This blog is dedicated to my dear late mentor Harold I. Meltzer. He died on 9 January 2003 at the age of sixty-six, all too young and all too bitter about his years as a high school history teacher. But dealing with entitled parents and unrepentant administrators in Mount Vernon, New York for thirty five years would do that to most people. Despite all that, Meltzer was a rock as a teacher, the first teacher since my elementary school years that I genuinely trusted with my family secrets and my inner self. He was the first teacher I had in my six years of Humanities who actually seemed like he wanted to teach us. Meltzer actually seemed human, at least to me.
It all started at the end of tenth grade, in June of ’85, after a year of constant change. I couldn’t stand my lazy, chain-smoking, couch-lounging, teaching-anything-other-than-the-curriculum teachers from my sophomore year. Many of my affluent White classmates were leaving Mount Vernon or MVHS, something I noted but only saw the significance of later on. I was at a point where my then three-year march toward college and leaving 616 and Mount Vernon altogether was cluttered in anger and disappointment. With myself, my grades, my family, and our poverty. I was a disillusioned new Christian, having thought that my life would all of a sudden become a better one just because I gave my heart to Christ.
Then I met Meltzer. It was the last day of tenth grade, after three days of finals and Regents exams. He had summoned fourteen of us to “Room 275 of Mount Vernon High School,” as the invitation read. We had all registered to take Meltzer’s AP American History class in eleventh grade, our first opportunity to earn college credit while in high school.
Meltzer started off talking to us about Morison and Commager — who I now know as the great consensus historians of the ’50s, until the social history revolution made their textbooks irrelevant by the ’80s — as we sat in this classroom of old history books and even older dust and chalk. Meltzer himself looked to be in his late-fifties (he was actually about to turn 49 at the time), tall and lanky except for the protruding pouch in the tummy section. His hair was a mutt-like mixture of silver, white and dull gray, and his beard was a long, tangled mess. The way he spoke, and the way his eyes looked when he spoke made me see him as a yarmulke-wearing preteen on his way to temple. He seemed old and young at the same time. The force with which his words would leave his mouth hit me immediately. If I believed him, Morison and Commager had created the greatest textbook in the history of history as a subject. As much as I noticed how frequently spit would spew out of Meltzer’s mouth, the rhythm of his speech was slow and sing-song, like an elder or grandfather taking you on a long, winding, roller-coaster-ride of a story.
Meltzer spent at least twenty minutes explaining the Morison and Commager textbook as if the book alone was the key to scoring the precious “5” on the AP American History exam. As he went on and on about how this was his college textbook “at Hunter College in 1958” and how it changed his life, he gave each of us Morison and Commager to read in preparation for the next school year. Upon receipt of the black hardback book, I turned it over and looked at the last page because the book was so thick. It was 508 pages long! I gasped at the thought of reading so many pages over the summer and during school. I could only think of trying to read this book—one almost completely absent of pictures, maps, and other visuals that could take up space—in my home of horrors and hysterical young’uns. Then I looked up to find a couple of my classmates snickering or looking overwhelmed as well.
One of the next things Meltzer did moved me from jaded to interested in him as my teacher. It was so out-of-the-way goofy that it made me want to show up for class in the fall. He noticed that one of my classmates had completely zoned out on his elevator speech on the importance of American history via Lincoln. Then a blackboard eraser zipped past my right ear and landed on the floor by one of my beloved classmates in the back second row. I don’t know about my comrade, but Meltzer got my attention. Meltzer said,“If I catch any of you napping or not paying attention . . . a book” or eraser will “fly by your desk.” It surprised me, made me laugh, and had me ready to see what the quirky Meltzer would do next.
Meltzer was somewhere between downright weird and absentmindedly eccentric. Yet with all of that, he was by far the most intriguing and involved teacher that I would ever have. After the first week of eleventh grade, Meltzer took my class on this long-and-winding road toward the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers and the US Constitution through an unusual set of stories, testing us in the process. He’d tell us stories about his first trip to the Metropolitan Opera House in Manhattan in ’39 (I later learned that he would’ve only been three at the time) and somehow tied it to Jefferson’s vision of an egalitarian society. Meltzer would take us to eighteenth-century Britain’s House of Commons, giving us a picture of photographic-memoried savants as newspaper reporters and connect this to freedom of the press. Or he would tell us about some Broadway show—like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma—and connect it in his wandering way to social mobility or slavery and inequality.
Of course all of this was well beyond my 616 and Humanities Program experience. But we all needed to see the shape and direction of Meltzer’s stories. He’d ask us questions throughout the class, asking us to draw unlikely connections between obscure opera singers, concert conductors and violin virtuosos and US expansion, the Constitutional Convention, and the Civil War. It was completely counterintuitive to what we normally did in any class, Humanities or otherwise. A normal class was us asking the teacher questions to make sure we’d know everything that we needed to do for the next test or writing assignment. This “What do you think?” stuff was new and should’ve been exciting. It felt bizarre, but it was also a breath of fresh air. Right, wrong or somewhere in between, my hand was almost always up and I was fully willing to participate in Meltzer’s asymmetrical student engagement process of learning. On the few occasions my hand wasn’t up, he’d call on me anyway, saying “I know you’ve got something to say.” He was teaching all of us the critical thinking skills we needed for college, and most of us didn’t even know it or care to know it.
