«SAVING THE WORLD Don’t know much about history, Don’t know much biology. — S AM COOKE, “W ONDERF UL W ORLD” G od does have a sense of ...»
SAVING THE WORLD
Don’t know much about history,
Don’t know much biology.
— S AM COOKE, “W ONDERF UL W ORLD”
G od does have a sense of humor, no question. After watch-
ing me terrorize teachers for years, the Almighty dropped a
teaching job right into my lap. And you say you don’t believe.
The year was 1971, the month September, and every weekday morning at exactly six thirty a.m., Rod Stewart’s voice would blare
from my clock radio:
Wake up, Maggie, I think I got something to say to you, It’s late September and I really should be back at school.
Well, I was back at school, all right. Specifically, Monsignor Ed- ward Pace High School located in the shabby, tough Florida town of Opa-locka, just north of Miami. (To this day it consistently scores among the highest rates of violent crime in the USA.) This was not the Villages, if you know what I’m saying.
90 Bill O’Reilly The job happened because the powers-that-were at Pace had a relationship with Marist College and were looking for cheap labor.
That would be me. Along with my trusty college roommate, Joe Ru- bino, I signed on to teach English for less than five thousand dollars.
Beginning of story.
Teaching held a good amount of appeal to me. Back in the Wood- stock days, I felt I should do something worthwhile with my life;
I wanted to help folks. It never occurred to me to sell stocks or in- surance. That would be working for the man. While I saw nothing particularly wrong with working for the man, I knew my father had not benefited from doing that, and, again, I wanted to help improve society. Really.
Plus, there was the strong appeal of south Florida. Rubino and I had done the spring-break thing our senior year, hunting for Connie Francis on the beaches of Fort Lauderdale. We never did find Con- nie, but there were many, many Connie wannabes on display. All I’ll say is this: after I’d spent three years in Poughkeepsie, New York, the sun, surf, and female denizens of south Florida looked mighty fine indeed. So we packed up our gear and headed south.
The first sign of trouble was our assigned “accommodations.” Because we were working for slave wages, the principal at Pace set us up with a low-rent apartment near the school.
“You guys are gonna like this,” he told me on the phone. “Conve- nient to everything, and there’s a pool.” By “convenient to everything,” I guess the guy meant to the half dozen drug dealers who lived in the complex. If you were after weed or cocaine, these accommodations were, indeed, convenient.
The pool was there as advertised, but a rusty refrigerator had taken up residence at the bottom of it. This wasn’t exactly Surfside 6.
We lasted less than thirty minutes in our new digs.
Checking out of the Horror Apartment Complex, we quickly found alternati
his recommended lodging. His annoyance should have signaled me that we would not be dealing with a rational guy at the school helm, but it went over my head.
Hey, Teach, What’s Up As I write, I am looking at myself in the 1972 edition of The Torch, the Pace High School yearbook. There I am, sitting in front of a class, hair covering my ears, pork-chop sideburns, and a firm, steely look. I was no Sister Thomas, but believe the photo: I brooked no nonsense.
If a kid clowned around, he or she was sharply warned. Second time, an appropriate sanction was swiftly delivered to the miscreant.
Early on, I was tested, as most young teachers are. In my case, I was just twenty-one years old when I began teaching, and one of my assigned classes was senior English. That meant most of my students were seventeen and eighteen years old. Do the math.
92 Bill O’Reilly One day a blond girl called me Bill in front of the class. This was against school rules, since all teachers were to be addressed as Mr., Mrs., or Miss. In my mind, the girl had intentionally misbehaved for two reasons: attention and the thrill of it all.
I had prepared myself for this. Before the school year started, I had mapped out a game plan to handle what was sure to be some challenging behavior. I was the new, young teacher on campus. Even in my callow youth, I knew boundaries would have to be quickly established or chaos would ensue.
Understanding that discipline is useless without respect (I think I got that from the Sidney Poitier movie To Sir, with Love), I coolly appraised the young girl who had just used my given name.
