Category Archives: Serial

Symphony 74

Neil opened Tuck Everlasting to the place he had left off and began reading. Lorraine did not relax. That was Neil’s second warning that things were not going well, so he kept one eye on his book and the other eye on Jesse.

Jesse opened his desk and pulled out a paper, rolled it up and threw it across at T. J. Nelson. Neil stopped reading and looked at Jesse, then rolled his chair back to the chalkboard and wrote Jesse’s name there. He said, “First warning.”

“Why?” Jesse said in hurt tones.

“For throwing that paper wad at T. J.”

“I didn’t throw any paper wad!”

A weak or lazy teacher would have ignored the paper wad; a self-righteous one would have suspended the boy for implying that his teacher was lying. Neil had always tried to steer a middle course, so he said sternly, “I have eyes, Jesse. Don’t push your luck.”

Neil returned to his reading, but the mood was spoiled for him and for the class. Whatever he read to them now would have little effect. They were too busy thinking about Jesse.

Jesse opened his desk, took out another piece of paper, and slammed the lid down hard. Lorraine jumped and tried to slide still farther from him, but she was already on the edge of her chair.

Neil laid his book aside and the classroom became ominously silent.

Neil locked eyes with Jesse, but the boy would not look away. Very few of his students, here or in high school, had ever had the power to infuriate him, but this boy did. Neil took his time before responding, fighting down his anger and trying to be fair. 

Yet deep inside he knew he was not being fair. In order to overcome his own growing dislike of the boy, he was leaning over backward to avoid punishing him.

“Come here, Jesse.”


“Get up here!”

Even then, Jesse rose and walked to the front with deliberate, taunting slowness. Neil remained seated so that their eyes were on the same level and spoke with a calmness he did not feel. “You deliberately slammed your desk top in order to disrupt the class. What’s wrong with you today?”

Jesse shifted fluidly from defiance to a shuck-and-jive act. He lowered his head and looked hurt. He said contritely, “I didn’t mean to.”

Their relationship had gone too far for Neil to believe that, or for him to overlook so transparent a lie. He said, “You did mean to. You wanted everyone in the class to look at you — again. You wanted to be the center of attention. Well, you’ve got my attention now. This is your second warning, and if you get one more I’ll not only give you a detention, I’ll also send you home.”

“You hate me!”

“No, Jesse. If I hated you, you would be long gone by now. I am bending over backwards to avoid giving you detentions, but you aren’t helping me any.”

Jesse lowered his head still further and sounded still more pitiful when he said, “You do, too.”

Neil had to pause for a deep breath. Once Jesse’s false accusations would have filled him with guilt, but he was on to the game now and it only made him more angry. Yet he did not want to suspend the boy for something as subjective as attitude.

Neil kept his voice as calm as he could and said, “Sit down.”

As Jesse moved back toward his seat, he muttered, “Fucking bastard!”

Neil gripped the edge of his desk until the veins stood out on his forearms. He would not lose his temper — but, of course, he had already lost it. more tomorrow


Symphony 73


There was a poster on the wall in every classroom at Kiernan School which read, “Every student has the right to learn. Every teacher has the right to teach.”

Discipline at Kiernan School worked on the principle that the children could understand this concept if it was taught to them. By the sixth grade, most of them had accepted it. If they argued against reprimands or detentions, it was usually because they didn’t think a situation had been bad enough to warrant the punishment. Most of them accepted the underlying concept.

They accepted it but, being children, they often forgot it.

Neil had not used a formal discipline system in high school, but his students had not been eleven years old. By November, Neil had given out dozens of detentions. Tony Caraveli had gotten four of them, but he had also gotten the message. Jesse Herrera had gotten seven and it had done him no good at all.

In the last days before Christmas, Neil could have given twenty detentions, but in fact he gave none. The children’s minds were far afield, and he could not blame them for it.

Jesse Herrera was a different case. Whatever his problem was, Christmas had nothing to do with it.

