Lois Wille talks with Studs Terkel
BROADCAST: Dec. 14, 1965 | DURATION: 00:55:05
Terkel interviews journalist/editor/author Lois Wille.
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel Lois Wille won the Pulitzer Prize a few years ago, reporter for the "Chicago Daily News", on the theme of birth control. It looks like another Pulitzer Prize on the way for Miss Wille of the "News". The recent series, the one that perhaps has caused, evoked more response than any series in any local paper in recent years, her story visiting Crane High School. "Inside a Slum High School" was the headline of the first of six installments from Saturday through, I believe, Friday. Saturday the 27th through the early week of December, and Miss Wille is here, Lois, and perhaps just talk about what she saw and experienced in the school, an aspect of Chicago and our schools, of which the great many of our colleagues living in the city know nothing. I thought perhaps, Lois, as a sort of springboard, hear the voice of a mother of a kid who went to Crane touching on the theme that you have written about in your series. [pause in recording] You visited Crane?
Mrs. Dickerson Yeah, oh, I went to Crane. And, oh yeah, my Barbara'd having three study periods in a row. Gee, this is kind of crazy. Studies in what? So I went. And before I went to the office, I went to see this study hall, and this is the auditorium. This auditorium has a false ceiling in it, and there's very few lights, and then, oh, there's children everywhere, male and female. And about the only thing they could do in there is make love, you know. So I went back to this counselor, and I told him, I said I--
Mrs. Dickerson There is none, hardly. In fact, most of the kids can't read anyway, but if they could, they wouldn't be able to see. So I went back to the counselor and I said to him, I said I stopped first to see your study hall. He said, "Yes, Mrs. Dickerson." He says, "Well," he said, "There's a false ceiling there and they have to, it'll cost $10,000 to put up a, this business of putting the lights in, and you know that the school system doesn't have any money," and blab blab blab. I said, "But in the meantime, what are you going to do about all these children in there? These boys and girls, these young men and women?" I said, "They maybe can't read, but they can do other things in there, such as getting babies." He said, "Well, we don't have anywhere else to put them." And this was the answer I got.
Lois Wille Definitely. I was in that same auditorium and I couldn't even read to take notes on what was going on, so I know what she's talking about, but especially the point she made about what do the kids do in the study hall when you can't read in the first place. You know, for years the Board of Education has been trying to get some information out of schools superintendent Willis on achievement levels, and I was able to get some of it at Crane and found that more than half the freshman class can't read above the fifth-grade level. That means, you know, they can barely read, and these are not kids that have come up from the South. These are kids who've gone through eight years of school in Chicago.
Studs Terkel And yet, you know, your discovery in this series from one to six is quite fantastic. You speak of certain teachers who are interested, and there's one particularly you mentioned who was sub, and he made discoveries of how imaginative they were if they were stimulated. Even though they cannot read because of certain--
Lois Wille They're very creative kids and very perceptive. And if a teacher has any faith in them and tries to bring them out, it can be so rewarding. I remember being in one classroom with a young woman who had taught in Skokie before, and this is her first year of teaching in a Chicago public school, and this is a freshman English class that supposedly, you know, they couldn't read very well and didn't have much ability, and she was so disillusioned with the quality of the textbooks. There were silly, infantile stories of little boys and girls at play. So she decided she'd have her class write their own book, and each kid wrote a segment, and the writing was brilliant. I'm sure our editor would be envious of some of the kids' abilities. I remember one boy who described a character in the book, Johnny, and he said, "Johnny walked up the stairs as though he always knew what lay ahead."
Studs Terkel That's as good as any "New Yorker" writing. "As though he knew what lay ahead. He walked up the stairs," so this kid whose level, scholastically, academically, might be sixth-grade, you know, technically put down but if stimulated, he found--it reminds you a lot of "The Corn is Green". Remember "The Corn Is Green"? With the Welsh miners? These kids who had no--and the teacher Miss Moffatt found this imagination, and there's a question of Miss Moffatts, isn't it, of these teachers?
Lois Wille And if--oh, the kids feel that so many of the teachers have no faith in them, you know, that the teachers are convinced these are dumb kids and they can't learn. And I think the kids are right, now, from what I saw. You see a teacher sitting at the front of the room reading a story and the kids may be listening or they may not be listening, they don't care, and other teachers are able to get that tremendous enthusiastic response because they demand more from the kids.
Studs Terkel You find that they respect--in one of your series, in one of your articles in this series, "Inside a Slum High School: Crane", you speak of the kids are not sore at a teacher who's demanding or who insists they learn. That they rather like that.
Lois Wille Oh, they like a challenge because then they can respond. When you ask them, when they talk about their favorite teachers, it's never "Oh, he was easy on us," but it's always "He really made us work." I remember them talking about one teacher who gave them a test on the newspapers every morning, and they said, "He was great. You know, we really learned something from him," and this teacher was a substitute who was transferred out of Crane against his wishes this fall because, well, he feels and the rest of the faculty feels, because he was involved in the civil rights movement, which is something teachers apparently aren't supposed to do.
