her assignment there for the rest of the class. Handing it in as she left, she
told me, ―I can‘t stand this class.‖ Embarrassed by my own inability to change what had bothered her, I
didn‘t tell her how much I agreed.
At the end of the day, several other teachers told me that Brenda had been ―a problem‖ in
several other classes, telling students to be quiet in her admonishing ―mother‘s voice,‖ and once,
according to one teacher, she had become ―quite abusive‖ in tone and used ―a lot of profanity.‖ One of
the teachers theorized that Brenda might end up being ―a bigger problem than the whole rest of that
crazy homeroom put together.‖ He just said that he had a strange feeling about her, but I disagreed: I
thought she was just a little kid with a ―Napoleonic complex‖ who was trying to be assertive. One of us
was totally right.
Brenda was absent for two days, then she returned on a Friday. An immediate difficulty was
where to sit her because some of the absent kids had returned—including one who was now bragging
about how many people he had assaulted during his latest stay in ―juvenile.‖ I didn‘t know where to sit
Brenda so she wouldn‘t be disturbed. But she came in and just sat down with some of the returned
students, and with no better alternative I didn‘t suggest anything different. With that group you never
had time to come up with any ―new plans‖ anyway.
The class proceeded as it always did, with one crisis after another, and pretty soon, with my
attention diverted, Brenda got into an argument with a boy that the kids later said she had told, ―You‘re
disturbing my concentration.‖ This boy was very strong and over six feet tall. He was the kind of kid
who, if he had had any sense at all, would have made a fine athlete. But he was just a troublemaker
who liked to goof off and throw things in class, and he would get into fights if anybody, boy or girl,
objected. He thought it was pretty funny that this tiny little girl was stupid enough to stand up to him.
―Listen you little bitch,‖ I suddenly heard him say, from where I was, across the room, in his
loud and nonchalant voice. ―I‘ll talk if I fucking feel like it, and nobody around here is big enough to
stop me.‖ He gave a ―thumbs-up sign‖ to one of his cronies nearby in the room.
It was because of a brief lull in the classroom din that I had heard this exchange from across the
room. That was where I had been trying to get three playing girls to start doing the assignment. I
immediately got over to this newest squabble and moved Brenda to another place in the room. The boy
was mixing threats and condescending laughter, and was talking nonstop as I moved her. Brenda did
continue scolding him, while she moved away, again sounding very much like my own mother. But as
Brenda resumed her work, I thought the problem was over.
Eight minutes or so later I looked up and saw that Brenda‘s earlier antagonist had changed his
seat, and had gone over and sat down next to her. And he was now scolding her, trying to imitate her
former angry maternal tones. He was telling her, ―You need to learn to mind your own business, unless
you want to get hurt.‖
That‘s when Brenda‘s tone of voice switched from sounding like my mother to something
totally new. Suddenly her voice was that of a horribly abusive parent, drunken with power, and she
began cursing at the boy in these new evil and twisted tones—it was what she‘d been reported doing in
another class several days earlier. To me, she sounded like a completely new person.
The boy‘s facial expression changed. He was surprised as I was by her personality switch. But
he wasn‘t intimidated—the girl was just too small. So he just kept cursing at her, and he told her,
―Nobody give a damn about you gettin‘ mad. You is just a little tiny bitch, so you don‘t impress
I don‘t remember everything else the two of them said, but what I certainly do remember is
when Brenda suddenly switched to her fourth separate and completely realized personality of that
particular class period. That‘s because she changed to a voice that was absolutely identical to Linda
Blair‘s voice in the movie, ―The Exorcist,‖ when Linda Blair was supposedly possessed by the devil. In
the movie Blair‘s head spun around and she spat up green stuff all over the place, none of which
Brenda did, but Brenda sure had the devil‘s voice down from that movie. I couldn‘t believe it when I
heard it, but it was definitely the same voice, and Brenda was sure serious about this newest
“I AM LUCIFER!!!!!” Brenda, alias ―Linda Blair‖ announced, and no increase in typewriter
font size, or vivid descriptions can adequately bring back that moment—nothing I can write can
describe the intensity of her voice, nor fully describe the violence of her subsequent actions. My own
children used to doubt this story when I told it to them, twenty years later. Then, when I introduced
them to one of my old students that I had happened to run into—he told them the truth: that this story is
not merely something that I had invented. Talking to my boys, he referred to Brenda by the nickname
she soon after acquired at Pickett Junior High: ―Lucy‖—some local humorist came up with a shortened,
feminized form of what became her most infamous of Brenda‘s personality switches—the king of the
What ―Lucy‖ was, for sure, was the only true ―multiple personality‖ that I ever taught. I don‘t
know whether she was also truly ―possessed by ‗Lucifer,‘‖ or not—though she certainly acted that way,
but she was clearly a ―multiple.‖ Obviously there are many amazing books on multiple personalities,
which I‘m hardly equipped to compete with, but what made the case of ―Lucy‖ so strange was the way
that this girl just fit right into the insane fabric of Pickett Junior High. She was a violent, maybe devil-
possessed multiple personality, and the completely overwhelmed-by-other-problems school
administration ended up refusing to do anything about her: They were even able to justify it by pointing
out that, whenever this girl could act ―normal‖ she could do enough solid work to get decent grades in
that horribly under-achieving school.
―She‘s really no worse than a whole lot of other kids we have around here,‖ one of the
counselors told me.
With a school full of hit men‘s sons, actual killers, drug dealers, and gang-bangers, I must admit
that ―Lucy‖ just didn‘t stand out as much as you‘d expect. But she sure was going to make an effort to
bring her reputation up, believe me about that.
On the day in question, when she first announced her little devil-problem, she ended up
breaking a fifty-year-old wooden desk with the tall, athletic-looking boy‘s head. She moved faster than
I could ever have imagined and drove the boy‘s head hard into the writing surface of the desk, cracking
it in half. The boy was knocked unconscious, and then it really got ridiculous. With the rest of that
totally crazy class suddenly realizing that they were merely ―amateurs‖ at ―hell-raising,‖ compared to
this little chick—and rushing straight out into the hallway to get away from her—I was left with the
Linda Blair-voiced Brenda, who now stood over the prostrate, unconscious boy. And now she was
proclaiming, “I SHALL SEND YOUR SOUL DOWN TO MY IMMORTAL DOMAIN!!!!!
THERE YOUR INSOLENCE SHALL BE PUNISHED FOR ALL ETERNITY!!!!!”
Although one couldn‘t help being impressed with her vocabulary—especially compared to the
rest of the students in that class—I realized that I had a really big problem: she really seemed ready to
kill this guy. So I had to do something. I thought of trying to bring ―Brenda‖ back out of her, but I
immediately decided I‘d better deal with ―the devil‖ who seemed to be presently standing before me.
“Great Lucifer!!” I called out to her. I was maybe fifteen feet away, and I certainly didn‘t think
I could afford to get any closer.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?!!!!”
“Great Lucifer, I think you‟ll be making a mistake if you kill this boy!”
“WHY IS THAT?!!!!”
“Because if you let him live, then every new day of his life he will have to testify to your
greatness!! He will become a living monument to your immortal power!!. But if he dies right away, no
one on earth will know of how great your powers were today!!”
The evil facade of ―Lucifer‖ that had taken over Brenda‘s face suddenly grew confused with my
words—I thought I saw Brenda‘s normal personality flicker across her face for an instant…then she
collapsed with a faint onto the floor.
It doesn‘t take a genius to guess that some of the readers of this book are probably pretty
skeptical about what I‘m claiming about Brenda. In a nation that mostly believes in UFO‘s, ghosts, and
the Republican Party, this seems a little hypocritical, but reader skepticism must be an issue in this
section of this book.
Critical elements to understand about ―Brenda‖ were 1) why she would faint when it was over,
and 2) how she could have first have fought so incredibly beyond her physical stature. The fact is, after
every one of her ―Lucifer‖ episodes, she would not only faint, she would also have to always be carried
unconscious out of the room, because she would no longer be capable of physical movement. Then she
would be gone from one to two weeks: Her mother always said that this was because Brenda was only
mainly only capable of sleeping and being spoon fed during that time; she was incapable of anything
any more energetic.
What I began to realize was what this girl was capable of was taking all of the energy that she
had been expecting to use for as much as the next two full weeks, for all her normal activities, and,
instead, she could throw it at someone she was angry at and wanted to fight. She would use up all that
energy in merely two or three minutes: but you have never seen anyone as physically dynamic as she
was for those little bursts of spirit and energy. I hate to say it, but sometimes I truly did believe that she
did have the ―devil‖ in her.
Another element that, sadly, should make Brenda‘s situation easier to understand is what I
learned about multiple personalities when I went over to the psychology department at Wayne State
University in downtown Detroit, and asked a professor for some advice about Brenda. After I fully
described everything that had been occurring, the professor told me that, indeed, if I were telling the
truth, Brenda certainly had to be a true ―multiple personality.‖
He also told me that true multiple personalities are ―invariably the victims of parental sexual
abuse.‖ What the hell had been happening to Brenda? Now I was truly appalled for the first time, and
frankly disgusted. What I didn‘t know at the time was that the number of sexually abused girls who
attend the Detroit Public Schools is staggering.
Be that as it may, none of any of the others I ever knew about reacted like Brenda did.
As the first semester of that school year progressed, there were two more episodes where
somebody caused Brenda to become ―Lucifer‖ again. One was occasioned by a new student who didn‘t
believe that Brenda really could turn into ―Lucifer,‖ the other by an old, hardened student, who had just
moved back into the district. In each case, when Brenda made the final ―switch‖ to ―Lucifer,‖ the rest
of the students went running out of the class at full speed, to get away from her, and I was left to figure
out how to stop her from killing her victim.
In the first case Brenda threw the boy, who weighed nearly 200 pounds, into one of my
blackboards, severely cracking it. In the second case she dropped the boy to the floor, unconscious,
with a single slap.
Even while Brenda was absent after these episodes, the class lacked its normal energy and
pizzazz: nobody pencil-stabbed anybody; they couldn‘t even bring themselves to set somebody‘s hair
on fire. The group was apathetic and lethargic; their normal goals of violence and insanity had been
spoiled by Brenda‘s far superior craziness.
When Brenda returned, however, their apathy and lethargy were gone. It was replaced by very
real fear. Now they were quite motivated to figure out how to not anger Brenda, and how to stay out of
Their first tactic, at least in my room, was to take advantage of the fact that I had divided
student seating into two halves (which made it easier for me to get to fights quickly), and they took one
half of the room for themselves, and gave the whole other side—18 chairs—over to Brenda, where she
could sit all by herself. This required most of them to sit sharing desks—two ―butts‖ to each seat—but
they didn‘t care. They didn‘t want to be anywhere near her, and she gladly took the entire other half of
the room to herself, so she could have ―peace and quiet,‖ and get some serious work done.
Now and then, if there were even the slightest lack of attention, or if one of the kids started
talking to another when they were supposed to be listening to me, Brenda would scowl and deliver a
warning across the room, and the offender would give me back his or her attention, or whisper ―Sorry,
Brenda!‖ and go back to the assigned work. Education and grade points for that group began to climb
up from the bottom, all due to Brenda's threatening presence.
Then, one day, Mr. Johnson warned me that we were about to get another kid, from another
school, who was ―going to be a real problem.‖ This kid was supposed to be a hit man‘s son, and was
supposed to have hurt ―three teachers‖ at the other school. He was supposed to be a real ―psycho.‖
The plan was, according to Mr. Johnson, that the new kid would come in the next Tuesday, and
that he would be given over to our two gym teachers, who would ―soften him up‖ and ―get him in
shape‖ before allowing him to enter his classes.
The problem was, the next week, he came in Monday instead—when the two gym teachers
were both absent—and he went to perhaps the worst counselor I‘ve ever known, a white man that I‘ll
call Mr. ―Tallchin.‖ Tallchin decided the boy could start a day early, despite a note on the boy‘s file
saying that he had to wait until Tuesday.
So, that Monday morning, around 10:20, with my third hour class now running more smoothly
because of ―Brenda,‖ I went outside and found Mr. Tallchin standing by my door, with the new boy—
who was about six foot five inches tall, and maybe around 235 pounds of absolutely ―ripped‖ muscles.
Tallchin handed me the boy‘s enrollment slip and introduced him. I instantly recognized the boy‘s name
as being that of the boy Mr. Johnson had warned me about.
―I‘m coming here from B--- Junior High,‖ the boy said to me, ―and I just kicked the shit out of
three teachers over there, and if you don‘t want to get hurt, you‘ll stay out of my way.‖
I looked over at Mr. Tallchin, whose expression hadn‘t change when the boy uttered his threats.
Tallchin acted like the boy had been talking about the weather.
―Isn‘t this the young man who was supposed to be starting tomorrow?‖ I asked Tallchin. ―Why
is he a day early?‖
―Mr. Guisbert,‖ Tallchin responded, ―this young man came in today and requested starting a day
early, so he wouldn‘t lose any more education. Certainly we here should be impressed by his desire to
resume his learning—the least you can do is to assist him with his desire to get back on the right track.‖
I looked back at the boy, all six foot five of him, as he towered over me.
―You look like the kind of mother fucker who doesn‘t know how to mind your own business,‖
the young man said. ―I have a habit of hurting people like you. You need to wise up while you‘re still
I looked back at Mr. Tallchin. ―Mr. Tallchin, are you listening to the threats that this boy is
making? Do you really believe that this is the normal way that new students are supposed to come in
here talking? How can you really believe that he‘s ready to enroll today?‖
Tallchin looked back at me with a look of the worst scorn. ―Mr. Guisbert,‖ he said, ―this boy is
simply using ‗street talk,‘ just like every other kid in this building. That is no reason for you to refuse
him his right to an education. You need to grow up and to start doing your job. Good day!‖
Tallchin then turned on his heel and walked away, leaving me alone, standing there, with that
psychopathic and massive, muscular kid in front of me, his enrollment slip for my class in my hand,
and with my third hour class, and ―Lucy,‖ behind my back. I had no clue as to how to handle the
situation, and Tallchin had certainly made it clear that I was all on my own.
The boy didn‘t wait for me to invite him into the room; he just went around me and walked in.
When he saw the unusual way that the kids were placed in my ―divided-in-two-halves‖ classroom, he
stopped at the front of the room. He saw Brenda with one whole side to herself, on one side, and thirty
or so other kids, on the other side, almost all ―two butts to each chair.‖
―What the fuck?‖ the boy said. He looked at all the kids sharing furniture, then at the very tiny
Brenda. ―Are all these fags on this side of the room scared of this little fucking girl?‖ He laughed like
he‘d just seen somebody‘s pants fall down. ―I‘ve never seen so many punks in my life!‖
The other students in the classroom, including Brenda, didn‘t even react to him. Before Brenda
had arrived they probably would have gang-stomped this guy—that was the one unified action that this
group would have been capable of—but now, with Brenda and her history in the room, this new threat-
making and rude boy was the last problem on their minds.
The new boy interpreted their reaction as fear. ―You motherfuckers is such a bunch of sissies!‖
he told them.
He still got no reaction. Even Brenda, who was steadily doing her work, paid him little mind.
She looked up at him now and then, but kept going back to her work. Everybody who had been there
all along knew she had to enter into an extended conversation with somebody before she got worked up
into anything really dangerous.
Now the boy threw his attention back to me. ―Well, where‘s my assigned seat?‖ he said. ―Why
don‘t you let me go sit next to that cute little pussy over there that all the rest of these fags is so scared
I was a little surprised that this guy had even asked permission about where he should sit. I
don‘t know whether he did it out of training and habit, or maybe just because it was another way to say
a lot of negative things and grab attention in front of this class.
I didn‘t really know what to say to him: I was very perplexed about just exactly where I was
going to sit him. First, I knew that there was no way that he would be able to sit on the side with the
rest of the class besides Brenda. There, the only possibility open was to share a chair with one of the
kids he‘d been calling ―fags‖ and ―punks,‖ and I knew that wouldn‘t work. It seemed obvious that he
would have to sit over on Brenda‘s side, and the intelligent thing would have been to sit him over there
as far away from Brenda as possible. But I knew he would never go for it; he really wanted to sit with
her, for a whole lot of demented reasons, and it was obvious that if he sat over there he and Brenda
would soon get into a problem—likely a very big problem.
The rest of the class, besides Brenda, certainly had their opinion about where he should sit: they
kept furtively signaling to me that what I should do was put him right over there, next to Brenda, where
he had said he wanted to be. These kids kept nodding their heads, pointing with their elbows, etc., that
this was something that they really wanted to see. Brenda, the center of their idea of the solution, kept
doing her work; she didn‘t seem to give a shit where I put him.
This dilemma caused me to consider, right there and then, what the whole ethical problem of
sitting him next to Brenda/Lucy meant to me. My problem was that I had based my whole perception of
being a good teacher at Pickett as being someone who protected my students from danger—no matter
whether they had evil pasts or criminal records. I had always thrown out any knowledge of what a kid
had done before they came to me—as soon as each student entered my room, they got a clean slate, and
I knew I was there to protect them and educate them to the best of my ability.
This new boy was clearly someone with a criminal past, and now he was becoming my student.
I felt I owed him the same principles of good teacher conduct that I had been tending toward everyone
(But I also kept thinking about how Henry Lake had kept saying that God had put Brenda in
that school for some ―higher purpose,‖ and that we would only know what it was when it was revealed
The boy continued cursing and making threats, and the other kids in the class kept nodding and
signaling that I should sit him next to Brenda. Finally, the new young man asked if I had a wife, and if
so, was she attractive? Distracted by my thoughts, I acknowledged that both propositions were true.
―Then you should bring her around here,‖ the boy said, ―because I likes fucking older good-
looking women. And if you has a daughter, bring her around, too. I likes fucking young virgins—just
brings her around and I‘ll takes good care of both her and your wife.‖
I stared hard at the boy. ―Why don‘t you be cool?‖ I asked him. Then something in me just
popped. ―Look,‖ I said, pointing at Brenda, ―this young lady is my best student. I‘m sure that she‘d be
glad to help you find out what you‘re supposed to do in this room. Please go over there and sit with
The boy had a big smirk on his face, when he went over and sat down next to her. The rest of
the class gave me a lot of furtive congratulatory nods, and thumbs-up signs. They continued to pretend
that they were disinterested and doing their work, but they were really paying rapt attention, and ready
and waiting for some real fireworks.
Brenda sat there calmly. I swear she had the same look on her face as I‘ve seen on the lions and
tigers at the zoo when the attendants start to throw in the big pails of meat.
For a tiny moment I felt ashamed for giving him to her, but, honestly, what else could I have
The young man managed to get Brenda through her basic set of personalities, all the way to
―Lucifer,‖ faster than anything else we‘d ever witnessed: in about two and a half minutes. He started
out by putting his feet on her desk, which she shoved off, making him laugh really hard, then he
whispered something in her ear.
And, in record time, we heard, “I AM LUCIFER—LORD OF THE UNDERWORLD!! YOU
SHOULD NOT HAVE DARED TO OFFEND ME!!”
Until this guy, most everybody had been pretty taken aback by Brenda‘s ―Lucifer‖ voice, but
not him. You had to give him credit for that, but not for what he tried to do next.
―I don‘t give a fuck about who you think you are!‖ the boy said, angrily, standing up and
reaching his hand back to slap the girl.
It was the worst move that he possibly could have made. Brenda, now ―Lucy,‖ was much faster
than him, and jumped up and ―clotheslined‖ his head down so hard that she had used it to split another
of the old wooden desktops.
Amazingly, the boy, with his forehead bleeding, got up off the floor, to try to go after Brenda
again. Nobody had been tough enough to do that before. He was reeling, and I expect not totally
conscious, but he made the effort.
Brenda slammed him into a blackboard, causing more cracks in the already quite damaged
surface. The boy staggered up to hit feet, but looked ready to fall over.
The rest of the class, which had always fled before, once Brenda got started, hadn‘t left this
time. They were cheering and rooting Brenda on. Brenda ―clotheslined‖ the boy again, putting him
onto the floor. Through a little opening in the crowd of kids who now circled Brenda and the boy, I was
sickened to see Brenda sinking the fingernails of her right hand into the boy‘s face, as she squeezed. By
the time that I fought my way through the crowd—which was chanting ―KILL HIM!! KILL HIM!!‖—
the boy‘s face was bleeding from the five separate wounds that Brenda‘s fingernails had caused.
I saved the boy, who was both only slightly conscious, yet hysterical when I reached him, and
both he and Brenda were removed from the room. It seemed quite ironic when they left, that he, in his
pitifully whining stupor, was more conscious than the soundly sleeping Brenda
A little over three weeks after Brenda‘s confrontation with the hit man‘s psychotic son, I got a
note from Winston Ferguson. It said something like the following:
I am sure that you will be amused to know that the father of the boy that was beaten up in your
room by the girl is suing you, me, and the Detroit Public Schools for $50,000,000. I hope you have
sufficient savings to help us out with this problem.
The boy‘s father has hired an attorney, and a court has told them that before their lawsuit can
proceed, they must attend a hearing at the school where this happened, to see if this can be resolved
there. I have scheduled the hearing for your free period today, and have invited the girl who assaulted
the boy, along with her mother, to attend.
You are to come to my office promptly, today, at the very beginning of your free period.
When I arrived at Mr. Ferguson‘s office, I found the young man, his father, and a bald-headed,
ear-ringed lawyer already there. The boy, whose face was marked with the fingernail-induced scars, sat
there quietly, and docilely. His scars were still healing. The father and the lawyer, both easily as large
as the boy, commented to me that they hoped I had a whole lot of money, because they had a ―lock-
tight‖ easy lawsuit. They predicted that Ferguson and I would be paying them about ―half‖ our salaries
for the rest of our lives.
The father certainly seemed to have a cruel, vicious look, so I supposed he could have been a hit
man. The lawyer looked the type who had spent most of his professional career helping people avoid
being convicted for crimes that they clearly had committed. There didn‘t seem to be a moral bone in his
About two minute later, a woman that I had met several times came in. She was Brenda‘s
mother. She was a very large woman, large enough for the very large father and lawyer to clearly view
her as a worthy adversary in a court or anywhere else. She explained that her daughter had had to use
the bathroom, but would be right there as soon as she finished. The father and the lawyer nodded,
Brenda soon entered, all four foot, six inches and sixty pounds of her, and she sat down next to
―Who the fuck is this?‖ the boy‘s father asked, turning toward his son.
―This,‖ Winston Ferguson said, ―is the girl that is accused of beating up your son.‖ Ferguson
had a very serious expression on his face, and he shuffled some copies of the various papers he had
received about this case. He looked to the father and the lawyer for the next comment.
The father, with a totally incredulous look on his face, looked over at the son. ―This is the
fucking girl?‖ he asked. ―Are you fucking kidding me?‖
Although the boy‘s father was terribly angry at him, the boy was clearly less worried about his
monstrously large and very angry father, than he was with the now present and calmly sitting there,
totally quiet Brenda.
“That‟s her!” he said in a quavering voice, and you could tell he really wanted to get away from
Brenda as fast as he could. “You don‟t know what she‟s like! She ain‟t normal!”
The attorney stood up, staring at tiny little Brenda. ―They would laugh us right out of fucking
court!‖ he kept saying over and over. ―We ain‘t got no chance! The first time a jury just see her, we
The father was still very angry with his son. ―My son is a fuckin‘ sissy!‖ he kept saying over
and over. ―I can‘t believe what I‘m seeing with my own eyes!‖
Winston Ferguson, who I had begun to suspect had anticipated this whole result, decided to
offer a little wisdom of his own.
―Well, sir,‖ he said to the father, ―it is true that some of our young ladies can be pretty energetic
if they think the boys have said something inappropriate to them.‖
The father looked at Ferguson like he had just said the stupidest thing in the world. ―The only
thing I know,‖ the father said, ―is my son is a mother fucking sissy!‖ The ―poor‖ hit man father‘s voice
was filled with anguish.
Ferguson wasn‘t fazed at all. ―Listen,‖ he said. ―If you think your son is a little weak in the
areas of fisticuffs and self-defense, why don‘t you take him over to the YMCA and get him some
boxing lessons? The YMCA does an excellent job of teaching basic skills in pugilism.‖
The father‘s eyes got huge: now he did absolutely believe that Ferguson was the stupidest
lunatic in the whole world. But there wasn‘t a thing he could do about it, not considering what he had
just found out about his own very large son. Ferguson was the biggest lunatic, but with the son that this
father had, everybody knew who was the world‘s biggest fool.
Without saying another word to Ferguson—who I‘m sure had rehearsed more ―funny lines‖ if
the father had decided to keep their conversation going—the father left with the lawyer and his son.
The son did look back to make sure that ―Lucy‖ wasn‘t following him.
Epilogue and commentary: Fifteen years later, I walked into a fast food restaurant in one of
Detroit's suburbs. Standing at the back of a long line I noticed that the place had a new assistant
manager: a very tall and muscular, light-complected black man with scars on his face. He was staring
intently at me.
Suddenly I realized who he was. Holy shit, I thought, I better get out of here! But before I could
make a solid move the guy came after me. He “high jumped” the partition separating the customers
from the employees, and came after me, yelling “Mr. Guisbert! Mr. Guisbert!” Then he grabbed me.
For a second I thought, “Maybe my life is over!” but this wasn‟t the case at all.
“Mr. Guisbert! Don‟t you recognize me?” he said, hugging me. The hug was both manly and
“I‟m not really sure—“ I lied. I wasn‟t ready to trust him yet.
Naturally all the other forty or so customers had turned to see our spectacle.
“Don‟t you remember? You let that little girl beat the shit out of me!”
“I don‟t know if I remember that!!”
“Sure you do! And stop worrying! It was the best thing that anybody ever did for me! It saved
“How‟d it do that?”
