I’m not really sure where he came from, like any mythical hero. I’m also not sure how old he was, except I knew he was at least 20 years older than I. He grew up working after school sweeping the floor in lumber mills. Right out of high school he served in the military between Korea and Vietnam. He went to college on the GI Bill and worked in the lumber mills pulling green chain (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0_w307HU2-Q) to support his wife and child. The fact that he escaped the mills with all his fingers marked him as an educated man among the life-long mill workers and especially among the millwrights who knew he wouldn’t stay on. But he drank beer and could talk and curse like a mill worker. This was not an ordinary schoolteacher. He wasn’t intimidated by anyone in the school system or any of the parents. In fact he was almost impossible to control.
He was not exceptional looking but he was bigger than average. He appeared to be serious in the first faculty meetings when I met him and rarely spoke out. I learned he was a strong union man and eschewed any pretense at expertise or ‘moving’ up to supervise his colleagues. His conceptualization of teaching, I thought, was normal for the times: You do your classroom and I do mine and don’t try to infringe on my territory.
But I learned over the seven years I worked with him that it was more than that. He seemed to operate out of some kind of core moral authority mixed with a collision of work and play. While he could implement any curriculum on a conceptual basis, he never aspired to uniformity with other classrooms. His unique person in conjunction with the relationships he constructed with his second grade students made him, his self, the curriculum, not the planned exercises designed by experts far from his students. Learning, safety, play, work, happiness were all embodied within him to his students. I felt he was one of the few living examples I had experienced of Nietzsche’s ‘Aus sich rollendes Rad,’ a wheel rolling out of itself. He expressed his deepest identity in his work as a teacher.
We don’t talk about teachers this way in our country today. They are supposed to comply, implement, collect and submit data to higher authorities. They are under constant pressure to become instrumental of forces outside their control and that they don’t get to discuss. Henry, on the other hand, was very different from the ideal teacher seen by today’s measures. He didn’t believe in collaborative work teams that went about the task of analyzing data on student learning in order to try to improve. For him, collaboration carried the meaning ascribed to the Vichy French in some way. This seemed like submitting the needs of his students to the needs of the organization, of schooling. He believed it was up to the teacher to see these needs and to do whatever was demanded to meet them. He didn’t really trust other teachers to tell him about his students since they didn’t have first hand knowledge. Objective data was fine for what it was worth, but his work was with and among his students on an almost instinctual level.
When I observed him as an experienced principal, it was easy to see he was excellent based on the literature about classrooms. Always soft spoken he ran a tight structure with well-established routines and schedules. Every 2nd grader knew where he was supposed to be, what he was supposed to be doing and how Henry would respond if he didn’t follow the rules. The most important rules were ‘work and play.’ Henry believed that anyone could become more intelligent and successful if he or she worked at it. This was a bit shocking to some of the middle class parents who demanded their children be placed in his classroom. He didn’t care about their understanding of their children, in raw opposition to the mantra that “parents know their children best.” He also didn’t care about their other opinions about the other kinds of 2nd graders in his classroom, the ones who had duct tape around their shoes and in patches on their jackets or who came off the boat from South East Asia.
But he also recognized that he needed middle class children in his room. He told me when I made up class lists that he required at least 6 middle class children of his class of 32 in order to provide role models of how to pay attention, how to work, how to play with others and how to mind. He could build the other 26 children into school learners if he only had the 6 from the middle class.
During my first year as principal of that school, I put out a call for help on a grant that would give us funds to buy computers for the classrooms. I waited on the appointed afternoon for teachers to come and help me complete the application but Henry was the only one who showed up. We worked together on it. He told me what he wanted and I wrote it so it showed up that way in the grant. We won the grant and got a computer for every classroom.
