Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Sexual harassment is about power, control and authority

In the spring of 1994, I was about as excited as I’d ever been.

Having finished college with a bachelor’s degree, I had just given notice at the Postal Service and was finishing off my final two weeks in the worst job ever.

The idiot bosses at the post office didn’t give a shit about me, but they were pretty afraid of what I might tell people. I mean, I had seen them cheating on the Price Waterhouse mail testing, I had seen mail damaged and destroyed in processing machinery, and I had been able finally to make a dent in a giant room full of damaged packages, over the objections of one supervisor. Some of those packages dated back to the previous holiday season.

I had an exit interview where I had reported a white female supervisor for dropping the “n” word everywhere, and they still had her supervising mostly black employees. Her status as a member of the KKK was common knowledge to everyone at every level, but no one cared because there were few blacks in postal management. I was offered a management job, but refused.

The one incident that blew my mind during my last two weeks was that I saw a female supervisor get groped by a male supervisor, while they were talking to me!

In the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility in that time, sexual harassment was rampant. Despite promises to new hires during orientation that sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment were not tolerated, what really wasn’t tolerated was reporting such activity.

Male supervisors saw the hiring of every new cohort of female employees as “open season” for them, sexually. The very, very few women who co-operated were advanced into management. Women who wouldn’t “play ball” or filed complaints were fair game for abuse and even more harassment. Complaining to the Postal Inspection Service was pointless because the Inspection Service was corrupt to the bone, had run a bogus drug informant in the facility and thus had zero credibility with the workers, and itself had a sexual harassment problem.

Nearly all Postal Inspectors were white males; the few women in the Inspection Service were brutally harassed.

I was talking to a male supervisor and a female supervisor about my plans, and how I looked forward to getting away from the post office and moron management, when the male supervisor said something, grabbed the female supervisor in a close hug (to her extreme dismay), and then walked away.

The female supervisor said to me, “Did you see that?”

“Yes,” I said.

“He does that constantly, and he keeps hiding out in the ladies’ bathroom, too,” she said, “so he can harass other women.”

“So,” I said with little interest, “you know what to do. Report him.”

“I can’t,” she said. “It’ll get worse and I’ll get busted” (back to regular work).

I don’t know how it worked out in the end, but I am sure the female supervisor realized that she would just have to put up with the guy’s sexual harassment. Today, he’s probably a high-level postal manager.

In the recent sexual harassment incidents that have come to light, I have found that the main propagator is a powerful man who has decided that it’s open season on the women under him, and makes sure that they know the cost of blowing the whistle.

As a man with no power, and someone who believes that the purpose of the workplace is to go to work and not harass women, it irks me that women have to be afraid. These men want women to be afraid, though, and it hurts the efficiency of the workplace and the company.

I learned that even in the most elevated areas of the Postal Service, there was extreme harassment going on. One woman told me that she had been working late one night with a male superior on a report that had to be submitted, and he had attacked her and groped her in the break room. Even worse, when she reported the assault to postal management – it was drilled into everyone’s head that the police had no jurisdiction in postal installations, so calling 911 was not allowed – postal management decided that even though he was a threat to women he was a manager whose numbers were good, so there would be no action taken.

When the woman continued to pursue action, she was retaliated against and eventually ordered to be in two different places at the same time, then fired.

Sexual harassment is about power. Never forget it.

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December 9, 2017 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college killer can’t kill the spirit

When I moved to Florida in 1986 on a transfer within the U.S. Postal Service, I was focused mainly on work and advancing myself within the organization.

As a high school graduate and a veteran, I mistakenly thought that I was ready for the challenges ahead and was eager and ready to work within the defective system to make it better. Little did I know that for many postal managers then – and today – the goal was to prevent change and improvement.

It was almost like coming to a military base for the first time, and hearing of all the places “in town” that are off-limits to the troops. When I was in the service, there were places that sold drug paraphernalia (carburetors, roach clips, KISS posters (It was the late 1970s, remember), etc.) where you could get into a lot of trouble if someone in the higher ranks saw you.

At the post office in West Palm Beach in 1986, there was one place that was considered to not even exist. Back then, it was called Palm Beach Junior College. Employees considering taking courses were warned to stay away from that place. The very idea that you – a career employee – might be considering training for a job outside the Postal Service was anathema. To many postal managers, the workers at the General Mail Facility were “stuck” and could never function in another workplace.

It was important to consider the source, though many of us were so indoctrinated into the postal mindset that we failed to do so. Most top postal managers have high school diplomas or GEDs, and you can even find a few who didn’t finish elementary school.

To them, the notion of college was so far beyond what they had attained, they believed that attendance at college could turn a submissive worker with no options into someone who might leave and tell the world about what went on in the postal facility.

And believe me, there was a lot to tell. I remember watching fellow workers ripping damaged and destroyed mail out of machinery, and throwing it on the floor, where it was run over by equipment and sometimes obliterated.

At the “nixie” table, employees on light duty sat and either tried to piece the mail back together, or simply rifled the envelopes for cash. I will admit that the latter eventually were caught by the postal inspectors, who usually were trying to set up drug busts using unreliable informants and were themselves often very corrupt.

The place of hope
Despite all the warnings and threats from the post office, one day I decided that I needed a future. I passed the renamed Palm Beach Community College on the way to the postal facility every day and fantasized about taking a class or two. I actually did take classes in postal management through the college, but when those failed to get me advanced, I realized I had to go all-in.

One day, I drove onto the campus, found a parking space, went into the right building and said, “I want to go to college here.”

I often think about where I am today in life, and realize that thanks to those words I am so much more than I could have ever been, even if I had advanced in the Postal Service, because I took the big chance.

I was handed a sheaf of forms and informed that I had to take the American College Test, to be given in a couple of months, and then I could try to get in.

