Tag Archives: teaching

Symphony 95

“Of course, you are right.” Neil gnawed on a knuckle for a moment before continuing, “Still, don’t you ever wonder what might become of the kids you teach?”


“What would it feel like twenty or thirty years from now if one of our kids discovered a cure for a some disease, or won a Nobel Prize — or became a serial killer. Gandhi and Hitler both had parents, and both had teachers. How did they feel, I wonder? Were they proud of what they had done, or were they ashamed? Did they try to hog some of the credit, or shoulder some of the blame?”

Carmen said, “What have you done to bring on this preoccupation with guilt?”

There it was — his opportunity. He would never have a better time to tell her about Alice Hamilton’s false accusations, and get rid of the barrier he had built between them.

She sat, waiting, in faded jeans and a sweater, with her feet tucked up beneath her. Lean and lovely, warm, dark, vibrantly alive, hair a frizzled cloud around her head, and her eyes a brown he could drown in. Waiting.

He asked himself, Do you love her?

He reached out his hand and she took it in hers, running her thumb down his palm. He felt his heart turn over within him at the nearness of her. I have never lain with her, nor even held her naked breasts in my hands, but already I love her more than I loved Lynn, whom I lived with and would have married.

Yet Lynn had betrayed him in his time of need, and he feared to try Carmen’s loyalty for fear that he would lose her too. And so the moment passed.

# # #

Neil drove home and rummaged through his desk until he found Mrs. Herrera’s phone number. She answered on the fifth ring, sounding tired and distracted. He said, “I need to see you tonight.”

“Tonight? You can’t be serious.”

“I have never been more serious. What did Jesse tell you about today?”

“Jesus didn’t tell my anything,” she replied in a sharp, defensive voice.

“He didn’t tell you that I sent him home five minutes after he got there for pretending he was Patrick Purdy and mock-killing half the students on the playground?”

There was silence on the other end for so long that Neil had begun to think Mrs. Herrera had hung up. Finally he heard faint sobs that went on for a long time. Then a very weak voice said, “What can I do?”

“I’m coming over.”

“No! I can’t. I can’t talk to you now.”

“Mrs. Herrera you have only two choices. Talk to me now, and really talk. Don’t give me some run around, but actually tell me what you know about Jesse’s problems. Or start looking for another school tomorrow, because if we can’t get this settled right now, Jesse is not coming back to my room.”

She agreed.

He arrived at her house twenty minutes later. It was larger and in a nicer neighborhood than Neil had expected. Mrs. Herrera would certainly have a hard time paying for such a house on one salary, so it probably dated from before her husband’s death.

She met him at the door and led him into the living room. The furniture was well built and stylish. It had been expensive once, but now it was shabby. It was clean and neat; there were no toys underfoot to give evidence that a child lived there. more Monday


Symphony 94

Neil reached down and took Jesse by the back of the shirt and lifted him a foot off the ground. Slowly, the boy unkinked until he could put his feet on the ground again. Neil let go and Jesse stood facing him; fear and hatred were at war in his face, and hatred was winning out. Neil did not care. He said, “Jesse, go home! Don’t come back until I call for you.”

Jesse stood up to him for one more moment, then turned tail and ran, across the campus, across the parking lot, and down the street toward his house.

# # #

You don’t do things that way. You don’t grab a student by the arms. You don’t yell at a student until he cowers at your feet. You don’t pick him up off the ground. You don’t send him off campus on his own. If he must be sent home, you do it through channels, with documentation, and you make the parent come in to get him. The law requires it, and self-preservation requires it. Parents will sue schools and teachers if they are provoked.

Above all, you do not lose your temper.

Neil sat in his room after school, cataloging his failings and feeling low. For a person who had come here to prove himself, he was not doing very well. For a person who had “saved” Jesse from expulsion, he was doing even worse.

Yet he had learned a lot about self-preservation during the last year.  If something like this had happened at his previous school, he would have gone to Dr. Watkins with his problems and asked his advice. This time he kept the incident to himself. He did not even tell Bill Campbell that Jesse had left campus. There was a bare chance that he could salvage the situation; if not, then would be the time to confess.

First, there was one hard question to face. Why did he want to salvage the situation? Because he still believed that Jesse was worth the effort, or just to keep from having to admit his failings? If he was only trying to cover himself, then he had better let the boy go. Maybe in some other school he could make a new start.

