Friday, February 18, 2011

The Wonderful D. O. I.

It was the summer of 1971. I looked dubiously at one line of the contents of the envelope. No, it wasn't my draft lottery number: This was something of more immediate concern. H. M. King High had sent out fall class assignments, assigning me to Mr. Maddox's American History class. Students -- at least some of us -- derided Mr. Maddox for an approach to pedagogy that was both orthodox and unorthodox, but always in the service of rote learning. I showed the paper to my mother, whose brow furrowed.

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.)


Bill said...

What an amazing story about Mrs. Cooper. I didn't know that one.

Foxessa said...

And here we go again, all the contemporary Mrs. Coopers. Alas.

That doctor complaining to you father that she had to bring up the you know who ... that's like the members of the commentariat at the NY Times Disunion column series on the Civil War -- "Why are you always dragging slaves slavery into the Civil War?" I am not making this up.

However, that wailing complaint provided a essential insight into how and why revisionist history of the CW and the antebellum and all the other eras before are so constantly in favor of the Lost Glorious Cause. We love our Civil War, we never get tired of discussing it -- but it the battles we love! Yet we've even revisionisted the battles, with absences and silences where the free people of color as well as the "contraband slave" played roles.

IOW, when it comes to the history of the Civil War it is supposed to be all about the battles, and how they could have been won if such and such and such and such blahblahblah -- discussed in the glorious technicolor of clean revisionism -- in other words, no real reason for the war, just a neighborly misunderstanding, and now we all shake hands and are friends again, a wee bit embarrassed on both sides, but both sides able to hold their heads up with honor and honor each other.

Dragging slavery, white supremacy, racism and all that into the discussion ruins the party for everyone and is in bad taste. Only boors and vulgar sorts such as we would do such a thing.

Love, C.

K. said...

I'm sure the slaves wondered why they were being dragged, not to mention flogged, raped, and hung.

The Civil War is easy to romanticize militarily because of the iconic status of the Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee. Then of course the South promoted the Redemption myth so successfully that southerners even bought into it.

It's that way with all wars, for some reason. The Revolutionary War will always be Washington crossing the Delaware, WWI will always be the trenches, WWII will always be Pearl Harbor and the Holocaust, with little interest in the underlying politics and ideological motives.

But the Civil War is special: The seminal event in American History and either people don't care what was about or actively cover it up. I more and more doubt that we'll ever get from under this terrible yoke the Founders harnessed us in. Maybe we don't want to.

tnlib said...

Great tale. I only heard about this kind of thing when living in Houston and attending the Univ. of.
I guess I was shielded from much of this because most of my associations were within the academic community and my closest friends were all fellow hippies.

Occasionally, I think we all look back at a teacher or two who we thought was sub-par only to realize years later that we carried away far more than we originally thought. And then there were those loony tunes like the ones you described. Not knowing their history has not stopped them from knowing how to pro-create.

K. said...

What a great idea for a prophylactic: Ignorance of history = infertility.

Roy said...

When I read stories like this I thank the universe that I was educated where I was. Baltimore County may have been southern-leaning in its populace (after all, we had local businessmen sitting out in front of their businesses with shotguns daring African-Americans to try and come in the door during the height of the civil rights era), but its educational system was unabashedly liberal. I may have grown up south of the Mason-Dixon Line, but I was taught that the South was wrong.

K. said...

Roy, my father was a librarian at the Baltimore County Library in the mid-60s. We used to go to Orioles games at Memorial (?) Stadium. One night, a rookie pitcher entered a lost cause in relief. He had a motion so fluid and beautiful that even a ten-year old took notice. Jim Palmer went on to be the greatest pitcher in Orioles' history, then sold underwear, and -- regrettably -- shilled for payday loan parasites. But what a pitcher...

Roy said...

Ah yes, I remember Jim Palmer and his pancakes! And we were friendly with Steve Barber (Baltimore's first 20-game winner at that time) and his family; I was madly in love with his daughter Tracy.

That was a great team, back in the mid '60s.

K. said...

After Brooks Robinson, my favorite Oriole was Robin Roberts. I didn't know that he was a Hall of Fame pitcher on the back end of his career: I just liked his name.

I looked up Steve Barber. Your heart throb (after Emmylou, of course) lives in South Carolina and has twins. Steve passed away in 2007 after spending the last fourteen years of his life as a driving children with disabilities for the L.A. School District. I get the feeling that he was a pretty good guy.

TaraDharma said...

I am woefully ignorant of southern culture and history, other than what was taught at California public schools, and watching flamboyant fabrications such as "Gone With the Wind."

Of course I've read about the treatment of blacks by whites, seen movies, seen photographs of lynchings with a crowd of white men, women and children gathered 'round smiling as if this were a typical Sunday outing.

How, as a people, will we ever come to grips with the civil war if we don't even know our own history, and that the so called romance of the war is still celebrated by so many? said...

Midland is just as it was when I left it in 1965....same political views exactly.

Cowtown Pattie said...

Great post, Paul.

My mother was a public educator, but in algebra, not math. She never was a fan of history, and as long as I made A's, she didn't care who taught me.

On the Civil War:

I had ancestors who fought for the South; they didn't have slaves (except for a ggggrandmother - who had one slave), but they fought for states rights, I am assuming. I cannot ever know their exact motives.

Still, I am not ashamed of them and see no reason to hide my family tree because there were Rebels in my closet...

injaynesworld said...

Interesting read, my friend.

Darlene said...

Two of my great-great grandfather's fought in the Ohio regiment in the Civil War and my grandparents (The son of one and the daughter of the other) were liberal before it was a political word. I was never exposed to racism until I spent 3 months going to school in Florida. It was an all white school even though it was a public school. I had a rude awakening and learned a valuable lesson on Southern culture.

Darlene said...

Oops! I had too many greats there. The veterans were my great grandfathers.

K. said...

I kind of wince when I hear it referred to as "culture," although it's fair enough. We do have a lot of great music and literature, too.