“Miss Jones [an alias], why don’t you explain to the class why you addressed me by my first name when you know that is a breach of etiquette?” I kept my voice calm but authoritative. The “breach of etiquette” line threw her.
“Uh, I don’t know,” she replied.
“So let me get this straight. You decide to break school rules, taking time away from the class, and you don’t know why? Am I understanding you?” Panic swept across the girl’s face, which was deeply reddening.
Every kid in the class was staring at her. What started as an attempt to diminish the inexperienced teacher had somehow gone horribly wrong. She sat there mute.
“Okay, Miss Jones, here’s what’s going to happen,” I said sharply.
“You are going to write a five-hundred-word composition explaining your actions here today. This will be due tomorrow. If you behave yourself, I’ll keep your work private. If you do not, I will read it to the class. Are we clear?” “Yes, Mr. O’Reilly.” “Good.” That was it. Word of Miss Jones’s smackdown spread throughout the Pace campus like fire ants on spilled maple syrup. After that I 93 A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity had little trouble in the classroom. Every student in the school immediately understood that, when Mr. O. was involved, humiliation might be just one stupid comment away.
You see, I understood something many adults never get: the worst thing you can do to a dopey teenager is embarrass him or her in front of their peers. You can yell and scream at kids all day long and accomplish nothing. But holding students accountable for their actions publicly has a major inhibiting effect. Not too many kids (or adults, for that matter) want to become an object of public derision.
One caveat here: this doesn’t work on the psycho kids. However, Catholic schools tend to weed them out pretty fast and send them on their way.
Now, there’s no question that I had damaged Miss Jones’s selfesteem, and today the “enlightened” educators who are embedded in the American education system would probably chastise me for insensitivity. But listen up: I don’t care. In the two years I taught at Pace, my methods were effective with hundreds of students, most of whom actually learned some things. Meanwhile, many of the other teachers at Pace presided over undisciplined classroom environments that wasted time and accomplished little. I actually cared whether my students were learning. That’s why I allowed Rod Stewart’s raspy voice to disturb my slumber. I believed it was my responsibility to create an atmosphere where kids could learn important things without disruption. If a teacher can’t or won’t do that, the students get hosed.
I realize that might sound self-righteous, but that’s how I saw it.
I was getting paid to do a job, and no defiant kid was going to stop me. Period.
Even so, I didn’t want to damage any kid. Shortly after her indiscretion, I spoke with Miss Jones privately. She cried, and I felt bad.
But I explained that what she did was unacceptable, and if she continued that kind of behavior, her life would be the worse for it. Did she get the message? I’d love to tell you that the incident changed her 94 Bill O’Reilly How I was remembered in the Pace 1972 yearbook.
Definitely not To Sir, with Love.
life and she went on to do great things. But the truth is, I don’t know how Miss Jones turned out. She was a strange kid. Something was definitely bothering her, and she wasn’t the confiding type, at least not with me. Life isn’t Sidney Poitier winning over Lulu and the other British toughies on the big screen. Still, never again did Miss Jones, or any other student, disrupt that senior English class, and by the end of the school year, most of those people scored well on the exam I gave them. And, trust me, the test wasn’t easy.
The majority of Pace High students came from working-class homes with parents who sacrificed to pay private-school tuition.
Ethnically, it broke down this way: fifty percent Hispanic, forty percent white, ten percent black. Cubans dominated the campus. I liked them from the jump; most were hardworking, respectful, and grateful to America for saving them from Castro.
In fact, I had more trouble with the Pace faculty than I did with the kids. Hard to believe, I know. By now you have probably picked 95 A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity up that I have a small problem with authority except when I am it.
Then authority is okay.
Many of the faculty and administrators at Pace were “small picture” people. That is, they were clueless about what the kids were doing and thinking and concentrated on enforcing picayune, largely meaningless rules. For example, some faculty members actually busied themselves measuring the skirts of the girls. Each female student was required to wear a standardized sky-blue-colored uniform. However, some of the young ladies were hiking up hemlines in an apparent attempt to imitate Goldie Hawn. Some teachers used rulers to measure the proper skirt length. It was almost surreal.
