THE LAST CLASS OF THE DAY was about to end. For the third time in a row, a student had failed to solve her quadratic equation. "May I stay after class to learn what I'm doing wrong?" she asked sheepishly.
"Are you kidding?" replied Vance Jones, the teacher. "
I'm paid to teach until 3 o'clock and no later. Come see me in the morning."
"I can't," she said. "It's the first day of Yom Kippur. I'll be absent."
"Damn it," he exploded. "There's always one excuse or another, isn't there?"
Blushing, she burst into tears. A few students laughed; others shuffled their feet nervously. Her friends gathered round her. One, expressing anger, convinced her to go to her class adviser's office. There, the adviser explained to her that while Mr. Jones had perhaps spoken too harshly, he was within his rights to leave school on time. No, there was not a procedure in the school's regulations for the adviser to notify the principal of the incident; that had to be left to the student herself. The next year, she left for another school. Mr. Jones was still teaching.
This was not the first time that he had humiliated a student in front of others. His colleagues had heard of other incidents. It was said that he had once even yelled at the valedictorian of the senior class for contradicting his views about citizens' rights to bear arms, although the issue had nothing to do with advanced calculus. But what were they to do? Vance Jones was a senior member of the staff, appointed before most of his colleagues had even left college; and for years he had been shop steward of the local teachers' union. In fact, he had led them four years earlier in a successful weeklong strike, which had resulted in a reduction of the teaching day to six classroom hours and had secured a raise in salaries, which they richly deserved. Many of his colleagues disapproved of the way he was said to treat his students, and he frequently got to school late. But they did nothing about it because he served their interests well.
Besides, he knew his subject thoroughly and kept up with it. Early in his career, he had secured a master's degree in mathematics, and he frequently attended summer workshops to keep abreast of new developments and to learn the latest methods of teaching. He had helped establish a link between his own department and that of the nearby university, an arrangement that gained his colleagues free access to graduate courses and, it was rumored, afforded their students some preference in admissions. He occasionally gave papers at annual meetings of the American Mathematical Society and was sought out by several university faculty members for advice about presenting math problems to their classes. As a result, Mr. Jones's school was known widely for the strength of his department and was justifiably envied by teachers in other schools.
Not surprisingly, he was particularly good at teaching advanced classes of seniors and the best students in all courses he taught. They were his favorites, singled out for praise and emulation, sometimes to their own embarrassment, often to the mortification of those for whom algebra and trigonometry were a chore. "Tom and Antonia are really good at this," one student remarked to another one day, "but why does Mr. Jones keep calling on them? I had my hand up all during class, but he never even looked my way." Mr. Jones also tended to socialize with his best students; and when they came from some of the town's wealthier families, he tried to ingratiate himself with their parents. He favored the school's star athletes, too; it seemed to students and colleagues alike that he graded them more leniently than students of similar abilities. At one time, he had been seen dining in a distant town with the captain of the girls' hockeyteam, but no one had seen him with her again, and she had graduated.
He detested having to deal with concerned parents, some of whom had even criticized him publicly for his treatment of their children. "Meddlesome," he called them. "The parents think they know what's best for my students.
"Don't you understand?" he argued with them. "My job is to get the students to know enough to pass the state proficiency exams. That's what I'm paid by your taxes to do, not mollycoddle them. Don't you want them to get into college?"
"Look, Mr. Jones," a father had tried to reason with him. "
These are teenagers. They're drenched with hormones. They often don't know their own minds. They're vulnerable to authority figures. You can't scare them like that, or make them feel bad. They think that something's wrong with them."
"I know," Jones responded. "You're concerned about your children, as all parents are. But I've got my job to do. The state says I'm to teach them what I teach them. I've got to do it, sometimes cram it down their throats. I'm their teacher. It's my right to do so. If I don't, if they don't do well on their exams, the school won't be thought well of. The community won't be considered desirable. Property values will decline. Let's keep all these things in mind."
Some of his own colleagues thought that this was going too far. "You're crazy," he retorted. "Who put this department on the map? Does anyone else in this district get invited to give papers at scholarly conventions? And who got us a raise?"
"Look," a young colleague pleaded. "This is not just about our distinction as a department or getting our students to pass exams foisted upon us by people in the Department of Education who haven't taught teenagers in years, if ever.
Sure, these exams are important. But come on. Someone has to see all this from the students' side. Let's forget the state board. Let's forget the union, even all the pushy parents. If we don't watch out for the students by encouraging them, who will?"
"Yeah, but I'm in here at 8:30 every morning," Mr. Jones retorted sharply. "I stay until 3. Six and a half hours! That's enough for these kids. I've got my own life. And which one of you ever thinks about the union? Who fights for our rights as I do?"
He was correct on that score. His colleagues left him the hard work. He resented it. He wasn't going to change.
When his wife sued him for divorce- "He never pays attention to us," she said of herself and the children-he was testier than ever. He actually acknowledged as much to his students and explained to them at length why he was so short-tempered.
("Who cares?" asked one of the best of them. "He's here to teach us math. I don't care about his problems. He deserves them anyway.")
Some, though, were concerned and tried to be nice to him, offering to meet him after class and in the evening, when he was lonely, at the local hangout. He appreciated their efforts; and, because they made him feel better, he worked hard at engaging their sympathies. He was especially flattered by the attention of the girls, whose company he sought, and with whom he spent an increasing amount of time. When he retired a few years later, he found he had few friends and no family. His career had earned him little respect in the community. He spent his declining years bitterly decrying the "ingratitude" of his former students and the coldness of the townspeople.