Otto's Night Watch. 'They Said My Students Were Underachievers': Flashback Friday
Here’s the next installment in our continuing series of republished Otto’s Night Watch columns written by Otto Boutin, which appeared monthly several decades ago in Printing Impressions. It describes the trials and tribulations faced by a high school print shop teacher in the slums of Chicago. The teacher really knew how to motivate and teach practical pressroom skills to kids who had been classified as "underachievers," but, in the end couldn't overcome the school's emphasis on conventional teaching methods.
Does this story remind you of local school district tendencies to want to dump the so-called bad, misbehaved kids into the vocational and shop class programs back when you were in high school?
They Said My Students Were Underachievers
Obeying a belated impulse to do something good for humanity, I got a job as a teacher of printing in the slums of Chicago. The print shop was in one of those portable buildings that spring up like mushrooms around old schools. The equipment was new – four duplicator offset presses, a camera, an electric typewriter, and a cold type headline machine.
On each of the walls was a red panic button that would blow the siren and summon the police if the students tried to beat me up.
“But please don’t press the button,” said the principal, a pleasant, silver-haired man. “It’s bad for the school. The neighbors object to the siren.”
He introduced me to the students and went back to his office, leaving me standing with a head full of Gutenberg and nothing to say. The kids, all boys, sat at their benches, with arms akimbo, daring me to teach them something.
An Appalachian 16-year-old had the reading skill of a second grader. Once I asked him to bring a newspaper from home so that we could study its typography. He replied that in his home there were no newspapers, no magazines, no books. His father didn’t trust anything that was printed.
One Negro kept sailing in academic subjects because he couldn’t concentrate on history or the fairy tales of literature, which he regarded as silly. He had four brothers at home, each of a different father. And they all hated him because he was the only true black.
The Puerto Ricans would group together, chattering Spanish profanities at the boy fresh from Poland. A Yugoslavian had learned about fighting, American style, by getting his cheek ripped open with a broken pop bottle.
Each of the boys represented a different slice of raw life. Some were good, but didn’t know English. Some knew English, but were bad. The educational hierarchy had grouped them all together into the category of “overaged underachievers.”
They were not entirely without achievement. Our most enthusiastic cameraman had served two years in the reformatory for stealing cars. Others knew how to steal without getting caught. Two of them admitted that they were working their way through school by strong-arming. One boy, with the morality borrowed from modern movie actors, proudly proclaimed himself to be responsible for the expanding belly of a 15-year-old girl in the other building.
These boys had been washed out of other schools and other classes. And so it was decided, as a last resort, that they should become printers. Being a printer myself, I was amused by the academic attitude towards vocational training. It seemed that the useful subjects were always kept at the bottom of the educational totem pole.
I knew that my boys weren’t stupid. A kid who can break into a car, bypass the ignition, and drive away in 60 seconds, is not an idiot. Possibly, he’s misdirected. He’s tired of being bawled out for splitting infinitives. He’d like to show the world what he can do with a screwdriver.
And the boy who had nothing but sweet water for breakfast does not get impressed by the poverty in the London slums of Charles Dickens.
Most of the boys were apathetic about our educational system because it didn’t really touch their lives. It was far removed, possibly because the teachers themselves were far removed from life in the slums.
The kids needed teachers with empathy — with a feeling for their problems. They did not need an authoritative analysis picked up from some cold book on a shelf.
Most of the teachers, academically oriented, kept stressing the importance of a college education. These boys had little hope of ever getting through high school, not to mention college. But they all wanted to earn money, soon. They couldn’t wait.
At home they felt a terrific pressure for money. From their infancy they had been told about the expense of their food and clothing. Although child labor laws prevented them from working at regular jobs, most of them did manage to pick up a few dollars by helping out in the stores and shops of the neighborhood. A few of them worked eight-hour shifts after school.
