Tuesday September 8, 1969, was a rainy, gray morning when the ten seniors in the U.S. History Seminar class sat whispering and watching their new, young teacher writing “Whose story, yours, mine or ours?” “Can you believe everything you read?” and “What if it didn’t happen exactly that way?” on the blackboard.
Room 210 on the second floor of Rivergrove High School was a small room, with only twelve desks crammed into a classroom roughly half the size of the regular classrooms. Its small size with only two windows made it functionally useless except for student clubs and small classes like this one. To compensate for the lack of windows, an extra panel of florescent ceiling lights had been installed making the room noticeably brighter than any other classroom. There was endless speculation among students and teachers about this odd little room. One veteran math teacher, known for his sarcastic sense of humor, called it the confessional because it was a good hiding place for teachers’ private conversations when not in use and the lights out. A young female English teacher had once quipped that its glaring lights reminded her of a police interrogation room like on TV. Officially, it was simply Room 210.
The last thing their teacher wrote on the board, with well-trained penmanship, was “Ms. Marchone.” Theresa Agnes Marchone was one of several fresh-out-of-college additions to the faculty that year. There was nothing remarkable about her appearance. Her thick dark brown hair curled slightly inward just below her ears, softly framed her girlish face. The brightness of her brown eyes was lost behind round silver wire rim glasses. A simple blue dress hanging shoulders to knees, per employee dress code, looked like exposure to four years of Penn State University life hadn’t changed this young Catholic-school-educated woman. But, as one of her high school teachers, Sister Mary Margaret, used to say, “looks can be deceiving.” Ms. Marchone was a whirling wind driven in unpredictable directions.
As the buzzer beginning the period sounded, four muffled conversations drifted off leaving quietness. Ms. Marchone turned and surveyed the adolescent faces of six boys and four girls in various stages of pimple wars. “Good morning, everyone; my name is Ms. Marchone, and this is the U.S. History Seminar class, she said with a friendly smile. “We’re going to explore some important events in U. S. History in depth, touching on information found in our textbook, and outside sources. First, let me take the roll so I can learn your names, then I’ll answer any questions you have. Please raise your hand when I call your name.”
She read the list of names, “Anthony Borelli, Andrew Cantor, Judy Grindle, Vicky Hoffman, Linda Krantz, William Miller, Robert O’Shea, Randall Pachell, Carol Reading, and Gary Smith; all were present. “Does anyone have any questions?” she asked.
Without raising his hand, Andy Cantor, tall, with parted black hair and aspirations of getting into an Ivy League college, blurted in a tone sounding more like a challenge than a question, “Ms. Marchone,” he said pronouncing the Ms. as mizz with intentional emphasis, “did you ever teach a history seminar like this before?
Without missing a beat, she retorted, “Thank-you Mr. Cantor for remembering to raise your hand before you asked. I can honestly say that I’ve never taught a history seminar class that started out with a heckler before I even told my first joke.” A trickle of nervous perspiration slowly snaked its way down her side from under her left arm.
Her words blanketed the room in silence except for a few leather-soled shoes heard gently shuffling on the floor under desks. As if by wizardry, one of the overhead fluorescent lights flickered out, and then, after several long seconds Bill Miller looked at Andy and chuckled, releasing a ripple of nervous titters in the room. The light flickered back on, bodies rustled in seats, and a smile forced its way onto Andy’s lips as his face flushed hot with the realization that he’d been put firmly back into place.
Ms. Marchone, slyly grinning as she stared directly at Andy, raised her eyebrows, and tilted her head ever so slightly forward for effect as she instructed, “I need you all to raise your hands, and wait until I call on you before speaking out.” Moving her gaze off Andy, she continued, “If there are no other questions, here are important pieces of information about this class. One, notetaking and reading the textbook and outside sources that I recommend are your responsibility. This will mean you will need to spend time in public libraries. Two, your grade will be based on papers I assign and your class participation. There will not be any tests. Three, don’t plagiarize any source. Use quotations, if necessary, with proper attribution. In each instance that you break this rule on an assignment, your grade will be lowered five points. Four, you may only use an encyclopedia for a reference source if you are using the information in it to contrast to another source. If you do use it, give it attribution just like every other source. I am not handing out a copy of these rules so, unless you have a photographic memory, I suggest you write them down. Any questions?”
Seeing no hands she continued, “Let’s begin. Who discovered America?”
Randy’s hand shot up. After waiting to be called on he responded, “Columbus.”
Ms. Marchone replied, “That’s the history printed in your textbook, but it’s not universally accepted by historians. Archeological evidence has been discovered indicating other European explorers visited these lands first, such as Vikings from Scandinavia, as much as five hundred years before Columbus. I have a bibliography of the works explaining this for anyone who would like to explore those other sources. That brings up the history of how heroes and legends are created, which then have an outsized effect on the history texts which follow.”
Having now grabbed the students’ attention, she told them stories of the creation of heroes by different cultures, and how folklore begins to be accepted as fact over time. The fifty-minute class compressed into what seemed like a minute to the confused students who were scribbling notes as fast as they could.
When the bell rang, Ms. Marchone dismissed the class with a reading assignment as they began rising from the desks. “Read one major national news article in whichever paper you choose, and then watch the evening news. Your paper should compare how the TV news and the newspaper reported the story? How were they the same? How were they different?”
As the students gathered their books to leave, there was a low moaning and one unintelligible uttering, a profanity perhaps. Once the last student left the room Ms. Marchone could feel some of the first-day tension in her neck subside, and the ache in her shoulders lessen. She had anticipated that her lesson plan would surprise them; surprise would be abundant this year. Having read and discussed Betty Freidan’s book, The Feminine Mystique, in college, she was ready to expose some of society’s false conventions. She just wasn’t sure that teaching high school history was the way she wanted to do it.
During the seminar’s next class, Ms. Marchone kept the students spellbound with information they had never heard before about Columbus’s later voyages to the West Indies looking for gold. “He never found it, but what he discovered was just as valuable to the royal family, and devastating to the islanders,” she explained, She then read aloud a quote from Columbus’s letter to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella in 1496, “In the name of the Holy Trinity, we can send from here all of the slaves and Brazil-wood which could be sold.”
She paused a moment, making eye contact with each student one by one, allowing the silence to amplify the explorer’s written words. She continued, “For his next journey home from Haiti, after brutally conquering the native Arawaks, he rounded up five hundred of them and loaded them aboard his ships to return to Spain. Two hundred died on the journey. Another five hundred were kept as slaves by the Spanish remaining on the island.” She then handed out a ten-page excerpt from a history paper written by Robert P. Christman, a professor at Yale University titled, Columbus and the Transatlantic Slave Trade, explaining this was the source from which she was quoting.
As she finished talking, only half the class was still taking notes, others just stared with eyes as wide as her own the night she’d watched the movie Psycho. She added, “Christman’s article maintains that Columbus introduced the trans-Atlantic slave trade from the Americas to Europe which would prove as valuable as gold. Arguably, this had more impact on the world than his first voyage in 1492.”
Vicky Hoffman, who’s normal demeanor was as quiet at her long almond brown hair, shot her left hand into the air, her walnut brown eyes flashing. She waved her hand with its five gold-banded fingers urgently. Each ring represented the first five things she intended to do as soon as she was liberated from home next year. The first three never changed, date whoever she wanted, volunteer with an environmental preservation organization and join the anti-war movement. The other two most often involved deepening her experiences with sex and spirituality, changing in priority nearly every month. Once her waving hand was acknowledged Vicky said, “Why did we never learn about this before?”