It was a lot of work, but I was determined and I plowed through the paperwork. I told a few people at work about my efforts, and most of the responses were negative. One woman told me her first day at the college had been her last because someone mentioned evolution. Others told me that the people there were wasting their time: there were no jobs to be had “out there” outside the Postal Service.

I felt sorry for those people who had let themselves be led by the nose into such a negative view of life.

A day of horror
For this reason, I was horrified to hear about the mass shooting at the community college in Oregon. The person who did this attacked so many people and for no good reason. They were building their future, starting at the bottom at a level of college that is often mocked and derided, but can lead to so much more for those who work through it and take advantage of the help that’s offered.

Community college kept me sane during the worst years of my Postal Service torment and reminded me that there was a world of opportunity out there that didn’t involve mentally defective and corrupt bosses, moronic top managers and a babbling ding-dong of a postmaster general.

I would come from the college and into the disaster that was the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility, with mail hidden in every nook and cranny and machines tearing through paper and supervisors wielding mindless authority, and then leave and return to college, where sanity ruled.

I met some of the most amazing people at Palm Beach Community College, who made the low-life trash at the post office like Shirley Cordle, Terry Cahill, Gary Miller and so many other postal sleazes look like wastes of humanity.

You’ve heard of Burt Reynolds, right? Well, I knew the man who first encouraged him to appear in a play. Watson B. Duncan III was one of the greatest men you never heard of. He could have been the president of not just a college but a college system, but he preferred to teach English literature to giant classes of eager undergrads in a theater that was named for him.

I’ve written about Duncan before, so I’ll just say that I was privileged to know him and take his classes. I’ll never forget what he wrote on one of my test papers: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.”

He told me that he loved teaching so much, he hoped to “go” to his reward while in front of a class. His passing was a terrible tragedy and the life seemed to leave Palm Beach Community College after he was gone. Watson B. Duncan was everything to me that the post office wasn’t: educated, gentle, compassionate, respectful, rewarding.

And he taught at a community college.

I eventually moved on to the university after graduating from Palm Beach Community College (now called Palm Beach State College) and sometimes would see the campus at State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and wish I could just go back as an un-degreed undergrad and do it all over.

Hang out with the students before class, talk under the trees about our instructors and maybe even take in a sports event or two.

Back in my day, we’d argue and debate, and sometimes there were creepy people who needed to be removed, but the idea that someone would come on campus and shoot others was beyond our belief.

That happened at the post office, people said back then, not at a college.

Well, things have changed, and disturbed people have realized that college students make great targets.

I want these shootings to stop. I want community college to be what it was for me, a place of learning and education and enlightenment and new opportunities.

Postal managers would ridicule me and tell me the college was filling my brain with nonsense and absurd ideas that I mattered and was a worthwhile person.

At the college, the instructors were telling me that I was someone who could go far if I applied myself. Sadly, I remember by name those who disdained me at the post office and have forgotten the names of many of the wonderful people who encouraged me to chase my dreams. Here’s one: Ernest Parbhoo, the journalism teacher at PBCC and student newspaper adviser, who not only encouraged me but also had me come into his journalism classes at PBCC later on to talk about my career. Thanks for everything, Ernie.

I ache for those who lost family members in those shootings. I ache for those who were injured, and the hero Army veteran who took multiple bullets to protect his classmates.

The next time I’m in the Palm Beach County area, I will make a special trip to Palm Beach State College, and I’ll drive past and murmur two words to that place that gave me so much: Thank You.

October 6, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Community college is where your future can happen

When I heard about President Obama’s proposal for free community college, I knew that it wouldn’t go over very well.

Sadly, most folks despise the president’s ideas. If he recommended beating children bloody in school parking lots for rules infractions, people would come out against that.

Still, encouraging people to get a two-year degree, even if it costs a lot, has to be less expensive than incarcerating people. A community college president once told me that it cost the state of Florida about $50,000 a year to lock someone up in prison; by comparison, even the most costly state university was a bargain at about $25,000 a year, and community colleges cost about half that or less.

Unfortunately for Florida, the state’s leaders fell under the influence of a well-meaning but terribly wrong adviser who recommended preparing for a tsunami of violent youthful offenders on their way up from childhood. Seeking to be ahead of the curve, the state built several very expensive prisons and staffed them up, waiting for the surge of criminality that never materialized. Out in rural areas, the prisons are still there, but the youths never appeared in the expected numbers.

The reality is that we now live in a society where workers need education beyond high school to get a good-paying job, and those who drop out are going to find themselves in an impossible situation. Back when I was a youth, there were all these ads pushing “high school equivalency diplomas” and I remember the pitches: “He can’t get ahead in business because he lacks a high school diploma.” You could replace “high school diploma” with “two-year college degree,” and you won’t be far off the mark.

I know all this from personal experience.

For me, Palm Beach Community College (now Palm Beach State College) basically reinvented my life. I went into that place in August 1988 as a frustrated veteran and disgruntled postal worker whose dreams of career advancement had been dashed because I thought the Postal Service existed to serve customers.

I left the community college with a two-year (associate’s) degree in journalism, a new peer group of smart friends and the confidence to continue at the university. In April 1994, I graduated from Florida Atlantic University with a degree in communications and within two years was working as a newspaper copy editor.

I worked hard in those years, taking night shifts at the post office and attending college during the day instead of sleeping. But my instructors at PBCC and my professors at FAU gave of themselves, and I am forever in their debt.

At community college, the confidence I gained was well worth the sacrifices I had to make.

I remember getting a variety of advice. Dorothy Martin, my second cousin Angelo’s sister-in-law, gave me so much encouragement. “Whatever you do there,” she said, “take Watson B. Duncan’s courses. He’s the greatest teacher.”

I took those courses, and Dorothy was right about him.

