Wrong Way McKay

 

Wrong Way McKay

 

For the first year of my new teaching assignment my wife and I continued to live in Suffolk County on Long Island – in Sound Beach – which was about 65 miles from the school district. So each day I had a 130-mile commute. The second year – yes I made it to my second year – we moved into the Five Towns, where this school district was located.

Our rent was outrageous and my wife said to me, “We’re going to find it hard to make ends meet so you better get a second job or work some clubs for extra money.”

It so happened that the Cross Country track coach quit the job the year before and there was no one who wanted to attempt to coach this team – if there would be a team. Our high school put no stock in Cross Country track or any track for that matter (until Tony Sparandara, another great teacher, made the track team one of the best in the state – but that was in years to come); we were strictly a football and basketball school.

So I went into the principal’s office and volunteered to coach the Cross Country team.

“Do you have any runners?” asked Mr. Krawitz, the principal. “Last year’s coach said there wouldn’t be any runners this year except Steve Beck and his brother Bryan – who’s just a sophomore.”

“Oh, I can get runners,” I kind of lied there but I did have a clever plan. “We’ll have a team – maybe not a championship team but a team nevertheless.”

“Okay, you are the new Cross Country coach,” said Mr. Krawitz shaking my hand. “Good luck. You have to have a team out on the field in one week though for us to keep the funding of the program.”

In one week I had to field a team! There was one great Cross Country runner, Steven Beck, and his kid brother, Bryan. I needed at least seven kids to be on the team – or was that five? It didn’t matter; I planned on having a full compliment of students.

Here was my brilliant plan. Most kids would love to have a varsity letter for sports – I mean athletes, even track athletes, are more respected than your normal run of the mill high school student. So I went into the halls of the high school and started to recruit kids that I knew would never have a chance to be on a varsity team because they – well, they weren’t athletes in the traditional sense – oh, hell, they weren’t athletes in any sense. I went up to fat kids and low-life greasers smoking behind the gym and my spiel was simple, “I am giving you a chance to get a varsity letter. There is no skill involved. All you have to do is run. You don’t even have to run that fast. You just have to start the races and finish the races to get a letter – a real varsity letter that will be given out at a big dinner with all the pretty cheerleaders present.”

Most of the kids looked at me as if I were nuts. But enough of them joined so that I did have a full team – 16 runners all together, including some who were actually pretty good. We practiced every day for two weeks – if you can call it that. Except for Beck, his brother Bryan, Craig Tischler and Richard Zaintz, my team really stunk. Most of the other runners were fat kids who could barely walk much less run – but they wanted to be varsity athletes and I gave them a golden opportunity.

Our first meet saw two things happen that you never saw happen in a Cross Country meet at our local park – called Sunken Meadow Park. The three-mile race ended and only eight of my runners finished somewhere in the pack. Seven of them came trotting in about 10 minutes after the next race started.

“What happened to you guys?” I asked.

“We stopped for a smoke,” said one of them.

“You can’t smoke in the middle of a race,” I scolded. Then I realized I was missing one of the runners, Matt McKay. “Where’s McKay?”

“He was behind us,” said one of my smokers. “When we stopped for a smoke, he passed us but didn’t follow the trail and went into the woods on another path.”

“You mean he’s out in the woods now?”

I looked at my team. “You mean one of our runners is still out there?”

I went to the officials running the meet and told them that one of my runners had gone the wrong way. He looked at me askance and said, “How the hell can anyone get lost on this course? I mean it’s clearly marked!”

“I don’t know how he got lost but he did get lost,” I said. “I think we have to send people out to find him.”

“Oh for Christ sakes,” said the official. “I got a dinner engagement tonight and we could be here forever looking for this kid.”

“Oh, okay, then let’s just let him die, fine,” I said.

“Why don’t you send your kids into the woods to look for him?” said the official.

Before I could answer the next race was finishing. The top runners were coming in now and the official had to record their times. Then the second bunch of runners came in and finally the slowest runners struggled in, huffing and puffing, and behind those slowest of runners, running easily, and aimlessly with a beatific look on his face, was Matt McKay.

