The world is in a state of fury because of our last presidential election. In America, more than half of the adult population despises the winner as well as the yahoos who voted for him. The supporters of the losing candidate view those who voted for the winner as retarded (excuse me, mentally challenged), sort of like the hillbilly banjo boys in the movie Deliverance. Those who voted for the winner see the other half as elite, unpatriotic snobs who wanted to turn the country into a socialist state in which the government provides everything one may want for “free.” The fury is palpable; you can feel it at social events like weddings, funerals, and parties.You can also see it on the street where one side or the other wears their sometimes obscene views on their shirts or on the cardboard signs they brandish.
While the commotion raged outside, I had lunch recently with Dan Rottenberg, my editor when I submitted essays during the 80s and 90s to a Center City paper, then called The Welcomat. Most of my essays were about my experience as a Philadelphia public high school teacher. The Welcomat was fun to write for because Dan loved to publish articles on controversial subjects that were almost sure to provoke a usually angry response from readers who would then submit letters or articles themselves. He saw it as a kind of public forum where writers could engage in spirited arguments. Dan believed that conflict was at the heart of the best opinion writing.
I hadn’t seen Dan in years and I enjoyed talking with him about various subjects. I met him at his office and the first thing he brought up was a satirical article that he had written and published in the Welcomat many years ago lampooning me and my essays as angry and bitter. He wrote that I was winner of the “Nobel Prize for Bitterness.”
I don’t remember the details of Dan’s Welcomat piece back then, but years later in 2011 when he became the editor and then president of the on-line Broad Street Review, he wrote about me again. This time he compared my articles to the posts of a blogger named Natalie Munroe, an 11th grade English teacher who was then in the news . Munroe wrote, for example, “My students are out of control. They are rude, disengaged, lazy whiners.” She also described her students as “frightfully dim” and “utterly loathsome.” She added that if allowed, “Her report cards would include comments like, ‘Dresses like a streetwalker’ or ‘I hate your kid’…etc.”
As I said, most of my essays were about my experiences as a teacher and they were sometimes critical of my students, but I never used disrespectful language like that Dan attributed to Natalie Munroe. Moreover, most of my “angry” criticism was aimed not at the students but rather at the many administrators in the system, from the principal on down to the assistant to the assistant to the vice principal in charge of whatever. My essays sought to expose the large number of personnel in the schools who did not teach (or did not teach very much) and who typically were contemptuous of classroom teachers. A number of them were what Tom Wolfe called flak-catchers; that is, they saw their job as appeasing students, parents, and community activists. That their efforts to appease ended up in undercutting teachers was rarely considered. I can think only of one administrator in my years of teaching who considered the poisonous classroom environment such knee-jerk appeasement created.
One example concerns a friend (now unfortunately deceased) who taught Spanish. A student was unhappy about the “unsatisfactory” behavior grade she had received. She went directly to the principal who told her to discuss the grade with the teacher. The teacher explained why he had given her that grade, but that was not enough for her. She went back to the principal, this time with her father. The principal told them to return again to the teacher and discuss the grade with him. They did so, and the teacher explained again. They then went to the principal (this process played out over many days) and demanded a meeting with the principal and the teacher. The principal once again agreed to their demand. Before that however, the principal sent an official summons to the teacher ordering him to attend the meeting and advising him to bring union representation. At that point, the teacher wrote to the principal that he had decided to change the unsatisfactory behavior grade to “excellent” rather than merely satisfactory. He explained to the principal that he was very busy and thus was not able to attend the meeting.
The principal had achieved his goals. He happily cancelled the meeting and informed the student and her father of the “good news.” What the principal wanted was not only to pacify the girl and her father by indirectly forcing the teacher to change the grade, but also to allow the girl and her father the opportunity to figuratively kick the teacher’s rear end a few times. Thus they, the principal hoped, would be satisfied and the principal would be shielded from criticism and reprimand from higher school system officials (whose job was also to appease) and the ever-present community activists to which the student and father would certainly have gone if their demands were not met. Although I remember being unsurprised by my friend’s ordeal, I was still angry.
Back to Dan’s comparison of my essays to the blog posts of Natalie Munroe. Dan asks, “…was Ron James a dedicated teacher venting his legitimate frustrations with a broken system? Or was he taking out his anger on his students and their parents, having ceased to think of them as his clients?” For one thing, public school students are not a teacher’s clients; the taxpayers who pay the salaries of the teachers and everyone else who works in the schools are the clients. Yes the parents are clients, but only to the extent that they actually pay taxes.
Dan said that I sounded “very much like Natalie Munroe” when I wrote that “Many of the students I teach behave as if they have no responsibility at all for their education.” I never saw Munroe’s blog, so I can only go by the examples Dan gives that I cite above. Thus I would conclude: To compare my analysis to Natalie Munroe’s name-calling is nothing short of ridiculous. The examples are not in the same ballpark; they are not even in the same universe!
As I said before, Dan likes to create conflict (and anger). He often does this by baiting people. He is certainly correct that conflict is at the heart of interesting writing, mostly because it provokes anger which produces response. In the Welcomat Dan allowed all sides of an issue to be aired (even responses that were incomprehensible or inane). In doing that, Dan provided a valuable public service which wasn’t and isn’t often provided by “mainstream” newspapers like the Inquirer and (the most powerful exponent of one-sided opinion) the New York Times.
Still, isn’t anger a prime motivation for writers? George Orwell, considered by many to be one of the greatest essayists, wrote: “One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words ‘Socialism’ and ‘Communism’ draw towards them with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, ‘Nature Cure’ quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.” I wonder how today’s university students would react if Orwell were alive and invited to speak at their schools. That line might make even Dan Rottenberg hesitate to publish it. But, to his credit, I think he would.