Ms. Marchone responded, “Good question Vicky. Columbus’s letters were discovered and translated many decades ago. It’s important to understand that most people enjoy reading about legends and heroes when it comes to history. The stories of Spanish exploration and colonization of the West Indies, Central America and the Southeastern United States bolstered the legend of Columbus as the original discoverer. People didn’t enjoy reading about his slave trading. In the Eighteenth Century, the American Colonists began naming places after Columbus. He became the popular figure to venerate in history and textbooks. Only the ancestors of the enslaved peoples had anything to gain from the full story being told, and they weren’t writing the history books
Vicky traded puzzled looks with her friend Carol Reading, a tall thin girl with flaming auburn hair styled to look like Jane Fonda’s. Her emerald-green eyes were a sharp contrast to her pale delicate face. Andy scowled and slowly shook his head, doubtful about what he was hearing. Others simply took notes trying to avoid getting mentally tangled in this sticky web of crisscrossing historical facts which Ms. Marchone was spinning.
As the period ended, Ms. Marchone said, “Your assignment is to read pages 56 through 69 of your textbooks. I am also passing out an excerpt from a book written by historian Robert Lewis discussing Columbus’s journal of his second voyage to the New World and letters he wrote at the time. Using just these two sources, I want you to write an essay of at least five hundred words. You can write in either one of two formats. You can compare and contrast the information you learn from each source. The other option is to pretend you are one of the men with Columbus on that second voyage. Take on his character. Describe what you did, what you saw, and how you reacted.
The assignment generated some snickers, moans, and bewildered looks from the class. Ignoring them, Ms. Marchone continued, “For those of you who can’t envision yourself as a bold, macho conquistador, you can take on the persona of a noble man or woman back in Spain who acquires one or more of these slaves as a house servant. What would that look and feel like? There’s an instruction sheet on top of the handout that explains the options further.
As she finished the bell rang, and the mostly dumbfounded kids walked out of the class. As soon as they hit the hallway comments and conversations erupted. Andy was barely out of the room when he turned to Bill Miller and blurted, loud enough for Ms. Marchone to hear, “I think the story she told is bullshit. Why should we believe her or some historian who didn’t make it into a textbook? I’ll write my essay to show that the history we’ve read all our lives is right.”
Bill, a few inches shorter and wider than Andy shook his head covered with neatly combed and parted blonde hair as he glanced over at Andy, and replied, “Yeah right. So, even if some of it really happened the way she says, Columbus’s discovery of our new world was important enough for it to be a national holiday. Just for fun though, I think I’ll write as one of the Spanish soldiers.”
Later than night at the dinner table, Andy shared what he’d heard in his History Seminar class.
When Andy finished speaking his father, Paul Cantor said, “Our Knights of Columbus charitable organization is named after Columbus, a famous and revered Catholic. It sounds to me like that teacher of yours, what’s-her-name, has something against Catholics.”
Andy was happy that his father was just as disturbed as he was. They didn’t have much in common these days. “Her name is Ms. Marchone, as she prefers to be called,” replied Andy pronouncing the word as miz. Then he waited for the response he expected from his father.
“That figures, some women’s libber radical,” said his father.
There it is. I can always count on the old man, thought Andy.
“Well, I think it’s nice that you have such a young woman teacher,” chimed in June Cantor, Andy’s mother, always trying to avoid any unpleasantness at the table. It was bad for digestion she’d said many times.
Her husband scowled at her, barking, “That’s not the point June; that woman is badmouthing Columbus for God’s sake.
“Please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain at the table Paul,” Mrs. Cantor said quietly.
Andy wondered what being at the table had to do with it but knew a smart-aleck question like that would be ill-advised at the moment.
“That’s right daddy. You always tell me not to use God’s name that way,” scolded twelve-year-old Lisa Cantor.
Ignoring his daughter who never missed an opportunity to correct any of his mistakes, Mr. Cantor said, “I want you to tell us what else this Ms. Marchone has to say Andy- got it?,” Mr. Cantor’s last words were loud enough to startle their pet bulldog, Barney, who got up from where he lay six feet away and slunk into the living room.
“Dad, you scared Barney,” scolded Lisa.
“You don’t need to raise your voice dear; we are all sitting right here,” Mrs. Cantor said, as she got up carrying her dish to the sink and rinsing it off, having failed again to head off an unpleasant scene at the table. She had made an apple pie earlier, but at that moment decided that she would offer it to the children later as a bedtime snack, without offering any to her husband.
“Just let me know what else she teaches in class, Andy. That’s all I have to say,” said Mr. Cantor more controlled, but no less pointedly as he stared at Andy for a few seconds and then stood and carried his plate to the sink.”
A short while later, as Andy was still relishing having fired up his old man, he began working on his essay defending the textbook’s version of Columbus.
A few miles away Carol sat in her bedroom filled with books everywhere, on shelves, the nightstand, bureau, and stacked in the corner, typing her essay which she had written by hand within an hour after getting home from school. Her conclusion was that Christman’s primary source material provided by Ms. Marchone was a more valuable source of information about Columbus than their textbook by a score of five stars to three, using her own scoring system. She was impressed by the detailed footnotes in the Christman paper, some written in Spanish of the historical period, and which she was able to interpret.
Vicky, under the gaze of her poster of Bob Dylan wearing sunglasses, wrote of being the daughter of a Spanish nobleman who had brought one of the women slaves into his household. She would befriend the woman and plot to help her escape. Joan Baez’s lilting voice singing Birmingham Sunday in the background inspired Vicky’s words.
As the weeks went by the class continued to hear more little-known stories that made up the intricate, colorful American history tapestry. Andy continued to enjoy the rise he got out of his father when he fed him the juicy new history perspectives which Ms. Marchone shared, casting Europeans as often more savage than the Native Americans they conquered. The intentional infection of blankets with the small-pox virus traded to the indigenous people sparked intense outrage and disbelief at the dinner table.
The students were growing restless about the complexities of the Europeans’ and native inhabitants’ relationships and interactions which, Ms. Marchone stressed, were important to understand. These complexities were also much harder for the students to easily categorize in their brains, which had been programmed to memorize simple facts and dates.
Assigned papers were returned to the kids, many with grades lower than they were accustomed to, with copious teacher notes and questions about the “facts” that students relied upon. By late September, as their third paper was being returned marked up with red pencil comments and disappointing grades, the student’s simmering discontent with the class boiled over.
Vicky griped, “I don’t think your comments are fair. Half the time I don’t understand what point you are trying to make and how I am supposed to correct it
Tony, already in a bad mood today because he forgot to wear his American flag pin, part of his normal attire, chimed in, without permission, “How are we supposed to write about history when all you do is feed us contradictory facts? All our lives we we’ve been taught history, not multiple histories.
Carol, stunned by the B+ grade on her paper, and concerned that this course could lose her the class valedictorian title, raised her arms with palms open for dramatic effect, and whined, “How are we supposed to memorize all of this?”
“OK, let’s settle down,” said Ms. Marchone. “This course is not meant to see how much you can memorize. The goal is for you to learn that different stories, different perspectives make up history. It can depend on whose eyes are seeing and experiencing the events. Up until now, virtually everything you’ve learned was written from the perspective of western European men, with little input from women or minorities. History needs to be understood from the perspectives of the different types of people who lived it. You need to be open to different stories coming to light.”