I went over to him. “What happened?” I asked.

“I just can’t run as fast as everyone,” he said.

“No, I mean, you got lost. How did you get lost?” I asked.

“I got lost?” he asked.

“You didn’t realize you got lost?” I asked.

“I finished the race pretty good if I got lost. Those runners weren’t too far ahead of me,” he said.

“That was the race after your race,” I said.

“The race after my race?”

“Yes, you went off into the woods and somehow got back into the race but it was the race after your race,” I said.

“Oh,” he said.

“You’ve got to stay with the pack and on the course,” I said.

“Yes,” he said.

Now reading this you might think that McKay was a stupid kid – far from it. He was extremely bright. I wouldn’t be surprised if he were a doctor now or a scientist.

The next week in practice I watched McKay as he ran. He was slow moving as if he were fat, but he was quite skinny, but somewhere around the second mile or so, his face would take on that beatific look and he’d run with a look of pleasure on his face that I have never (or since) seen in an individual engaged in athletics.

Have you ever seen those television or magazine ads where they show people working out with big smiles on their faces? If you work out in a gym or run in races or with groups, you know what I know – no one works out with a smile on his or her face. Working out makes you feel good – when it’s over – but during it, well it goes from terribly awful in the start to bearable by the finish.

I’m guessing that McKay got a jolt of whatever chemicals bathe the brain during the “second wind” time when suddenly you lose that initial fatigue and feel pretty good. I think he got a massive dose of those chemicals (I think they are endorphins) and he went off somewhere that few people have ever been. He went off in practice too – which was okay because it was just around the track – but he also went off in every race.

McKay got lost in the second race at Sunken Meadow too. He was well behind the smokers, who had again stopped halfway through the race to light up, and when he passed them he went off in a different direction than last time – but nevertheless the wrong direction. Once again he somehow found his way back to the finish line – again with the next race’s runners.

First I had to scold the smokers for lighting up in the middle of the race. “Look you idiots, if some kid from another team sees you lighting up in the middle of a race and tells on you, the officials will tell Mr. Krawitz and I am sure he will kick your fat butts off the team.” I called them “fat butts” because every smoker in that group was fat and I could play on the word “butt” as well – as in cigarette butt and backside butt. Also in those days, you could use words like fat and idiot because political correctness had not yet swept the land.

“So wait until the race is over and go somewhere off there,” I pointed to the rest room building, “and smoke where no one can see you. Behind the rest rooms.”

My fat butts listened to me and never stopped in the middle of the races the rest of the season to smoke. They were horrible runners, coughing and wheezing as they finished the races because they found it very difficult to make it through three miles without stopping for a cigarette break.

On the other hand, McKay could run all week. He was in terrific shape. He never got tired. He just couldn’t run the races properly. He also couldn’t run very fast. Of the 10 Cross Country meets at Sunken Meadow he got lost seven times. On one occasion, we had to finally get the team to head into the woods to look for him. We found him running around different paths.

So I started to call him Wrong Way McKay, a nickname that stuck. Our team was dismal. We lost every single meet we had – we finished last in all the group meets at Sunken Meadow where schools from all over Long Island competed and we lost every individual head-to-head competition we had with other schools at Eisenhower Park – even to a school for the slightly physically and mentally handicapped. That was a meet we all felt we could win and it crushed us that these kids were better runners than ours. “Man, some of them use crutches in real life,” said one of my disappointed smokers.

Now it was the last race of the season and of my career as a Cross Country coach that Wrong Way McKay put himself into my all-time “I can’t believe it” record book. We were running a race against a high school from the next town over from us. This was a head-to-head race at Eisenhower Park – an almost completely flat course. This other team stunk too so we thought we had a chance with them.

Even Wrong Way McKay had never gotten lost at Eisenhower Park – how could he when we could see him and he could see us from the start of the race to the finish of the race. Unfortunately, the officials had to change the meet’s course on this occasion because some construction work was taking place in the area where our races were normally held.

