Mendel Letters 72 — Becoming a Teacher
April 9, 2022
I became a teacher because of you so this letter is another big thank you. I’ve now been teaching for about fifty years. At City College in the 1960s I really thought there was going to be a revolution, not necessarily a violent one, but a revolution of some kind. You argued I needed a back-up plan in case the revolution didn’t pan out. I was a history major so I decided to get my social studies teaching credentials.
The education program at CCNY will surprise no one. After a series of disagreements between us in class, my first education professor said I should never become a teacher and recommended that I drop out of the program. The History of Education professor lectured about things those who remained awake considered irrelevant. The educational psychology professor was enamored with B. F. Skinner and Konrad Lorenz, so he spent all of his time discussing experiments with pigeons and geese rather than discussing how children learn. The social studies methods teacher was especially disappointing. His specialty was operating outdated audiovisual equipment, so we had workshops on each machine. At the end of his class, I swore I would never use an overhead projector in class, even if it meant permanent unemployment. But I did not really have to worry. The first time I worked in a school where I had access to an overhead projector was 1992.
Unfortunately, the early 1970s was not a good time to become a social studies teacher. The job market was clogged with people, many indifferent, who became teachers to avoid the military draft and being sent to Vietnam. I did some subbing while going to graduate school and when I finally got a full-time teaching position it lasted one semester before I was laid-off when New York City went bankrupt in 1975. Two good things came out of this short position. I now knew I really wanted to be a teacher and because I was teaching before the bankruptcy I now have a decent city pension, Tier 2. I think they are now up to Tier 6 with far fewer benefits.
I actually learned to be a teacher working at Camp Hurley, the summer camp of the United Community Centers. I started working as a counselor at Camp Hurley in 1970 and my first summer there was a disaster. Part of the problem is that I started with the wrong expectations and part of the problem was the way the camp was run. The United Community Centers in East New York, Brooklyn that ran Camp Hurley was an interracial organization committed to social change and social justice. I thought families sent their children to Camp Hurley to learn how to organize to build a better world and I was mistaken. Families just wanted an affordable summer camp experience for their kids, kids who knew nothing about the “values” of the camp.
There were two other pretty big problems. The program of the camp, which involved kids in work projects, was developed for teenagers when the Center had a federal juvenile delinquency grant. It was never adapted for younger children. It was just imposed. The other problem was that to raise extra money and keep the camp solvent, the Center offered places to troubled children who were in treatment at local hospitals for serious emotional problems. Staff was never made aware of this and the leadership pretended that problems in the camp were because of our inadequacies rather than the inappropriate curriculum and the difficulties working with some of the kids.
I was committed to being a community organizer and learning to be a teacher and I worked at Camp Hurley during the summer from 1970 until 1974. In 1971 and 1972 I mostly drove the camp bus and truck and led hikes. I did get to take a group of teenagers to see a total eclipse of the sun in 1972.
1973 was the year I learned to be a teacher, when I stopped trying to force campers to fit into assigned boxes and decided I would side with the kids. Camp Hurley had three three-week sessions. The first two sessions I worked with 13-year old boys. Session 1 was pretty successful but during Session 2 the camp director was on my case because some of the campers from Session 1 went home and he blamed me. The second problem was that I had a wicked case of athlete’s foot so after a while I was walking in extreme pain and I took it out on the kids.
Session 3 I was assigned to work with a group of nine and ten year old boys and I made my decision. I was going to side with the kids and fight back against the rigidity of the camp administrators. There was good group cohesion and the kids wanted to go on an overnight hike and camp out, but for some reason they were told no, I don’t remember why. One night during staff meeting there was a ruckus in our cabin and the director sent the program director with me to quiet the kids. As the noise escalated, the program director stormed into the cabin and shouted that everyone had to get out of bed, “You’re going on a night hike.” He meant it as punishment, but when the kids leaped out of bed they were fully dressed, ready for the hike and a chance to sleep out under an open sky on a brilliant starry night. The camp administrators blamed me but I hadn’t planned it. I just went with the flow initiated by the kids.
The next summer I worked with eleven year olds one session and then 13-year olds and I didn’t forget the lesson to side with the kids. That is how I learned to be a teacher. Years later I read a book by Herbert Kohl where he championed what he called creative maladjustment, finding ways to side with the kids in battles with administrators. You follow the rules but interpret them in ways that make it possible for you to do an honest job and for kids to become learners.
Hard copies of these typed letters were discovered in an old camp trunk in the basement storage facility of one of the few buildings that remain standing in this Brooklyn neighborhood. The building is quite decrepit and is scheduled for demolition. The letters were found in November 2048 by a teenager who believes they were written by his great-grandfather. The letters are addressed to Mendel, the letter writer’s father, who appears to have been dead for at least six years when his son, whose name we are unsure of, started to write him. The son appears very agitated in some of the letters. With permission from the family, we are publishing them on the date they were written, only 28 years later.
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