Lois Wille Well, Crane has had no school newspaper for years, and this teacher started one, and this is something you do on your own time. You know, in the Chicago school system you don't get extra pay for any extra activities. He started a school newspaper. He started a drama club, which they didn't have, and they love dramatics and they're very good, good actors, and he was really a hero to the kids. He was involved in all kinds of projects. They came to school this fall and they found he was gone. He had been put in a grade school on the South Side, and when they asked why, they were told, "Well, he was a substitute. We replaced him with a certified teacher," but most of Crane's teachers are substitutes, you know, that wasn't the
Studs Terkel Before we come to the matter of substitutes, let's not leave this teacher for a moment. The one teacher, the teacher who started that newspaper that they wrote, and the drama club, the one they admired so much, he was transferred out.
Lois Wille And when the kids felt so strongly about it, they organized a couple of protest marches around the school. And immediately there was, they were called into a session that the school librarian presided over, and an officer from the Chicago Police Department, the youth division, spoke to them and warned them against participating in demonstrations and the evils of this sort of action. So they were stepped on right away.
Studs Terkel And so that stopped them right there. So they went back to whatever it is, the daydreaming, the lackadaisical indeed was encouraged in this case. You spoke of substitutes, perhaps this matter, there's another sequence here, the nature of, the number of substitutes in this school, say, in contrast to Senn up north, the--some kids speak of four teachers since, in about five or six weeks.
Lois Wille There was one freshman English class on its fourth teacher the day I went in, that was in November, and well, 56 percent of Crane's faculty are substitutes, and nearly half of them leave every year, you know, so there's a constant turnover, and so the school has no identity. You know, the teachers come and go, and the kids don't know them, and they don't know the kids. And there's, it's just, you know, a big bleak gray building that the kids have no special feeling about. Then, well, I checked with one school of about the same enrollment as Crane's, nearly 4000, Schurz, and at Schurz, more than 80 percent of the teachers are certified and permanent. And the kids know this, too. You know, they know that many of the teachers want to leave as soon as they can, and they're cynical about it. I remember one boy who was telling me about a new English teacher. This is the class that had been through four already. And he liked her, he thought she was smart, and he said, "But she won't be here next year." "And so, why do you say that?" And he said, "Oh, she'll go to Senn." I said, "Well, why Senn?" "Well, there's nobody at Senn who looks like me."
Lois Wille No. This--several kids talked about that. One boy said, "Oh, there is nobody there who knows my name." You hear them say, "Nobody there knows me," and if they have no or very few personal relationships with teachers, and they really want them, and the teachers who do spend extra time, the kids adore because of this.
Studs Terkel You know, I'm thinking of the end of your first sequence, Saturday, November 27 of the "Chicago Daily News", our guest is Lois Wille, who does a superb job of reportage, Crane. You're speaking of this teacher, and you're talking to her, she says, well, and one of the kids says, "Well, some do care." He said, "My English teacher, she had read 'Black Boy' and Richard Wright and 'Knock on Any Door'"--Willard Motley--"We have discussions, she comes across to us. We wouldn't miss that class for nothing! But the other says, 'If you don't do right, I kick you out of school,' and they never know why you don't do right. They don't really know you at all." Thus ends your Chapter 1.
Lois Wille Yeah, and I found out later what happened to that boy, who was a bright, articulate boy. And he had gone to a parochial school for two years, and he was a good student. Then he came into Crane and immediately was depressed by the whole atmosphere of the place. He wanted to take history courses, and he couldn't. He didn't really find any reason, except he was just told, "You can't." And as he said, there was one class that he liked and he was getting something out of. But he complained a number of times to his counselor about this, and the last time he went in to see the counselor was the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and he again said, you know, "Give me some, a history class or something where I feel I can do some work." And the counselor said to him, "You're nothing but a troublemaker. You're never gonna amount to anything, you're a complainer. Don't bother coming back." So, the boy isn't coming back. He's out of school and he's lost now. He's not, he wasn't expelled, they had no reason to expel him. But you know, these kids are sensitive and when someone tells you, "You're no good, you're not going
Studs Terkel You know, Lois, one of your pieces, there was a second one and recurs throughout the series, that perhaps caused more response than any I think in recent local reportage, was your discovery of classrooms without books. No books. Suppose we hear from, again the mother of the boy who goes to Crane, her discovery and then how yours matches hers.
