ELSIE PLUNKETT taught social studies in an inner-city secondary school. Her students were in various states of desperation and need. Disadvantaged economically and socially, of many ethnic origins, they had only one thing in common: they all approached school as the last chance to escape from the poverty, disorder, and crime that surrounded the rest of their lives. Ms. Plunkett understood this well because of her own modest origins in Detroit. Nor had she forgotten the long struggle she had waged to improve her lot through education and take her place among other professionals. This much she had in common with her students, and, confident of the relevance of her experience to their lives, she related it to them without boastfulness or any hint of inverted snobbery.
Plunkett was one of those teachers who is determined to attend to her students' needs, whatever they might be and regardless of the cost to her time, temper, and professional advancement. Her tenacity was coupled with an equanimity of temperament that conveyed her confidence that her unsteady and uncertain students had the ability, with hard work, to get ahead. They discovered in her a model that was, for many of them, unique to their experience; they saw that she was effective and successful because of it, and they emulated her.
She used her classes as models for the society at large.
We must tolerate each other's differences, she told her students, so that we can work together in peace and harmony; if we wish the rights guaranteed to us by the Constitution, she reminded them, then we must be willing to extend to others the same rights. Many in the room were themselves the victims of prejudice, which had embittered them in their relations with others of different races and places, and Ms. Plunkett was obliged to point out repeatedly that, when they indulged in expressions of particularistic scorn, they themselves were guilty of prejudice.
Many of them had difficulties with English, bringing foreign accents to its pronunciation and confusion to its idioms. Because of this, not in spite of it, she insisted, quietly but firmly, that everyone should have a fair chance to speak and be heard attentively. Errors in speech she explained and corrected without reprimand; and though she was employed to teach social studies and not English, she was quick to praise any special effort to use sophisticated words and phrases correctly. Her classroom discussions were so disciplined and balanced that they formed a natural example of freedom of speech in action, and in this way the style and content of her teaching overlapped. Similarly, the concept of benevolent despotism, when they studied its meaning and history, was not hard for her students to appreciate.
In explaining the workings of society to her young charges, Ms. Plunkett kept to a steady pace so as to allow them ample time to absorb and retain the material. She went over difficult matters twice, often three or more times, probing and testing to make sure that every student was with her. When repetition failed, she would try again, slowing down the customary pace even further. If there were students who still could not keep up after that, she would arrange extra sessions on her own time to help them. The time she was ready to spend on any topic in the course extended to every student a fair opportunity to master it, no matter how long it took. And at the end of the process, her temper was as even and unruffled as it had been at the start. They found it hard to believe, but no student ever witnessed exasperation or heard an angry complaint from her.
In her classroom, she exemplified a major concern of the Constitution-how power is exercised, and by whom, in resolving conflict within societies-by the way she directed it. She moderated the conflicts in debate that arose out of the ignorance and inexperience of most of her students by her calm demonstrations of the strengths and flaws in their arguments, pressing them for facts and logic, explaining to them the authority of persuasion as compared with that of force. In this way she revealed the power of knowledge and experience, and her students learned that the best organized societies are those in which reason and civility hold sway.
Yet her classroom was not all grim toil. Ms. Plunkett had a playful sense of humor, which revealed itself in whimsical interpretations of the more obscure terms of political science. She could make jokes and invent puns and could enjoy both the wit and the silliness of her charges in return. Because difficult and unfamiliar terms like bicameral, despot, and plutocracy usually puzzled her students at first, she knew that she could fasten such essential concepts more securely in their minds every now and then with nonsense rather than cold definitions. She would explain that Congress was said to be bicameral because its two houses required at least at two committees to decide to buy cameras for the Air Force-and they were always overpriced. She also pointed out that a plutocracy was not a Mickey Mouse form of government.
But not all her students were willing to devote themselves to learning with as ready a spirit as she wished. She knew firsthand the problems and threats they faced daily in their homes, on the streets, and even in the corridors of the school itself. For these reluctant and withdrawn souls her patience was a perpetual torment. She stuck to them like glue, pestered them with questions and encouragement, and allowed them no peace. She refused to give up on them, as many of their other teachers had done, and they quickly came to the conclusion that it was much easier to cooperate with her than it was to haul in the opposite direction. This was a tug of war in which the two sides were unequally matched-one woman, outweighed by her students and their environment, but outpulling them all the time. And as soon as any of them began to make efforts to follow her lead,
she was quick with praise, her smile and encouragement more significant to them than any pleasure they may have gained from indolence. In this way
there were no losers in her classes; and although their levels of achievement varied, all her students made progress toward the goal she set before them-a working mastery of the intellectual content of government along with a clearer understanding of their own and others' views of politics, the economy, and society.