In the last analysis, what Neil had to do now hinged on one question: could the boy be saved? And Neil did not know the answer.

# # #

He sought out Carmen at her apartment. “First of all,” Neil said after he had outlined the problem, “did I overreact to what Jesse did? He is only eleven years old. Maybe his was just a natural, stupid reaction to the incident in Stockton.”

Carmen shook her head. “If I had seen him do that, I would have written him up, and that would have been the end of him. I wouldn’t tolerate that from any student.”

“Of course his behavior wasn’t acceptable. I’m not asking that. I’m asking what it means. Is he growing up to be another Patrick Purdy?”

“Oh, Neil, how could we ever know that? Stop trying to play God. You just have to teach them and do the best you can to help them, and then let them become what they become.” more tomorrow

Symphony 93

As it turned out, he didn’t have to say very much. Less than half of them were aware of what had happened, and few of them were very interested. They were talking about it when they came in from the busses; those who had seen the news were telling those who had not. But it had come to them through the plastic reality of the television. It was no more real than a drug bust, famine in Ethiopia, or oil spills. Or Miami Vice. It was just another part of the endless effluvium of human suffering that washed about them every day; with marvelous sanity, most of them remained unmoved.

A few of them were affected. Tanya Michelson looked as if she had been crying when she came in and stayed unnaturally quiet all day. Lisa Cobb jumped at every sound. Oscar Teixeira had been thinking hard about what it all meant. He went straight to the fact that the children who had died had all been Asian. With a clarity of thought all out of proportion to his age, he made the connection to the celebration of Martin Luther King Day just before the shooting. Of course he did not speak of irony — not at eleven years old — but he did recognize the juxtaposition.

At noon, Bill Campbell called a special teachers’ meeting to discuss campus security. He stressed that any stranger seen on campus was to be approached immediately and asked his business, and referred to the office if there was any question about why he was there. “This isn’t anything new,” Bill said. “It has been school board policy for about ten years, ever since parents kidnapping their own children became a problem. In light of what happened in Stockton, we have to be even more careful.”

Jesse Herrera came on campus for his afternoon class with Neil just before the final noon recess bell rang. He dropped his book bag outside Neil’s door and slid along the wall of the building. When the bell rang he leaped out, shouting out the sound of gunfire, and pantomimed firing across the playground.

Neil saw him, and his temper exploded. He was a hundred feet away when Jesse “fired”. He covered the distance at a run, grabbed the boy by both arms, and jerked him off the ground as he skidded to a stop.

Then he blew his ears back.

He screamed out how stupid he was being, how insensitive to the suffering of the students who had been wounded, and how disrespectful to the memories of those who had died. Later, Neil could not remember the exact words he had used, but they were loud. All the student on the playground froze in their tracks until Neil finished, then rushed on to class looking back over their shoulders.

Jesse folded up like a rag doll. He buried his head beneath his hands to ward off blows that never fell. Neil stood over him, breathing in gasps as he tried to control his anger. He had never felt more like striking a child. The pathetic cowering that would normally have defused his anger, only made it worse. more tomorrow

Symphony 92

Since the American Navy had accidentally shot down an Iranian airliner the previous summer there had been talk of terrorist reprisals, and American schools were one of the targets being threatened. If that was the case, and the school which had already been struck was so close . . .

Neil found himself searching the playground with his eyes, and at the time it did not seem melodramatic. He said, “What do you want me to do?”

“Don’t say anything to your students, but be on the alert. Join Tom and me out front when the busses come to pick them up. It’s late enough in the afternoon that we probably won’t have any parents coming in to pick up their children because they heard it. If some parent comes in, get their child out of the classroom without a fuss. If we can manage it, I want to get these kids home with their parents before they hear about it.”

Bill went on to pass the word and Neil returned to his classroom. Bill’s words “a bunch of dead and wounded” rang in his head as he sat down and looked at his kids. Little Randi Nguyen with her boundless energy; Rabindranath who was calm and bright and utterly without a sense of humor; Lisa Cobb with her erratic behavior and terrible puns; even Jesse Herrera. Dead or wounded . . .; he had to shake his head to drive the vision away.

The bell for the last break of the day caught him by surprise and he jumped. Somebody laughed, then hid his laughter. The students all rushed for the door. Neil was on his feet in an instant and out the door to pace the playground in paranoid fear. All of the other teachers were out, exchanging worried glances and saying nothing.

When the busses came, a phalanx of teachers was there to protect their students from an enemy who never appeared.