Mrs. Dickerson Right. And listen, though, I tell you something else. I think it's a disgrace to keep on calling these places schools. I think the best thing we can say about them, these are meeting places. You know. Where people get up every morning, give their children a dollar or fifty-five cents or whatever the heck they give them. And these kids go off to these meeting places. Schools you learn in! You see, they could take a storefront on Roosevelt Road or anywhere. Clean it up, put some seats in there, and put some books in it! But see, you can't learn anything where there isn't any book. Barbara went to school a whole half a year at Crane, didn't have a book. I went to find, I thought it was lying. This just can't be true. I went to Barbara's teacher and I said to her, I said, "You mean to tell me that they don't have any books?" She had about ten sheets of paper stapled together, she said, "Well, this is a new program that we're trying out," and I think it was in arithmetic, too, of all things, and she said, "And this is all we have." She is the only person has this, as long as they're going to staple them together, they could have give every kid in the joint one. Nobody had one but her. These are facts.
Lois Wille Oh, yes. I saw classes that had no books at all, and also some classes where, you know, the books are locked up in a cabinet, and when the class begins, the teacher takes out the key and opens the cabinet and takes out books, and they get to hold them now for 40 minutes or whatever the class is, and at the end of the class they're all collected and carefully locked up and put away again. And the reason is, "Well, if we let kids take them home they'll get them dirty or they'll damage them." Apparently they think more about having a page torn than of having, letting the kids have a book to study in at night. Then another class that I went in where there were no books at all, and I asked the teacher where the books were, and she said she didn't know, because she was a substitute, had only been there a few days. She hadn't even been able to find out what textbook they use, because she hadn't met her department head, you know, just thrown into a class, no books, 34 kids and she's supposed to teach them to read.
Lois Wille Oh, this was, well, a paperback book of plays. Another case where a creative young teacher was dissatisfied with the primers that the kids are given to read, and she was convinced that if the kids have something interesting to read, they'll learn. So, she brought two copies of a paperback collection of plays, and one of them was "Sorry, Wrong Number", and divided the kids up into two teams and they were acting out the play, and they could read it pretty well. And the kids loved it. Now, the acting was good and the kids were enthusiastic. Then when the class was over, everyone gathered around her desk, and they begged her to let them take these paperback books home so they could read more of the plays at night. And she had to select two lucky ones who could take the book
Studs Terkel Who could do that. Yeah, "Sorry, Wrong Number", by Lucille Fletcher. This is a famous television radio script that's been done much with Agnes Moorehead. The kids saw the tension. You recreate it here somewhere. They were really taken, they were fearful, frightful, they read it--
Lois Wille They, both the actors and the audience, they're gasping and pretending they couldn't stand the suspense, you know, and ready to faint. And then, well, this class was interrupted first of all by a fire alarm, which you have constantly. You know, they have a new super-sensitive fire alarm system that can be set off by swirls of dust, according to the teachers, and at one point the alarm rings, everybody had to go outside, and you lose about 15 minutes. And then it takes a while for the class to settle down again. But--
Lois Wille The first day I was there we had two alarms, and one teacher said to me, "Don't think we have two or three every day. Sometimes, oh, two or three days go by, and we have no alarm at all." And this is also costing the fire department money, because they send equipment out every time.
Studs Terkel I think just to make it clear to the audience, we're talking about a school in the city of Chicago in the year 1965. I mean, we're not talking about a school in the medieval period somewhere in some distant cave or wherever it might be. It's Chicago 1965, we're talking about specifically about a high school that the mother, whose voice you heard indicates, others, back to the matter of the kids and their imagination. Two of the lucky girls able to take that book home to read. You mention somewhere about they were reading "Cyrano". Here's the matter of imagination, "Cyrano de Bergerac" was the subject of
Lois Wille Yes, this is another teacher who is convinced that the kids can learn if you give them the chance. So instead of them reading books about rabbits and hopping through fields, he decided they would read "Cyrano". And of course this is not one of the textbooks provided, so the kids had to buy their own. And he had to raise a fund drive among the kids to get enough money to buy the books, and this, he said it took him three weeks before he could extract enough nickels and dimes from the kids' lunch money. I was there the day they had finished reading it and were having a panel discussion on it, and they were so perceptive. This is a class of juniors, they--I didn't read "Cyrano" when I was a junior in high school, you know, but they read it and they understood it, and they were discussing Cyrano's motivations, and you could tell so much from their feelings about themselves, you know, and one, I remember one boy saying that Cyrano was wrong to try to win Rosalind's love--
Studs Terkel Roxanne.
Lois Wille Roxanne. To win Roxanne's love. This boy said that if someone doesn't like the way you look, there's something about you that people don't like, he said, "Forget them. Don't try to win their love, they're not worth it." He said he felt Cyrano made a mistake in this. And then one girl raised her hand and said in a very soft, shy voice, "Yes, but remember, people judge you by your outside appearances. So this is what people look at. So, you know, you've got to take this into consideration."
Studs Terkel Because this, throughout you sense this, some of the teachers who are interested, the teachers you met, you know, who are very much interested, are saying they indeed could handle classics and interpret them if given the chance, not just the Bobbsey Twins type books.