Faces heavy with creased brows and frowns spoke to her in silent certainty that her explanation did little to satisfy the students. No teacher had ever suggested that they be skeptical of their textbooks’ historical renditions before.
Later that day, as she pulled into the parking lot of her apartment building in Rivertown, Ms. Marchone’s mind was stuck back in her classroom. She couldn’t recall the drive from school, her head full of questions like, am I expecting too much from high school kids, especially at quiet Rivergrove.
Once in her one-bedroom apartment with furniture-scarred cherry-colored paneling, Theresa, her out-of-school identity, flopped onto her second-hand, green couch. She reminisced about her experiences during college, attending Civil Rights and Vietnam protest rallies, where she’d witnessed speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr, Stokely Carmichael, and anti-war Vietnam veterans. Those experiences were from a world her students didn’t know. In fact, it seemed that everyone at school was oblivious to the decade’s upheavals.
What she didn’t know was that the rumblings of complaints she heard in the classroom had set off shock waves at their homes, which had reverberated all the way up to school board members and down to High School Principal Robinson. Soon she would be shaken by the same forces she had put in motion.
Two weeks later, Ms. Marchone sat in a faculty meeting in the school cafeteria, with the afternoon sun radiating heat through the full wall of windows. Everyone was watching a round, middle-aged female teacher being helped up from her knees where she had been demonstrating girls’ proper skirt length, during their discussion of the school dress code. Earlier she’d listened to more complaints from her history seminar students about her unfair low grades. By the end of the meeting her head was pounding, and she couldn’t wait to get home and take some aspirin. As she began walking toward the door, Daniel Crump, a crew cut, long-tenured history and social studies teacher walked over. “How’s it going Marchone?” he asked in his gravelly voice, assaulting her with his stale tobacco breath.
“Just fine, thanks,” she lied, the look in her half-closed left eye throbbing with pain angrily shooing him away like an annoying fly.
“A couple of my students tell me you’re making quite an impression for someone who’s only been here a few weeks. How did you develop your curriculum? I’ve been teaching American history for twenty years, and the long-running textbooks I’ve been using don’t mention anything about the controversial stuff you’re teaching in your seminar class,” said Crump loudly enough for several nearby teachers to hear and look over. His height afforded him the ability to look down at her through his mask of superiority while his right hand jingled the change in the pocket of his baggy gray pants dotted with coffee stains from last week
Fighting through her pain she said sharply, “I’ll be happy to share the entire bibliography with you. It’s a combination of information from Penn State’s library and National Archive sources I read in some of my college coursework. You might find it really enlightening,” A self-soothing smile grew on her lips as Crump’s condescending smirk wilted into a frown.
“Humph, if I can find time, I might read what some of those little-known ivory-tower, so-called historians have written,” Crump said.
“Yes, you might enjoy reading their research directly, compared to the homogenized version of the textbooks,” she said, trying to knock the man’s crown of smugness off his head. Crump’s attitude had, in a manner of speaking, spread the pain in her head south down below her back. Just retire and take your minions of prejudices with you Crump, she wanted to say.
“Nice chatting with you Marchone. You may think I’m a little old fashioned, but I can help you avoid some of those first-year teacher mistakes if you want to run things by me first. I know how the community and administration feel about upsetting the status quo,” warned Crump, raising his eyebrows, which he imagined emphasized the wisdom he was offering. Believing that one could never make a point too clearly, Crump added, “you’re in over your head.”
As Theresa walked out to the parking lot, her alter ego, Ms. Marchone, stayed behind in school, as was their routine. Had Crump not walked away after making that last remark to her, she might have unleased some colorful words on him which would have earned a week’s detention from Sister Mary Margaret back in high school. Before she reached her car, Charlie Thomas, a teacher only a few years older than her, who had been at Rivergrove for two years, caught up to her and said, “Hi Theresa, don’t let the old timers wear you down. Not all of us are stuck in the Fifties.”
She turned and tilted her head up to see his wide-smiling face below tousled, curly blond hair, borderline too long for school. Her espresso dark eyes and his steel blues briefly locked, as she said, “Hi Charlie, thanks for the encouragement. I guess old ideas don’t give way too easily, do they?” she said.
“Like pushing a boulder uphill with your hands tied behind your back. Hey, I’m off to meet up with some friends for a beer. Would you like to come?” he said.
“Thanks for the invite, but I’ve got a splitting headache. Maybe another time.”
“Ok, another time it is. See you tomorrow.”
“Yeah, tomorrow,” she sighed, wishing tomorrow was Saturday.
The seminar students had signed up for the class for a number of reasons. Andy had wanted to know more about the powerful men who had shaped the history of America. He was excited by power. Judy wanted to learn more intimate facts about history; she planned to be a history major in college. Tony heard a cute young woman teacher was teaching the course; that was enough for him. Some hoped a select seminar course would make their college application stand out. None of the students had wanted what they were getting because they hadn’t known those stories existed. That was not part of their world, not part of Rivergrove. Or was it?
Over the ensuing days, the class moved through history at a quick pace, leaving the students feeling like they were caught between battle lines of competing historical stories. Reaching the American Revolution,they discussed the paradox of founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, who were slave owners while at the same time penning the words “all men are created equal,” in the Declaration of Independence. Vicky, Bill Miller, and Carol condemned what they believed was hypocrisy, while Andy, Tony, and Robert argued that southern farmer-aristocrat lawmakers lived by a different tradition and should not be judged by modern standards.
As one of these debates raged on, the loud voices vaporized into a quiet dense fog when Linda, seldom heard in class, posed the question, “I wonder what it was like for the slaves. Even if some of the slave owners were not abusive, the slaves were still considered property, not free people with the same rights as their white masters. right?”
Tony, always uncomfortable with silence or any type of reflection before he spoke, uttered, “Well, hey, some of the owners were good.”
Before he could finish Judy, a diminutive girl with short blonde hair, turned in her chair and stared him with uncharacteristic intensity and said, “what could you possibly know about it?”
Tony stared at her for a second but had lost his voice and his nerve. No one else had an answer for Judy’s question, not even Ms. Marchone. The buzzer sounded. Ms. Marchone told them their assignment, but her mind could not dispel Linda’s question. The kids left the room, relieved that they were not challenged to write a paper from a slave’s perspective. Judy had surprised herself with her stare-down of Tony; she disliked any type of conflict. This time it felt pretty good. Later that night in her apartment, Theresa was sipping cheap red wine while eating her greasy fried chicken and tasteless mixed vegetables TV dinner. She never heard the words spoken by the man broadcasting the evening news from the little black and white TV; her mind was elsewhere. She hadn’t been prepared to answer Linda’s question. Sure, she could point her kids to the writings of Frederick Douglas, and Sojourner Truth’s speech, “Ain’t I a Woman,” she wondered, am I ready or even qualified to lead such a discussion. Maybe I am in over my head.
Over the weekend, Theresa got a much-needed break from lesson plans by spending a night out with Liz Dickenson, her roommate from college. Liz had long sunshine-blonde hair she often wore in a swinging ponytail. Being taller than average her height and coordination contributed to her becoming a top tennis player in high school. During their college years, she coached Theresa into a player good enough for them to play as a doubles team in weekend pick-up matches. The most fun was winning some of the matches they played against guys. They both learned to play poker in college but were smart enough to never play for much money, and never games of strip poker their guy friends suggested. The two spent many late nights talking about everything, vowing to stay close after college, but their career choices had pulled them apart.
