Nonetheless, worse things had happened. It was still 1971, I was still 16, I was still exploring rock-and-roll, I was still college-bound, and there were still girls everywhere I looked. Life was good, all things considered. If Mr Maddox wanted to start off the school year by teaching us to memorize the Declaration of Independence by learning to sing it, well, it was only an hour out of a bustling day.
"The Wonderful D. O. I.," he called it, and he performed it with gusto: "WHEN in the course (WHEN in the course) OF human events (OF human events) IT becomes necessary (IT becomes necessary)..." I'll never forget it. How could I?
Having taught us The Wonderful D. O. I., Mr. Maddox set us to work writing an outline of the textbook, which we turned in periodically for a grade. This was the plan for the rest of the year. I don't recall anything about the book itself, but it couldn't have been that bad: Nothing in it made me want to ask my parents, "Is this true?", as so much of junior high history had.
One day about six weeks into class, I received a summons to the office of the school counselor, an ascetic, resentful woman with the unlikely name of Helen Troy. Miss Troy glared balefully (a formidable expression reserved for all students regardless of race, class, color, or creed. Miss Troy was a firm believer in equal opportunity) while informing me that I had been transferred to another teacher's class. My mother, it seemed, had been working assiduously to that end for some time.
I returned to class and gathered my books. Mr. Maddox, with a somewhat defeated look, shook my hand and said that he thought that the other class would be better for me. I nodded uncertainly, and left.
My new American History teacher, Mrs. Cooper, had a reputation for pushing her students to think critically within the limits of the unsettled combination of the 11th-grade intellect and half her class in miniskirts. Her reputation was merited, and in fact she did her job a little too well: At the end of the school year, the school board declined to renew her contract (overruling the school principal). While I was learning The Wonderful D. O. I., she had taught via a simulation that the post-Civil War South might not have been the most hospitable place for black Americans.
Mrs. Cooper, who had roots in Kingsville, was not going anywhere. Plus, she liked her job and wasn't at all understanding about the necessity to fire anyone who raised uncomfortable truths. (Years later my father disclosed that he had heard a local doctor ask "Why did she have to bring up the niggers?") So, she sued and eventually prevailed.Ten years later, she returned to her old job. (You can read a summary of the suit here, under "Academic Freedom," and the legal details here.)
The Coopers were family friends, and I remember her husband angrily pointing out that a well-known reactionary teacher had worn to school -- of all things -- a "Belles for Bush" headband in support of H. W.'s failed 1970 senatorial campaign. This woman was genuinely hateful: I once witnessed her corner a black student and demand to know why she shouldn't call him "boy."
I myself had sat through a long-winded exhortation from a speech teacher about the endless virtues of a book called A Texan Looks at Lyndon, a right-wing screed by one J. Evetts Haley. (John Birch was Adlai Stevenson in comparison to J. Evetts Haley.) Anyway, these teachers "taught" on in no danger of losing their positions.
Next to them, Mr. Maddox wasn't so bad. His students were, at least, memorizing the most resounding sentence in American political prose:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.He didn't qualify it, nor did he seek to minimize it. No, Mr. Maddox unabashedly told his students -- most of whom were Hispanic unaccustomed to hearing Anglo adults call them equal -- that this sentence was "wonderful," when there were no doubt many residents of Kingsville who secretly found it subversive. You couldn't fire anyone for teaching The Wonderful D. O. I., though.
Mr. Maddox must have known that most of his students were not college bound and that anything they took away from his class would be a plus. He didn't have the skills to teach as Mrs. Cooper had, but he stayed within his game and didn't stack the deck. I carried the parting look he gave me in the recesses of my mind until recently, when I realized I had sold him short. Hey, if someone is going to make a fetish of something, better "all men are created equal" than the Second Amendment.
(Music begins at around 3:30.)