A POET WITH LICENSE TO TEACH (or The Lost Art of Teaching)
FRK-3.5.2019-Notes for a Memoir
A POET WITH LICENSE TO TEACH (or The Lost Art of Teaching) Copyright©2019 by Fred R. Kline
“Now is for the doing, the reasons will have to come later.” FRED KLINE, I, Dodo
“It is almost a miracle that modern teaching methods have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for what this delicate little plant needs more than anything, besides stimulation, is freedom” ALBERT EINSTEIN
Perhaps my search for the lost art of teaching will seem more like a lost artist trying to teach. I thought teaching all the way was worth trying and I dreamed about doing it. Committing above all to thinking and ideas, to seeking the truth and going all the way with it, up and down the slippery slope and damn the torpedoes. Waging war against ignorance and lies and swearing not to teach any bullshit. Stepping bravely into the world and asking questions. Actually inspiring students to learn!
Visualize a beautiful red apple. It was just plucked from the tree of knowledge and handed to you by some kid that you lit up. That’s success in teaching. Being a real teacher is like being a real artist, so don’t expect to see results too quickly or too clearly or even ever. I think you should just do it and see what lights get turned on. See that distant star, still burning into eternity, that’s some kid a good teacher lit up. I thought I could do it.
When I was 27, back in the summer of 1968, I was already a veteran of the 1960-62 Kennedy-era Marine Corps and part of the pre-Vietnam reconnaissance force sent to Southeast Asia. Now Johnson’s and Nixon’s “War in Vietnam” was in full bloom and I thought it was total bullshit. “Crime in Vietnam” I thought was a better name for it. I was damned lucky to have missed that party. Every chance I got I marched against the war. I would tell a draft eligible young man to trust me, the war was a lie, and do what you can to avoid it. I can be very persuasive when I know something for sure and I think more than a few listened.
After several years in psychedelic San Francisco—1965-66-67- and half of 68—both as a struggling poet and as a directed older student on the GI Bill, finishing up my B.A. in English and my M.A. in Creative Writing at San Francisco State, I was ready to become a controversial teacher. It was the only thing worth doing with my degrees. It was an ambition I had. I signed on for a year in a Dos Palos, California public school in the San Joaquin Valley as an 8th Grade English teacher and was directed to Bryant Middle School.
Dos Palos (Two Sticks) was not far from Fresno. This was William Saroyan’s hometown. Fresno had achieved a kind of legendary status from his stories and plays and I had heard that Saroyan had come home and was busy writing. He might have still been living in Paris for all I really knew. I was tempted to call him but I didn’t. I waited in vain to hear from Saroyan when my teaching troubles began to have almost daily space in the Fresno Bee. Not a peep. But just the thought of this great Armenian life force nearby gave me courage.
About 90 miles to the west of Dos Palos was Salinas where John Steinbeck, then still alive and very ill and living in Long Island, grew up and where “The Grapes of Wrath” was nurtured. When it was published in 1939, the book opened many wounds in his home ground and he was treated as a pariah for decades. In 1956 Steinbeck wrote to a young writer in Salinas: “Don't think for a moment that you will ever be forgiven for being what they call 'different. You won't! I still have not been forgiven. Only when I am delivered in a pine box will I be considered 'safe’. After I had written the Grapes of Wrath and it had been to a large extent read and sometimes burned, the librarians at the Salinas Public Library, who had known my folks remarked that it was lucky my parents were dead so that they did not have to suffer this shame.”
During my time in the region, I recall the city of Salinas refused to name a public library after Steinbeck. It made the papers. In honor of this dishonor I decided to read his “The Red Pony” aloud and entire to my eighth grade classes. They soaked it up like water on dry ground. For that brave act I was actually called into the Superintendent’s office and asked to lay off because Steinbeck’s vocabulary included hell and damn any number of times. I said “Are You Kidding!” and walked out and slammed the door. The old codger Superintendent then visited my classes and sat listening, taking notes, hoping to intimidate me. That was just one count against me in my life of crime as a teacher in Dos Palos.