Over drinks at a bar in Philadelphia, with a folk guitar player’s picking as background, Theresa listened to Liz’s tales of her first year at NYU Law School. For Liz, the initial flame of excitement she experienced by getting into law school was quickly doused by the daunting workload of reading and summarizing court decisions in preparation for each day’s classes. On top of that was the fear of being called to stand and be grilled by the professor about how the outcome of each case might have been different if certain facts were changed. The goal, her professors stressed, was the process of reasoning to reach a conclusion by applying legal principals to the case facts and being able to defend their conclusions. Liz excited Theresa talking about her Women’s Law course she was taking. It covered the legal principals supporting equal rights for women. The course was one of the first in the country.
Lying in bed later that night, after too many margaritas, Theresa’s thoughts drifted back to college and how she and Liz talked about changing the world. Liz seemed to be on her way.
Sunday afternoon she busied herself with some graduate school applications which had been sitting ignored on the corner of her desk for weeks. Later that night she and her mother spent thirty minutes on the phone catching up with each other’s lives centered in two different worlds. Her mother lived in a world dictated by the demands of family, while Theresa’s was filled with the voices of history-making women beckoning her forward on still-uncertain paths. Missing from tonight’s call were the judging jabs, irritating questions about her social life or guilt trips over missing her aunt’s birthday; it was unusually pleasant.
Let me have your attention,” Ms. Marchone said, starting the next class, “Here’s a quote from President John Adams you won’t find in your textbook, ‘In my many years, I have concluded that one useless man is a shame, two is a law firm, and three is Congress.’”
The quote evoked a few chuckles and Andy Cantor’s response, “Hey, I get it. That’s a joke, Can I heckle now?”
Ms. Marchone replied, “Only if you also read your homework essay to the class.”
Andy’s self-satisfied grin quickly slinked away on soft paws as he had to admit he’d forgot to bring it.
Tony’s snicker at Andy’s confession, was rewarded by Ms. Marchone saying, “Tony, I think that makes it your turn today.”
As the weeks went by, some of the kids’ energy, generated by the friction from rubbing these new perspectives against textbook points of view, rode home with them on school buses and cars, electrifying more than a few family meals. The seminar kids usually towed the line with their parents, but the chance to challenge traditional thinking at home proved irresistible to some. The common feeling among the parents was, who was this teacher and why was she trying to inflame the minds of their kids. The country had just convulsed itself through assassinations and never-ending protests and riots which destroyed many city blocks. Most Rivergrove parents did not want that kind of radical thinking and behavior in their neighborhoods, let alone their school or their houses.
Weeks later, Ms. Marchone lectured on Abraham Lincoln, the Great Emancipator, as he was called in their textbook. She read to the class a quote from Lincoln during one of his debates with Stephen Douglas during the 1860 Presidential Election, “I am not, nor ever have been in favor of bringing about the social and political equality of the white and black races. I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes.” The quote surprised the class; they had never learned that during the early years of the Civil War Lincoln’s support for the freedom of slaves was only for their freedom in the states that had rebelled, not in other slave states. She explained that Lincoln would take a step to assure slaves’ freedom in succession states with his Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, and only later, after the war of succession was over, he would play a key role in getting Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing their freedom throughout the country. Right before his assassination in 1865, he would support voting rights for Negro men. Eventually Negro men were granted the right to vote by passage of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868. Negro women would wait, with all other women, over fifty more years.
Ms. Marchone supplied the students with primary source material describing the political back room arm-twisting that played out during the Congressional approval process, assigning a paper, “to formulate and defend your opinion about whether Lincoln’s political machinations during the process enhances or diminishes his reputation as The Great Emancipator.”
The kids left the room dazed by the rock-hard history exposing that another of America’s great heroes was not a saint, but a man doing what he felt he must to save the country’s unity and soul. As this news was passed along to parents in the Andy Cantor and Bill Miller households, the proverbial last straw had been laid on the camel’s back.
On a sunny, cloudless, cool day during the first week of November, Ms. Marchone reported to Principal Robinson’s office at 7:00AM sharp, according to his note in her in school mailbox. It would be her first evaluation meeting. The dark-haired, heavy-set Robinson, whose large hands appeared to cover the top of his desk, said stiffly in his deep voice that she was performing satisfactorily. But then his brow furrowed as he continued, “There is one area to which you need to pay special attention. Parents have reported that you seem to be spending an inordinate amount time on rather obscure history, the veracity of which may be suspect.”
“Did they offer any specifics, sir?” she asked, a defensive edge in her voice.
“I don’t have time to go into it now. I have another meeting scheduled. I will need you to submit your weekly lesson plans to me, one week in advance. I’ll let you know if I have any concerns. We’re done for now. Stick to the reliable material offered by the textbooks and we won’t have any problems.”
“Yes, sir,” she said military-like, as she stood to leave. Her stomach and head were churning with the dark glowing-eyed specter of paternalistic censorship hovering around her head.
For the next few days, she wrestled with the cautious approach of stickling to the textbook or continuing to challenge its mainstream history. Robinson’s demand to see her lesson plans every week was a clear message that she was heading down a dangerous professional path if she didn’t conform. She finally decided that, for the time being, her lesson plans would be non-controversial. She’d let her seminar kids skate into the winter Christmas holiday.
Theresa and Liz spent a weekend together in New York City during the holiday break. Friday night they went dancing and partying at Liz’s favorite bars. Saturday night they had dinner and caught an off-Broadway play. Sunday morning they enjoyed a leisurely brunch of omelets, coffee, and Bloody Marys. As Theresa was ready to board her two o’clock bus back to Philadelphia. the women gave each other a good-bye embrace, agreeing to do it again soon. As they slowly allowed their arms to drift away from the other’s back, Liz kissed Theresa on the cheek. It was a warm, tender kiss, more than a peck on the cheek, something new. They paused to look into each other’s eyes and smiled. Too confused to return Liz’s “good-bye” Theresa turned and stepped up into the bus.
As the bus pulled away, they waved good-by to one another. It had been a wonderful weekend, Theresa thought. The fun, the talk like in college, the connection, and then – the kiss. It was nothing, a friend’s parting gesture. Still.
Tony and Randy did not share the holiday spirit, both of whom had already turned eighteen. They read the news that the selective service draft lottery had begun. They would learn by summer whether were likely to be drafted, since neither had made college plans which would have earned them deferments. They both had known Frank Stella, class of ’68, who had been killed by a sniper in Vietnam while writing a letter to his fiancée.
When classes resumed after the holiday break, Ms. Marchone’s seminar lesson plans were delivered to Robinson’s office weekly, as ordered, each in proper form and in strict conformity with the standards he had stated. No objections were voiced by Robinson. She was growing bored, and the historical landscape which lay ahead for the class was too fertile beneath the textbook’s well-trodden crust, for her to not to sow seeds of thorny facts.
To reach her goal of bringing history to the present, the class needed to hang onto their seats in their imaginary history bus speeding through the changing landscape of freed slaves trying to navigate hostile southern whites during Reconstruction after the Civil War. Men who were former slaves were granted citizenship and the right to vote by the Fourteenth Amendment, a bitter fruit forced on all the slave states. As soon as Reconstruction ended withdrawing the federal troops in the late 1870’s, the dictates of the Southern White Supremacist society, dubbed Jim Crow, rose from the ashes of war to devise new ways to re-enslave Negroes. With these stories, which somehow had not made their way into her official lesson plans turned in to Mr. Robinson, Ms. Marchone transported her class into the deep South, explaining that state and local governments found new sources of income using sham arrests of Negroes for crimes like vagrancy combined with excessive prison terms and fines to create an enslaved workforce the states could lease to privately owned mining and logging companies.