For me at least, Meltzer’s unusual space extended beyond our academic needs. He was the first teach I had since before Humanities who’d ask me if things at home were all right. He was the first to ask me about how poor my family was. And he was the first teacher ever to ask if I had a girlfriend. Needless to say, these questions were unexpected. Yet through these questions, Meltzer had begun to crack my thin, hard wall of separation between school and family. By the time I was in graduate school, I could talk to him and most of my friends about almost anything.
It turned out that I was one of three students who earned a 5 on the AP American History exam in eleventh grade, twenty-two years ago on this date and day as a matter of fact. at least another five students earned 4s and several more turned in 3s. In all the three of us who earned 5s had automatically earned six credits toward college, and the students who scored 4s at least three college credits. It was an amazing year, for me and for Meltzer, but as usual, it went unacknowledged by MVHS administration. Perhaps our ethnic diversity was a factor, but the fact that Meltzer wasn’t well liked by the powers that were certainly didn’t help.
Because Meltzer cared deeply about reaching students — about reaching me — our student-teacher relationship because a quasi-friendship after high school and a mentoring one as well. I wasn’t looking for a mentor, and Meltzer was only being Meltzer. Still, his stories about his battles with MVHS administrators, Board of Education folk, and with upper-crust parents who believed their kids were entitled to A’s just for showing up were filled with lessons of perseverance, patience, and looking beyond everyday headaches in order to reach people. While this wasn’t a factor in my becoming a part-time college professor, these stories have helped me over the years.
Meltzer stands in direct contrast to others who either sought to mentor me without my permission or were tasked with the job of advising or mentoring me. The person who comes most to mind is Joe Trotter, my dissertation advisor during my Carnegie Mellon University years. It should’ve been a good match. He was a twentieth-century African American historian, and I aspired to be such. He was a tenured Black professor, meaning his job was pretty secure. And Trotter was fairly well known in his field. How that dream turned into a near nightmare!
“I’m looking out for your best interests” was what my dissertation advisor typically said in discussing my future with me. As far as Trotter was concerned, he was in charge of the rest of my academic career, determining everything from whether I would finish my doctorate to where I would live and work after I graduated. But as I would discover by the end of my education, he was not nurturing my career at all.
Virtually all of my achievements as a graduate student occurred despite Trotter rather than because of him. This was because my advisor often discouraged my attempts to publish, to obtain grants for my research, to participate in major conferences, and to apply for jobs when it was apparent I had nearly completed my doctoral thesis. Of course I did all of those things anyway, in most cases without informing him. On the few occasions that I did — or if he learned of something from one of my colleagues — Trotter would “run interference,” as he would say, acting in his role as my advisor to protect me politically from the other, White senior professors. Somehow, my publications or presentations would cause their consternation to fall on my head. My advisor would frequently say “You’re not ready” to take on a particular project or to apply for a grant or job to hinder my efforts.
One of our last official meetings as advisor and student covered this particular issue. Six chapters into an eight-chapter dissertation, I was still being told that I was “not ready” to apply for jobs or to attend major conferences. Trotter had in fact contradicted some of what he had said about my work in a previous meeting. So when he declared for the eighteenth time in this particular meeting that he was not giving me his support to apply for a job because he was “looking out for my best interests,” I sarcastically replied “Yeah, right!” I defiantly said that I didn’t believe him, that somehow this was about his interests, whatever those were. I knew that my interests weren’t central here, because he never asked me about them. My defiance led to an eight-month long battle to finish my dissertation and to get my committee to approve it. On the week before Thanksgiving in ’96, it finally was.
But our academic relationship was never the same. I’ve only talked to Trotter twice since I finished the thesis, once to tell him that I didn’t want to just apply for jobs in Nebraska and Iowa, the other to let him and the sense of betrayal I felt about working with him go. It took working a few years to understand his situation. As the first tenured Black professor in Carnegie Mellon’s history, Trotter was the HNIC (Head Negro in Charge) on campus, making him a political target, especially in having a Black student who made graduate school look like a coronation. It was mostly paranoia on his part. I do believe, though, that my former advisor was in the midst of a career and midlife crisis, in having a student half his age ready to finish a doctorate and become a scholar contributing to the field well before my thirtieth birthday. As incredulous as it may sound, I believe that there was some jealously on Trotter’s part toward me and other students.
Meltzer knew intuitively something my former advisor will likely never know. Legacies aren’t just built by writing about things as obscure as proletarianization, by having others who are of like minds respect your work as a scholar. In the case of teachers and advisors, legacies become realized in working with students, helping them reach their potential as human beings, by being real and honest with them as people and not just as experts in a given field. That transparency is the difference between mentoring and “running interference.” While I learned quite a bit from Trotter about being a scholarly historian, I learned a lot more about history and life by having Meltzer as a teacher, friend and mentor, including the fact that mentors often come to us in surprising and unexpected ways, regardless of race. He’s someone that I think about and miss many a day, today especially.