The new course was flat but at the end there was a little hill, maybe 20 feet in height that you had to run down and then run a straight line of about 100 yards to the finish line. The officials went over the course with all the runners. All the kids nodded their heads when the official asked if they all understood where the race would be run. Yes, even Wrong Way McKay nodded his head.

Our neighboring school kicked our ass, which was to be expected, although Steven Beck, as he always did, finished in the top three (he finished high in every race he ran but all our other runners were so far back that it didn’t matter for our team’s overall scoring). Wrong Way McKay was last, also not unusual as he finished last in almost every race he ran.

At the finish line, we watched the kids come down the hill and head for us. You couldn’t see them until they got to the top of the hill and then you’d see the top of a head, then the kid’s whole head, then his body and down the hill he would run and head for us at the finish line.

Finally McKay’s head appeared at the top of the hill and he ran down the hill, as had all the runners in the race before him. But then something happened. Instead of running towards the finish line, Wrong Way McKay headed right back up the hill. I started to scream, “No! No! This way! McKay, this way!” When Wrong Way McKay got to the top of the hill, he turned around and headed back down. I thought he had heard me.

He hadn’t.

When he got to the bottom of the hill, he turned and headed back up the hill. Now all of us were screaming, even our runners who were smoking, “This way! This way!” We waved our hands; swung shirts and towels over our heads. The other team even started yelling.

Wrong Way McKay just kept running up and down the hill. Finally I sent some of our runners to escort him to the finish line. How could he have gotten lost when he could see the finish line from where he was? I don’t know.

I retired from being the Cross Country coach, as I knew I wasn’t cut out for it, and instead I concentrated on handling the Science Fiction club to which Wrong Way McKay belonged as well. What’s interesting concerning my career as a coach is the fact that I didn’t have one winning meet. Yet, many years before – in 1960 – I was on a basketball team that went undefeated in 55 games, even beating Lew Alcindor’s (now known as Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s) team in a New York City tournament. [You can read about this in my book The Craps Underground: How Controlled Shooters are Winning Millions from the Casinos!] I have experienced the height of success in athletics and the depths. I would have to say that I was probably the worst coach in the history of that high school.

 

One last thing to close out my coaching career: I did get a letter put in my “file” (all teachers had a file where good and bad letters and reviews of one’s performance and behavior were saved – it was very originally called the “file”) about allowing my students to smoke during races. Some skinny little creep from some other school had told on my fat butts who despite it all received their varsity letters in full view of the pretty cheerleaders.

Postscript: I finished writing this section on McKay on a Friday evening. I went to bed. I wrote all day Saturday since I write every day. Sunday morning I checked my emails and I had an email from Matt McKay. After 30 years of no letters, no calls, no emails, a student from my past, one I never thought I would be in contact with again wrote me. He had some nice things to say and, of course, he had been one of my favorite students of all time. The email arrived 24 hours after I finished this section.

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How (not) to Stop a Fight

 

[At Lawrence High School in Cedarhurst, New York.]

The girl was maybe 4’10”— if that; slightly built, but she was a tigress. I think she was a sophomore. She had gotten the bigger girl down on her back and she was pounding away, punch, punch, punch.

I knew I had to stop the fight, so I did. In those days, the early 1970’s, I was in great shape, running 10-mile races, boxing, doing amazing numbers of calisthenics. Today, sadly, I am Jabba the Hutt. But then? I was close to a god.

I went behind the tigress and grabbed her, thereby squeezing her back against my chest. I lifted her easily off the bigger girl. I had a tight hold on the tigress.

But tigress was kicking like crazy, trying to break my hold but being small, her feet were where a man doesn’t want someone’s kicking feet to be.

She did a backward kick, a backward kick and then – two feet, one after another, landed on an area I had treasured since I first discovered it — my balls, or in polite terms, my balls!

I can’t let go of her I thought. My other thought was that I’d never have sex again thanks to this tiny monster. I just hoped my private parts didn’t fall to the floor.

I was gasping in agony when the assistant principal came over and took the tigress out of my arms. That’s the first time in my life I wanted a female out of my arms.

