AP American History, AP US History, AP US History Exam, Blue Ribbon Schools, Burnout, Harold Meltzer, Mount Vernon High School, Mount Vernon New York, Politics of Education, Richard Capozzola, Student Achievement, Teacher Effectiveness, Teachers Unions, William Prattella
It’s never really been much of a surprise to me how much we don’t appreciate good teachers. I should know. A few semesters ago, a student of mine filed a complaint against me because she couldn’t see my lecture notes well enough due to some issue with the LCD projector for my classroom. Mind you, she admitted that she didn’t have her glasses that day. When I didn’t allow her to interrupt me in the middle of class over the issue, she stormed out, yelled a couple of obscenities at me, and slammed the classroom door shut.
I know, it’s much worse on the K-12 level, between incorrigible students and insolent parents, school and district administration. Not to mention the pressures of NCLB, initiatives like Race to the Top (or bottom, really) and private foundations with their own agendas. Add to that article after article blaming teachers unions for being on the wrong side of corporatized education reform that emphasizes math and science and test scores over humanities and social science and critical thinking.
Former NYC DOE Chancellor Joel Klein’s now among them, in his lengthy (really, too long) piece on “The Failure of American Schools” in this month’s Atlantic Monthly, laid much of the blame on teachers and teachers unions. Not our nation’s economic woes, an overemphasis on math and science, or a system that was created not to teach academic excellence, but to weed out the so-called weak-minded. It’s no wonder that the average career of a teacher is five years!
A quarter-century ago on this date, my former teacher Harold Meltzer’s good deeds came to fruition through our AP US History class and our AP exam that year. We learned in September ’86 — the beginning of our senior year — that three of us (including yours truly) all scored 5’s on the AP American History exam on this date. That meant that three of us had earned six college credits a year before enrolling in any university. There were at least four others who scored a 4, guaranteeing them three college credits. Another five scored a 3, considered a passing score by colleges and the College Board.
It was the best an MVHS AP class had ever done on any AP exam up to that point in the high school’s history, and should’ve been a crowning achievement for Meltzer and the school. Yet instead of praise or at least a “Congratulations,” Meltzer was treated as if he’d shown up MVHS by his boss, Social Studies Department Chair Larry Smith, a red-headed man who looked like a character from Dune. He snickered at me every time he saw me with Meltzer. Neither Superintendent William Prattella nor Richard Capozzola saw fit to honor Meltzer or our class for our achievements. It was ironic, because MVHS won a Blue Ribbon Schools of Excellence award from the US Department of Education a few months later, off of the work of teachers like Meltzer, as well as Humanities students.
There were rumors that some of the White parents were unhappy with Meltzer’s methods of teaching, which typically involved us interpreting history rather than answering straightforward history trivia questions. More than rumors, actually, as I walked in on a meeting between Meltzer and a parent my senior year. That mother demanded an A for her daughter in Meltzer’s AP US History class. What wasn’t exactly a rumor, either was that Smith was looking for any excuse to take AP US History away from Meltzer. Especially since it was so shocking that both White and Black students did equally well on the exam that year. Of course, there were other, more deeply personal issues between the two men that likely involved jealousy and other not-so-secret secrets.
For our part, our cohort stopped talking to Meltzer altogether. Sure he was eccentric, even a bit strange and unorthodox as a teacher, but at least he cared. And by the way our scores turned out, he didn’t deserve the cold shoulders he received from most of my classmates our senior year. It bothered me when I’d see Meltzer saying “Hello” to one of us as we passed his Room 275, only for one of us to walk by as if Meltzer had phased out of our space-time continuum.
I was sure that some of it was related to Meltzer being a “confirmed bachelor.” But mostly, I thought that despite Meltzer’s lack of a normal teaching style, that my classmates were total assholes toward him. Meltzer spent the week before the AP exam after school with us going over every conceivable fact of American history for the more anal of us. It was above and beyond, and also unnecessary. Because Meltzer had taught us enough about egalitarianism, critical and independent thinking, and “coming to the point at once” in the first months of his class for all of us to do well.
Meltzer died from a number of ailments at the age of sixty-six in early January ’03. But one thing I was sure of that hastened his decline was the bitter and broken heart he had from the way he’d been treated in his last years as a teacher. I just hope that I brought a little bit of laughter to the man in his final months and weeks. Or at least, something to smile about.