Posted on February 4, 2011

Dante’s Ring on the Prairie

My first teaching job was in a school best described as “one of the last of its kind, little more  than  one room on the prairie.” There were 86 students in the top four grades, with only 9 seniors, all assigned to my English Literature class, where I was supposed to  teach Beowulf, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron, Keats, and Shelly. Now if you don’t know who these writers are… not to worry. Very few Americans do. I was mildly excited about the prospect, however…. obstacles loomed….

My senior class had two boys in it who were only a couple of years younger than me (they started late and flunked once), and  both were a LOT bigger than me, by perhaps … 100 pounds.  The look on their faces the first day in my classroom was one of “Ohhhhh, boy. THIS is gonna be fun!”

Another problem I faced the first year, was my principal, a huge ex-fullback, Polish, which meant “unhappily” Polish for this was during a period when “Polock” jokes were very popular, and derisive. He drove a car with square wheels, because when he drove his tires went  ‘Po-lok,  po-loc, po-lok! Thousand of such “jokes” abounded.

It was also his first year as a principal. I met him for only 15 minutes the day before school started. He was a last minute hire. He said little, stared at me like a fish he was about to gut. A full head of jaundiced red hair adorned his pate, and either he’d had his teeth knocked crooked by a 300 pound right tackle, or he just liked them that way.

He came into quiet little Ambia school with a chip on his shoulder, lugging a bag of prejudices so heavy it left marks where he walked. My previously imagined “glorious first year” suddenly lost its optimistic sheen and became magically “a long, tedious journey” in those 15 minutes.

When the kids came day one, arriving by parent, school bus, or some by souped-up Chargers and Novas, they were sent immediately to the gym, where they milled about. The gym, reputed to have the “best floor in Benton County”— important in the land of Hoosier basketball — doubled as an auditorium and theatre. It was lined on one side by only 3 rows of bleachers, meant to hold students at basketball games, or “convocations.” The new year’s kids milled about, talking happily, quietly… not boisterously. They had all known each other for years, so there was little of the “first day of school” strangeness occurring for them that usually happens in larger schools. The principal entered the gym, striding like the Hulk. He looked around at the milling students, and then screamed like a grizzly about to charge.


The kids (and faculty) fell into a deathly silence. They took their seats. Some of the younger ones were trembling.  The big farm boys who stood taller than their younger peers, showed their hackles. Such incivility in school wasn’t “their way” and I could tell by their angry eyes that they were now all on guard.

The principal introduced himself, then the faculty,  (placing a special emphasis on me, for I was new).  He showed some reluctance in my introduction, mispronouncing my name. I thought this was deliberate, but I was wrong.  As I was to later learn he rarely pronounced it correctly, nor did he spell it right when writing by hand. Only the school secretary got it “right.”  It was not till second semester that he learned to pronounce my name properly.  By this point in the year, he had had to use it enough for it to become necessary for him to not mangle it when talking to others about me. Thus while first I thought this was deliberate it later turned out to be simple stupidity.

He broadcast the “school rules “to the kids in a tone that reverberated around the small, hard-surfaced gym like screeches in a cavern.

His speech to the kids was a warning. “I’m the king.  You’re the rodents!” That’s how I heard it. I know it struck the kids the same way. Instant hatred ensued. They knew their “day” was coming, and I knew the same was true for me, right along with them.

Fifty years ago, most administrators I worked for were usually  ex-jocks who gravitated to the principal’s role for no other reason than desperation. It was a “fallback” job. They usually had no desire to be in a classroom to begin with. My new guy was typical.   He was an athlete, a former star in his hometown. He aspired to be the next George Blanda, or Joe Dimaggio.  In college, the inevitable Darwinian  winnowing occurred, and his aspirations died. A great vacancy developed in his mind.  If he couldn’t be a pro athlete, then what would he do? College sports programs, in their wily ways, had foreseen this, and counselors knew full well this would happen to 99 percent of those who played sports at the college level. So they built instructional programs around their athletes to help them stay together in class and keep them as close to the physically competitive world as possible. When the ugly day of graduation came, with no prospect of further action in the sports world as players, they had a ready-made solution to help them stay as close to their “world” as possible. They would become coaches.

They find a “school” job and would work their way up the ladder as assistants, then head, coaches… then on to Athletic Director, or Principal… the two best paying school jobs of the day. Or, and this is where the delusion was emphasized by college profs, with a few winning seasons  they’d move on to coach in a small college, maybe a Big Ten school. And then the pros would notice. And although they’d never play again, the smell of the locker room would never leave their nostrils… they would retain their ties to life where life means the most — on the field of battle and in the frayed seems of their athletic supporters.

The common college degree (Major) they earned was “Physical Education,” and this would be backed up by a Minor in Health or Social Studies. And thus when they would complete their college “career,” and the Yankees, or Bears failed to call, there was always another path. A bonus to this scheme was that the college programs, devised by the athletic department, were designed designed to make sure that no one lost his scholarship while playing for the Bulldogs, or the Fighting Irish. (There is no “her” in this story because at that time there was no Title IX).

The kids named him “Zeke” that first day. The name fit. It alliterated nicely with his last name, and dripped with all of the animosity with which is was created. I liked it. It fit. But the kids needed more than a derisive name. So did I. We all knew it. We all knew that in this tiniest of strange little spots in the educational world, in as pure a pastoral setting as could be created by a loving God, Beelzebub was running free. Hell would surely soon break loose between Zeke and the 86 kids at Ambia high school.

My life, as it had so often before, turned yet another corner that I never knew existed.

(see further posts on “Ambia”)