John Steinbeck died during the Christmas of my troubles in Dos Palos. I tried to attend the ceremony for his ashes in Salinas but it was only open to his family. At that moment, as Steinbeck was laid to rest, the heroic Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers were not far away still marching and fasting and famously boycotting grapes. The cause born in “The Grapes of Wrath” for fair treatment of migrant farm workers and resurrected by Cesar Chavez inched closer to protection under California law. The cotton and cantaloupe farmers of Dos Palos dreaded Cesar’s arrival.
The only plan I had, as I set upon my career as a teacher, was to have a year of teaching dangerously, a year to teach all the way to the limits of truth, to personify Socrates’ great thought, that the unexamined life is not worth living. I couldn’t have been more energized. You only live once.
I began my first year as a teacher in the sad summer of 1968, still depressed over the recent assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, and with President John F. Kennedy’s assassination seeming like yesterday. The three murders linked up like a train to hell. Not long before in San Francisco, I had marched yet again to end the war in Vietnam. The train to hell just kept moving along.
As I stepped inside my empty classroom for the first time, a shocking sight stopped me in my tracks. On the TV set hanging high in a corner of the room, its volume weirdly blasting, the brutal riot of police and students at the Chicago Democratic Convention was erupting. Blood seemed to splash out of the TV. The scene, coming at me live, left me shaking. I took it as an omen, and felt as if I were an actor in a Greek tragedy. The train to hell was on track.
In 1968, Tricky Dicky Nixon was President of the United States and Righteous Ronnie Reagan was Governor of California, both right-wing nutcases out in the open, our fearless leaders. When they said follow me, I went the other way. Reagan’s Superintendent of Public Education was an extremely unenlightened right-wing nutcase named Max Rafferty who would be chosen a little later by Presidential-hopeful George Wallace, the racist attack-dog Governor of Alabama, as Secretary of Education in his dream cabinet. Rafferty was detestable, a self-made moron. I knew he and Reagan would be challenged by my teaching commitment. I could clearly see my destiny as a teacher and went forward into the breech.
A poet given license to teach! To me that meant to teach the truth as far as I could. The thought thrilled me. Yes, I knew that the truth is a slippery slope, and so is the good for that matter, but I was ready for the slide. Lies in the classroom were my enemy. No more bullshit! Question authority! Mr. 60’s, that was me, tell it like it is.
The Dos Palos School Board surely had no idea of the depth of my commitment. Tick-tock, it was their last minute to hire a teacher. They were hard up. They hired an employment agency to find me—and they would take 20% of my pitiful salary! It wasn’t about money for me but I began teaching already angry at the Dos Palos School Board because they were too cheap to pay my fee. I took a deep breath and signed myself into a debt that would take years to pay off. And there I was, all shaved and well dressed and reporting for duty.
As truth-tellers with words or with pictures or with any other medium, the artist-as-teacher is still a rebel and he challenges by his very nature the way things are supposed to be in society and yes, in the average retrograde public school classroom. I held Socrates as a model and followed his example with a missionary zeal. Jesus, as teacher, had also entered my mind, but I was not feeling messianic or religious. I never mentioned Jesus, but a number of people in the community did and that embarrassed me. For me, only an ethical road to martyrdom was worthwhile.
Predictably, I was handed a potion of hemlock and also nailed to a cross. I had corrupted the minds of my 8th grade students with critical thinking, the religion that tries to get at the truth. The unexamined life of my students had been violated. Alas, their prescribed nourishment was that literary hodgepodge called the Bible, and they were not to be nurtured on philosophical or contemporary ideas. I dared the School Board and the community to come after me and they did.
They first of all pulled me out of the classroom before Christmas, after three and a half months, and offered to buy out my contact. I refused. I was then given a silly new job writing an English curriculum in my own little office. I wrote it quickly and then studied Gandhi, and the just published “The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge” by Carlos Castaneda, and the Greek philosophers. And I wrote some poems. After school, for a while, students stopped by my house to visit until their parents forbade them. A few persisted. At the end of the year they fired me. I then demanded a State-run hearing from the Reagan-Rafferty kangaroo court, and predictably lost, which stripped me of my California Public School Teaching Credential and barred me from teaching in California Public Schools. Nobody gave me a Purple Heart but I left badly wounded and shell-shocked. No surprise.