Her students found themselves standing in in the middle of hooting, blood-thirsty crowds watching as Negroes had their necks snapped, their bodies riddled with bullets and burned beyond recognition on the lynching trees in the South, Midwest, and some Northern states over the next fifty plus years.
Bill Miller was confused. Ms. Marchone was sharing published papers from historians explaining this outrageous history, most of which was not in the textbook, but he’d heard that Mr. Crump was disputing some of this information in his other classes. On top of that Bill’s southern-born parents grumbled about “his northern mud-slinging teacher” every time he shared any of her lessons with them. His mother had even complained to Principal Robinson. Based on his conversations with some of the other kids in class, they seemed just as confused as he was. There was even a joke going around the senior class referring to the course as The Magical Mystery Tour.
None of this was lost on Ms. Marchone, leaving her to question why she thought she could overcome entrenched historical conventions. Did she still have credibility with her students? Hopefully, she would get good news on her applications, and she could take her career in a different direction.
As the frozen ground outside the walls of Rivergrove High began to thaw in March, she moved on to the women’s suffrage movement. Beginning in earnest in 1848 at the Seneca Falls, New York, Convention, the already decades long, small but growing movement of women urging basic rights for their sex in civil, social, and religious matters, was transformed into a controversial resolution demanding the right of women to vote.
Many women in the country not only did not support the movement; they were appalled by it. Most men thought it was ridiculous. It was the beginning of a struggle which would last another seventy-two years.
The students learned about the roles that women like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and the radical Alice Paul would play. Their fearless campaign for a woman’s suffrage Constitutional Amendment was a key to changing the course of the movement. They learned how Paul and her followers in the National Women’s Party were arrested, beaten, and jailed for picketing the White House in 1917. Working in parallel with the NWP was the two-million-member National American Woman Suffrage Association under the leadership of Carrie Chapman Catt staging marches, phone banks, petition drives and door to door organizing. Finally in 1920, the Nineteenth Amendment was adopted, prohibiting any state or the federal government from denying any citizen of the United States the right to vote on the basis of sex.
As she began reading her tenth student essay that night on the Women’s Suffrage Movement, having wilted into a slouch on her sofa, newly decorated with a red wine stain on one cushion, Theresa’s head bobbed from a momentary doze. Just one more, she encouraged herself. Pressing on she thought, at least the grammar is correct, even the structure and clarity were not bad. She paused after reading the first few lines of the essay’s last paragraph; the words ringing familiar. The student, Vicky, had quoted a line from class, “the struggle was second only, in the annals of American civil and political campaigns, to Negroes’ struggle for civil rights in terms of blood, tears, courage, and duration.” Vicky concluded with, “When my mom came home after voting in the 1968 Presidential election; she told me that she overheard a young woman complaining that she had to wait almost an hour in line to vote. After learning about the women who were arrested, beaten, and despised, but still devoted their lives to win women the right to vote, I will never complain about voting.” With her grading pencil Theresa awarded the work a rare “A,” with her red marking pencil, and placed it into her black cloth school case. She closed the case and walked into her bedroom, ready for a good sleep.
Weeks later, on a rainy Tuesday in April, Ms. Marchone took her familiar seat in Principal Robinson’s office for a meeting, the purpose of which she hadn’t been told in advance. Despite having sat there several times before, she noticed for the first time the two gold framed pictures of him with his wife and two teenage children on the credenza behind his desk. After Robinson tried to engage her in a minute of meaningless small talk which she ignored, he got to the point, “I regret to inform you that the school board has made the decision to not continue the History Seminar next year.” It’s a budgetary issue.” A lie. The truth was that too many parents had complained about the controversial material, or as one parent fumed, “untrue radical propaganda being fed to their son in that so-called history class.”
Ms. Marchone was not fooled by the budget excuse. For a moment she was tempted to argue the decision with Robinson and point out that her students had learned more about history this year than in their combined previous years of high school. They had learned that it was as complicated and as nuanced as the people who lived it, breathed it, died in it, and passed it on to the generations that followed. At least that’s what she had tried to teach them.
That was the case she wanted to lay out for Robinson in her best Perry Mason closing argument style, but then a cold wave of resignation broke over her, bringing her to the reality that nothing she said would make a difference. Why give him the pleasure of thinking she was begging to stay, she thought. She stood so she could look down at Robinson, stared straight into his tired-looking eyes and offered her own lie in a voice louder than necessary, “If that’s all, I have another meeting to attend.”
Pausing long enough to watch his eyes blink and mouth droop open in surprise at her audacity, but without giving him a chance to speak, she turned and walked out of his office. There was no way she was up for the often-inane banter in the teachers’ lounge about bell bottom pants or girls’ short skirts or the complaints about lazy students. Knowing her tiny classroom would be empty now, she quickly walked down the hall toward it. Once inside the room, she closed the door, and sat at her desk without bothering to turn on the lights. Only the patter of raindrops on the windows broke the stillness of the space, which felt even smaller in the dark. Her mind wondered where she would be next year. Maybe her answer would come in the mail today, she thought.
A few hours later in class, as Ms. Marchone finished describing the paranoia and ruined careers brought on by the McCarthy communist-hunting hearings in the U.S. in the late forties and early fifties, she gave the class the agenda for the end of the year. “We will continue to work our way to more current historical events here in class, but you will have no more weekly papers to write.”
Andy and Tony shouted loud cheers. Most of the others smiled, while Carol and Vicky looked on warily, expecting a big BUT. “Settle down,” Ms. Marchone said, her voice and face drained by the meeting with Robinson. “Your final assignment will be one paper, and lots of research.”
After the groans rose to the ceiling and then vaporized, she went on, “Your research is to talk to one or more older relatives and have them tell you about their lives. They can be your parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, anyone older. Your paper, which will need to be at least a thousand words, will be to write part of their history. And each of you will have to read your paper to the class.”
As the kids left the room, Ms. Marchone, pretended to busy herself but paid close attention to the students’ comments as they left the room, some meant to be overheard, others not. Vicky expressed intrigue by the idea, Carol and Judy were doubtful their parents would have anything interesting to share. Andy and Tony grumbled as usual.
Standing in the tiny foyer of her apartment building that afternoon, Theresa anxiously opened the mailbox and found two of the letters she’d been waiting for. She tore open one envelope so carelessly she nearly ripped the rich off-white bond paper, on which was typed, “Dear Ms. Marchone: It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been accepted as a first-year student in The College of Law of Temple University.” She cheered out loud. Then she tore open the second envelope from Columbia University Law School.
She fumbled with her key unlocking her apartment door, immediately picked up her telephone and called Liz. “I’ve been accepted at Columbia Law, and with an impressive financial aid package, “she screamed into the phone.
Liz echoed her scream on the other end unleashing their flood of excited plans about being in New York together next year. After she hung up the phone, she sat in silence a good long time to relish this momentous turning point in her career – her life.