The Appalachian worked in a hot dog stand and proudly kept inviting me to see him in action. The Yugoslavian, whom I reprimanded for being sleepy in class, confessed that he worked an eight-hour shift every night. Another sleepy-head was a small Negro who kept getting into trouble because his nerves were always on edge. I let him sleep at a bench in a corner whenever he felt like it. I had learned that he was a bus boy in an all-night restaurant at the airport.
One of the most intelligent boys in the class was failing in most of his subjects because he was a “chronic truant.” He frankly told me that he was wasting his time in school. He liked printing, but it was not his line. He wanted to be an auto mechanic and he was spending all the time he could at the gas station, earning pretty good money. He hated truancy officers because they kept pestering his mother. He didn’t regard himself as a child any more.
I had developed a deep respect for my boys. Unlike suburban children, these kids felt obligated to help their parents. They thought it perfectly natural to bring their money home to their mothers. I couldn’t understand why they were called underachievers.
Practical boys, they were impressed by practical things. They didn’t care for lectures or book learning, but they were fascinated by the things they could do with a printing press. We were kept busy doing small printing jobs for our school and other schools. By mid-semester the students were doing everything themselves. All I did was to keep testing each one individually to make sure he was getting his chance at using the equipment.
I had the boys broken up into groups of three and four as they kept rotating, every week, from one piece of equipment to the other. Every day one member of each group would act as a foreman. The boys taught one another faster than any teacher could teach them. No teacher would ever dare reprimand a student the way his buddies did.
One big Negro had impressed me from the start. He caught on to printing very quickly. By mid-semester he claimed to be the best printer in the shop, better even than I was. I did not deny his claim. I knew he could tear a press down and put it together faster than I could. I knew he could stack up the paper and run off a job faster than I could. The young man, full of youthful vigor, had something on the ball and he knew it. I appointed him superintendent, in charge of the foremen.
We seemed to be getting along quite well until one afternoon he leaned over my desk, pressed a Derringer pistol to my forehead, and pulled the trigger.
The click paralyzed me for an instant.
“It’s all right, teacher,” he apologized, smiling. “It’s not loaded.”
I suspected he was jealous of my authority. He probably wanted to sit behind the desk himself.
“How much does a printing superintendent make?” he asked.
“Three to five hundred a week.”
“That’s a lot of dough.”
He went to study the want ads on the bulletin board. I had made a habit of clipping ads from the help wanted sections of newspapers and magazines. I didn’t have to give my students vague promises about the value of an education. I could point to the bulletin board. I could show them practical goals within their reach.
I could prove to them that the printing press could help them get out of the ghetto.
But I was a green teacher. And I made many mistakes.
In the school shop I had $40,000 worth of offset printing equipment. And I had a roomful of outcasts of the educational system, boys who were regarded as “overaged underachievers.” The grammar schools had shoved them out and the high schools didn’t want them.
“And you expect me to make printers out of them?” I asked the principal.
“We expect you to keep them occupied,” he said. “And to keep them from killing each other. I’d suggest you lock up those T-squares. They’ll be used as tomahawks.”
He understood the slums. He grew up in the same neighborhood with Nelson Algren. He claimed to have played poker with the dealer who inspired “The Man with the Golden Arm.”
I told the principal that the text books were old-fashioned. “They’re based on foundry type and the Gordon press. We’re strictly offset. And we only have one typewriter. We could use a few more.”
I had no illusions about making great lithographers out of the boys. But I wanted every one of them to be able to walk up to a simple offset press and say, “I can run this. I can take it apart and clean it. And I can put it back together again.” I knew that hundreds of employers were looking for that kind of boy.
I ran the class as a shop, not as a school room. I let the boys move around and talk. Prodded by their own colleagues, most of the boys worked hard, proud of accomplishing something practical instead of merely memorizing another silly poem. To keep up their enthusiasm I gave only two kinds of grades on their report cards – Excellent and Superior.
The high grades caused comment throughout the school. An experienced teacher, with long lovely legs, was sent to straighten me out.
“You are spoiling the boys,” she told me. “You don’t give them homework and you don’t give them tests. But you give them very good grades. You make it rough for the rest of us. I’ll show you how teaching is done.”
She reached for the instruction manual that came with each printing press. Flipping the pages, she found a list of parts.
“Make them memorize this,” she said. “Give them a test on the nomenclature of 25 parts of the press.”
And so, after doing a lot of homework myself, I gave the test.
A boy named Stanley, my favorite pressman, scored only four out of 25. He loved printing, but had trouble with the language, having just come from Poland. The highest score was made by a small bookish boy who didn’t like machinery and hated to have his hands soiled by printer’s ink.
Instead of conventional homework, I encouraged the boys to bring to class samples of printing that they found outside of school. I wanted them to realize that they lived in a world full of printed matter, a world full of opportunities for the printer. They brought everything from foreign language newspapers to dog food labels. They also brought a mimeographed invitation to a gang war which was to be fought with weapons at a public park. I recognized the product of our own mimeograph machine, and the psychedelic design of Manuelo, our most talented artist.
One afternoon an important lady from the downtown office dropped in for an inspection visit. She was horrified at the clutter of newspapers.
I told her that the boys were looking for examples of good typography to be pasted in their scrap books.
“But they’re reading comic books,” she sputtered.
“They’re studying four-color printing.” I explained.
“And they should be wearing shirts,” she added.
“Shirts get dirty in a print shop and their mothers have to do the laundry. So I let them wear T-shirts or no shirts at all.”
She kept shaking her head as she wrote something in a notebook.
I also had shown the boys how to fold a newspaper to make a pressman’s hat. The square paper hats gave the boys considerable esprit de corps. They wore the hats to and from school, proud of being printers.
When they tried to wear the hats in other classes they ran into trouble. They became known as the “undisciplined printers.”
We ran into some very important problems, like the thumbtack crisis. One day I was called into the principal’s office, where I was confronted by lean, wiry Mr. Mathematics. Belligerently, he held a thumb tack in front of me.
“Do your boys have access to these?” he demanded.
“We keep thumb tacks in a drawer,” I admitted.
“Then you’d better keep them locked up. If I sit on another thumb tack I’m going to hold you directly responsible.”
So I locked up the thumb tacks and told my boys to go easy with Mr. Mathematics. I knew they didn’t like him. They had made up their minds to drive him crazy. They told me so. And I had a hunch they would succeed. The poor man didn’t know how to keep his cool.
A few weeks later I was again called into the principal’s office. Miss Language Arts was there, sobbing into a handkerchief.
“When the boys come out of the print shop,” she complained to me, “I can’t control them. They’re feeling high.”
She looked at me through quivering eyelashes. “You’ve been letting them sniff rubber cement. That’s what they’re learning in the print shop. How to sniff rubber cement.”
So I put the rubber cement under lock and key. Then the boys made another discovery. They could get high from sniffing the solvent we used for cleaning the presses. I was called into the office again.
Miss Language Arts was not crying this time. She was shaking an accusing finger at me.
“They’re absolutely wild when they come out of your class,” she yelled. “I can’t do a thing with them. That boy Gomez, for instance. He comes to class with a wet cleaning rag. He sits down and tells me, ‘Look, teacher, seven sniffs and I’ll fly.' And he takes seven sniffs of the rag and then he stands up and starts flapping his arms. And he makes like a big bird around and around the class. Then he says he’s going to fly out of the window. From the third floor. I had to grab him.”
I suspected Gomez enjoyed being grabbed by a curvaceous teacher, but I said nothing. I merely went back to the print shop to lock up the solvent. I had separate keys for each of the 13 lockers, four closet doors, two filing cabinets. Thirty percent of my teaching time was spent fumbling with keys. But things kept disappearing anyway, including a box of Exacto knives which could be used as deadly weapons.
To keep the boys from sniffing the solvent, I cleaned the presses myself. I couldn’t feel high if I tried. On the contrary, I was feeling mighty low. My aspirations for a pedagogical career were being snuffed out by a few sniffers.
One afternoon as I was cleaning a press near the window I became aware of a commotion in the main building. I got to the second floor just in time to see Mr. Principal being thrown out of a classroom. He immediately rushed back into the room to help Mr. Science, who was being beat up by a student. By the time I got into the fight, the boy was subdued.
Now the student stood his full six feet, his heavy brown arms folded, quite satisfied with himself.
Mr. Science, with a trembling hand, was wiping blood from his lip.
“I don’t want this beast in my class no more!” he shouted at the principal. “Out with him!”
Mr. Principal, having combed his silvery hair, was patting the back of poor Mr. Science.
“Of course, he’s not coming back to your class,” he assured the teacher. “He’s going to be suspended for two weeks.”
The teacher reached for a new Kleenex. “And after two weeks?” he asked suspiciously.
“After two weeks we’ll transfer him to the print shop.”
In commenting on his military achievements during the Civil War, Artemus Ward said, “I killed as many of the enemy as they killed of me.” Of my own experience on the battleground of ghetto education I can say that I punched students more often than they punched me.
There was only one whom I poked really hard. I don’t remember why I did it, but I enjoyed doing it at the time. I also let him have some print shop profanity that left him goggle-eyed. Then I apologized, explaining that my quick left jab was a reflex that I had developed during my days as a sparring partner for light heavy-weights. I also showed the boys how my ribs were sticking out in all directions from the time I got blasted out of a ring.
The students were impressed. They had been calling me “The Great White Father” and “Old Man Gutenberg.” Now they began calling me “Old Punchy.”
Mr. Principal was quite upset over such informality. He also objected to my methods of teaching. He wanted to see immediate results from that $40,000 worth of offset printing equipment. He had spread rumors that our school print shop could print just about everything.
One member of the educational bureaucracy wanted a 144-page textbook in four colors.
“I’m not a super-duper lithographer,” I told him. “I’m just a Linotype operator.”
“But you are a printer, aren’t you?”
A member of the local chamber of commerce wanted us to print a tabloid newspaper every week.
“The presses are too small,” I explained, holding up the maximum 17x11˝ sheet.
“You could staple the pages together.”
“And where will I get the typesetting?” I asked.
“Modern typesetting is done on a typewriter,” he informed me, studying me as if I were an old fossil. “And you do have a typewriter. A fine electric one.”
I didn’t like the idea of typewriting an entire community newspaper in my spare time. My kids would be willing, but they couldn’t spell. They were overaged underachievers.
I had been hounding my superiors so that we could set up some simple jobs. But I was told that the boys would throw the type at each other and get hurt. Then they would sue to school.
Meanwhile I was getting a lot of advice from the higher echelons. A $15,000-a-year efficiency expert figured out a way to utilize scrap trimmings from the power cutter.
“In your spare time,” he told me, “you could cut up that paper into confetti and put it into gunny sacks. It could be sold for Halloween parties.”
Of course I’d have to do the cutting myself because the students were not allowed to use the power cutter. I had to keep the safety key on me at all times to prevent them from playing “chicken” by sticking their hands under the table.
A $20,000-a-year man also had a few suggestions.
“With all this equipment,” he said, “you should be able to turn out a tremendous amount of commercial work. Even if you cut prices in half, you could still …”
I didn’t want to cut the throat of the printer across the street. He was the only one who paid taxes to build the school, buy the equipment, and pay my salary. My sympathies were with the tax-payer, not the tax-eater.
And I had my own ideas. I didn’t want any outsider pressure for the first 10 weeks. I wanted to take my time in teaching every one of the boys to run every piece of equipment. The boys could not learn from lectures or books. They had to learn by trial and error, by educating their hands.
The education of hands is sadly neglected in our school system. The academics still regard the soiled hand as the mark of a slave or serf. They forget that the brain is helpless without an educated hand. A noble thought could not long endure if it were not given permanence by the educated hand of a scribe or a printer. Even the world of electronic communication depends on the educated hand.
For every architect we need 20 bricklayers, 20 carpenters, and 10 plumbers. But our schools keep insisting that every young man become an architect. Maybe he’d be happier as a plumber, and more prosperous.
Personally, I was satisfied with the way my boys were learning. Without ink or water we kept running blank sheets through the presses over and over again until every student knew how to make all the feeding adjustments. Then we spent a week on water rollers. Blindfolded, every boy could take them out and put them back in.
Then we did the same with the ink rollers, still without ink. To make the tasks more interesting we had teams competing against each other for speed. We had given a girl’s name to each of the four presses, so it became a contest between Linda, Sally, Anna and Maria.
All this may have seemed foolish to people who expected to see truckloads of high-class printing coming out of the shop. But I felt that my job was to produce printers and not printing. I didn’t want to devote all my time to a few prima donnas, like other print shop teachers do. I wanted to give the feeling of accomplishment to the kid who keeps getting shoved around all his life, even in school print shops.
This kid would have to go out into the world and take any job, just to be working. And somewhere along the line – in an office or factory – he would see a simple piece of offset equipment. And he’d be able to say, “Hey, boss, I know how to run that thing!” And he’d be on his way upward.
It is customary for vocational shops to produce something tangible by which the teacher and students may be judged. These knick knacks are sent to some exhibit, usually to the local public library.
Our Mr. Principal, quite naturally, wanted the print shop to be represented by something very special. He showed me a four-color ad in a high-class magazine and asked me if we couldn’t produce something similar for the cover of the Christmas program.
I knew we couldn’t do anything half as good, but I wanted to make him happy. So I let the class run itself for a week while I concentrated on producing a four-color cover. On the bottom I put a small line of type saying, “Printed by the Students of Soandso School.” That was one of the tricks I had learned as a teacher. If the job turned out to be real good, the teacher would get the credit. If it was bad, the students would get the blame.
Proudly I brought the masterpiece to Mr. Principal’s office. But Mr. Principal gave me only a dirty look as he kept talking to a tall man with an attache case.
The tall man showed me a piece of green paper.
“I’m from the Secret Service,” he said. “Have you any more of this counterfeit money in your print shop?”
“Counterfeit money?” I held the phony dollar bill up to the window. “The register is off, the paper is too thin, the green ink is too dark …”
“But it comes from your print shop, doesn’t it?”
I couldn’t suppress a smile. A few months ago my boys didn’t know one end of the press from the other. And now, without any coaching, they had made plates of a dollar bill, selected the paper and ink, and printed both sides with fairly accurate register. And they had done everything while I was concentrating on the Christmas program.
“This dollar bill is a joke,” I said. “Nobody would have the nerve to try to pass it. And nobody would accept it.”
The tall man answered gruffly, “The fat lady from the candy store tried to deposit it in the bank. We found three more in her tin cash box.”
From the third-floor window I looked down at my little print shop in the portable building. I knew I was finished as a teacher. But I also knew that my kids had really learned something about printing. Maybe their work would not be exhibited in the local library. But, holy cow, the samples of their printing were going to be exhibited in the Treasury Department of the United States of America in Washington, DC. They had won their place among superior craftsmen. And so I was satisfied. And I felt free again.
While I stood at the window, Mr. Principal and the Secret Service man hurried downstairs toward the adjacent print shop. I wished I could send a telepathic word of warning to the boys.
Then a strange thing happened. Through the window of the shop somebody tossed a loose bundle of green paper. And phony dollar bills fluttered all over the playground like autumn leaves after a storm.