What exactly had I done in my 8th grade English classes to warrant the death penalty?
We debated the war in Vietnam. We discussed censorship. I read aloud and entire great short novels like Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea” and Steinbeck’s “The Red Pony”. We had wonderful writing exercises after reading, trying to write a paragraph in the style of the two Nobel Prize winners, and it worked with amazing success. I asked the students to go see a controversial new movie, “The Graduate”, with essays and discussion to follow. They wrote endlessly in class about ideas which we later discussed. I refused to use the mind-numbing State-sanctioned English textbook and ignored handing in my weekly lesson plans. On the first day I gave everyone an A for the semester and told them I believed in them and expected them to live up to my high expectations. We defined and explored words. We studied “The San Francisco Chronicle” and issues of the day. We wrote about art. We spent whole periods reading from assorted books laid out on a table, aimed at introducing them to great writers including James Baldwin, Gertrude Stein, Walt Whitman, Thomas Wolfe, Sinclair Lewis, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Shakespeare, Poe, Yeats, Emily Dickenson. Ten minutes each, then get another book, like musical chairs, then twenty minutes discussion. We had a lot of ground to cover.
I let the students know that I was a poet and put out several copies of my thin volume I, Dodo, freshly published at my expense by Double-H Press, a fine little press in the heart of Haight-Ashbury. It was printed in apple green ink. Most of the kids had never known a published writer and my small celebrity catalyzed their interest. [Two years later, when I was teaching at Columbus College of Art & Design, Crazy Love would follow.]
“Is this stuff true?” “It’s kind of like day dreaming, not what I would call the true story of Fred Kline” “Why did you title it ‘I do-do’?” (Roaring laughter) “It’s not I do-do you dodo.” (Roaring laughter). That little bit of repartee became famous and was a guaranteed laugh. It’s not I do-do you dodo.
The joint was jumping with intellectual excitement let me tell you. Talk about teaching, talk about learning! Those kids were reading and writing and thinking as if they had just awakened. There is something to be said about having a captive audience. You can put them to sleep or you can get them to sing.
I, Dodo found its way to the Superintendent and he found some very cloaked sexual innuendo in a few poems and demanded I remove the book. No “bad” words were found, only metaphor and nuance. I refused to remove the book and called the newspaper which reported the censorship in a front page article. Buzz, buzz, buzz went Dos Palos. I should have had copies at the grocery store for $5 each. I scattered a few copies around.
Amazingly, at that very moment—as if orchestrated by the Greek gods—in response to my sending out presentation copies of I, Dodo, I began to receive appreciative notes and letters from some of the most respected writers in America. Conrad Aiken, the great American poet; Norman O. Brown, the New Age philosopher who was then teaching at UC Santa Cruz; Peter Matthiessen, who had recently been nominated for his first National Book Award; Mark Schorer, the noted literary critic and Pulitzer Prize winner at UC Berkeley; and even sweet Mary Hemingway, widow of the legendary novelist who loved I, Dodo and even sent me a separate Christmas card. I was stunned by Aiken’s letter which welcomed me to the fold of poets, a kindness I felt not unrelated to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous note embracing Walt Whitman after receiving a presentation copy of “Leaves of Grass”. And the fact that Walt and I had both published our own books and sent them out to the literati strengthened our kinship. I was no Walt Whitman, but the coincidence resonated in the merry bells of Christmas.
Once the newspaper publicized the testimony of the literary lions, I was pronounced a legitimate poet and not a degenerate. These notes from heaven caused my enemies to retreat and plan another attack. My Greek drama was playing out complete with the deus-ex-machina. The gods had granted me my moment as a poet in Dos Palos, California.
Most of my work in the classroom was offensive to the Principal, the Superintendent, and the School Board, and numerous parents complained. I was under attack. Irate mothers stormed into my classroom and upbraided me in front of the students for daring to debate the Vietnam War. Parents complained about my putting out books by commie pinkos like James Baldwin. “The Graduate” encouraged sexual decadence and adultery. Threatening phone calls at home were common. In self defense, I had called the attacks to the attention of a reporter at the Fresno Bee, and then the shit really hit the fan. Front page articles were common across the state; Letters to the Editor pro and con materialized in the papers; talk-shows called.