He smiled when he saw my tacit confession that I remembered the incident.
(When the rest of the customers saw that we were friendly, they got bored with us and stopped
paying attention to our conversation.)
“Back then I had a contract out on my life because of my affiliation with my father. That‟s why I
acted like such a jerk. I knew I didn‟t have long to live, so I didn‟t feel like being nice to nobody.
“But after you let that little girl beat me up, I lost all my respect from my „boys,‟ from everybody
I knew. And the guys who had the contract out on me decided to cancel it because they decided that
alive I was a huge embarrassment to my father. They didn‟t want to do him the favor of killing me. So I
got to live.
“I didn‟t learn my lesson right away. I went to the youth home for a while, and I got in a fight
every day I was in there. But even though I won every single fight, everybody kept laughing at me—
even the guys that I‟d beat up. I couldn‟t get any respect from any criminals or street people, so finally I
had no choice but to go straight. I went back to school, and I just got an associate‟s degree last year.”
He took out a picture from his wallet and showed it to me. “This is my little daughter. She‟s one
year old. Her middle name is „Guisbert‟—after you!”
I was flabbergasted. For years I had thought of what I had done as being the most
unprofessional moment of my career —It wasn‟t as if I had ever thought of anything else I could have
done. Circumstances, including the idiotic and very unprofessional conduct of the counselor, Mr.
Tallchin, and the refusal of the school administration to do anything about Brenda, had certainly put
me into what I had always felt was an untenable situation. But I had hardly ever felt any pride or sense
of accomplishment…this new news was stunning: it was amazing that any good had come out of it at
Finally, now that a number of more years have passed, with years more reflection on what
occurred, let me make the following two areas of comment. First, in regards to the young man, I can
only say that any teacher working with the poorly raised, violent youth of today may well find out that
he or she must throw out a whole lots of “rules” and “principles,” and that often only “a lucky break”
will enable you to find any success at all—perhaps by total accident. There is very damned little that
any college can teach you about dealing with such people; committed and experienced people who
have been right there, in the same environment, and who fully understand the situation, like Henry
Lake and Mr. Johnson, can teach you a lot—but much of it is going to involve “holding onto your hat”
and first worrying about “protecting your own skin” before you can afford any kinds of concerns about
helping those afflicted types like this young man was.
This is the first rule of teaching in a tough urban environment: you gotta survive, if you‟re going
to do any good there. Partially, that‟s what Mr. Tallchin was doing that day: ensuring his own survival.
The only thing was, he ignored the second part of the rule: he had no intention of doing any good. This
kind of behavior in our schools can be a serious problem: sometimes older staff people will gladly
protect their own survival at the expense of a younger less experienced staff member. Trying to protect
myself from such an individual I stumbled into what turned out to be a very successful solution for the
My second area of comment must be reserved for Brenda herself. I never saw her again after
that day in Mr. Ferguson‟s office, so I have no idea what ever happened to her. But I always did see her
as a symbol of, and a clear message from all the little girls everywhere who are being sexually abused
in their homes—especially the thousands of little black girls. I have heard vicious comments, from both
white and black men, that “little colored girls”(and sometimes, white girls, too) basically are put on
this earth for sexual molestation and abuse; the point too often made is that, “Hey, the little bitches
Brenda was an unmistakable example of “a little colored girl” who had not “enjoyed it,” and
who was ferociously angry about “it.” She was titanically pissed off, and saw education as her one
clear means of escape. Despite the fact that she had been victimized, she was not tolerating anybody
now getting in the way of her someday finding salvation through academics.
Brenda passionately opposed so many stereotypes about who she was supposed to be: for one, a
quiet, meek, and tiny little “colored girl” that somebody could put their hands on, and nobody would
be the wiser…she was supposed to have passively accepted her role. But there was nothing passive
Brenda was filled, I sometimes think, with a lot of “black anger,” coming from her own reaction
to how her people had been compressed in non-human, squashed up, ghettoized environments where
deviant actions are often ignored, or even celebrated—as they are too often by hip-hoppers and racists.
Brenda didn‟t want any part of such bullshit, and fought back against such notions with every fiber of
her little, tiny body.
Part Three: A Pool Playing Lesson; then,
The Rest of the Years at Pickett:
A Pool Playing Lesson 88
Obstacles on Top of Obstacles 91
My Efforts at Solutions 94
Really Bad School Days 100
The World Turned Upside Down 102
How Two Felt about Their Fame 103
The Death of a Gang Leader 106
A Miracle...Put It on Ice! 108
A Pool Playing Lesson
Back in the early and middle 1970‘s, I had an old friend, dead now—we had been security
guards together at a steel company while I was going through college. He had also traveled the Great
Lakes on the big iron ore boats, and for several years traveled the Oceans as a merchant mariner.
Though he no longer was a sailor, he still used to frequent some of the various sailor bars in downtown
Detroit to drink with some of his old lakes and seas-faring associates.
He had always thought I was a pretty good pool player, and for years he had been telling me
how much money I could win by going down to this one sailor bar—a couple of blocks ―behind the
Pontchartrain Hotel.‖ (The bar is now no longer there.) ―They play for thousands of dollars there,‖ he
was always saying, ―and nobody is anywhere near as good as you.‖
One blustery, rainy, and very cold night in early March, he finally talked me into going down
there. The weather wasn‘t totally terrible when we left my parents‘ east side home, but, by the time we
got downtown, it had started getting really nasty. Another real problem was what an awful area this bar
was in: all the buildings were really old and run-down, and the first thing we saw out in front of the
sailor bar was some guy, unconscious, lying on the sidewalk. My friend said the man had probably
been ―rolled by a pimp‖ (assaulted and robbed while with a prostitute) and he warned me, ―Don‘t get in
the middle of this. They don‘t like heroes down here.‖
So we stepped over the guy and left him lying there, which felt pretty strange, because the rain
was now freezing on all the surfaces where it fell—including on the unconscious guy‘s clothes and
face. But we couldn‘t stand around pondering this; the wind, which was whipping up pretty good, was
speed-spraying us, too, with the same icy covering.
Going into the bar we didn‘t exactly find what you would consider a safe haven. The bar had
two doors open, at diagonal ends, and the icy rain was blasting in one end—right next to the pool
table—but a group of card players next to it were absolutely paying no attention to the fact it was
slowly covering them with ice. (I guessed at the time that the men were too drunk or drugged to notice
the icy wind; but my friend later told me that they were seamen, after all, and a little rain, wind, and ice
wouldn‘t trouble them nearly as much as it had a ―landlubber‖ like me.)
All the card players were clearly either sailors or local toughs: one wore a turban and a sailor
coat; there were other men of nations I couldn‘t even begin to guess. Each player had money stacked at
his place. A heavy-set black man, wearing a sailor‘s pea coat, had an automatic pistol sitting atop his
money stack; another Arabic-looking man (I‘m just guessing his ethnic origin) had nothing atop his
money stack, but he did wear some kind of heavy rifle hanging by a sling over his shoulder. All of these
men were smoking something; the smell of mildew, sweat, beer, and various tobaccos was
My friend went over and got us some beer, then we sat down at the opposite end from the crazy
card players, where we could also watch two guys playing pool.
I was surprised that nobody greeted my friend or came over to say hello: while we were
drinking the beers he told me that he knew everybody in there. But he also said that these weren‘t
exactly ―friendly people.‖ Knowing them I guess didn‘t necessarily put you on speaking terms.
The two guys playing pool in the corner looked terrible. They were hitting the balls way harder
than necessary and hardly ever seemed to make a shot. They also didn‘t seem to notice that the open
door by them was causing them to get covered by a layer of ice. Amazingly, they were playing for a lot
of money. They were handing each other large bills, after every game, which was astonishing,
considering their obvious ineptness. But, despite their lack of skill, both were clearly concentrating as
hard as they could. I have never seen two worse looking, and more serious acting pool players in my
My friend finally went over and asked if I could play one of them. He was told that their
minimum wager was fifty dollars a game. He said I‘d play for a hundred.
One of them agreed to play me.
When I played my first few shots I got a very large shock. The pool table was not only iced up
from the rain coming through the door, it also was the most warped and twisted piece of junk I‘d ever
seen. This thing had been exposed to the weather for years, and the reason these guys had been hitting
the balls so hard was that they had been trying to get the balls airborne so that they could carry them
over all the obstacles: over the huge pocks and pit marks in the felt, and over the incredible rolling,
dipping, and undulating slope to the table‟s surface that made trying to gently roll the balls toward the
pockets, or even rolling the ball at all, in any sort of a straight line, a physical impossibility.
Watching my opponent play I suddenly realized that he was a genius at this particular game, on
this particular table. He didn‘t make that many shots, all that fast, but I could never make any. I was
amazed and finally awed at what this guy could do, with his flying-though-the-air shots. There was no
way that I could possibly learn how to do what he was doing in time to beat him that night. I was way
I gladly paid him his hundred dollars, and told him that I had seen enough. Then, because he
and his friend seemed more than a little surly and had probably wanted a lot more of my money than I
had just lost, I even bought them a round of drinks, trying to be friendly and telling them that I now
saw that they were two of the best pool players that I‘d ever seen.
The guy I'd played, in an angry tone, told me that he'd seen ―really good pool players on
American television,‖ and he knew that those made many more shots than he and his friend did. He
told me that I shouldn‘t think that they were so ―stupid‖ as to believe that they were really ―some of the
best pool players.‖
He said, instead, he thought I was very ―stupid‖ for having said how good they were, and added
that since he and his friend felt sorry for my ―stupidness‖ they weren‘t going to rob us of ―the rest of
the money‖ we had probably brought in to gamble against them. He said ―You gonna need that money,
since you so stupid. You see what I say?‖
Some of the other nearby patrons acted like these were fighting words, but I only sensed a
willingness to let us leave with our bodies and finances relatively intact, the only price being a small
chunk of dignity. Looking around the bar, and remembering what was going on out front, I saw this as
a great bargain.
So I quite enthusiastically agreed to his proposal. Then, ignoring several of the other patrons,
who had started chuckling, I directed my friend back out into the icy night. We stepped back over the
still inert and now ice-covered guy on the sidewalk, and I never ventured near that place again.
Obstacles on Top of Obstacles
To say the least, most teaching in the Detroit Public Schools is nothing like teaching in the
mostly much safer and saner suburbs. It just isn‘t the same ―game.‖ (Unfortunately, Michigan
Republican politicians have continually insisted that it is “the same game,” and have forced statewide
tests that compare districts, and punish those that can‘t ―measure up‖ to the ―norm,‖ by school closings
and teacher and principal firings.)
What is amazing, given how difficult this ―game‖ already is, are the continual efforts, from so
many different sources, to make the “game” of teaching school in Detroit even harder yet.
Although I am a Democrat, I have many Republican friends, and I know that most of them
hardly viewed their vote for Ronald Reagan, in 1980, as an effort to make it harder for me to teach my
eighth grade black students in the city of Detroit. But his election did exactly that. For many of my
students at Pickett Junior High, when Reagan replaced Jimmy Carter (who had been sympathetic to
blacks and to Detroit), his election was proof positive that white America didn‘t care about black
people, and didn‘t want them to be successful or to have good lives. It was proof positive that the
majority of the voters in America viewed them as second-class citizens.
It wasn‘t like everybody in Detroit suddenly gave up—though some did—but Reagan‘s election
was a traumatic experience for a whole lot of people in the Detroit black community—especially after
Jimmy Carter‘s term—including for many of my students, and yet another traumatic experience could
hardly be afforded in that already severely damaged environment. As Reagan continued to serve out his
presidency, I often wondered how many more casualties, including falls into criminal behavior, drugs,
violence, etc., his election and subsequent policies caused. There was no way to measure, but Reagan‘s
election harmed our students‘ and their community‘s morale. It was absolutely harder for our students
to respect authority while Reagan was president; certainly the Bushes were no improvement.
* * *
A further problem was that, at least during my career there as a teacher, the Detroit school
district itself, and its various administrators always seemed to relish inventing new ways to make the
job of teaching the kids a lot tougher. Not only did (and does) the district implement asinine, nit-
picking, and overbearing nonsense like the ―KORS Reading Program,‖ Pickett Junior High‘s
administration was always finding new ways to interrupt your classes—which I‘ve heard is a serious
problem in numerous other Detroit schools. Public address system announcements constantly
interrupted your classes; haughty ―specialists‖ sent in by the district would come in and take away your
students, with the kids later returning and having no clue what was going on in your room; every year
Pickett had a Christmas festival, for which numerous kids would be pulled out of your class two to
three days a week, month after month, for rehearsal; these kids missed so much of the normal work that
most became nothing but troublemakers on the days when they were in class.
The district and Pickett Junior High, especially early in the year, would also insist on keeping
some real ―psychos‖ and terrible troublemakers in your class: practically nothing, short of murder (and
not necessarily that, either) could get these nut cases out of your room, especially not before the school
could count them as part of student enrollment to help pay for teacher funding from the state.
* * *
When I first started teaching at Pickett Junior High, in 1978, one day I got really interested in
the fact that so many of my students were way over-aged for their grade; four and five time failures
were extremely common. (Instead of being brought back by a parent, one kicked-out seventh grade girl
was brought in by her husband.) Obviously kids like these were enormous obstacles to any sort of
normal teaching. Looking up all their ages one night, on my record cards, and using my father‘s old
adding machine to help me figure out the average age of the whole bunch, I found that the average age
of all of my seventh grade students was almost 17 years old.
A lot of the very oldest and highest multiple-year failure kids were way beyond awful. They
were almost always in gangs, many daily ―shook down‖ the weaker kids—especially the few
appropriately aged kids—for money, and most always raised hell in class, refused to do any work, and
generally harassed the few normal-aged kids.
Finally, somebody in the school district came up with ―a solution.‖ They decided that
practically nobody in a middle school or junior high should fail anymore—the idea, I guess, was that
this would eliminate the severely over-aged kids. So the district started passing kids to the next grade
who had failed almost all their classes, and just to make it appear ―kosher,‖ the district started trying to
enforce ―grading quotas,‖ warning the teachers of a maximum of ten percent of the kids that we could
fail. (When, as many as fifty percent of your students refuse to complete, or, often, even start an
assignment, and another fifty percent, or more, are absent far more than half the days of the school
year, it‘s more than a little difficult to only fail ten percent. —But, “Be creative!” one counselor told
Teachers who didn‘t keep their failures down to the acceptable quotas were constantly harassed,
and many even lost their programs; almost all the kids who were failed by these teachers still ended up
being promoted, anyway.
The result, in only a few years, was that the average age of our students came down much closer
to what it was supposed to be. But what also transpired was that, now, huge numbers of these normally
aged children were terribly cynical and lazy. They knew that it was almost impossible to fail, and trying
to convince them that they needed to do their work for any other reason besides personal amusement
had become an utter impossibility. A new breed of youngster had been created in the Detroit Public
The creation of ever new and always increasingly more difficult obstacles that stop teachers
from teaching never ceases in Detroit. And the Republican politicians gloat, and shut down more
My Efforts at Solutions
Naturally, the teachers at Pickett complained constantly about all the ―obstacles‖ that made it so
difficult to teach—and which made the grading ―quotas‖ such a big joke. One of the constant
complaints was about so many kids‘ inability to spell the simplest vocabulary; another daily gripe was
about our students‘ ―short attention spans.‖ Most teachers at Pickett tried to never teach a lesson over
fifteen minutes long; several tried to never exceed ten minutes.
While I always agreed with the complaints about the grading quotas, it was in these last two
other complaints that I began to find my own difference, and my own substance and style as a teacher
in the very tough environment at Pickett Junior High. I have already described how I used the ―New
Vocabulary Sentence Problems‖ that I invented, in order to help improve the students‘ vocabulary and
reading. (I will never pretend that I helped everyone; but those willing to listen were starting to get a
much better education in my classroom.)
What I had found using those ―Sentence Problems,‖ and by giving the kids so many vocabulary
stories that I wrote, and by having them write their own stories, was that, often, the kids who had
enormous trouble with the simplest words were just as motivated and capable as anybody of learning
the more complex words. Despite their small vocabulary word shortcomings, they did have normal
So I always earnestly tried to teach the more difficult vocabulary to even the slowest readers
and worst spellers, and I always found—with the exception of a few kids who really had some serious
outside psychological issues—that most of my students at least respected my efforts, and very many
learned a lot. (I think that many of them liked that, unlike the quotas, I was treating them as though
they were actually capable of learning complex things—which they really were!) I also saw that by
their acquisition of some of the harder vocabulary, many of the slower students were now motivated to
learn the easier words, too.
* * *
The other of my largest departures from the ―conventional wisdom‖ at Pickett—and another
way that I began demanding more intelligence and concentration by my students—was when I decided,
during my second year, to start ignoring the suggestions by everyone to never exceed fifteen minutes
on a lesson.
This really got started, one day, when, trying to teach the kids how to write story dialog (I
wanted them to proper punctuate and paragraph the story dialog), I put the following silly story on the
Ralph and George were walking down the street one day, when they met a talking
fire hydrant. Hey, you! said the fire hydrant. Do you have a match? Ralph was too shocked to
speak, but not George. Sure, he said, lighting a match. Where‟s your cigarette? Fire! Fire!
screamed the fire hydrant, and he sprayed George and his match with two thousand gallons of
I was just trying to be silly, which often seemed to work with them (they hated it when teachers
always tried to be totally serious with them), and I merely expected them to properly paragraph and
punctuate the story‘s dialog, by following a couple of rules I had also written on the board. But, many
students, for some odd reason, wanted to write sequels. They kept asking, so finally I said go ahead.
One boy, who said he didn‘t like fire hydrants one-upping human beings, wrote the following
story about George getting revenge: (I have corrected a few simple errors.)
After the fire hydrant sprayed George with two thousand gallons of water, the fire hydrant
began to laugh really hard. Although this made George very angry, he decided to stay calm. He had an
“I can‟t see! I can‟t see!” George yelled. “Please help me! Get my handkerchief out of my
pocket so I can wipe my eyes!”
“Okay, okay,” said the fire hydrant, still laughing. And the fire hydrant reached into George‟s
“Help! Thief! Thief!” George screamed, and a nearby policeman came running over. He
arrested the fire hydrant for pick-pocketing, and then took him off to jail.
I liked this little story so much that I put it on the board two days later (again without the
paragraphing and the quotation marks, which the kids had to put in themselves), and this only provoked
some other ―sequels‖ by the kids, about the fire hydrant‘s time in jail.
Here are three other examples, which I saved and used, with the kids‘ permission, for other
classes, and other school years. (I have fixed minor errors and have put in any missing punctuation and
After the fire hydrant was arrested, it was taken straight to court. “I‟m innocent!” the fire
hydrant told the judge. “I was only trying to help the man get his handkerchief to wipe off his face!”
“That‟s not what he told the police,” the judge said. “I sentence you to thirty days in jail for
disturbing the peace!”
The fire hydrant was then thrown into a jail cell with a mop and a broom.
“Why are you guys in here?” the hydrant asked.
“We were arrested for loitering in this guy‟s closet,” the broom told the hydrant. “The guy‟s two
kids told the judge that we had refused to work.”
One Saturday, the fire hydrant‟s family came to visit him in jail. His wife was a kitchen sink and
his children were three little squirt guns.
“Why are you crying?” the fire hydrant asked his wife.
“I can‟t help it,” his wife said. “I really miss you!”
His wife‟s crying made him feel really bad, but what made it worse was when some of the
guards started coming in and getting glasses of water from her. This made the fire hydrant very upset,
but he stopped his two sons when they wanted to start shooting.
“How do you plead?” the judge asked the fire hydrant.
“I‟m innocent,” the fire hydrant said. “I don‟t think I did anything wrong.”
“I‟m sorry to hear that,” the judge replied, “because I think you‟re guilty. I sentence you to five
years in the state penitentiary.”
“Oh no!” said the fire hydrant.
“That‟s not all,” said the judge. “While you‟re up there I‟m going to keep you quite busy.”
“How?” asked the hydrant.
“You‟re going to have to work twelve hours every day as the men‟s shower.”
* * *
Well, now what I was left to figure out was why a lot of my students had felt like writing
sequels for something as silly as the fire hydrant assignment. Obviously, the first reason was that the
fire hydrant had ended up in jail—and jail, unfortunately, was definitely something that too many of my
students had had serious personal experience with: either by being arrested themselves, or through
members of their families being arrested. My students knew “jail.”
The truth was that, occasionally, one of my students would be willing to write something
personal about a traumatizing experience like being in jail—whether it had been themselves or a family
member. But such cases were very isolated. With the fire hydrant, however, whole groups of kids had
really gotten into his the consequences of his ―water assault‖ on some strangers, and his subsequent
incarceration. I immediately knew that this trying to show me something really important, but it took
me to figure out exactly what.
What finally occurred to me was that the hydrant‘s experience had been both a symbolic and
cathartic experience for my students. They could safely talk about the hydrant‘s thuggery and his
subsequent embarrassment and humiliation in jail without it having to be explicitly about those people
in their own environment who had been through similar thematic experiences. And by writing sequels,
they could just dump the misery and humiliation from their own experiences on the hapless fire
It was true: though I had never intended it, the fire hydrant of my own original little assignment
had been just like too many of them and their relatives: it had gone out aimlessly looking for a random
victim, seeking revenge for some long specifically forgotten insult, which it obviously thought
wouldn‘t hurt so bad anymore, once the pain had been put on someone else.
With their sequels, my fire hydrant then clearly became a ―ghettoized loser,‖ just like so many
of them feared becoming themselves. The one aggressive move the hydrant makes, it consequently puts
pure hell and misery on himself and his family. Most of my students knew that kind of story all too
The trick was, they did at least get to laugh at it, through their sequels, which enabled them to at
least hope that they might escape similar fates.
From the fire hydrant assignment I had learned two really valuable things. First, I now knew
that when the kids were interested in something, they could have very long attention spans. Second, I
now had a formula, based on the fire hydrant assignment, which I believed would enable me to always
access those longer attention spans.
It was simple: I had learned that the kids would really give you much longer and much more
passionate attention if you involved themes from their own lives: especially the tragic themes that they
were so familiar with. The ―secret‖ was that the students needed to be able to discuss and relive those
themes vicariously and thus safely through other personalities substituting for themselves.
Now, I must admit that, for any one who has ever taken a good ―adolescent literature class,‖ and
really understood it, these two supposedly ―big discoveries‖ of mine aren‘t exactly “ROCKET
SCIENCE.” In fact, I suppose that, to any really good reading teacher, this stuff is pretty pathetically
But one must remember where I was teaching at the time. And one should also remember that I
(with the rest of the Detroit district) was saddled with something called the KORS Reading Program,
which, in the way we were being forced to implement it, was absolutely antithetical in philosophy to
these discoveries. Under that burden, I felt like I had found “the one true religion,” the day that I saw
these two truths.
Recently, I rented ―The Miracle Worker,‖ with Patty Duke. When I saw the moment where she
proved to her tutor and her family that she was capable of true and normal human cognition, I cried like
a baby—along with the rest of her stupid family, up on my television screen—because I thought it was
so beautiful. (I watched the thing alone; I don‘t let my wife and kids see me watching movies like that
one!) What it made me remember was the day when I had the revelation about my students‘ attention
spans, caused by that stupid fire hydrant assignment.
After that important day of ―teacherly awakening,‖ I soon started developing numerous
assignments and projects that I thought would access these longer attention spans of my students. I
developed legal cases based on stories, social worker letters, letters to publishers and editors,
psychologist‘s referrals, and much more—where the kids had to deal with various anti-social characters
and their problems. Most of my students started eating this stuff up; soon, students from other classes
started coming by asking if they could drop another teacher‘s class to take mine. (These students far out
numbered a couple of very totally corrupted and lazy kids who tried to drop my class, because they
―didn‘t feel you should have to think in school.‖)
With my new lessons—which I taught around KORS, which was always a very annoying and
inconvenient hindrance to real education—the kids in my classes who didn‘t skip and were willing to
listen (which was an increasingly large majority), now had much more solid vehicles for better
understanding themselves and the rest of humanity. Watching them learn, I also realized that a lot of
what we were reading was about some of my own personal problems, too, so I ended up always
learning with them.
* * *
I admit that I never achieved the status of being able to inspire and teach every student who
walked into my room. What I did achieve was enough respect that those who didn‘t want to learn
usually at least decided to stay out of my way so that I could teach the motivated kids.
I have known a few teachers who felt that they could teach every kid who walked through their
doorway. Without exception they were either ignorant fools, or low-intelligenced tyrants, who both
lowered their standards and taught phony values. Many controlled kids by feeding them racism; all
taught kids that life and the world are much less complex than they really are. Kids coming from those
kids of classrooms are always heading for a rude awakening.
By the mid 1980‘s, I believed that I had figured out some of the most basic fundamentals of
doing a decent job as a teacher. Then and later, I always knew of other teachers who did a lot better job
than I of practicing those ―basics,‖ but at least by the mid 1980‘s I was on the same page.
Really Bad School Days
No matter how much teaching you did (or tried to do) at Pickett Junior High, something would
inevitably happen to remind you just where you were. There were always violent fights, and you
periodically heard about guns and knives taken from kids. On half days when we left the parking lot to
go out to lunch, the same dope house to dope house gunfight across the street that we saw on our
departure might still be going when we returned.
One day, on the south side of our school, a man was brutally shot down on his driveway directly
in front of hundreds of kids watching through adjacent first floor classroom windows.
Another day, when the Puritan and Fenkell Avenue gangs had been rumored for some time to be
storing up weapons in the school for a big showdown, the Detroit Police came in for a surprise locker
sweep. But it wasn‘t that much of a surprise because five minutes before they arrived at least fifty kids
burst out of rooms, ran to their lockers, and grabbed large satchels and ran out of the building. I have
no idea how they knew and how the warning was issued.
