Down the Up Staircase
She was, by her own account, “Miss Goody Two Shoes.” Or, as some of her colleagues at the old Fox Middle School in Hartford, referred to her, the “Fuddy-Duddy.”
As you might imagine, an English teacher doesn’t earn these mildly derisive nicknames easily. For one thing, she must, as Ginger Whitaker did, dress conservatively and impeccably every day over a long career even though it was certainly not a job requirement.
She must act precisely as her parents and grandparents, in segregated Virginia, taught her to act. Her conversation must be laced with pleases and thank-yous. With respect for all. And, finally, in an often disheartening urban setting, she must instruct students not only on Chekhov, but on where to place the salad fork.
As etiquette is an important theme in her life, I should no doubt refer to her in this space as Ms. Whitaker, not as Ginger, and certainly not, in cold journalistic fashion, by using her last name only. I should also try here, if possible, to rely on only gentle language, even as I describe Ms. Whitaker’s growing disdain for what has happened to our public schools in recent times.
Two years into her retirement and nestled in the suburb of Avon, she argues that although teachers today have been “working really hard and doing very well” at what they are being instructed to do, they’re being instructed by administrations and boards to do the wrong things—and that children are learning how to become ignorant even as standardized test scores improve.
Before I get into that, however, I should remember my manners and be your guide back to the days when Ms. Whitaker’s outlook was more upbeat—back when she was performing a kind of classroom magic act, and when she thought anything was possible.
This took place in a setting, remember, that often received unfavorable press. Urban schools had been riddled with problems, from a lack of resources to a student body composed of many whose home circumstances were, to use a mild term, trying.
It was Ms. Whitaker’s view, however, that all inquisitive children can be inspired not only to sparkle academically, but to develop deep respect for themselves.
In this view she was not alone—there are many unsung faculty heroes and heroines on the same quest throughout Connecticut. But in the annals of Hartford schools, there are few who were awarded the label “proper,” by her students, many of whom wrote letters of appreciation years after graduation.
For one thing, she taught them to dress the way she did. She cautioned girls, “If you’re pulling down your skirt, it’s too short, and if you’re pulling up your blouse, it’s too low cut.”
She transported so many of them out of the street culture—alluring and dangerous—and into the worlds of Shakespeare, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Edgar Allen Poe and Emily Dickinson. She taught them about the grittiness of Chicago through the eyes of Carl Sandburg. She taught them Greek and Latin root words. Maybe they wouldn’t become writers the way she had (she published a novel, The Dowry, in 1989), but she was certain that good books would inspire them.
In the last years of her career she brought scores of girls into her after-school program, an etiquette club. They learned to set a formal table, to eat crumpets and hold the tea cup just so, and how to say that you don’t like something without insulting the hostess.
The club went out to restaurants for five-course dinners, and to the opera at The Bushnell—after a performance of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, one girl said, “I woke up just in time to see her kill herself.”
You won’t be surprised to learn that a large percentage of Ms. Whitaker’s students performed well on standardized tests, and a good number went to college.
But the math, among other things, was going wrong at Fox Middle School over the years —the numbers of students dwindled. The academic reputation of the school took a dive, and, eventually, the doors were bolted.
Ms. Whitaker spent that last year of her career as a fill-in at another school in Harford. By then, the 2009-10 academic year, she had been worn down by the reality of teach-to-the-test academics, and what she saw as the general disregard of the basics of literacy and knowledge in pursuit of better scores.
The lunacy of it came to her one day when she realized that none of the students in her class had ever been taught cursive—they couldn’t write their names on the board. This, alas, is a national trend, the thinking that in the computer age there are more important ways to use school time.
Though the students were reading the books assigned, these books were, in Ms. Whitaker’s view, lightweight, undemanding—in effect, demeaning. (I could add here that she actually used the adjective “crappy,” although, perhaps, considering the tone she strives for, I shouldn’t have pointed that out.)
“I guess it was a hard day,” she says, about the afternoon she decided to drive to the office in Hartford where the retirement forms were kept. “I couldn’t see how I could go on. There wasn’t one thing the children were reading about which I could say, ‘This is really good writing.’”
The system, obviously, was not supporting the kind of teaching methods she believed in. “Teaching core knowledge—cultural literacy —was no longer possible. And, as she recently told me while reflecting on that day, “Though I went to school in the segregated South [she was shut out of all-white schools], I had more education than these kids.”
Ms. Whitaker explains that it’s not the teachers she faults. She admires them. Nor is it the Mastery Test that troubles her. “Testing is a good thing,” she says. “It shows what kids know.” All schools, she maintains, need objective standards, and to be measured. It’s what’s being taught that’s the problem, because it’s not giving kids the clues on how to be intellectually curious, how to really prepare for the tests of their lives.
“Whenever [administrators] came to inspect the school, the principal would make us do certain things to impress,” she says. They spent a lot of time on data and on addressing the standardized testing, because more than half the school was reading below what had been determined to be normal. “Kids are taught how to take the tests,” she says, “but that’s not really teaching.”
Ms. Whitaker believes what she has always believed— and she doesn’t mind if you call her a fuddy-duddy. “I’m interested in knowledge. I taught the kids how to look at great painting and sculpture—the kids never asked me, ‘Why are we looking at art?’ They wanted to learn.” When they learned how to learn, she points out, they did very well on standardized testing.
Even though Ms. Whitaker has left the schools, she is still giving urban children some of the tools they need. She helps her daughter run a company called Thurston Whitaker Information Services, which produces etiquette programs for children nationally.
In this work she introduced herself, among others, to the children of the Shelton Boys and Girls Club. That day, they all sat down to tea and scones, and, for the first time for most, spread cloth napkins across their laps.