My Reading Crusade, Part 7

When the principal of Southeastern High School called me into his office and asked me if I would be willing to take a new position as Reading Specialist, I said “No.”

Not long after, he called me to his office again and asked me to take the Reading Specialist position. I again said “No.”

Yet a third time I was called into the principal’s office and asked to take the Reading Specialist’s position. The principal asked me why I did not wish to take the position. I said that I was unwilling to work under the current English Department Head. I said that if he would guarantee that I would be free to use my own teaching materials, not those furnished by the Detroit Board of Education, and not have any interference from the English Department Head, I would be willing to make the change, though I far preferred working under Mr. Mercer in the Social Studies Department. The principal agreed to my requests, and I took the position in room 307 as a reading specialist.

When I met my new classes at the beginning of the semester, the students asked me on the very first day, “Mr. Smith, is this a class for dummies?” I answered, “Absolutely not! If you follow my directions you will become near-geniuses!”

The students worked well with me. They had good attendance. They presented no problems discipline-wise. They earned good grades in my class and many of them were on the honor roll. These students, though the administration had cautioned me they were likely to drop out before graduation, kept coming.

The state inspector visited my program and was amazed at what the students were accomplishing in my class. The inspector cautioned me to be sure to copyright my materials so they would not be stolen from me.

The English supervisor for the school district of Detroit came to observe my teaching one very snowy winter morning. He visited my first hour class. In his evaluation he said he was amazed that all the students were present and on time to my class, despite the bad weather. The students clearly knew what they were doing and why they were doing it. The supervisor praised my use of teacher-written, professionally-produced materials. After visiting my class, the supervisor visited the other reading specialist’s class. Because of the bad weather, the teacher was late and so were her students. The attendance to her class was very poor that day. To top it off, the teacher had accidentally left her grade book and lesson plans at home. She was a wonderful teacher, but that day she had a very bad day.

I almost never had a student drop out of my class. One time, as the Union Representative, I was secretly asked by the District Court to prepare a report on the school administrator’s compliance with the federal desegregation order. I submitted a comprehensive report. One of the pages I submitted was an attendance referral for a student who had been quite regular in attendance to my class, but suddenly stopped coming. So far he had earned a “B” in the course. The counselor returned the attendance referral sheet, upon which he had written in heavy black marker across the page, “Who is this?” Apparently, even the counselor was unaware that this student was attending school. The wife of one of the judges who was a science teacher told me some while later that the judges never forgot my report, and mentioned that page in particular. I learned from one of the union executives that my principal and assistant principal came within “a quarter of an inch of being fired” because of my report. I was warned to never breathe a word that I had authored that report!

When my students took the reading comprehension post-test at the end of the semester, they did very well. The entire class, statistically speaking, improved by two years. I noticed they did even better on the California Achievement Test than they did on the Stanford Reading Test I always used. Many individual students showed reading gains of up to five years. That made a great difference in their lives. Many of these students came back to see me years after their high school graduation to tell me how they were doing in college. I  remember one girl, in particular, who was successful in law school at Wayne State University. I will never forget her, for when she took the High School Proficiency Test, she was given a failing grade on the writing portion. I contested that evaluation for her, for I had personally graded her paper using two different evaluation scales, one the school system used, and one I devised which was much tougher. The authorities conceded that I was correct, and granted her a passing score on the writing proficiency test. Some time after that I was made a writing specialist and was one of two teachers from Detroit, and one of a half dozen or so additional teachers state-wide, appointed to set the writing standards each year on the MEAP Test, the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, a test students must pass in order to graduate high school.

Sometimes good things come to an unexpected end. In the middle of the second semester one year, the administration determined that the eleventh and twelfth graders I had been teaching were not supposed to be in the program I was teaching. The students were arbitrarily transferred to other senior English teachers classrooms, and I was given a new set of ninth and tenth grade students to teach. My English department head realized this was very unfair to my original class students, so he secretly allowed me to retain these students on my class rolls. The teachers to whom my students had been transferred agreed to let me grant these students the grade they would have normally earned had they stayed in my class. It gave us all some extra work to do, but it avoided having the students utterly disadvantaged by having to catch up in a new class. Some of the teachers had told me that they would not compromise their standards and this would result in all of my students receiving a failing grade and thus delay their graduation.

In the meantime, I was able to have my new students do very well, using the linguistic program, now available from Amazon under the title, The Language Enrichment Program. One of my better students talked to me after class one day and warned me that I must take a job immediately at some other school. He said to me that I would be killed if I continued teaching at Southeastern High School. I took his warning with a “grain of salt.”

About three weeks later, on March 13, 1986, I arrived at the back teacher parking lot at about 7:00 am. I listened to the end of the Southwest Radio Church program until 7:15 am. While I was listening to the program a van parked beside me. I figured it was some maintenance workers. The van then was moved to the driver’s side of my car. I got out of my car and proceeded to walk the other way across the lot toward the entrance door I usually used. Someone called out and ordered me to stop. I did not stop. I figured a few more steps and I would be in sight of the ROTC class which met at that early hour before school. The windows of that classroom looked out on the parking lot, and I might be seen. The person who had called for me to stop caught up to me, walked beside me to show me his gun, then stepped behind me as I continued walking, and shot me at point-blank range in the back of the head.

The force of the shot knocked me down flat on my face in the snow and mud of the parking lot. My glasses were broken. When I “came to,” he asked me for my wallet. I refused to give it to him, but handed my money, about thirty dollars, and put my wallet back in my pocket. He was most upset that I carried so little money. He ran back to his vehicle and drove off.

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