Individuals writing about what they learned from former teachers is common. It is uncommon, however, for teachers to write about what they learned from former students. I do not mean those many instances when tech-savvy students helped teachers solve hardware and software problems. I mean the kinds of learning that doesn’t come from only books but from the questions students ask and the thoughts they express in and out of class.
I learned from Carol Schneider, a 16 year-old junior in my U.S. history class at Glenville High School in Cleveland. The year was 1958. I was a 23 year old teacher beginning my third year of teaching at Glenville. I relished teaching six classes of U.S. history a day in this largely black high school. By the end of the day, I was bone-tired (yeah, I shudder to think what teaching four straight classes, a break for lunch, then two more in the afternoon would do to my body and mind now). I went to Western Reserve University (soon to become Case Western Reserve) two evenings a week to get my Masters degree in history and had begun to prepare classroom lessons in what was then called Negro history. I created readings to supplement the history textbook that said little about slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crowism. Of my six classes, three responded very well to the readings–does anyone remember the purple-stained hands that came from using the school’s “spirit master” or ditto machine? The other three classes, well, they were much less enthused. Carol was in one of those responsive classes.
Carol who came from a working class family steeped in left-wing political ideology was keen about history and had read widely. Within a few weeks, Carol and a cadre of friends were the stars of that class. They would come in during my 35-minute lunch period and after school to continue talking about ideas raised in class and school issues. For a novice teacher, this was heady stuff.
One afternoon, Carol brought in a book that John Wexley had written (1955) about the Julius and Ethel Rosenberg case. She asked me to read it and wanted to know what I thought of it. The Rosenbergs had been indicted and convicted of treason in 1951 for passing atom bomb secrets to the Soviet Union during World War II. They were executed in 1953.
I had known of the case through newspapers and magazines. The Wexley book clearly argued that the Rosenbergs had been innocent of the charges; they were not spies and were wrongly convicted and executed. I read the book within a week and was stunned by the amount of evidence that Wexley had compiled from the court record and independent sources. Moreover, he had arrayed the evidence into a persuasive argument that the Rosenbergs had been framed. I totally accepted Wexley’s portrayal of the case, remembering the outrage I felt at the miscarriage of justice. I also recall some discussions Carol and I had during lunch and after school about the case itself and the material that Wexley had compiled. Whenever I would raise concerns about Wexley’s sources or portions of his argument–some parts sounded too pat for me–Carol would rebut my points and counter the concerns. She would then ask me questions about Wexley’s statements that she doubted. We had an intellectual give-and-take that, up to that time, I had never experienced with a student. I remember speaking to my wife and friends about the Rosenberg case and the Wexley book. For the first time as a teacher, discussions, even debates with a student rippled through my life.*
There is another encounter I had with Carol after she graduated from Glenville. I and my family had moved to Washington, D.C. I taught in a program training returned Peace Corps volunteers to teach in urban schools. After directing the program for two years, I returned to classroom teaching at Roosevelt High School. By that time, Carol, in her early 30s, had become a social studies teacher, gotten married, and moved with her husband and family to D.C where he worked for the U.S. Department of Justice. She was assigned to Roosevelt also. In 1971, Carol and I team-taught a U.S. history class–at least that is what my memory bank registers. I remember the semester we worked together as intellectually exciting. Our paths parted after 1971 when I went to graduate school and she and her family eventually moved to Madison, Wisconsin. We would exchange annual holiday cards. In the 1990s, when my daughter went to the University of Wisconsin I re-established contact with Carol. By that time she was a member of the Madison school board–a post she served in for 18 years, retiring in 2008.
What did I learn from Carol? I admired Carol’s intellectual and political engagement, her feistiness as a high school junior who questioned mainstream beliefs. We had rousing discussions about ideas in a book that, at the time, went against the grain. What I came to see in retrospect was that I, at age 23, was ready to challenge conventional wisdom. She helped me do so.
*In 2008, a convicted Soviet spy who had served 17 years in prison admitted that Julius Rosenberg had been a courier for the USSR but that Ethel was not involved. By then, a consensus among historians, using decoded cables from the Soviets, emerged that Rosenberg had been a Soviet spy.