Back in the Eisenhower years people viewed education as a spearhead, the tip of which they populated with their academically best and brightest.
Perhaps more than any other state, California bought into that pedagogic view hook, line and sinker! It pushed and prodded its colleges and universities to be the best in the world, and in the process re-invented higher education, from the creation of multi-versities like the University of California system of geographically discrete campuses to huge community colleges in all of its counties.
But it wasn’t only a vision. It was a serious financial commitment funded by billions of taxpayer dollars. Did it pay off? If viewed from an academic perspective, no one could deny its success. Just look at any credible ranking of the world’s best universities. The top tier is littered with California schools.
Did it pay off economically? Just say “Silicon Valley,” a standout among a plethora of other paybacks that have generously rewarded the state’s taxpayers over the years.
California didn’t just limit its dedication to education to post-secondary academies. School districts competed fiercely to place their senior highs in the state’s list of top ten high schools (as judged by the success of their graduates at the Berkeley campus of the University of California).
At the time, Vallejo High stood proudly among that elite top ten. To do so, it practiced academic segregation. It funneled the scholastic top 10% of its student body, deemed to be material for post-secondary education, into “college prep” classes taught by the elite of its faculty.
And what a faculty it was! A successful writer of fiction taught English, a doctor of foreign languages taught Spanish (he later became a professor at highly regarded Mills College) and one Mr. Richard Green, who held a M.A. in history, taught his specialty.
Mr. Green had just come to teaching. A likable fellow with a deep understanding and passion for his subject, I quite enjoyed his classes. He had a gift for making history come alive. He had a sense of humor, a palpable compassion for his students and an infectious enthusiasm for teaching.
In fact, I can remember only two drawbacks to his class … first, it began at 8 a.m., a time I often found to be most inconvenient, and second an irresistible compulsion to tease him.
I don’t know why, but I just couldn’t help it. I’d try diligently to get to his class on time but more often than not fail (a constant source of irritation to him, which I suspect made it even more difficult for me to arrive in a timely fashion). I also couldn’t help but blurt-out comments or wisecracks that would inevitably “get under his skin.”
I sat in the back row of the room, as far back as possible from the over-achievers who populated the front row seats. I’d slouch at my desk, as if totally disengaged, or perhaps sleeping, but I’d be listening trying to come up with a question that would fluster him, or a comment that would pose a paradox that no one could satisfactorily answer.
As I said, I have no idea why I behaved so badly. Perhaps it was attributable to the beatnik stage of life I was traveling through (well worn black sweatshirt, blue jeans and a dog-eared book of poetry my uniform for those years), or maybe it was just a perverse display of affection (I really liked the guy), but there was no avoiding or denying it … it simply had to be.
I can’t remember when I started calling him Richard, but when I did, I broke with the long honored tradition of using titles such as Mister or Miss or Doctor to preface teachers’ surnames. But once started, I couldn’t stop … especially considering how this infuriated him.
However, Richard was a fair minded fellow. His contempt for me didn’t blind him to the fact that I consistently achieved the highest grades in his class. Perhaps that helps to explain why he put up with me, my tardiness and insolence for so long.
But fair minded or not, he couldn’t bring himself around to liking me. His contempt manifested itself following his final exam for the year’s term, before which he announced his intention to award a banana to the “top banana” of all of his classes.
A week after the test, and with much fanfare, he announced that the winner sat in our class. He accordingly went down the front row, banana in hand, “Was it Marjorie? No. Was it Dale? No. Was it Phillip? No.” and so on until he’d exhausted all possibilities in the first two rows.
At that point his face assumed a fearsome aspect. He abruptly wheeled around and yelled, “No! It was Illing!” and threw the banana, speckled with black mold, straight at the impudent beatnik-wannabe in the back row.
I ducked just in time. The banana splattered on the wall behind me. The entire class gasped, not at the unexpected outcome of the final exam, but at Richard’s complete, though momentary, loss of dignity. He quickly regained his composure while the rest of us watched banana slime slide down the wall to its final resting place in the back corner of the large classroom.
I almost felt sorry for him, and had things not gotten so far out of hand I probably would have apologized for the obvious misery I’d caused him over the course of the year. But I couldn’t. I just couldn’t help myself no matter how hard I tried, and though topping the banana escapade would be tough, I did manage to pull it off!
A close friend and I often walked together several miles to and from school (beatniks didn’t ride in yellow school buses!). At the beginning of each academic year we’d hustle down the long corridors of our mega-school opening lockers without padlocks on them, inevitably finding many of them stuffed with various and sundry belongings, including textbooks.
After a week or so of rummaging through lockers, we’d accumulate a complete home library of our textbooks, saving ourselves the drudgery of lugging the heavy books on our long treks back and forth to school. We knew this could be mis-interpreted as theft, but we saw it differently, as a kind of didactic methodology that taught our victims all about the utility of locks and their responsibility to protect the property of the district’s taxpayers.
We also assuaged our consciences by returning the books, anonymously of course, at the conclusion of each term, thus insuring that the aggrieved parties received full credit for any financial loss they may have incurred.
As fate would have it, Mr. Green had issued brand new texts for his class. Consequently, on the final day of school, while returning our books, my opportunity to get back at him for his banana caper presented itself.
I stood patiently in line waiting my turn to return my text, absently dreaming about the summer vacation that lay ahead of me. I had no idea of what was to happen next.
When I reached his desk I handed Mr. Green my book. He took it, looked at it, looked up at me, looked back at it again, and screamed, “Illing! This book hasn’t even been cracked!”
My mind raced. Had my home library scheme been uncovered? Had I been found out? But then inspiration hit me. I leaned down a bit, looked him in the eye and said, “Well, to be perfectly frank Richard, your class really isn’t that hard.”
I tried my best to casually leave the room without looking back, perhaps a bit fearful of another flying banana! But I just couldn’t resist. When I did look back, I saw his face had turned a deep, frightening shade of red, and you could almost see steam venting from his ears!
That’s the last time I saw Mr. Richard Green. But if I were ever see him again, I’d like to apologize for the grief I gave him and tell him what a likable, great teacher I thought he was … but somehow I don’t think I’ll ever get that chance!