The teacher that I had become and his radical acts became a statewide cause celebre. Before long the faculty had split. A small group of young firebrands supporting me and their own bias for the place of the examined life in the classroom lined up against the old guard who were supporting the administration. I think of them as heroes of the teaching profession and their names are on a bronze plaque in my Pantheon*(See endnote). In the end, the young teachers all resigned, the principal was fired, and the superintendent retired. I’m sure my students began to examine their lives. The old school and the old way of teaching were in ruins and most of the students thought about Why. I can only hope the WHY continues to inspire them to do the same: Examine your life. Question authority. Read John Steinbeck and James Baldwin. Make love not war. Etc. That didn’t seem to be asking too much.
These were historic times. During the summer of 1969, after I had left Dos Palos and moved to Berkeley for the summer, the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped off the Eagle onto the surface of the Moon while Michael Collins orbited and insured the way back to Earth. I was overcome watching it on TV. It was the greatest thing I had ever seen. It seemed like the resurrection of the human race. In a way, I felt I shared in the miracle. Miraculously, my students and I had made it too and taken one small step onto a hidden moon we discovered together. I was not ready to say it was a giant leap for mankind or even for the small town of Dos Palos. But I had done it and survived. I felt I was a teacher for the new world and my students had explored it with me. I left them directions if they wanted to return.
By a wonderful coincidence, I shared the same sky with Apollo 11. That summer as I flew into the night sky to Columbus (!), Ohio to interview for my next teaching job at Columbus College of Art & Design, Armstrong, Aldrin, and Collins were on their way to the Moon. I stared out the window of the plane hoping to see the fiery tail of their rocket. The human race seemed to be on a rocket to the stars, leaving the train to hell far behind. Well, it worked as a metaphor for me and I grabbed onto my optimism and stayed hopeful.
After my teaching time in Dos Palos, I was a wreck and the school where I taught was wrecked as well. A pile of ashes remained, and questions, questions, questions. What happened? The children I left behind, I hoped, now had more strength to seek the truth and fight for their right to have it. Now they knew the quest wasn’t easy. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
If enlightenment ever spread over Dos Palos I did not know about it. I never returned. Recently, for the first time in close to forty years, I heard from one of my Dos Palos students, whom I remembered as one of the best and the brightest. Jim found me on the Internet, we shared life stories, and he wanted very much to get together sometime. I had left Jim when he was 13 and now he was 51, married, and had an important job in the insurance industry. I had gone from 27 to 66 and I was still climbing my mountain in search of the Grail. We were like Rip van Winkle characters to each other. One weekend when Jim was 400 miles away he drove in the dead of winter to see me and spent a few days. It was a pilgrimage he said he had to make and it was wonderful seeing him again. He was like a long lost son. Kids and teachers change a lot in forty years and we were both in a wide eyed state of rediscovering each other.
Jim had come to thank me for giving him permission to learn, for opening his mind to learning. Imagine that. He remembered so many things that had touched him about our classes together. Then he talked about his love of learning and his rich intellectual life during all the many years, and about himself, just an ordinary country boy who had suddenly awakened in the 8th grade and found that the life of the mind was waiting and that he was entitled to it. It was the great discovery of his life. What can compare to the escape from educational bondage, to granting yourself the freedom to learn? As far as I’m concerned, that was a cause worth dying for in the 1968-69 Dos Palos War*.
*My Pantheon of Honor in the Dos Palos War Bryant Middle School Teachers: Bill Niman (who later established Niman Ranch, the world famous organic meat company), Tom Peterson, Norman and Brenda Smith, Mary Soares, and my first wife Susan Kline. Dos Palos Citizens: Mildred and Troy Carter, Mr. & Mrs. Ralph Jessen and 100-year-old Ma Jessen, and Shirley Yonkers—respected and extraordinary townspeople, offered the revolutionary teachers their public support and implicit protection, which I always felt kept us from serious harm in Dos Palos, a bastion of the extreme right-wing John Birch Society. #