Published by the Delaware County Daily Times July 28, 2019
By Joseph Batory, Times Columnist
Many historians overgeneralize the 1960’s as a time of drugs and moral decadence for that generation. For some, that was certainly true…but not for all. For many others living in that period, the 1960’s was a time of idealism, a time of dreamers, trying to make a better world.
The beautiful Joan (to whom I have been married for 51 years) and I began our teaching careers together in the late 1960’s. We were unafraid of the urban challenges of our new jobs in the Camden New Jersey Public Schools, serving students from “the most dangerous city in America.”
Joan and I were youthful idealists. We were determined to bring quality education to the underclasses. We were also strong advocates of civil rights for people of color and women. And we were far from alone in this. Joan and I had lots of friends who shared those dreams. None of us took drugs or abandoned our humanitarian priorities. And across the nation, numerous kindred spirits were doing the same things we were. This “good side” is a largely untold story of the 1960’s in the USA.
Joan’s initial assignment was as a history teacher at Camden‘s Woodrow Wilson High School. The student body was a very diverse socioeconomic mix of races, full of economic struggles.
As turbulence raced through America with riots and protests of the Vietnam War and racial injustice, Woodrow Wilson High where Joan worked became one more powder keg. For many months, when I dropped off Joan at the school each morning, National Guard troops patrolled the front steps preserving order among the students. Have a nice day dear!
(File Photo)The National Guard at Woodrow Wilson High School in the 1960’s
During a major school-wide student walkout from classes, Joan‘s marvelous rapport with kids became apparent. She was the only one with whom the student walkout leaders would negotiate. With the school principal hiding behind locked doors in his office, the mini-skirted, long blonde haired 23-year-old Joan hammered out an agreement with many hundreds of angry kids in the school auditorium and managed to get everyone back into class. This was rather miraculous. Indeed, I became convinced that Joan was really Joan of Arc reincarnated because of this magnificent feat.
Joan was assigned the toughest, lowest track students at Woodrow Wilson high because, amazingly, she could handle them. She was the master of rapport. She was quick-witted and usually a step ahead of her kids and challenged them academically. And her students liked her!
Joan did have one elective class for talented more advanced students. She allowed the kids to choose the area of study and they picked “religions.” Joan assigned each student to present a paper regard the principle of a religion other than their own. The class also had voluntary field trips to religious services of various denominations, and these were very well attended by the students. Representatives from different religions were also invited as guest speakers in class.
One of the strangest classroom visitations was by two Mormon missionaries, handsome well-dressed young men. A few female students were immediately smitten, but then the two missionaries began positing the inferiority of people of color and women in general. Needless to say, this message did not play well with a racially diverse classroom full of kids led by their popular female teacher. The Mormons were soon dismissed, fortunately with their bodies intact!
One of the most amazing places in intercity Camden those days was a large home owned by two teachers, Alison and George. They were a racially integrated couple, a generally a despised oddity of the time, but Joan and I admired them greatly. That’s because they were two of the most caring and effective human beings we have ever known.
Allison and George had an open-door policy for Woodrow Wilson students. Joan and I spent many hours in their home marveling at what the two of them did with kids. During the evenings and all day on weekends scores of young people from the Camden streets would just show up to hang out or just have a snack which their hosts provided.
Bring us your tired and weary of Camden. No matter what the individual issues, danger/fear, being on the run, hunger, academic help, or just seeking out an adult who would listen to them, Alison and George always had time for everybody. It was mind-boggling. They were a couple of true saints, living the true definition of the word holy each day (And, incidentally, George had three sons who played in the NFL).
Teaching in the Camden Public School System was formidable to say the least. America’s great writer re poverty, Jonathan Kozol, has immortalized the deprivation and quality of life of this city in his books. Sometimes Camden could be heartbreaking. It could be uplifting one day and devastating the next.
Joan and I quickly discovered that beyond the daily routines of preparing lessons, delivering subject matter, and grading papers, there is much more to being an effective teacher. Quality teaching is certainly about opening the minds of students academically. But, it is also about getting to the hearts and souls of these young people. It is often about helping kids to struggle and grow through the trials of life inside and outside school. Teaching is not just a job. It is a vocation, a calling to make a difference for students. Great teachers do that every day.
Adapted with permission from the third book (Joey Lets it All Hang Out!) of Joseph Batory’s autobiographical trilogy (published by Rowman and Littlefield, Lanham, MD and Oxford, UK, 2003). Batory is a past superintendent of schools in the Upper Darby School District.