Two days later, when the kids walked into the classroom they were buzzing noisily about Ralph Spellman, another senior who’d been accused of cheating on a social studies test by his teacher, Mr. Crump. “I’ve known Ralph since grade school. I don’t believe he was cheating,” said Carol in an agitated tone.
“I heard some kids saying that Ralph was failing the class, hadn’t studied and was desperate,” said Tony, shrugging his shoulders.
Differing versions of the story passed from mouth to mouth, distorting the original gossip like a game of whisper down the lane. None of the students at school had spoken with Ralph, who had been sent home by Principal Robinson yesterday after the test, the beginning of a two-week suspension from school.
Ms. Marchone tried to settle the class, but Carol kept arguing with Tony about Ralph. “Carol, I need your attention,” Ms. Marchone said looking at her.
But instead of quieting Carol blurted to Ms. Marchone, “But, it’s not fair, what they did to Ralph.”
Ms. Marchone could tell that she needed to give the kids a few minutes to talk about this. Carol didn’t know much about what happened during the test, but explained that Ralph had complained to her before about how Mr. Crump made sarcastic remarks to him when he gave wrong answers in class. She and Ralph sang together in chorus. He was a nice kid and he’d been accepted to West Chester State for next year. “There’s no way he would have cheated,” she protested.
Tony shared a fast-spreading rumor about Ralph’s desperation to avoid failing Mr. Crump’s class. Other voices sounded off as the class began to take sides. Finally, Ms. Marchone cut off the debate, telling the students to wait until more facts came out before jumping to conclusions. Then she dragged them through the day’s lessen about the Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, declaring the segregation of Blacks and Whites in public schools as a violation of the Constitution. The remaining minutes were enough to give the class introductory remarks about the beginning of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement.
Crump’s only comment in the teacher’s lounge that day was, “I know what I saw. The kid was cheating.”
A week passed bringing warmer weather, colorful April flowers, the competition of Spring sports, and the excitement of prom dates and prom preparations. The only word about Ralph Spellman, who was still serving his suspension, had come to Carol from Ralph’s best friend Eric Shoemaker. He tried to explain to Carol a faithful version of Ralph’s story. Ralph had gotten to school late that day because he was doing some last-minute studying for the test. He didn’t have time to stop at his locker and put his social studies book in it, even though he knew he was not supposed to take it with him into the test. He had no choice, otherwise he would have been late for the test and Mr. Crump wouldn’t have let him take it. While he was cramming the book into the metal basket below the seat of his desk Crump was calling for everyone’s attention. When Ralph looked up some of the notes tucked into the book must have fallen on the floor at his feet, and he didn’t notice. Ralph never saw the notes on the floor. Sometime during the test Mr. Crump walked over to Ralph’s desk and picked up the notes. Then he took Ralph’s test paper and told Ralph to wait there until the period was over.
Eric believed Ralph because they had studied together for the test and Ralph knew the material. Yes, Ralph had let his grades drop a little that year because his parents’ separation, but he really wanted to ace the social studies test and his finals, so he didn’t lose his qualified acceptance into West Chester State.
When Ms. Marchone began that day’s class, Carol raised her hand and said, “I want to set the record straight here in class about Ralph,” said Carol.
“This is not the right place…” Ms. Marchone began to say, but Carol interrupted.
“You’ve been telling us all year about how important it is to get all the facts we can about history so that we understand it better. Well, I think this situation is history in the making. Ralph Spellman’s reputation is on the line, and right now that feels more important to me than anything else. That’s why I want to tell the class what I found out.”
Realizing that that the other students would now be thinking about Ralph for the whole period instead of her lesson and admitting to herself that Carol had a point she decided to allow Carol to tell what she had learned to the class. Why not, she thought, nothing about this course had worked out like she planned.
Carol began to explain what she’d learned from Eric, when Tony tried to interrupt her, but Carol wouldn’t be silenced, saying, “Tony, shut it. I’ve got the floor.”
Tony’s mouth snapped shut and his eyes blinked in surprise. Carol told Ralph’s story to the class.
When she finished, Ms. Marchone said, “Ok, here’s the deal. Carol based what I can see, you’ve still only gotten the story second hand. You didn’t get it from Ralph himself. How do you know Eric got it right? I think you should get the full story, all sides, before you offer opinions or repeat third party stories. And we’re not going to discuss it anymore in this class. If you want to pursue this, you need to do it outside of class. Does everyone understand?”
Carol said, “yes,” as the rest of the class nodded in agreement.
“OK, now today we’re going to begin discussions about the events that triggered the U.S. involvement in Vietnam and the causes for the war.”
For the next week Carol, Vicky, and Judy began to dig into Ralph’s story. Ralph agreed to talk with Carol and told her the same story that Eric had told along with a few corrections and two additional pieces of information. Mr. Robinson had showed Ralph the notes that Mr. Crump had picked up from the floor. Ralph, who’d learned his notes cold, realized that very little on those two pages had anything to do with the test. He told Mr. Robinson that he would not have chosen those pages of notes if he intended to cheat, but Mr. Robinson said that did not change anything. The fact that Ralph had taken his book into the test and left notes out on the floor where he could see them justified the punishment. Robinson told Ralph he broke the rules and the evidence looked like he intended to cheat, even if he hadn’t looked at the notes. The next day Ralph’s mother called Principal Robinson and asked him to let Ralph retake the test, so he didn’t get a zero, but Robinson refused, backing up Mr. Crump’s decision about that.
Ralph also told Carol that he had tried to explain to Mr. Crump why he’d brought his book to the test and that he didn’t know any notes had fallen on the floor, but Mr. Crump said he didn’t believe him.
At the end of a class, about two weeks later, Carol and Judy stayed after class and explained everything they had learned from Ralph and his mother to Ms. Marchone. They also explained that they asked Mr. Crump if he would talk to them about Ralph and the test, but he said no- they had no business getting involved. “Mr. Crump is just one of those people who thinks there should never be any exception to the rules, no matter who made the rules or how arbitrary they are. This is not fair. Ralph didn’t cheat. He deserves to have the record cleared and be able to take the test over. Do you have any suggestions?” asked Carol.
“Are you sure Ralph wants this stirred up? You know there are some people who are never going to believe he wasn’t trying to cheat, and it’s awfully hard to get people to change their minds,” said Ms. Marchone.
“He told us that he does want to fight this. He needs to have a chance to get a grade on that test and set the record straight or he may lose his college acceptance and scholarship,” said Carol.
“Well, there’s a school board meeting next Tuesday night. It’s open to the public and there’s always a public comment period. Maybe they would let Ralph tell his story at the meeting. He’s going to have to be the one to do it, but there’s nothing to stop his mother and friends from going along for support,” said Ms. Marchone.
“Maybe his mother could also talk about her conversations with Principal Robinson too, and I’ll bet we can get a bunch of kids to show up in support,” said Carol, her voice rising excitedly.
“Sounds like you need to get busy,” Ms. Marchone said, offering a small smile of encouragement. As the girls left the room volleying ideas back and forth, Ms. Marchone rested back in her hard wooden school, closed her eyes, and wondered if the students would see this through.
Before the school board meeting was called to order the following week, several school board members and Superintendent Raymond Bailey whispered between themselves as the meeting room filled with a dozen students, some parents, and a few teachers. Mr. Bailey had no notice of any issues on the agenda which would explain the crowd, and his inability to offer any explanation to the board members for the buzz in the large audience made him anxious to the point of wetting his starched white shirt with sweat. The heat of his wool suit coat didn’t help.