Others were less enthused. My postal bosses were downright negative, advising me that college was a waste of time, and wouldn’t help my advancement in the post office. “We don’t like to promote college people,” I was often told. “They think knowing things is the key to getting things done right.”

What they feared, I later learned, was the worker with a brain and the willingness to use it. I later used the skills I learned in community college to start my own underground postal employee newsletter, “Samizdat,” and even sent copies to the postmaster general. Unfortunately, they were written above his reading level, and his minions were not impressed with my brilliance.

The education I received at community college gave me the tools I needed to counter the anti-education rhetoric I heard at the post office, and I can still remember the last night I wasted at the post office, leaving that shithole facility in West Palm Beach with its cheating on the Price-Waterhouse testing, exaggerated mail volume reporting, mail destruction in the machinery and human destruction by managers such as Gary Miller and Terry Cahill, not to mention Barbara Shaler and Shirley Cordle.

I drove off to an uncertain future, but one that had limitless possibilities. On the way home to my house in Lake Worth, I drove on Congress Avenue in West Palm Beach past Palm Beach Community College.

It was on the left, and I remembered that first day when I had gone on the campus and requested a course catalog and began the process of getting myself admitted.

Now I was heading into a future that that wonderful place had opened up for me, and I gave the place a hand salute as I drove by.

Today, I read about community colleges like State College of Florida (formerly Manatee Community College) and I wish I could go back there, take classes, sit in the sun before the classes start, talk with my fellow students, pull all-nighters at home, spend lots of time there on the student newspaper and just be a part of the academic community.

Community colleges are wondrous places, and I’m not the only one who got a life-course correction in those classrooms.

So let’s support community colleges and get behind plans, no matter where they come from, to get more people to attend community college. Our nation will benefit, of course, but so will the many people who find a new life and a new career in a place where learning is treasured, and students matter.

That’s what happens at community colleges.

 

January 12, 2015 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Colleges that drop football should be cheered, not jeered

When the University of Alabama at Birmingham, also known as UAB, announced it was going to drop football, it was as if the Marines had decided to stop training for amphibious invasions or the Air Force was dropping fighter plane training.

There’s a dangerous notion afoot in the realm of higher education that goes something like this: “Real universities do football.” It’s been around since the turn of the last century and it brings up the heroics of Knute Rockne, George Gipp, former President Ronald Reagan in the movie on Rockne, the phrase “Win one for the Gipper,” the culture of football in states like Texas and Florida, and the belief that football can redeem young men from the scourges of drugs, drink, poverty and premarital sex.

A recent article in the Tampa Bay Times took readers to one of the worst parts of Florida, an economically deprived town of South Bay on the south edge of Lake Okeechobee, where high school football was the key – not to better education – but to escaping from the town to colleges where the educational expectations are minimal but the gridiron hopes are astronomical.

The message young men get is simple: Football pays. Learning doesn’t.

It’s easy for teenage boys to buy into this culture. Older men are out there pitching it every day and offering approval for those who worship at the altar of athletics. The one or two former players who actually make it into the National Football League are lionized as the examples of what can be achieved if one gets the breaks. And for good measure, there are those who reached the heights and fell back, tempted by the evils of the big city: drugs, booze, easy women, easy paychecks that vanish.

Or their body fails them. A turn the wrong way can turn an ankle into a mass of bone and gristle that never regains its former form. Knees break, brains get squished around and you see the result of the old joke of the baseball scout: “Want to sign for a bonus or a limp?”

I was of the most despised class of student at Florida Atlantic University in the early 1990s, the commuter student. Oddly, the professors and adjuncts didn’t imbibe the culture of denigrating the commuter student. There were many in the administration and the student body who viewed the older undergraduate as a kind of hit-and-run driver. We came to the college for venal purposes, just for our own selfish benefit, and left with education and a degree, but hadn’t really put our hearts into it.

One professor told me that the commuter students he knew made his work worthwhile. “You guys show up on time for class, turn in your assignments, sit in the front, participate and have life experience to bring to class,” a political science professor told me.

Sure, there were bright folks among the traditional-age students, but there were a lot of people who lived in the horrible dorms at FAU, joined every club and extra-curricular they could find and whined that they were bored.

“Where’s the football team?” students at FAU would sometimes ask, and they were stunned to learn that they had signed up for a Florida university that had committed the ultimate sacrilege: it did not have a football team.

Though FAU had a good complement of other sports in which it competed with other colleges, including baseball, basketball, soccer, tennis and more, the one that really counted was football. Some students left FAU, and an editorialist on the student newspaper declared that if you thought coming to the university was a mistake because they forgot to tell you about the lack of a football team, you probably were right.

One year, an April Fool’s Day issue of the University Press, the student newspaper I worked on, had a fake front page announcing that a football team was being started.

Florida Atlantic University was less like the University of Florida or Florida State University or Florida A&M, and more like the University of Central Florida or Florida International University or University of South Florida.

The student body was skewed older by people like me who were writing the checks for our tuition, living in our homes and ambitious to change our lives. We didn’t live on campus and didn’t have to cope with the dislocation of leaving our parents’ home because we had dealt with it years before.

Perhaps the traditional-age students of that time (the late 1980s, early 1990s) were frustrated by the lack of a unifying ideal like a football team. But even back then there were many colleges without football teams.

One thing that stands out is an AT&T commercial from the late 1980s that played to all the stereotypes of the young college freshman. The voiceover went like this: “AT&T understands the special relationship between fathers and daughters.” (It was a more innocent time. Today that has a mind-bending double meaning.)

It went along the lines of an 18-year-old girl heading off to college and dealing with the dislocation of being away for the first time. She repeatedly calls her father, often late at night, in tears over being lonely.