# # #

Neil drove to the mall after school and went to a department store where he had seen racks of televisions on display. He had no TV himself and he did not want to watch this with Carmen. He could either watch it alone, or in the anonymity of a public place, but not with someone he loved. He arrived at the store just in time to see the whole bloody scene on the news. All normal business had stopped in the store as clerks and customers stood riveted by the horror of it.

A second channel picked it up and Neil watched again. His fascination was like a private shame. He hated the newsman for the way he shoved his microphone into a child’s face to ask her how she had felt, but he could not turn away.

The next morning the Modesto Bee devoted five full pages to the tragedy. Neil, who did not subscribe, went out early to buy a copy and read it all. Five dead. Thirty wounded. That would be half of the kids he taught. And all the rest, the other three hundred students, would never feel safe again. Like a rape, it would tear them out of their childhoods and plunge them into a mad, adult world long before their time.

What would he say to his own students today? more tomorrow

463. Shooters

The University of Texas Tower
photo by Larry D. Moore


Today in Serial, a school shooting occurs in the novel Symphony in a Minor Key. Here in A Writing Life I have explained why it was there.

Yesterday in the world we all inhabit, another school shooting took place in Florida. Since the post below was written a week or so ago, this makes an unexpected and jarring contrast.

I could say, “What are the chances of such a coincidence?”, but the chances of a school shooting on any given day have increased dramatically since I was forced to include one in my novel thirty years ago. As always, I feel for the victims and the survivors, and like everyone else, I have no answers.

I am adding this note of explanation about an hour after the original post appeared.


The original post.

Most American’s alive today have grown up in an era of mass shootings. We had not yet reached that point in 1966.

I was working on the home farm that summer. I had graduated from high school and was waiting to enter college in the fall.

On August first, Charles Whitman shot his wife and mother, then took weapons to the observation deck of the main tower at the University of Texas. Over the course of the next hour and a half, he shot and killed thirteen people on the ground below and wounded another thirty-one; two of his victims died later. He was eventually killed by police.

Like the rest of America, I heard about it on the news. It was a shock. It was something that had not happened before.

Whitman’s position on top of the tower made it hard for the police to get to him. That was not an accident; Whitman was a former Marine sharpshooter. He knew his business.

There are several talking points in this incident for people on both sides of the gun control controversy. None of his weapons would be called an assault rifle by modern use of that term. Several civilians joined the police in returning fire. They probably helped, but did not prevent the tragedy.

It was the deadliest mass shooting in American history, at the time. Today it ranks eighth.

Twenty-three years later, the Texas Tower shooting still ranked seventh. I was teaching school and writing Symphony in a Minor Key in the evenings. I had set myself the task of writing events in my imaginary middle school in exact correspondence to what was happening in the real world.

I didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

On January 17, 1989, Patrick Purdy shot and killed five students at a school in a nearby town, and wounded thirty others, including a teacher. I was faced with the decision of whether or not to include this tragedy in the novel I was writing.

I chose to write it in. That is why today’s post in Serial appears as it does.

Symphony 91

There is an explanation of how this piece of Symphony came about in today’s post over in A Writing Life.


Life is not a well told tale. Things come out of nowhere, and in their wake, everything is changed. There is frequently no warning, and even afterward, those events may make no sense.

In Stockton, thirty miles north of Kiernan School, at about eleven thirty in the morning, a distracted young loner named Patrick Purdy parked his car outside Cleveland Elementary School. As he left his car, he used a fourth-of-July sparkler to light a pipe bomb in the front seat, and entered the school yard through an unlocked gate in the fence. He crossed a grassy field, rounded a classroom building and waited there watching the playground where the students were at recess. He was wearing a 9mm automatic pistol and carrying an assault rifle.

Purdy had attended that school for four years when he was a child. At that time it had been a white, middle class neighborhood. Now the community was filled with southeast Asian refugees. Most of the children in the playground were Asian. Purdy had told acquaintances how much he hated Asians.

Two things happened almost at once. The bomb Purdy had left in his car exploded, and the bell ending the recess period rang. The children turned from their play and ran back toward their classrooms. Purdy raised his AK-47 and calmly, matter-of-factly, fired a burst of thirty rounds into the mass of students. They fell, screaming and bleeding, or silent and already dead.

