This is Washington Street School.
My grammar school. My mother's grammar school.
My grandfather's grammar school (he entered kindergarten in 1907).
It may sound odd that a child liked, even loved, school. But I did. My elementary school teachers and my elementary school principal were my heroes who not only taught me that knowledge is a powerful tool, but they also helped cultivate my talents. In return, there was nothing my elementary school ever wanted for as long as my family could supply itthat had been our tradition for generations because education was highly valued. In fact, long after I had left the school system, when I was in college and then in the beginnings of my career, when my former elementary school needed something, I was only too happy to supply it. Why? Because my elementary school principalthe illustrious Earl W. McCawwas a man more likely to teach you the rudiments of how to deal with a bully (which he did) but he had a hidden soft spot for each and every kid. He was the one who established the Title One program for special needs children in the West Orange schools. That program has evolved into what are now called Resource Rooms.
When he learned of my artistic talent, he personally called the supervisor of art for the entire school system to make sure that I received training. (When Earl W. retired many years later, he made a special request for me to do a sketch of the school for him.) My classroom teachers and librarians further instilled in me a love of books. When my interest in storytelling and theatre was realized, the teacher in charge of play productions (who had professional experience) became my mentor and he was given Earl W. McCaw's blessing to do so. These are exactly the building blocks which have served me throughout college and my professional career.
I also remember each and every one of my teachers. Their influence on me is incalculable and I am quite happy to say that I have remained in contact with many of them.
With all of those positive memories, it was only natural for me to happily assist when a friend (who taught at an entirely different elementary school) asked me for help because teaching town history was now part of the curriculum. My friend showed me two editions of a "book" bound from photocopied pages which served as the foundation of such a history course. The "book" was a scattershot collection of half-facts and mislabeled postcards. It had been orchestrated by a "committee" of principals and teachers (there is an ever-increasing fallacy in education that an advanced degree and/or a titled position equips someone for every and any project) but none of them was a writer or researcher or historian and most of them did not live in town to know any local historical facts firsthand. The result would not have passed muster for a college project and my friend lamented that it was certainly not much of a classroom tool.*
And so, I undertook something special. I did what had never been done before. I wrote Greetings from West Orange, New Jersey, a proper history of the town in a clear concise manner which connected all of the dots in chronological order. In short, I told the proper historical story. My publisher issued it as a real book. It was my gift. I then taught classes on the subject. The students were given bus tours of the town which I narrated. They were transfixed. It was a truly wonderful experience. "You should be hired to go from school to school and teach this course," the accolades came from other teachers.
Art Does, in Fact, Imitate Life
How the Sad State of West Orange History
Gave Rise to a School Book
Which Then Supplied More Than Enough
Background Material for a Series of Novels
The trials and tribulations which plague the hero in
both these novels
are based on
West Orange School System.
CLICK HERE FOR
Greetings from West Orange
has now been incorporated into
A Concise & Accurate History
in celebration of the town's
For details, click here.
Copyright © 20112013 John Dandola, Ltd.
All rights reserved.
When an announcement heralded the book in the town newspaper, my teacher friend was bombarded with e-mails and phone calls from other teachers in other elementary schools as to whether my book would become the curriculum. They all considered the "book" currently in use as worthless. Did the Board of Education try to contact me about the possibility? No. It seemed odd. The Superintendent of Schools knew me. He had even personally argued that I was "famous," the "local boy who made good," in a successful pitch to get me to be a surprise speaker at a retirement dinner for one of my favorite teachers. He even referred to me openly as "The Historian" whenever we ran into one another. Yet when the book debuted, not a peep came from his office.
That was the least of it. After the class was taught and the bus tour was given, it made me remember the long-ago promise I made to Earl W. McCaw that after I had established myself, I would someday consider teaching. I have taught college classes as an adjunct professor but Earl W. McCaw was talking specifically about my teaching elementary school children and establishing the same foundation in their lives which was established in mine at that young age. I like kids (in fact, I became very attached to quite a few of the students at the school where the history class was taught and I will never forget them). I spent my summers during college teaching and tutoring and supervising kids so I know just how to work with them. Passing on learning is something second-nature to me and I thoroughly enjoy it.
