Over the course of the last few days, there have been many reports of teachers’ political bias in the classroom. Some may have had differing experiences than I; but in my youth, I experienced much the same from one teacher with a very different outcome.
What I am about to relate is a story from the 60′s, in a mountain mining town out west. Mining towns in American history have been known to be fairly rough towns, inhabited by men who were no strangers to drinks and fights. It was during a time in history when there was actually a written codified law stating that two men of roughly equal physical size and strength could mutually agree to combat; and as long as the peace of no other citizen was disturbed, their mutual combat was legal. This actually made for a rather peaceful society, as the worst thing you could be called in our town was a coward. So if you pushed something too far and were physically challenged to back it up and then refused to fight, you were labeled a coward and ignored or worse from that time on. I learned early, shall we say, to be a diplomatic conversationalist whenever possible. It is under these circumstances I relate the story.
During my sophomore year in high school, my history teacher was a huge supporter of Franklin D. Roosevelt. In fact, my family were even supporters of him. I, however, took exception to the teachers’ constant emphasis of the wonderful programs his administration had used to revive the US economy during the 30′s. Being an avid reader of history, I learned that some programs such as the WPA had actually been started in Germany before they were used in the USA. This had helped to restart the German economy after it had been hit so hard under the Weimar Republic years. I had also learned that during the building of the Rockefeller Center in New York City, a mural had been included showing Mussolini courageously leading his people forward. I questioned the closeness of the leaders of that time and their common approach to problems. I also noted the anti-Jewish sentiment here in the USA at the time and the turning away of large numbers of Jews entering the USA prior to and during the War.
This ignited the history teacher as a match to tinder. After reading my paper, he came toward me in a menacing manner. He began to berate me. I simply told him that the assignment had been to compare historical figures of our choice and to relate our feelings and questions regarding them. He exploded and ask me if I had paid any attention at all to his lectures regarding FDR and all the “good” he had done for the country. I, as softly as I could, explained that while I recognize all the adulation many people had for FDR, I did not regard him as perfect. He then went somewhat mad and began screaming insults while pushing me around the room. Fortunately for me, another teacher came in to see what all the fuss was about. This other teacher would prove to be a valuable witness later. It was at this point he began swinging wild punches in my direction.
I spent much of my youth during the 1950s and 60s in mountain country, some of it rural southern mountain country and some of it mining country out west. My father and most of the men around me at that time were the epitome of what would be called men’s men today. My father in his 20′s had been a bare knuckles fighter during the depression years. He had taught me the finer points of landing effective punches early in my life. This teaching proved very effective on that particular day. I had finally had enough of being pushed and shoved. By the age of 15, I had grown to over 6 feet tall and weighed nearly 180 pounds. I had just spent the summer working on a cantaloupe farm, usually spending at least 10 hours a day, 6 days a week in the field. When I threw the upper cut, he never saw it coming. My punch threw him up and over his desk; and when landing on his back, we found he was unconscious.
I was taken to the principal’s office. The other teacher explained what he had seen. The principal, being a man who had spent many years in the town, explained to the new history teacher the finer points of what happens when you begin shoving people around in town. The incident, as the principal called it, would solved by shaking hands and agreeing to disagree on parts of historical figures impact on history. I was ask to be more direct in asking what was required when writing an assignment, although not restricted to how I might write an assignment, just to let the teacher know it might be controversial (as the principal believed all history could be looked at from differing angles.)
The teacher took a fresh interest in what the students had to say. The teacher and I both knew we should likely stay quiet towards each other for a while. I learned how close I came to trouble when the sheriff dropped by after school. He took me aside and said that punch could have killed the teacher; and no matter what had happened prior to that moment, I would have faced manslaughter charges. Going through court to prove my innocence did not appeal to me. The thought of going to prison appealed to me less, but I also told the Sheriff that the thought of backing down and being pushed around appealed to me least of all. The sheriff didn’t think, judging by how that teacher looked after the fight, that I would face being pushed around by him in the future.
When all was said and done, I can’t say that my history teacher and I became friends. I can say I passed his class with a B grade, and we did have some quiet discussions during the rest of my time there.