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A Good Read : Five L.A.-Area Teachers, Paid $3,000 Each Not to Work, Spent the Summer Doing Some Studying and Thinking

November 10, 1986|PATRICIA WARD BIEDERMAN | Times Staff Writer

Reading the obscure works of Stephen Crane is not everyone's idea of a dream vacation.

But that is what Fairfax High School teacher Daniel Victor did last summer, to his great satisfaction.

Victor and four other Los Angeles-area high school teachers did not have to teach summer school this year. Instead, as winners of national fellowships, they were paid to pursue their academic passions and do the sort of scholarly work usually associated with college-level teaching.

The five were among 150 recipients nationwide of fellowships for independent study in the humanities, a program administered by the Council for Basic Education in Washington.

With $3,000 stipends, provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities and others, the local teachers were able to read to satiety on a favorite subject without guilt and without missing a mortgage payment.

Their projects, all approved by panels of experts, varied.

For example, Victor focused on ambivalence about social class in the works of Stephen Crane, Mark Twain and others, and Studio City teacher Ellen Samsell studied creative women in the books of Willa Cather.

Ted Carothers of Temple City High School spent day after day in the Huntington Library reading about Homer and Bronze Age Greece.

According to the five local recipients, the summer fellowship was more than a rare opportunity to indulge a scholar's notion of a good time by learning as much as possible on a topic of choice.

The award, they said, also sent them back to their classrooms with a renewed commitment to teaching. And it gave each of them a satisfying sense--for some, a first-time sense--that they were being recognized as genuine scholars, something high school teachers are rarely thought to be.

According to a fellowship administrator, these emotional fringe benefits are precisely what the grant program is designed to produce. The only way to ensure excellence in teaching is to get excellent teachers into the classroom and keep them there, said Betty Berkow of the Council for Basic Education.

Boost to Self-Esteem

Berkow said enhanced self-esteem and job satisfaction are often reported by fellowship winners. "I wish they had had the program when I was teaching," she said.

As fellowship recipient Samsell--who teaches advanced English courses at Our Lady of Corvallis High School--said, teaching high school is not exactly a glamour profession.

"If you go to law school, you have instant recognition," said Samsell, 35. "But when you tell people you're a teacher, they are not impressed."

Samsell, who has a doctorate in English and American studies from Indiana University, said she often finds herself justifying her choice of profession to puzzled strangers.

"People are constantly saying to me, 'Why are you teaching high school with a Ph.D.?' " Samsell said. "I tell them I love it. And I also tell them that getting a university teaching job someplace other than Alabama, Georgia or North Dakota isn't easy."

Satisfying Pursuit

Samsell found her reading of Willa Cather even more satisfying than writing her dissertation on 19th Century American realism.

"I love teaching," she said. "But when I do this, it reminds me just how much I love to work in a library on my own, how much I love to study."

Victor's project grew out of his doctoral dissertation on David Graham Phillips, a turn-of-the-century social critic whose impassioned prose prompted a sputtering Teddy Roosevelt to term him a muckraker.

This summer Victor, 42, looked at the contradiction in the lives and works of Phillips, Mark Twain and Stephen Crane, all of whom were both social critics and social climbers. (As Victor pointed out, Crane, who wrote eloquently of the American poor, spent his final days as a dandy eating pate de foie gras on a British country estate.) Victor said he encourages his students to analyze literary works in terms of such powerful opposing forces.

Rare Book Purchased

Victor's fellowship allowed him a few academic luxuries, such as a $25 copy of the hard-to-find novel "The O'Ruddy," which Crane was working on at his death.

The opportunity to study Twain in depth has enhanced Victor's advanced-placement course, which deals extensively with Twain's work, he said. But Victor said he especially valued the grant's implicit acknowledgement that a high school teacher's intellectual interests could be worthy of support.

"In addition to everything else, these things honor us as intelligent people," he said.

Like many others, Victor sees such programs as a healthy corrective to the popular notion that anyone who can stand upright can teach.

"People think it's just a matter of getting up in front of a class and talking," he said. "It's not. Just because people have flown in an airplane doesn't mean they can tell the pilot how to fly."

Spiritual Well-Being

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