When Superintendent Bailey announced the beginning of public comment, Ralph, his mother, and Carol went to the microphone after Ralph’s raised hand was acknowledged. Ralph, short and thin, seemed even smaller as he clenched tightly to the index cards with his notes scribbled on them and softly introduced himself, his mother and Carol. He had asked Carol to come for support. His knees quivered as he began to tell his story about the test. Before he could finish the story Mr. Bailey interrupted him. “Son, this is not really an issue for the board, I recommend you speak with the school principal.”
“I did sir, but I guess he doesn’t believe me. He wouldn’t change anything,” said Ralph, his voice wavering and his hand holding his notes shaking.
“Well, these issues are handled by the principal, not by the board,” Bailey said in a dismissive tone, clear to all in the room that he intended to end this discussion.
As Ralph’s head lowered slightly his gaze falling to his newly polished shoes, his mother put her arm around his shoulder. Carol, unable to control herself leaned toward the microphone and said so loudly that a screech of feedback filled the room, “Mr. Bailey and board members, the teacher and Principal Robinson are wrong, Ralph didn’t cheat. He was wrongly accused and then punished with suspension and given a zero on his test. It’s not right and all these people here tonight are on Ralph’s side. The least you can do is to listen to what he has to say.”
“Young lady, you are out of order. Now I suggest you have a seat.” said Bailey, leaning into his desk microphone for amplification and glaring at Carol. Turning to face the board president, Mr. Millhouse, he continued, “I will speak to Principal Robinson about the matter. Perhaps the board would like to move forward with tonight’s business.”
“Well, I for one think we should give Ralph the opportunity to explain the situation,” said Millhouse. He then looked to his left and his right seeing the other board members nod in agreement. Facing Ralph, Millhouse said, “Go ahead son. Tell us what you would like to say.”
Bailey, hot with red-faced anger, tried to regain his composure; he’d lost control of the meeting, and he hated that. He nearly spoke out against Millhouse’s invitation to Ralph but thought better of it. Instead, he scribbled some meaningless words on his tablet, pretending to note something of importance. He fixed his eyes on Ralph like lasers, trying to bore into his brain.
Carol moved away from the microphone, as Ralph moved closer. His voice was weak and faltering, his hand with the notes still shaking, then his mother reached over and gently supported his trembling hand. Five minutes later, Ralph finished his story, and inched back from the mic. His mother leaned into it, and said, “I believe my son. He does not cheat. He has a chance to go to West Chester State University, but this will spoil his chances. He’s already served his ten-day suspension from school. It cannot be undone, but we are asking the board to at least let him retake the test. He studied hard for it.”
Millhouse gently thanked Ralph and his mother and promised the board would take it under consideration. As the three turned to sit down, student hands shot up into the air. “Is this about Mr. Spellman or another matter?” Millhouse asked.
Eric Shoemaker stood up and said, “I’m Eric Shoemaker, a senior, and I just want to say that I believe Ralph. He and I studied for this test together and he was really prepared for it, and I know he didn’t cheat. That’s all I have to say.”
One by one, as their raised hands were acknowledged by Millhouse, every student from the History Seminar class, told the board that they too believed Ralph, and urged the board to allow him to retake the test. Even Tony had been convinced of Ralph’s innocence after he’d heard Carol tell the story. Andy Cantor spoke last, and then sat down next to his mom and dad who had volunteered to attend with him. Ms. Marchone and Mr. Thomas, seated next to each other in the back row, watched quietly, impressed by Ms. Marchone’s kids.
Wanting to avoid what he believed to be inappropriate action by the board to interfere in the matter, a very frustrated Superintendent Bailey faced the board and said, “As I stated earlier, I will speak with Principal Robinson about this and provide more details to the board if it likes.”
“Thank-you Mr. Bailey, please follow up and report back to us,” said Millhouse in concerned fatherly way which caused the Superintendent to shift nervously in his seat as he curtly nodded his understanding. Turning to the audience Millhouse repeated, “Thank you Ralph and Mrs. Spellman. Once the board has the administration’s report, we’ll consider this situation. Thank you for coming tonight.” He then turned to face Bailey and said, “Now, Mr. Baily what is the next item on tonight’s agenda?”
Several days later, as Ms. Marchone neared the women’s faculty room, she could hear Crump, who had invaded the women’s space to their great annoyance. “I don’t care what Spellman, his mother or a bunch of kids say. I know what I saw; the kid was trying to cheat. I’m not changing my mind about anything, and Robinson better back me or I’ll get the union involved. I’m sick of talking about it,” he said.
Ms. Marchone decided to spend her break period outside, even though it was a cloudy, cool spring day.
Another week went by and there was no word about any decision by the school board on Ralph’s situation. This week the seminar students would begin their oral presentations of their final papers in class.
Judy volunteered to go first. She had learned that her mother’s German immigrant parents raised pigs on their farm in Lancaster County. Her mother said that she’d eaten so much pork growing up she never wanted to eat it again. But her mother considered herself lucky growing up on a farm during The Great Depression. At least they always had plenty of food to eat.
Tony’s older brother, James enlisted in the Marines in 1966, and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. Six months later, he was wounded and sent home. Tony planned to enlist in the Marines right after high school.
Carol’s father worked in the Army Press Corp during World War II, and had seen many horrors, none of which prepared him for seeing the release of prisoners from a German concentration camp. Her mother worked as a welder in an airplane factory during the war. Already planning to major in journalism in college, Carol told the class she wanted to become a foreign correspondent after hearing her father’s stories.
Randy’s mother worked as a secretary for a lawyer in Washington DC for five years in the late forties and early fifties. Her boss defended several people who were charged with being Communists. He also represented a man charged with “sexual perversion” who was fired from his job with the federal government. President Eisenhower had issued an Executive Order making sexual perversion a basis for dismissal. The man lived with another man. Randy introduced a new phrase to the class, “Some history books give reference to the McCarthy years as the ‘Red Scare’ but to homosexuals it is also known as the ‘Pink Scare.’”
Vicky told of her mother, Audrey, who worked in the federal Fish and Wildlife Service as at clerk typist for Rachel Carson back in the 1940’s. Miss Carson was a marine biologist who wrote extensively about the oceans. Her mother typed one of her books, The Sea Around Us, before leaving her job to marry Vicky’s dad and have children. Vicky had just read Rachel Carson’s book Silent Spring, about the dangers of DDT. She planned to major in either journalism or marine biology in college.
One by one they shared their stories. Andy went last, telling the story of his dad’s family living through the Depression. His grandfather was away for months at a time, working in the Works Progress Administration known as the WPA, a New Deal public works program started in 1935. He helped build highways across Pennsylvania and Ohio.
It had taken two class days to finish all the presentations. By then it was the week before Memorial Day. The students buzzed with anticipation of the end of the school year and graduation.
There were no more assignments in the History Seminar class; they spent the next to the last class talking about current events. Near the end of class, Mr. Thomas poked his head in the door and motioned to Ms. Marchone. When she stepped out the door to see what he wanted, classroom talk turned to the plans for a post-graduation party. She walked back into the room less than minute later, and announced, “I’ve just heard that the school board will not direct that Ralph Spellman be permitted retake his social studies exam.”
For a moment, the only sound in the room was the low drone of a lawn tractor mowing the grounds outside which drifted in on warm breezes through the open windows. “It’s not fair,” protested Carol as she thumped the top of her desk with the side of her fisted hand.