Lois Wille Right. When this class finished "Cyrano" it's going to begin on Aeschylus. And I said to the teacher, "Well, can they handle it?" And he said, "Of course they can." He said, "All you have to do is have confidence in them." He said, "They've got great ability, but no one has ever challenged it before."
Lois Wille Yes, and whether they have faith in the kids or not. And some of the concerned faculty members, some of the department heads, said that they, "You know, you may as well face it, that a lot of the teachers don't like the kids." They don't understand them. They come from very sheltered, middle-class backgrounds and they've heard a lot about these kids walking around with knives and dangerous and they're afraid of them. You know, they're afraid they'll say a wrong thing and the kid will jump on them. They see a boy with processed hair and they think well, you know, he's a gang leader and, or they don't like the way a boy walks, and the kids know this, too, and they feel the hostility.
Studs Terkel Let's stick with this theme of fear for a moment since this continuously makes the headlines of the papers and makes the editorials and hysterical commentary, too, the matter of fear in certain communities, teachers attacked. We know this happens, you know. But suppose we analyze because you have a whole sequence on this, fear as teacher at Crane, and how it applies to different teachers.
Lois Wille There are all, there are various levels of fear. One of the real fears that teachers have is of people drifting in from outside, and the doors are open and there are people not students, but adults wandering in and then, this is something that worries the teachers who stand guard duty near the entrances. But the other matter about classroom fear, there's sharp differences of opinion among the teachers. Some teachers say, "Well, it's real. You know, you've got to face it. These kids have, you know, they're seething with rage and resentment and you say the wrong word and they'll jump on you." But then I talk with teachers, I remember one woman who's taught in slum-area schools for 17 years, and she said nothing has ever happened to her. The worst thing that happened is that some little boy slashed her tires, but he slashed all the tires on the block, and she said, "If you respect kids and if you're fair and honest and just, you don't have to worry."
Studs Terkel Let's dwell on this for a moment. Now, the teacher who started that newspaper, the drama club, or the one who taught the kids "Cyrano", or the ones where the kids are ready for Euripides, these teachers don't feel fear.
Studs Terkel And let's put that, let's say that two and two does equal four. Let's put the two together now. I remember some months ago, I remember this in the news in all the papers about a teacher, young teacher on the South Side, who was attacked. She said, "I screamed and screamed and screamed at these kids. They did not pay attention to me in class. They were incredible, and there was no attention." And somewhere along the line she had difficulties, you know. And you have the teacher who evoked this response from the kids about "Cyrano", and somewhere along the line we have to come to an understanding of who are these kids. If somebody does know their name, they are no longer this alien, unknown hostile enemy.
Lois Wille The teacher whose class is discussing "Cyrano" sits at the back of the room and only occasionally contributes something. He doesn't stand up in front and shout and scream, because he doesn't have to. One teacher said to me whenever she hears anybody say oh, he has to spend three-fourths of his day in discipline, said, "He is not a good teacher because," she says, "The kids that may create disorder in a classroom are the creative kids, and the teachers just don't know how to handle them." She thinks that probably the whole school system doesn't know how to handle the creative kids, so instead they try to squelch them and yell at them instead of--
Lois Wille Yes. I remember one boy who is out of Crane he was expelled a couple of months--well, I guess it was last spring, said that his problem was that he kept wanting to talk in class. I said, "Well, you know, what do you mean, whispering, or?" "No," he said, "I just wanted to make my feelings heard." He said, "The teacher would be telling us something and I had something I wanted to say about it, but," he said, "I wouldn't always remember to raise my hand, so I would just say things." And he said, "I suppose you're not supposed to do that," but then said that the teacher put him out of class for this. And he said, "All I wanted to do was to express myself." He said, "You know, you've got to have a chance to let them know what you're thinking." And so many of the kids feel this is not encouraged and they listen to teachers all day long, but they don't have a chance to tell their feelings or their thoughts, there's very little group discussion. I suppose because maybe this is more difficult for a teacher.
Studs Terkel Suppose we hear, Lois, this is Jimmy, an alumnus of Crane, that is, alumnus, a sudden alumnus. He was a dropout. Jimmy is about 19-odd, somewhere in the Army, Jimmy lives in that area, went to Crane, and Jimmy may be the kind of student you're talking about. This is Jimmy talking about school.
