January 15th, 2008

Commentary: On Rewriting, Character Education, and the Future of America

On Rewriting, Character Education, and the Future of America

By John Merrow
Published: January 2008 / Independent School Magazine

After college in the mid-1960s, I spent two years as a high school English teacher at Paul D.
Schreiber High School in Port Washington, New York. Although I have been around educators
most of my professional life and currently work as the education correspondent for The
NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, these would be the only years I taught high school full time. So it
was to my great surprise when, in 2006, 40 years after I last entered a Schreiber classroom, some
former students invited me to their 40th high school reunion. How could they possibly remember
me, I thought? And how could I turn down such an opportunity? I accepted the invitation and
prepared myself for a sentimental stroll down memory lane. What the day ended up offering me,
however, was something altogether different: a powerful reminder of the lasting influence
teachers have on the lives of the young, as well as some insights into where education in this
democratic nation has missed the mark in recent years.

Like most high schools in the 1960s, Paul D. Schreiber High School was rigidly tracked. As a
new teacher fresh out of college, I wasn’t allowed near the top two tracks of college-bound
students, the “ones” and “twos.” Instead, I was assigned what the administration called “threes”
and “fours,” students we weren’t supposed to expect much from. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have
a philosophy of education or any real plan at the time. I didn’t know how I was supposed to
approach “these kids.” So I did with my students what William Sullivan — my English teacher at
Taft School (Connecticut) during my junior and senior years — had done for me.
Another former student, who described himself as a “classic underachiever,” said he had been so
angry about being forced to rewrite his term paper that he swore he would show me by making
something of himself. He’s now a lawyer. Mr. Sullivan would be proud.
I made my kids rewrite and rewrite again, as often as necessary, until their themes and essays
were well written and persuasive.

I hadn’t learned how to be a teacher while I was in college. I had majored in English, not
education. But I had an image of Mr. Sullivan in my head, and, because I thought he was an
effective teacher, I consciously adopted some of his techniques. Mr. Sullivan demanded our
absolute best and didn’t cut anyone any slack. He wasn’t mean, but he could be caustic even as he
was encouraging us. He would give what he called the “2-8-2″ writing test almost daily. He
would write a phrase on the board, tell us we had two minutes to think about it, eight minutes to
write, and then the final two minutes to proofread what we had written. The top grade was a 10,
but any significant error in spelling or punctuation meant a zero. If we were writing dialogue and
wanted a character to speak in incomplete sentences, we had to mark these “sentence errors” with
asterisks to let him know we knew the difference. At the end of the grading period, he threw out
our lowest 5 or 10 grades, as I recall, but that didn’t lessen the pressure of each 2-8-2.

I still remember some of the phrases Mr. Sullivan used as writing prompts: “Turn out the light. I
don’t want to go home in the dark.” These, he said, were the dying words of someone named
William Sydney Porter. What could they mean? Was he delusional or somehow insightful?
(Later he told us that Porter was better known as O. Henry). And there was an enigmatic line
from Othello — “Put out the light, and then put out the light” — that we had to wrestle with,
long before we actually read the play itself.

So there I was in 1966 at Paul D. Schreiber High School, teaching “threes” and “fours,” kids
who, for the most part, didn’t want to be in English class, didn’t read poetry or care about
Shakespeare. Truth is, I didn’t want to be there either. I had been accepted into the Peace Corps
and was heading for Kenya or Tanganyika or Zanzibar, but, when I couldn’t pass the physical, I
had to find a new direction. (I had had a spinal fusion operation right after graduation and wore
an elaborate back brace for my first semester at Schreiber).

But I was lucky. At Schreiber, I found some very supportive colleagues, a department chair who
wanted us to be successful teachers, and a treasure trove of back issues of the magazine put out
by the National Council of Teachers of English, chock full of techniques and lesson plans.
So I was a Sullivan imitator for two wonderful years and then left for graduate school at Indiana
University. After Indiana, I taught again, this time at a black college in the South and in a federal
prison at night. Perhaps, by this time, there was a little bit of Merrow in my teaching, but most of
it was still Sullivan along with whatever I had learned from my Schreiber colleagues.