He replaced the ammunition clip and fired again. A teacher herding her children toward safety was shot down, and more students fell. Teachers inside the building at Purdy’s back huddled on the floor with their students, but he did not turn in their direction. He walked to his right, crossing in front of them, still firing into a school yard now littered with huddled heaps of the dead and wounded.

He rounded the far corner of the building just as the first sirens began to sound in the distance. Laying aside his assault rifle, he pulled out his pistol, put the barrel of it to his chin, and fired once.

He was dead when the first officers arrived at the scene. Five students lay dead. Twenty-nine students and a teacher lay wounded.

# # #

Neil had not had a good day. He had obtained a video of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech to show to his students in connection with the holiday. His morning class had responded with very little enthusiasm when he tried to get them to discuss what it meant. There were no black children at Kiernan, and Neil had not been able to convince them that the civil rights Dr. King had fought for were for all of them. To these children the events of the fifties and sixties were another world, as foreign as ancient Athens. They were indifferent to it all.

His afternoon class was even worse. He had almost reached the point of giving up in disgust and trying some other tactic, when Bill Campbell came to the door of his classroom and motioned for Neil to join him outside. The look on Bill’s face alerted Neil that something serious had happened.

“I just got a phone call from Elaine Sanders. There has been a shooting at one of the elementary schools in Stockton. Apparently, there were a bunch of dead and wounded. Elaine wanted us to be on the alert.”

Bill’s words were just words. The reality of them did not hit Neil at once. He said, “On the alert for what?”

“I don’t know. Strangers on campus; anything like that.” more Monday

Symphony 90

Oscar took the sheet and hesitated. Laura leaned over and whispered, “You can do it.”

Oscar stood up and tried the first sentence. Those who spoke Spanish looked puzzled, then amused. He stumbled on, his voice breaking, and once he had to stop to wipe his face with the back of his hand. But he kept his jaw set firmly and forged ahead, mispronouncing every other word, and understanding nothing of what went before his eyes.

Neil hurt for him, and wondered if he had pushed him too far. Oscar cast him an angry glance from his set face.

Brandy Runyon snickered. Neil’s snapped, “Brandy!” She stopped instantly. 

Oscar finished, and sat down, looking at the desk to in front of him, humiliated. Neil said, “Thank you, Oscar.”

Flavio looked at his teammate, feeling his embarrassment, but unsure of what had happened out on the playground. He looked at Neil and asked, “What grade do we get?”

“You get the very best grade I have to give,” Neil replied. “I am very proud of Oscar.”

He heard Tony whisper, “But he read it all wrong.” And he heard Lauren silence him fiercely, saying, “Shut up! Don’t you understand anything?”

# # #

Jesse Herrera had returned to Neil’s afternoon class with the rest of the children after Christmas vacation was over. He was very subdued. He was surly, angry, and withdrawn, but he didn’t get into trouble. Neil remained friendly to him, but carefully kept a certain distance between them. The boy was in serious trouble, and there was no point in fawning on him and pretending that he was not.

Neil had a meeting with Mrs. Herrera on the first Friday they were back. It was the first time he had met with her since Jesse’s hearing, and she was full of thanks because Neil had championed her son.

Neil said, “How are things going in counseling?”

“Really well. I think Jesus is doing much better.”

“He had been quiet in school and hasn’t bothered anybody,” Neil replied. He was skeptical of Jesse’s sudden change, but he didn’t say so to his mother.”Can you tell me anything you’ve found out that might be helpful to me?”

“No, not really.”

“Mrs. Herrera, I don’t mean to pry into your personal business. I just want to help Jesse — Jesus. I’m only asking for information so I know best how to handle him.” 

Mrs. Herrera looked trapped and uncomfortable. She said, “Well, the counselor said that I had to set limits and strictly enforce them. I have to say what I am going to do and then do it.”

“And have you been able to do that?”

“I’ve been trying. Just last night, Jesus was bugging me about wanting to watch a program on TV that I didn’t want him to watch. I told him he couldn’t watch it, and when he kept bugging me I made him go to bed an hour early.”

This was apparently her idea of stricter discipline. Neil said, “What would you normally have done?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I would have given in and let him watch it.”

“Well, that’s progress,” Neil said. Privately, it made him wonder if the boy had any chance at all.

# # #

Neil’s meeting with Mrs. Herrera was followed by the three day weekend of Martin Luther King Day. The Tuesday afterward was like any other day at Kiernan, but thirty miles north events were taking place which would shake their school, and other schools across the nation, to their foundations. more tomorrow