Jimmy You start out for school, you know, in the morning. You say, "I'm going to school," you know, you know you won't be looking for no fight or anything. You say you're going to school, but you know, you wind up, you know, here you are at the restaurant. Everybody's, you know, the other kids thinking the same way you are, here we're going to have some fun, so-and-so's going to be here. You know. There you are. You start out like for me, I get on that bus, and I be about four blocks from home, and then all of a sudden I can, you know, something in your mind, you visualize this music, you know, you start patting your feet, your feet get itchy, you want to go then. You want to be where the rest of the guys are, kids you know. So you're saying, "Aww, you know, I can miss my first period class, my first class, they won't even notice I'm gone." But you really, you really do be intending to go to the second class. So you'll get over at the restaurant, and you start dancing, pretty soon the whole day is gone. You done stayed in this restaurant all day long. And here you are, you're saying, "Well, tomorrow for sure I'm going." And this will continue, it will continue, it'll go on. And then pretty soon, you know, here you are, you out of school. You haven't graduated, you know. And then there's the other problem that comes in with being out of school: the kids. At one time the restaurant used to be jampacked with kids my own age. But these kids got smart to they selves. They went back to school. Some of them did now, I got to admit the majority of them didn't. But you know, it's the small number that did go back that really, you know, really got you. And they went back to school. And here the kids they're getting smaller and smaller each year, you know. They're doing the same thing you once did, and then you finally realize, you say, "Well, you know, here I am, I'm old. You know, I'm older than these kids." Then you got to look for something else to occupy your time. You got to go someplace else, do something else. You got to find something, you know, that's going to interest you all day long. You're not in school anymore. So what are you gonna do? My problem was like that for a long time, and then I started moving on out, you know, being with guys, you know, that like to stay in trouble, things like that.
Jimmy Yeah. I guess everybody worries about it. I worry about it more so than most people. I want more things. You know, I don't mean, you know, where material value, I like home, yes, you know, security, yes. But you know, you worry about, you know, will I be a bum, you know, will I end up drinking when or, you know, like a lot of my other friends, you know, some of them, you know, cut out from school. And I see them every day, you know, they doing the same thing. In a sense, I'm doing the same thing, too, but, you know, I'm a little different. I don't, you know, indulge in, you know, getting drunk, you know, at all occasions. These guys just stand around looking for a chance to drink, you know. You know, any, you know, just go over by the [tavern?] and stand up there, you know. Somebody is going to buy a drink sooner or later. This is common.
Jimmy Yeah. You know, you sit up in a class, you--at times you can really get something out of it. You feel that you're really learning something, and then you know you can get pretty interested. But then again, there are the times when you know, your teacher say, here's a book, read so much out of it, you know, and then I want you to go home this evening I want you to write a report. You figure like this, see, I don't feel like writing no report, I don't even feel like reading. You find yourself nodding in class, you go to sleep.
Jimmy Yeah. This is another thing you wind up doing. Daydreaming. You can--you wind up thinking that you're a million miles away, then you know, when you catch yourself you know the class is all over and here you are, you haven't did anything. And then you try that last-minute rush to get something on your paper and marking period come around you don't have, you know, you wind up with Ds, you know, whatever, you know, the lower mark
Jimmy Yeah. There are certain teachers. I remember there was one teacher, she used to take an awful lot of interest in me, you know. And I passed her class, I really did, I passed her class. You know, when someone, you know, seems like they're interested in their, you know, this is something else I say, that some of the teachers, I'm not trying to down the teachers, but you know, they don't do all the, you know, a job that they really could, the one that they're really trained for, you know. They--I guess they sort of figure, you know, well, I can't beat this guy, you know. So, you know, I'm not going to waste my time, you know. I'm getting paid, you know. If he don't want to learn, that's up to him, you know. It's not hurting me, I haven't got [manners?], you know, and you know, they don't take interest in the students.
Jimmy I think that, you know, in order to be a teacher, you have to think about each person as an individual. You can't use them as a group, you know, you can't say, well, you know, I'm going to give all these guys the same thing. I don't think, you know, that this is doing them any good. I think that you have to think of them all as one special person, you know, they're special to you, you know, like you say, "Well, this kid, he has a problem of his own. And this kid over here, he has a separate problem, you know," you have to solve it, you know. And once this, this tends to care about a person, you know, you have to care about each one of the students. I know, I guess they teach why, when you learning to be a teacher that, you know, you're not supposed to get involved with your students, you know. But I think in order to be a good teacher you must be involved with them, you know, you have to feel something, you know. In order to be a real teacher. You have to feel something in your heart, saying well--
Lois Wille Well, when you hear a boy like that talking, you really see how the school system has missed, don't you? Yeah, they--but he had to drop out of school because school just couldn't find a way to interest him.
Lois Wille When he, he said something interesting when he mentioned that apparently teachers are taught you're not supposed to get involved. I remember one day when I was in the Crane counseling office. This is really a sad place, this where all the kids come and stand in line when they have been kicked out of class for some reason. They can't go back unless they get permission. And there was one young student teacher in there who was waiting to see a parent or someone. And he told me he really liked Crane, he really liked the kids. And he said, "But, you know, the trouble is I find myself getting involved." Said, "I know you're not supposed to do this, but there are four or five kids and I've really gotten involved with them, and I have to watch myself, that I don't do this." I thought, "Well, why not?" You know, why shouldn't he? And how can you be a good teacher if you don't?
