I stated in my last blog that I would review the book my daughter gave me for Christmas, but I’m going to put that off. Recent events at work have caused me to revisit some “teachable moments” in my past that have shaped me as an educator and a human. But come back for the review. The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows is a little book packed full of wistful wisdom.
And now, here’s a little bit more about Mrs. Winkler back when she was Ms. Whitlock.
I was born in 1960, towards the end of the Baby Boomer generation. Kinda awkward I’m finding, especially as a woman. Unlike some women born in the ’40s and ’50s, I inherited some of the privileges that had been denied them but still had, and have, a long way to go, baby.
At least I could open a bank account.
Yes, that’s right.
Writing for the financial website Spiral, LeBach Pham writes that although women had been financiers in America throughout its history, it was not until the ’60s that banks could no longer legally keep a woman from opening an account. (Pham). I was 14 when women obtained the right to open a credit card account or to take out a mortgage on their own thanks to the Equal Credit Opportunity Act, although I wasn’t ready to have a credit card until I was well into my 20’s.
I suppose in my early years, I took for granted some of the privileges that many women, especially college-educated women, had fought so hard for. Part of the reason, I suppose, is because my wonderful parents were both fierce supporters of education. I remember one of my favorite family pictures before my younger brother was born is my father, smiling, seated in the middle of the picture with me, the youngest at the time, about two or three I think, on his knee, then, my gap-toothed brother and my sister, the oldest, standing on either side of him. Behind my father, arms reaching out and resting on her children’s shoulders as if to cover her whole family, is my mother, in her full regalia, having just graduated with her BA in English from Auburn University.
After graduating from Lanett High School in Lanett, AL, my mother, who wanted to see a bit more of the world than the little cotton mill town where she was widely known as the principal’s daughter, headed out to Shawnee, OK, to attend Oklahoma Baptist University. For her day, it was a bold move, I think, to attend a university over 800 miles west of her protective home.
My mother tells the story of how she arrived by train that first year and walked with her bag toward the campus to see it covered in black. As she got closer she realized what she was seeing a giant swarm of locusts. Big black and gold locusts. She said she couldn’t move without stepping on one. I couldn’t imagine anyone staying after that introduction, but mom did and went back the next year, even after falling in love with my dad, whom she had known all through school but never dated until that summer after her first year in college.
She had promised my grandparents she would go back one more year and she did. But it wasn’t until after marriage and the birth of her first three children that my mother finished her degree at Auburn University, with my dad’s full support and encouragement
I remember going far away from home, too, when I was right out of undergraduate school. I went to Oral Roberts University during the 900-foot Jesus years. You had to be there. Nevertheless, I feel I got a good education at ORU. Yes, I had to take a course called Holy Spirit in the Now, but I also took Survey of the Old Testament and Survey of the New Testament. Those two courses have served me well as a student and teacher of literature, especially at a community college in the buckle of the Bible belt.
My first teaching assignment was at a small church-affiliated school in Aliquippa, PA, outside of Pittsburg. Until I was flown up to the school for an interview, I had never been anywhere near Pittsburg, had no relatives there, and knew no one, but, just like my mother, I saw it all as a grand adventure. The school was small, and I taught three levels of English and two levels of German.
Turned out it was rather out of the mainstream theologically, but I did not become aware of this until after I took the job, even though I asked specifically about the church’s and school’s doctrine during the interviews. For example, although I had hauled all my German Christmas materials with me and moved them into my little attic apartment, I wasn’t able to use them because the church was vehemently anti-Catholic and did not believe in practicing any of the “pagan” holidays, so I just kept my copies of “Stille Nacht” in my files at home.
At the very first faculty meeting I attended, soon after I was introduced, our principal announced that he wanted all of the teachers to incorporate into our curriculum the support of prayer in public schools. He looked at me and the one other English teacher and said, “You will have your students write letters to their congressmen in support of prayer in schools. I will give you a sample letter I want them to follow”
Without hesitation, I said, “No, I won’t be able to do that.” He looked shocked. I looked around the room and the other teachers, especially the women, seemed shocked as well. I felt that I needed to explain. “I will discuss writing persuasive letters to our congressmen and create an assignment, but I want my students to write about the issues that are important to them and formulate their own letters.”
Everyone seemed still surprised.
“Of course, if they want to write and send letters to their congressmen about prayer in schools, then I will assist them in editing the letters, but I can’t require them to write those letters.”
A silence that spelled trouble for me from then on.
