My Father and
the Public Good
by Susan Ohanian
June 3, 2005
When I was teaching at an alternative high school, I complained to my dad about one of the students. "He wrecked his car and we're begging his mama not to buy him another one. He's spoiled and lazy, just wasting his time driving around in that car. Nineteen years old and only a sophomore, he'll never graduate."
Dad reminded me that it took him seven years to get through high school.
Growing up poor in Phoenix, he'd go to school for a year and then drop out
for a year, getting jobs to help support the family. He reminded me that the
teachers didn't give up on him just because he was over-age. I was humbled by
that reminder that students have complicated lives outside the schoolhouse doors.
Every time I'd get down on a student, I'd think of
my dad taking 7 years to get the diploma. After his junior year, the owner of a
cemetery where he had a job digging graves offered him a job as manager. "I
could have worn a suit," he told us. "But I told him I had to go back and
finish high school." He never lost that belief in education, serving on
local school boards in our small Northern California farming community for
more than twenty-five years. He was proud to recall that when he first joined
the board, he went to the business community, telling them that the teachers,
scared to complain, needed a raise in pay.
My dad died recently, at age 96, and I look back on the many ways he influenced my life as a teacher. An 18" x 4" board with the stenciled numbers 58-1395.400-500 sits on my desk. It's from a packing case holding a surplus steel pre-fab Butler Building, purchased as Army surplus. Dad bought two of these buildings on June 14, 1946, for $4,536.28. I can verify the date and the cost because Dad wrote down every penny he spent in a day book. That was quite a hunk of change in 1946, and Dad mortgaged his home to do it.
Long before federal hot lunch programs were even a dream, Dad was upset to learn about children coming to school carrying only a raw potato for lunch. Dad read that people were buying Army surplus disassembled portable barracks used in the Pacific Islands during World War II and turning them into utility buildings, cabins, and garages. Dad thought, "Why not a cafeteria?" The school board agreed but technicalities required that they put the deal out to bid, too long a process to allow snapping up a bargain.
Dad mortgaged his home, drove to San Francisco, and bought the buildings. Thirty-two crates and bundles bound by steel tape then sat in our front yard while the school board followed the letter of the law and put the cafeteria out to bid. Once the legalities were satisfied, the school district paid Dad's loan at the bank and Dad enlisted local townspeople to help pour a cement slab and assemble the buildings. The resulting structure most definitely wasn't pretty, but it was functional: it fed hungry kids.
One of my first childhood memories is Dad reassuring me not to be scared by phone calls from officials at the State Department of Education threatening to put him in jail for "obstinately violating school building code." Dad told them that children were more important than bureaucrats. The State sent architects and functionaries with rule books. Over and over the Standardistos repeated, "You can't do this. You can't do this." As president of the school board, my father received official notification of all the codes whose requirements the ex-barracks failed to meet. He also received the threats of jail. Meanwhile, kids continued to eat hot lunch in their new cafeteria. When I started school, I ate lunch in that non-code cafeteria, as children continued to do for decades. When the town built a new school for middle graders, we were bused across town for lunch. The board sent a woman known for her performance at church suppers to take a course on cooking for large numbers. People in the town are still trying to find the right touch to recreate the magic of the beans and tamales we grew up on. Forty years later, I was writing One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards, asking Dad to fill in the holes of my memory about this incident. He took me out to the garage, filled with all the tools he'd used to build our house. ("Everything you need to know you can find in a book," he told us, as he bought books on foundations, plumbing, wiring, and so on.) He pointed to an old board with the stenciled numbers: 58-1395.400-500. That board had an aura for me. When I asked him if I could have it, he got out a ladder and a crowbar and pried it loose. I touch that board and it still radiates conviction and strength.
In later years during budget crunches, Dad fought to maintain a full music program, noting, "Man does not live by bread alone. Music is as important as mathematics." As a funeral director, Dad usually enlisted a high-schooler to play taps at military funerals, but he liked to tell the story of when, at the graveside of an important military funeral, the military brass realized they'd forgotten to bring a bugler. While the military honchos passed blame around, Dad told someone to hurry over to our house and get his trumpet. After he blew taps (not cracking a note), a general harrumphed, "Now I've seen everything: an undertaker playing taps!"
As I mentioned, my Dad wrote down every nickel he ever spent, and he was singularly unsuccessful at inspiring my sister and me to do likewise. I remember spending my allowance on little spiral notebooks, then dutifully entering "15 cents for notebook" and not much else. Dad was tight with his money. My mother usually ran out of her household budget monies toward the end of the month, and I, tight like my dad, could be relied on to have a stash. (He paid me a penny for each dandelion dug up.) So I'd lend Mother $10 and she always paid me a 50 cents premium when she got her budget renewal. Although nothing was ever said, I understood to keep my mouth shut about the loan.
I mention this because where my Dad did spend his money made a profound influence on me. Every time I went to the dentist in Sacramento, I got $1.00 to buy a book. In those days, that meant a hardcover Bobbsey Twins, later Nancy Drew. In the 1940ies, when Dad put us on the train every summer to visit Grandmother in Los Angeles, he gave each of us $20 with instructions to fill an empty suitcase with books we chose at a city bookstore. In later years, although Dad bought his own books at library sales and flea markets, whenever I went home for a visit, he'd drive me to a bookstore and hand me $100. To this day, I can't travel anywhere without buying a few books.
I know that all this has influenced my teaching philosophy, but the thing that made the most practical and profound influence on my teaching career was the letter. Sensing my loneliness when my husband was away on sabbatical, Dad started writing me a letter every day. Of course, when you receive a letter you have to answer it, and thus our daily correspondence began, a correspondence that extended to more than three decades, with Dad threatening to quit every time the Postal Service raised the price of stamps.
These notes were prosaic to the extreme: Dad would tell me about the height of the sunflowers he'd planted; I'd complain about shoveling snow off the sidewalk. I don't think we ever mention pestilence, famine, war, and certainly not politics. Did I mention that my dad was a Republican? But when I was puzzling over how to rev up my writing curriculum for 7th and 8th grade "reluctant readers," I asked myself what writing was important to me. Bingo!
Writing a letter every day can be a real chore, but over time, it teaches you to savor everyday events, to watch for details, to do it even when you don't want to. And the practice helps the writing. I went into class and told my students we were going to write a note to each other every day. They were not enthusiastic. As Michael observed, "Why would we write to you when you're right here to talk to?"
Funny thing. Over time, Michael became my most devoted correspondent. People who have heard me talk will know what I mean when I say that Michael wrote the Asparagus Letter. I read it every time I give a talk because it identifies who I am as a teacher.
The letter exchange was the best thing I ever did as a teacher. I took the strategy with me when I taught very rough kids in the alternative high school; I took letter writing when I taught third grade (where Ricky observed, "Hey! When I take time and write a longer letter, you write a longer one back!"; I took it after I left teaching and volunteered in a local second grade. I wrote an article on the transformation that will occur in a classroom where teachers and students exchange daily notes. In those bad old days of behavioral objectives, this article was turned down by Language Arts, Reading Teacher, and several other professional journals. But I knew they had made a big mistake. When it was published by Learning, I received more fan mail than for anything I have ever written from teachers who tried the idea. Ironically, this article led to my leaving teaching. The editors at Learning asked me if I had any other articles sitting around and before long they invited me to become staff writer.
But I never left teaching. That's why I have decided to devote my life to a website of resistance. I look at the board from the packing crate, the physical evidence of my dad's willingness to fight the establishment, and I know as his daughter I can do no less.
1909 - 2005
Rest In Peace.