“So, after all that, we were just banging our heads against the wall for nothing,” griped Vicky.
The cacophony of loud insults the students spewed toward the administration drowned out the tractor’s rumbling engine. Ms. Marchone felt their frustration, the seeming futility she’d endured fighting her own fights. But history had taught her about the slow pace of change. “So, what?” she said in a load voice with a sharp edge. “So, you didn’t get what you wanted, and you figure Ralph got the shaft, and nothing ever changes, so why bother. Is that it?”
The students hushed, as Ms. Marchone’s eyes met theirs, one by one. No one stirred; the tractor noise faded as it moved away. “Look, the best you can do is to fight, to tell the story you know the world should hear, even if it isn’t willing to listen. Sometimes it doesn’t seem to change anything, but now they know, like it or not. Uncomfortable facts have been revealed and they know, but they won’t admit, that things should have been handled differently. The whole school knows both sides of Ralph’s story. Most important of all, Ralph Spellman knows you all cared enough to help him tell his story. I think that is important to him and he probably won’t forget that for a long time,” she said.
Before anyone could speak, the buzzer ending the period sounded, breaking the transfixed gazes of the students on their mentor. In the hallway outside the room Principal Robinson, who had paused his walk to his office when he’d heard Ms. Marchone’s loud voice, moved on when the buzzer sounded.
Before he left the room that day, Andy walked up to Ms. Marchone and said, “I’ve gotten a lot out this class this year, and you know what else, my parents and I have never talked to each other more than we did this year. We argue a lot, but we keep talking.” He smiled, turned, and walked out the door.
Later, at her apartment, as Theresa looked over her acceptance letter from Columbia Law School, she realized that she’d somehow forgotten to mail in her confirmation and enrollment forms, but fortunately the deadline hadn’t passed. She would stop at the post office with it in the morning. Absolutely, she reminded herself, this was the right next step.
The last day in the History Seminar class felt like a party, just without the food. The kids, now young women and men were permitted to talk about anything they wanted, “just keep the noise level down to a dull roar,” were Ms. Marchone’s words.
Carol walked into the classroom about ten minutes late prompting the questioning expression scrunching Ms. Marchone’s face. “Sorry, I got held up, but I have some good news. Can I share it with the class?” said Carol.
“Go ahead,” said Ms. Marchone, thinking, it would be nice to end the year with some good news.
“Hey everyone, I was just talking to Ralph. West Chester told him that if he took the social studies class in summer school and got at least a B+ in the course, he could still attend in the fall. He won’t get quite as much financial aid, but a local credit union will give him a student loan for the rest,” announced Carol.
The room erupted in cheers. Ms. Marchone made a half-hearted effort to quiet them. When the final class-ending buzzer of the year sounded, the near-graduates of Rivergrove High made their way out of Room 210, each offering “good-byes” and a few “I’ll stop back to visit you next years,” to Ms. Marchone. With a broad smile, and eyes moist with affection, she bid them all good luck until Carol, the last, asked if she could give her a hug.
“Sure,” said Theresa, and held open her arms.
On the final teacher day, several days later, as Theresa packed her remaining personal items in a cardboard box, Charlie Thomas came into Room 210 wearing an unusually somber face and asked, “Hi Theresa, is it true? Are you not coming back next year?”
“Yes. They told me they’re not going to offer this class next year, so they’re not offering me a contract for next year.”
“That stinks. We’ll miss you,” said Charlie.
“I think a few will breathe a sigh of relief,” Theresa chuckled.
“What are your plans?”
“I’ve been accepted to Columbia Law School.”
“Congratulations. I didn’t know you were thinking of changing careers. So, are you giving up teaching?” Charlie said with a melancholy note in his voice making his congratulations sound hollow.
“A career in law is something I have thought about for years. Interestingly I just got an interview invitation from Haverford School District, my alma mater. Seems they have an opening in the high school history department. Given how this year went, I think my teaching days are over,” Theresa replied.
“So, you’re not going to the interview?” he asked shaking his head.
“Columbia made me a great financial aid offer. I’d be a fool to turn it down, and I have a good friend in law school up in New York,” she said, repeating the argument she had used to convince herself.
“You know, several of your students told me how much they learned this year. And from what I saw at that school board meeting, they learned more than just history. Well, whether it’s a classroom of kids or a jury, you’ve got a talent for winning people over. Anyway, I’ve got to get back to my room and collect textbooks. Stop back and say hello sometime,” said Charlie nodding his head to show he was sincere. Part of him wanted to say more, but the words didn’t come. He turned toward the door.
“Thanks, maybe I will, and have a great summer, ” she said to his back.
He turned to glance back over his shoulder and raised his hand in a reverse-handed good-by wave.
As Theresa looked around the room for any remaining personal items, the room’s lights blinked out. I thought the custodian fixed that, she thought. She wrote a note on the blackboard reminding the custodian about the lights, picked up her box and purse and walked out of the darkened Room 210 for the last time. The roller coaster highs and lows of the last year rumbled through her mind as she stepped outside. Despite clouds hiding the sun, the sticky air felt oppressive. As she reached her car, she spotted Principal Robinson walking through the parking lot. Just the person I want to talk to, she thought. “Mr. Robinson, do you have a minute?” she called.
As Robinson turned to look toward her, she noticed how much smaller he seemed outside the building, his shoulders slumping, more lines in his face, more grey hair uncharacteristically out of place. His usual look of unquestioned authority had abandoned him today, she thought.
After laying her box by her car she walked toward him and said, “Fred Graham, the principal at Haverford told me that you recommended me for a job. Why?”
“Hello, Ms. Marchone. Fred and I were at a conference together a few weeks back and he mentioned he had an opening in his history department, so I mentioned that he should contact you since you would be leaving Rivergrove.”
“Why, after everything that happened this year, would you do that?”
“Despite all the headaches you gave me this year; and it was a bottle of aspirin’s worth, there were some parents who made a point to telling me that your class was one of the most challenging history classes their children had ever experienced. They also said that they had never seen their children so engaged with trying to understand the complexities of history. And I saw what your seminar students did at the school board meeting. So, I told Fred that he ought to consider hiring you if he had plenty of aspirin on hand. All kidding aside, I told him he’d get a teacher with fresh ideas who was committed to her job,” Robinson said stoically.
“Well, thank-you. I think. You called West Chester on Ralph’s behalf, didn’t you?”
“Let’s just say I’m happy they gave him another chance. Did Fred offer you a job?” Robinson said.
“I have an interview invitation, but I’m not sure that’s right for me.” she said.
“Best of luck to you, whatever you decide.”
A week later, as Theresa and her brother Paul set down her bed’s frame in the back of the U-Haul truck she’d rented to move out of her apartment, she said, “That’s it; there’s only a few boxes left, and I’ll put those in my car. Thanks again Pauly for helping me move.”
“Sure sis, no problem. I’ll take off with the truck now because I want to put air in that rear tire. I’ll meet up with you at the house,” said Paul.
“Right. See you there,” she replied. She knew he wouldn’t get lost heading to her next home; they’d lived together there most of their lives. She had mixed feelings about moving back to her parent’s house in Havertown, even temporarily, but it would give her an opportuning to avoid paying rent for her current apartment for another month. It would also give her the luxury to taking her time finding another apartment before she started her new teaching job at Haverford. Law school and personal discoveries in New York City would have to wait she thought, hoping she’d made the right decision.