I leaned against a desk, breathing deeply, when a female teacher said, “You look so pale Scobe. Are you all right?”

“I’m great; I’m fine,” I falsettoed.

My balls did recover. I did end up being able to produce children. But I will never forget that little tigress. I hope she comes back as a man in the next life. So I can kick her you-know-where.

[Read Frank’s latest book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic! Available on Amazon.com., Kindle, Barnes and Noble, and at bookstores.]

Bad Teachers

 

***They lit his tie on fire as he napped in class; they threw his desk and bookshelves out the window. The students did things such as this for 30 years. This teacher had tenure. His very first year of teaching saw the kids throw his overcoat out the window; put glue on his desk drawers, and cause him befuddlement when they asked questions he couldn’t answer. He kept sending kids to the administrators. Nothing helped. He never got any better. He stunk on his first day of teaching before tenure and he stunk on his last day of teaching with tenure. He stunk every day in between.

***She would take attendance and as she called the kid’s name, the kid would say “present” or “yo” or “here” and then get up and leave the class. She never noticed that but when she looked up there might have been 10 kids remaining out of 30. She had tenure. She’d been teaching for 20 years.

***Everyday, he would cry when he came into the teacher’s room. He’d complain that the kids were torturing him. Indeed, they were. He’d been teaching for two years. He did not have tenure yet. He had graduated from Columbia’s school of education.

***She screamed and yelled at her students every day; every damn day. You could hear her on the second floor although she taught on the third floor. She’d been teaching five years. She had tenure. She yelled from the second day of her first year on the job and never stopped.

***She’d been at the job for 32 years. She only taught honors classes. She couldn’t teach non-academic classes because the kids ate her alive. She couldn’t teach academic classes because those kids ate her alive. So to save her sanity, she was only given honors classes. They ate her alive because many of these kids were disdainful of her intellect. But they ate her alive without throwing stuff at her or throwing stuff (or her) out the window. She won Teacher of Excellence in some New York State competition.

The above are just some examples of bad teachers. Without exception they all had tenure. That one exception – the crier – received tenure after his third year. My understanding is that he became a principal. He was on his way to the top! For all I know he could be a superintendent of schools now.

The unknowledgeable in educational matters, meaning non-teachers, would think that those “old” pros had merely lost the ability to teach or just got bored and allowed the kids to run rampant.

Not so.

Teachers who were bad before tenure were bad after tenure. So I ask you this? How the hell did these bad teachers get tenure? You had good teachers before tenure who became great teachers after tenure, yes, that is true, because they gradually learned the secrets of success – but they were good to start with. The bad stayed bad. No bad teacher in my wealth of experience ever became a good teacher.

There was only one exception to my tenure rule (Scobe’s rule: bad stays bad) and that was one teacher at my high school who was a brilliant man, loved by students, who went stock-raving mad after 25 years of teaching. The teaching didn’t drive him mad; his divorce from his wife did; it sent him over the edge. He started taking everything out on his students. His classes became rants. He was fired after he poured ketchup and mustard on a student’s head after the student said something he didn’t like in the cafeteria. The student got drenched then beat up the teacher. The student was not thrown out of school; in fact he was a hero to some students for pounding the living shit out of this poor guy. The teacher was a nerdy type; not much of a fighter. Still the teacher was fired.

A second tenured teacher halfway through his 37th year – he was still a good teacher now mind you – reached out and grabbed a girl’s breasts while teaching his lesson. “These are nice,” he said squeezing them. He disappeared 10 minutes later and was never seen again. But he left when he was still a good teacher – although obviously something snapped inside his head (whichever head you think that was).

I have no idea why teachers who didn’t have it, got it – tenure I mean. I just don’t really recall teachers going from good to bad after tenure. The great teachers – and I did know some great teachers at Lawrence High School – never just became “okay.” They were great before tenure and great after tenure.