Before he got to Neil’s room, Jesse was already in deep trouble. He tripped a teammate in soccer during P.E.. He got two warnings in Mrs. Clementi’s history class. He irritated Glen Ulrich so badly that he gave him a detention and set him outside his room for the last half of the math period. That seemed to undo what little self-control Jesse normally had. In science, he leaped up in the middle of Fiona’s presentation and flew around the room making jet plane sounds and slapping his classmates on the head as he went by. Fiona did not make much use of the detention system; she tended to scream instead. This time she yelled at Jesse for a solid five minutes in a voice that would have cracked polar ice.

It was just a matter of time before reports of his behavior trickled in to Bill Campbell. Each teacher had seen only a piece of the picture, but Bill would see it all, so Jesse’s fate was sealed before he ever came to Neil’s class. And if it had not already been sealed, it soon would have been.

Jesse came into class with a face that would have curdled milk and threw himself into his seat. When Lorraine Dixon sat down in her seat next to him, she eased over as far from him as she could get. This byplay was not lost on Neil. He said to Jesse, “What’s up, Jess? Problems?”

“Lorraine’s bugging me,” Jesse said petulantly.

Neil had a hard time not smiling. Lorraine looked helplessly at Neil, but she was too shy to say anything in her own defense. She did not need to; the idea of her bothering Jesse, instead of the reverse, was too absurd to take seriously.

Neil decided to lighten up the tension he felt in the air. He turned to Lorraine and said in mock seriousness, “Lorraine, leave that poor boy alone!” There was enough humor in his voice to leave no doubt he was joking. The class giggled; Lorraine turned pink and smiled.

The class was accustomed to Neil using humor to defuse situations. That should have been the end of it. This time, however, he had misjudged the depth of Jesse’s anger. more tomorrow

Symphony 72

Neil was a little hurt by her response, until he saw moments later that she was wiping a tear from her eye. Sometimes — often — he didn’t know what to make of her.

“Carmen, I don’t want to give these presents at school. I don’t like to have the other kids feel that I’ve singled some of them out. Can you help me see that they get them?”

“Do you want to take them to their homes?”

“I’d rather stay behind the scenes. Could you see to it that they get them? Or I could take care of the little ones, but would you see to it that Rosa gets the jacket?”

“Why don’t you do it yourself?”

“I don’t want to intrude.”

She looked closely at him and said, “Are you sure that’s the reason?”

He shrugged.

“Have you been out at the apartments?”

“I drive by them every day, but I’ve never been in one of them.”

“Why not?”

“I’ve never had reason to go. I’ve never been in one of my rich kids’ homes, either.”

“Don’t you want to see how they live?”

“Yes,” Neil admitted, “I really do, but I don’t want to look like big bwana coming in to look at the native village.”

Carmen shook her head in mild dismay. “Neil,” she said, “I think you’re more ashamed of their poverty than they are.”

# # #

The next day a substitute taught while Neil attended the cooperative learning seminar. It was a pleasant surprise. After the fiasco in Oakland, Neil had expected a wasted day, but this was not so rarified or theoretical. It was a nuts and bolts approach that could be utilized immediately in the classroom. The presenters were convinced that cooperative learning was an answer to all the problems in education. They did not convince Neil that it was, but they convinced him to try it.

He went back to his apartment that night and made a list of his students, ranking them as high, medium, or low performers, then grouped them in fours with one high, one low, and two medium performers in each group. Then he rearranged them so that each group had a balance of Chicanos and Anglos, and of boys and girls. He made up a seating chart to show where his groups would be in the new room arrangement.

When he had finished it did not seem so different. He said aloud to the empty apartment, “I hope it works.”

He would find out in January.

# # #

Christmas inched closer. The children were ready for vacation and their attention wandered at any excuse. Juan Rogers went back to Mexico for the winter, and Joaquin Velasquez followed three days later. Attendance had never been great at Kiernan; by the week before Christmas, it was not uncommon for one fourth of the students to be gone on any given day. Neil preached the values of school attendance and all but tore his hair out in frustration; it did no good.

