Posts Tagged ‘Autobiography’

Reinventing Myself: Spreading My Wings

August 6, 2013

Spreading My Wings:

From uneducated outsider when I left Louisiana, I had become aware of a much wider world. I had seen great cities, met interesting people who barely knew where Louisiana was, and who certainly shared few if any of the concerns that had motivated me when I was growing up. I spoke German as readily as English, if not as grammatically, even thought in German. I discovered that knowing two languages was enough to allow you to travel from Greece and Spain in the south of Europe to Holland and then Denmark, Sweden, and Norway in the north. And everywhere I went, I toured museums, ate the local food, enjoyed conversations with locals. I was not aware of it at the time, but this was an aspect of learning and I had become addicted to that; learn by doing, by observing, by conversing as well as by absorbing books. I was not a skilled practitioner of a lot of things, but I tried to experience as much as possible, history through hiking the countryside and even skiing in the Alps.

Finally, it was time for a change. I had progressed through the Army’s ranks to Chief Warrant Officer, but nothing was ever as satisfying as I had hoped it would be. Optimistic, yes; the new change would be better, right? Instead, there was a certain sameness, old challenges repackaged. There was no real challenge to the me I was becoming. I was offered a ‘regular’ appointment as warrant, but it would mean changing from the system I’d worked on for 20 years, the Nike Ajax/Nike Hercules and attending a course to prep me for duty with the newest Air Defense system, the Patriot. That, in turn, would require that I remain in the Army for the next 4 years at least. I decided that it was time to make a big change while I still was young enough to do that. I declined the regular appointment and became a college student full-time.

I had intended to major in history and teach. Teach I would, but not history; a professor in that department managed to turn me off the subject while one in the department of biology interested me in science. I would graduate in three years with a teaching certificate and certification in various sciences. Along the way, I immersed myself in college; I was often leading the course in grade-point average, leading in class discussions, Joe Student in everything. I joined a ‘fraternity’ for veterans, ran for the Student Council and won, became vice president of several campus clubs including Alpha Chi, the honor society. I was even the MC for the Friday pep rallies for a while!

I had no problems with assuming responsibility, but I never seriously considered politics. It’s not what you accomplish, it’s the mud you crawl through to get there. I had become interested in a group called the Society for Creative Anachronism, SCA, and that would be the framework for several other hobbies for the next 30 years. The experience would be useful later when I began writing.

Teaching was interesting, rewarding, frustrating. I found myself in a strange culture, half American, half Mexican, where students were virtually ALL children of recent Mexican immigrants. Most were as poor as I had been. College had given me no more than a bare framework; I learned to teach in the first two or three years, not by attending lectures or courses but by learning on the job. I learned much of the science of conveying information, especially to unwilling minds, from students. Eventually I became pretty good at it. I also constantly looked for ways to do it better. I became as much investigator and theoretician as teacher.

The new development at the time was in use of computers, and I began this as soon as possible, first using on for record-keeping and grade averaging, then as a tool to develop better lesson plans and eventually to replace most of my chalk-board work with overhead slides from a projector using copies in oversized letters that I’d printed using my computer. I used department funds to purchase a computer for the department and eventually television monitors for visual learning. I acquired a tiny camera that I could use to video record small demonstrations of things such as dissection, running the camera through a VCR and then directly to the twin monitors. I would eventually tie this in with a suite of sensors for the computer that could measure such things as heart rate, light intensity, and many others.

My classroom became open as a ‘safe place’ during lunch periods. I would skip lunch, perhaps munch an apple if I did anything at all, and go for a walk around the quarter-mile track. I lost weight, and I’ve kept it off now for 25 years. After my walk, I would open the classroom and usually it would fill with students, 25 or more of them. They could talk quietly among themselves and amuse themselves playing with the computer and the sensors. There were also videos available for the VCR, but those got little use. It WAS a safe place, and the doors were wide open for any student, any teacher, any parent to come in at any time and observe.

I not only welcomed parents and school officials, I often made them a part of the class. I loved the student interaction, got along well with administrators, got a lot of satisfaction from doing the job and improving things for some of the poorest and most needy people in a poor city. Another teacher and I began a program called ‘No Failures’.

It was simple in concept. For the unmotivated, we would provide motivation. Failure didn’t come from lack of ability among our students, nor from lack of involvement of the teachers; it came because students were drawn to other interests. Some of them included gangs, drugs, and of course sex. They experimented. A few of the 8th grade girls became pregnant before they left middle school, and as many as half of them had one or more pregnancies in high school before they left. Many students dropped out. If you’re not succeeding, why stay?