Then, one day, she attends a college football game and the team stages a stunning come-from-behind victory. She again calls her father late at night, in tears but in tears of joy, to announce, “Dad, we won! We won!”

The message is: college football is my new family structure.

Football and college have been associated, as I said, since the late 1800s.

Corruption in the college game has been endemic, and the movie “The Freshman” from 1925 and starring Harold Lloyd, was a comedy that, according to Wikipedia, told “the story of a college freshman trying to become popular by joining the school football team.”

One of the funniest quotes is an intertitle: “Tate University — A large football stadium, with a college attached.”

For many people, especially parents struggling to pay for their children’s college, the thought of having to pay to have their progeny attend what is basically a minor league football team with a college attached adds insult to injury.

UAB noted in its press release that it was giving up football because it was “financially unsustainable.”

Here’s the full quote, from SI.com: The fiscal realities we face — both from an operating and a capital investment standpoint — are starker than ever and demand that we take decisive action for the greater good of the Athletic Department and UAB,” (President Ray L.) Watts said. “As we look at the evolving landscape of NCAA football, we see expenses only continuing to increase. When considering a model that best protects the financial future and prominence of the Athletic Department, football is simply not sustainable.”

Far from being the source of financial largesse, the football program was sucking the university dry in a financial sense. According to an article in The New York Times by Joe Nocera:

“Watts, it turns out, is a Birmingham native who played football in high school and who attended the university. He gets how important football is in Alabama. But in pulling together a five-year strategic plan for the school, he came to the obvious conclusion that it simply made no sense to continue fielding a football team. (The school is also eliminating its bowling and rifle teams.)

‘Our athletic budget is $30 million,’ he told me when we spoke. Of that amount, $20 million comes directly from the school — either through student fees or direct subsidies from the overall university budget. A consultant Watts hired concluded that it would cost an additional $49 million over the next five years to keep the football team competitive with the other schools in Conference USA.
‘We could not justify subsidizing football if it meant taking away from other priorities,’ he said. Then he added, ‘This is driven significantly by the changing landscape of intercollegiate athletics.’

Not surprisingly, students, players and boosters were horrified that an economic decision was being made to drop football, but why is that so surprising? Other colleges have made the decision to leave the gridiron and have gone on to great success in an academic sense. In fact, some have reinvested the money in intramural sports, allowing more students to actually play sports than watch sports.

Sure, there is dislocation. Scholarship players dreaming of an NFL deal can go elsewhere and retain eligibility, but students claim that the heart and soul of the college is being cut out.

That’s nonsense. UAB didn’t even have a football stadium. It’s true that a stadium is a sunk cost that makes it harder to cancel the game, but other uses can be found for a facility that’s maybe used 12 times a year at most for its intended purpose.

Florida Atlantic University finally did get its football team. In late 2001, the team, attenuated by about half because of academic eligibility issues, played its first game.

The need to use Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale and Dolphin Stadium in Miami limited attendance at first. The opening of a $70 million stadium, to be funded by private donors, student fees and naming rights, had to be delayed until 2011.

Florida Atlantic has won some games, but gets beaten badly by stronger opponents. When I was working for the Gainesville Sun, FAU was paid $750,000 to play the University of Florida in then-coach Will Muschamp’s coaching debut on Sept. 3, 2011. UF won easily, 41-3.

The battle over whether FAU should have a football team had gone on through the 1990s, and a rigged survey seemed to show that local businesses were in favor of it, so long as they didn’t have to pay for it through higher taxes.

The argument at the time was that the Boca Raton area was not a community, and having FAU football would make the area a community.

It’s a common argument when a sport that is not present in an area is trying to establish itself against strong opposition. “We’re not a community” is a catch-phrase that you hear a lot when someone wants the government to front them the money for a stadium.

I always thought that FAU was a special place with a focus on academics and developing people in the community who would go on to great things, and that sports would be in the background. Watching it succumb to the football culture hurt. This college, opened by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964, was to be the kind of place where learning and scholarship ruled.

It would stand apart from UF and FSU, but now it longs to be in that august company with football teams that mostly are paid to lose. It’s sad. Very sad.

Many colleges have made the calculation UAB made and turned in their helmets and shoulder pads. Sure, you take a big hit up front, but in the end UAB will find its way.

It saddens me that FAU will probably struggle along. Maybe, with enough time and effort, the team will become a winner, but the opportunity cost will be incalculable.

UAB made the right choice. Let’s hope more follow.

 

 

December 17, 2014 Posted by | Education, The business of sports | , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Candidates who fake credentials try to steal our votes

I recently wrote about a county commission candidate who committed one of the gravest sins in American politics, and now a new controversy has sprung up over a man who has been active in city of Palmetto and Manatee County politics for years.

In the previous instance, the debate was over whether a candidate who had been to Iraq as a civilian employee of the U.S. Army was qualified to describe her experience as having served “two tours” in Iraq.

The notion of serving a tour in a combat zone has always been reserved for someone who has served in the military. In many wars, people have served in a civilian capacity and have been careful to specify that fact, setting them apart from those in the military who “served tours.” The attempt to play fast and loose with the truth bothers me a great deal. Although I don’t use my military service to define myself as a person, the title “veteran” is one that is reserved for those who have submitted themselves for a time to military orders and discipline, and needs to be respected. More on this later, especially the title “veteran.”

But in the case of seat 2 on the Manatee County Commission, we have a case involving a candidate named Charles B. Smith who, it has been found, appears to have lied on his resume about having a degree from the University of Central Florida, according to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune.

The university has been going through its records and its latest revelation was of a person with Smith’s name attending the college in 1984-85 and enrolled as a criminal justice major, but not graduating. According to the story, it is going through records that “predate(e) current databases.”

If the accusation is true, it’s again a sign that when it comes to credentials people are eager to cheat and grab what isn’t theirs, even if those who have worked and qualified are denied opportunities.

