|other personal autobiography|
A good fight? (UK, 1969-70)
Background: Fresno to London
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The following provides a bird’s-eye view (why do I think of Marlowe's Faustus being flown above the world by Mephostophilis?) of my life between Fresno and Borehamwood. At another time I’ll probably flesh this out.
During my first semester at Fresno, on December 28, 1965, I married for the first time, to Sherrl, at a San Francisco home. To please her orthodox father, we had a rabbi, and though he would have been happy to pay for a relatively lavish wedding, as I remember it we arranged a quite modest affair. I dittoed *the invitation at the Fresno English deparment, and we asked that instead of giving us presents people make a donation to Friends of SNCC. I think a lot of people did—though I doubt we had more than 40 guests. My parents flew from NJ for the event. I wrote a poem about penguins mating; Sherrl and I had this childish thing going about being penguins. During the reception I gobbled many deviled eggs which I had managed to have included with the inexpensive catering we arranged for.
I doubt I loved Sherrl, but I likely married her because I was 23 and it seemed a good thing to do to fit in and be ab adykt. (Certainly I didn’t consciously say that to myself.) We I lived for two years at 1503 Oxford St. in Berkeley. In 1966-67 I attended the English graduate program at Berkeley, where I had always wanted to go. I had a troubling academic year which I’ll describe elsewhere, and dropped out in June (actually, I took a leave of absence, which the department urged me to do to make it easier to return, though I didn’t think I’d be back). Whatever adjustment problems I had, I did pass the MA oral exam required of all Ph.D. candidates, regardless of whether they already had an MA, although my committee was dismayed that for a modern poet I chose A. E. Housman (which I did because I felt I could master his relatively brief oeuvre in the short time I had to prepare). We stayed in Berkeley another year while Sherrl completed her undergrad degree.
In late summer or maybe fall, 1968, we decided to live in Paris, where there seemed nearly to have been a revolution during May and June. We had a flat in the 9th arrondissement, probably for six months, and then moved to London. There, we separated and I began a relationship on which I still look back fondly, with Bretta. She and I first lived in her flat in Vincent Square (the same building, I was told, that housed Tom Stoppard, though I never saw him) and then moved to a one-bedroom flat with shared bathroom in Kilburn.
In spring of 1969 I got a teaching job for a few months in a boys' state secondary school in Tulse Hill, South London. On the whole, I don’t think I did well there. While it is no fun to remember or recount the following (and I feel myself breathing heavily as I type the words), I will do so in service of relatively full disclosure: One time at Tulse Hill I got so out of control with the class that I took a loose wooden desk top and smashed it multiple times against the top of an empty desk, perhaps splitting the loose piece. At another time, infuriated with the repeated use by and my repeated correction of students of "different to" (which I have since come to suspect is a legitimate usage in British English, which only makes me feel more wretched when I remember my inexcusable behavior) that I screamed at a student and maybe grabbed him by the collar. I think on one occasion my department chair passed my closed door and glanced in the small window to see me out of control. He was a very nice guy, and had I been him I wouldn't have wanted a me who behaved like that teaching in his school.**On another hand, I had some limited successes at Tulse Hill in engaging students (as opposed to myself). The democraphics of the all-boys' school were relatively poor and working-class with a significant proportion of immigrants from colonies and former colonies, especially African and slave colonies. Among all races, criminal acts, violence and disdain for school were common, and behavior problems were the norm for all teachers (though while I knew colleagues who were at their wits' end with some students, presumably they kept perspective and did not fly into rages like me). A common solution for other teachers, which I tried to avoid (my tendency toward rage did not preclude pedagogical ideals), but probably succumbed to a couple of times, was, knowing he'd leave the school premises for the rest of the day, to kick out of class a kid who was so disruptive that no teaching could go on. No doubt some kids exploited this pattern by "officially" being thrown out of class rather than being truant. I think that one of my techniques for trying to deal with such kids was to turn to them and begin a conversation with, "I understand you need attention"; I don't know whether this worked, but I would have been relying on the kid in question wanting the other boys to be admiring his power rather than watching the teacher define the terms of the fencing match.
I can remember a time when two normally good buddies***, huge guys who dwarfed me but by whom I never felt personally threatened, got into one of those arguments that will sometimes alienate young friends for awhile. In their case, I knew that they were prone to violence, and as they stood almost nose-to-nose, I put a hand gently on the forearm of each, spoke in a gentle voice, and felt them relax.
I also had some kind of salary dispute at Tulse Hill, about which I remember nothing but which is revealed by a few documents from that time. The following extract from a letter I include elsewhere in these pages seems to summarize the situation. ("The letter" referred to in the first line is the Fresno reference letter.)
While at Tulse Hill, I applied for jobs in further education, was interviewed at Borehamwood, and was appointed as lecturer in English and Social Studies.
Having acknowledged the mixture of troubles at Tulse Hill--a salary issues that sounds as though it was no fault of my own plus teaching behavior that was--and ready now to turn to the struggle I had at Borehamwood from mid-fall 1969 to summer 1970, I can see that this background may color readers' responses to what I narrate. Whatever. I would note that my memories of my behavior in Borehamwood classes never ended up with my being out of control--even though at times some of my classes there (in proportion to the lower academic level and expectations of a group of students) were themselves out of control and I was at a lossabout how to manage them. In this case, though I had supportive help and advice from colleagues, and (perhaps because I was dismayed by how I handled myself at Tulse Hill) I was willing to welcome it. In the teaching job after Borehamwood, North London College of Further Education (across the street from Holloway Prison), I managed quite well; so perhaps I was working hard to learn. Certainly none of the Borehamwood problems ever had to do with class discipline, and as you willl see if you follow the events on succeeding web pages, my administration would have jumped at the opportunity to use that against me.
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*Some readers may be unfamiliar with this pre-xerox standard teaching device, a copying machine smaller, cheaper and with less glamourous output than a mimeograph machine, with which some readers may also be unfamiliar. You typed your copy on a 2-part ditto master (which was impossible to correct), tore off a kind of carbon paper underleaf, wrapped it around an inked drum on the copy machine, and cranked out however many copies you wanted. They came out in purple ink and got fainter as you printed more and more.
**Rage has been an issue I have had to deal with throughout my adult life. I have struggled to understand where it comes from and to keep it under control, and have slowly been successful over my adult decades. While a person at whom I became angry may sometimes actually have behaved in a way that merits anger, there has never been an excuse for my getting as angry as I too often have. I hate to say that it still happens, but very infrequently, and if anything I have become remarkably good at staying calm and controlled in most difficult situations. [Added July, 2012: I recently completed work with an anger management specialist, and I'm much more at pease in my life in general. The goal was not to eliminate occasions when I might grow angry (probably an impossible task) but to give me tools to curb the anger before it rises. I've been warned that an eruption might still occur, but I'm optimistic that it won't. Much to my surprise, the tools kick in in many other parts of my thoughts and feelings that have nothing, at least directly, to do with anger.]
**I will note that both boys were of Jamaican heritage. I emotionally resist such identifications lest readers extrapolate a chauvinist agenda, but I also realize that a non-judgmental awareness of people's heritage can help a sociological or historical understanding--just as knowing their size in this case, regardless of race, gives some context to a reader's image of the situation. (How much I gnash my teeth when I hear someone say "this big black guy..." in contexts where neither size nor race is relevant for anything other than, by juxtaposing the words, stereotyping.)