I am not a cheerleader for public education but I can say tenure is necessary – otherwise I would never have had a teaching career. You see, when I was a new teacher I was fired from my first job. I didn’t even finish my second year after having (dare I say this) a somewhat physical altercation with my principal. He thought I was a good teacher but he couldn’t stand me because I was – and this is the truth – an arrogant bastard. I also taught stuff he didn’t think I should teach. Even when he told me not to teach it; I taught it. As I said, I was arrogant and, yes, I know this now – I was stupid.

On my second job at Lawrence High School, once again I alienated some administrators who had the ear of some Board of Education members. My science fiction club did a comic book “Lawrenceman” that teachers and kids liked but that the administration hated. I made everyone who joined my club a “president” (they had to pay for the position) so it would look good on their college transcripts. We didn’t hide this fact. I had giant signs all over the school telling students to join and become the president. In fact, some of the major colleges wrote me little notes telling me how much fun it was to see a teacher enjoying his career and to keep sending them my presidents. I even allowed teachers, custodians, and secretaries to become members but they could only pay to be vice-presidents.

I barely squeaked by to get tenure – and if I didn’t get tenure at Lawrence, I would never get another teaching job. I’d be blackballed.

You see, before I was hired at Lawrence I went on six interviews and as soon as I told the principal the fact that I had been fired – I never hid that – I didn’t get the job. At Lawrence, four people became my strong supporters after I taught a sample lesson: Greg Monahan, chairman; Edwin Krawitz, principal; Lenore Israel, great teacher; Gabe Uhlar, great teacher and also the kids of the class I taught. The school – and the students – took a chance on me, and thanks to them I actually had a career.

Still, I only got tenure by one vote. Over my career tenure protected me.

Tenure protected other controversial teachers too. We had teachers who were socialists; ultra-conservatives, libertarians, religious nut cases, but all damn good in a classroom. Our school thrived because of these people; it certainly didn’t thrive because of the bad teachers. These were great teachers – before and after tenure – but some of them were outspoken; they were fighters. Certainly, those bad teachers never had to worry about being fired; but the firebrands did. Tenure protected them. It protected me. And it gave students great teachers from which to learn.

Bottom line, I whole-heartedly believe in tenure but, come on, teachers have three years to show their stuff – their teaching stuff – and if they just don’t have it then they shouldn’t get tenure.

Tenure is great because it is a method of protecting those who should be protected; but it is a disgrace to give someone tenure who is not now and will never be a competent teacher.

[Read my new book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]

Thirty-Three Years Before the Class

Teachers are going back to school now and on the Facebook pages so many of them are expressing great joy about going back and great joy about meeting their students. What is wrong with these people?

Now I taught for 33 years. Since I’ve started posting on Facebook, many of my former students have written or emailed me saying that I was a good teacher (actually “great” is the word many of them used but I am a humble man; kind of like Moses who was the “humblest man in the world” so I won’t brag).

One former student mentioned that I really never had discipline problems in my class.

Well, that is true and not true. In 33 years, I never had to send a kid to the Dean of Students; I never wrote a disciplinary referral on a kid; and I don’t think I ever yelled at a kid. Of course, I did have some kids that were not easy to handle; two of whom I must say honestly I despised; a Neanderthal beast of a girl and a jittery, demented, poisonous snake of a boy.

The monstrous brute of a girl always tried to take the class away from me.

If you think of your class as a string orchestra, then I was the lead string instrument. I wanted everyone to follow my rhythm. A disruptive student, your average, everyday shit head in other words, would try to take that rhythm from you. If such a ploppy did that, you would lose control of the class and, perhaps, have a battle on your hands all year. No teacher wants to battle students though many feel as if they are forced into such battles.

I always felt that my problem students were my problems and I never wanted any administrators to ever (ever, ever) be involved with me. For two reasons, if I couldn’t handle a student, how could someone who fled the classroom handle that student? I also felt it was a sign of defeat to allow a student to defeat me. Two simple reasons.

So this bulbous female barbarian would always make comments and try to take the classroom rhythm from me and bring it to her. Keep this in mind. I never worried about a kid who cracked a joke at my expense. If the joke were funny I laughed. If it weren’t funny I just rolled my eyes, looked at a few other kids in the class as if to say, “God is he an idiot!” (That, of course, connected me to those particular students; gave us a bond so to speak.)

