Dustin Lee photo
by Bill Dixon Contributing Columnist
It was Spring Quarter, 1970. After seven long academic years at The Ohio State University, attending classes only when I could afford to pay cash for my books and tuition up front, and busting my ass on construction and numerous other jobs when I couldn’t scare up enough cash to attend OSU, I finally graduated: I earned a Bs Ed., in Social Studies. Boy, did I feel good! Of course I was dead broke, and I immediately had to hop on a swing-stage scaffold and bolt a microwave tower together, on top of the Ohio Bell Building, to pay rent for the summer, and tuition for the first (evening, part time) quarter in Grad School, coming up in the fall. I also had to find a school-teaching job for the upcoming year, starting in September. If I could do that, I’d make humble but steady earnings until the following summer break, in June 1971. Most local school systems would pay tuition for attending evening classes, during the teaching year. I intended to take advantage of that while I worked on an MA degree. Theoretically, I should have been able to put back enough of my anticipated earnings to pay for the summer 1971 classes at OSU, and work part-time in the evenings, tending bar, being a cook or a bouncer, or some such. I’d get by, I figured. I always had.
The problem in front of me was getting that job lined up. I tried the Columbus (Ohio) School District. No dice. No teaching experience. I also was not qualified to teach much except Social Studies, since that had been my major. No openings were available for that area of studies. I interviewed with other local area school districts. Again, no openings. I even tried to get a job teaching at The Ohio State Penitentiary. I went to the interview, through a series of well-guarded security “blocks”, trudging down the cold concrete hallways that were radiating sorrow and grief, hopelessness and fear, from one cell block to the next. When I reached the interview area, I was already wishing I’d never even considered working at a prison. The interviewer, someone in the Warden’s Office, told me that my task would be teaching Social Studies, Literature and Math to convicts. He offered me the job, on the spot. It had been funded by the State, but not yet filled.
I really didn’t know what to do. I’d never been in a more foreboding place in my life, either before or since, and I’ve been in some bad places, especially since. Hanging four hundred feet in the air on a scaffold, on a rainy, windy day had never looked like a better option to me, but I had to hedge my bets. Maybe nothing better would turn up. I had to have a job in place for the coming school year! While I didn’t want to say “No”, and close that door, I really didn’t ever want to enter that prison again. I lied, telling him I had two other offers that I had to consider before making a decision. We shook hands; I smiled, said good-bye and high-tailed it out of that hideous place as fast as I could, which wasn’t very fast. I passed back through locked areas, passing poor wretches leering at me from their cells where they’d be guests there for a long time to come. They stood or sat in grubby cells with other convicts minding their own shattered hopes and dreams, and watched me leave the building. I made it to the exit door at a measured pace, resisting the urge to dash to the locked door and another block, until at last I was on the street, ecstatic, vowing to never forget my visit to the penitentiary, and to never repeat it.
I took the High Street bus to a campus bar near my apartment, washed my hands thoroughly, and ordered a cold bottle of beer. I told the bartender, Harry, I’d just gotten out of prison. He asked me if they offered to let me keep the striped suit. A funny guy, Harry…. It took me about fifteen minutes to settle down, and start erasing the previous hour from my thoughts, a job that’s still not done.
* * *
Still without a job, I sure as hell wasn’t going back to the Ohio State Pen. I sipped my beer and thought, “How about a Parochial School?” I looked up the number for the Columbus Diocese, wrote the number on a napkin, and headed home to make the call from my own ugly black rotary, saving a dime in the bargain. I ended up with a prospect at a Catholic school to teach grades one through eight, and scheduled an interview for the next day. With only one white shirt to wear to job interviews, and a thrift store tweed jacket and khakis, and my ROTC dress shoes, I was tanned, rested and ready to impress. The interviewer, Sister Mary, was concerned that as a non-Catholic, and my not being religious, I wouldn’t be considered. I mentioned I had been baptized at Holy Name Church, brought in by my father who was marginally Catholic. He hadn’t asked me if I thought it was a good idea, but then again, I hadn’t learned to talk at that point. My mother was a Protestant, kind of, according to her, but I don’t recall her ever going to church unless it was connected to a wedding, or funeral service.
I told Sister Mary I had been baptized Catholic, but had strayed from regular church attendance. That was 98% bullshit, of course, but it might have helped me land the job. She didn’t out me as an atheist, at least. Other staff members included two nuns, Sister Elaine and Sister Ann, and two female “lay” teachers. Sister Mary pretty much ran the show, while Father Timothy, the parish priest, didn’t seem focused on much of anything. He hadn’t been assigned to a very important parish, undoubtedly because he wasn’t a very socially accomplished; nervous and anxious, he never made eye contact. His services were drab and artless, but they had the redeeming qualities of also being brief and predictable. He was largely invisible and deferred to Sister Mary in nearly all things. The lay teachers primarily taught math and reading, but we all pitched in as needed. It was a small school, in a poor parish.
My teaching assignments were decided by what was in short supply. I’d taken ten classes in Fine Arts at Columbus North High School, and turned down an Art Scholarship at The Columbus College of Art and Design to attend OSU instead. Thus, I became the art teacher.