The children’s minds went on vacation a week before their bodies were allowed to follow.

Then, two days before vacation, Jesse Herrera went on a rampage.

Symphony 71

Neil ended up having a great time. Mrs. de la Vega was past the worst of her illness and her zest for life had returned. She waited until Carmen had gone out, then got up and cooked Neil a delicious Mexican meal, ignoring his protests, and carrying on a one sided conversation in Spanish. Only their gestures and laughter were bilingual.

Carmen chewed him out royally for letting her mother out of bed. Neil said, “How was I to stop her?” Carmen had to admit that it would have been impossible.

Several days later, Carmen came in to see his can tree. She had only just heard of it from Delores. She said, “Why didn’t you tell me what you were doing? I would have been glad to help.”

“I really didn’t do that much,” Neil explained. “Stephanie Hagstrom and her mother were the force behind it, and Delores agreed to do the distribution for us.”

“How did you ever get it started? I’ve tried to get my seventh graders to have some social conscience all year, and I’ve gotten nowhere.”

Neil explained about the candy trick. She said, “Good. Good. We need more of that kind of thing.” Then she gave him a dazzling smile, looked around to see that no students were near, and gave him a quick kiss.

“”What was that for? Not that I’m complaining.”

“That, Neil McCrae, is because you are a nice guy.”

“It took you long enough to notice.”

Her gaiety went away. Neil said, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. I don’t want to talk about it.”

“Are you sure?”

She nodded. “Someday I will,” she promised, “but not just now.”

They left together in Carmen’s car because they had a date to do some Christmas shopping at the mall. Neil had to get gifts for his mother and grandfather because this year school was running all the way to the twenty-third. He would have a day to drive to Oregon and no time to shop once he got there.

While they were walking through J. C. Penney’s, Neil said, “You know Rosa Alvarez?”


“If you had to, could you pick out clothes that would fit her?”

“I guess so. Why?”

“She’s kind of chubby.”

“I know what she looks like. Why did you ask if I could pick out clothes for her?”

“Do you think her parents would mind if I bought her a jacket? She has been coming to school without one and it is really getting cold in the mornings.”

“I’m sure they wouldn’t mind, Neil. I could let them know so they won’t buy her one for Christmas, if they had planned to. When did you decide to do this?”

Neil shrugged, feeling embarrassed for no good reason. “I don’t know, she just looks so miserable every morning. She always heads for my room to warm up.”

Carmen smiled. “She doesn’t come there just to warm up. You have a fan club.”

That embarrassed Neil even more and Carmen laughed again.

Carmen bought the jacket for him. It was nothing Neil would have chosen, but she assured him it was stylish as well as warm.  He bought lesser presents for a dozen of his other students whose parents were poor. Carmen said, “Can you afford all this?”

“The only other people I have to buy for are my mother and grandfather.”

“And me!”

“Well, that goes without saying.”

“Say it anyway.”

He faced her suddenly and drew her back between some racks of clothing. His face was serious as he said, “Carmen, you are very precious to me. If I haven’t said it before, I’m saying it now.”

“Wow!” She put her hand on his chest and kissed him quickly. Then she pulled away and said, “People are looking. I don’t want the kids to catch us necking behind the lingerie.” more Monday

Symphony 70

“Anne Marie Chang has been teaching and researching reading for twenty-five years. She knows what she is talking about.”

“Maybe for some kids. Maybe for some schools, but not this one. Half of my kids can’t read, and that has to take priority over some half-baked ideas about cultural literacy. When I first started here I had all the kids at one level and half of them were miserable, frustrated, and unable to succeed. I gave them materials at their level, and they started reading. That’s the bottom line.”

“That’s your bottom line. The state’s bottom line is that leveling labels children, and those labels become so embedded in their thinking that they can never succeed.”