The sad thing is that I knew, respected and interviewed Smith a few times for stories I wrote. He came across as a decent person who really cared about the community. The trouble is that in this day and age, having an inaccurate resume will come back to haunt you. Claiming an unearned degree is a lousy way to advance yourself.

It’s upsetting to me because I had to work hard for my degree, which took me six years because I was working nights and weekends. I didn’t get to experience much of the college life because I was trying to overcome an unecouraging workplace environment where the pursuit of higher education was disdained as a “waste of time” and disrespected at all levels of authority. Many of my bosses in the Postal Service had lied on their own resumes about their qualifications for their jobs. It was considered an accepted way to move yourself up.

I did the work and put in the time, and walked across the stage on graduation day. I don’t have to hem and haw and worry about what’s in the records at Florida Atlantic University because I know what’s there, and that I haven’t lied to get where I am today.

It’s frustrating to see this happening again.

In regard to veteran status, an interesting case is the one of David Santiago, a Republican running for re-election in District 27. According to the Daytona Beach News-Journal, Santiago has claimed veterans status and even defeated a Vietnam veteran for his office.

His service consisted of basic training (when he was considered to be on active duty) followed by about seven years in the Army Reserves. He served out his Reserve commitment, and received an honorable discharge and a DD-214, which he provided to get a V designation on his driver license.

It’s complicated, but based on a variety of rules, the state considers Santiago to be a veteran, but the federal government does not.

Personally, I think he is qualified to have veteran status. He may not qualify for VA benefits because of his reserve status, but so long as attended his drills and was discharged – and his discharge certificate and DD-214 are in order – then he is a veteran. As to whether a campaign should be the battle of who is or isn’t a veteran, that’s for another time.

November 1, 2014 Posted by | Education, Politics | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island Memory: Fun with Guard Duty and Firewatch

A couple of days after my platoon met its trio of drill instructors in August 1978, we learned that there was a fun activity that we had to participate in every night: firewatch.

Basically, every night during the sleep time, two recruits would spend an hour patrolling the squadbay and head and keeping an eye out for fire or smoke. The firewatch was an hour long, though you’d be awakened 10 minutes before your tour of duty so you could get dressed and relieve your fellow recruit on time.

It wasn’t so bad if you were on the first firewatch since you would only lose the first hour of sleep. The worst was to lose sleep in the middle of the sleep period, though truthfully most of us were so exhausted we could fall back to sleep. The worst firewatch was the last one, because you were getting up and not going back to sleep for another 17 hours. And you had to wake up the drill instructor by slapping the red square by the DI hut and announcing, “Sir, the time on deck is 0430, sir.” You then had to wait for the acknowledgment and resume your patrol.

During your hour on firewatch, you might encounter another drill instructor or an officer checking the barracks, so it was important to walk your post and not sleep or goof off. Getting caught usually got you an all-expenses-paid trip to the Correctional Custody Platoon, and no one wanted that.

I have two memories of the guard duty we had. Firewatch rotated, so you caught it several times during basic training, but the bigger guard duty usually came around only once or twice.

One night, I was on firewatch and came into the squadbay from the head to find a ruckus going on. Two guys had gotten into a fight, and there was a lot of “shh” and “lock it up” because if the noise woke the drill instructor, there would be hell to pay.

The larger guard watch was really something else. I was named corporal of the guard and got to walk outside and check posts. I remember walking to this one area and it was 3 in the morning, humid and I was on Parris Island. It was quite a moment for me. I felt really disconnected from everything for the first time in my life. It was like, this was my new life and what came before was an illusion.

The things you think about on Parris Island.

And that’s a Parris Island memory.

August 5, 2014 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , | Leave a comment

A Parris Island memory: Attending Catholic Mass

Yesterday was the 36th anniversary of my departure for Parris Island for Marine boot camp, and while the memories have mostly faded of that time when a scared 17-year-old kid from New York City plunged into the maelstrom of the Marines, there are some memories that stay with me.

Basic training, once it began in earnest, was not the most conducive place for any kind of thought. As a recruit, you were basically marched from place to place, subjected to an experience – a training session, a medical session, a supply session, feeding, close-order drill – and then marched to the next one.

Lose yourself in your own train of thought, and you might miss a pivot or a command, and bring the platoon to a shrieking halt, to the dismay of the drill instructors. Even in the squadbay while shining your boots, a moment of inattention could bring down the wrath of the drill instructors. As drill instructor Sgt. William Bostic would say – and I can still hear him saying it – “Woe be unto the privates.”

So Sunday religious services were an escape from the hour-to-hour hell that we lived in, and while I lost my faith years later, I still remember how much I enjoyed the break. Catholics made up a pretty good portion of the recruit population, as I recall, and we marched as a combined unit of several series in different phases of training to the chapel on Sunday morning.

We were sort of let off the leash. Of course, we couldn’t talk to the Woman Marine recruits, who were on the other side of the chapel and protected – or so it seemed to us – by a lake of fire. But we could look, and talk amongst ourselves as we waited for the chaplain to arrive and begin the Catholic service.

Well, I guess one Sunday we got a bit boisterous because I was sitting and talking to the guy next to me, and I realized suddenly that someone had taken the microphone, and began yelling in an enraged voice. It wasn’t the chaplain.

A man in civilian clothing who I realized must have been a retired Marine had stepped down into the area where the chaplain walked around while he gave his sermon, unclipped the microphone, turned it on and began berating us as being the worst-behaved group of recruits he had ever seen in all his 40 years in the Marines.

The place grew quiet as he vowed to tell the drill instructors about us and our behavior. Then he put the microphone back in its place, turned it off and walked back to his seat. I swear, after that, you could have heard a pin drop.