She — S-H-E — was hard to contain. I didn’t crush her until February. That was a long, long time. I was teaching something or other and she just shouted out, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I could feel the tension shoot through the students. Would this be the moment I sent a disciplinary referral for being so insulted by such a hellhound? Hell no. When she said, “Scobe, you’re a dick!” I just turned to her and said casually, “Use my first name, Big!” The class exploded in laughter and this beast was finished for the rest of the year. (These were seniors, not little kids.) She could find no one who wanted to listen to her after that slaughter.

You can read more about her in my book “The Virgin Kiss” as well as some other interesting (and insane) students I taught.

The boy was off the wall. The brute of a girl picked her shots to go after me, but this guy was wired at all times. Tall and skinny, eyes blazing, he had no control over himself. Luckily, his string instrument was broken so he could not even attempt to dominate the class. In addition, not only did I despise him but so did every student in the class. Usually students enjoy watching maniacs acting like maniacs but no one enjoyed this creep.

Finally one day just before the Christmas holiday one of the football players in my class – a big and I mean a really BIG kid – turned to slinky and said, “You open your fucking mouth again and I am going to rip your fucking heart out of your fucking chest.” He meant it too because this football player had a reputation for being violent. He and I got along great. And what happened to wired-up slinky? He started cutting and finally never showed his face. No loss.

I will say that I did like most of my students – and I taught around 6,000 of them. There were only a few I truly disliked. I never let them know it. But in the car on the way to school I would act out scenarios so I wouldn’t act them out in class. “Timmy, you are the stupidest fucking jerk I have ever seen. Is your mother an ape or something?”

Of course, I never said this to Timmy. I never “looked it” to Timmy. As far as Timmy was concerned, I liked him. Generally the Timmys liked me or, at least, they were neutral towards me.

I do not deny that I now feel I had a meaningful teaching career thanks to my former students who have written to me. I didn’t always feel that way. Often I thought, “What the hell am I doing here? I’m throwing sand into the wind. I’m supposed to be a famous writer; not some teacher slogging through a mundane career.” Well, that sand seems to have had an effect.

But let’s be serious. Only a teacher knows the truth of the following statement: Teaching is a bitch! It is really, really hard work. It is draining. You are on the line every minute of every class – every second of every class.

One of my teacher friends, the late Gene Brown (who died way too young) used to say, “We are selling a product they don’t want.” For most kids that would be true. The kids on their way to Harvard often think of their teachers as stepping stones to good grades. The kids on the way to the streets thought of their teachers as idiots suppressing the students’ enjoyment of causing chaos.

The others? Just wandering through their teenage years which can indeed be very tough years.

I saw many people come from other professions into teaching; from business, law, nursing, law enforcement and then get their asses kicked. Kids can be sharks. They smell blood and the teacher gets eaten. It was not unusual to see some teachers – and some of these new teachers were prized at their former jobs – come into the teachers’ lounge and cry. Don’t think just women; mind you, men too – often real man’s man types of men.

You had to be damned good at teaching just to be competent. So those teachers expressing rapture at the thought of going back to the classroom also know, “Christ it is going to be some haul.” The best of the best teachers think this. Those who get daily buffets know this in a really, really profound way. Why? Because they can be torn apart and have been torn apart. They can be crushed by students just as I had crushed that brute of a girl.

So I do salute the teachers who are going back to one of the toughest jobs imaginable. I also know that many people who have never taught in a public school think what teachers do is easy. Well, come on folks, step into the lions’ den and see how you do.

I’ve spoken before audiences of 1,500 people. No sweat. I’ve written 35 books. No sweat. I’ve been on television plenty of times. No sweat. But I have also sat up on Labor Day weekend, knowing that the next week I would face young men and women that I had to teach; that I had to control; that I had to try to make their high school experiences worth their while. In short, I had some of their life in my hands. You bet I sweated.

So I salute all our teachers’ courage and dedication.

[Read my book Confessions of a Wayward Catholic!]