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Success for black students: a lesson

Columnist Sandy Banks picks the brains of her former teachers at a school where black students thrived.

January 12, 2011|Sandy Banks

This is not going to be some rambling tome about the glory days of public education. It will be well-written, thorough yet concise, precise in language and even-toned.

It had better be, because I'm writing about my high school English teacher, who will probably read this, red pen in hand.

The fact that, 40 years after our last class, I still care what Mr. Telecky might think speaks volumes about my teachers' impact on me.

I reunited with Stuart Telecky last weekend, thanks to the efforts of Lelia McBath, my high school math teacher, now a Los Angeles resident. When I mentioned Mr. Telecky in a column last month, she sent it to him in Minnesota.

It turns out he has a pile of my old columns. He and Mrs. McBath have kept in touch — via letters, not e-mail, he pointed out. She forwards my columns from time to time, "when you write something interesting," she explained.

On Sunday, she invited me to join them for dinner. Mr. Telecky, now 80, spends winters in California.

"Call me Stuart," he said, after we hugged. I declined. He didn't seem to have changed one bit from the patient, soft-spoken, erudite instructor I remember from our first foray together, through "Moby Dick" and "Billy Budd."

We talked about the school that I recalled, where discipline was dispensed with a wooden paddle and you would do anything to keep a teacher from calling your mother. The stories I hear from Cleveland friends now are of near-empty classrooms and fights in hallways.

What happened, I asked my teachers, to turn a standout campus into a has-been? Their reminiscences offered lessons, and I took notes on what they told me:

• A school's success starts with its principal. Ours never bothered with mission statements loaded with "life-long learner" babble. His motto was simple: Every child deserves the chance to fail a class. Emphasis on every, not on fail.

• School integration was a noble aim but undid the social fabric of our all-black campus. That had less to do with race than with history, politics and geography.

• Sugar-coating lessons shortchanges students. You can scrub "Huck Finn" of the N-word, but that's an insult to students' intellect more demeaning than the racial slur.

***

Mr. Telecky understands the instinct to reword Mark Twain. He remembers how uncomfortable it felt 45 years ago, when he introduced "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" to his first class of 10th-graders — all black.

Twain uses the word "nigger" 219 times in "Huck Finn." We know that because a Southern publisher is printing a new edition that makes the novel more "comfortable" to read by replacing the word with "slave" instead.

"Teachers were scared to death of it" even before the dawn of political correctness, Telecky said. "Some wouldn't touch the book."

My teacher talked with his students about the racial slur and its relation to the novel's theme. "I reminded them that if you read carefully, you will see the lesson: You have to make judgments about people based on what you learn. Everything else — color, education, beliefs — is secondary.

"It was a challenge to teach," he recalled, "one you couldn't go around; you had to meet it. We read passages aloud, we used the word. And there was no derision, no snickering. And I was completely bowled over, in every instance, by how mature the students were."

That's because he treated us with respect. And he taught us about books; we didn't just read them.

It might have been harder, I suggested, in a multiracial class with few black students. That's the experience my daughter had. The N-word hits a little harder when classmates stare at you as they read it.

Which brings me to the integration thing.

When I graduated in 1972, John F. Kennedy High was modern, well-kept and middle class, a jewel of Cleveland's school system. Most of our teachers had been there since it opened. They'd taught our siblings, knew our parents and were invested in our success. Race wasn't part of the equation. On a campus of more than 2,000 students, I could count the number of white classmates on my fingers.

In 1976, a federal judge ordered Cleveland to integrate its campuses, ruling that school officials had intentionally drawn the boundaries to keep blacks and whites separate. That led to years of mandatory busing and involuntary teacher transfers, which integrated Kennedy's campus but unraveled its neighborhood bonds.

Neither students, teachers nor parents were happy. Academic standards began to slip. Veteran teachers, uncommonly strict, met resistance from unfamiliar parents. New white teachers let too much slide. Many had never taught mixed classes and hesitated to push black students.

Mrs. McBath remembers seeing A's and Bs appear on report cards of students she knew were struggling: "The teachers thought they couldn't do better."

Which brings me to the principal's adage about failure.

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