In August of 1967 I was working for a company that manufactured storage containers for the moving and storage industry. I had set up a plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin. My boss told me that he wanted me to do the same thing in North Carolina, Belgium, California and Israel. I told him that my wife was due very soon with our first child. He said not to worry. The police would take care of it.
I certainly was not going to allow the police to take care of it. I had an interesting conversation with the owner of the company. I told him about some body orifices he could shove a 2 x4 into. Somehow he did not see that as a good thing to do. I left as soon as I could and headed back home. As I was driving, I realized that I did not have a job and that we were going to have a child in two months.
Carol and I spent the rest of the day trying to figure out what to do. I had just quit a job that was paying me quite well with no hope of getting a new job in a hurry. I was in a real tight spot. We really did not have much dough saved up. We had put down 5k as a down payment on our house the previous year and even with both of us working part of the previous year, Carol had resigned to take care of herself and the new baby that was about to be born. I decided that I needed to get back into education. I had left in a snit and really was not finished with that part of my life.
I got a hold of a list of school districts that surrounded Philadelphia. I began to call every school district on the list (including Philly). The new school year was about to start and there was only a slim chance that some school district might need a social studies or English teacher. On about my fiftieth phone call I got a nibble. The Bristol Township School District did think that they needed an English teacher at one of their junior high schools, Franklin D. Roosevelt. I was told to contact the principal, one Joseph Ruane and set up an appointment.
Joe Ruane was about to become an important part of my life. I got onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike and rode to the last exit in Pennsylvania before it connected with the Jersey Turnpike. I arrived at Franklin D. Roosevelt Junior High School and began an interview with Joe and Frank O’Donnell. They were in a pinch because an English teacher had just resigned with very little notice. The interview was short and to the point. I got the job and was told to report the following week for a one day in-service program. They directed me to the central office of the Bristol Township Schools, called the Harry S. Truman building. I filled out some papers and left for home.
Since we had not cell phones at the time, I came home and told Carol that I was now gainfully employed. She asked me some simple questions like, what is your salary, do you have any benefits, and things like that. I had no idea, but being employed was the best that I could do. Other than that, I would find out the details later on.
At that point, Carol was about four weeks from giving birth on September 19th. The beginning of my tenure at FDR began with little fanfare. I taught English to 7th and 8th graders. They were pretty anxious learners for the most part and we had some fun. The overwhelming number of students came from blue collar families who worked at the Fairless Hills Steel complex up the road or at the Rohm and Haas chemical factory.
Without going through the sociology of the “Levittowners” there were bouts of strife when people were laid off. Many of these conflicts arose between white and black kids. There were two communities in this Levittown community that were essentially African American. There was Kingswood Park, a leftover set of houses from World War II and Red Rose ( not the real name). It was the difference in socio-economic status between the two groups. That difference caused friction within the African American community, as well as between African Americans and working class whites.
I had a feeling, as I was teaching in that first year, that things were not going well. Joe and Frank were pretty strict disciplinarians. They were not people to trifle with. However, as I learned later from these two men, this was a totally different experience for both of them. As the year went on, conflict arose in a neighboring 9-10 building called Delhaas and spilled over into our junior high school.
By this time, Carol had given birth to our son Marc and was not going to Temple University to complete her Master’s Degree in guidance counseling. In the spring of 1968, she continued to take some courses, while I remained home to watch Mr. Marc. At some point during those years, I had decided that I wanted to go into administration. I had begun to take courses that would lead me to a Master’s Degree in educational administration and certification as a secondary school principal.
At the beginning of the 1968-69 school year, I was appointed as chair of the English department. As I look back at it now, I realize that Joe and Frank had a plan in mind for me. This position had a bit of free time assigned to it. In my mind, I was now in charge of getting the kids to read on grade level. I had no idea how difficult that would be. I had a team of about 14 teachers, some of whom had no use for me as an interloper.
We worked out some pretty interesting ways of getting kids to read. I told Joe that I needed money to buy some new materials that the kids would like. After a time, he gave me permission to buy them. To this day, I am not sure that the materials made any difference. However, it did stimulate the staff to work with the kids in a new way. Fortunately, I had a reading specialist, who was really in tune with the students and the teachers. She became one of my staunchest supporters.