“Anne Marie Chang was labeled and it didn’t stop her from succeeding. Kids know what they are. If you put non-readers with readers, they just get their noses rubbed in their own inabilities.”

It was an old argument, and they didn’t resolve it; but when reason cannot solve a problem, force does. Bill told Neil he had to change his methods.

“Fine,” Neil replied. “Show me something that works and I will change to it.”

They parted on that unsatisfactory note, and two days later Neil found another note in his mailbox. This one said, “I have enrolled you in a cooperative learning seminar being put on by the county board of education on Monday. It is the only alternative to leveling anyone has been able to find. Go to the seminar, and then make it work in your classroom. I will evaluate you again in two weeks.”

Neil discussed the matter with Carmen, but neither of them could see any way out of the impasse. There were things to be said for both sides of the argument. And frankly, it did not interest them much. They both had experience enough to know that any theory is only a partial solution at best. This one was being forced upon them, so they would ride with the tide until it reversed, as tides and theories always do.

Neil continued teaching in leveled groups, hoping to get in a few more weeks of effective instruction. Meanwhile, he had more interesting and valuable things on his mind. The morning after his candy trick, Stephanie had come to him with a proposition. Her church collected cans for the needy every Christmas. She thought their class should do the same thing.

Neil thought it was a wonderful idea. He called Mrs. Hagstrom and discussed it with her to make sure that the parents would not have any objection. The biggest problem Stephanie’s project presented was identifying the needy in the community and getting food to them without putting them in the spotlight. Fortunately, Delores Zavala had lived in the district all her life and knew every adult, child, car, cat, dog, and everyone’s financial condition. She proved invaluable and Stephanie turned out to be an eleven year old dynamo. Within three days she had organized all her friends, and their friends, and their friends.  That meant every child in the sixth grade. Two weeks after the idea was born, there was a seven foot stack of canned goods in the corner of Neil’s classroom.

# # #

December was a busy month for them all, but particularly for Carmen whose mother became ill and began to take all her spare time. After two weeks Carmen was looking tired and complaining that she wasn’t getting any Christmas shopping done. Neil offered to sit with her mother to give her an evening off. Carmen accepted and Neil found, to his surprise, that Maria de la Vega spoke no English. Carmen had been so much at ease in her job, and so confident in the world she shared with him, that he had assumed her family was educated and English speaking. more tomorrow

Symphony 69

(Continuing Stephanie’s response.)

But sometimes I guess they don’t have much choice. Like if they have lost their jobs and they don’t have much money. I think it would be sad to live like that and I am glad my Daddy has a good job so we can live in a nice house and have nice things.

Your class made me see what it would be like to not have anything and to see other people get things. I wouldn’t like that, but I guess I needed to see it, so thank you Mr. McCrae for showing me.

Rosa had written:

We used to have a lot at Christmas until my daddy lost his job, but we are still luky I guess cause we have more than some other poeple have  We hav plenty to eat even if it is beans alot of the time. I like beans anyway  and if I don’t get nothing for chirismas this year thats alright because I got a lot last year.

It would be easy, Neil thought, to see Stephanie as spoiled and Rosa as some kind of angel, but that wasn’t so. They were both just sweet eleven year old girls who hadn’t had much experience in the world. Giving them some of that experience was Neil’s job.

# # #

Bill Campbell showed up for a surprise evaluation on Monday the fifth. He came in as the tardy bell was ringing and said, “I want to see the children read. If this isn’t the hour you have it scheduled, tell me and I will come back, but I want to see it today.”

Neil said, “I normally read to them for about ten minutes and then they read.”

Campbell sat down at the back of the class and waited, clipboard in hand.

Neil went ahead with the morning’s work. He read to them for ten minutes, then told them to get out their reading books. They took them and moved with no further command to separate areas of the room.

Bill Campbell sat up and frowned. He caught Neil’s eye, but Neil only shrugged.

Neil worked with each reading group in turn. Bill Campbell sat silently, making occasional notes on his clipboard, and twice he moved over to sit close beside a reading group. When the period was almost over, he left as silently as he had come.