I offer this background as prologue to the Class of 1966’s 40th reunion. That night, I learned that
the teachers who had influenced me also influenced my students, often in very specific ways. In
other words, good teaching has legs.

Throughout the evening, I met former students, found their pictures in the yearbook, and asked,
after a while, “What’s your story?” Wow, the things they told me, and the valleys and hills they
described — but even the sad stuff was bathed in survivor’s light. As I listened, I learned a lot
about myself as a teacher.

The first person to come up to me — calling me Mr. Merrow, even though we were both in our
60s — and thanked me for helping him become a writer. “You made us rewrite everything,” he
said, “and later on, when I realized that I had something to say, I knew that I would be able to
say it clearly, as long as I rewrote it.” I asked what sort of things he wrote about. Transgender
issues mostly, he said. When I started leafing through the yearbook to find his picture, he said, “I
was a girl then.” Sure enough, “Dana” had become “Steve.” That development would certainly
have shocked Mr. Sullivan, but he would have been happy about the rewriting.

A woman came up to me and began reciting the lyrics of the Beach Boys song, “Fun, Fun, Fun.”
(”She’s got her daddy’s car, she can cruise to the hamburger stand now; she forgot all about the
library, like she told her old man now.”) She told me that I taught them poetry by starting with
popular songs, and then got them to read “Renascence” by Edna St. Vincent Millay and the war
poetry of Wilfred Owen. Details I didn’t recall.

Another former student, who described himself as a “classic underachiever,” said he had been so
angry about being forced to rewrite his term paper that he swore he would show me by making
something of himself. He’s now a lawyer. Mr. Sullivan would be proud.

Did I remember, one student wanted to know, my campaign to elevate the level of bathroom
graffiti? I had no clue what he was talking about, but learned from him that I had done something
Mr. Sullivan might have done under the same circumstances. My classroom had been next to the
boys’ room, while the faculty bathroom was two corridors away; so I used the boys’ room. The
bathroom walls had been covered with the usual profanities and, my student told me, one day in
class I had semi-seriously encouraged the students to “upgrade the graffiti” with lines from
Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot, Edna St. Vincent Millay, and others. It caught on, and “To be or not to
be” replaced “Schreiber Sucks.” “Not with a bang but a whimper” took the place of “Susie Does
it with Dogs,” and so on. Before long, we had bathroom walls that would have been the envy of
any university town coffeehouse.

But it wasn’t just the fact that, as a teacher, I was obsessed with rewriting that came to light at the
reunion. That night, I discovered that I had unconsciously absorbed from Mr. Sullivan another
important lesson about teaching — the importance of empathizing without lowering standards.
Here’s what happened. Before the reunion, I had gone through the 1966 yearbook to see how
many faces and names I could remember. One face jumped out at me, a young man named

Sandy whose life, I knew, was awful beyond belief. His divorced parents were drunks. One day
his mother had drowned while intoxicated, and Sandy had been ordered by a court to live with
his father on a boat in the harbor. I knew that his dad, a mean drunk, regularly beat and otherwise
abused him. A guidance counselor and I used to talk about how powerless we felt. I can
remember looking at him in class and wondering how he held his life together. Now I was
hoping to find out that he had made it.

Late in the evening — actually it was as I was leaving to go home — a man standing outside
said, “Mr. Merrow?” It was Sandy. He told me that he left home immediately after graduating,
went into the service, and was now retired and living in Arizona. He said he was driving a school
bus, just to keep busy. He asked if I had known about his family, and I told him how hard it had
been not to be sympathetic and understanding and cut him some slack on assignments. But he
thanked me profusely for not letting him slide, for treating him like a regular student. I know
now that that’s exactly how Mr. Sullivan would have treated Sandy, but it was a pleasant shock
to discover that I had, unknowingly, done the right thing.