Studs Terkel So here you have the two separate groups of teachers, don't you really? Those who do get involved, like that fellow who started the newspaper and the drama class, the teacher who taught "Cyrano", who says they're ready for Aeschylus, who gave them "Sorry, Wrong Number", who says, even part of your lunch money to buy books, you know, and the one who says, "You're nothing, you're lazy." These are counselors as well as teachers,
Lois Wille aren't And there are some that, I remember one mathematics teacher who said to me after the end of a particularly noisy class, "These kids are hopeless." He said, "They're emotionally stunted." This is a phrase a lot of them use, that they're emotionally at the fourth-grade level and they can't learn. This, you hear this so often.
Studs Terkel The obvious question to ask these teachers and the members of the audience is, we just heard the voice of Jimmy who dropped out of Crane, whether he's emotionally stunted or intellectually stunted would be the question, wouldn't it? There's a comment he made earlier, Lois, and you touch upon this in a couple of your articles in your series in the "News". He says he went to this restaurant on the way to school because nobody would notice him gone. Suppose we just--that one aspect of it, we'll take a slight pause for a moment, hear the announcer and come back to this matter of not noticing you're gone. We return with our guest Lois Wille, Pulitzer Prize winner for another series a couple of years ago, and pretty good bet, certainly Pulitzer Prize candidate for her series on a slum high school in Chicago, specifically Crane, the series that appeared in the "Chicago Daily News" recently, six installments and the response has been quite overwhelming, pro and con, and I hope that soon this will be issued by the "News" in booklet form. Jimmy, the boy we heard a moment ago, was talking about not know--the school, nobody noticing he's gone, so he might as well stop in at this restaurant for joy.
Lois Wille Some of the youth workers in that area said that kids just disappear from school. Now, Jimmy mentioned that, and you stay out a number of days. Some kids never come back and no one knows. Not kids old enough to be dropouts, but younger kids, 14 and 15 year olds, and I heard of one case of a seventh-grade boy who was supposed to transfer from one school, from grade school in the Crane area to another school, and he erased the name of the school he was supposed to go to and wrote in "Crane," and he went in Crane and he took courses and he was there for a year and a half, and no one knew. The school had no records on him, but apparently this wasn't even discovered. Kids just drift through. Other kids in some of the basic, that's the low level of classes in mathematics and English, these are kids who, you'd see them sitting in class with their books closed, you know, staring out the window or drawing or combing their hair. I asked one girl why she wasn't doing anything in this math class, and she said, "Oh," she said, "I know how to divide. You know, I've been knowing this stuff for years." And she said she had finished eighth grade and had a high score in math, at ten point something, that means that, you know, the 10th-grade level, but her records were lost when she got into Crane. They had nothing--she had no way to prove that she had this high score. So instead of testing her again or giving her the benefit of the doubt, they put her in this lowest-level class, where she's bored. And so I'm sure that they're, pretty soon she's going to start cutting the class, and she may end up being a dropout too, because she now has to wait, I guess, until the beginning of next semester or until the end of the year before she can take another test to prove that she shouldn't be in this class.
Studs Terkel Was at Crane. Records, this is reminiscent of something. Big Bill Broonzy, the blues singer, spoke that he never knew the day he was born, because in the South, years ago this was, in the Deep South, birth certificates, birth records of Negroes are lost and casualty. Here we have scholarship records in the city of Chicago in '65 that are lost.
Lois Wille And apparently no one cares, or at least they haven't been able to find them, the people who do care. One girl, this girl whose records were lost, wanted to, I asked her why she didn't talk to a counselor about it, and she said, "Counselor?" Said, "They don't care." "So, you know, don't they work with you or help you plan what you want to do when they get out?" And she said, "They don't care what you do when you get out as long as you get out. The school's too crowded." You hear this all the time, they're very cynical about the counseling system, you know, it's not really geared to help them along. One boy was telling me that there was one counselor at the school that he liked, and he thought if he could only talk to this man, this man could, would really understand him, you know, and really listen to him. But he said, "I can't, because I'm not in his part of the alphabet." I said, "Well, what do you mean?" And he said, "Well, my last name begins with a C, and he's got the, you know, the Ls to Ps," or whatever it is, and he said, "So I can't talk to him."
Lois Wille No, he couldn't go in to talk to him. His A through F counselor, whatever, was someone that he felt--now, he just didn't like and they weren't getting along and that man wasn't interested in him, but he couldn't talk to the other counselor because it, he wasn't in his alphabet.
Lois Wille Yes.