As the year went by, racial tension grew. I had an idea that we might form some sort of student group that might forestall some of the graver conflicts in the school. I called it the Intergroup Council. It did, in fact, calm things down a bit, but in April of 1968, the death of Martin Luther King, Jr. caused eruptions that echoed in the country as a whole.
Fortunately, at the beginning of the second semester I was given a student teacher. She was a terrific young woman. I watched her as she developed into a fine teacher. Later, as I became something other than a teacher, she took my place.
However, in the spring of 1969, I left the classroom for the last time. Three staff members, one of whom was me, were taken out of their classrooms to wander the halls of the junior high and try and keep the place calm. In some ways, we were kind of policing the school. Most of the students were fine, but a small group, both black and white, caused disruption in the cafeteria, bathrooms, gymnasiums and other gathering places.
The year ended with a giant sigh. There were some surprises for both me and Joe Ruane. Joe was moved to the 9-10 building and I was appointed Human Relations Coordinator. I was the point person for intergroup relations, integration of elementary schools and generally information gatherer for the superintendent of schools.
I was also mandated to go to training at the Boston University School of Human Relations. We had begun a training program by Max Birnbaum of Boston University, who worked with teaching staff, community members and police. I was given the opportunity to be involved with Max who was a champion of applied human relations. This program was not a touchy feely approach, which was the flavor of the day in the late ‘60s.
This program was a child of the National Training Labs of the 1930’s that approached human relations in a rational and day to day method. It required some really tough conversation and working through people’s prejudices. It was a tough training program. I am not sure how effective it was for others, but it did influenced the way I worked with the community and also with the police. They have become part of me since that time.
The conflicts continued into the 9-10 building. The 8th graders from the previous year at FDR began problems almost from the first day. It became so problematic, that at the middle of the year, administrators from other buildings were called over to patrol the hallways.
My job was to work with the 9-10 newly constituted Intergroup Council, create a community Intergroup Council, work with the police, and see what was going on in the communities.
That was almost a 24 hour a day job. It was tiring, frustrating and interference in our lives. By the fall of of 1969, we were blessed with our second child, Dara. She was born with a full head of black hair and some pretty sharp nails, which she dug into my neck from time to time. We did manage to cut them a week or so after she came home.
It was during that school year of 1969-70, that I made a very bad mistake that could have cost me my life and the life of my son.
Sometime in the spring of 1970, as things began to heat up at the 11-12 building, I was called by the superintendent to come to a meeting in the evening at a community building in Levittown. The problem with that evening was that I had promised Carol that I would be home to take care of Marc. I cannot seem to remember why that was so, because Dara must have been with Carol. Maybe there was some event that she had to go to also and we went our separate ways.
By that time Marc was about 2.5 years old. So, I put him in the car seat and trucked my way over to the community building. I was under the impression that the superintendent and a number of board members and central office types would be there.
I threw Marc over my shoulder and walked into the building. What I did not tell you was who the people were in the audience. This was to be a kind of peace discussion with the National Socialist White People’s Part, the Tristate NAACP, the Black Panthers and the Ku Klux Klan. I guess I was dopey for taking my son and even more dopey for being the only one from the school district.
I could not believe that I was the only one there. I was fortunate that there were some people there who knew me. That was my only consolation. So, if I was the only one from the school district there, I guess it was my job to run the meeting. I had absolutely no idea of what was going on or what I was going to do. I still had Marc on my shoulder. Thankfully, one of the people there was a woman from the African American community that I knew pretty well. She offered to hold Marc while I ran the meeting.
I asked people to introduce themselves. There were about 40 people there. Most of them did introduce themselves, while a few did not even acknowledge that I was speaking. After a while, I encouraged the attendees to give their opinions about what we could do the help the situation. Strangely enough, the majority of the people felt that drugs had a great deal to do with what was going on. I had some information from the police that confirmed those suspicions. That kind of calmed the waters a little and we proceeded to talk about how we might be able to stop the students from rioting and start them on their way to graduation and a good life.
Frankly, I was surprised at the outcome. I guess the training that I had gotten at the Boston University School of Human Relations had a hand in helping me.
The meeting ended in about an hour and a half. I had no idea if I had done any good. However, I was really angry. How dare the school people leave me alone like that? That will be for another time. I thanked the woman who had held Marc and took his sleeping body over my shoulder and got into my car and drove home. It wasn’t till a few days later that I realized that I could have been done away with right there. I have a feeling that having Marc on my shoulder was a good thing for both of us.