So the two of us began accepting students for after-school sessions. They were similar to detention, in that attendance for selected ones was mandatory, and any teacher or administrator could assign a student to our program for any reason they chose. Tardy? Sure. Unexcused absences? Why not? Failing a test, not turning in homework, disruption in class, you’re in the program. And we would go to the classroom during last period and escort the student to the program, held in the cafeteria, when they didn’t choose to get there on their own.

It was tutoring at heart despite the resemblance to detention. An arriving student got a worksheet to finish before he/she could leave. We helped as needed; I did science and language and history, my colleague did math. There was more need in that discipline for help than the ones I tutored.

Eventually, using funds supplied by the principal, we would hire other teachers to help when the work load got heavy, and finally we experimented using students as mentors/tutors. For the unwilling, we were prepared to stay there, and keep them there, until they finished the work. For the misbehaving, we brought in parents, usually a mother, to sit there with them while they worked. We simply accepted no excuses, and earned the title: no failures.

A couple of the unproductive ones tried to challenge us early on. We would smile and tell them to just keep sitting; they could take as much time as they needed, we were getting paid by the hour for keeping them, and we needed the money. Thank you for your help. That tactic became unpopular quick, and then the students started working. Come into class, begin work, you could finish and be gone in half an hour or less. Stall, dawdle, daydream, obstruct, it might take two hours. And for misbehavior, we assigned another day in the program.

For the few who needed help, we were soon able to spend one-on-one time with students. It began to make changes in behavior and grades began to turn around.

That year the program was voted by the faculty as the best thing that had happened to the school that year. Surprisingly, it was also voted the best thing by students, including some of the ones who’d been to our program. Someone cared enough not to accept excuses. Someone cared.

And then the bottom fell out. The school had been ‘underperforming’ for years. Poverty, language difficulties, some of them were Mexicans who slipped over the border every day to attend school, whatever, they had not done well. The school board decided, after suggestion from the superintendent, to ‘reconstitute the school’. From principal to janitors, all of us would go elsewhere except for a few selected to remain by the new principal. Neither my colleague nor I were selected; many of the new students were on their first job after finishing college, and the new principal had been a counselor before this appointment. All of them got bonuses for teaching in the school we’d cared so much for, worked so hard to improve. Parents supported us, the old faculty, but it didn’t matter. My colleague and I had been selected to be teacher of the year by the faculty and runner up, but we were booted anyway.

The program we’d developed died.

I continued to teach but never with the sense of satisfaction I’d achieved, and I simply didn’t like the new principal I was assigned to at the new school. He reciprocated. It became a near state of war between us, coldly polite, never a good working relationship. I liked the students, but things were different here. I began applying to teach at a high school, and did that every year until I finally retired. I took courses, became certified to teach any science at any level, kept applying for a transfer without any result.

I finally found out by accident that the principal had been denying my requests for transfer. That was apparently an unwritten policy, the new principal asked the old one if he would approve the transfer. Despite the mutual dislike, he never would. I suspect it was because of standardized test scores; the department I chaired, science, took a ten point jump from 74 to 84% passing rate the first year I got there. I shared everything I had developed with other teachers in my department. The following year test scores went up again, and continued that every year until I retired, finally topping out at 94% one year, remaining over 90% every year thereafter.

I finally bought retirement credits from the Texas Teacher’s Retirement System, based on my years of Army service, and retired. Bittersweet…the principal was forced that year to transfer to a different school.

I retired, and just as when I retired from the Army, I never looked back.

Next: Retired life, and a final reinvention.

