“We Are All Reformers” (Part 5)

This five part series ends with my leaving high school and going to a commuter college in Pittsburgh. These five parts are drafts of what may become my next book, part analysis of school reform and part memoir. The working title of that book is “Confessions of a School Reformer.”

In alternating chapters, the book will describe and analyze each of three reform movements during my lifetime and then trace my life in and out of school as a student, teacher, administrator and researcher who experienced directly continual reforms for over three-quarters of a century.

Since 1939 when I entered first grade until 2020, three major reform efforts have swept across American public schools: the Progressive movement (1890s-1940s); Civil Rights movement (1950s-1970s), and business-inspired standards, testing, and accountability movement (1970s-present).

As a student (1939-1951) I was the object of Progressive reforms. As a teacher and administrator (1950s-1980s) I designed and implemented classroom, school, and district reforms during the Civil Rights movement and then as a superintendent the first decades of the standards, testing, and accountability effort, and as a researcher since then I have described and analyzed U.S. school reforms.

The theme that runs through the five parts thus far is that my years as an elementary and secondary school student, while of great importance in awakening parts of me that I had not known, were overshadowed–in my view–by what happened to me and my family outside of the school albeit those same events helped shape my experiences as a student.

I have yet to draft sections on my becoming a teacher and the projects I initiated or was part of. Ditto for my tenure as a district superintendent and what I did as a researcher of school reforms since coming to Stanford University. Much remains to be done.

So for now I end this initial series “We Are All Reformers” with Part 5.

In the late-1940s, my father earned enough as a jobber, that is, selling deli products from a panel truck to Mom-and-Pop grocery stores in the Pittsburgh area, to meet the monthly mortgage payment on our small Squirrel Hill home and have enough food on the table. My mother rented out an attic room to a college student and my brothers, one married and the other unmarried and working at different jobs, also contributed monthly. Still money was short every month. I do not remember getting a weekly allowance so as a 12 year old recovering from a bout with polio and worried about being in a large secondary school with an empty wallet, I looked around for part-time jobs.

There was a nearby bowling alley on Murray Ave.  Not the popular ten-pins with large bowling balls with three holes in them. These were rubber-band duckpins with hole-less balls slightly larger than softballs.

The owner let me bowl free in exchange for setting pins for other bowlers. What that meant was to sit atop a pit at the end of the 60-foot alley and wait for the two balls that a bowler laid down for each of the 10 frames in a game. After both balls were thrown, I would drop down into the pit, step on a pedal and spikes would pop up upon which I set the pins that had been knocked down. When all ten pins were set, I would release the pedal, jump back up on the ledge and wait for the next bowler to send a ball down the highly waxed wooden lane. I became a quick and reliable pin-setter. 

The owner of the alley eventually asked me if I wanted to set pins in the afternoons and early evenings and during weekends. He would pay me one cent for every game (bowlers then paid a dime for every game). He let me set two alleys–one adjacent to the other–at a time so a few hours of work would earn me a half dollar or more.

After school and after dinner, I would bowl and then earn money. In time, I became quite skillful. I was cocky enough to gamble against older bowlers and won more than I lost.  

I also delivered the afternoon newspaper on my street. Sam, the previous newsboy, got a higher paying job and he asked me if I would take the route. I did. Between setting pins, betting on my bowling, and delivering newspapers, I had coins jingling in my pockets.

Although I still walked with a limp, I also played baseball and basketball and became a better-than-average athlete for a 14 year-old.  I sprouted to over six feet and while lean I could hit the ball well and play center in pickup basketball games. Yet I was a slow runner and as a center in basketball, I planted myself in the key.

That connection between Sam and bowling and being an athlete brought me into a boys club that imprinted the rest of my teenage years and whose influence has continued until the present day with the friendships I have maintained.

In the late 1940s, Sam belonged to a local chapter of B’nai Brith youth called Victory AZA. He asked me if I wanted to become a member. Passions for sports, growing interest in girls, driving cars, and being accepted by the “guys” stirred me. For some of us, practicing Judaism was also a crucial part; for others, less so. Victory was a full-service boys club. The boys voted and accepted me.

High school and Victory were intertwined in our daily lives.  While we spent more seat time in classrooms  and corridors of our nearby high school than in Tuesday night meetings in a basement room at a synagogue, few of us were members of the Allderdice popular in-groups. Much of our social and athletic life revolved around the club. As part of Victory’s activities we played each sport in its season, attended weekly meetings, and double-dated while gnawing nails over how to carry off a goodnight kiss. In the four years I belonged to Victory, what we probably did most was talk.

And did we talk! Over hot dogs at the local deli after club meetings or at one our homes after a pick-up football game or in cars late at night after dates were dropped off, we would talk about everything, rarely, however, about school. For some of us, this club served as family; for others it was just another activity in an already rich and busy life; and even for others it eased the stormy passage through difficult years. No matter which purpose Victory served in our lives, the club glued us together.

