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Letter America: Teacher Recommendation for Edie Shake

March 18, 2013, 1:00 am
By Robert Wilder

Teachers have far more contact with parents than when I went to school or even when I started this education game over two decades ago (whew!). When I was a child growing up in rural New Jersey, I don’t know if my father even knew where I went to school, let alone the names of my teachers or the courses they taught. He did read my report card, however, yet he only scheduled meetings with me in the backyard if my grades dropped, if you know what I mean. I’m realizing that you may be quite young, just out of college, so that last inference meant he disciplined me in, again, ways that current parenting tends frown upon. Let’s just say that, well, that it’s not really worth discussing other than the idea that my father and his generation didn’t blame the teachers or the priests for that matter. Or any matter. Even though I was an altar boy at our Lady of Perpetual Succour, I can’t really talk about it with my students because of the stigma around the Catholic Church and it’s, how should I say this?, unholy indiscretions. I was never mistreated by any of the Fathers other than a stern lecture or a hard clap on the back for falling asleep during the homily. Wait, you probably don’t know what a homily is either. Let’s just skip it. I’m in a bit of a rush anyway and rather tired from writing so many recs.

Last year, Edie’s mother, also named Edie (odd, I know), scheduled an appointment with me. At first, I was pleased. Edie wasn’t my best student. She was late most mornings, cell phone in manicured hand but no books, and mostly of her participation consisted of a) sighing, b) staring at her cell phone or handling it until I took it away, c) asking what the point was in doing anything. Basically, Little Edie (I didn’t call her that) just took the wind out of my sails every single day. Once Big Edie (she’s actually quite thin and rather attractive) saw the D on Little Edie’s report card (sent electronically nowadays), she asked for a sit down.

            Big Edie arrived fifteen minutes late in a big storm of handbag, perfume, and oversized sunglasses. I’d told her that my time was limited but that didn’t seem to matter to her. She apologized quickly (but not sincerely), flipped her sunglasses atop a mass of a dyed black swirl, leaned in and said: “How can we motivate this child?” We were in the cramped English office, so I didn’t have a desk in front of me (something I prefer) so, as our guidance counselor Ms. Washe would say, “Our boundaries were not concrete.” I always wondered about Little Edie’s racial mix and Big Edie gave me the idea that Mr. Shake was probably Anglo because Big Edie seemed Southeast Asian. Not that race matters except when you are trying to understand a child’s lack of performance due to cultural norms. Sensitivity is quite necessary when you are teaching Huck Finn say, or the history of Walt Disney’s racist messages hidden in cartoons. I’ve had meetings like the one with Big Edie before and my practice is to respond by asking the parent to tell me about his or her child (mostly her; dads only come in when things get really hot) since she’s the expert. I could tell right away that Big Edie didn’t want questions; she wanted answers. To be candid, she frightened me. She was impeccably dressed, smelled like a movie star, and the removal of her jacket revealed arms toned to the degree just below Madonna’s (been following her work since the beginning). Here I was, slightly overweight (working on it), beard needing a trim, in pants and shirt I purchased the last year Alias was on the air (Jennifer Garner=great mom!). I was powerless in an office fit for I don’t even know what and I’m a wordsmith!

            After a heavy sigh, I started proposing books Little Edie might like by Asian American authors, but before I could finish Kingston after Maxine Hong, Big Edie pursed her lips and said, “Won’t read.” I took a deep breath and changed my tactic. “What about graphic novels? There are some great ones about historical issues like Maus or Inconegro?” This suggestion (or hearing the word Negro said aloud) seemed to upset her. She adjusted the petite gold watch on her petite brown wrist, leaned back and said, “How will my daughter get into college if you teach her comic books?”

            I kept repeating “Ok, all right” as I desperately tried to think of something. When I started at Red Rock, I had a department head that I could have passed Big Edie onto. When I was interim head myself in 1996, I would have felt justified in standing up to Big Edie, telling her that there are other schools (and outlet malls) that would serve her daughter better but since our new department head has her own agenda and like other schools, RRHS (Go Rockers!) is scared of losing students to charter schools and bad press after the duct tape scandal, I had to sit there and spitball ideas. I suggested that since Little Edie was interested in fashion, why not write an essay on the use of dresses in The Great Gatsby? Or connect the recklessness and moral vacancy on the Jersey Shore to the post WW I sense of abandon? I couldn’t tell if I was confusing Big Edie or just boring her because she basically scowled at me. In my mind and out of my mouth, I went through all of Gardner’s multiple intelligences:

“What if she did a one woman show based on the life of Flannery O’Connor? It’s a short life!”

            “Interpretive dance based on Thoreau’s early mornings at Walden?”

            “Write a daily diary dressed like Ophelia?”

            “Write a musical one-act based on the plot of Hemingway’s “The Killers”?

            “Conference call with me and my friend Denn who impersonates John Steinbeck?”

            “Design and prepare a four course meal like the ones served in the Dead home in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon?”

            “Website on anything remotely academic?”

I was so frustrated that I almost suggested (joking here) that she sleep with Fisty, our Hungarian exchange student and afterward, tutor him in American pillow talk. I was tired, had taken too much allergy medicine earlier that day, and I experienced this distinct feeling that Big Edie wanted me to do all the activities I’d suggested for Little Edie, especially after she asked if I was familiar with the movie Dangerous Minds starring Michelle Pfeiffer. I know the movie and actually read the book when it first came out when it was titled My Posse Don’t Do Homework. I even saw the author speak at a conference on student achievement. Been there, done that, have the t-shirt and coffee mug.

            I wish I could say that Little Edie’s progress improved after my bandwagon with her madre, but it didn’t. It’s possible that she may mature in college and it might do her good to get out of her family home, but I can’t say for sure.

It is my great honor to write this letter in support of this most qualified candidate.

Good daughters make good mothers,

 

Richard Fulton Winter

English Teacher

1998 Arizona Junior Humanities Excellence in Teaching Award—Honorable Mention

Class Sponsor of the Alternate Student Council

Author of The Bard’s Gentle Graces (poetry chapbook)

 

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