Lois Wille Yes, and rules are so rigid, you know, you can't break them. It's just--you run into this all the time. Teachers come up with ideas that they think would work, then they run against regulation and they lose. There was one teacher at Crane has been there a few years and he started something he calls the "Youth Service Corps." It's a group of Crane kids that--this is an effort to get to know kids outside the classroom, and the teachers have so little chance to do that. So he organizes a group of kids with the idea that they would go out and do things in the neighborhood, like repair some tenement porch that's falling down. They go out to County Hospital, or he wants them to go out to County Hospital and do some volunteer work, and he asked if he could get the school to sponsor this and maybe even contribute some money. "No," they said that this wouldn't be permitted. And he'd been trying for months, and he said, "Well, why not?" "Well, there are all--what if a kid hurts himself while he's doing something outside of school?" That there could be a legal problem.
Lois Wille Yes, and when teachers develop plans they think will work with the kids, they run into obstacles, and the school really needs some kind of extracurricular programs. They have very little, partly because they're on a staggered shift. Oh, they're not supposed to use the word "staggered." This is against the law because Willis proclaimed several years ago there were no more staggered days, so now they call it the extended day. But some kids start at eight, and the last group starts at, I think it's ten twenty-six, and then they go late. The last group doesn't get out until four-fifteen. So it's difficult to get a club started, because you have kids leaving at different times. And four-fifteen or four-thirty is pretty late to start a club, because especially when it gets dark, and the neighborhood may be dangerous. So there's almost--you know, there's nothing to interest the kid if he's not interested in his classes. There is an attempt at a Spanish club, but it meets at seven-thirty in the morning. There's no drama club, and several of the kids said they would love to have a drama club. Some of the girls said they would like to have a modern dance group. There's nothing like that.
Studs Terkel There's so many questions. Parent participation, just as there's communal participation discouraged, or participation with the community. You have a sequence in your series, Lois Wille, of the "Chicago Daily News" series. There was a sequence, one of your articles dealt with the attempt by parents of the neighborhood to participate, to take part. That, too, was discouraged.
Lois Wille This is against, this is another rule, that volunteers are prohibited. A group called the Mile Square Federation, a community organization in the Crane area that has been very interested in education, has been trying for a year to find that there isn't something that parents can do, and they came up with one plan that they thought would help a lot. This is to stand guard duty for the teachers. You know, teachers have no free time to get to know kids, partly because when they have free periods they have to stand guard. Even the department heads have to stand guard, and this group of parents thought that if they could do this, the teachers could then use this free time to work with kids, so they went to see the district superintendent and had a name, list of 50 names of volunteers who wanted to work in the school, and they were told this would be impossible because this is a policy matter, it's established downtown by the superintendent of schools, and furthermore there would again be legal problems. A parent might get hurt inside the school, and would sue the school, and this would be difficult. So they were told that there was nothing they could do. They also came up with a plan to have a group of capable volunteers do clerical work for the teachers. This again they were told they couldn't do. Then more recently they, a group of 28 Crane teachers put out a statement on their grievances against the school. Some of them were quite serious: kids with emotional problems that got no psychological help, a number of things like this, and that this Mile Square Federation again asked the District Superintendent, Miss Bernice Boye, if they could meet with her to discuss these grievances. She wrote back and told them that she was examining the grievances and if she found anything of interest, she would let them know. Well, they never heard. So at this point they're very frustrated. They can't even get to talk to the people in charge, and they think it's so important. You know, they think that it's good for the kids to know that their parents are interested and involved. They feel the school has shut its doors to them.
Studs Terkel So I have a question of family interest, a question of community interest, a question of teacher interest. All three interests in one sense or another are split, it seems technically by one rule or another from the kids, and thus we have a circumstance you described in the six articles in the "Chicago Daily News". You mentioned the little girl, the boy, the students with IQs of 170, you know, records lost and back in the--what happens? Now here, there are scholarships, are there not, available? It would seem, you know, but.
Lois Wille Yeah, that's the tragedy. The great universities today have a lot of scholarship money available and they have talent searches out looking for Negro kids to give these scholarships to, because there's almost a competition on now to get Negroes into your college. And yet, as far as I've been able to determine, the counseling system at Chicago public schools, at least at Crane and some of the other schools, thinks only in terms of our own junior colleges, that there's a kid who wants to go to college, they steer him to Crane Junior College, which is the same building, it's just another end of the hall and a lot of the same equipment and really not much more quality than you'd get in a high school program. I asked one counselor about this, why they weren't taking advantage of these scholarships available, and the counselor said, "Well, we have to be realistic." Said, "Our kids just aren't prepared to go to the University of Chicago or MIT or Harvard, so why set them up for heartbreak?" And maybe that's true, but if it is, then they should try to examine why the kids aren't prepared. It's not that they don't have the potential.
Studs Terkel Where does this leave us now? For the past 50 minutes or so, Lois, you've been talking, just reflecting on your several days at this high school. I heard the voice of a mother of a former student and a former student himself. Conclusions you've come to as a result of the, of your adventure.
