Alabama Teachers: The Past as Prologue

We were strolling around our neighborhood and walked past the house we called “The House of the Standing Man.” We called it that because when we moved here, this old guy was always standing in the driveway next to his car like he was about to go somewhere, or had just arrived from somewhere. He never moved. He just stood there by the car, never returning our friendly “hellos.” He was in perpetual transition, frozen next to his car, never fully arrived or departed.

This went on for a few years, until we stopped seeing him. We wondered if he had some sort of dementia and had finally been whisked away to some assisted living facility by some son or daughter or grandchild. Shortly thereafter, piles of stuff started appearing on the curb — massive, heaping piles of boxes and bags. There were pieces of furniture, but also the accumulated debris that must be cleaned out at the end of someone’s life. For weeks now, new piles have appeared and vanished. They are rained on, get moldy, and are picked over by various roving trash pickers. We never stop to examine the piles. Until today. A newspaper caught our eye, peeking out from one of the unsightly mounds.

It is part of the February 5, 1969, edition of the Montgomery Advertiser. As we read the editorial page out loud on the way home, we came across a letter to the editor under the section, “Tell It To Old Grandma.” We have noted before how hilarious we think it is that people once called our newspaper Grandma Advertiser. Anyway, the letter merits sharing with you in full because it reads like it could have been written today. And although it was written over 40 years ago, it needs to have also been written today. Here’s hoping that teachers across the state are writing similar letters today.

Dear Editor,

I am one of those controversial, intimidated creatures who serve as whipping boys for frustrated parents, fearful politicians, and self-serving private-interest groups. I am a teacher.

At least, I once believed that I was a teacher. I have even had the unmitigated gall, on occasion, to think that I might perhaps be a “dedicated” teacher.

Why do I now wonder if I am really a teacher? The answer lies not only in the impossible demands that are made upon teachers, but also the coals of fire that are repeatedly heaped upon their heads. I, like many other teachers, am demoralized.

For example, I find it intolerable that teachers should be expected to genuflect, hat-in-hand, and beg, “Please Mr. Legislator, throw me a crumb! See what a great job I’m doing.” Yes, we teachers must “sell the public” (I’ve heard that expression quite often lately) on the needs of education.

Why must we “sell the public?” Are the members of the Legislature incapable of rising (just once) above the politically expedient course of action?

If they, the legislators, are awaiting a consensus (a great word among politicians — consensus), I have news for them. The rank and file of their public couldn’t care less! I would delight in a deluge of letters proving my disillusionment to be wrong, but I simply don’t expect those letters; nor do I expect any great shift of public opinion on behalf of education — for Coffee County, my home county, only a few months ago, for the third time in the last ten years, defeated a proposed five-mill tax for the Coffee County school system.

A shift in opinion, therefore, will not occur because the public wants a good educational system only if this system costs no additional money, an impossible condition.

I can understand the public’s aversion to additional taxes. I, too, am a victim of taxation and inflation — inflation of everything except my paycheck. I, too, can understand the feeling that is prevalent today: “If the federal government is going to run our schools, let the federal government pay for them.” Granted that the federal government is running them, but it is not paying for them.

These bitter facts notwithstanding, one additional fact must be faced: that the future of our schools and of our state is at stake. If our legislators fail to act, they must face the resulting alternatives — not only face them, but also bear the responsibility for them.

These alternatives are quite obvious: disruptive, heart-breaking teacher strikes or increased exodus of teachers to neighboring, higher-paying states, both alternatives being destructive for our children and our state.

I call upon our Governor and our Legislature to forget political expediency; upon our rural and urban areas to forgo rural-urban bickering; upon our universities, colleges, junior colleges, and State Department of Education to cease their sickening wrangling over who gets the biggest slice of the meager pie.

Remember the forgotten member of the team, the overworked, overloaded, underpaid elementary-secondary teacher, who, after all, is the great heart of any education system. Could the universities and colleges, the State Department of Education, and yes, even the Legislature itself, exist without this much-ignored, often-scorned, always-maligned creature!

Mrs. Bryant Steele,
New Brockton, Alabama

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