From that time on I made it a point to listen to Henry closely and try my best to get him whatever he wanted. For his next project, he told me he wanted to start a classroom garden. I wrote an internal district grant that was intended to support teacher-developed curriculum with state lottery funds. After talking over his plans, I presented Henry’s ideas as the integration of science, language and hands on experience. He was thrilled when it was funded for a couple of thousand dollars. He brought his own roto-tiller in the back of his little pick up and used the grant money to buy hand tools, seeds, manure, and plastic plumbing supplies to run a water line from the Kindergarten playground fence to the strip of land he selected in an undeveloped part of the school grounds. He started an after school gardening club for any student and I remember seeing him with sweat dripping off his chin working with a pack of kids hoeing and digging in the dirt. They weighed the seeds or potato chunks they planted, cared for them as they grew, and then weighed the harvest. They feasted on their produce and shared with the other grades. They wrote about their experience and they sang about it as well. “Inch by inch, row by row, gonna make this garden grow…”
It was late in May that a first grader, Joey arrived at school freshly re-united with his mother after a fairly long stint in foster care. Joey behaved typically for such children often moving away from the other children, laying down and curling up like a ball in a fetal position on the playground. He also stuffed bread and fruit from the cafeteria into his pockets. This food hoarding was also typical of such children. Academically, the teacher said she couldn’t really assess him since he was responding to his trauma more than anything any teacher tried to provide for him. We made a counseling referral for him but it was too late in the school year so the counselor never saw him. At the close of the year, when I made class lists for the next year, I put him in Henry’s class in an attempt to provide balance of the needs of students in any classroom. I actually thought he would be referred for Special Education and leave Henry’s room.
The next Fall, when school started, Joey showed up again and his mother took him to Henry’s classroom to start 2nd grade. Henry understood immediately what this boy needed. He sat him near his own desk and spoke softly to him. He worked with Joey individually on every assignment until the boy completed the work and could understand as well. Henry kept any student in from recess on the playground to complete work or just to read. It was against the California Education Code to deprive students from recess but he didn’t care about that and neither did I. He was not mad at them for misbehaving. He just made them stay to learn. It also gave them the idea that they had to work and many did not come from families that had jobs. These families lived in the ‘welfare apartments’ and received a monthly check along with food stamps. This is where Joey and his mother lived. Older students who had been Henry’s students in earlier years also showed up regularly at his classroom during recess. They liked to see him or read quietly.
One morning just before school started, a particularly priggish woman, a volunteer mother in the classroom complained to Henry that Joey smelled bad, “like dog manure.” Henry checked Joey out as he entered the class and determined he had indeed stepped in some “dog manure” and what’s more had “dog manure” on his pants as if he fell and slid on it. Henry cleaned off what he could with paper towels. Then he called the office to ask the secretary to call home and ask his mother to bring more clothes for Joey. Meanwhile, Joey remained at his desk near Henry.
At the first break the woman came to the office to see me. She told me that she was taking her son home due to the smell of ‘manure’ on one of the children. At about that time, Henry came around the corner and walked up to us. The mother repeated her decision to Henry and said neither she nor her son could stand the smell of ‘dog manure’ in the classroom. Henry looked at her calmly and said, “ I doubt if you could say ‘dog shit’ if you had a mouth full of it.” He then turned to me and said, “I don’t appreciate sanctimonious people who look down on a kid who happened to fall into some dog shit.”
The woman and I stood in silence for a moment. She started breathing hard, turned pale and then walked quickly away heading for her car dragging her son behind her.
Henry looked at me and shrugged. I was stunned and thrilled by the way he cut to the heart of the issue. We needed these middle class people but we needed them on our own terms. I also thought he had blown it and I began to strategize what I would say to the superintendent when he called with the parent complaint. I knew I would defend him completely but I didn’t know how.
In an unexpected turn of events, the mother brought her child back to school the next day. I met her and Henry together in my office to try to work out the situation. She said she wanted her son in a classroom where the teacher had the moral fiber he exhibited. And she was sorry if she presented herself as the kind of person who looked down on children in poverty or other difficult circumstances. Henry said he had jumped to conclusions and judged her in a crude way. He also apologized for his language. I thought they were both amazing. But I knew it was he who changed this woman’s perspective, not me, not my mediating skills. I kept on thinking about what I could do for Henry that would keep him teaching.