Neil watched his departing back and sighed. Olivia said, “What’s the matter, Mr. McCrae?”

“Nothing,” he said. “Lauren, its your turn to read.”

# # #

When Neil went to the teachers’ lounge for coffee at recess, there was a note in his mailbox that said: Meet with me after school about your evaluation. He handed the note to Carmen and Pearl and said, “I’m screwed now. Bill came in unexpectedly this morning and found me teaching reading in leveled groups.”

Pearl reached over and solemnly shook his hand. She said, “It has been really nice knowing you, Neil. I’m sure you will enjoy teaching in Alaska next year, or maybe Timbuktu.”

“You told me to do it!”

With the solemnity of Colonel North testifying before Congress, she said, “I’m sorry. I don’t remember that conversation ever taking place.”

Carmen laughed. “Face up to it like a man,” she said. “I’m sure he will provide a blindfold and a last cigar.”

Bill Campbell was less amused. At their meeting he said, “I didn’t send you to that conference so you could go against everything they taught you.”

“What they taught didn’t make sense.”

“Anne Marie Chang has been teaching and researching reading for twenty-five years. She knows what she is talking about.” more tomorrow

Symphony 68

When they came back, Oscar Teixeira accused him of deception by announcing, “Mr. McCrae, this wasn’t a real party and I never did get my candy!”

“You’re right. It isn’t and you didn’t. This was something I cooked up to teach you something. We will have a real party on the twenty-third, and you will get your share of the candy in about five more minutes.

“Meanwhile, I want you all to think back to how you felt when you got your candy.”

Their faces told him that they remembered, and he could plot who had and hadn’t gotten candy by their smiles and frowns.

“All right, who can tell me why I gave more candy to some than to others?”

” ‘Cause you wanted to,” Tony replied.

Neil ignored him. Finally Sean Kelly said, “You gave lots of candy to the good kids and not much to the ones who aren’t good.”

“How much did you get, Sean?”

Those who sat near him and had seen his single piece of candy, laughed. Sean held up one finger.

“Sean, do you think you are a bad kid?”

“Well, I have been getting in trouble with Duarte.”

“Yes, you have, but that doesn’t make you a bad kid. And that wasn’t why I distributed the candy the way I did. I had another reason in mind.”

Duarte said in sudden disbelief, “You gave the Mexican kids more than you did the white kids!”

“Did I? If I did it was an accident. Or rather, it was because my reason has something to do with how your parents live.”

Suddenly Elanor had a realization. She shouted out, “You gave the poor kids more than you did the rich kids!” Then she raised her hand, because she had forgotten to do so in her excitement at understanding something the “smart” kids had missed.

“Elanor, you are absolutely right.”

Elanor beamed.

Stephanie half raised her hand, withdrew it, then raised it again. Neil was pleased at this crack in her normal self-confidence. He nodded, and she said, “I guess it was fair that you gave the poor kids more candy. But now you said you are going to make it all even.”

“That’s right, I am. I do like to be fair.”

Stephanie squirmed in a perplexity of near understanding. Every atom of her body was involved in the moment. She said, “But then — why did you do it?”

“I didn’t do it for the poor kids.”

She just shook her head. She still didn’t get it.

“I did it for the rich kids.”

She was still blank, but trying so hard to understand.

“I did it so the kids who always get everything could just once, in one tiny way, know what it feels like to see others get something they want while they get nothing.”

# # #

Neil instructed his class to evaluate the lesson. If they wanted, they could look at it like Mr. Campbell would, or they could tell how it had affected them personally. Most of them wrote willingly; kids always do when they have something they really want to say.

That night he read their papers.  Stephanie had said:

I always get a lot for Christmas and for birthdays. I always say thank you to my parents. I really do appreciate them. They are very good to me and I know it. 

Sometimes I see other kids parents being mean to them. They won’t let them play baseball or buy them things and I think how sad it would be to be like that.

more tomorrow