The only people who did get surprised that day were the girls in the eighth grade honors class.
The police came and got them, and searched their lockers. They found one saw-off shotgun, one Uzzi,
and one automatic pistol.
Three of the honors girls were jailed and never allowed to attend regular school in Detroit again.
One of them, whom I saw a year later on the street, told me that they had been hiding the weapons for
One of the most bizarre, and perhaps most telling incidents, was when a man driving a bright
red Ford Tourino circled the building one day, with a rifle, firing shots—according to what I heard
later—at where he thought one of the counselors was. The man, who was rumored later to be a ―hit
man,‖ was said—by friends of mine that I felt were always totally credible—to have circled the
building for four hours, firing shots. The same people claimed that the police had been called but
Finally, Henry Lake called ―the Big Four‖ (he knew them), a legendary four-person Detroit
Police trouble-shooting squad. They came and confronted the perpetrator—who, knowing the
reputation of ―the Big Four,‖ promptly gave up.
I wasn‘t a first hand witness to who had called the police earlier, and I didn‘t know why they
wouldn‘t come (the rumors were that they were afraid of the hit man), but I was a direct witness to
what happened during the Detroit Police Department‘s ―investigation‖ of the crime.
After I heard that the ―hit man‖ had been apprehended, I walked into the counseling department
to see the damage—I had been told that most of the bullet holes were there. I indeed saw a number of
bullet holes in windows and window shades, and dents on light fixtures that, having been in that room
many previous times, I knew had not been there before. Two police officers were standing there talking
to the counselor who had allegedly been the intended object of the shooting.
―I‘m really sorry, sir,‖ one of the police officers was saying, ―but since we haven‘t been able to
find any bullets I‘m sure that the charges will be dropped and the suspect released.‖
The counselor looked quite dismayed and I was incredulous. ―Just a minute,‖ I said. ―I think I
can find some of these bullets.‖ The guy looked at me funny, like I was an idiot. But I was serious: I
had spent seven years as a security guard, while going through college (yeah, a bachelor‘s took me that
long), and I had worked in numerous old buildings in tough areas around Detroit. People sometimes
shot into those old buildings—for the fun of it, I guess—and, as a hobby, I guess, I had been successful
before, following window holes, dents, and ricochets, to find spent slugs.
Today, in the counseling department, I first followed a hole through a window and its shade
toward a light fixture. The fixture showed a heavy glancing dent; I followed the likely bounce, and saw
two nicks nearby out of an adjacent wall over by a secretary‘s desk. She was sitting there, paying rapt
attention. There was an ashtray on her desk. I had a hunch.
―Look in that ash tray!‖ I told her. (There was an ashtray there because this was in the days
when employees could still smoke in school.)
She turned it over and the first of a half dozen slugs that I would find for the police fell onto her
The two police officers finally put the slugs into a bag and left—saying they were going down
to their station.
The counselor told me the next day that the suspect had been released. He said the two police
officers had ―lost‖ the evidence before they got to their alleged destination.
The whole situation was always peculiar: the ―hit man,‖ as far as I know, never took any more
shots at the counselor, and the counselor kept working at Pickett. I suppose some tidy little ―deal‖ was
reached—but I haven‘t a clue as to what it was or who was involved in making it.
The World Turned Upside Down
On the same day in 1984 that Jack Morris threw a no-hitter for the Detroit Tigers (the first by a
Detroit Tiger since Jim Bunning, in 1957), my wife and I attended the funeral of Donald McNance. He
had died, as I said, several days earlier, lifting weights, trying to keep up with the kids at Post.
My wife said later that, at that funeral, she thought that this was the first time I had ever looked
―old‖ to her (I was only thirty-three), and I know that, sitting there, with her, watching Don‘s beautiful
wife crying uncontrollably up in the front, this was the first time I had ever realized so very clearly that
being good didn‘t necessarily qualify you for a long life. McNance had clearly died as a casualty at
Pickett. He never would have died like he did without the stresses at our school, and Pickett Junior
High had lost a star teacher who had been making a remarkable difference in the lives of hundreds of
Twenty years later, I would run into Donald McNance‘s grandson at M---- High School. He
claimed he knew very little about his grandfather—though he knew he had been a teacher. I tried
explaining what his grandfather had meant to me and to the students at Pickett, but there was no way he
or anyone else could have ever appreciated what his grandfather was like without having been there at
That‘s the real tragedy of the written word: it only vaguely and weakly ―hints,‖ in the most frail
and shadowy ways, at ―what was.‖ Reality is never adequately conveyed; the best that the written word
can do, if its author is talented and sincere enough, is to inspire its readers to use their ―imaginations‖
to hazard a guess at the concrete and aesthetic possibilities that the text so ineptly attempts to suggest.
How Two Felt about Their Fame
In the spring of 1968 I was seventeen years old, and one Sunday morning my twin brother and
I, along with our adoptive mother, went to church at St. Paul‘s in Grosse Pointe, Michigan. We didn‘t
live in Grosse Pointe, but my mother had grown up there, so we used to often go to church there.
Our father never went to church, and, without his supervision, there had always been a risk that
my brother and I might sometimes be a bit ―unsettled‖ in church. Something my mother had starting
doing years before, when we were quite small, was to buy us ice cream cones on the way home if she
thought we had behaved. This had always settled us down some.
Though we were now seventeen this practice was still in effect. My mother had been hinting
that we were getting too old to need such ―childish incentives,‖ but as usual we implied through our
gestures and facial expressions that being ―childish‖ in church was still within our repertoire. So we
stopped on the way home, parking at the Grosse Pointe Library at the corner of Fischer and Kercheval
Roads, and had walked across Kercheval to a drug store, right at the northeast corner of that
intersection. (That drug store later became a bank.) A couple of minutes later we exited the drug store,
my twin brother and I having already received our ice cream cones.
I don‘t remember the status of my brother‘s ice cream cone as we started to re-cross Kercheval
to go back to our car, but I do remember that I was in the midst of eating mine, and I had vanilla ice
cream all over my face. When we had just stepped out into the middle of that street, I suddenly heard
my mother say, ―Oh my God! Hurry! Get across!‖ And she tried to pull my brother and me across,
something we were much too big for.
I turned and looked toward my left to see what had frightened her, and saw, maybe thirty yards
away what was obviously a civil rights march. It had to be, since it had Martin Luther King and Walter
Reuther at the front of it. They were walking quickly, and despite the cool spring air, you could see as
they came closer that they were sweating pretty good from walking so fast.
My mother was unable to pull me out of the way because I had stubbornly stopped right there in
the middle of the street. I could see for myself what it was, and I didn‘t see why she had made such a
big fuss. It was she herself who had taught us not to be racially prejudiced, so why should she be acting
like Martin Luther King was some big criminal or space monster? We knew he was a pretty good
—In fact, I felt like he was a ―movie star,‖ and with the vanilla ice cram all over my face, and
with my tiny mother trying to drag me off the street I stood there, pointing toward Martin Luther King,
as he and the front of the march were now less than fifty feet away. And I said something like, ―Whoa!
Mom! Don‘t you know who this is? He‘s famous! He‘s like a television star, only better, because he‘s
on TV more than anybody right now!‖ And I gestured toward King with my hand, and with my vanilla-
covered facial features, I shot this big look of star-struck approval at the man, who was now staring
directly at me, and starting to slow, fearing I just wasn‘t going to get out of the way of him and Walter
Reuther and the several thousand marchers coming up behind them.
King, now less than ten feet from me, looked back at me and my silliness, with his sad eyes, and
shook his head back and forth, sideways. Then, quietly, he said to me, just barely audibly, ―It‘s not like
that. It‘s not like that at all.‖
After he said that, my mother easily pulled me out of the way of the march. King spoke that day
at Grosse Pointe High School. He died, from an assassin‘s bullet, about three weeks later.
Sometime in the middle 1980‘s, one day I had a dentist appointment in the morning, so I took
the morning off and planned to only teach in the afternoon. But the appointment was shorter than
expected, so I ended up at Pickett early, about forty-five minutes before I was scheduled to start
teaching. With nothing else to do, I went into the teacher‘s lunchroom and sat down. I found a very
polite older black lady in there, drinking a cup of coffee or tea, who introduced herself as Mrs. Parks.
For the next forty minutes we sat there talking about me and what I was doing in my classroom at
Pickett. She was an excellent listener and was extremely courteous and encouraging.
Later on, Henry Lake came by and asked me what I had been talking so long about with ―Mrs.
Parks.‖ I told him what we had been talking about.
―Is that all you talked about?‖ he asked me.
―Well, yeah, why?‖
―You idiot! You mean you just talked with Rosa Parks for forty minutes, and you only talked
―That was Rosa Parks?‖
Then I remembered that she had said, ―My name is ‗Mrs. Parks,‘ but you can call me ‗Rosa‘ if
you want.‖ I hadn‘t been able to invert those two names into her very famous name, perhaps because
my parents had raised me to call older people ―Mr.‖ And ―Mrs.‖ (Or maybe I have a touch of dyslexia,
too…) And she clearly hadn‘t cared…I guess had found me amusing…
Later that day, Mrs. Parks, who it turned out was employed by the Detroit Public Schools as a
speaker, made a speech to most of the student body. For her, our two major gangs, the PA‘s and FA‘s
immediately called a temporary truce. No group of kids ever behaved better, not anywhere in this
galaxy or in any other. Her voice, barely above a whisper, was heard clearly in every crook and corner
of Pickett‘s large old dusty auditorium.
The Death of A Gang Leader
Sometime during the late 1980‘s, I had a student that I‘m going to call ―Leon Bailey.‖ He was
both my eighth grade English student and in my homeroom. Leon was a nice kid, a good student, a
really good friend to many, and the leader of the Fenkell Avenue gang—the ―FA‘s.‖ It was widely said
that his rivals, the ―PA‘s,‖ wanted to kill him so badly that there was a ―contract‖ out on him, and this
was why he used to hide in my closet whenever he was warned that certain suspicious people were in
the building looking for him.
Numerous times I was confronted by strangers—mostly tough looking young adult males—
saying they were looking for ―Leon Bailey,‖ saying that they had ―a message,‖ were ―Leon‘s relative,‖
needed to ―get the keys for the house,‖ and other similar scenarios. But Leon always told me, ―I don‘t
take messages from anybody. I only deliver them—never receive them. Anybody who‘s looking for me
is my enemy.‖ So I never sent anybody to him and I always pleaded ignorance no matter how
enormous they claimed the ―emergency‖ was.
Despite the danger, Leon attended quite regularly, and he obviously enjoyed the adventure of
eluding his enemies. He had quite a local reputation—he seemed to the other members of the FA‘s to be
something like an ―Errol Flynn‖ swash-buckling hero, without a doubt.
This went on for many months, well into the colder weather, and all of the teachers kept
warning him and his ―FA‖ friends that he couldn‘t keep this up forever. We cared a lot about him and
his friends—but we also cared just as much about the kids who were their enemies, the ―PA‘s.‖ What
we told all of them that we hated was their gang war—but they wouldn‘t listen.
Still, as the school year went on, we kept trying to convince Leon, his friends, and the ―PA‘s,‖
too, that gangs were a ―dead end,‖ and that sooner or later somebody was going to get either seriously
hurt or killed, just like had always happened before. But, Leon was such a ―swashbuckler‖ of a gang
leader: he was so good at defying and side-stepping danger that he made it look like the gangs were
nothing but wide open highways to fun and glory, and nothing else. As long as Leon was safe and
sound, and blithely attending all his classes, despite all the threats, we the teachers only looked like big
boring fools trying to wreck all the fun.
Then, I believe it was in late November, I walked into school one morning and heard the news
that Leon was dead. It was a wild scene, dozens and dozens of girls were hysterically crying, boys were
embracing the girls and each other, and this was a scene that would go on for most of the morning. (A
similar scene, maybe four years earlier, had ensued the morning that the news of Mr. McNance‘s death
had hit the school.)
I, who rarely hugged any of the girls, ended up briefly hugging Leon‘s girlfriend—something
that I rarely did: she was a truly nice kid, and she sure looked like she needed somebody to hug her—it
was one of the most ironic features of most of the gang leaders at Pickett that they almost always had
intelligent, decent, and loving girlfriends.
Surprisingly, it turned out that Leon had been killed when he and members of his own gang had
been playing ―Russian Roulette‖ with a revolver that was supposed to have been completely empty.
Instead, there had been a bullet in one of the chambers. Some people debated whether one of Leon‘s
own gang members had placed the bullet in the chamber in order to collect the money from the
―contract,‖ but few people thought that this was important anymore. Leon had been extraordinarily
popular and now he was dead.
Now, suddenly, all kinds of students and gang members who had been refusing to listen, were
ready to give me and the other teachers who had been warning them a lot more credibility.
A Miracle…Put It on Ice!
The death of Leon Bailey had had a huge impact on the entire student population at Pickett. A
number of PA‘s went around saying, ―I don‘t give a fuck!‖—but, in reality, they did. They were shook
up too, for one because nobody from their own group or hire had done it, and also because the whole
thing was just so stupid and useless. Why would somebody who was supposed to have been such a big
hero and supposedly so damned slick and smart have gotten into a stupid game of Russian Roulette?
That was what really disturbed them and the FA‘s too: Leon had died stupidly, playing with a gun, like
you sometimes hear about three year olds doing, not as a big gang hero, in the traditional blaze of glory.
I will never forget, the very next week after Leon‘s funeral, after I had admonished a kid in one
of my classes for writing ―Leon Bailey, our hero forever‖ on one of my desks, in magic marker, when
another kid, a young man who had been one of Leon‘s closet friends, spoke up.
―Man,‖ he said, ―Leon was one of my closest friends, one of the best friends I‘ll ever have, but
he wasn‘t no hero.‖
The boy who had spoken up was one of the best fighters and best athletes I ever had as a
student, and in that ―FA‖ class he had total respect, for what he was physically, and also because he had
absolutely been one of Leon‘s very few ―right hand men.‖
―I loved Leon,‖ he continued, ―but he was stupid the way he died, like a damned little kid
playing with a gun, and it got me to thinking that even if he had been killed by a hit man he would have
still been stupid. What‘s the point of getting yourself shot anyway?‖
Nobody said anything, including me. During my entire career as a teacher I never had the kind
of attention from a class that he had right then.
―What is we doing in gangs, anyway? Maybe we is just as stupid as our teachers think we is!‖
He looked me straight in the eye. ―Do you think we stupid, Mr. Guisbert?‖
I mumbled something about, no, I didn‘t think so.
But, on that day, this young man wasn‘t simply looking for reassurance about their intelligence;
he wanted something more—a lot more.
―If we ain‘t gonna just be stupid, Mr. Guisbert,‖ he said, ―we gotta start learning‘ better in
school: that‘s true, isn‘t it?‖
I agreed, of course.
―But the problem is, for us to do better, maybe you might have to do better as a teacher, too,
―Okay,‖ I said. ―I can go along with that. What do you want me to do?‖
―You should get rid of those stupid KORS lessons and start giving us some real work—like the
kids in the suburbs get because everybody expects them to go to college.‖ There was a chorus of
agreement. I had never dreamed that he would ask for something so politically dangerous—yet so
absolutely appropriate for making these poor black gang kids ―not stupid.”
Sadly, I told that young man and his raptly attentive class that I didn‘t think that there was
anyway that I could actually just ―get rid of KORS,‖ despite the fact that I agreed that morally and
educationally it was the right thing to do. The problem was that there were ―KORS inspectors‖ who
came around periodically to make sure you were ―on target‖ with all the damnably stupid little idiotic
busywork tasks that KORS required. Just getting rid of KORS could get me fired, I explained.
But, the kids in that class argued, we all know when those inspectors come around—it‟s always
at the same time of the month—so why don‟t we spend one day a month faking all the KORS work,
filling in all the assignments, and faking the records, then do real work the rest of the month? Nobody
will ever tell, they guaranteed.
I was stunned by their universal agreement about how to get the KORS program out of the way
of their education. They had clearly thought about this before—a lot! They all really believed that they
could avoid KORS‘s three weeks out of the month neutering of their education by coming in one day a
month and working like demons as a group—they would have to do a lot in one day—to make it
appear that they were really doing the normal full three weeks of moronic KORS nonsense. They even
guaranteed that they would do all the paper work for anybody who was absent.
The one extra request that they had of me—besides wanting me to show them how to fake all
the KORS busywork—was that they wanted me to go upstairs into an unused classroom where they
said there were some really nice looking old reading textbooks. Some of them had peeked at a few of
these old ―readers‖ during a summer school session when that room had been in use, and they said
these books had looked really intelligent. Those were the readers they agreed they wanted to use.
Within twenty-four hours all the rest of my eighth grade classes had become aware of what my
homeroom had asked me to do, and they were all absolutely in favor of it. (One advantage—or
disadvantage, too—of having major gangs in a school, is that news can really travel fast!) Everybody
guaranteed that nobody would talk, and for the only time in my career, I believed that all of my 175
students could be trusted with a ―secret,‖ because this bizarre ―cloak and dagger‖ conspiracy that they
were trying to involve me in was a ―plot against KORS,‖ and KORS had become absolutely infamous
as a colossal waste of time, and was considered by many to be nothing but part of a widespread
conspiracy to ―keep black people stupid.‖ No kids liked KORS anymore; my students universally
viewed plotting against it to be as reasonable as ―plotting‖ to find a cure for cancer.
One fortunate convenience was that my department head had gotten so fat she tended to not get
around to anybody‘s classroom anymore; another was when one of the kids talked his uncle, a
custodian, into helping me get the set of reading textbooks out of the unused room—a room for which I
had no key. He even told me he knew what was going on and said he thought it was about time that
somebody ―took the law into their own hands in order to help some of these poor, crazy kids.‖ I
decided I could trust him, too.
The books I got were a large set of old Outlooks through Literature, a book that had once been
the standard ninth grade reader for the Detroit Public Schools. There were terribly marked up with gang
slogans and profanity, and were moldy and beat up, but my students that year weren‘t in the mood for
being put off by a few cosmetic problems. They believed, correctly so, that this was an outstanding
book, and I had no intention of letting them down.
For the rest of that school year I read to them out of that book, as they read along; and for the
most difficult parts, I drew pictures on the board—to symbolize concepts that they could not capture
easily because of difficult language and sentence structure. (I especially liked to draw whole scenes—
usually with silly stick figures—to show what ―overall picture‖ an author‘s intricate language might
have established. After understanding my board drawings, we would go back after the difficult
vocabulary and sentences. That year we intensively studied stories like ―The Most Dangerous Game,‖
―Da-duh in Memoriam,‖ ―Bargain,‖ ―The Idealist,‖ ―The Scarlet Ibis,‖ ―Peter Two‖ and more. The kids
were thrilled by the wonders in ethical, aesthetic, psychological, and philosophical insights in these
stories, and saddened too, sometimes, by reflecting on the years of abuse that these books had received
by the non-comprehending students who had written all the gang slogans and profanity all over them.
No better proof of what ―losers‖ gang kids can be could have been found for them than to see how
these Pickett Junior High kids in the past had missed the whole genius of these great stories, and had
merely used these texts as receptacles for petty and ignorant vandalism.
Based on our mutual conspiracy I established the best working relationship of my entire career
with my classes. For the rest of that school year, between my students and me there were simply no
discipline problems at all—certainly nothing serious—as both the PA‘s and FA‘s were involved and
neither group was going to tolerate any disruption of what they had approved. I literally taught my
classes for almost seven months in almost total peace: the only difficulties I had were having to
occasionally stop one of my students from getting into a serious confrontation with a counselor or
administrator hapless enough to interrupt one of the lessons. (While many teachers were smart enough
to figure out how seriously my students and I were taking class that year, some of the administrators
and certainly a couple of the counselors, with their peremptory notions of self importance—even
concerning their interruptions for quite trivial matters—could certainly cause a real ruckus.)
Toward the end of the school year the district tested all the eighth graders for their reading
ability by giving them the ―Iowa Test,‖ just as the district had at the very beginning of the school year.
One day Mr. Johnson came over to me with the test results: my five classes of eighth graders had
turned out to be the most improved readers in the entire Detroit Public Schools.
A ―big shot‖ from downtown—somebody I respected and liked—came around wanting to know
what had happened at Pickett to cause this phenomenon. I was fed up enough with KORS and liked this
guy well enough that I told him the whole story. His face turned ashen when he heard it.
―Mr. Guisbert,‖ he told me, ―I can‘t go downtown and tell anybody this.‖
―Would I get in trouble?‖ I asked.
―I suppose somebody going public with something like this could get killed,‖ he said. ―Do you
know how many millions of dollars are tied up in the KORS program?‖
―A lot, I guess,‖ I said.
―You can‘t go around threatening big business. People who do that get hurt or disappear.‖
―So we just gotta keep teaching crap like KORS to the kids, so nobody kills us?‖ I asked
―There are lots of people who cheat on KORS by not teaching it as much as they‘re supposed
to. That‘s going on all over the district. But these people don‘t go around bragging about it. They
publicly pretend they‘re doing what they‘ve been ordered to do, then they do whatever they want
behind their classroom‘s closed door.‖
―But then aren‘t the KORS publishers making money under false pretences?‖
He looked at me long and hard. ―Mr. Guisbert,‖ he said. ―If you hope to do your students any
good you will not go around telling anyone else about what you just told me. I have forgotten it myself
already. Have a very nice day.‖
Soon after Wendell Ferguson had another heart attack and decided to retire. The new ―acting
principal‖ who came in was nowhere near as courageous about dealing with the gangs as Ferguson had
been. He soon announced that the district had decided on a ―curriculum change‖ for Pickett, and he
said that a number of persons like myself and Henry Lake were to be transferred to other schools.
Henry Lake would become a counselor at what I‘m going to call ―Thoreau Middle School,‖ whereas I
would transfer to what I‘m going to call ―Dudley K to 8.‖
My dear friend, Mr. Lake, would die at Thoreau, running to break up a fight. As for my transfer,
I always wondered if the purpose had been to get me away from the neighborhood and all those kids
and their families that had drawn me into the conspiracy to ―get rid of KORS.‖
What was ironic was that KORS was shortly after replaced by a whole series of reading books,
which I'll call ―The Hafflin Nafflin Program.‖ Unfortunately, I only learned to think of this new
program as a ―Son of KORS‖: it was like a bad sequel to a horror movie, and in its own way even more
sickening and horrifying than the original.
Nothing had been learned. It was a program put together by cowards who were afraid of
allowing the kids to read anything even slightly controversial. You could never use it to teach the kids
anything about human nature, psychology, or any sort of thinking that a college-educated person might
do. It was more meaningless gibberish; it was another attempt, authorized by the Detroit Public Schools
to ―keep black people stupid.‖
Part Four: A Year and a Half
at Dudley K-8
Does God Really Want Us to Think? 114
When Idealism Slipped and Fell off a Cliff 120
Does God Really Want Us to Think?
Dudley was usually one of the quietest and most boring places I‘ve ever worked. But I did like
most of the kids. They were pretty personable, and not mean or anything, except for the local
assortment of gangsters, thugs, and dope dealers that can be found at so many of Detroit‘s schools.
Most of the kids at Dudley were fun to talk to, and had seemingly normal senses of humor. The
problem was, however, few seemed to have any real intellectual curiosity.
This was very different from the students that I had had at Pickett Junior High. At Pickett, even
with all of its problems, whenever I taught the kids something that required them to think, most really
perked up. My Pickett students had liked to use their brains, even if it was just to show off or to try to
make somebody else look stupid. They had a natural competitiveness that didn‘t exist at Dudley. But
sometimes I thought it was only because Pickett kids had more ―self esteem‖ issues, which kept them
always trying to ―prove something.‖
I guess the Dudley kids had less ―personal issues‖ because of the strong church presence in that
neighborhood. But their stronger, church-taught sense of ―how things are‖ also always seemed to make
them visibly uncomfortable whenever I tried to get them to use their brains. They did not like
questioning things, and they didn‘t want to spend class time to ―probe‖ for deeper psychological
meanings and motivations. They much preferred ―busy work‖ where the thinking had already been
done for them.
For a long time at Dudley I was left puzzled as to how to get my students to more freely use
their intelligences. Finally, I would come up with a very unexpected answer. Then, a little while later,
God would punish me for having made this discovery.
One very pretty, late winter morning in 1992, I was in the middle of trying to teach one of my
classes at Dudley when I heard a loud ruckus out in the hall. I went out to see what was happening, and
I found about thirty Detroit Police Officers coming through the hall. I asked one of our security guards,
who was with them, what was going on. He reported that one of the gangs had thrown a kid out of a
third floor bathroom window. He said that this was obviously not the sort of thing that anybody
expected to happen at Dudley, but, unfortunately, that was what all the fuss was about.
When my free period started twenty minutes later, I went down to the parking lot ―courtyard‖
where the guard had told me that the kid was still lying. Indeed, there I did see a youngster, maybe 13
to 14 years old, lying on the asphalt of the courtyard. Three floors directly above him was an open
window. Watching it for a few minutes, I noticed a police officer moving around inside. I noticed that I
was the only teacher out there in the lot. I guessed I wasn‘t supposed to be there, but nobody was
telling me to leave.
On the ground next to the boy on the asphalt were some emergency service people; two Detroit
―EMS‖ ambulances were near, lights flashing. The EMS people were talking to the boy, who was
conscious, but not moving anything but his mouth, as he spoke to them. Television news trucks, from
every major Detroit TV station were parked in the lot, too. I had never known that the antennas on
these trucks could go up above a four-story school building, but that‘s what they had all done.
I was saddened, as all Detroit Public School teachers always are, by this sight of the news
media, appearing like locusts, to ―feed‖ on one of our school system‘s tragedies.