The school needed a music teacher, too. I could chord a guitar, and had done some singing in local venues. I neglected to tell her that I had never taken a music lesson, couldn’t read music, and that my performances were almost all in campus saloons and coffee houses. My repertoire was overwhelmingly folk music and protest songs, plus a few rowdy, sometimes bawdy, options that contained largely adult themes. Accordingly, I was also appointed the new music teacher.
No one at the school really wanted to teach science, so I got two science classes to teach, as well, based on my having been a lab assistant in high science classes, and had taken botany and biology at OSU. Oh, and a basic geology class at OSU. Thus, I was now also Science teacher.
Turns out the school also needed an English teacher. I had worked in a University-Area used bookstore when I was 14 and 15 years old, and part of my minimal compensation was to be allowed to select any used books from store inventory that I cared to, and to do so as often as I wished, and that I agreed to read them. There was no censorship of the books I selected, and no other requirements except to notify the owners of the store, who taught at a suburban high school, the books I selected, which we then discussed. I could then keep the books. It was the best job in the world! Now I could teach kids the literature that I loved (within limits, of course). I was eager to draw up lesson plans and jump into my new role, as Mr. Dixon, Teacher!
The kids settled in at 7:45 a.m., and we’d chat until classes began at 8:00 a.m. My room first emptied, then refilled with my fourth grade science students. Our science equipment was marginal, so I tried to deal with home-made practical demonstrations and some attendant lecture/discussion. The fourth-graders were delightful! They were cheerful and excited about the things they were learning, and were enjoying the novelty of having a new, male teacher, the only one they’d had in their academic experience.
I had developed a theory, that most kids had good ideas about most things which were linked to the creative options that were open to them. I’d judged children’s art shows for several years, in Columbus, when I could, and until the kids were forced to “color inside the lines”, use conventional representations of things, and conventional composition, they were highly original. I felt that the originality was gradually beaten out of them, until they all drew the same flowers and cats and dogs, chimneys and doors, cars and trucks, people and lawns….. I wanted to preserve some of that originality in the learning phase of education, and that’s what we did, whenever I could get away with it. We did some art of some sort in all of my classes, including science, and literature. The older the kids were, though, the more they became homogenized. Peer pressure, teacher and parent pressure, and the expectations of the school administration, all contributed to the process. The fourth graders hadn’t been “civilized” yet, though. We had a good time in that class, and originality was permitted.
For the “Music Class”, I brought in my shabby old Harmony guitar, and taught the kids the words to any number of folk songs: we sang them together, and they loved it. I mixed in some protest songs, not so much to be sowing discontent, but to use as much of the meager inventory of songs that I could sing and play. When it was time to put down the chalk and pick up the six-string, the kids in those classes always seemed to be a little happier and a little more team-oriented when it was time for them to go to their next class, down the hall.
The literature aspect of teaching was fun for me, but probably not as interesting to the seventh and eighth graders, who were composed of prepubescent, moody, newly-minted teenagers. They didn’t have much curiosity about Robert Frost’s imagery, or Poe’s steady structuring of horror and suspense…. The English poets just didn’t seem to have ever been in touch with the needs of 1970s’ teens, it seemed. I couldn’t manage to garner much interest in the stuff I found so compelling and fascinating. As Shelly said, “I fall upon the thorns of life, I bleed.” I also bled, but there were a lot of blank faces in the class. I began to take less pleasure in teaching those literature classes, and it probably showed.
One night, I was out with friends, a little too late and a few too many beers. I came in the next day, not especially alert, and continued going over a Jack London story I’d started earlier, “The Fire”. I guess that I wasn’t particularly interesting that day, and I hadn’t prepared by first reading the passages I now was explaining to the class. We got to the point where unless the protagonist was able to catch and kill his dog in order to warm his hands enough to light a fire, when something very distracting happened.
The system for leaving my class to go to the restroom while I was lecturing was for the student to raise a hand. I’d nod, and they could go attend to their needs. A raised hand after the lecture meant you had a question or a comment. A girl’s hand went up as I was speaking, so I nodded, and the girl left the room quietly. A few minutes later, she returned to her front-row seat. I glanced at her, and noticed she was blushing. Really blushing! What was up, I wondered? Five seconds later, I knew what was up! The girls all wore uniforms, knee-length plaid skirts, and white blouses. My student parted her fourteen-year-old knees, and pulled her skirt back enough to plainly demonstrate she had removed her panties. What had been beneath them was now front and center, about eight feet away, and pointed in my direction. All thoughts of Jack London left my mind; befuddled, I turned my back to the class. To compose myself a little, I erased something on the blackboard. I don’t know what. I was lost at sea.
I turned back to the class again, hoping they assumed I’d been giving them a few seconds to ponder the drama between Dog and Man, in turn-of-the- century Alaska, instead of suspecting I’d been flashed out of my wits by their classmate. “So…..what happens next”?, I asked. The dog and man were facing each other and the last attempt to light the fire had failed. A lackluster discussion evolved that lasted until the class change bell rang. Saved by the bell!
I avoided looking at the flasher as the room emptied. I figured that acting like nothing at all had happened was the best action I could take. This teaching stuff is a lot more complicated than I suspected, I thought. It wasn’t easy keeping my mind on having the kids draw scenes from The Hobbit as I read to the fourth graders in my next class. I’m not sure they noticed. Bilbo had just left the Shire, you see, in the company of the dwarves.
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