I don’t recall any fallout from this incident. But that I can still remember it all these years later, and see in my mind’s eye the guy holding the microphone and yelling at us, shows that some events stick with you forever.

And that’s a Parris Island memory.

August 4, 2014 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Not being a teacher was the best option

I was going through some books a while back, and found a few from my brief effort at gaining teacher certification.

I was working at The Bradenton Times at the time, and wondered if I actually was ever going to get a good job again, even in the news media. I needed benefits and better pay, and had done a story about alternative teacher certification.

After applying for it, and taking the required testing, I was put into a cohort and began taking my classes. It was interesting and fun, but the program felt very rushed and I doubt I would have done well as a teacher. Could a man in his 50s really get seventh-graders to read a book? I doubt it.

I passed all my classes, but at the end I was interviewing for a job that I later got with the Gainesville Sun. I got to say goodbye to everyone and wish them good luck. In truth, it had been quite a learning experience.

In retrospect, and considering the recent news about layoffs in the Manatee County School District, quitting my training was the best thing I ever did.

The truth is that I’m not cut out for teaching, and dealing with the education bureaucracy would have been a worse hell than when I worked for the Postal Service. The fact that I could escape at any time back into journalism also would have made me a bad candidate for teaching since I would have jumped at any copy desk job I could find.

In fact, it’s almost an open secret that most school administrators up to the school superintendent have their resumes up and searchable, and would leave a job in the middle of a semester to get a few tens of thousands more in pay and perks. As a teacher, I’d have the same attitude and, while I might feel bad for the disruption caused to the kids, it would have been for the best. They’d have learned that when you see an opportunity, you need to go for it.

It’s good to be back in journalism, watching the wheels of time go round and round, and documenting it all for the people. I never regretted quitting teacher training because the way public education is now, the only people who come out ahead are the admins.

May 17, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , | Leave a comment

The greatest teacher I ever saw

My decision to pursue a college degree in the late 1980s drew a variety of responses from those I talked to. At the post office, the main reaction was derision. “My cousin Wilbur graduated from college, and he’s working at Burger King” was a typical response. In the blue-collar work world, people who pursue college degrees are viewed as not knowing their position and station in life. “You’ll fail, like you’ve failed at everything else,” one boss said.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

The front page of the student newspaper reporting the death of Watson B. Duncan III.

I was determined to prove her wrong – and did.

One thing I used to tell people was that the smartest people in the county believed I was pretty smart, and the dumbest people in the county – postal management – believed I was not smart. “I’m betting that the smart people are right,” I said. And I was right.

In the realm of education, there are teachers who get up there and teach for the love of it. Sure, the doorway to administration and the really big money and recognition always beckons, but they prefer to stay in the trenches, never forgetting that it’s those who are closest to the students who truly are “educators.”

One of the great mentors of my life, Dorothy Martin, took a very different view from the postal bosses. She said it was a great idea, and added one piece of very good advice.

“I’m going to give you one name: Watson B. Duncan,” she said. “Take his class.”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You’ll find out,” she said.

Those provosts, deans, assistant vice presidents and others who populate the organization charts at colleges are just filler. The real work is done by those who get up in front of a group of undergraduates and deliver the goods.

The second page of the story.

The second page of the story.

Watson B. Duncan III did that, and more.

What kind of man?
What kind of man spends decades teaching undergraduates at an obscure junior college, rising to become a department head but still teaching classes of about 200 students from the stage in a theater named for him?

A great one.

What kind of man believed that everyone could benefit from understanding the literature of “that scepter’d isle”?

A great one.

What kind of man would bring a bust of William Shakespeare to the class on the Bard’s birthday, and then lovingly pat it every time Shakespeare’s name was mentioned?

A great one.

The first Duncan sighting

One day, after I started classes at Palm Beach Community College (then just changed from Palm Beach Junior College, and now Palm Beach State College), I was in the Watson B. Duncan III Theater for something, and suddenly a man with a smile on his face walked through the lobby, holding papers and greeting us in a friendly tone. He walked toward a door, opened it and went into his office. The person with me said, “Do you know who that was?”

“No,” I replied.

The third page of the story.

The third page of the story.

“That’s Watson B. Duncan.”

I was intrigued.

He must have been in his early 70s then, but he had the look of a younger man, maybe in his early 60s.

I learned soon after, he’s not “Dr. Duncan” (he didn’t have a doctorate) and he never stood on titles like professor. Students called him “Mr. Duncan.”

He personified Palm Beach Community College, I learned, far more than its president, who had once been a student in his classes and had gotten Cs.

I wanted to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory – and I know that in my bucket list under “completed” are two notes: “Take English Literature to 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III” and “Take English Literature after 1660 under Watson B. Duncan III.” I feel privileged in ways that cannot be imagined to say that I was able to take and get A grades in both classes.

The greatest privilege was to experience the wonders of English literature through this man. I mean, in how many other classes does the final class period end in a standing ovation? The students at PBCC loved Watson B. Duncan, and taking his classes was considered the capstone of your college career.

Registration day triumph
It wasn’t easy to get in.

Today, you register for classes online, but back then – in the late 1980s — you had to line up early in the morning at the cafeteria, and if you didn’t have a lot of credits, you didn’t get to register until later in the process.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

My story on the donation of his book to the library.

On my second attempt, I went there with my class list for the upcoming semester and hoped like mad that I’d get accepted. The registration office employee tapped in the information, then said, “You’re in luck. You got everything you wanted, and Duncan’s class.”

There it was: English Literature to 1660, and next to it: Duncan.

I was ready to explode, I was so happy.

At the campus bookstore, I saw the book I needed to buy: “The Literature of England.” I paid $37.50 for it. I still have that book, more than 23 years later. The thought of selling it back would be like selling my experiences of Duncan. No way, it’s staying with me.

