LESSON LEARNED

My teaching career has run just short of fifty years, and I have learned many valuable lessons along the way. Students take advantage of new teachers sometimes--not necessarily in a bad way--but it's important to reflect on the experience and turn it into a source of wisdom. I have made many mistakes as a teacher, but there is one mistake that I benefitted from almost immediately.





























The "Disco Duck" incident was the typical playful prank pulled on a new teacher. I started my public school career at the height of the disco music period in the mid-Seventies. Sure, the songs were catchy, often defined by a rhythmic bass line, but they were mostly bland or meaningless. They were great to dance to to, though, and people young and old ventured out to discotheques to dance like John Travolta to the music of Donna Summer. One afternoon, I started teaching my class of approximately 30 eighth-graders, when the strains of the inane # 1 hit, "Disco Duck", blurted out of the speaker in the back of my room. "Someone must have left the switch on down in the main office," a student said--an occasional error that I have seen many times in many schools. Even now, it is not uncommon to hear a conversation in the main office because the switch to the PA system was left down. So, I put all my notes down on my podium and headed down the aisle to the door of the room. I was going to take the flight of stairs down to the Main Office and let them know. But just as I got outside the door, the music stopped. I took a deep breath and headed back to the front of the room, gathered my notes, and continued my discussion of the Smoot-Hawley tariff (I taught American History too back then). Just as I was getting up steam, the novelty hit by Rick Dees and His Cast of Idiots again started blaring from the back of the room. I sighed. Once again I put down my sheaf of papers and headed down the aisle to get this fixed in the Main Office. And once again, just as I reached the hallway, the music came to an abrupt halt. When I started up my discussion of protectionist trade policies once more, Rick Dees came a third time, encouraging everyone to get down to the funky beat! Finally, the coin dropped, and I realized that this was a student's primitive Boom Box, hidden in the back of the room, from which the sound was emanating--not the nearby Public Address speaker! D'uh. The kids all laughed at me. No blood, no foul.

That was decidedly not the case with the Coyne incident. I lived in the eastern suburbs of Cincinnati for a period of three years, driving out to rural farm country on open highway for half an hour at 80mph to teach at Williamsburg High School, a 6-12 school not far from the Kentucky border with an average grade of 80 students. Just to give you an idea what it was like, as a teacher I was given a schedule of 6 teaching periods--three of American history in Grade 11, two of English 8, and one of English 10. I was in classes on two floors, so I taught 6 classes, in 2 disciplines, in 2 rooms, for 3 grades. For this assignment I was amply rewarded with a salary of $9,700 my first year. At the time, inflation was well into the double digits. My first raise was 1 1/2%. My second year raise was 1/2%.


I usually started my history classes with ten minutes of current events. It gave me the opportunity to do a little monologue and pretend I was Johnny Carson or David Letterman. My students seemed to enjoy my wry "take" on what was happening internationally or in Washington D.C. Sometimes, though, the news was localized, and one day I told my students about a nut-job who was making a name for himself in Cincinnati. I confess that I was baffled by this wacko who drove a WWII-vintage Nazi halftrack or an American Sherman tank around the area where I lived. I occasionally saw him on the parkway near my house, driving his tank or halftrack (I believe it was illegal to drive a vehicle with tank tread instead of wheels), blazoning signs about how if he were to be elected to one office or other that he would clean up all the ills of our society. Sometimes he parked them illegally on public property.

His name was John Coyne, junkyard owner and self-proclaimed "Freedom Fighter for Liberty", and he lived in rural Ohio, east of Cincinnati, not far from where I taught. His voice would blare from a megaphone while driving, complaining that the local police and justice system consisted of Neo-Nazis who were depriving us of all our individual freedoms. He referred to them as the "Southwest Ohio Gestapo". Invariably, he would be pulled over and ticketed, but that would only spur him on to further diatribes and demonstrations against the authorities.

Well, one day I was starting class. I had seen Coyne get pulled over the day before by the police, so I began talking about how this Looney-Tunes character was getting headlines for his bizarro behavior. "What a loser!" I laughed. All of a sudden, a girl in my class slowly stood up. Her face grew redder by the second. Her eyes glared. She fairly spat out at me the following words: "That's.....my.....father." I was stunned. I remember that we had a number of students with the name of Coyne in the school. I spluttered out some sort of "I was just kidding" kind of explanation--you know--"I was just quoting what OTHER people were saying." The kind of BS you hear from politicians who get caught in behavior that runs counter to their professed words. I was really stretching it though, mortified as I was by my faux pas. Then, the girl and the rest of the class burst out into hysterical laughter! It was just a joke! On me! Coyne wasn't related at all! Everyone was doubled over with laughter at my expense! They were laughing about my pathetic excuses for my comments--quoting them back to me!

I learned an important lesson, though. Fortunately, the price I paid was a few moments of humiliation rather than a lawsuit or a loss of my job. You, indeed, never know. I am still sometimes irreverent about certain subjects--orange-haired, short-fingered presidents or the College Board--but I will remember the lesson of John Coyne until I am around no longer.


P.S. Shortly after I moved back to Jersey, John Coyne was arrested and imprisoned for 17 years! Apparently a man and two teenage boys were swiping parts from his auto graveyard and he shot all three, killing the man! He appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, but they wouldn't hear his case. Coyne served longer than his sentence because he even tried a prison escape. After he got out of prison, he purchased old military vehicles and got arrested again. He was a memorable character.