It turned out my first class was composed of 25 lobster fishermen, factory workers, worm-diggers, and clam diggers; all men between the ages of 35 and 60, and two women in their 40s. The men wore their fishing boots and mackinaws to class; what a big, burly crew they were! All were working toward a high school diploma; some with more seriousness than others.
The majority of the lobstermen and clam diggers were veterans of the military. The G.I. Bill provided benefits to those who wished to continue their education; under the Readjustment Assistance Act of 1972, the monthly allowance had risen to $220. As a result, most of my students were there for the paycheck. Oh, a few were interested in learning, but most were looking for immediate improvement to their financial status by way of a monthly stipend.
Here I was 28 years old, 5 ft. 1 inches tall, probably weighed all of 125 pounds soaking wet, standing at the front of the class with students old enough to be my dad, in many cases—or at the very least, my big brothers! (I also looked younger than my age, which didn’t help.) I remember the first night of class, the director of the Adult Ed program knocked on my door and called me into the hallway, closing the classroom door behind me.
“Are you alright in there with those guys,” he asked, in a worried tone. “They're a scary-looking bunch!”
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” I answered, more to convince myself than him!
That first session I introduced myself and had the students do the same and state what their goal was for this English class. My suspicions were confirmed; most freely admitted they were there for the money. I gave them the opportunity to tell me and their classmates a little about themselves, and then asked them to write a short essay about their lives, as a means of determining their language skills. Most of the men knew each other, but since it was such a large group, the class time was pretty much filled with that activity. I informed them that we would be reading a book, discussing it, and writing about it during the semester. There was muttering, groaning and general restlessness. I assured them it would be fun and dismissed the group with an animated, “See you all next week.”
I was faced with a dilemma; I needed to find a book that had merit, but would be interesting to this predominantly macho-male group. The Director of the Program gave me carte blanche to do as I saw fit. No one in the group had expressed a desire to go to college; most had quit school in 8th grade. It made no sense to me to try to introduce the classics right off the bat, so I settled on the book PAPILLON, by Henri Charriere. If you’re not familiar with the book, it is a true story about a man in France, who was sentenced to life in prison for a murder he did not commit. He was incarcerated at Devil’s Island, a notorious prison from which no one had ever escaped; escape became his obsession.
Within a couple of weeks, the class begrudgingly got caught up in the story and began to look forward to class discussions. One man in the class, I’ll call him John—in reality I don’t remember his name; it was 1973, after all—decided to make it his mission to embarrass the teacher if at all possible. Quite probably the brightest of the group, he asked questions constantly, and his cronies would snicker. Finally, one night he was sure he had me.
“What is this ‘plan’ they are always talking about and how they hide it—what’s that all about?”
His circle of friends were snickering and waiting to see what I would say. (The “plan” was a small metal container in which each inmate kept his valuables--any cash he might have, and perhaps a map for escape purposes. They kept it hidden in their butts, so the guards would not take it from them.) This, of course, was what he was getting at; testing how I would answer and whether I might turn red. I kept my composure and calmly suggested that he refer to the glossary at the back of the book for a full explanation. There was much chuckling and elbow poking—they were delighted that he had put the teacher on the spot!
During the coffee break, which was held in the school cafeteria, I approached the table where John and his cronies were still having their laugh, quite satisfied with his cleverness. A look of surprise came over their faces as I came to a stop at the end of their table.
“John,” I began, “I’d like to apologize.” Heads turned in my direction; no one, including John ,quite knew what to expect. “After you left for the break, I checked the glossary for the explanation of ‘the plan.’ I’m apologizing because I discovered the definition used words like anus and rectum, and for someone whose vocabulary has been limited to asshole, I know it must have been confusing.” John’s jaw dropped and his mouth hung open; there was a moment of silence, then all his cronies roared with laughter!
I gained the respect of that group that night, albeit in a strange way. There were no more attempts to embarrass the teacher; the remainder of the semester went very well!