The story was that Duncan used his copy to teach so much, he had to get spare copies because he kept filling the margins with notes. Today, in his honor, the book is encased in glass in the library at what is now Palm Beach State College in Lake Worth, Fla. My copy has moved with me, and the other day I leafed through it, remembering the lessons Duncan taught.

I remember that first class day. Students had gathered outside the theater early, and I made sure I got a seat close to the stage. The place filled up, and finally Watson B. Duncan walked out from behind the curtain to applause, and began to teach.

It was like that every day, and it was a joy that I want to cry about not seeing again. Literature came alive and he’d sometimes share experiences he had. Occasionally, I couldn’t restrain myself.

For example, one time he said, “Next, we’ll be talking about THE GREATEST WRITER IN THE HISTORY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE –”

“Stephen King!” I called out.

He looked down at me with mock horror – and maybe a little real anger – and said, “WILLIAM SHAKESPEARE!”

After class, I went up to him and apologized. He accepted it, noting that his beloved wife, Honey, enjoyed King’s novels, though he couldn’t understand why.

My story on the memorial service.

My story on the memorial service.

When we had tests, we couldn’t take them in the theater, so he’d direct us to report to a classroom, where we’d have tables to lean on. By this time, I know he had assistants who graded the tests, but he’d still write personal notes. One, to me, read: “I am enjoying your writing in the Beachcomber.” (The student newspaper at PBCC).

When the papers were graded, Duncan would hand them out but make sure to note that he was calling the names in alphabetical order, and not by grade.

“If I were to call you up by the grade you expected,” he’d say, “you’d all rush up here and I’d be crushed to death, and what would follow would be mass disillusionment.” At our grades, he was saying.

One time, I was talking to him and we got on the subject of him ever leaving teaching. He said he never wanted to stop teaching. “My fantasy is to go while I’m teaching,” he said, “but I know it will be a bit of a shock to the students.”

Another time, he described a dinner party he was at, where he recounted the speech of a very well-dressed society woman said to him: “Oh, Mr. Duncan. I think you should know that I’m a direct descendant of William Shakespeare.”

Duncan said he replied: “Why, the media must be called immediately. This is amazing news!”

The lady asked why.

“Ma’am, as far as anyone knows, William Shakespeare had no direct descendants.”

“Oh.”

“But he did have several illegitimate children,” Duncan said he called to the woman, who got away from him. The students loved that story.

Another story he told was of the time that an engineering student informed Duncan that he did not need to study literature, as it was of no use. Duncan retorted to the engineering student that he had checked the course catalogs of all the great engineering colleges in the U.S. and not one did not require literature. Everyone, he said, needed culture.

Be nice to animals

The actual textbook I used in Duncan's classes. I've kept it all these years.

The actual textbook I used in Duncan’s classes. I’ve kept it all these years.

While teaching the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” Duncan recounted the time he was on a committee that was evaluating teachers in South Carolina.

One was teaching her class about Coleridge’s story, and she said, to Duncan’s horror: “This is be kind to animals week, and it’s appropriate that we should be teaching ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ because the meaning of the story is Don’t shoot a bird’”

Duncan said he was horrified at this interpretation, and declared, “The meaning of ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ isn’t ‘Don’t shoot a bird,’ I said. So I shot her a ‘bird’.”

The place erupted in laughter at the thought of our beloved Watson B. Duncan “shooting a ‘bird’” at anyone, but if there was anyone who deserved a “bird,” it was that hapless teacher.

Worrisome rumors, and then sadness
I was in one of the last groups of students who got to experience Watson B. Duncan in all his glory. I finished the second class with an A, and moved on to other classes. I was busy with my despised job and the fun I was having working on the student newspaper, the Beachcomber.

But there were disquieting stories. A young lady who was taking Duncan’s course said he was absent more and more, and one day he taught the class from a wheelchair, she noted.

I still remember the morning I arrived at the Beachcomber’s offices (I was the paper’s News Editor) and got the terrible phone call from the university’s public relations department: “Watson B. Duncan died last night.”

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

Yes, textbooks were expensive back then. I would have gotten about $20 back, I think, had I sold it back to the bookstore.

We set to work on a commemorative issue of the paper and gathered information for the main story, while local media converged on the college to cover this event. I remember that I was interviewed by a Palm Beach Post reporter, and others shared their fond memories of the beloved and great man.

People walked around campus stunned, and even those who had never taken Duncan’s classes felt the loss keenly.

The stories were told of the great man, how he’d advised a young fellow who came into his class, how the young man had been recovering from a football injury at the University of Florida, and Duncan had encouraged him to try out for a play.

That man was Burt Reynolds, and the story was that Reynolds had been shooting a movie and the crew had found out about Watson B. Duncan’s death, but kept it from him until shooting was over because they knew he’d be so upset.

A few days later, the memorial service for Duncan was held in the main theater. I looked and saw Duncan, lying in state, and felt like something was gone from Palm Beach Community College. The buildings were there, and nothing else had changed, but it was like a bright, bright light of love and knowledge had been extinguished.

Life went on, as it should. I moved on to Florida Atlantic University and eventually went from the college newspaper business to the real news business.

I’ve never forgotten Watson B. Duncan III or those great lessons he taught. But if there’s one quote that illustrates his greatness, it’s the one below.

[lines 287-310 of the General Prologue to
The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer]

A Clerk from Oxford was there also,
Who’d studied philosophy, long ago.
As lean was his horse as is a rake,
And he too was not fat, that I take,
But he looked emaciated, moreover, abstemiously.
Very worn off was his overcoat; for he
Had got him yet no churchly benefice,
Nor he was worldly to accept secular office.
For he would rather have at his bed’s head
Some twenty books, all bound in black or red,
Of Aristotle and his philosophy
Than rich robes, fiddle, or gay psaltery.
Yet, and for all he was philosopher in base,
He had but little gold within his suitcase;
But all that he might borrow from a friend
On books and learning he would swiftly spend,
And then he’d pray diligently for the souls
Of those who gave him resources to attend schools.
He took utmost care and heed for his study.
Not one word spoke he more than was necessary;
And that was said with due formality and dignity
And short and lively, and full of high morality.
Filled with moral virtue was his speech;
And gladly would he learn and gladly teach.