Sandy then related an anecdote about how on a Sunday I had seen him tooling around on his
motorcycle and had called out to remind him of the huge English assignment due on Monday!
He said that he actually had been working on it all that morning and was just taking a quick
break, but that he went back immediately and finished it! Once again, a reminder of the influence
of teachers. And once again, an incident that I have no memory of at all.

He also told me that, just a few months earlier on his school bus, a 15-year-old girl he’d gotten to
know pretty well (well enough to know that her 16th birthday was approaching) told him that she
didn’t really expect to celebrate that birthday. He read her tone, correctly as it turned out, as a
warning sign and went to the high school and spoke to a counselor. The girl not only made it to
her 16th birthday, but also got counseling and straightened out. Sandy rightly felt that he made
his contribution. It struck me that Sandy had been able to do for that troubled girl what his
guidance counselor and English teacher hadn’t been able to do for him 40 years ago.

The girl Sandy helped may never know what he did for her, but hearing the story reminded me,
for the hundredth time that night, that we are a part of all we touch, and what seems a small and
forgettable gesture or action to us may have a deep and lasting impact on another’s life. In that sense, we are all teachers.

That night, I came to understand that, more than 40 years earlier, I had not accepted the
administration’s label (”threes” and “fours”) for these kids, but had expected them to become
competent writers who could be moved by the power of words. That is what my teachers
expected of me, and I could hardly do less for them. In truth, I didn’t really know another way.
Of course, I also know from my current work in education that I had a great deal of latitude to
shape my classes as I saw fit. Most teachers today don’t have the freedom to do what I did. While
my job was to prepare students to pass the New York State Regents Exam, we did not have a
step-by-step curriculum or regular bubble tests, and I was free to innovate. Our curriculum had
enough slack in it to allow me to insist upon rewriting, and more rewriting.

In my work for The NewsHour, I spend a lot of time with teachers, some of whom have stayed in
touch over the years. A few months ago, I received an e-mail message from a veteran special
education teacher in Maryland, a woman I know to be dedicated and competent. She wrote that
her school had failed to make what the No Child Left Behind Act calls “adequate yearly
progress” for the second year in a row and, because of that, they are going to teach to the test —
because if they don’t make AYP this year, the school may be shut down. She is clearly distraught
by this Sophie’s Choice. She wrote, “In teaching to the test, I am afraid that we are raising a
nation of idiots who may be able to pass standardized assessments without being able to think. I
am trying to keep focused on the fact that we are educating the citizens of our nation’s future,
which is not necessarily compatible with the vision of No Child Left Behind.” I ache for that
woman, and I am angry that we have put her, and many thousands like her, in that position.

The teaching mission is complex and difficult, and yet oh so vital. Teachers can never put up a
“Mission Accomplished” banner, because they are a bridge, not an endpoint, for all the boys and
girls — and the young men and women — who come into their lives. Their involvement doesn’t
begin or end at the classroom door; or when they’ve covered Newton and Galileo, the 100 Years
War, or the past perfect tense; or even when the semester ends. Good teachers do a lot of
counseling on the run in casual interactions and they do a lot of listening, often in fits and starts.

Good teachers let kids talk about their feelings without saying “I know how you feel,” because
they know it’s always about their students’ experiences, not their own. They work with kids who
are a mixture of self-absorption, insecurity, raging hormones, and ambition. They may have to
face parents who want their offspring to get into the Ivy League and have jobs they can boast
about, but the teachers’ job is to help their students build a self, create the entity that will be their
company throughout their lives. That’s why the best teachers listen to students and draw out their
thinking, but don’t try to solve every problem. That’s why the best teachers empathize and care
deeply about the individual, but never lower standards or expectations.