A custodian, whom I ended up standing next to, told me that the EMS people seemed to be
reluctant to move the kid. The kid was conscious and not visibly bleeding, and he said they were scared
that they might seriously hurt him if they moved him wrong. He said he had heard one of the EMS
people say something about calling in some ―specialists.‖
That was obviously true because several minutes later a little white van appeared with the name
of a local hospital on the side, and I heard a police officer say this was the ―trauma team‖ that had been
Several men in long white coats got out of the van and went immediately over to the boy on the
ground. They got down on their knees to talk to him. As they talked I looked around, and also up at the
windows of the section of our four story school building that wrapped in a big ―U‖ around this
particular parking area. Perhaps a thousand kids from that school appeared to be standing or sitting next
to the windows. Teachers who should have been teaching lessons were at the windows with them, also
watching the drama down. All the kids, and their teachers, too, looked really quiet and solemn; nobody
was laughing or playing. All the students clearly knew how serious this situation was. Any teacher who
has ever struggled to get the unified attention of a classroom of adolescents would have been awestruck
by the sheer, fully concentrated focus of so many kids at once.
After several long minutes of talking to and examining the boy I saw one of the men in the
white coats come over to the principal who, for this occasion, had indeed come out of his office, and
was down in the parking lot with us. I heard the man very clearly say to our principal: ―You need to
come over here and talk to this boy!‖
The principal followed him over to the boy, and with great difficulty, because he was so fat, got
down on his knees beside the boy.
While the guys in the white coats had been working on the kid, the people who had come in the
news media vehicles had been hard at work, too. Lady reporters had been looking in hand mirrors,
adjusting their make-up and lipstick, and putting more hairspray in their hair. Their cameramen had
been checking out all of their hardware, and were obviously getting very ready to do some heavy
filming. All of a sudden I noticed a bunch of red lights going on, on all the cameras from the various
stations. It was twelve noon, and the ―NOON NEWS‖ was on all over the Detroit metropolitan area.
The hairsprayed, lipsticked women reporters were all talking, in very solemn and self-righteous voices,
into the eyes of their station‘s cameras, about ―a terrible tragedy in the Detroit Public schools today.‖
They began talking just as the principal was getting down on the ground to talk to the boy lying there.
The principal talked very kindly and carefully to the boy for a moment, then suddenly I saw a
very angry expression appear on his face. He got up very quickly for such a fat man. ―Get him up!‖ he
ordered the guy in the white coat.
The guy in the white coat helped the kid to stand up. There was a terrific stirring in the windows
above us, and a noise that sounded like a lot of applause, but I wasn‘t really watching them anymore. I
was looking at the news media people, who looked really shocked.
―Tell everyone what you just told me,‖ the principal ordered the boy.
―Well,‖ the kid said, facing the people with the cameras, ―What happen is I hit a girl on the butt
and she chase me around ‗til she chase me into the parking lot. I was so tired from running that I laid
down, right in the parking lot. Then the security guard found me and he say I was skipping. But I look
up and seen that window, and I made up the story ‗bout being throwed out so I wouldn‘t get into no
Personally, for such a group of self-righteous people, I would have thought that the news media
people especially would have been downright glad that this kid was going to be just fine—that the
whole thing had been just a jolly good kid‘s spoof of a whole lot of adults. Okay, it was an expensive
one, with all the various man hours spent by all the different agencies, but shit, it was all supposed to
have been done in the kid‘s behalf, and now here he was going to be just fine…
The thirty or forty cops hanging around seemed to take it with a certain amount of humor. They
were laughing about it some, and did seem quite glad that this idiotic kid was going to be okay. I
guessed that they saw too much tragedy, with lots of kids involved, and their silly smiles showed a very
concrete gladness that this kid was going to walk away unscathed from this once horrific seeming
But there were two other sources that were quite displeased by this sudden turn of event. The
first was the news media. When the boy announced the truth about what had really occurred there in
the parking lot at Dudley, the red lights on all those cameras went out instantly. (My mother called me
later that night to find out what had happened. She had seen on her station where a boy had been
thrown out of a window of my school, but then said her station had announced ―technical difficulties,‖
and had never gotten back to the story.)
The women with the lipstick and hairspray acted like somebody rich had just jilted them for a
marriage. They were really angry and offended. They and their technical people packed up really fast
and left. They reminded me as they screeched out of the parking lot of some kind of renegade Indians
racing away to find more settlements to plunder and more victims to murder. The sheer lack of violence
at Dudley had clearly been very disappointing to them.
The second source who was deeply offended by the kid‘s finally telling the truth was Dudley‘s
principal. As everyone was leaving he grabbed the kid by the arm.
―Come over here!‖ he told the boy. ―Aren‘t you a transfer from another school?‖ he asked him.
―Yes sir,‖ the boy answered. ―I got permission to come here because I was getting picked on at
my neighborhood school.‖
―Well, that‘s too bad,‖ the principal told him. ―And it‘s something that you should have thought
about before you pulled the stunt that you did today. Come on with me to my office. Nobody
embarrasses this school like you did today and gets away with it. I‘m sending you back to your
I had been out in that courtyard later than I thought. When I got to my room I found my entire
next class in the room waiting for me. Several girls were singing church hymns and a lot of the kids
were very glad to see me, which surprised me because I was several minutes late, and I had expected
some of the kids to admonish me for that. But that wasn‘t their attitude at all.
―Mr. Guisbert!‖ one girl said to me. ―You saw it! You saw the miracle!‖
I was very puzzled by this. ―What are you talking about?‖ I asked her.
She smiled in a weird way—like she was high on really good and friendly drugs: then I realized
she was having one of really sublime religious moments, something she would get occasionally. For the
life of me I didn‘t know why.
―You saw those men in white coats…we think they were faith healers…you saw them bring that
boy back to life and full health…‖ She paused. ―Is that what they were, faith healers? Did you hear
what they said to that boy?‖
I stared back at this amazingly naïve but often really nice girl. My mind was racing now—like
the news people in their trucks had, leaving Dudley. What was the right answer here? As I thought
quickly about it I realized that no matter what I said, there was little chance of the kids ever finding out
the real truth. I had been the only teacher down there, school security didn‘t talk to too practically
anybody, the principal wasn‘t going to be talking about this fiasco (even if he did come out of the
office), and the news media certainly wasn‘t going to ever bring out the truth…
―I heard everything that the men in the white coats said to that boy on the ground,‖ I lied.
―What did they say?‖ My whole class was around me in a circle, staring at me with their
―Bambi‖ eyes. It would have taken a real bastard to not give them what they wanted to hear.
―They said stuff like, ‗Be healed in the name of Our Lord, Jesus Christ,‘ and ‗In the name of
Jesus you shall walk again.‘‖ I guess that‘s what made the kid get up off the ground after that bad fall
The class began singing more hymns and spent a lot of time hallelujahing this and that and the
next thing. I let them have their fill of it, and we spent a lot of time talking about God and the devil, and
many of their deepest religious beliefs. A couple of the kids in the class weren‘t religious, so I let them
state their feelings too. I made it clear that I wasn‘t teaching religion, but I said that people had a right
to express their feelings, and nobody really objected to the discussion, since everybody could have their
say if they wanted.
What happened with a number of the seriously Christian kids in my classes is they started to
respect me more and listen to me, because they had either seen or heard I had been a direct witness to
―the miracle in the courtyard.‖ I didn‘t pretend to be as devout of a Christian as they (though I do
consider myself a Christian), but I did say that I had been really shocked by what I had seen there, and I
daily allowed the Christian kids to give their own views and interpretations of stories and issues we
I found that by allowing Christian kids to talk about God‘s ―eternal struggle with the devil‖ one
can do a whole lot of discussing of some pretty serious psychological issues in literature. It opens one‘s
eyes wider than perhaps anything else to real ethical concerns, and ethics, with its notions of guilt and
innocence, takes one right into the front door of psychology. The kids started learning lots more, and I
frankly learned too by trying to see what I wanted to teach them from their very religious point of view.
The rest of that school year was one of the finest and most rewarding I ever spent.
Nobody ever gave away my secret about what had really happened to that kid in the courtyard.
Dudley was too sleepy of a place for any real information to flow. Once a local ―spin‖ was put on any
story there, it tended to stay that way. In fact, in that school, you could ―spin‖ stories a whole lot of
different ways without causing a controversy. Nobody communicated much around there.
The ―wild renegade Indians‖ in the news media seemed a long way off as that school year
ended. Dudley didn‘t seem at all like a place where they could do their violence and mayhem.
When Idealism Slipped and Fell off a Cliff
The rest of the 1991-2 school year finished quite well, and I was pretty satisfied with what I had
done. Many of my students had learned some important things that could help them later in life and in
higher education (if they could get there), and this had been accomplished without conflicting with
their religion. (If the truth is to be told, my students‘ ideas undoubtedly brought me farther as a
Christian than mine brought them into the world of secular education.)
The next year I received a whole new crowd of eighth graders, and per the usual for my career,
the kids who entered my classes were in no way ready for my way of teaching. They were the same
kind of Dudley kids that I had had the year before: mostly nice, usually Christian kids who had never
questioned anything in their lives other than what was for dinner. I had to do an enormous amount of
work with them before we could really have any sort of an intelligent conversation.
I tried to do some of the same things that I had done the year before, prior to the incident in the
courtyard. But, without a ―miracle‖ that we had mutually ―witnessed‖ (none of their teachers from last
year had gone along with the notion that the parking lot incident was a ―miracle‖), my classes were
mostly nice, but quite lethargic, and extremely disinterested in anything except being told what to
think. Trying to teach them felt like being trapped in deep mud, with no place to go if I ever got free.
In November something finally occurred to make me believe that a breakthrough might be
possible. This was an announcement by Detroit‘s ―Area D‖ office of an editorial contest where the kids
were supposed to write about ―rap music and violence.‖ My Pickett Junior High students had won a
number of these contests, and I knew that the controversy of this year‘s topic would get a whole lot of
normally pretty quiet people at Dudley talking and thinking. (While gospel music dominated at Dudley,
rap music was strong there, too, and despite its usually antisocial lyrics, was part of the lives of many
of the Dudley students, especially the ―fringe‖ kids with ―issues.‖)
There were several major problems in getting prepared for the editorial contest. For one, the
Dudley library was closed. Because of budget cuts it was being used for a classroom. So I couldn‘t
send the kids there to get any materials. Another serious problem, which curtailed my ability to do a lot
of after-school work on any project, was that my adoptive mother‘s emphysema and osteoporosis had
gotten much worse, and she had been hospitalized for over a month. I was going to visit her everyday,
and I was totally exhausted by the time I got home. Finally, another issue was that my two young
children, who were now four and six, didn‘t like it too much either, if I came home so late, and then
just ignored them so I could do homework.
Despite all these difficulties I went to a library and got out the Reader‟s Periodical Guide, and
made a list of everything I could find that had to do with rap music and violence. My wife helped out,
by stopping at the library in our community, finding everything on my list that she could, and making
photocopies. A very Christian fellow teacher in the English Department took the copies, and cut and
glued enough of them together, with some directions that I had written up, so that I had an assignment
for my kids for the editorial contest. I was exhausted and dead on my feet every day, but at least I felt
that, with some help, I was doing my job.
The night before I was going to pass out the editorial assignment I went to see my mother. She
had had a terrible day, so I stayed with her much longer than usual. It was obvious that she wasn‘t
going to be around much longer; but, despite all her pain and coughing, her brain was still pretty
strong, so we talked, whenever her breathing problems permitted, on and off, for a very long time.
When I came home, around ten pm, I found that my four-year-old son was in the bathtub,
refusing to come out ―until Daddy come home.‖ He was really upset and being really stubborn, and
seemed kind of hypothermic in the cooling water. I dried him off in a big hurry, so I could get some
warm clothes on him. Rushing I flung a towel over the shower curtain rod.
It struck an old-fashioned, six-pound light fixture, over seventy years old, in the bathroom
ceiling. The fixture came straight down on my four-year-old son‘s head, and blood immediately was
By the time I was finished that night I had sat for several hours in an emergency room, watching
my son get the gash in his head stapled back together, and I hadn‘t slept at all, because then I had
stayed awake for the rest of the night watching him for signs of a concussion.
What with the constant loss of sleep I‘d already been experiencing because of my mother, and
now this, I literally couldn‘t see whether it was my own face in the bathroom mirror in the morning.
But because I had been told that my son would be out of danger by that time, and because I had very
limited time to get the editorial contest going, I went into work. I stayed off the freeway and drove
quite slowly so I wouldn‘t kill anybody.
I gave out the assignments for the editorial contest that morning and afternoon, without even
trying to read them. I was so dizzy and had such a headache that I had to trust kids take attendance for
me. I never could have gotten the correct marks into those little tiny squares, on the correct lines.
My classes were pretty quiet, but in a way it was a lot like being back teaching at Pickett,
because there was no way that I could explain anything in my condition. But this time it was because of
my own poor condition, not because of wild, insubordinate classes. Still, I figured that, with my
directions and the articles my neighboring teacher had organized and added, my editorial contest
assignment was self-explanatory. At one point a kid told me that there was ―a little profanity‖ in one of
the articles, but when I asked how bad it was, she said it was ―just stuff like we see every day.‖ I sank
back into my state of nausea and pain.
The following Monday I was called into the principal‘s office. I found a parent in there, holding
a copy of my assignment. It turned out that one of the articles in the assignment had a paragraph
quoting a ―song‖ from a well-known rap group. It was filled with profanity and sexual references. I
hadn‘t realized that it was in there, but when she asked me how I would have felt about a teacher
handing my own eighth grade children such an article I told her honestly that it wouldn‘t have bothered
I told her that because my wife and I have been pretty open with our kids about any situation
that we feel is relevant to their own lives. Had our kids as eighth graders been exposed as eighth
graders to some of the lyrics and ideas that were in the ―music‖ of this particular rap group, I thought
and still think that it would have been crucial to bring out exactly what they were hearing and discuss it
for what it really was.
She didn‘t ask me how good of an idea I thought it was to have given out the assignment to a
whole class, and I‘m not sure what I would have said if she had. After she ended up dragging my name
and reputation through just about every news media format in town I had a whole lot of time to think
about that hypothetical little question.
The first news media agency that the lady went to was local ―Channel Four.‖ One of their
reporters called me that night and I explained what had happened. She had a copy of the assignment
that the parent from Dudley had given her, and after she consulted with her superiors she called back to
say that they had decided not to go on the air with this, as, by looking the assignment over, they had
seen that it was obviously a sincere effort to teach editorials—despite the one very questionable
quotation. During the subsequent media circus that followed, Channel Four stuck to its promise and
never did run the story. It was the only local major TV station that didn‘t, and after watching their
similar decisions in later years, it has long since been obvious to me that it is the only major TV station
in Detroit that is truly ethical in its decisions over which stories to run.
The Detroit Free Press also refused to run the story. One of their reporters later told me it was
―a non-story‖ to them. They had seen the assignment and, without even talking to me, interpreted it the
same way that Channel Four had. I already saw them as a much more ethical newspaper than their
rival, The Detroit News, but this sealed it for me. The Free Press for years had been the only Detroit
newspaper that I allow into my house; this hardly changed that.
Someone from Channel Fifty called me that night about the story and I told them about what
Channel Four had decided. That person wasn‘t impressed and they broke the story on their ten o‘clock
news. They played sleazy stripper music to go with it, like I had been trying to titillate the class with
The Detroit News went with the story on their front page the next day. They had interviewed a
kid from one of my classes who told them I had ―closed the door‖ before bringing out the assignment.
They were trying to imply by this that I was trying to hide the fact I was going to do something
perverted. Anyone who has ever taught in a noisy Detroit school would know that you often shut the
door because of the noise in the hallways, and they would also know that with thirty kids still in the
room, no closed door is going to help you keep any secrets.
But, of course, one of the things that the news media counts on is most of their readers not
knowing anything about the realities that their stories attempt to interpret, so people who haven‘t been
in those actual situations end up accepting the slant on the stories that the news media gives them.
One of the people who ended up believing that the news media was portraying my story in an
honest way was my adoptive mother—at that time the only mother I‘d ever really known. Her mind
had been slipping pretty fast, and once she got a hold of the media‘s view of what had happened, she
never let it go. She didn‘t die until the following spring, but from the time of the media first breaking
the story until she died, she always viewed me as having been guilty of everything that the media had
been insinuating. She had viewed raising me as the proudest accomplishment of her life; from now on,
until the end, my appearing before her only caused her to call out loudly to God to take her away from
―this horrible life of pain and suffering and bitter disappointments.‖ There was nothing I could do: she
wouldn‘t listen, and she could no longer bear to look me in the eye.
The morning that the Detroit News first ran the story, it threw the administration at Dudley into
a tizzy. I had told the principal and the mother, during our meeting, that the reason that I had gone out
looking for articles at other libraries was because the library at Dudley had been closed. That was
immediately reopened. News reporters were appearing at every doorway, even at open classroom
windows. There were literally dozens. (In contrast, when one of our eighth grade students was
murdered, and when what was probably a victim of the infamous ―Highland Park serial killer murderer
was found in the school parking area, I saw no reporters come.)
Some of the reporters just barged right into the school and began walking around, looking for
me. I ran into one, who asked where my classroom was. I told him, without telling him that I was the
man he was looking for. He left, on his way to my room.
I wasn‘t going to be there anytime soon. That morning my department head told me that another
teacher was going to teach my classes, for ―the time being, until ‗Downtown‘ figures out how they
want to handle this.‖ Later the principal told me that ―Downtown‖ knew full well that I was a good
teacher, and that I had a fifteen year ―perfect record‖ and he said they knew that what I was accused of
just didn‘t normally ―suddenly happen.‖ He told me that maybe I should just go home for a while—
―until this blows over.‖ But I wasn‘t cynical enough to do it. I was too much of a teacher and too proud
just to go home and take the school system‘s money until ―things cooled off‖—as another person put it.
For more than a month I spent most of my time at Dudley, getting paid, and sitting in the
teacher‘s lounge, talking to whoever was in there. Once in a while I was allowed to sub in somebody
else‘s classroom—as long as it was as far away as possible from my old room. Lots of people
sympathized with me. One of the parent aides said she understood my circumstance ―all too well.‖ She
told me her own story about an incident with the media, but hers was far more horrifying. Her ex-
husband had turned out to be a criminal and had once fired some shots into her home, wounding her
two-year-old son. Because she knew that the police couldn‘t protect her she finally made a deal with
her ex-husband that she wouldn‘t testify against him if he never came around her again.
Anybody who has worked or lived in some of Detroit‘s more dangerous neighborhoods could
understand what she did—it was her only chance to ever sleep soundly again. But she said that a man
who was once Detroit‘s most famous newscaster went on the air condemning her decision and
politicked so hard against her that the courts took her children away. It took her several years to get
I met many interesting people in the teacher‘s lounge, and got quite a sample of other people‘s
stories about life and teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. But I still hated every minute of it. Finally,
with the Detroit Public Schools unwilling to make any decisions about my future, I abandoned a lawyer
I had hired, and came to terms with the Detroit Public Schools with the help of the Detroit Federation
of Teachers. Per our agreement I received a reprimand—which ―Downtown‖ could show to the media
to cool them off—and at my own suggestion I was transferred to another school so that we could end
all of the controversy at Dudley.
During the highly stressful time that I didn‘t know what my future was going to be, I had
enormous trouble with ―panic attacks‖ and several times thought I was going to suffer a nervous
breakdown. The good part of this was I lost a lot of weight. The bad part was that I was next going to
go to my first school where the behavior of the principal was really open to question. Sometimes I
would understand some of the questionable things that she did; other times they didn‘t make any sense
This new school wouldn‘t be anywhere near as dangerous as Pickett Junior High, but it was by
no means safe either. But, to the good again, I found a man there who was easily as important to my
career as Mr. Lake and Mr. Johnson had been at Pickett. But I can‘t even use his real name. He‘s an
important personality, who taught for many years, is well-known in Detroit Public Schools coaching
circles, and to identify him would be to identify the school where I next went. I can‘t tell you that—I
have too many negative things to say about the place. I‘m going to call it ―Mission Middle School,‖
and that will have to do.
Part Five: Mission Middle School—Where
Rules and Common Decency were only
Deceptions Employed by the “Great White
Into the Land of the Zone-8‟s 127
Moving in 130
Black is Beautiful—But Not Necessarily the Rules 132
Black Beauty to the Rescue! 134
Frank Benjamin 144
The World Can Be a Very Cruel Place 146
The Costs of Keeping Mrs. Hancock 147
Odds and Ends 148
Prelude to the End 153
How an Old Liberal Belief is being Used to Destroy Urban
Black Education 157
Into the Land of the Zone-8's
I arrived at Mission Middle School in early December, 1992. The principal, an attractive black
woman that I‘m going to call ―Mrs. James,‖ showed me around. Mrs. James bragged the whole time,
telling me how extremely proud she was of the school. She said that they had a very diversified
program, with the absolute latest in technology. (They had a well-known pizza-selling company
donating lots of really up to date computers and other gadgets; they even had a ―compact‖ with that
company, where, if the kids kept to certain stringent criteria, they could have college paid for. It turned
out that very few kids succeeded.) Mrs. James informed me that the school required students to wear
blue and white uniforms, which most of the kids were wearing, and she told me that I would be
expected to wear the same color clothing—just as she and her department heads were, as well as most
of the teachers. I didn‘t have to have the blue and white clothes ―tomorrow‖ or anything, but ―as soon
as possible...hopefully after the next paycheck.‖
I didn‘t care one way or another whether they wore uniforms in that school. I didn‘t think it
helped anything, but if that was what they did, I could go along. Besides, after what I had just been
through at Dundee, I figured I needed a job. I still had a young wife and two young boys, so I was
planning on cooperating with anything remotely reasonable.
I was introduced to a unit head, an obviously uptight, but attractive middle-aged woman who
was wearing what looked like an expensive ―woman‘s suit.‖ It was very ―blue and white.‖ She took me
up to the room where I was going to teach. A much younger woman, also wearing blue and white, was
in there, with the kids. She was very friendly and intelligent seeming, but she was letting the kids run
absolutely wild. Many of the boys were standing on top of the writing part of their desks. Several were
running across them, and trying to knock other boys off theirs. The young woman took no note; I could
certainly see why the school wanted to replace her. The department head told me I would start in that
room the next day. (Later, the principal decided that I should start with the same kids in a different
room; this was supposed to signal to the kids that ―things were now going to be different.‖)
Around lunchtime, I met the assistant principal. He was tall and athletic-looking—later I would
find out that he had played college basketball. We were standing by a second floor balcony that
overlooked Mission‘s very unusual locker arrangement: all the lockers were in one area, away from the
classrooms, with walkways between the rows. It was in between classes and kids were milling around
The assistant principal, a man that I‘m going to call ―Mr. Smith,‖ finally told me: ―Mr. Guisbert,
I don‘t know what anybody else has said to you, but, after talking to you and looking you over a little,
I‘m not sure that you‘re tough enough for this school. I grew up in this neighborhood. We‘ve got some
pretty rough boys here. The main local gang around here is the ‗Zone 8‘s.‘ They were a big gang even
when I was a boy. We also have kids who belong to the ‗NFL‘s‘ (―Niggas from Linwood‖) and even the
Latin Counts and the Bloods and the Crips. Are you sure that you‘ll be able to deal with all that?‖
I had heard a similar argument from the principal of Dudley when I first got there. He hadn‘t
thought I was tough enough, either. That‘s when I had told him that I controlled my classes by being
―maybe the smartest English teacher that they would ever see.‖ But I didn‘t use that argument this time.
I had been watching a group of smirking boys—most of them wearing blue and white—who had had
been doing some kind of bird calls and funny signals from an adjacent stairway to another group of
sneaky boys below, by the lockers. Several of these kids had walked past me before and I had watched
how their facial expressions wrote me off as ―just another stupid white man.‖ (There were extremely
few white people in the whole school.) Suddenly the instincts that I had learned at Pickett kicked in
and I realized what the whole group of them was up to.
“Mr. Smith,‖ I said, ―I don‘t know what you‘re basing your opinion of me on, but I can tell you
this: You see that group of boys below by the front lockers?‖
―There‘s a group of kids that they‘ve been signaling to over on the stairway. I‘ve seen signals
like those before, when I worked at Pickett Junior High. They‘ve got a gun somewhere in the school.
It‘s probably right in those lockers where that first group is standing.‖
Mr. Smith left me and had those lockers searched. There was a gun. I can‘t say that it really
impressed him that much that I had correctly guessed that, but at least he afterward became a little
milder with me, and gave me a chance.
* * *
While I was at Mission Middle School I couldn‘t say that Mr. Smith and I ever became friends.
We were too different. But I learned to respect him. He was an above-board, straight shooter who, later,
when he got his own school, became one of the city‘s finest principals. I would try several times to get
transferred there, so that I could work for him, but he had become a principal that everybody with any
sense wanted to work for. It was like volunteering to marry a Hollywood sex symbol. The line was
always too long.
Anything critical I wish to say about Mission Middle School‘s administration is not directed at
him. As an assistant principal he had no real power. He was an innocent bystander, like most of the rest
of us there. He never said a whole lot to me, outside of giving me specific information and directions
about various events and duties, but once he surprised me by stating, in a single declarative sentence,
how much he hated what was happening at Mission. Then he told me, very emphatically, that if he
became a principal, ―It will never be anything like this!‖ He kept his word and the school he now
presides over is run the way schools are supposed to be run. His school is caring and quiet, and his staff
does everything it can for the kids in the extremely poor neighborhood where it is situated. It isn‘t
anything like the insane situation that Mission turned out to be.