And we learned from one another. I remember one meeting vividly when Sam was president of Victory. On the agenda—we knew well Roberts’ Rules of Order—was an item to vote on new members. Because you aged out of the club at 18, there was constant turnover in this group of about 25. New members were recruited and sometimes teenagers simply wanted to join because of the full array of sports teams that we fielded over the course of a year, the B’nai Brith sports tournaments we went to in Western Pennsylvania and West Virginia and many social activities over the course of a year. So we voted unanimously to accept the handful up for membership because they brought athletic and social skills from which we felt the club would benefit.  Except for one teenager whose nomination for membership triggered a vigorous discussion that I remember to this day.

There was a split in our group over whether Merle should become part of Victory. Those who argued for him saw his speaking skills—we also had a debate team that went to B’nai Brith regional and state tournaments—being useful to the club. Those who argued against him pointed out his argumentative skills went too far and he was constantly talking and trying to make his point. Moreover, he was too talkative and didn’t pick up what others were saying and feeling. There was a deadlock over admitting Merle, a highly unusual situation, one that in my experience had never occurred in my years in Victory.

Presiding over the discussion was Sam. He listened carefully to each point made by advocates and opponents of Merle’s entry into Victory. At one point, one of us—I don’t remember who—asked Sam what was his opinion of Merle. Sam answered by saying that he uses a principle when he considers each nominee for membership. He asks himself not only what the boy can do for Victory but also what Victory can do for him. He felt that Merle would surely help the club given his verbal skills but more important, Sam felt, who we could help Merle become a stronger and better person.

I, for one, had only asked one question whenever I voted on new candidates: how will the nominee contribute to our athletic, social, and religious activities? Sam said he not only asked that question but asked another one as well: what can the club contribute to the candidate? I had never thought about the club culture and activities having significant influence on how I think and what I do. Sam’s response brought the discussion to a close and we voted. Merle became a member of Victory.

Common to many teenagers, such intense club life was put behind after high school graduation.  Most of us went to the University of Pittsburgh, a short trolley ride from our homes in Squirrel Hill, and spent the next four years there. Those in our group who didn’t go to college, eventually drifted away into jobs. About a half-dozen former club members, however, continued to see each other off and on either in part-time jobs, before and after class, and occasional double-dates.  

Even after we graduated college, entered careers, married, had children and even moved away from Pittsburgh, at least four of us (Yus, Dave, Sam, and me) remained close friends for the rest of our lives.

Fast forward: over decades, the four of us stayed in touch with each other calling, writing, and visiting one another. Family vacations, monthly book club meetings, New Year’s Eve parties, phone calls, letters, audiotapes tied all of us and our families together year after year. Beginning in the 1980s, the four Victory buddies gathered in Pittsburgh and San Luis Obispo to play tennis.  As we aged to the point when we could no longer play, we scheduled reunions in Palo Alto and elsewhere. We are now in our mid-to-late 80s and continue to talk to each other weekly and see one another at family events from bar mitzvahs, marriages, and sadly, deaths.

Looking back, then, on those six years at Taylor Allderdice, I remember some of my teachers, subjects that motivated me, and snatches here and there of what occurred between 9:00AM and 3PM. I did pass all of my academic subjects and received a diploma. What I remember best, however, are the events that occurred outside of school and the boys I came to know and love in a club that I joined at the age of 14. 

After graduating Allderdice, I entered the University of Pittsburgh (called locally, Pitt) majored in history with a minor in biology, worked after classes for four years at various odd jobs to pay for tuition while living at home.  In my junior year, I decided to become a teacher, got admitted to the School of Education did my student-teaching, and in 1955 graduated with a major in history and a minor in biology.  I then became a teacher. No longer an object of Progressive era reforms as a student, I entered a career initially as a teacher, then administrator, and finally professor that turned me into a school reformer for the next six decades.

Looking back on my years in three Pittsburgh public schools between 1939-1951 when Progressive school reforms dominated the talk and policies of district educators, I learned that while these schools with their age-graded organization, academic curriculum, teacher-centered instruction, and cultural socializing surely shaped what I came to know and feel, the fact is what I recall most vividly and believe to have touched me more than what I took away from schooling are the events that occurred (e.g., Great Depression, World War II, moving into different racially- and religiously-divided neighborhoods, getting polio) and enduring relationships with family and friends.

Of course, it is possible that what remembrances that stick may not be the most significant in shaping who I am. Elementary and secondary schooling may have played a far larger role than I ascribe to it now as a octogenarian.  After all, as I cautioned readers, memory is fallible and endlessly plays tricks. Yet the inescapable fact remains that over 80 percent of a child and teenager’s waking time is spent outside of school in the family, neighborhood, religious settings, and the workplace. Too often, I believe, formal schooling in those 1100 hours a year, important as they are economically in accumulating diplomas and degrees for jobs and careers, is given far more weight than it deserve in assessing who and what a child and teen becomes as an adult.

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