But there is always a fly in any ointment. And this fly ate away at everything I knew and experienced as a child in this same school system. The school where my friend taught had a principal who turned out to be a bully. And a bully the likes of which I had never witnessed in the field of education. He did not speak to people in the hallways. His main character traits could be summed up as surly and nasty. The children openly feared him and he lacked all ability to interact with them on their level. He didn't like or want men on his staff and he tended to hire only pretty young women. Teachers' complaints about him got swallowed up in bureaucracy. New Jersey has the nation's toughest law to protect school children from bullies. Unfortunately, there is no law to protect school teachers from the bullying of their principals or their peers.
Add to this mix a Child Study Team so drunk with power yet so full of incompetence that they spent their days intentionally undermining whatever the classroom teachers needed or requested and thereby did more harm than good to the special education students. Then there was a fourth-grade teacher who was so threatened by anyone with intelligence who crossed her path that she did whatever she deemed necessary to slander and deride that person to unbearable proportions (and to make her even more dangerous, she had the ear of the principal who bought into her fabrications). Needless to say, it alienated her from the staff. Complaints about her had also been circulating among parents for more than a decade because of her blatantly unsympathetic nature towards students but those complaints were never addressed by her buddy the principal and she's protected by tenure.
Here I was, having had professional success, having run companies, having supervised staffs but I couldn't fathom how these teachers thought they were getting ahead. I had been in the big leagues and I had played hardball but in this setting there was no massive raise or preposterous bonus or elegant corner office on an upper floor like in the real world of business. The "reward" for all of this maliciousness seemed to be nothing more than the teacher at the top of the food chain was allowed to very amateurishly "direct" an assembly program. In actuality, it was all just vindictiveness solely for the sake of vindictiveness and it reduced humanity to its most base level. The result created a daily atmosphere filled with so much pettiness and duplicity and back-stabbing that the Court of Elizabeth I pales in comparisonwhat's more, the kids could absolutely feel the tension of it all. As a professional, I found it to be the worst of all climates in which to work.
As is my wont as a writer, I kept a detailed daily journal. I showed it to my attorney one day, when he asked why I seemed so disheartened during a meeting in which we were setting up what was to be my own scholarship fund for West Orange students who displayed a talent for writing. My attorney was appalled at what he read, telling me emphatically that a case could easily be made for numerous cases of harassment in the workplace. But, he reasoned, if the West Orange School System refused to police itself and do nothing to correct things, why spend my money to raise awareness of the situation let alone institute a scholarship? My attorney had a point; we cancelled the scholarship. I also pulled my book. There is no longer a West Orange town history course in that school (or in any other school) taught the way it should be taught with proper and accurate materials.
The protagonist of my Wind novels is a teacher. The first two books highlighted the positive elements of his profession as I remembered from a student's perspective. But because of my newest adult insight, the third and fourth books focus on the trials and tribulations which face really good teachers (even fictional ones who solve mysteries). Since my daily journal chronicles the entire truth of what I witnessed, I've incorporated the goings-on in my novels. Some things you just can't make up and these are incidents which every reader in every part of the country can identify with on some level.
The female principal and male principal in my books are based on those I experienced in two different elementary schools during my local history teaching duties. Since then, they were both thankfully "asked" to retire. But the inept and quarrelsome Child Study Team and the devious fourth-grade teacher (now a fifth-grade teacher) are still on the payroll...
One further note which illustrates why West Orange just doesn't get it: In the spring of 2013, I had communication with someone at the West Orange Education Foundation (whose logo I designed when I was in high school). When I brought up the fact that I had done that design, it didn't seem to matter to this person in the leastnot even as part of social small talk. Rather, after knowing about and apologizing for the abuse I suffered in the present West Orange school system (he had visited my web site), this person then had the nerve to press on and suggest that I contact him if I changed my mind about initiating a scholarship. He seemingly doesn't possess the ability to discern that such a suggestion is both insulting and inappropriate considering all I had given to the schools throughout my life only to have been treated so shabbily by a current crop of people who had no history with the school system which was even remotely comparable to my own. Basically he was saying, "I know we screwed you but can we still have the money?"
* My favorite line from that "book" is "The Lenni Lenape [Indians] were hunters and gatherers and the crops they grew were..." By definition, hunter-gatherers are migratory tribes who did not grow crops; they hunted whatever animals and gathered whatever fruits, nuts, and roots were in the vicinity. It makes one seriously wonder exactly what degrees in education these "authors" held.