I soon bought my blue and white clothes. At this school I found myself teaching two three-
period ―blocks‖: I was supposed to be teaching English, Reading, and American History to two
different homerooms. Had it not been for the stupid ―Hafflin Nafflin Reading Program,‖ and if I had
been allowed to use a good reading book, I would have loved teaching the three classes together to the
two different groups. But the boring stories and all the stupid busy work of the Hafflin Nafflin Program
made ―reading class‖ miserable and meaningless for both the kids and me. This was really too bad,
because the two seventh grade homerooms that I had inherited were pretty rough. The kids were not
used to doing anything really serious, and though I was able to keep them from off the top of their
desks, every day was a real challenge. (I don‘t remember exactly when I did it, but sometime during
my second year at Mission, I returned to Dudley and the principal there let me take out a set of the old
New Worlds of Reading books—their real name: this was a very nice book—which they were about to
throw away. That was awfully nice of him, and Mrs. James, the principal at Mission, didn‘t object to
me using them ―after doing Hafflin Nafflin.‖ This really upgraded my teaching at Mission.)
Another serious obstacle my first year of teaching at Mission was the fact that our sponsor, the
pizza company, was actually sending in a number of low-level managerial people to ―tutor‖ our
students several days a week in reading. They thought they were doing something wonderful, but the
whole thing never amounted to much more than lost time out of class and a lot of free pizza that the
kids would come back to class eating—which only caused them to want to skip even more work. The
only thing that ever seemed to happen was that my black kids would give the young white managerial
―tutors‖ warm and fuzzy feelings for having been with them, and then my kids would receive free pizza
and return to class with bad attitudes.
The free pizza, given as a reward, coincided with a school wide incentives philosophy that tried
to give kids physical rewards for practically everything they did. Kids kept bugging me to pay them off
for amazingly stupid things like raising their hands instead of calling out. I, who had always taught
with the belief that being in my class and learning from me was reward enough, never would join that
pathetic, dead-end game.
One good thing I did, that worked some, was to start teaching ―Common Grammatical
Patterns,‖ using my old ―big yellow sign.‖ This impressed most of the kids. They didn‘t all learn how
to do the ―new vocabulary sentence problems‖ right away, but it gave them something unique to work
on, which they knew no other teacher was teaching. Neither of my homerooms were ―honors classes,‖
far from it, but with the ―Common Grammatical Patterns,‖ and with my whole unique approach to
teaching everything else, the kids found themselves doing things in my room that the so-called seventh
grade ―honors classes‖ weren‘t doing. The best of my students started showing their friends in the
actual honors classes what they were doing in mine, and I started getting honors kids visiting to see
what was on my black board.
My second year at Mission, after I was transferred to teach in the eighth grade ―wing,‖ this
―uniqueness‖ of mine would put me into conflict with the strangest teacher I have ever met. But most
of the teachers in the building were already in conflict with her, so it was probably inevitable that we
were going to have a problem.
Black is Beautiful—But Not Necessarily „the Rules‟
(The following interruption to the chronology of my years as a Detroit teacher concerns events
and observations in my life well before I became a teacher. I am putting it here to highlight some of the
issues that were about to surface at Mission Middle School.)
Back in the mid 1960‘s I remember listening to the singer James Brown, on the old ―Mike
Douglas Show,‖ singing about ―Black is Beautiful.‖ Now, I had a white mother who had always
despised racism. When I was eight I tried out the ―N-Word‖ on her for the only time. I didn‘t have the
slightest idea what it meant, but she made me eat most of a bar of Ivory Soap, just the same. (I bubbled,
from both ends, for several weeks.) This tactic of my mother‘s convinced me, when I finally found out
what the ―N-Word‖ did actually mean, that overt racism wasn‘t going to be too good of an idea around
But, approximately eight years after my first experiment with the ―N-Word,‖ James Brown‘s
notion of ―Black is Beautiful‖ was still a real revelation to me. I had grown up in the city of Detroit,
seen some of the white policemen‘s abuse of the blacks first hand (if you were in a black neighborhood
you didn‘t have to look far), and seen the results of poverty and racism on the faces of the many ―black
street people‖ that I had ridden past in my family‘s cars. So I had grown up, with the wisdom gained
from the earlier ―N-Word‖ incident, thinking that ―Black‖ merely meant ―handicapped and unfortunate,
and in need of sympathy and understanding.‖ But now, James Brown‘s song introduced for me a whole
dimension of un-thought-of possibilities for black people.
Those possibilities began to take more concrete forms for me as I continued watching the
Detroit singers from ―Motown Records‖ become more and more nationally famous, and ever more
astonishingly entertaining. They did so by playing an absolutely original kind of music, which was
desperately in love with life. Any idiot could see that these groups were absolutely ―Black and
Beautiful,‖ and they were doing all this while honestly portraying the tragedy, triumph, and real human
emotions of black people‘s lives ―in the Motor City.‖
I also loved watching basketball on television, and when professional basketball began
displaying dynamically talented African American players like Connie Hawkins, Julius Erving, and
David Thompson, I could see that ―Black is Beautiful‖ was more than just a statement about handsome
and pretty talented black singers‘ faces and their wonderful black music. Now white American
basketball fans and I saw black athletes who with extraordinary leaping and grace did things in ―mid
flight‖ that few of we whites had even known was possible. The fact that some of these great black
athletes took more ―steps‖ (without dribbling) than N.B.A. rules were supposed to permit, was
irrelevant to me and to many white basketball fans, because we were truly amazed by what these
athletes could do.
Thus I think for me, and many other whites, the ―civil rights movement‖ was a lot bigger than
just Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King, and their marchers and protesters. It also had a glamorous
music and sports entertainer ―wing,‖ including the people that I have just mentioned, plus many, many
more. This ―wing‖ brought to the movement not only glamour and undeniable ―Black Beauty,‖ it also
sometimes brought with it, to basketball at least, a willingness to ―change the rules‖ in order for this
―Black Beauty‖ to be at its finest.
It was also true that America had to ―change its rules‖ to end the disgrace of its overwhelming
prejudice against black people. But, the problem was, once you started ―changing your rules,‖ when
could you stop?
Black Beauty to the Rescue!
I soon found out that my seven period schedule where I taught six classes instead of five—had
become the focus of a major administration / union battle in that building. I personally didn‘t mind the
seven period schedule (we had one free period and taught six classes) because I knew that by teaching
the same three ―liberal arts‖ classes, English, Reading, and Social studies, to two different homerooms,
I could emphasize one or another of the classes to both homerooms any day that I wanted, and skip
another for both homerooms, and then make up that individual class for both the next day. It would
give me enormous freedom to really use my creativity.
I also knew that if I didn‘t teach the same exact three classes to each group I‘d always be lost
trying to balance when and what I was doing. So I strongly preferred teaching that sixth class.
But people who were now teaching six math, science, or social studies classes, instead of the
five the Detroit Teachers‘ union contract dictated, were only getting a lot more paperwork with no
increase in convenience. They wanted to fight the seven-period day and had been doing it through the
When the union began taking serious steps to stop the seven-period day, Mrs. James, the
principal, sent around a petition that she wanted everyone to sign so that the school could keep the
seven periods. Eighth grade students from the building, from one of the two homerooms taught by a
lady that I‘m going to call ―Mrs. Hancock,‖ carried her petition around.
Though I liked the schedule I had decided to not sign the petition because the school‘s union
representative had come to my room asking me not to. I had never forgotten what Mr. Bradley had told
me about the importance of the teachers‘ union.
Three kids did finally appear in my room one period, trying to get me to sign. At first they were
somewhat polite, but when I refused, they changed their approach.
―What‘s the matter with you, Mr. Guisbert?‖ one of them asked. ―Don‘t you care about the kids
in this school? We need the seven period schedule so that we can get all of our classes!‖
―I‘m a member of a teachers‘ union,‖ I told her. ―We‘ve got a contract that says that we‘re only
supposed to teach five classes. I don‘t mind teaching the extra class, but it‘s too much extra work for no
extra money for a lot of us.‖
―I don‘t think you like black kids,‖ said another one of the kids. ―You must be a racist.‖
―Bad stuff happens to racist people around here,‖ the third of the kids told me. ―You be a whole
lot safer if you sign this petition. That way nobody get the wrong idea about you.‖
I made the three kids leave my room and made a complaint. I was told that yes, these kids had
been authorized to take the petition around to individual teachers, but that they had gotten ―pushy‖ all
on their own. Talking to several other teachers, I found that the three kids had tried to intimidate a
number of people who had refused to sign. One teacher told me there was ―no way that these kids acted
that way on their own. They‘re Mrs. Hancock‘s students, and those kids go around acting like that all
Then more teachers told me the same thing. There was an enormous problem in the building
with ―Mrs. Hancock‘s thugs,‖ I was told by a member of a group gathered to discuss the whole issue.
―They do anything they want and they will threaten any teachers who get in their way. And they all
know that no matter how much trouble they get into, Mrs. Hancock will back them up.‖
This group of teachers claimed that Mrs. Hancock ―recruited bad kids—the type that would
threaten or even assault an adult.‖ They said that Mrs. Hancock was like the leader of a student
―intimidation squad‖ that went around trying to support the principal‘s policies. ―Naturally,‖ one
teacher said, ―Mrs. James always claims that she has never authorized them to act this way, and Mrs.
Hancock has said the same thing.‖
But though these teachers weren‘t sure what Mrs. James really knew about how these kids
acted, they all were positive that Mrs. Hancock was totally aware. One of the teachers said that Mrs.
Hancock was like a ―Pied Piper‖ who cast ―evil spells‖ over some of the kids. She said that a number
of the teachers were really afraid of what she might get these kids to do, and that some of the staff were
carrying guns because of their fears.
An odd thing that they also told me was that Mrs. Hancock billed herself as ―the best teacher at
Mission Middle School,‖ and that she seemed to really believe it was true. I was getting more curious
about this woman all the time.
It was strange to me, for a while, that so many members of the staff should attribute such evil
behavior to Mrs. Hancock. I had seen her walking around the building and she was a very attractive,
petite black woman in her late thirties or early forties who was extremely well dressed in very fine
clothes. She wore long, straight hair that only much later did somebody tell me was a wig. Several of
the men teachers who were becoming my friends called her ―the black Barbie Doll.‖ One of them said
that he ―wouldn‘t mind getting with her, except that she‘s so mean.‖ But several times when I spoke to
her she spoke back politely enough. Her voice was a bit husky for someone of her size, but that was the
only thing that seemed out of order to me.
One day I was standing on hall duty when a boy with a leather belt began beating one of my
students. I went over and pushed him away and told him to stop. He reached around me and began
beating my student again. I grabbed him and told him I was taking him to the office. He wrestled away
―I‘m telling Mrs. Hancock on you!‖ the boy screamed at me. ―You have no right to put your
hands on me! You‘re in a whole lot of trouble!‖ The boy then ran down to the eighth grade wing and
went into Mrs. Hancock‘s room. The door closed behind him.
After I wrote up the incident I gave the referral form to one of the counselors. When she read it
and saw that the teacher in question was Mrs. Hancock, she refused to go to get the boy out of Mrs.
Hancock‘s room. ―He might as well be in Mexico,‖ she said. ―The only person that Hancock would
give that kid to would be Mrs. James. She‘s the only authority around here that Hancock obeys. Do you
want me to give this form to Mrs. James?‖
I said that I could do it myself, which I did. When Mrs. James saw the form she decided to
schedule a conference with both Mrs. Hancock and myself together. ―It sounds like there‘s some kind
of misunderstanding here,‖ she said to me.
The next day a substitute came to one of my classes and told me she was supposed to watch my
class while I went to a conference in the principal‘s office. When I arrived there, I found Mrs. Hancock
already in a seat next to the principal. She was carrying on and laughing with the principal as if they
were the oldest friends. (I found out later that they belonged to the same college sorority.) When
Hancock finally turned toward me, she eyed me like I was an item on the menu that had stayed in the
refrigerator too long.
At the principal‘s request I told my side of the issue first—what the boy had done and said, and
what the counselor had said about her unwillingness to try to get the boy out of Mrs. Hancock‘s room.
Mrs. Hancock listened quietly with narrowed eyes. ―Are you finished?‖ she asked quietly, in
her husky voice. Then she launched off into a tirade about the fact that I had gone to visit a substitute in
her room when she had been absent two weeks earlier.
―My kids tell me everything,‖ she emphasized. ―So I know you were in there.‖
―So what?‖ I asked. ―Mr. – and I are friends. I wanted to find out if he wanted to play basketball
―That‘s what you say is why you were there,‖ she replied. ―I heard differently. You have no
business in my room and you need to stay out of it. Mrs. James, I am making an official complaint right
here and now that this man came into my room without my permission.‖
―Okay,‖ the principal said, and said nothing else.
―Let me add something else while we‘re having this little conference,‖ Mrs. Hancock added.
―Mr. Guisbert, I think you are one very unprofessional teacher. For one thing, just look at your clothes.
How do you think your students feel after seeing how you dress? You know as well as I do that you are
a very poor role model for them. These African American kids at this school need teachers who dress
well enough for them to respect and look up to.‖
Well, okay. I had bought most of my ―blue and white‖ clothes at K-Mart and the rest at a second
hand store. But, with my income and my two young kids and wife, I really couldn‘t have afforded
anything better. I was doing the best I could. My students never said a word about the caliber of my
clothes; almost all of them had come to really like me, once they knew me. I never even heard anything
racial out of my own classes any more without an immediate, unasked for apology. My students were
definitely sensitive to my feelings, just as I tried to be about theirs.
When the conference was over, the one point that Mrs. James the principal had gotten in was
that no kid in that school could run to anybody‘s classroom as a ―safety zone‖ (like crossing the
Mexican Border) and hide. But she also added that, ―Because you and Mrs. Hancock seem to have a
personality conflict—‖ (―I‘ll say!‖ Hancock shot in…) ―—just bring the referral to me whenever it‘s
about one of her students. I‘ll take care of it.‖
Besides the fact that, because of Hancock‘s switching of subjects, we hadn‘t done anything
about the boy with the belt, Mrs. James‘ final directive didn‘t sound so good to me. It still sounded like
Mrs. Hancock was a privileged character, with a huge, over-inflated ego, who really was only
accountable to the principal, just as the counselor had alleged. But I supposed I should be grateful that
the principal at least had given me some means of possibly holding Hancock‘s students accountable.
After that I did a lot of thinking and wondering about Mrs. Hancock. I had met black people
before that, at least in comparison to my ―white hippie‖ notions, seemed pretty obsessed wearing really
fancy clothes to school. But I had always figured that maybe they had been raised in impoverished
situations and just didn‘t want to ever ―dress poor‖ again.
Myself, I had been adopted into a family that, prior to the Great Depression, had had quite a bit
of money. My adoptive mother had always preached that money was not the prime indicator of how
good people were. I had also grown up next to the very wealthy ―Grosse Pointe‖ cities, suburbs of
Detroit, and had, as a caddy there, known and disliked a number of wealthy people, as well as having a
few pretty wealthy relatives who weren‘t all that impressive either. So I had never seen money and
fancy clothes and fancy cars and houses as any sort of particularly good indicator of being a
worthwhile person. As a teacher I had always avoided trying to act ―better than the kids,‖ and had only
tried to impress the kids with my intelligence and creativity. I had had some success with this, too.
But, the irony was, since I had based my success in that school system on always trying to be
―equals‖ with everyone (I had always tried to show the kids that they could be as creative and bright as
I thought I was, and had had substantial successes with that, too), I had to recognize that now was not
the time for me to start feeling ―better‖ than Mrs. Hancock. I felt that I needed to figure out more about
where she seemed to be coming from. What made this rude and very weird woman tick, and was she
really in anyway so darned worthwhile of a teacher as she claimed to be?
It wasn‘t like it was hard to find somebody who was willing to talk about Mrs. Hancock. She
had plenty of enemies willing to talk about her (and willing to plan how to ―get her‖) everywhere in the
building. As one of the social studies teachers said, ―If anybody ever murders her, practically everyone
in the building will be a suspect. Nearly everybody here has good reasons for hating her.‖
But, actually, not everybody hated her. She had two friends for sure. One was a tall, very pretty,
light-complected black lady who was a home economics teacher; the other was an older, heavy-set
cleaning woman. If there was any sort of a school function where staff members sat down and ate
together, the three of them always shared the same table. As far as I could tell, no other teacher in the
school would have been caught dead sitting at that table. Once in a while, administrators, I guess
looking for an empty seat, sat with them, but that was it. But Hancock and her two friends, sitting by
themselves, always wore expressions of great self-sufficiency and self-satisfaction, and always looked
enormously happy in each other‘s company.
Interestingly, on her own, the pretty, light-complected woman was always very civil, and as far
as I know, never impolite to anyone, including to me. That at least did give me a little bit of a clue as to
what made Hancock so unpopular with the staff. Both Hancock and the pretty home economics teacher
were strong supporters of administrative policy; but, because the home economics teacher did it in a
nice way, most of the staff still liked her, even if they disagreed with her. So Hancock‘s unpopularity
was more of a problem of personality, rather than of political affiliation.
The person who helped me to make a little bigger breakthrough into understanding Hancock
was her other friend, the old cleaning lady. Like Hancock, she was not well liked at all by many of the
staff, and there were many stories about her. For one, she was alleged to have a habit of dumping full
wastebaskets of trash and garbage on the desks of teachers who had angered her. There was no doubt
that the old cleaning lady had a ―personality problem,‖ just like Hancock.
This older lady was assigned to clean rooms on the second floor, and she often complained if I
didn‘t have the kids clean up at the end of the day. She was pretty heavy-set and I just figured that she
was getting older and lazier, and wanted as light of a workload as possible.
Then, one afternoon, after school, when I was still working with four of my students, the
cleaning lady, whom I‘m going to call, ―Mrs. Stanson,‖ came into my room and suddenly started
talking to me, as if my students weren‘t even there.
―All this junk all over the floor—this ain‘t right!‖ Stanson said loudly.
I was surprised to see that she was actually in the room. My last class had just ended, and the
four kids had stayed after class, wanting me to look over some papers they were writing for me. All my
classes has been writing furiously all day. Normally, on a day when the kids had worked so hard and
left a lot of crumpled drafts on the floor, I went around after my last class picking up most of it myself.
But I hadn‘t had time to do that yet today.
―I‘ll pick this junk on the floor as soon as I finish talking to these students,‖ I told her.
―What kind of an example are you for these kids?‖ Stanson said to me. ―A white teacher like
you who can‘t control a class shouldn‘t be here. These kids need good black teachers who understand
them and make them act right.‖
Stanson kept going on and on and I told her that if she had a complaint that she should see the
principal. But that didn‘t slow her down much, and she sounded like she really wanted a physical
confrontation. Noting her physical similarity to a sumo wrestler I decided to later write a complaint to
the principal. I added to the complaint something to the effect that if the principal could ―solve the
problem that I wouldn‘t take it out of the building.‖ The principal indeed did stop Mrs. Stanson from
bothering me anymore, though Mrs. Stanson continued raising hell in other teachers‘ rooms.
Stanson continued cleaning my room, but didn‘t say much of anything for a long time. When
she did she was pretty polite, and I assume that this was because that she had found out that, I had
stated, if forced, I would have filed a really strong racial harassment suit against her, and with the
plentiful witnesses she had performed in front of, she could have easily lost her job.
But later, as months and months passed and I spoke to her occasionally, always in a respectful
manner, I began finding out more. She was very old ―black Detroit‖ and had clearly seen the worst of
Detroit‘s white police brutality against her race. (If you get an honest history of what happened in this
context in the city, the truth of what went on is absolutely appalling.) Once in a while I would ask her a
question about Detroit‘s past or her view on a current local politician, and she would give me a very
blunt answer. ―Well, you asked,‖ she would always point out, and I would politely concur and accept
her wisdom on whatever subject I had raised.
We didn‘t talk that much, but it was enough that I discovered that Mrs. Stanson was, as a result
of her upbringing in the city, an absolute dynamo of ―black anger,‖ and I soon had no doubt that this
was why she was Mrs. Hancock‘s friend. Hancock always made it clear to the kids that she ―came from
the ‗hood, too‖ (―‗hood‖ meaning ―black ghetto‖), and her whole territory-grabbing intimidation of the
staff was clearly related to her beleaguered upbringing, and her need to establish a strong ―safety zone‖
Hancock had obviously vividly experienced white oppression, whether through personal
incidents, family stories, or simply her own very fertile imagination. (I think a great deal of black
hatred and violence is a ―replaying‖ of the whites‘ earlier hatred and violence against the black race.
Without a doubt, black male youth portray themselves as ―the man,‖ in perverted and often deadly
celebrations of the earlier historical white crimes that were done long ago to their own black people.)
Because of how sympathetic Hancock was to absolutely the worst and most mentally twisted kids in
the school, I had to believe that she had personally experienced a “ghetto” black‟s fear, paranoia, and
self-loathing, and then made a superhuman effort to try to reject it, but failed, which had turned her
into the individual that she was now.
Obviously, a seemingly very ironic aspect of Hancock‘s ―black anger‖ was the way she applied
it against other black members of the staff—which she regularly did. But I thought that was because
her ―black anger‖ was clearly ―ghettoized‖: she mentally had never left her ―ghetto‖ (her escape had
failed)—and saw any other blacks who in anyway disagreed with her as violators of her bitter concept
of ―the ghetto code.‖ (And I think this is the most crucial aspect of a ghettoized mind: The ―ghetto‖
becomes both the ―hell‖ that torments its inhabitants, but weirdly is also the ―safety zone‖ where the
ghettoized persons can feel most comfortable with the ―known‖ qualities of their lives. In such an
environment, ―friends‖ and ―enemies‖ are absolute concepts with no gray areas, because ―friends‖ are
those who are ―hip to the ghetto code‖—which means they couldn‘t escape either--.and ―enemies‖
include anyone who either didn‘t come from the ‗hood or who did escape it. )
Once I saw Mrs. Hancock as having a once ghettoized black‘s extreme ―black anger,‖
everything about her became so much simpler and so much stronger. Then it was easy to see why
Hancock was a person of ferocious emotions. Many other teachers at Mission bandied around large
vocabularies loosely and carelessly. But not Hancock. She used simple vocabulary, but she really meant
every single word she used. If she said a word like ―Love,‖ then that was exactly what she meant, to the
roots of her soul. And she was an extraordinary believer in what the ―Power of Love‖ could do for
Mission‘s worst kids.
But Hancock believed in the simple word ―Hate,‖ too, just as ferociously, and she could easily
point it at anyone who she didn‘t think absolutely had the right answer for helping out Mission‘s ―kids
from the hood.‖ This was her least admirable trait—that she so powerfully believed that she had a
much better answer than anybody else about how to help our kids. This was why she went around
telling kids that she was ―the best teacher in the school,‖ and why she was so rude and vicious to
anyone who was anything but a lackey to her local dominion over these ―kids from the hood.‖
I always wondered what sort of traumas Hancock had gone through as a child. She must have
been hurt badly. The dilemma in dealing with her was that she was a pain in the ass to most of the staff,
but she was often the only one who had the slightest idea of what was going on in the heads of our most
Once of the most serious allegations against Mrs. Hancock was that she and her friend, the
home economics teacher, had done a great deal of cheating to help Mission get good scores on the
statewide assessment test, the MEAP Test. Some alleged that they had been writing the answers right
on the blackboard for the kids to copy. The people making the allegations often claimed that the kids
were told not to tell, that it was being done to protect their ―black thing‖ that they had going on at that
school, so whites couldn‘t come in and ―ruin the school.‖
While I never would have done the same thing, I personally despised the way that the state of
Michigan, then with Republican governor, John Engler, was using the MEAP to try to destroy the
Detroit Public Schools. The Detroit Teachers Union was the last powerful union in the state, and it and
its members contributed a lot of money to the Democratic Party and its candidates. The MEAP scores
were being used to fire principals and teachers, and to ―reconstitute‖ schools—and had the power even
to close schools. The pressure on low-achieving schools like Mission to improve their MEAP scores
The difficulty in doing that in a school like Mission was simple. As one of the teachers at
Mission, who lived in the neighborhood, once put it: ―Over fifty percent of the girls in this
neighborhood will only get a Christmas gift if they do sexual favors for their mama‘s boyfriend.‖
However accurate his estimate of this problem was, it tells you miles about the neighborhood.
Mission‘s community was filled with dope addicts, pushers, hookers, pimps, gang-bangers, perverts,
thieves, losers, drunks, and a whole lot of traumatized children—plus a large group of people who
really would have liked to be ―normal.‖
How were kids from a community like that ever going to logically be compared on a
standardized test to kids from the wealthy white suburbs, or to the strongly valued, deeply Christian
and hard-working white farm areas of Michigan? No matter what sort of ―reasonable improvement
scale‖ you gave a school in such a community to try to adhere to, how could you ever expect them to
keep to its requirements? The fact was that, sometimes, whole new groups of kids came in who were
―bad and out of control‖ because of some new trauma in the „hood (new gang activity, police pressure,
a local tragedy), or even because one or two effective teachers at one of the local elementary schools
had gotten sick or retired.
Communities like Mission‘s were volatile and prone to enormous fluctuations in temperaments
of kids and in school climates—and these changes were totally out of the control of school staffs. All
one could do in an environment like that was approach each new day and new year like you dealt with
changing weather patterns: sometimes it was calm and sometimes it was hurricane weather.
Unfortunately, the theory of the state of Michigan, as it used the MEAP Test to ―assess individual
schools‖ was that the weather in every neighborhood was always perfectly calm.
