Purity of English
Third Period, instead of office hours and lunch supervision, I agreed to sit in on Donald Pigeon’s Grammar Composition class. Three of us were to observe him: Assistant Principal Preston Packer representing the administration, Jackie Dolan representing the teacher’s union, and me. Parents had complained. We were to determine if there were grounds for disciplining him.
I was surprised when Donald asked me to represent him. We had shared a demountable wall in the English area for fifteen years, but were never close. We never went out for a pint of beer, never talked teaching tips over coffee and doughnuts. He was a St. Louis Cardinals fan. I grew up watching the Cubs. We exchanged baseball lore in the workroom, and that was the extent of our relationship.
The students were quiet when we entered the room. They knew we were coming. And when the bell sounded, the room was silent. That never happened in my classroom.
Donald started his lesson with grammar exercises. In his prime he’d been a pro athlete, but he’d been reduced to a spindly man. His hair had grayed, but not thinned. He wore dress shirts and ties, well-pressed pants, and brilliantly shined oxfords. He was very old school. His plan for the day was measured and precise.
Then, in an instant, the veins in his forehead swelled. His face turned scarlet. His hands tightened on the lectern. In one swift movement he lifted it, and slammed it down on the hardwood floor. A splintering sound accompanied the crash. “I will not tolerate disrespect.”
The students froze. The room was still. I stopped writing my observation notes and watched as raised hands were lowered. Students averted their eyes. The class shrank back in fear.
I’d seen Donald’s outbursts in the English workroom. Sometimes from my adjoining room, I could hear him screaming for silence. But, now, sitting in his classroom, I understood the fear he instilled.
It hadn’t always been that way.
For twenty years he was the most successful baseball coach in school history. Donald had played three years of college ball, followed by four years in the minor leagues finishing his career pitching for the Augusta Pirates. Injuries plagued his last season, so he’d gone back to school, completed his degree, and found a teaching position.
“Yesterday we examined gerunds and participles. Today you are still asking questions. Why?” Donald unclenched the podium and began to pace. “Perhaps you did not listen, or did not take adequate notes. Perhaps you think I am not worth listening to....” He stopped at the window and for a moment glanced at the parking lot below. He was momentarily distracted, and then he turned back to the class. “I am your teacher. I dedicated twenty-four years to this profession. You owe me respect.”
He pointed to a boy in the Abercrombie & Fitch shirt who was trying not to stare. Donald hated being stared at. “Billie Morgan, I taught your father gerunds and participles. He knows them today because of me. You can learn them, too.” He pointed to the girl in the cross-country t-shirt and jeans. “Kristie, your goal is to attend an Ivy League school. Do you think Harvard will want you if you don’t know the difference between an infinitive and a prepositional phrase?” Donald began moving toward the girl. “Don’t make me laugh. Your grade point won’t make any difference if you don’t know the English language.”
“That’s a piece of crap.”
Donald stopped. “Who said that?” He scanned the room. The comment had come from behind him. It was a whisper. He seemed unsure of the voice.
Before my observation, I’d talked with Donald’s students. They never used the word “crap.” There were a lot of words they didn’t use. Students from prior years made lists of forbidden words (“suck,” “gay,” “bitchin’,” etc.) and passed them on to younger brothers or sisters.
“Who said that?” No one blinked. They’d learned to hide their fear. “Fear is a sign of guilt,” Donald had told them. He used a lot of phrases like that. Students wrote them down after class and passed them to their friends.
I looked at my legal pad on the desktop. I was Donald’s colleague. He’d asked me to sit in on this class. The school board was ready to fire him. This observation was the last attempt to save him. And now I knew the students were telling the truth. I, too, would wait until after class to write down my observations. I, too, was afraid he might think I was mocking him.
Donald lowered his voice. It was the tone the students called The Deadly Whisper. “Who said that?” No one answered. “You know that this classroom is reserved for only the purest examples of English. You need to recognize the beauty of language. ‘Crap’ is not beautiful.”
The buzzer sounded announcing the end of the class period. It was eerie. In my class, when the buzzer sounded, students sprinted out the door before the tone ended. I looked around. No one had moved. No one had packed a book. They just waited, silently, until the announcement came. “Class dismissed.” They were careful not to rush, careful not to appear too eager to leave.
I too moved carefully. I put away my pen and picked up the legal pad as Donald approached me. “I think that went pretty well,” he said, smiling. “That will give you something to tell the administration about the respect I command from my students.”
“Yes,” I told him, “I learned a lot.”