Reinventing Myself: the Internationalist

July 28, 2013

I lived an insular life during my first 18 years, although I did not know that at the time. When your horizons are very limited, you simply cannot see larger ones.
The Army sent me to Arkansas and then to Texas, but even so, my early friends shared much of my own culture. Call it Americanism; we soldiers had that. The Army encouraged that mindset.
I drifted for two years between my first and second hitch, finally becoming exposed to college education via a course at Fullerton Junior College in California. When that ended, I went back into the Army. The things I’d disliked about the Army were also present in civilian life, in spades. And with less security, something I sought because of my impoverished early life.
This time, the Army sent me to Chicago. For the first time I left the Sun Belt. It was a revelation in many ways, but not what I expected. Southerners believed that the north was a bastion of liberal equality. Surprise…it wasn’t so. My own attitude continued to evolve.
From Chicago, I went to Germany. I’d been a part of a custodial team that kept federal custody of weapons assigned to the Army’s Illinois National Guard. The first overseas deployment handed me the same job, except that this time it was the German Luftwaffe rather than the ING.
I had no knowledge of Germany other than that it was in Europe and we had fought a bloody war that had ended just 20 years before. I married in Chicago, and both my wife’s parents were veterans of WWII; she, part of the British armed forces and later a war bride, had been a radar operator who via the Chain Home stations watched the raids from German bombers as they formed up in France. He was a combat vet, infantryman, who had made all three of the big assault landings by the famed 1st Infantry Division. He’d gotten severely wounded a number of times and still suffered from what’s now called PTSD. One of those happened on Omaha Beach; he’d been shot by a German. Getting the picture? I was ignorant and suspicious. Not that the Army cares; unlike the German services who come to the US for overseas deployment, the US just dumps soldiers in to sink or swim. I learned to swim.
Green, trying to figure out just what I was supposed to be doing and where I was, I was handed a train ticket for four and told I was in charge. Specialist 4 is a rank equivalent to corporal as far as pay is concerned, but you are actually more of an overpaid private. You have few responsibilities other than to do what you’re told. Now I was responsible not only for myself but for three others, all of us equally bewildered. We couldn’t read the signs or even converse with people. Complicating this, we were going away from the zone of Germany where Americans were common; instead, we joined a German batterie, several hundred airmen and about 25 Americans attached to them. I got them safely to where they were supposed to go, an astonishing feat in a way!
My wife could not accompany me there, but I would be able to bring her over later. Sp4’s aren’t provided family support, or weren’t then.
Fortunately, the German airmen I worked with often spoke excellent English. For the first time, I got to know well people who weren’t American. The airmen had trained at Fort Bliss, just as I had. Germany had a base on that post. So we began with something in common.
Germans considered most of our issues to be quaint and thought we’d work our way through them. Politics? They loved it, but of the European variety. I began to widen my horizons because of the contrast. I was curious and began to pick up a few words of German. A promotion got me permission to bring my Wife over and we moved into a temporary apartment owned by a widow. She had two adult or near-adult children.
At that time Americans didn’t ask what had happened to her husband. I was still a bit suspicious, but I was learning.
Frau Tigges couldn’t have been sweeter to us. We couldn’t converse, but by sign language and a few words we gained understanding. And if I was bewildered by this strange country, my wife was even less equipped to deal with the strange customs and restrictions that the military authorities placed on how we acted in this host country.
Frau Tigges became her second mother, and a grandmother to our small family after my son was born. We adjusted to our new addition. Frau Tigges might say nothing; a knock, and then an arm comes in and takes a pail of dirty diapers out for washing, to come back later clean and folded. We didn’t ask for her to do this; she understood. Forty five years later, I still hold affection and gratitude to that sweet old lady.
Back to the states for a tour at Fort Bliss, then back to Germany. That was the pattern of my remaining career. During the second tour, I met a German family. Our tiny custodial team put on the traditional Thanksgiving feast of turkey and the usual trimmings. We were allowed to bring one guest each, but I was by now a senior NCO and Team Sergeant, what would be First Sergeant in a battery or company sized unit. So I invited two guests and their families. We had become friendly and I’d kept working on learning German.
One of my guests pointed out the failing of our security sergeant. He’d decided it was his duty to invite the First Sergeant of the German batterie we supported, and had then abandoned him and his wife. Essentially, he’d pointed them to the dining hall and ignored them thereafter. So Wolfgang and Gisela joined us.
They essentially adopted me from that point on. Wolfgang became my best friend, and they decided I shouldn’t be spending my weekends alone in a room in a barracks. On weekends, it was understood that Jack was a guest at the Sauer’s and I slept on their couch. Finally Wolfgang arranged a room for me in the NCO wing of the German Kaserne in Delmenhorst. I became an honorary member of the German NCO Corps.
For the next two years, I spent Monday through Friday working with Americans. Friday night until Monday morning, I lived as a German. I barely spoke a word of English during weekends, usually when a German insisted that I do so in order for him to practice learning English. I also traveled through Germany, usually with one of my German buddies. History, art, even literature; I read German magazines and newspapers.
By the time I returned for my third deployment, I conversed readily about politics and international issues such as the partition between the DDR, East Germany, and the FRG, West Germany. I met Norwegians and Dutch and French and Swedes as my wife and I visited around Europe. English and Scots, too, and Italians and Spaniards and Swiss and Greeks…I have many good memories of Europe.
I had first gone to Europe ignorant and suspicious. I had changed. I was ready to reinvent myself for the third time.
Next: extending my wings.