I couldn‘t help but to sympathize with the premise of any of the Detroit people who were
alleged to be ―cheating on the MEAP.‖ I didn‘t feel it was the right way to improve test scores, but I did
sympathize with a common notion that the MEAP was being used as a racist ploy for destroying the
Detroit Public Schools. It was clear to me that this was absolutely true. The problem was that,
according to some, the only thing that the kids were learning to do was how to cheat. I also believed
that this was true, and wanted to do real teaching instead of cheating. But there was a small,
experienced African American faction there at Mission who believed that first you needed to cheat to
save the school from the racist whites at the state level; then later, they felt, somebody might worry
about trying to do it ―the honest way.‖
With Mrs. Hancock operating at full bore, a number of people transferred out of the school the
very next summer. One of them was an eighth grade teacher who had been crucial for helping to keep
the eighth grade section of the building under control. His loss was a serious problem, because the
eighth graders were the biggest kids in the building and if they went wild, then the whole building
would have been a mess. (Well, a ―bigger mess.‖) When I heard about the man‘s departure, I
volunteered to take his spot, telling Mrs. James of my fifteen years of teaching eighth grade. She
decided it was a good idea.
This started eight years of the most fun and best teaching that I ever experienced. This was
because of a math teacher who had already been teaching in the eighth grade wing for more than thirty
years, a man that I‘m going to call ―Frank Benjamin.‖
Frank was a man who had coached basketball in the city for more than two decades, and a guy
who was an institution at Mission. (He had been getting the grandchildren of his original Mission
students for some time, now.) He had absolute control over his students, but he also cared deeply about
them and fully understood their situation. He was also as good of a math teacher as I ever saw.
He was also a golfer. He wasn‘t as good at that as I was, and my willingness to help him to
improve made us pretty good friends in a hurry.
The odd thing about our room arrangement was that our two rooms were on the opposite sides
of Mrs. Hancock‘s room. During class changes I would always walk down to his room to get his input
on the latest local gossip, or to talk about sports or sometimes whatever Mrs. Hancock was currently up
Hancock, whose room was in between us, never came out of her room to do between classes
hall duty. But her students did, and that was where some real changes began to occur. As the year
progressed, and as her eighth grade ―honor students‖ interacted more and more with the ―non-honors‖
students who were in my room (they all had Mr. Benjamin for math anyway), and many of them began
to see again, just as they had as seventh grade ―honors students,‖ that my work was awfully interesting
This became more and more of a problem for Mrs. Hancock. She, who operated on the myth
that she was the ―best teacher in the building,‖ was now surrounded, on both sides, by two men whom
the kids accepted as obviously very good teachers, and who were becoming good friends. Kids began
talking out in the hall, comparing what they did, and it wasn‘t good for Hancock‘s myth.
I don‘t wish to belabor this point too much. Mrs. Hancock was clearly very good at leading
debates—with her personality she was a natural. I heard many of the debates through Mission‘s thin,
lousy walls, and they were quite good. But she certainly couldn‘t make any great claims to superiority
in what she offered for written work. The difference there seemed to be overwhelming.
As the year progressed Mr. Benjamin and I basically ruled the hallway, with Mrs. Hancock
staying mostly in her room. She, who ruled that room with a paddle, could be heard doing more and
more screaming at her students, and sometimes her students could be heard screaming back. The parent
of one of the best honor students finally came up and insisted that her daughter be transferred out of
Mrs. Hancock‘s room. She ended up in my room. I never asked what had happened, and I still don‘t
know. But the absolutely iron-fisted control that Mrs. Hancock had had over her eighth graders—and
over all the eighth graders—was losing its grip a little. And there was no way that with Mr. Benjamin
and me standing out in the hall together that she was going to get it back.
At the end of the year Mrs. James asked Mrs. Hancock to transfer down to the sixth grade wing
to ―help to get it together down there.‖ When Mrs. Hancock spoke of the move, she described herself
as a sort of a ―savior‖ for the sixth grade, and that was certainly the way she approached it the next
year. But I always saw the move as an admission by the principal that Mrs. Hancock with her haughty
and ―too superior‖ attitude just hadn‘t been able to handle Mr. Benjamin and me together.
The tragedy was that Mrs. Hancock‘s arrival in the sixth grade wing would begin signaling
wholesale teacher transfers out of the school from that wing. Hancock was absolutely going to terrorize
that end of the building. The worst part was that as this situation went on for another six or so years,
but the principal would never do anything about it.
Later the principal made Mrs. Hancock a counselor and I think that lessened the problem some,
and gave Mrs. Hancock the ability to do what she did best—which was to work with the most severely
damaged kids. But by then it was just too late. The quality of education and staff morale had taken just
too big of a hit.
The World Can Be a Very Cruel Place
Several years after I had come to Mission, I was listening to the radio one morning. Somebody
on the WWJ Radio News said that a Detroit Public Schools counselor had had a heart attack while
rushing to break up a fight. With perhaps 500 counselors in the city I certainly hoped it wouldn‘t be
Henry Lake, though I knew he was the type to have rushed to break up a fight, despite his diabetes.
After waiting through a commercial I found out that 500 to 1 odds against that possibility still weren‘t
good enough: it had been Henry Lake.
That was a hell of a piece of news to wake up to at 5: 00 in the morning. The next day, not
knowing what else to do, I called Lake‘s home number and got ahold of his brother. He was awfully
glad I‘d called, because he had received written instructions, left by his brother Henry, on how he
wanted his funeral handled. Henry had named me and a number of other people from Pickett as his
pallbearers, and named the minister he wanted to do his service. Henry‘s two adopted kids knew who
the minister was, but his brother didn‘t know how to get ahold of the rest. I helped him.
The funeral was held in a huge, glorious old church next to the Southfield Freeway. The
minister gave Henry a classic ―black church‖ sendoff—individually expending more calories and
emotion and showing more religious faith than the whole of the white suburbs of Detroit ever did, on
any given Sunday. My wife, who attended with me, admitted she had never seen anything quite like it.
To be frank, though I had seen a number of black preachers get really worked up, what this man had
done had surprised me, also.
But, when it was over, Lake was still dead, and that had left a sore and cold spot in my
miserable and faithless little white heart.
The Costs of Keeping Mrs. Hancock
Because of Mrs. Hancock continuing to harass and intimidate new teachers to the building
(especially young women, and especially those in the sixth grade wing), more than half of Mission‘s
teachers—often as high as 75%—continued to leave at the end of every school year. (She certainly still
managed to intimidate or anger teachers in the seventh and eighth grade areas, too.) Because of this,
Mission‘s teaching staff, which had been, when I started at the school, mostly older and ―hip‖ and
―wise‖ about most issues, had now turned into a mostly much younger group, who were inexperienced
and just not too hip about anything that had to do with being employed or with teaching school. (There
were a few very notable exceptions, of course.) Many of these ― too-un-hip-to-work-or-teach‖ people
were young blacks from the Detroit Public Schools, or from similar school systems. Most had severe
punctuality problems—because their school system had allowed them to be tardy as kids—and most
never taught anything more than what the various teachers‘ manuals told them to.‖
Over time, a lot of these young teachers would have become more wised up and would ―have
learned the ropes,‖ but with Mrs. Hancock convincing most of each new crop every year that Mission
was a very undesirable place to work, Mission had become a place permanently afflicted by an ever–
changing group of young and inexperienced teachers. Numerous complaints were made to Mrs. James,
the principal, but, sadly, she let the situation go on year after year. When the state finally stepped in
because of poor MEAP scores (which clearly would have been better without Mrs. Hancock‘s yearly
decimation of the staff), Mrs. James would finally admit to me that she ―probably should have done
something about Mrs. Hancock.‖ But by then it was too late. Mrs. James, an otherwise very nice lady
with very strong intelligence—and a woman who had let me teach to my absolute best ability, had lost
her school and her job.
.Odds and Ends
For almost five years the Mission language arts unit head was a person that I‘m going to call
Mrs. Bancroft. She had a Master‘s in reading, and she was an outgoing person who loved to stand up in
front of a crowd with a microphone and run programs, like after school workshops. Bancroft could
really put on a show, but, frankly, when it was all over you usually realized that the whole thing had
been an enormous waste of your time.
What she was really bad at was writing—especially spelling. Just for two examples, she spelled
the word ―science‖ without using the letter ―c,‖ and if she wanted to remind you of a ―due date‖ for
some report, she wrote a memo to you about a ―do dat.‖ Her misspellings were legendary; when she
gave ―rough drafts‖ of letters to the secretaries to ―type up,‖ occasionally her abrasive personality
would anger one of themes enough that they typed up one of Bancroft‘s letters exactly as they had
originally been spelled. Some of the receivers of Bancroft‟s letters left in their original spelling made
some interesting little ―stinks‖ about ―What the hell is going on here?‖ But it didn‘t stop Mrs. Bancroft
from finally becoming a principal of a Detroit school.
One day one of my eighth grade boys got this weird inclination to keep rapping on a girl‘s head
with his knuckles. He didn‘t do it terribly hard, but just hard enough so he could hear the sound of his
bony knuckles on her skull. No matter what I said he wouldn‘t stop. (He was a late arrival, and
obviously quite a bit behind in maturity.) I finally wrote him up for ―continually rapping on a girl‘s
A new secretary—a really good older one had transferred out—saw my word ―rapping,‖ and in
typing up the referral for the kid‘s records, changed the word to ―raping.‖ An administrator saw the
typewritten copy and had the police come out.
I just happened to be walking by the front door when I found my student handcuffed and being
led out the front door by a Detroit police officer.
―Mr. Guisbert!‖ the boy wailed to me. ―They say I raped that girl! They‘re taking me to jail!‖
The police officer was happy to turn around and bring him back when I told him the truth. But it
took me quite a bit of work to explain to the new secretary and to Mrs. Bancroft the difference between
the two spellings. I had to use the dictionary and give her a lesson from one of our textbook on the
―final consonant doubling rule,‖ before she started to even think, perhaps, that she had made a mistake.
But she always viewed me as having been a co-perpetrator of the problem. I decided to never use the
word ―rapping‖ on a referral again.
One late spring evening when I was working very late, trying to get some new assignments on
my board, I went into the teacher‘s lounge and opened the refrigerator. I saw inside a number of bottles
of various kinds of juice that had been in there since the early fall. The bacteria and mold growths
inside the bottles were amazing spirals of organic splendor. Nobody had been willing to remove the
damned things for months.
I had been thinking about Henry Lake that night, about him and his practical jokes, and I
decided, ―Oh, what the hell,‖ so I taped a note to the front of the refrigerator that said something like
―To all users of this refrigerator:
Please do not touch the on-going mold experiment in this refrigerator.
This is a special project of your science department that someday may give
mankind new knowledge. If you have accidentally ingested any of these
materials it is not necessary that you should consult your physician. Rather,
we recommend that you contact your minister and a local mortician.
Thanks for your cooperation,
The Mission Middle School Science Department
It just so happened that, unexpectedly, I was absent the next day. When I returned, the day after,
I found out that the entire school, with only two exceptions, had been put into a frenzy by my note.
There had been numerous complaints to the health department, lawyers and family doctors consulted,
and the science department head wanted to have ―the perpetrator fired and prosecuted to the fullest
extent of the law‖ for having ―libeled‖ her beloved department.
The only two people who realized it had been a joke were the principal and Mr. Benjamin, who,
after having seen it, had instantly thought: ―Guisbert! He‘s the one who would do this!‖
Both knew this was one of the oldest office pranks (well, maybe in white offices), always
intended to embarrass someone into cleaning up the refrigerator. But in this case several staff members
had gone home to talk to their spouses about making up wills. One of my favorite people there
confessed to me that she had been caused to do this; we had to have a little hug to make her feel better.
I often wondered if I was ever going to feel totally at home in the Detroit Public Schools. I was
truly fond of most of the people that I worked with, but we were sure different.
One morning, just a little before 8 a.m., a very nice, well-dressed lady, probably in her sixties,
came to my classroom door and told me that her daughter, the mother of one of my boy students, had
been in a terrible auto accident and was in a coma. She said she wanted to take her grandson over to the
hospital to see his mother, and wanted to know if it would be okay to walk with him down to the office
to get him signed out. I called the boy over who said he was very well aware of what had happened and
said he was very glad to see his grandmother. I wrote him a pass and let them go down to the office
It turned out that they didn‘t go down to the office; they just walked straight out of the building
and she took him straight to another state, where she enrolled him in a new school system. There had
been no car accident and the mother was not in a coma.
The next day the story made front-page news, and I ended up having to explain to a very upset
mother and father what had occurred. I gave them a signed letter about precisely what I had witnessed.
They called in the F.B.I. Then, in a bizarre twist of events, after the F.B.I. went straight to where
the grandmother had taken the child, then they backed off—after she told them some things about what
she claimed the home situation of the boy had been. I heard of some of the allegations, but I wouldn‘t
even think of repeating them here, as I had no idea whether they were true.
What really amazed a number of people at Mission, especially some of our younger social
workers, was that it hadn‘t turned out to be a cut-and-dried case of the F.B.I. returning the child to his
rightful parents. The boy, who had clearly conspired to do this with his grandmother, stayed in another
state while the F.B.I sat on its hands.
The social workers in our school, as far as I could see, did a heck of a lot more damage than
good. Their biggest ―intervention‖ seemed to me to be handling kids‘ complaints of parental child
abuse. No doubt there were occasionally some legitimate cases, but their prime duty seemed to be to
vigilantly protect our worst and most insubordinate, most horribly behaving children from their parents‘
reasonable discipline. I constantly heard the worst and most offensively behaving kids advising others
to ―see the social workers‖ if their parent had tried to discipline them for their awful behavior. ―Go see
the social workers,‖ they would be told. ―You don‘t have to put up with that shit! You can do what ever
the fuck you want to around here. ‖
And I often met frustrated parents, coming up to answer for the horrible behavior of their kids,
who complained, ―You people at this school want me to do the impossible. The teachers here want my
kid to behave, but the social workers here are ready to put me in jail if I even touch my child.‖ Many
parents complained that the social workers had ―ruined‖ their kids and even ―destroyed my family.‖
―When my kid ends up dead or in prison,‖ one father told me, ―it will be the fault of this school and
your mother-fucking social workers.‖
Something that we did at Mission that we had also done at Dundee was we had teachers‘
workshops that were supposed to teach us to help the kids to improve their scores on the MEAP Test.
Most of our time in such workshops was spent on ―error analysis‖: this meant trying to figure out why
students made certain typical mistakes. We were supposed to look for ―trick‖ words and phrases—
things that might have ―tripped up‖ the kids. Then it was expected we would point out these kinds of
areas to the kids, to help them avoid such errors, so that they would become better ―test takers.‖
I always thought such activities were an enormous waste of time, and a pathetic attempt to deny
the real problem. What I thought the kids needed was to learn to read and write and think better. I
thought we should have been talking about how to teach them to do that. But a lot of people thought
this was a really cool activity.
One of the years that I worked at Mission I was elected assistant union representative. I got this
position, which no one else wanted, because I had skipped the meeting where they held the vote, and it
was dumped on me.
Nobody else wanted it because Mrs. James, the principal, had a bad reputation for harassing the
union representatives. And, after I was elected, James immediately removed me from teaching the
eighth grade ―honors class,‖ and gave me a really miserable and slow group of kids.
The only problem was that I had had the ―honors class‖ for almost six weeks when the switch
was made (the union had held a ―special election‖ to fill a vacancy), and my honors class didn‘t like
getting another teacher. They made it so miserable for this woman that she asked the principal to give
the class back to me. James finally did that.
The lady who wanted me to take them back later became my department head at a high school.
She never held a grudge about the whole affair and we became pretty good friends—once we could get
out of Mission. She later told me, ―I was just glad to get rid of that nutty class.‖ I was glad to send her
back her ―nutty class,‖ too.
Prelude to the End
Then it happened. One of the Mrs. Hancock ―haters‖ finally convinced a student to go to a
Detroit newspaper and tell them about some of the alleged cheating on the MEAP. The story made front
page, with lots of quotations and pictures.
Having made the front page myself, and damned near having had a heart attack over the whole
thing, I was really impressed with the way Mrs. Hancock kept her composure throughout her ordeal.
She stayed calm and acted very noble about the whole thing. She walked around the building smiling
and putting on a happy air about herself. I think her attitude was based on her assumption that she
really hadn‘t done anything wrong. She clearly believed that whatever they had done had been done in
order to protect the school.
You had to admire Hancock. She was a magnificent creature sometimes. I saw her sort of as like
a great white shark. She had the capacity to do enormous damage, but if you caught her at it she never
blinked. (In fact, she would eat you, too, if she had the chance.) She was who she was, and it was up to
you to deal with it. Some people said she was ―ghetto‖ to the core. But that was too easy of a way to
describe her. She hated ―ghetto‖ behavior worse than anybody that I ever knew. But she loved its
perpetrators better than anybody I ever met, too. She damned sure wasn‘t going to show any weakness
toward anybody who thought the MEAP Test was something fair that truly had the right to judge the
children at Mission.
She had done a great deal of damage to a lot of people at Mission. But each of them in some
way had truly been her ―enemies.‖ And that‘s who you‘re supposed to damage in the midst of a bitter
The school system didn‘t do anything about the newspaper story. What could they do? They
couldn‘t prove it. It was just one kid‘s word against a whole lot of people. Hancock could have supplied
lots of kids to say that no cheating of any sort had ever happened.
But the downtown people were biding their time. They believed the story, and they had been
hearing plenty of complaints for an awfully long time. Whether they could prove it or not, they had a
pretty darned good idea of what was going on.
Their ―opportunity‖ came when a seventh grade math teacher at Mission left and wouldn‘t teach
for the rest of the year. They refused to send a replacement. With that math teacher out for most of the
year, and no one taking his place, catastrophe was waiting when those seventh grade kids the next year
took the MEAP math test in the eighth grade. Scores plummeted to record lows.
The Detroit School Board, which was now run by state Republicans, immediately applied State
rules, which allowed them to fire the principal and ―reconstitute‖ the school. This meant replacing all
uncertified teachers and inviting any who wished to transfer out.
I will never forget the ―team‖ that came in to interview all the teachers, individually, about
whether they wanted or would be allowed to stay in the building the next school year. The two ladies
who interviewed me were two of the most conceited and arrogant people I have ever met. They acted as
though I was a criminal for having been associated with Mission.
I was in a state of shock. I had done the best teaching of my life at that school. (The eighth
grade MEAP Writing Test scores had consistently shown my influence.) Now here were these two
morons acting like I‘d been crapping on the kids all along. Too proud to say anything else, I told them I
wanted to stay (I didn‘t want to feel like I was being driven out)—which because of my correct
certification I should have been allowed to do. But I filed a transfer request later, after I heard that
Frank Benjamin was leaving. I wrote on it a very particular list of requested schools to be transferred to
that I figured I would never hear from.
After the July 31st deadline date for transfers passed, I logically figured I would be stuck going
back to Mission, unfortunately, without Frank Benjamin, who had gotten a transfer to go to work with
our old assistant principal at his new school. So I decided to spend the last month of my summer
vacation getting prepared to return to Mission. I spent four weeks creating over a hundred new MEAP-
correlated assignments for my eighth grade classes. In very early August I also wrote a letter to
Mission‘s new principal, expressing my desire to not only return, but to help the school improve its
MEAP scores. I got no answer back.
It turned out that the new principal knew very well that I was being transferred to a school that
I‘m going to call ―Edward Morey High School.‖ She could have told me that any time, throughout the
summer, and helped me to avoid wasting that whole month developing all those assignments that I
would never get to teach. But she didn‘t. I only found out about my going to Edward Morey at the last
possible minute. Edward Morey‘s principal finally called me, and was quite surprised that no one had
The several teachers that I knew who stayed at Mission all say that it became much worse after
its ―reconstitution.‖ They say that as bad as it was with Mrs. Hancock running around crazy, it became
much worse with this new principal. One told me it was almost like the new administration was there
―really to destroy the school,‖ rather than save it. That seems to be a trend in the Detroit Public
Schools: principals who are sent in by the state-run school board to destroy teacher moral and to finish
off ailing schools.
It‘s funny how such a seemingly crazy and anti-social person as Mrs. Hancock could be missed,
at least a little, sooner or later. It‘s not that funny how politicians who tell the public that they‘re going
to ―save a school,‖ actually have only intended its destruction all along.
There are glaring weaknesses in the Detroit Public Schools. There is glaring evil in those who
choose to destroy desperately needed urban neighborhood schools for political purposes.
Hancock did a lot of damage, but at least she was a person who actually lived in that
neighborhood and whose real motive was to save that school and to save its kids. She didn‘t much
believe in most of the other people who were paid to be there with her to help the kids, but that didn‘t
mean she didn‘t want the kids to get help.
It was just that she wasn‘t a pragmatist or a compromiser who could work well with a large
variety of people. Why should she have been? As an American minority she knew full well the ultimate
value of so many ―compromises‖ that had been offered to minorities in our country. As a ―ghetto‖ or
―‗hood‖ survivor, she wasn‘t much likely to believe in any new promises, either. She felt that the only
truth she could trust was her own.
I think Hancock‘s whole attitude always steadfastly illustrated the extreme failure of American
democracy and the ―American Liberal Spirit.‖ She had very little respect for either one of those things,
and I believe that if you had seen life through her eyes, you would likely find a great deal of evidence
that her disrespect was well founded.
American democracy has given ghettoized city neighborhoods a Republican Party that is trying
to destroy those neighborhood‘s schools. The ―American Liberal Spirit‖ has been powerless (or,
perhaps, unwilling!) to save those schools. Hancock had little reason to pretend that anything was
different. Strangely, most of the rest of us did.
Did we miss her a little later because she knew something we didn‟t? Or did she merely know
something that the rest of us were too afraid to admit?
How an Old Liberal Belief is being Used to Destroy Urban
(The following is an essay that I wrote, after Mission was “reconstituted” by the state for its failings on
the MEAP Test. I think it‟s the best statement that I ever made about what I consider to be the major
Republican scam that‟s behind Michigan‟s MEAP Test.)
It is my opinion that, in the state of Michigan, the Republicans are using an old white liberal
belief to basically “gut” urban black public education—and nobody is willing to call them on this,
because to do so would challenge the whole original premise of the American Civil Rights Movement.
It‟s like the best wet dream come true for the Republicans: They are slowly but surely destroying urban
union public school teachers, their school systems, and ensuring a future privatized “for profit” school
empire that will put money into the pockets of wealthy Republicans, and doing all this while screwing
over the futures of a whole lot of city black kids—and they get to commit all this larceny and mayhem
with a big rubber stamp of approval from the old liberal belief that was the foremost original premise
of the Civil Rights Movement.
It‟s Republican dishonesty, hypocrisy, and hatred for unions and minorities at its zenith.
Some Republican mastermind figured out that an old white liberal belief that has really pissed them off
could be used against the blacks and the unions, in a really dirty way. This is the old fifties' notion that
the only difference between whites and blacks is “skin color,” that all the difference is “outer,” not
“inner.” This artistic and pretty little notion—which was the whole mindset behind books like Black
Like Me and A Patch of Blue—had horrified a whole lot of racists, because, if true, it clearly implied
that, all forms of segregation were based on irrational and superficial ignorance, and had to be ended
immediately. Hell, it even implied that blacks and whites getting married and having kids really was no
big thing, because ―underneath we‟re all the same.‖
Well, having watched this little notion wreak a lot of change in our society, some Republican
genius—who had noticed that, despite a definite level of changes and new opportunities for blacks, the
years of oppression had still left a lot of damage to black families, and to their children‟s ability to
function properly in schools—this guy came up with an idea.
“Hey,” he said to everyone at one of those infamous Republican “brainstrust” meetings, “I‟ve
got this freaky idea, and I think it‟s going to work.” Everybody gathered around, and he told them,
“What if we say that we totally support the notion that blacks and whites are completely equal?”
They didn‟t like the sound of that, but they also knew that this guy was really perverse, and had
a long history of making “up” seem “down” and even Republican theft from the public sound like
downright altruism—you know, stuff like that—so they waited patiently while he explained.
“Listen, fellas,” he said. “If we say that we believe that blacks and whites are completely equal,
then we can use that to justify comparing black and white schools‟ test scores on a statewide test, and
then we can start a big public outcry against the school systems and their teachers who don‟t do as well
on the test.”
Some dumbass had to be there, who had to ask, “Which schools will that be?”
After the snickers and chortling stopped, it was obviously explained to him that it would be the
black schools of course—since so many of the kids‟ parents had not been allowed to get any sort of an
education themselves, and were often still impoverished, plus blah blah this and that. Maybe he or
some other dumbass pointed out the unfairness of all this: any idiot driving through the cities can see
how big the economic and social problems are still there, but he was shouted down, and the plan put
into effect. Hee Hee Hee! They were on their way!
Protected by the talisman of the old civil rights credo, the Republicans have then been free to
establish Michigan rules that say, if the kids in any of the state‟s schools don‟t make state-directed
goals of achievement or improvement on the state‟s main standardized test—the “MEAP” Test (the
“Michigan Educational Assessment Program”)—whole schools are at first put on probation, and
finally, after several years, principals are fired, teachers are transferred or fired, and new staffs
brought in with new administrators, or schools are closed. It continues to be no secret which schools
will be found unsatisfactory, nor what color their students will likely be.
As public schools are being destroyed, the Republican tactic is to offer “charter schools”—
privately owned by Republican supporting entrepreneurs—which pay inexperienced and often under-
educated teachers very little, offer far less in curriculum, often shortchange the students on books, and
which are not required by their Republican cronies in the state government to be assessed by the same
MEAP test that is being used to destroy the public schools.
It is unfortunate that I have Republican friends who, without the slightest insight as to what it‟s
like to live or teach in the cities, indeed feel that such state government tactics are really a heroic and
brilliant intervention, which really is “intended to be the best thing anybody could do for these city
kids.” But, clearly, to those who have been working or going to school in “the hood,” these state rules
stand out boldly as nothing less than political and racist bullying of already oppressed neighborhoods.
The schools are being made much worse, and the kids are being damaged even more.