Some teachers believe, incorrectly, that they can improve a student’s self-esteem with words and
other easy expressions of praise (like high grades) even though the student isn’t doing the best
work he or she can. The wisest know that accomplishment is the foundation of self-esteem.
Students know when they’re doing their best, and they know when they’re being allowed to cut
corners. They may complain that their teachers are expecting too much, but good teachers know
enough not to listen to that particular complaint.

But, today, it’s not enough for outstanding teachers to teach and listen well. Their real challenge
is to consciously push students out of their comfort zone. In a way, it’s a “value added” issue. Let
me put it this way: In America, unless a teacher works with the poor — in urban areas,
Appalachia, or wherever — most of his or her students are sufficiently well-off children of the
richest society the world has ever known. What can and should teachers do to ensure that the
talents and gifts they work to maximize in their already privileged students are put to use in the
service of others?

It’s not enough to equip these students to do well. These students need to learn to do good, to
contribute to society, to serve.

H. G. Wells observed that civilization is a race between education and catastrophe. Right now,
catastrophe seems to be in the lead — and perhaps pulling away. In public education, the U.S. is
suffering from a kind of bipolar disorder. We have, increasingly, two worlds — the comfortable
and smug world of wealthy (or “suburban” or “upper middle class”) public schools, and the
underfunded and inefficient schools in which the poor are isolated. Schools for the poor are most
often dreary institutions with heavy emphasis on repetitive instruction and machine-scored
bubble tests. Although some poor schools are vibrant places of innovation and discovery, that is
not necessarily a cause for celebration; what it means is that reformers get to experiment on the
poor, who don’t have the political clout to control their own schools or reject the do-gooders.
While we have some wonderful public schools, the trend lines in public education are

Why expect teachers to do this work? First, because they can. Teachers are uniquely positioned,
as I have learned recently, to make a lasting impression on hundreds of children. All they need is
enough professional support and guidance, on the one hand, and enough leeway to make lasting
connections. Second, because no one else seems willing to accept the challenge today.
In truth, I find myself becoming fearful for our country, something I never ever expected to
happen. I see a nation that is fragmented, confused, and adrift. I lived through the divisiveness of
the Vietnam War era and the selfishness of the Reagan years, but this seems worse. Cynicism
(”all politicians are crooked”), indifference (”I don’t care who wins the election”), and a
frightening willingness to accept authority blindly (religious fundamentalism) are on the rise,
along with a growing gap between rich and poor.

When that mood strikes, I turn in two directions. If it’s 3 o’clock in the morning, what the poet
called “the dark night of the soul,” I turn to the “self” that my teachers and my parents helped me
build. Inside my head, part of that “self,” are the likes of John Keats, Tennyson, and E.E.
Cummings; Bach and Mozart; Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Dave Brubeck; Shakespeare,
Mark Twain, and F. Scott Fitzgerald; Picasso and Renoir. That’s good company, the moment
passes, and I get up to try again.

Or, if it’s daytime, I go to a school and feed off the energy and youthful optimism of students and
the dedication of the best teachers. I regain my balance and optimism and leave rejuvenated.

I left that 40th high school reunion reminded of the special place that teachers occupy in the lives
of children and young people — especially those who haven’t had many advantages in life.
Society needs to acknowledge this truth and trust teachers to do more of the character-building
work that is an unspoken but vital part of their mission.

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1 comment

At the Kennedy Center, we are constantly struggling to balance providing resources for teachers and resources directly to the student. I appreciate this reminder that teachers are at the core of education and if teachers do not have the latitude to unlock the potential of the individual then we, as a nation, are lost.

I try to remind my staff to not get mired in office politics and school politics and the myriad of issues that try to bog down the important work we all have to do. We have to ensure that the young people of this nation are pushed to reach their fullest potential or, at the very least, are given the opportunity for a glimmer about what their potential for the future may be. I, too, am trouble that we are going to end up with young people who are well tested but not well educated.

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