I suspect that my old high school teacher Michael Baker would have rather mixed feelings about having an obituary published in a magazine called Mere Orthodoxy. Certainly, he was the kind of teacher that would have scared many white evangelical parents, though, God bless them, he didn’t scare mine—or if he did they never showed it.
He was the kind of teacher who routinely picked fights with the too-conservative district office, whose classroom walls were decorated in Vietnam War-era protest art, who wore hemp necklaces every day, and who arrived at school in a 60s-era Volkswagen van, sometimes smelling like marijuana.
He was the kind of teacher who once cut out a letter to the editor published in the local paper defending the Iraq war, taped it on his wall, circled the author’s name and wrote “the colonial mind” next to it.
The author of that letter was his department chair.
I loved Mr. Baker. (Probably he would hate me calling him that and would prefer “Michael,” so that’s what I’ll use for the rest of his obituary.)
Here’s what you should know about Michael: When I first had a class with him, he spent the first day going over syllabus stuff as briefly as he could. Most teachers at the school had some kind of “bathroom pass” system. Indeed, I think by then our relentlessly corporate school probably had mandatory planners that we had to carry with us in the halls when we were out of class and which kept a log of how many bathroom passes we used—and which teachers needed to sign before we could leave the classroom.
But when a student asked Michael about bathroom passes, he snorted with derision. “You’re old enough to drive a car. Some of you are old enough to get shot at in Afghanistan and Iraq. You don’t need my permission to use the bathroom.” “But what about our planners?” someone asked. “If you want me to, I’ll sign the damn thing for you. But I don’t care. If you need to use the bathroom, don’t ask, just go.” Then he returned to reviewing what we would be studying that semester.
Alongside Ken Flowerday, another teacher I loved, he taught a two period class called “American Experience.” It was a joint English-History course in which Michael taught American history using a “yoyo method” that began with the present and worked backwards in 20-30 year chunks (the district hated it) and Flowerday taught American lit. I wish I had taken that course. I was able to take other classes with both of them, each of which left a deep impression on me, but I’d have liked to take that one.
At bottom, what marked Michael as a teacher is that he thought his job was to teach his students to think rather than to teach us to take tests. He didn’t want us to regurgitate what our textbooks said. He raged against the standardization forced upon public ed by No Child Left Behind and, as best he could, tried to give us a good education despite that. Indeed, if he thought something in the text book was dumb, he’d say so. On more than one occasion, he told us that something in our district-assigned text was “bullshit.”
You can understand the fractious relationship with the district, I expect. One thing many conservative sorts don’t appreciate, I think, is how much many actual left wingers like Michael hate the corporate neo-liberal style in American public education. When President Obama appointed Arne Duncan to Secretary of Education, Michael was livid, if I recall correctly: The last thing the Department of Education needed, he thought, was someone whose previous title was “CEO.”
I wish we hadn’t lost track of each other over the years. During my college days he had me on his radio show once and we very rarely exchanged messages. But now I find myself wondering what he’d make of Ivan Illich’s critique of public schools. Illich saw public education as being a great danger to the good life because it had the effect of transforming education into a “product,” and entrenching a highly institutionalized sensibility about life into students from their earliest days. I expect Michael would agree with much of that critique. And yet, authentic leftist that he was, he was a fierce lover of the dream of public education, of the belief that every person deserves a free education and that societies should come together in order to make that possible for each child.
Maybe it’s that dream that made him a teacher to love. I don’t know. What I know is that I had lots of teachers. Many seemed to embrace that corporatism, the standardization, the “teaching to the test.” Or at least they didn’t do much to fight it. And that was as true in the private Christian school I went to for two years as it was in the public school. If American public ed tends to treat students as little more than future worker drones in the capitalist economy, too many conservative Christians (even those teaching in schools outside the public system) are willing to go along with that objective, that vision of education, that vision of the human person. Christians, of all people, should know better. They should recognize that each child is a person, not a product. But many of us don’t.
In all my years of being a student, I’m not sure anyone raged against the commodification of the student the way that Michael did. He knew that his students were people. He wanted us to be educated. He worked to the best of his abilities to teach us. He sacrificed for us. And if his students loved him, it’s only because he loved us first.
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