April 2, 2013 Posted by | Education, Life lessons | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Climbing the public education ladder

It’s always seemed odd to me that when people are looking to attack American public education, their main targets are the teachers who actually do the hands-on work with the children, and not the giant, groaning bureaucracy that sits atop the teachers.

I suppose it’s like the Postal Service, where many people believe there are three job titles: letter carrier, window clerk and “the back.” As I learned in 11 years and five months, a lot goes on in “the back” that affects what happens up front, and there was an enormous bureaucracy of managers and administrators who never went near the mail and never got blamed when things went wrong.

Teachers, because of their union representation and their low status, often are blamed for everything wrong in public education. No matter how good a job you do, all it takes is the story of one stupid teacher making a bad decision anywhere in America, and you are tarred with the same brush. Somehow, the best teacher for every teaching job is the one who doesn’t have the teaching job, yet, but then the cycle of blame begins anew.

Oddly enough, few people ever go on a long rant against assistant principals, principals, curriculum specialists, school board members and others who also work in public education. In fact, assistant principals and principals love to tout themselves as teachers, even though they have abandoned the classroom and most direct contact with students for higher-level jobs that pay vastly more than line teachers get and offer the chance to be acclaimed as a genius if students perform well on standardized tests.

In the realm of superintendents, you find people pushing into the $200,000 range in pay in Florida, and more if they have never taught in a school. Indeed, superintendent selection and contract negotiations can be even more fraught than negotiating with a teachers union because of fear that the desired candidate, who usually is acclaimed as the greatest educational genius since the previous superintendent, might drop out of the running to take another job with another district.

Superintendents often begin a job search as soon as they arrive at a job, just in case. When I was in Vero Beach, the Indian River County School District had to replace a new superintendent after just six months. Once upon a time, he was the greatest educational genius in the history of the world, but a half-year of screaming and cursing later, he was anathema to some and pushed out. Later superintendents fared better, though.

Manatee County replaced its superintendent with a man whose main qualification seems to be that he served 23 years in the Army as a logistics officer, and a few years as the top person in a school district up north, with no real experience in teaching. Yet, he’s considered an expert on education.

Since he’s retired military, he’s believed to be competent at everything, and that’s all that really matters nowadays. We worship the military, and that was the deal-maker in the competition to fill the job.

According to the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, on the near-coronation of the new superintendent:

“He seems warm … and receptive,” said Peggy Delegato, the chair of education for the Manatee County NAACP, who met him for the first time Wednesday. “Most of this country’s sound management policies originate from the military — I am looking for good management skills.”

Like the recent mess-ups in Iraq and Afghanistan? Obviously, Ms. Delegato has never served in the military.

When I was attending Palm Beach Community College and majoring in management information systems, and then journalism, I’d see the students beginning their education majors with such textbooks as “A Child’s World.” I wondered about what they were doing, and if they thought they were making the right choice.

At the community college, I was active in the Phi Theta Kappa chapter (PTK is the honor society for two-year colleges), and was one of the few who actually participated in the organization’s activities – to the extent that I could with my work schedule. Most people who were invited to the ceremony were inducted, attended a couple of meetings and then stopped coming. I soon found out why. The chapter head – and later a high official in the chapter — was a woman in her late 40s who was the most unpleasant human being I have ever met (and we’re talking all the way back to boot camp, and maybe even the West Palm Beach General Mail Facility).

She treated fellow members disrespectfully, ordered people around as if they were her children and had some serious personal issues. For example, she had more than 10 children with several different men, and I met one of her ex-husbands, a contractor whom she lied to in order to get him to work on a project of repairing a man’s house. She had described the work to him as a simple repair, but the house turned out to need major structural renovations, especially in a part of the roof. He had to do it for free.

I was stunned when I found out she was majoring in education because if there ever was a person less suited to teaching and contact with children, it was her. Someone assured me, though, that her goal was not to teach that much but to be a school administrator like an assistant principal or principal.

You can’t even begin to imagine how unpleasant this person was. On one occasion, when I was forced to bring her neck brace to the ladies bathroom, I very nearly left a Phi Theta Kappa convention. I so wanted to belong. Finally, I just stopped being active in the group.

Funny, but a year or so after graduating from Palm Beach Community College, I was walking in the breezeway at Florida Atlantic University and heard a familiar voice. It was her, with a bunch of other college of education misfits. I hid behind a pillar.

See, there are those who teach and do it well and make a long career of it, like Frank McCourt, and those who decide that they’ll do a token year or two of teaching, and then climb those golden stairs. Michelle Rhee was one of those. So long as their students’ test scores go up, they leave behind the lesson plans and the kids and the abuse to become administrators and take the credit for everything good that happens, and blame the teachers for everything bad that happens.

Soon, they are being acclaimed as the greatest of the greats and achieve their goal of a big school district that pays in the high six figures. They get their pictures taken with kids, curse teachers unions and pretend that the kids got high scores because of their presence. Often, a test score increase is the stepladder to an even bigger district. The best part is to do like Obama appointee Rod Paige and tout higher test scores that were obtained through changing answers.

In fact, the only thing that really matters in public education is higher test scores. It’s the inevitable coda to nearly every education story, especially on National Public Radio: “And after the program was implemented, test scores went up.”

And the top administrators all get promotions and six-figure pay raises.

March 26, 2013 Posted by | Education, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment