From time to time, I hear people say they wish teachers could go back to teaching the basics. They reason their children would be better off, and that their lives and even the lives of teachers would be less stressful. They have this idealistic notion that if teachers could teach like they did back in the “good old days” all would once again be right with the world. However, were the “good old days” really that good?
I started teaching way back in 1976 for a salary of $8,400 a year, which included $200 for coaching football, $200 for coaching basketball, $200 for coaching baseball, and $100 for driving a school bus. I really enjoyed teaching, and I often bragged about being the first teacher in my family until my father set me straight one afternoon. He told me that my Uncle Juby, short for Jubilee, had actually taught math for a spell in the late 1930’s. The story goes that Uncle Juby drove over to Wilmer, Alabama to pick up three cows. Back then there were not any interstates or major highways, so most roads were narrow county roads at best, and it took him half a day to get to Wilmer and locate the farm. By the time he found Coy Grayson’s farm somewhere just north of Wilmer, he was tired and ready to the get the cows loaded and start back home.
He was prepared with a roll of 21 dollar bills in his pocket to pay top dollar of $7.00 for each cow. The price had been negotiated by my grandfather over the telephone, so Uncle Juby was expecting to finalize the deal quickly and be back on the road within an hour. However, after seeing the cows, he was not pleased with what he saw. My father could not remember what the problem was with the cows, but he did know that Uncle Juby was not happy with the pre-arranged price, so he began to haggle with Farmer Grayson. After about an hour of haggling back and forth, the two men finally agreed on $6.00 for each cow even though the old farmer kept mumbling about the price being highway robbery.
Uncle Juby feeling rather pleased with himself over the new price he had wrangled out of the old farmer, unrolled the wad of one dollar bills. “It has been a pleasure doing business with you Mr. Grayson,” he said. “At $6.00 each for your three cows, I owe you $18.00.”
Farmer Grayson looked at him strangely, “Young man, you figured that out real quick,” he said.
“Nothing to it,” Uncle Juby shrugged handing him eighteen one dollar bills, “just a little head arithmetic.”
“You don’t say,” Farmer Grayson said rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Head arithmetic? Hmmm.”
The cows were loaded on the trailer, and Uncle Juby headed for home, but just before he crossed into Mississippi, he heard a siren and looked up to see lights flashing behind him. Convinced the old farmer had had second thoughts about the deal and called the sheriff, he pulled the truck and trailer off the side of the road, and pulled out his bill of sale. When the sheriff walked up to the driver’s side of his truck, Uncle Juby handed the bill of sale out the window.
“Boy,” said the sheriff, “I don’t reckon I have much use for your bill of sale. Ain’t why I stopped you.”
Puzzled Uncle Juby pulled the bill of sale back into the truck, “I’m pulling a trailer loaded with three cows, so I know I wasn’t speeding,” he said. “I figured old man Grayson sent you after me.”
“He did,” said the sheriff turning and spitting a long stream of brown chewing tobacco over his shoulder. Wiping the corner of his mouth with the back of his hand, he drawled, “Sent me to offer you a job.”
“A job?” Uncle Juby asked even more confused.
The sheriff nodded his head, “Yes sir, you see Mr. Coy has a brother-in-law on the school board in Mobile County, and when he saw you use that – uh – what did you call that thing you did to add them numbers?”
“Head arithmetic?” Uncle Juby offered now completely dumbfounded as to what adding some simple numbers had to do with him being pulled over by the sheriff..
“Yeah, that’s what Mr. Coy said you called it – head arithmetic. He said he hadn’t ever heard that before, and to tell the truth, I don’t reckon I have either. Mr. Coy said you used that “head arithmetic” to add numbers faster than a hot knife can cut butter – and he said you did it without taking your boots off. He figured right then and there that you might be the right person for the school teacher job that’s open at the high school, so he sent me after you to offer you the job.”
“A teaching job?” Uncle Juby asked trying not to laugh.
“Yes, sir,” said the sheriff. “Mr. Coy told me to tell you they will pay you a fair salary if you’re willing.”
Uncle Juby always the suspicious type asked, “Is Mr. Grayson offering me the job, or is the school board?”
The sheriff turned away to spit again. “Son,” he said turning back to Uncle Juby, “Mr. Coy said you have the job if you want it, so you never mind the school board. What Mr. Coy says is gospel around here.”
My father said Uncle Juby drove back to Wilmer the next day and became a teacher. They paid him $1,700 for the 1939-1940 school year to teach math or more precisely teach kids how to count to twenty without taking their shoes off.
To this day, every time I hear someone say the only change we need in education is to get back to the basics and let teachers teach like they did in the “good old days,” I think of this story. For me, allowing teachers to teach like they did in the “good old days” is the most confounding education argument I have ever heard. You see, I don’t understand what people have against kids keeping their shoes on.
© 2014, Jack Linton