Friday, May 28, 2010

Aimless Reading: The H's, Part 15 (Joseph Heller)

Originally uploaded by Michael_Kelleher
Heller, Joseph

Purchased at or though the student bookstore at LaSalle Academy in NYC, where I taught high school for two years after I graduated from college. I taught English, coached the chess team, published the school newspaper and directed the school musical. LaSalle is a small catholic school for boys tat is run by the Christian Brothers.

The brothers and I didn't get along so well after my first year of teaching. My downfall began toward the end of my first year of teaching. I had founded the chess team, for which I was paid $500 extra per school year. As the year came to a close, I realized that I was doing at least as much, if not more, work for the chess team as I was on the musical and the newspaper, so I asked to be compensated in kind–that is, I asked for 500 more per year. After several meetings, I was told by the principal, Brother P., "Well, I guess we won't have a chess team then."

I guess he knew I wouldn't quit. I went home for the summer and when I returned in the fall one of the first encounters I had was with the oldest teacher in the school, a cynical middle-aged Irish guy who said,

"Congrats, Mike, you've made the list."
I asked him what list.
"The list of teachers the brothers talk about in the rectory over dinner."
I asked why I made that list.
"You're negative."
I asked what that meant.
"You argue with the brothers and they don't like that."
"A piece of advice. Watch your back. They are going to come after you."

Not long after that, the principal started playing games with me. It started small. He began to require that I get three signatures for any expenses I incurred related to any of my after school activities. If I needed to buy, say, a five-dollar clock, for the chess team, I had to get his signature plus the signatures of his two assistant principals, etc. This was just to get under my skin, and it didn't -- at first.

On the first day of school we had discovered they had also installed a new copy machine -- with a digital counter on it. We were now required to sign in using our dates of birth so that the school could track how many copies each of us made. A minor change, seemingly, but it was evidence of a larger atmosphere of mistrust between faculty and administration, lay and religious, that had been building for the past year.

I had coffee with a colleague one afternoon and we began to discuss these things. He was an ex-priest who'd left the priesthood because he was gay, yet who had remained a teacher at the Catholic school where he'd been teaching for fifteen years. He told me a few other things that were bothering him, like the that Brother P. had made mention of the fact that no one really had tenure, which made a lot of the older teachers nervous.

It was an odd situation -- everything was done on a handshake -- there were no contracts, no tenure policy, no union representation, not even an updated faculty handbook. We agreed these things should all be discussed at the next faculty meeting. We also called a faculty-only meeting to discuss these things apart from the administration. It was agreed that we would send an agenda over to the principal outlining faculty concerns we'd like to discuss.

The school closed on a Friday for an all-day meeting. Tension began to mount from the minute we walked in the door. We were shocked to discover when we arrived that only 15 minutes had been scheduled to discuss faculty concerns. The meeting took place in the gym, with sixty or so teachers sitting in folding chairs on the basketball court (the school was something of a basketball mill -- future pro ballplayers Ron Artest and God Shammgodd both were students there at the time) facing Brother P, who sat before us in his soutaine, distracted and somewhat contemptuous.

Pretty soon, things got ugly–one faculty member after another stood up and started berating Brother P, who in turn infuriated everyone by pretending that he couldn't hear them, or that he couldn't understand what they meant, etc. It was quite a show. At one point I told him I thought there was an atmosphere of mistrust, evidenced by the copy machine–I said something smart like "It's sort of like Big Brother is Watching You, Brother."

Next day I was called to the office and my job was threatened. I was told that criticisms should be private, not public, and that if I had any issues I should discuss them in the office. Then he proceeded to read back to me everything I had said, verbatim. At one point he made mention of the Big Brother crack and asked -- does this have something to do with the poster in your classroom?

I had removed a cross in my classroom and replaced it with a Big Brother is Watching You poster. I said the poster was about a literary work that my students had been reading very closely. He didn't catch the reference, neither did he bother to ask what book.

Soon after that he began making things more and more difficult for me. He would stand in the doorway of my classroom, trying to intimidate me. Sometimes he would scold me in front of my students. Then several of my students told me he had interrogated them about what I was teaching in class. They told him we were reading The Beat Poets and a novel by Charles Bukowski. All he had to do was open up one of those books and he would have had ground to fire me. He didn't bother. He didn't need grounds, as it turned out.

Faculty anger rose week after week, and what had begun as an informal airing of grievances became a full-blown push to form a union. It became apparent that I was going to lose my job at the end of the year, so I decided to agitate as loudly as I could without losing it before year's end. Eventually, other faculty took over the union push, which took a lot of immediate pressure off of me. I was told in March that my contract would not be renewed. I vowed, on principle, to fight, but I really just wanted to make Brother P sweat.

Eventually, I made the decision to go teach in Ecuador. Brother P actually had the gall to come tell me he thought that was a great idea–that it would be good for me.

At the end of the year, we voted in a union and forced the school to write contracts and tenure policies and I think Brother P was removed from his position. The downside was that over half the faculty turned over, and form what I heard, all of the new faculty who had not been affected by this, voted the union out again within a year. It was quite a lesson in local politics, that's for sure. An unwelcome one at that.

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