That Might Explain Things III

I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconut

I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconut

Believe it or not, that is not a partially deflated football. It is a coconut Jim Voerg brought me from Jamaica. He knows how much of a Steelers fan I am. He also knows how much I appreciate off-the-wall items.

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I received my BS degree in August, 1966, but anyone who knew me was well aware that I was full of BS with or without a piece of paper to prove it. Unlike many of my fellow graduates, I had no job lined up. It was a situation very similar to my high school graduation. Planning ahead had not yet struck me as something important that I should do.

By this time, I was engaged to be married in October. My plan was to try to get a job teaching Social Studies at a high school near Pittsburgh. If I failed in that endeavor, I’d fall back on part of my old high school plan – join the military and get my commitment out of the way. (For the sake of any ‘youngsters’ reading this, when the draft was an integral part of military recruitment, every young man was expected to serve for a minimum of two years.)

Furthermore, since I was engaged to marry a Roman Catholic girl, my hopes of becoming a Presbyterian Minster were also put on hold.

I managed to get a couple of interviews and quickly learned that a Social Studies teacher was expected to become part of the coaching staff for the football team. Having never played anything beyond totally unorganized neighborhood or intra-fraternity games, I was absolutely unqualified.

Just prior to visiting the military recruiters, I heard about a job opening at Western State School and Hospital in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. I soon learned that the state had taken an old reform school named Morganza (a place to which my parents often threatened to send me) and converted it into a mental hospital for retarded and emotionally disturbed children.

I submitted an application and was soon called in for an interview. The Principal, Ms. Mary Germann, gave me a guided tour of the facility and explained the types of children they were dealing with. Then she hit me with the loaded question: “Well, what do you think?”

I took a deep breath and gave her my honest opinion. “I don’t know if I can handle this.”

“Great!” she said, “When can you start?”

Within a week, I was a full-fledged member of the faculty. My co-workers were George “Irish” O’Neill, Bill Davis, Nick Guaracio, and Mary Jane McReady. We worked with the emotionally disturbed children.

I had the first grade. My children ranged in age from eight to fifteen. In a normal school, first graders are mostly five year olds.

Withholding the last names of the children… my students were Cathy, Kathleen, Jackie, Sammy, Rickie, and Bobby.

Before I discuss the children in detail, I must explain that Bill Davis had to drive right by my home to get to work. Naturally, we agreed to car-pool and take turns driving the final twenty-five or thirty miles to work. I should also explain that Bill Davis, who grew up in Monongahela, Pennsylvania was quite a bit darker complected than I. In fact, to go along with a popular TV program of the time, one of the secretaries simply referred to us as “I Spy”. What was less funny was the children who called me Mr. Davis and him Mr. Leeds. At one time I said to Bill, “I can’t understand this.., the difference between us is like night and day!”

Obviously, Bill and I become close friends. In fact, I was the only white guy invited to his bachelor party. I learned a lot that evening talking to his friends. Discrimination is not always apparent.

My students were more than a piece of work. After I worked with them a couple of weeks, I pulled each of their files and studied their case histories. In every instance, there was some reason for their parents to say, “They must be brain damaged” and refused to punish them. From that point on, there was no effort to discipline them, The exception was Jackie. His father was a coal miner; when Jackie misbehaved his father would tie his hands and hang him over a pipe in the basement. Then he would beat him with a belt.

As a result, the only way that Jackie knew to get attention was to misbehave. You wouldn’t believe how hard I tried to ignore his antics before I had to cry “uncle” and have him returned to the ward. The others were almost as bad. The first day of my job, Cathy said some things I wouldn’t fathom could come from the mouth of an eight year old. We spent the rest of that day trying to get her to say, “Oh Green Beans!” when she was upset. It didn’t work.

Sammy was so intelligent and loved certain subjects so much that I’d often have to put him out in the hall so other children could have a chance at answering questions. One time Sammy told me he was going to commit suicide. The psychiatrists we worked with had instructed us to always call the children’s bluff. So I asked him how he planned to do it. He said he wanted to jump out one of the windows (we were on the fifth floor), but since the heavy steel screens were always locked, he couldn’t do it.

I positioned myself where I was sure I could catch him, and unlocked the screen in our classroom. I then moved a chair closer to the window to make it easier for Sam to make his move. I then invited him to make his leap.

My heart was pounding and every muscle in my body was tensed. I had to stop him at all costs. Sammy looked up at me and said, “I think I’ll wait until next week.” THANK YOU LORD!

On another occasion, I was taking my class for a walk around the grounds. Ricky, a boy who reminded me greatly of Lil’ Abner, told me he was going to run away. Once again I recalled how I was supposed to call the child’s bluff and told Ricky I was going to miss him. I also asked that he send us a post card from time to time to let us know he was OK. “I will,” he said as he wondered off.

He was soon out of sight and I was soon worried sick. I got the other children back into the building and reported that Ricky had wandered off. The search began immediately, but it took the security crew three days to find Ricky and bring him back. They were the worst three days of my life.

To be continued…

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