For students and teachers in Michigan, the lesson is unmistakable: if you teach at or attend a
deprived, ghettoized urban school, you can absolutely expect the state to come in and label you as an
“inferior” teacher or student, no matter how passionately you teach or learn, and, for the teachers, no
matter how many children‟s lives that you help to positively redirect. It‟s inescapable: sooner or later,
nearly every school in every tough urban black neighborhood must fall below the state‟s standards; the
only truly “tough black neighborhood” schools that can possibly meet state goals will be those that
cheat on the tests (this is a much larger number than anybody can imagine, and you would cheat, too, if
somebody was trying to destroy your school), and also those that so totally “teach the state‟s test” to
the exclusion of all else that they go to the extreme of losing any real validity as well-rounded,
The Republicans have left the people in these schools no other option.
Part Six: ―Edward Morey High School”
Beginnings at ―Edward Morey‖ 161
Switching the ―Rules‖ in Mid-Stream 163
A Fox That Got Loose in the Hen House 165
Two Unmixable Cultures? 170
Beginnings at “Edward Morey”
I arrived at Edward Morey High School on a warm, beautiful summer day. The first person that
really impressed me was a secretary that I talked to for about fifteen minutes while I waited to talk to
the principal. She was very friendly and intelligent.
Who she turned out would be no surprise to a whole lot of people who have worked at Edward
Morey. She was actually the principal, and she didn‘t mind making a little small talk before the official
start of the school year, after which she became one of the busiest people I‘ve ever seen. (I think she
was amused by the fact that I didn‘t know who she was; she was also unpretentious enough not to
The lady that I‘m going to call ―Belinda Wright,‖ the principal of Edward Morey, was one of
the most down to earth people I‘ve ever met, and one of the hardest working. She thought nothing of
picking up a telephone to help out a busy secretary, and did it constantly when she was available.
Unlike at Mission, where the administration stopped answering the school telephones after 3:30 in the
afternoon, I saw Belinda Wright pick up telephones after 10 PM, and I‘m sure she did it later, and she
was always willing to talk to you—though to have a conference with her you often had to stand in line.
Mrs. Wright was the only Detroit principal I ever worked for who, if she would have suddenly asked
her entire staff to have stayed late, or to come in for an extra Saturday, would not have cause a huge
emergency union meeting. And she would have gotten near 100% compliance. (Teachers knew what a
good deal they had working for her. She never asked them for anything that wasn‘t really important,
and she never took a minute of their time that wasn‘t constructive for them as well as her and the
school. You gave her what she asked for and she did anything for you that was feasible.)
One of the most staggering things about Edward Morey is I never saw a bad teacher in the
whole building. Working at Edward Morey was so desirable that Mrs. Wright had been able to pick the
people that she wanted. Every single teacher that I would meet in that building knew his or her subject
extremely well. (It was the only building that I was ever in where every single English teacher was
certified in English with a major in that subject.)
Edward Morey had a lot going for it: it had a long tradition of excellence in both sports and
education, with many famous graduates in many different fields. But it wasn‘t without its troubles.
When I arrived it also had a number of gang kids, and what made these gang kids so different from
those I had known at Pickett Junior High was that these at Edward Morey were almost exclusively
from the Special Education Department. And despite the abundant crowd of pretty well educated and
usually nice—albeit sometimes spoiled other kids (the neighborhood was in much better shape than
Pickett and Mission‘s had been, and many parents had professional jobs) —these special education kids
in the gangs could be a serious problem.
Gang kids in Edward Morey‘s gangs were periodically getting killed out in the neighborhood,
and their bereaved confederates would come to Edward Morey wearing shirts that had pictures of their
slain comrades, with words on the shirts saying things like ―Rest in Peace, My Nigga‘.‖ These shirts
could provoke more trouble with the other gangs. (So could a host of other issues.)
Despite these problems, my first two years at that school were mostly quite peaceful and quite
rewarding. I truly enjoyed teaching the higher-level English classes.
I did, however, see a real problem with the two different types of literature books that the
Detroit Public Schools had me using to teach my English classes, one for my tenth grade classes, and
another for my eleventh grade classes. But nobody else seemed to care.
Switching the “Rules” in Mid-Stream”
At Edward Morey High School I was required to teach both tenth and eleventh grade English.
At that time, all of the ninth and tenth grade English classes in Detroit used the reading text, African
American Literature, a textbook for which I had a deep and abiding respect. It contained some truly
outstanding literature, and I was always able to use it for serious, insightful assignments.
My biggest problem with the fact that this book was used for the first two years of high school
literature was that, the next year, in the eleventh grade, a monstrous, European-dominated, book bag-
breaking tome called, The Language of Literature, now confronted the students. This book was an
enormous cultural shock to the vast majority of my African American students. (In my own son's
suburban school, it was a big enough shock to many of the white students, too.)
The largest problem for my eleventh grade students was that many of the selections in The
Language of Literature demanded that, after their just having finished two full high school years of
African American (and African) literature, they were suddenly now asked to try to understand some
pretty tricky ideas about the very European culture whose literature had been not only been denied
them for the last two years, but whose legacy had also been the absolutely implied or even explicitly
stated ―villain‖ in so many of the stories in African American Literature.
Making this even trickier for my students, was that The Language of Literature—like the rest of
modern European culture—was not going to provide them with any sort of a propaganda tract
defending the European slave-owning, racial oppression, or global imperialistic expansion of the last
few centuries. Such a propaganda tract would have been something they readily could have
understood—however much it would have offended them.
Rather, this textbook instead apologetically offered to them a number of basic civil rights and
―minority‖ selections, but then also offered a large array of selections that amounted to the traditional
late twentieth century American / European complaints about problems with neurosis, psychosis,
cynicism, existential longing and battle trauma.
The book's apologies for the past weren‘t all that hard for my students to understand, though
frankly pretty boring, evasive-seeming, and definitely old news. But what could my students make of
all the European laments about cynicism, neurosis, existentialism, etc.? Reading that kind of stuff,
written by the very white people that they had been taught to believe are the lucky ―haves,‖ some of my
more insightful African American students saw the selections as no more than the mewlings of cats
who had eaten a whole bag full of canaries and then gotten a bit of a stomach ache. ―I don‘t understand
why these white folks are complaining here so much,‖ was a comment I heard regularly. ―We know
most of them got it made.‖
It was true—too often what the selections in The Language of Literature amounted to, when
read by my African American eleventh grade students, were urgent requests for sympathy, now
ironically tendered to the very people who had been traditionally and formally taught that these were
I remember, one day, when I, with great formality, tried to define European ―existentialism‖—
telling of its notions of ―personal isolation‖ and ―loss of past permanent values.‖ One of my students
commented that this ―loss of past permanent values‖ sure sounded like a European attempt to forget
various thefts of their past. ―It sound like a excuse for Europeans to keep their stolen money, and to not
pay us reparations,‖ he said. ―They tryin' to pretend they stupid or crazy so we can't hold'm 'sponsible
for what they took from us in the past.‖
―Ya'all Europeans is some slick suckers,‖ he said, looking me straight in the eye. ―There ain't no
doubt about that.‖
A Fox That Got Loose in the Hen House
During my first two school years at Edward Morey, all the high school teachers in the Detroit
Public Schools continued to be assigned ―duties‖ during one of their eight periods of the school day.
My first year at Edward Morey I was assigned fourth hour lunch duty. We had a large crew of real
rough necks in there with a definite potential everyday for gang fights. Fortunately, a man who was the
football and track coach was in there, too. His solution to the whole problem was that he would go take
a nap in the worst, most likely to explode area of the lunchroom, and the worst kids would have to be
really quiet because nobody was stupid enough to wake him up. It was both the laziest and most
effective discipline I‘d ever seen of a rough group, all at once. But I was sure always worried when he
was absent. The Detroit Police and the security stationed in the building often got a ―lunchroom
workout‖ when his other duties prevented him from coming down to that lunchroom.
One thing I contributed to the lunchroom discipline that year was to get the kids who wanted to
have ―rap contests‖ to put themselves all in one area, and to keep the noise reasonably down. Most
lunch teachers forbade ―rap contests,‖ and were forever at odds with the students who did that sort of
thing. I organized it and controlled it, and the football / track coach couldn‘t have cared less, as long as
he got his little nap.
The thing that this lunchroom duty gave me my first year was access to a whole lot of the worst
kids in the school—or at least to their associates—and by being reasonable with them I found myself
avoiding serious problems with Edward Morey‘s dangerous minority.
In fact, things were pretty much moving ―like a breeze,‘ that first year. My classes were like
what Frank Benjamin (long a high school coach) had told me they would be—he had said, ―High
schools are like the country clubs of the Detroit Public Schools. High school teachers in Detroit have
got it made.‖ In some ways it sure seemed like he was right. My students were mostly trying to do the
work I assigned, and even if they weren‘t working, they usually didn‘t bother those who were.
For week after week, that first school year at Edward Morey, I mainly just sat at my desk,
grading papers and giving students guidance. I had no idea how much weight I was gaining, or how
soft my never very powerful muscles were becoming. It didn‘t seem to matter anyway. I had found a
school where I needed to use my brains, and where it seemed like I could use my charm, wits, and
friends for anything else. How wrong I was.
My second year at Edward Morey I was given a first hour duty in the cafeteria. I worked with a
man who had a PhD in a field of science. He was a very legitimate scientist, but he also spent a lot of
time investigating claims about UFO‘s, and though he and his associates had disproved many of these
claims, he had a suspicion that UFO‘s might be something ―alien,‖ after all. He once told me, ―Look,
‗black holes‘ are considered a valid scientific possibility, yet we have much more evidence to suggest
the existence of UFO‘s. I can‘t prove the existence of either one, but no one has ever disproved
He showed his students photos of things that he and his group hadn‘t been able to disprove as
―potential evidence of unexplained phenomena.‖ Most of the students at Edward Morey found him
quite interesting, and I had another relatively easy year working in the lunchroom. Down there I also
met many of the school‘s weird, sometimes troubled, kids, and learned to get along with them.
It was for my third year at Edward Morey that the Detroit teacher‘s union managed to do away
with duties for high school teachers altogether. Some people took extra salary to continue to do them,
but I just took an extra free period so I could get more work done to help my students.
The immediate effect on the quality of the halls at Edward Morey was quite dramatic. Kids,
once accustomed to teachers on duty prodding them to class or asking them for passes, now grew
accustomed to only security guards doing the same duties. Though my control in my classroom was
better than ever, I now started to have more trouble with outsiders near my door, who felt it was now
none of my business how loud they were or how they behaved. This was something quite new, and
definitely directly attributable to the loss of teacher duties. The hallways at Edward Morey got worse
and worse, but, as everybody‘s classes were running so much more smoothly—and teachers were so
much better rested with the extra period of preparation time—nobody was going to complain. With the
new extra time, I sat a whole hour longer every day, inventing new assignments, helping more kids, and
getting fatter and softer yet. Meanwhile the kids in hallway passing my door were getting a little ruder
It was in the late spring that it happened. A ninth grade special education student—fifteen years
old, who had just been promoted straight from the sixth grade all the way to the ninth grade, came up in
my face, trying to get me to fight him. I had no idea who he was, but later I discovered that fronting-off
authority figures had long been a habit of his. I found out that school security had had to get very
physical with him, slamming him around, etc., but they hadn‘t written anything down. Then when I
tried to talk to this kid to calm him down he really got angry. Security and a cop had to deal with him.
Later, he was sent back to me by school security with a pass, after one of the security guards
told him that because I was an adult he was liable to get hurt.
This was the first of a number of instances where people in authority either refused to help me
in this situation or where some, like security, would do things to encourage us to fight. Everyone who
became aware of the problem always left me confronted with a kid who really wanted to fight and
wouldn‘t do anything to help me solve the problem.
I guess no one had really taken a very good look at me lately. I was now well into my fifties,
hadn‘t been getting decent exercise in years, and would likely have had a heart attack in any sort of real
fight. I‘d been telling my students for years that I wasn‘t interested in trying to ―out-man‖ them, and
they had always pretty much respected that. I had always survived in the very tough Detroit Public
Schools by being nice and fair, and even the kids I had had to write up almost always came back liking
But this kid was different. He was a very rough kid—I had seen him throw a pretty large girl
completely up a flight of stairs; and he was very fast and strong. The only thing I could have done to
him in a confrontation was to have sat on his chest and tried to asphyxiate him. But I wasn‘t much
interested in either a murder charge or my own heart attack.
This kid knew I was no match for him but he kept coming. Later, he tried to get me to fight in
front of two different department heads, and neither did anything particularly serious to try to change
his mind. An assistant principal told me just to confront him. It became obvious that many of the
powers in charge of the school wanted me to fight the boy. I wrote a letter to the principal, and left it
with her secretary, but got no response. Finally somebody clued me into what I think were the real
reasons I was getting no help from anywhere. The boy was definitely in ―special education.‖ This
meant that according to state law, that he couldn‘t be kicked out of a school permanently for his
problems. It also meant that he could stay in public education until he was 26 years old, which meant
he was a hell of a moneymaker for any school where he was situated. I was clearly not as important to
the authorities in that school as he was.
Seeing that I was clearly going to get no help from any of the supposed authority figures (one
department head‘s only comments to me about him were about the importance of protecting his rights),
I began talking about transferring to another school. A number of people told me things like, ―Ain‘t no
way that I‘d let any kid put me out of a school.‖ It was all code words for ―Go fight this kid.‖ I put in
for a transfer.
Talking to the principal at the end of the year, she told me she had never read my letter. I guess
she was too busy. I remained very fond of her, and a great admirer, but I told her that she and her school
wanted a different kind of a teacher than me. They clearly wanted male teachers who would willingly
go into physical confrontations with students—including psychotic special education kids—and I
I did end up transferring. Then I retired after one more year at a different high school.
The boy who caused me to end my career early had reminded me too much of Mrs. Hancock at
Mission Middle School. Both were very angry black people to whom compromise was never an option.
Late in my career every encounter I had with that sort of a person was like an alarm bell going off
telling me to end my career—that I was old and tired and wasting my time.
At Mission Middle School I didn‘t know it, but I had already begun getting really weary of
teaching in the Detroit Public Schools. I went into my middle and upper forties, then finally to fifty in
that school, and I had gotten really tired of the kind of challenges that had once fascinated me, when I
was younger, like about learning how to keep a classroom full of what so many teachers called ―ghetto
kids‖ under enough control to be able to teach them something worthwhile.
But, once I got into my fifties, dealing with this kind of kids only made me frustrated. I knew
most of the tricks, but some of my students still always had to try me—just for the hell of it. All kids
like to raise your blood pressure, but many kids who consider themselves ―ghetto‖ have made this into
an art form: lots of them not only want to impair your nerves and your health, they also want to take
away your last ounce of pride.
* * *
I can‘t even begin to tell you the damage I‘ve done with my stress-impaired temperament to my
family life. My anxiety, my anger, it‘s all rubbed off on my marriage, and on my children‘s lives. They
have always known they had a husband and a father who was, unfortunately to them, a Detroit Public
School teacher. Myself, wanting to do something worthwhile with my life, I stuck out this career,
losing more and more patience, until the young man at Edward Morey finally derailed it.
And this boy was especially a type of person that I had gotten weary of—an ―angry black
person,‖ just like Mrs. Hancock.
It was strange: in a very concrete way, I had become like a stepchild of black society. I had been
in that environment for most of my waking hours for most of my life. But stepchildren are often
unwelcome by blood children. And angry black people seemed like the blood children most ready to
remind me that that I didn‘t really belong. I was weary of having to prove myself all over again every
time one of them walked up to me. I was just too tired to deal with it.
Two Unmixable Cultures?
Sometimes, I don‘t see where white culture can offer any ultimate comforts for blacks. I have
already mentioned how some of my African American kids felt pretty uncomfortable with European
notions of literary culture and psychology: existentialism, cynicism, and neurosis are pretty empty
shells to offer to a newcomer who has none of your own race‘s history, as permanent emotional homes.
(Is there any wonder why black interpretations of white culture tend to focus entirely on white
materialism? What else of an impressive, ―superior‖ nature do whites have to offer?)
But even the way that whites have used Christianity—which has also become the religion of so
many African Americans—only shows how incredibly selfish and hypocritical European culture can
be. What I‘m talking about is how white people have long used Christianity—with its forgiveness of
sin and its amazing baptism—to allow white transgressors to not only die in God‟s grace, but also to
allow the transgressors‘ children to enjoy the fruits of their fathers‘ sins without bearing the guilt of its
acquisition. (Locke‘s ―blank slate,‖ that great philosophical gift that gave the English ―equality,‖ I think
is also of the same ilk.) The problem this makes for ―African American culture,‖ to the extent that it
believes in a common, irreducible white guilt for the condition of black people, is that from a European
Christian point of view, black culture must be recognized as a sort of preposterously primitive, pre-
Christian notion of just who‟s responsible for what. But that sure ain‟t how it looks from the black side!
How can two so totally different cultures—especially with their past shared history—ever learn
how to get along?
* * *
As a Detroit teacher, I had become very weary of being in the midst of what seemed an
unsolvable dispute. I had become weary of being on the ―front lines,‖ watching national events—like
presidential elections—destroy people‘s morale, and convince too many of my students that America
really does hates black people after all. I was weary of meeting students who after skipping my class
for an entire semester would want to know if they could take ―one test to try to pass.‖ (And then I
might have to listen to an administrator tell me to ―Give them a chance‖!) The tug of war between the
cruelty and stupidity of the politicians and the incompetence of some of the school administrators and
the naïve lunacy of too many of the ghettoized people that I taught had finally overwhelmed me.
I needed to go figure out who I was and how I fit into this very strange world. I had spent long
enough fighting another group‟s war.
Part Seven: ―George S. Patton High
One Last Year 172
One Last Year
After trying unsuccessfully all of the summer of 2004 to get a transfer away from Edward
Morey High School, I finally had to make a threat to the teacher‘s union to go to the newspapers so I
could get the transfer. I told a union executive that I had a friend who was a writer for one of the
Detroit newspapers and I said that my friend was ready to go ―front page‖ with a story about how the
Detroit Public Schools was forcing me to return to Edward Morey to fight a student. After having spent
weeks fighting to get the union to help me to get a transfer, I had one in less than a minute.
The truth was that the only person that I knew at that newspaper was a mechanic, but I was still
mad enough to have gone down there and tried to get the paper to write a story. After what I had been
through with the media exposure I had had back in 1992, and how much I detested the media, this
shows how desperate I had gotten.
I would have gladly retired right then and there, but, as it had turned out, I would have to wait
one more year. The union executive, a very intelligent man that I had always really liked, got me a
transfer to an east side high school, with an extraordinary sports tradition. I‘m going to call the place
―George S. Patton High School.‖
The kids at George S. Patton weren‘t anywhere near as affluent as those at the west side Edward
Morey, and many of Patton‘s kids were much wilder, but, in so many ways they were so much
friendlier. The teachers, too, at George S. Patton, were much friendlier.
A sad thing about Patton was that there was a lot of controversy in that building over allegations
that the new principal who had come in a few years earlier was trying to get rid of white teachers by
rating them ―unsatisfactory‖ and having them fired one after another. During my mere year there, the
only thing I saw was that Patton‘s ninth graders were outrageously out of control, and some of the
administrators really talked to teachers in a demeaning way, even over the public address system. But I
never could get a feel for the truth about the allegations about trying to get white teachers fired.
My own tenth grade classes were wonderful. I, a white teacher, was allowed to teach there
unhindered all year. I would like to thank my department head, with whom I had taught at Mission
Middle School, and her immediate boss, an assistant principal, for giving me such a nice year. I made a
lot of new friends and found several really good old ones at Patton, but I would like to especially thank
a certain demented but totally dedicated Lebanese teacher who was there—he knows who I‘m talking
about—for really giving me an enjoyable year. George Patton gave me the most thoroughly enjoyable
year I ever had in the Detroit Public Schools, then I was finished.
Conclusion: Four Stories about Confident
What Goes Around... 175
The Golf Lesson 177
Marissa Green 182
A Great Teaching Story That
Nobody Wanted to Talk About 185
What Goes Around…
If you enjoy the embarrassment of having it intermittently proven that, despite all of your
abundant personal confidence, you are really a very stupid person, then teaching is the job for you. As a
teacher I have been absolutely positive that kids were guilty of cheating and stealing and God knows
what else, and then too often seen them prove me to be a total fool. I have arrogantly quoted what I
thought were totally reliable facts only to have some of the most annoying kids in my classes prove me
to be absolutely wrong. I have had to pay for pizza parties for entire classes after proudly bragging
about how certain I was about whatever we were arguing about. (And if you think that I was one of
those teachers who enjoyed letting the kids ‗one-up‘ me, forget it. One of my very most favorite
activities is being right and I‘ve always been a cheapskate who simply despises having to pay up for
One day I told a girl that had been continually disrupting my class that she had to bring her
parent up before she could return to class. She told me that her mother wasn‘t available, then added that
neither was her grandmother, so I didn‘t need to be asking for her to come up either.
I shouldn‘t have, but I couldn‘t help saying, ―Then you‘d better bring up your great
grandmother!‖ The class thought that was a pretty funny thing to say.
―She busy, too!‖ the girl responded immediately.
―What about your great-great grandmother?‖
There were more snorts and guffaws.
―Nope. She can‘t come here neither.‖
―What about your great-great-great grandmother?‖
Pause, then: ―Well, she still alive.‖
―Not really. She 102 years old. She don‘t do that much no more.‖
I stood there, staring at a child who had been treating me like a table lamp at the perpetual party
that she had been throwing everyday in my classroom. She wasn‘t particularly mean-spirited and had
never tendered any angry words toward me; she had just totally ignored every request I ever made to do
her work or to shut up so I could explain the lessons.
She had also once opined that she thought I was ―fifty or sixty years old‖ when another student
had started speculating about my age—which then was really 28. Therefore, I figured that the ―102
year old great-great-great-great grandmother‖ of this poor, dizzy, brain-dead child couldn‘t have been
more than the ―fifty or sixty years old‖ that she had so wrongly attributed to me.
The next day I looked up from my desk to see the oldest human being that I have met standing
next to me. She was shaking badly and covered with snow and ice and I would soon find out that she
had had to walk over a mile and a half through wind and snow and near zero degree temperatures. My
little misbehaving ―brain-dead child‖ was standing next to her.
―This my great-great-great-great grandmother,‖ Little Miss Supposedly ―Brain-Dead‖ said to
me. ―I brung her up here, because you said I had to.‖
―Hello sir,‖ the shaking very, very old lady said to me. She spoke in the feeblest, most ―likely
about to keel over‖ voice I have ever heard.
I gave the poor old lady my chair. When she had the strength, she told me that, yes, she was ―at
least a hundred and two,‖ but ―could be a little bit older.‖ She just wasn‘t sure if it was more because
she had been in a very poor family when she was little, and remembering children‘s exact ages just
hadn‘t been very important back then.
I ended up paying twenty-five dollars cash to a friend of mine to cover my next class on his free
period so that I could drive the great-great-great-great grandmother back home. We went back on the
route she said she had taken. It was terribly icy and almost nobody in the neighborhood had cleared any
of the sidewalks, and I couldn‘t imagine how the old lady had been able to make it so far on that day. I
felt like the biggest jerk in the whole world.
For some weird reason, ―Little Miss Supposedly Brain-Dead‖ wasn‘t much of a problem after
that. Maybe she liked me a little better for driving her great-great-great-great grandmother home, on
that terribly cold and icy day. Or maybe she just felt that her great-great-great-great grandmother‘s
visit had proven something important to me. Them again, maybe she was just afraid I‘d make her poor
old great-great-great-great grandmother come up again on some other God-awful day.
The Golf Lesson
Back in the 1960‘s I was a caddy at a country club. I caddied there a lot, and, unfortunately,
there was one club member, the head of the caddy committee, who used to always demand that I caddy
for him. This was no particular thrill, because he was a lousy golfer, a very cheap tip, and, worse, he
had one really bad habit.
His habit was that he used to always stop his whole golfing group once a round, and then call all
four caddies over to him so he could deliver a lecture on some fine point on the game of golf. This was
more than a little peculiar, of course, since he was a really bad golfer, but that never stopped him.
(Since he was the head of the caddy committee, we caddies also had to obey.)
The other three guys who always played with him were quite jolly, very good tips, and pretty
decent players. They all emphatically believed his lecturing habit to be the height of stupidity and often
said so. But that didn‘t stop him either. His playing partners also especially made fun of the fact that he
always claimed that whatever ―lesson‖ he was offering us was always the result of his having met some
famous golfing personality, which they always told him was an outright lie. Thus, the golfing ―lessons‖
that he gave us were always delivered under a barrage of protests and nasty accusations from his so-
called ―friends‖—but that and nothing else seemed capable of stopping this man from delivering his
One ironically beautiful and sunny morning I was again caddying for the man. Then, on the
third hole, I saw that he was standing silently, for a long time, surveying his shot. He had what he had
always called his ―trusty old three-wood‖ in his hand, but, for some reason, was hesitating to use it.
Suddenly he started shaking his head up and down, vigorously, like he had just made up his mind. But
he didn‘t approach the ball. Instead, he called out to the entire group.
―All the caddies!‖ he announced. ―I want all the caddies to come over here by my ball. There‘s
something I want to show them.‖
The other three members of the foursome reacted as they always did. Their cries of ―What the
fuck?‖ and ―Goddamnit!‖ and ―What‘s this asshole up to now?‖ were heard. They came over with the
other three caddies to find out just exactly what that plainly crazy man had in mind now.
He showed it to all of us. When we stood directly behind his golf ball, which lay maybe 175
yards from the green, we could see that about 65 to 70 yards ahead of his ball was a tall, recently
planted, very young tree. It had a trunk so tiny that you could have put your hand all the way around it.