Meanwhile, a number of girls left the school in a family way, if you know what I mean. But there was little talk of dealing with that or the substance abuse occurring on campus.
Since most students at Pace had little money, glue was the substance of choice that year. Cretins would enter the bathroom stalls, smear it on rags, and inhale. Glassy-eyed, they’d stagger into the classroom.
I cornered one of the leaders of the “rag brigade,” a skinny wise guy, and basically told him that, if he didn’t knock it off, I would hunt him down off school property and we’d “discuss” things. Apparently, he got the message, and the cheap-high crowd toned it down. By the way, I would have hunted him down.
Of course the principal, a corpulent, middle-aged Catholic brother, and most of the teachers had no idea that glue was in vogue. No, they were too busy measuring the skirts of the girls.
It was tough, but I ignored most of the insane faculty-driven minutiae, because there was nothing I could do about it. The principal and his disciples had their agenda, and it wasn’t going to change because some wise-guy New York teacher thought it was nuts. But one time I did listen to the Isley Brothers and decided to “fight the power.” By the way, that strategy rarely turns out well.
96 Bill O’Reilly Do Not Try This at Work I’ve told some parts of the following story before, but in a different context. Here the point is that we in America waste far too much time endlessly discussing stupid stuff. If something is wrong, fix it. Don’t discuss it to death. As actor Eli Wallach stated in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, “When you have to shoot—shoot. Don’t talk.” As in many Southern states, high school football is big in Florida.
On late summer and fall Friday evenings, thousands of kids attend games and do what many kids do in the dark: attempt to misbehave.
There’s the usual drinking and smoking and cursing out the opposition, the kind of stuff that’s been going on for generations. But at Pace, as our Spartans took the field in red-and-gold uniforms, there was another huge problem: hot pants!
Even at these night games, the average temperature in Miami that year was about eighty-eight degrees, with humidity at the suicide level. I mean, it was brutal. So the kids dressed accordingly. That is, they wore very little.
The attire situation caused great fear and loathing among the faculty at Pace, and I saw their point: wearing halters and short-shorts, some of the girls looked like Carmen Electra. Not exactly the image a Catholic high school wants to project, with all due respect to Ms. Electra.
Because the bold, fresh guy has always been a simple man, my solution to the problem was exceedingly simple: tell the girls that halters and hot pants were banned at all school events, and if they violated the rule they would be punished. If they didn’t like it, tough.
Simple, right? Easily done. “But noooooo,” as the late John Belushi was fond of saying on Saturday Night Live. The hot-pants deal had to be discussed and debated and parsed at faculty meetings over and over again. It was insane.
97 A Bold Fresh Piece of Humanity Finally, I reached critical mass. A woman teacher named Isabella (alias) stood up and said, “I want to ask the faculty to tell us what is appropriate attire at a ‘Foosball’ game.” Immediately, my hand shot up, and my roommate, Joe Rubino, put his head in his hands, something he had practiced quite often.
“Yes, Mr. O’Reilly.” I slowly got to my feet and said, “I believe, Isabella, that appropriate football game attire is a helmet, spiked shoes, padded shoulders and thighs, and tight pants to keep the pads secured.” Silence. Then a few muffled guffaws. The principal shot me a look that would have made Hannibal Lecter envious. Everybody knew I had mocked the faculty meeting. I was off the reservation.
The following day, I addressed the hot-pants issue in all my classes, and my message was sage and pithy. I simply stated that any girl who dressed like a cheap tart was foolish and would lose the respect of boys, especially decent guys. I also told the students that boys routinely mocked girls they thought were “easy” and had done so since guys were invented. No further lecture was necessary and there were no threats. I simply asked if anyone had any questions, and nobody did.
Once again, word whipped around the campus. The hot-pants mania subsided, as few teenage girls want to be mocked by teenage boys.
Another victory for the home team, right? Not so fast. Life is full of unintended consequences, and boy, did I make enemies among the faculty. Not that I cared at the time; I did not. I liked most of my students but thought the faculty, by and large, were simpletons.