Wednesday, August 15, 2012
CELEBRATING ARNOLD HORSHACK – AND THOSE WHO TEACH HIM.
Arnold Horshack was a student of mine. Every year for thirty-plus years, Arnold was there. It’s true. My first teaching assignment was in a small school district just south of Chico, California. Using some specially earmarked Federal funds, I was hired to instruct two sections of twelve or fifteen seventh and eight graders. They were selected because, now days, we’d call them “at risk.” Back then, my colleagues used words like troubled, undisciplined and disruptive. I was too young and unfiltered to realize my classroom was the dumping ground. I simply had a group of Sweathogs that I was determined to teach. No kidding. I called ‘em Sweathogs and soon, so did the staff.
My first Arnold Horshack was a roly-poly seventh grader who couldn’t tuck in his shirt. He read and re-read Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. He produced an excellent oral book report and full color poster at the end of the year. As a newbie, I’d forgotten he’d also produced an excellent oral report on the book back in October.
My second Arnold Horshack appeared the next year. Also a seventh grader, his parents were engaged in a nasty divorce. The dad was abusive. The kid showed up dirty – even with twigs and leaves in his hair from sleeping in the orchard rather than in the house. He didn’t produce an oral report before he left unexpectedly in March, but I missed having to shoo him out of the room at lunchtime so I could hit the men’s room. (Ten years ago, our paths crossed. He is a sheriff’s sergeant in a nearby jurisdiction.)
In my third year of teaching, I was given a regular classroom. The Federal dollars had disappeared and with it, the Sweathog classroom. Still, Horshack showed up in the guise of a little farm girl who didn’t shower and was obsessed with a minor character on “Happy Days” called Pinkie Atascadero. She wrote endless stories about Pinkie. At one point, her mother, who’d missed both parent conferences, stuck her head in my classroom only to say that her “Susie” certainly likes school this year, and that was out of the ordinary.
Moving from the classroom to the school office, from Durham to Jamestown to Chester to Granite Bay – four distinctly different communities economically, socio-economically, geographically, and politically – Arnold Horshack always seemed to show up. In Jamestown, he appeared as a Kindergarten student who, wearing his much older brother’s jacket one winter day, reached in a pocket, pulled out a bag of marijuana and asked me, “What’s this?” Cause for immediate expulsion under the education code, I tossed the stuff out as I walked him to class. Up the hill in Crystal Falls, he appeared as a fifth grader whose given name was Jupiter. The young man wrote and illustrated stories in my office at lunch when the teasing of the kids on the yard became too intense. Soon a couple of kids who saw his work asked if they could join him and equally soon, I didn’t have a lunch hour. In Chester, Arnold was a sixth grader whose mom turned tricks for the landlord in order to make rent on a mobile home with broken windows. In Granite Bay, Horshack appeared as a first grader who I more than once saw rocketing out of his teacher’s classroom – upon her demand – because he could not/would not sit still for whatever activity was planned. “I think I had too many cookies for breakfast,” he told me one time as he simmered down in my office.
The greatest calling is that of a teacher. Over the centuries, teaching has been the means by which we forward our culture, our mores, our truths and our fables to the next generation. Beginning with the oral tradition, passing through the age of print and now, transformed by the digital age, the objective is the same. Prepare our youngsters for a productive, cooperative, literate and happy existence.
My wife is continuing to teach as I do this something else. The school year starts in a week, but many of my educator buddies began as early as today. Most of them, I hope, by the final bell of the first day will have identified their Arnold Horshack. He (or she) is there. The Arnold Horshacks of our classrooms test our mettle. They force upon us the need to be compassionate, creative and flexible while maintaining both curricular standards and a healthy sense of humor. They’re the ones that will keep us on our toes, wear us out, cause us to drink and then reward us by doing something incredibly unexpected or noble. They’re the ones we can’t help loving – the unexpected gift we received when we got into the business.
Teacher buddies: Thanks for what you are about to do. I wish you the greatest success.
Note: Ron Palillo played Arnold Horshack on “Welcome Back Kotter” in the 1970s. He died the other day at the age of 63. In 2010, he moved to Florida and became a teacher.
Church of the Open Road