From exactly behind the man‘s ball, the tall, incredibly skinny tree blocked your sight of the pin, which
lay a hundred more yards past the tree.
He pointed this out, which we could plainly see for ourselves. ―Now the question I would like
to ask the caddies,‖ he said very ceremoniously, ―is how they would recommend that I play this shot.
What do you think, boys?‖
One of the other gentlemen suggested that he ―shove the club up (his) butt and hop around like
a bullfrog,‖ but our interlocutor ignored him and pressed us the caddies for our opinions. We put our
heads together, and quickly agreed that he should play his usual ―slice‖ around the left side of the tree.
We told him that.
―Well, young men,‖ he replied to us. ―Up until recently that‘s exactly what I would have tried to
do. And I can tell you that it‘s never worked very well.‖ He paused for dramatic effect, during which
one of his playing partners offered, ―Jesus Christ, none of your Goddamned golf game has ever worked
very well!” But he didn‘t even blink.
―I have just recently discovered the secret to how to play this particular shot,‖ he bragged. He
spoke in the confidential tone of a man who has discovered a long hidden passage to Inca gold. ―This
occurred just a few weeks ago. Do you want to know whom I was playing golf with?‖
His three playing partners suggested that nobody gave a damn, but he clearly was going to tell
―I discovered the secret to this shot only several weeks ago. At the time I was playing a round of
golf with the famous ‗Slammin‘ Sammy Snead,‘ and that‘s when he told me how to play this exact
There was an explosion of epithets from the other golfers, along with their usual accusations
that he was being dishonest. ―Why the hell do you persist in telling lies like this to these children?‖ one
of the other old men asked him. ―You know Goddamned well you ain‘t played with no motherfucking
He pressed on anyway. ―Ignore these men,‖ he told us, the caddies. ―They have no idea about
what they‘re talking about. If you just listen to me, you‘ll all learn something.‖
We had no choice: we had to listen. As the head of the caddie committee he was in charge of
who got the caddie college scholarships; also, one bad word from him to the caddie master, we would
have been fired.
―What Sam Snead told me about playing shots like this, around trees that are very skinny, is that
you should aim right at the skinny, little tree. He said you should really try to hit it!”
―Yeah right,‖ one of the other members said, ―Sam Snead told you to hit a tree. You are one big
fucked up liar!‖
The head of the caddie committee was now wearing his look of being a long-suffering martyr or
genius who had always been misunderstood by the masses. He always got this look about this point in
delivering his lectures.
―He didn‘t tell me to hit the tree. He told me that I should aim at it. Mr. Snead said that in the
case of a target this small, there‘s no real chance of actually hitting it, so that you should go ahead and
aim right at it so you can hit your best possible shot. He said that if you aim at it, the ball will choose
on its own which side of the tree to pass.”
The other men were now totally silent—I guess because it sounded pretty reasonable to them
when he said that he couldn‘t hit something that he would be aiming at. He had already proven that
point, plenty of times. ―You see, gentlemen,‖ the head of the caddie committee said to us all, ―I could
stand in this spot all day, firing golf shot after golf shot at that tree. How often would I hit it?‖
Nobody said anything. It still sounded pretty reasonable. Everybody was staring at that skinny
little tree, which still awaited his shot, about seventy yards in front of his ball, still lying in front of us,
on the ground.
The man who had been delivering this lecture to us seemed to interpret our silence as meaning
that he had won a total victory with his logic. It certainly was the quietest that the other men had ever
been in the middle of one of his lectures.
This seemed to help him to get a very peaceful look on his face—I think that respect was all
he‘d ever asked for. But then, weirdly, it started to grow into something more than just peaceful.
Remembering that look on his face, I know that I later saw the same look on the face of great athletic
champions in the midst of terrific competitive crises. His look had become the look of odd enjoyment
that the great ones get when their reputations and titles are put on the line. It was weird, but
now…Mohammed Ali, Mickey Mantle, Bill Russell—it was like these were suddenly the brothers of
this man in front of us, the old guy, holding his ―trusty old three wood.‖ It was like he knew, as great
champions do, that he had nothing left to do for his audience but prove himself—in this case it would
be to prove the sheer rational prowess of Sam Snead‘s golf tactic.
We watched him address the ball. I have to think that, perhaps, never in his entire golfing career
had he ever had such a quiet, attentive, audience.
He carefully stared at that skinny little tree, seventy yards away. We saw his determined look:
we saw that he was trying to aim directly at it, just as Sam Snead had said. As he stared at that skinny
little tree, he had to feel Snead‘s immortal golfing hand on his shoulder. ―You can do it,‖ Sam must
have been saying quietly into his right ear.
He was set now, and nobody moved a muscle. For the only time I ever saw him do it, he made a
really good swing. In fact it was a great swing. The ball made a perfect ―cli-i-i-ick!!!‖ sound and went
off directly toward his target…
A look of great pleasure reigned over his face for a second or so, then perhaps what has been
already been quite obvious to you also entered into his own sphere of awareness. He had hit such a
good shot that he indeed was going to hit that little, tiny, skinny tree.
That hitherto inconceivable fact caused a sudden twist of dismay on his face—this wiped off his
―look of champions‖ that had so impressive.
But the new, twisted look didn‘t last for more than a second, either. That too was quickly
Somewhere on this good earth, on every warm day and even on some of the colder ones, there
are golfers who make the best swings of their lives, and they end up winning bets, shooting good
scores, and even making holes-in-one. How happy those men are!
Unfortunately, in 1966, on the day that I have been describing, that is not at all what happened.
That poor man‘s ―best shot of his life‖ not only hit the tree that Sam Snead had promised him it was
impossible to hit, next, his crazy, damned golf ball came screaming back, directly at him, rocketing
toward his head.
His feet and arms and hands fluttered wildly, as he tried to get out of the way. But, somehow, he
just couldn‘t, and it hit him square in the center of his forehead. He collapsed like a tree knocked down
by a bulldozer. Then he just lay there.
One of the other old men in the group stood over him, looking down. ―Well,‖ he said, ―I guess
he's dead, so he won‘t be telling no more of his stupid stories.‖ The other two old guys agreed. The
three stood over him for a minute, making no move to do anything. Then I guess that and the fact that
they had said his story telling days were over pissed him off enough that he made the effort to sit up.
The other old guys spoke gently, but they still kept saying that this ought to end his story telling.
He had a pretty big bump on his forehead, but this being 1966, way before the days of calling
"911,‖ the other fellows made him finish the rest of the round. Every group we passed, the other old
guys called them over to tell about ―what this stupid asshole did over on number three.‖ The only thing
the victim could do was groan from the pain and hear the retelling of the escapade over and over.
The next time I caddied for the head of the caddie committee he gave the caddies a lecture on
golf course etiquette: where to stand when people are hitting and stuff like that. But I never saw him
give another lecture about how to hit a golf shot.
At one of the schools where I taught, in a year that I‘m not going to specify, I had a student that
I‘m going to call ―Marissa Green.‖ She was my English student and also in my homeroom.
Marissa was slender and extremely attractive, and very kind. But she could be extremely
obsessive, especially about doing her schoolwork. She really liked doing it, and she could be very
pushy about getting all the students around her to do theirs. She not only pestered others around her to
do their work, she also would tutor absolutely anybody who needed help.
Being as beautiful as she was, even the most recalcitrant boys always gave in to the flash of her
lovely eyes and her beautiful, kind voice, and turned into strong, diligent students. I never had a single
student anything like her.
The one really horrible thing about her life was what had happened to her father, and his three
brothers, her uncles. She had been very close with them, and all had died because of ―involvement with
drugs‖—her father recently and the latest. Because of this she told me she ―really needed an older male
One day she announced that she had finally chosen me for this, because she thought I had a
similar sense of humor to her father‘s and she thought I was very nice. She told me that the only thing
that this would require would be for me to say to her at the end of every homeroom,
―Go to class, daughter,‖ which was something she said her father used to say to her every morning
before she left for school.
So, what the heck, I started doing as she asked, every day, and I do mean every day, because
there was no way that Marissa was going to let me forget. I was proud to help her out and quite
flattered. What could it hurt?
So the year went on, and Marissa always stayed very high all year on the honor roll list, and my
homeroom‘s average grade point was much higher than anyone would have ever expected a non-honors
homeroom to achieve.
The next school year came and Marissa went on to the next grade. She no longer had me for
either English or homeroom. Her classes were now on the exact opposite end of the building from my
room. But she still kept coming back to my classroom every morning, insisting that I daily tell her, ―Go
to class, daughter.‖
This made her tardy everyday to one of the classes she was now attending. One of her new
teachers came down to my room and confronted me about it.
‗Did you know Marissa Green is late for my class everyday?‖ he asked me.
―I was afraid of that,‖ I told him. ―She‘s been coming across the building everyday to see me.‖
―She made me kind of a substitute father-figure last year because her father had just died. All
last year she had me telling her ‗Go to class, daughter,‘ just like her father had always done. I guess it
helped her to get through a tough time.‖
―Well, she‘s had a whole year to get over it. You have to tell her that she can‘t keep coming to
you and then being tardy to my class.‖
I agreed. He was right. So the next morning when she came to me I told her basically what her
new teacher had said, that she‘d had a whole year to get over her father‘s death. ―You‘re one of my
most favorite students that I‘ve ever had,‖ I told her. ―But I‘m not really your father. He loved you very
much, but I think it‘s about time you came to grips with the fact that he‘s gone. I know that you‘re
strong enough now to deal with this, I just know you are. You‘ve just got to be on time for all your
classes or all that hard work that you did last year will be wasted because you‘re going to keep getting
Marissa was very silent when she left. The next day the principal came to my room and pulled
me aside. He told me he had some ―very tragic news.‖ The principal told me that ―One of your students
from last year, Marissa Green, went home yesterday and hung herself.‖ The principal said that the
teacher who had been to my room to complain about Marissa‘s tardiness had said to come down to my
room and tell me.
The principal had no idea what sort of a conversation that I had had with Marissa the day
before. I told the principal what had happened.
My principal gave me two different pieces of advice. First, I was told that what had happened
wasn‘t my fault. The principal said I had no way of knowing that she would react like that. Second, he
thought that it wouldn‘t make any sense to tell the family about my conversation with the girl. Nothing
could change the fact that she was dead. Any guilt that I felt wasn‘t going to make anybody feel any
better, and it might make somebody feel worse.
A social worker was sent to see me and she gave me pretty much the same advice. She was
really concerned that I was feeling some really bad pain, but I couldn‘t feel anything. I told her what I
knew: I had entered a war by becoming a teacher in Detroit, and right then I just didn‘t have any time
for big regrets or pain. But I also knew that after my career was over, I was going to feel really bad
about this. I knew that it was something that was never going to stop bugging me. I now realized that I
had ―crossed a line‖ by agreeing to mimic her father‘s words, and by making a commitment that later I
broke because one of my colleagues thought punctuality was more important.
What Marissa Green taught me was that in the emotional turmoil and constant upheaval of our
urban neighborhoods, teachers are merely adrift in the flux of their students‘ personal histories. Our
students sit on bubbles of potentially instant dramatic personal change. Students every day enter your
room preparing to make some really serious personal choices. They may be considering running away,
joining a gang, assaulting a family member, picking up a weapon to deal with an antagonist, having
sex, or simply for once doing their work in your class that day.
The scary thing is, we teachers, who are so reviled, disobeyed, mimicked, avoided, and pranked,
still loom so largely in our students‘ eyes. We symbolize both the silliest and most annoying facets of
the adult world, and yet also the wisest and most crucially caring—and we truly are, all at once, both
extremes. For our students, when they see that a teacher who is actually paid to like them really doesn‘t,
then they get a pretty sour image of their apparent worth in the eyes of the adult world.
No teacher makes all the right decisions in such a frenetic theater of so many possibilities.
Sooner or later every teacher says or does things that accidentally cause children to make bad choices.
The tougher the community you work in, the more likely you will find ―blood on your hands,‖ as I did.
The more I thought about Marissa Green, the more I decided that it was my own giving into
bureaucratic ―rules of decorum‖—worrying about stupid ―rules of punctuality‖‖—rather than honoring
my commitment to her that had caused her to die. I resolved that at least I would do my best in the
future to honor my commitment to the things that were most important for my students, rather than let
myself get derailed by bureaucratic details.
Now, much too late, I've accepted Marissa Green as truly both her father's daughter, and mine,
too. If I‘m lucky enough to get to heaven, I hope she will accept my apology and my embrace.
A Great Teaching Story that Nobody Wanted to Talk About
Obviously, the first two stories in this section were meant to be allegories about what sometimes
can happen to smug, over-confident teachers—or to anybody who is smug and overconfident. But the
Marissa Green story is something else. This incident went way past a teacher being humbled; it found
me, albeit unintentionally, at the focal point of a child‘s decision to end her life.
The ―Marissa Green‖ suicide hurt me far more than anything else in my career, and it is a
horrible experience that I included in this book only with the hope that perhaps some young or aspiring
teacher might read it and perhaps not make some sort of similar mistake, on whatever scale.
At one time I was going to end this book with the section about Marissa Green, but my cousin,
one of my favorite people in this world, talked me instead into finishing with a story that I told him of,
of a ―confident and heroic teacher,” who did something incredibly risky to teach some people a much-
needed lesson, and even got away with it. (Therefore, as my cousin wanted, this book will be able to
finish on a positive note.)
A very good friend of my uncle originally told me this story at a dinner after my same uncle‘s
funeral in 1989. It is about something that happened to the both of them in the mid-1920‘s. Though it
happened 25 years before I was born—so I could never prove that it really happened—it is a story that,
after considerable investigation, I have come to devoutly believe in.
At the funeral dinner, I had told my uncle‘s friend a few of the stories that I have told earlier in
this book about my experiences at Pickett Junior High. He then said, okay, he would now tell me a
story that he and my uncle had always kept secret. (I guess, with my uncle now dead, he figured he
could finally tell it.) Then he started telling me about how he and my uncle had gone to a Ku Klux Klan
rally, in Howell, Michigan, back in the 1920‘s. I was shocked that he would even talk about something
like that, but he said that I should hear him out before I judged him, my uncle, or any part of his story.
They went there, he said, because someone had told them that the famous attorney, Clarence
Darrow, was supposed to speak to the Klansmen, and they wanted to hear him.
When they got to a ―little white-painted church,‖ in Howell, Michigan, which was to be the site
of the rally, they found as many as 75 Klansmen already there, dressed in their hooded costumes, with a
few tending to a fire outside. On the fire was a pot with tar heating up, and somebody had a pillowcase
full of feathers. One of the klansmen told them that they were planning to apply the tar and the feathers
to Clarence Darrow.
My uncle and his friend ended up going into the church, where they were told to ―go sit with the
other new initiates.‖ These other men and boys, like themselves, were in normal civilian clothes. There
they sat, for more than forty-five minutes, listening as the Klansmen argued over the best way to kill
―the nigger lover‖ Mr. Darrow. Some wanted to hang him—they had brought a noose for that
purpose—and others wanted to first ―tar and feather‖ him, then hang him. Nobody wanted to leave him
alive, but, for a good while, how Darrow should die was a matter of strong debate.
Finally there was a lull in the ―discussion‖; the problem was, where was Clarence Darrow?
Some joked he was late for his own funeral, but the fact was inescapable that the famous attorney had
not kept to his promised time of his arrival. This kind of depressed everybody—maybe there wouldn‘t
be the kind of deadly fun and shenanigans that they had been planning for.
Then, suddenly, everybody in the church heard the very same thing. It was the sound of a
squeaking rocking chair—coming from up in the front of the church, from way over on the other side
of the organ and the pulpit. Everybody knew there was a sitting, resting area up there, with a rocking
chair, and a table, and somebody was up there using that chair. What really perplexed the Klansmen
was that the only access to that area was through the main area of the church where they were right
now. There was no other door to that sitting area. Whoever was up there rocking had been up there for
a long time, since before they had gotten there. Whoever it was had been listening all along to their
debate over how to murder Clarence Darrow.
―Com‘on out of there!‖ a bunch of the Klansmen started yelling up at the sound of that rocking
chair. They cursed and yelled various threats. Several guns were drawn, but nobody moved to go into
that area. Whoever was in there was going to have to come out of it in their direction, anyway.
Who it was that finally came strolling out of that area—with his hands in his pockets, and a wry
little smile on his face—absolutely astonished the Klansmen. It was Darrow himself. After listening to
them plan his murder for the last forty five minutes he had had the temerity to first give himself away
with the rocking chair, and now to stand before them with that little famous smile on his face. The
Klansmen stared dumbfounded.
―Howdy boys,‖ Darrow said to them. ―What seems to be the trouble here? I can‘t see it myself.
We all hate niggers, don‘t we?‖
The Klansmen stared at him distrustfully.
―Seriously, boys,‖ Darrow continued. ―The truth is I don‘t really deserve my reputation as a
‗nigger lover.‘ I‘m a white man, same as you. So I hate niggers, too. I have to. In fact, I want to become
a better nigger hater, so I decided to come straight to you boys, the experts on that subject, so you can
The Klansmen broke into loud whoops and cheers.
According to my uncle‘s old friend, Darrow and the Klansmen spoke together for at least
another hour and a half—with the new initiates allowed to stay and listen. My uncle‘s friend said he
didn‘t really know when ―it happened‖—when Darrow ―switched‖ on them and started to defend the
other side of the issue, and he doubted that anybody else did either. ―All I know is that the whole thing
started out with the Klan and Darrow talking about how to hate colored people. But then, by the end of
the thing, Darrow had the Klansmen out by that fire, burning their Klan garments, and also on their
knees, back in the church, begging God‘s forgiveness for their hatred of ‗some of God‘s children.‘ He
even had them singing hymns with him—hymns like ‗Amazing Grace.‘‖
I was amazed by the story, both by Darrow‘s courage and his obvious rhetorical skill. The only
thing I‘d ever heard of at all similar to this was Shakespeare‘s portrayal of Marc Antony‘s funeral
oration over the body of Julius Caesar. That‘s where Marc Antony starts out praising Brutus, one of the
killers of Caesar, but by the time he‘s finished has ―switched‖ and he inspires the crowd to want to kill
Brutus and the other conspirators. But Marc Antony didn‘t have to give his speech to a group of people
who have already laid out their plans for murdering him.
How could anybody walk like that into a Ku Klux Klan group and 1) talk them out of their
already made plans for killing you, and then 2) talk them out of their racial hatred and into burning their
robes and repenting? Was it really possible?
All these issues bothered me a lot, though, frankly, I did believe in the story. I accepted it
because of 1) when and where it was told, 2) who told it, and 3) the way it was told—which was very
seriously and spontaneously. My telling some of the episodes from my own teaching career had
motivated its telling. (Without a doubt, the man who told it had had no intention of telling anyone this
story; but hearing the tragedy, emotion, and idealism behind some of my recollected memories, I think
caused him to bring out something similar from his and my uncle's background.)
I certainly didn‘t go tell my uncle‘s children about what I had heard—not then at least. I didn‘t
think that, especially on that occasion, they would have wanted to hear how their father had once gone
to a KKK meeting. I wouldn‘t talk to them about what I had heard for a full decade. But, during that
time, I remained really curious about how anyone could have done what my uncle‘s friend claimed that
Darrow had done.
Then one evening, when I was writing some lesson plans at the Berkley, Michigan library, I
noticed, on sale for fifty cents, a biography of Clarence Darrow by Irving Stone. I bought it.
I started finding pertinent information right away. The book states that Darrow, as a little kid,
rode in a horse drawn wagon with his father, a man who was part of the Underground Railroad. It states
that sometimes little Clarence rode atop runaway slaves who were under the straw he sat on. It also
states that one evening he met John Brown—whom he would later always admire greatly—and that on
that occasion Brown told little Clarence, ―The Negro has too few friends; you and I must never desert
him.‖ This little Clarence solemnly promised to obey.
Finally, the book tells something very interesting: it states that Darrow came to the Detroit area
in 1925-6 to defend Ossian Sweet, a black doctor accused of murdering a white man. Irving Stone tells
of how Detroit‘s police department and mayor‘s office were then dominated by the Ku Klux Klan.
Darrow finally got Dr. Sweet found innocent by an all-white jury, by delivering an eight hour final
summation that the judge, Frank Murphy, called ―the greatest experience of my life.‖ Stone says
Darrow‘s closing argument was so impressive to the NAACP, that they ―published it in pamphlet
I felt like I had finally found a source that could lead me to the truth about what had happened
at the KKK meeting in Howell, Michigan. Darrow‘s closing argument at the Sweet trial sounded like it
could tell me a lot.
I went to several libraries, and checked out all the Darrow books I could find there. But I
couldn‘t find his closing argument for the Sweet case. Finally, somebody suggested I should call the
Library of Congress in Washington D.C. The research librarian there said he had Clarence Darrow‘s
personal papers in a box, because they had been donated to the library, and they were sitting right next
to his desk. He soon found the correct document, and I sent a money order so that I could receive a
This document was an abridged form of Darrow‘s speech to the Sweet jury. But I could see that
it was filled with the kind of ideas that someone—with Darrow‘s talent, compassion, and nerve—could
have walked into a group of poorly educated, ignorant, and murderous Ku Klux Klansmen, and used it
to take a shot at getting them to repent.
Reading about all this, something finally dawned on me. I realized that what my uncle and his
friend may have witnessed in Howell, Michigan was a “tune up” or even a “dress rehearsal” for
Darrow‘s actual final speech in Detroit, in front of the Sweet jury. Darrow may have decided that
because he was going to have to speak to a jury that was at least intimidated, if not dominated by the
Klan, that the best way for him to practice was in front of the real Klan. This would certainly make my
uncle‘s friend‘s story make sense.
After I finally talked to the sons of my uncle and his best friend, both felt that this Darrow
story—which they‘d never heard—explained a lot about their fathers. My cousin said it explained why
Darrow had always been such an enormous hero to his father, and why racial prejudice was the worst
sin you could commit in his father‘s household. (Considering the extreme racial prejudice of the time
and place of my uncle‘s upbringing, my uncle's liberal views on race relations had always seemed like
a real anomaly.) And the son of my uncle‘s friend told me about how, in 1967, both men, two middle-
aged white businessmen, and World War II veterans, found themselves in the midst of the black
community during the depths of Detroit‘s 1967 race riots. He said that was when they went to talk with
some of the most radical black leaders, and sat with them smoking strange looking, rolled cigarettes,
which had been offered, they supposed, like peace pipes. The two white men, who had extremely high
positions at a major auto company, had come there as ―go-betweens‖ to try to find solutions that would
help to save the city from being burned down. The son of my uncle‘s friend said the Darrow story gave
a plausible explanation as to why they would have done something like that.
Obviously, my main point, for awhile here, has been that I had found what I thought was some
substantial evidence that my uncle‘s friend‘s story at the funeral dinner was true. But my larger point,
of course, is that I have been attempting to offer this story as an authentic sample of a great and heroic
―teacher‘s story,‖ of the kind of ―teaching‖ that the greatest human beings at their very finest can be
capable of. I believe that people who aspire to be teachers should know about stories like this one—
including Detroit teachers, too. (―If you think your third hour was pretty rough today, let me tell you
about a little ―teaching‖ that a guy named Darrow did one day back in the 1920‘s…‖)
The truth is, however, when I think about what Darrow did that day back in the 1920‘s, I realize
that the people in the Detroit Public Schools whose situation is the most similar to what Darrow
confronted that day are many of our students. They very often have to undergo huge risks just to attend
our schools. There are lots of kids in Detroit who in order to attend school must walk through gang,
drug, and gunfire infested streets. (There are too many streets in Detroit where kids can‘t ever play
outside because of all the gunfire.) There are lots of kids in Detroit who risk intimidation, harassment,
and more just for answering questions in class. Like ―Lucy,‖ many kids must come from sexually
abusing homes and try to put aside their reality long enough to learn something in class. Yet, amazingly,
I also have seen thousands of kids in Detroit using extraordinary rhetorical skills—as Darrow did—to
keep bullies from hurting them or sexual predators from accosting them.
Earlier in this book I told of my encounter with Martin Luther King on the streets of Grosse
Pointe, Michigan. The fact was that on that day he was obviously looking out for an assassin‘s gun,
from any quarter. This was something that, in retrospect, one day I finally realized—in a sudden
numbing moment of revelation—remembering his brisk stride, his sweaty face on such a cool day, and
his nervous glances at every open window, just before he was interrupted by my silliness. And what he
feared that day did catch up to him, only a few weeks later. But Dr. King walked that mean street
anyway, for he had such a direly important purpose. We should never think, however, of his kind of
courage as solely belonging to him and the civil rights heroes of his time. Clarence Darrow and Dr.
King stood up before ominous odds, defying death for a great purpose, but so does every Detroit
schoolgirl who defies the rapists and thugs in the alleys and corners, as she walks to school everyday, to
get her education. So does every school principal who must exclude a thug who in retaliation threatens
his life or who has thuggish parents who make threats or even decide to attempt violence. (Early in my
career, I still remember a Detroit principal who was murdered because a disgruntled ex-student
happened to run into him at a dry cleaner‘s.) Detroit‘s principals must have the courage to put ―out of
school‖ students whose only reason for being there is building little drug and criminal ―empires‖ within
our schools. These individuals can be very resentful to a mere school bureaucrat who dares to stand in
Detroit is filled everyday with little examples of Dr. King and Clarence Darrow‘s courage.
These little examples aren‘t as interesting or as dramatic as what Clarence Darrow apparently did with
the Ku Klux Klan—or vividly publicized like what Dr. King did—but the risks and too often the tragic
consequences are there, just the same.
A question that I feel must be asked—considering how the politicians in the state of Michigan
are continuing to try to destroy the Detroit Public Schools—how long will there continue to be any sort
of worthwhile reward for these heroic efforts?