We Are Kindling Schist because in U.S. education, "it was always burning." Read. Comment. Submit.

JERRY LEWIS By Lawrence Zimmerman

In the late 60’s, the Federal government was pushing the Teacher Corps program. In return for a two year commitment to teach in inner city schools, you would receive a tuition free Master’s degree in urban education in evening classes. I was finishing my year as a Vista Volunteer in West Virginia, and the thought of becoming an inner city school teacher appealed to me.

I applied and was assigned to the Conestoga School, an all-black elementary school in Omaha, Nebraska. Omaha at that time was rigidly segregated, and naming a school after the wagons by which white settlers invaded native American territory was a cruel irony. In the summer before our first year, we were given a crash course in teaching methods and how to handle behavior problems. The curriculum seemed almost irrelevant. In a moment of grandiosity, I talked the principal into culling all the sixth grade behavioral problems from the other sixth grade classes and giving them to me in one classroom, my untested and untrained theory being that high energy and creative delivery of mundane curriculum materials would engage the kids and break through years of cruelly repetitive rote teaching methodologies.

In one of my innumerable attempts to make learning relevant to my sixth grade kids, I started a journal assignment. Each kid had to write three pages of material in their journals each day. Only the act of writing would be checked. They could tell stories of their lives that had never seen the light of day. As I read their stories, I was struck by the linearity and randomness of their descriptions: “ …we went over to Raymond’s house and while we were there we beat up his brother..then we went to the store and stole some gum” and so on and on. Simple concrete descriptions of events without an emotional context–a strange challenge for a teacher. At first the students thought this was an extremely silly assignment, but over time they came to love it.

Except Jerry Lewis.

Jerry Lewis was a tiny, skinny kid who often needed a bath; his hair was dusty and nappy. He wore the same jeans and flannel shirt just about every day. Jerry vibrated with an anger that never abated–he was VERY pissed off all the time. At first I thought it was me–every assignment was greeted with, “Fuck you, I ain’ doin’ that–you white mothafucka.” However, as the kids had learned, it was easier just to stay well clear of him. If sufficiently provoked, Jerry would fight anyone till he was beaten to a pulp and still spit non-stop invective.

Every single day, Jerry doggedly wrote his name in his journal over and over again to fill the three page requirement and would gleefully inform me of his accomplishment. “I’m done,” he would shout and smile–a rare event. Exasperated with Jerry’s mouth, I would sometimes pull Jerry’s desk across the hall to a large supply closet and leave him there for an hour or two–until it dawned on me that Jerry was happy as a clam in the closet. One day I stupidly told Jerry that if he didn’t cut it out, I was going to personally escort him home to talk with his parents. It was a bluff on my part–hence stupid. His eyes went wide in fear, but he was nonetheless compelled to spit out “Fuck you.” My bluff called, I said, “That’s it, I’ve had enough, I’m taking you home this afternoon.”

After school, I packed Jerry in my car and drove the short distance to his house. As we walked up the front steps I held onto Jerry’s shirt collar to keep him from running. He squirmed, but I got him to the door.

Mom opened the door and looked at me and then at Jerry. I said, “Mrs. Lewis, I’m Jerry’s teacher…” Without a word she backhanded him with such force that spit flew out of his mouth. She then grabbed him by his hair and threw him into the hallway, where she kicked him in the stomach. She wheeled on me and shouted, “I’ll take care of him!” and slammed the door.

For the remainder of the year, Jerry was quiet and more or less behaved. But he looked at me every day with a depth of contempt I knew I would never overcome. I had made an incalculable mistake.

No matter the number of kindnesses or instances of understated compassion, Jerry would forever hate me–and everyone else.


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