My return from my sabbatical brought a few changes to my life: (1) I had forsaken the comfort of a short walk home from school to a commute of 4.9 miles out the back door of the “old” Upper School bldg-- I was seeking anonymity; (2) I would be teaching two sections of English 7 and two sections of English 8.
So, the summer of ‘86 was days spent reading the eighth-grade curriculum. Think “coming of age.” Not mine! It was a glorious summer of immersing myself in authors I worshipped, Harper Lee and J.D. Salinger, to name two. Along the way, I relived the nightmare of Lord of the Flies, a novel I had not read since high school, a novel I disliked -- even though I saw merit in teaching it. There were others, of course: Night, The Old Man and the Sea, Hiroshima, A Separate Peace, and Of Mice and Men. I had ordered all of these books even though there was that proverbial snowball’s chance in hell I would teach all of them. Also, a bunch of titles for outside/free reading.
I was distraught about not teaching all sections of seventh grade English, but I was thrilled to be working with Jan Baucum who had taught seventh grade English during my absence and Kathy Stokes who was the “majordomo “of eighth grade English. Both ladies inspired me to do my best. Jan Baucum was the risk-taker in residence who pioneered a new mythology project that required the students to create their own mythology projects. Incidentally, if anyone reading this entry would like to donate your mythology project to the archives, please send it to Kristin Weber.
What thrilled me, even more, was the possibility of teaching Bible stories. I decided to use Bernard Evslin’s Signs and Wonders, a marvelous retelling of Old Testament stories that I had taught in 1979-1980. I dreamed about Adam & Eve, Cain & Abel, Abraham & Sarah, and Noah & his sons. I believe the next year I used Pearl S. Buck’s The Story Bible: The Old Testament. Like Greek mythology, the unit on the Bible stories was a success. Of course, there were from time to time questions from a few sources why we were injecting religion into our curriculum, but reason and logic prevailed. A few weeks ago, I started re-reading both books and found myself still engrossed in the stories.
Later in eighth grade, I added Buck’s second book on the New Testament. The unit was probably not as successful as the Old Testament unit. However, as the man who adores literary allusions, I deemed knowledge of the NT stories a must. I even showed The Greatest Story Ever Told to my class one year -- the class of 1989-- one student renamed the movie by deleting greatest and replacing it with the word LONGEST-- thanks, Erik Ipsen ‘89.
Teaching The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird was the highlight of my teaching English at Graland. They remain my favorite books, books which I reread every summer. I watched To Kill a Mockingbird the other evening as part of a local theatre’s Flashback Cinema series. From the opening credits to the final moments of the film when Scout meets Boo Radley, I cried, I laughed, I muttered, I hid my eyes, etc. A beautiful film. I must add: my bedroom in New Jersey has a framed photo of Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch; nine lobby cards from the film surround the photo.
In my spare time, I read the books for seventh grade and “thought” about the grammar component. Controlling my tendency toward grammatical gluttony remained an issue, but the number of good books we were reading provided a wonderful balance. The seventh graders were remarkably inquisitive and diligent.
These were simpler times-- lots of goodwill and cheer-- even the mice in the Upper School seemed happy. We had entered the computer age (thanks to the Wittow family), were analyzing our writing program (thanks to Debby Cuerden and Maureen Auman, the founder of the Step UpTo Writing program), and collaborating more often with the history teachers.