Lois Wille Some people have given books and sent checks to get books, which is very nice, but not really the point. You know, for the first place, the public shouldn't be donating books to a school system that's supposed to have the tax money to provide the books, but also it goes so much deeper than that. I think first I would just like to see the administration admit that these problems exist. You know, the reaction, the official reaction to these stories was very defensive, you know, that this was a guided tour set up by a left-wing cell operating out of Crane. This is the official line--
Lois Wille Part of it. But, instead of recognizing that these conditions are going on, and I think they should definitely let the community into the schools and get involved, because the community organizations have some good ideas and they should be heard. And also I think it's criminal that teachers with ideas aren't permitted to carry them through, that they're slapped down.
Studs Terkel Well, the two points you raise here, Lois. One, the nonrecognition. First of all, the requisite, the recognition that the problem exists. There seems to be no recognition of it. That's number one, isn't it?
Studs Terkel And the second, perhaps you can dwell on this for a moment, since this is in the papers now a great deal, about moves and for contributing money for school books for the kids, perhaps--I think this must be touched on. These are good people who mean very well. To let's--Books for Crane, many organizations are doing it, and yet it misses the point by 25 and a half Chicago miles. Isn't it? This is--this is not charity that's being sought. This is not the work of private citizens at all, this is a school problem, isn't it? The matter of assembling books
Lois Wille And it isn't as if Crane were one isolated case, you know, one war-torn village we had to help. But from what I've heard since then from teachers and kids at other schools is, this is typical of so many schools, so you could provide Crane now with the best books in the country and it still wouldn't solve anything, because it's a sickness through the whole system. And that still, providing the books still doesn't get around the question of, are they making school interesting enough and challenging enough to hold the kids?
Studs Terkel So we come to the question of who is in that classroom, the 35 or 40, whatever the numbers are. I know they're not small in number, but they are individuals, each one as Jimmy said, if he were a teacher, the great many have imagination, some do, if that imagination is stimulated. But if they're regarded as lunks or of numbers, they will behave as that.
Lois Wille Yes. And if, well, as so many of them said, if only, you know, if they had the feeling that someone cared and someone knew them and respected them as an individual. They have a lot to express, if they can just find people that will listen.
Studs Terkel I was thinking, Lois, perhaps to end this conversation. You've raised the problem, your reportage has, and superb reporting it is. We're referring to the series that appeared in the "Chicago Daily News" from November 27th through December 4th I believe, with letters to, a series by Lois Wille of the "Chicago Daily News" on life in the day of a student at a high school in Chicago, specifically Crane. Perhaps you could end, well, you ended your series reading this, Lois, about one of the mothers talking.
Lois Wille A woman who has taught 17 years in this area. She said, "For one thing, our administration thinks it has a corner on all the intelligence in the world, and letting the public in might mean that it would have to admit for the first time that our schools are in desperate shape. That's our trouble. No one downtown recognizes our critical problems. I suppose they refuse to recognize them because they're incapable of dealing with them in the first place." Then she went on to say that she was afraid, not for herself, but for her children and for her children's children. She said, "Crane and the schools like it are turning out huge masses of hopeless, frustrated, illiterate young people." And she says, "What does this mean to the future of Chicago? How can democratic institutions survive if we don't educate our children? I'm afraid that all we have to look forward to is anarchy."
Lois Wille I wish there were some way that people like this woman could be listened to. I found so many teachers there with so much to say, but they're fearful, too. This is another layer of fear. If they speak out, they won't get promoted. Somehow we have to open up the system and listen to the people and the kids with things to say.
Studs Terkel Earlier we touched upon the fear that makes the headlines, the fear of a teacher in a slum area, and how two different kinds of teachers react to it or experience it. And now there's another fear we haven't talked about, this aspect of what happens to a teacher who calls the shot as he/she sees it. What happens to him? Plus his record, somehow the word gets downtown.
Lois Wille When I first heard these teachers talk, I couldn't believe it. One woman said she had recently gone to a meeting at the University of Chicago's Center for Continuing Education, a meeting called by a group called Teachers for Quality Education, which is kind of a rebel group, and she said, "Of course, I know there was a spy there." I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Well, a spy from Willis' downtown office took down the names of everyone there, and this'll go into our records, our personnel files." This is understood and accepted, so they know that they're risking a promotion when they do things like this or if they would march with CCCO. This is incredible, you know, that teachers should have to fear spies in order to be good teachers.
Studs Terkel And somehow we come back to this implications beyond Chicago: the teacher, the student, ourselves. What is in that student as Miss Moffatt in Emlyn Williams' play "The Corn is Green" discovered, in that boy Evan (sic) Evans, as in a boy Jimmy, is somebody who is imaginative, who is creative if he's stimulated by a teacher. Perhaps this is the essence to me of what Lois Wille has reported in her series. Our guest this morning. Thank you very much, Lois Wille of the "Chicago Daily News". We hope soon her series will come out, there's a possibility of coming out in booklet form?