And yet, several of my fellow teachers, all women, came up to me after that faculty meeting and thanked me. They called me brave. It was my turn to be surprised. I didn’t feel particularly brave, just strong in my convictions that teaching writing didn’t have anything to do with religion or politics, no matter where I was teaching.
I remember speaking up again a few months later when I found out that the single male music teacher was making more money than I was. He had let it slip when he was hitting on me. I was appalled (at both) He had less education, fewer responsibilities–I had five preps in two disciplines, morning duty, lunchroom and afternoon duty as well as serving as assistant soccer coach and theater director. He had his classes, four I think, including band and choir practice.
I marched down to the principal’s office and just asked him–Why is so-and-so making more money than me? The answer–“Some day he will have a family to provide for.”
My turn to be shocked.
I may have been able to open a bank account when I taught in PA at that small private school, but I certainly didn’t make much money to put into one.
I did go back another year, believe it or not, partly because I had been promised a raise (although it never materialized), and partly because I had a long talk with my very wise daddy who had seen growth in me that first year and just felt I should go back. He wasn’t sure why. Always trust the instincts of someone who loves you, I thought then and still do. But the biggest reason I went back was pure orneriness, I reckon. Yeah, I thought, you fellers are going to have to deal with an uppity southern woman one more year.
At the end of that year, after I faced the fact that I couldn’t afford to live on the salary I was making, I began to enjoy the fruits of my labors. I started dating, Mr. Winkler–the best man that I know and as wise as my sweet daddy.
I came back South to get my second degree at Auburn University. Mr. Winkler, followed me down South a year later, and after I finished my degree and started working for Floyd County Schools in Rome, GA, I became Mrs. Winkler and have never regretted it one bit almost thirty-three years later.
However, while I was still Ms. Whitlock, teaching English and German at two high schools in the county, I still felt that “in-between” feeling, although I did enjoy some privileges denied me at the private school –being paid on a state teaching salary schedule at least. This meant I was supposed to be paid as much as a man, but I noticed that most of the male teachers also had paid coaching positions at the school, while I was assigned assistant soccer coach as one of my regular duties–no extra paycheck came with that.
But, I was making a decent salary at least, enough to even open a credit card account and take out my first loan to buy a new car. This time the inequities were more subtle, but very much there. For example, at one of the high schools where I taught, I had the star football player in my class–he was the kicker for the team. Now, I am no football expert, but my father had played football for Auburn and been a football coach so I knew enough to know, after watching a couple of games, that this kid was, well, not very good.
However, he and the administration felt differently about his abilities I guess.
One day in class, the students were working on an assignment, and I looked up to see that our star football player was putting a small paper cup under his desk. I walked toward him, and the cup fell over, spilling out a disgusting black liquid. Tobacco usage of any kind, including chew, even in that rural part of a Georgia county, was strictly forbidden; the faculty had been strongly reminded of that in a recent memo from the principal. So, I called the kid on it. He claimed it wasn’t his cup. “I saw you put the cup under your desk,” I said and wrote him up for detention.
Later that day, I was summoned to the principal’s office. The principal had barely spoken to me before that day. “You’re new here,” he said, “so you may not know that so-and-so is our starting kicker and an important member of the team.”
“Oh, I’m aware that he’s on the team, but I saw him put a cup full of tobacco spit under the desk. It fell over, and he refused to clean it up, so I wrote him up for a detention.”
“Did you actually see so-and-so spit in the cup?”
“No, I suppose I didn’t.”
“He says he didn’t spit in that cup. That he was covering for his buddy.” I tried to continue my argument but was cut short. The principal said, “I’m going to rescind this detention because you didn’t actually see so-and-so spit in the cup, and if he gets one more detention, he will have to sit out a game, and he’s too important to the team.”
I knew it would be better for me to say nothing, and I knew it probably would do no good at all to say anything, but just like in PA, I couldn’t help it, I spoke out. “Okay, I suppose you are going to do this no matter what I think, but I will tell you that word is going to get around quickly that I have no authority in my own classroom, and I am going to have more and more trouble.”
That my prediction came true has never given me any comfort.
And yet, over thirty years later, I am still speaking out about the dangers of administrators ignoring the ramifications of taking authority away from the teacher in the classroom. I’m still predicting how that loss of authority is chipping away at the academic integrity of our schools, colleges, and universities.
But who am I? A little, mouthy Southern woman–just another boomer on the verge of retirement.