What My Teachers Taught Me About Living in a Time of Taunts, Lies and Injustice
Updated: Dec 22, 2018
Novelist John Steinbeck once wrote that a great teacher exposes students to “the truth, that dangerous stuff” in ways that allow them to see it as “beautiful and very precious.”
But what makes the truth stick? And how do you teach respect for it in today’s climate of rageaholic politics,
the wholesale embrace of “alternative facts," and a growing disregard for objective reality?
As I prepare to fly to Seattle for a class reunion in a few weeks, I'm reminded of how my teachers at Franklin High School taught the truth by speaking and acting from diverse experiences and compelling realities.
When I entered Franklin in 1965 it was a big multiracial, multiethnic, inner-city school with high spirits and streetwise edge. And Frank Fujii, art teacher and assistant basketball coach, was the coolest of cats. He played cool jazz in his classroom, walked with a bebop strut, and sank old-fashioned two-handed set shots from half-court territory with deadly precision.
He also knew about the damage false narratives can do. Frank was among the some 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry, mainly American citizens, that President Franklin Roosevelt order “relocated” to barbed-wired camps that dotted the West as national security fears collided with race-based suspicions to fever the country after the outbreak of World War II.
What makes the truth stick? And how do you teach respect for it in today’s climate of rageaholic politics?
Despite having endured the taunts and lies of that hateful moment, Frank leavened his advice to us not with bitterness, but the ground truth of experience that makes a great teacher appear clairvoyant to the young.
When my pathetic basketball skills drew jeers from locker-room critics, a major deal when you’re 15, I told Frank I couldn't take it—I was quitting the sophomore team. Frank joked softly that I couldn't quit—the team needed my height. And then from a deeper place he advised me not to give up just because times were tough.
Lo and behold, the jibes abated, and by 1968 I was the proud member of a varsity squad that clinched a city title. Frank had seen the future! The thrill of adolescent victory faded quickly enough but what stuck was the truth Frank helped me see: Lose your heart to a bully and you’ll always be swapping future possibilities for the fool’s gold of temporary comfort.
When Roberto Maestas came to teach Spanish at Franklin in 1966, school administrators insisted he shave off his beard and mute what they saw as a rebellious spirit. He kept both his whiskers and his exuberance. Then, in March of 1968, when a newly formed Black Student Union chapter staged a sit-in that rattled Seattle’s white-dominated status quo, Roberto supported the students. School authorities agreed to modest reforms, but not before city authorities resorted to strong-arm tactics of the type Black Lives Matters activists and others face in this country today.
When he saw those kids standing up for their rights, acting so bravely, Roberto told me years later, it amplified his quest to defend the rights of the marginalized and the oppressed. He went on to become a prominent Seattle-based civil rights leader and cofounded El Centro de la Raza, a still-thriving community center.
Unreasoned, unsubstantiated fear of the other is the opposite of patriotism.
Roberto’s fire and fight left their marks. For one thing, he threw the sharpest elbows of any pick-up basketball player I’d ever met—and I loved him for it. More to the point, a white kid like me learned to begin testing the hand-me-down ideas and biases of my working-class upbringing against the changes the struggle for civil rights had delivered to the halls of Franklin.
Biology teacher Don Iverson spoke up for change at Franklin, too. Son of a Finnish farming community in Western Washington, he came equipped with a mischievous grin and an unshakable sense of fairness in his heart. He later taught in a high school on the Olympic Peninsula, where he had the courage to challenge small-town attitudes in support of his Native American students. Like Roberto and Frank, Don modeled a truth still lamentably salient today—that the exercise of unreasoned, unsubstantiated fear of the other is the opposite of patriotism.
Don taught from the heart and gut. “I was always a misfit,” he told me in a 2005 conversation. “But when I became myself I found out I fit better in the world by not being something I wasn’t.”
Having lived as an outsider, he could honor the differences in others and in so doing dispelled fears in his students about what happens when you set yourself off from the crowd. Advice like that doesn’t leave you and, lucky for me, Don remained a mentor until his death in 2014.
“Three real teachers in a lifetime is the very best of luck,” wrote Nobel laureate-to-be Steinbeck in his 1955 ode to teaching. Guided by his teachers, he said, “the horizons sprung wide and fear went away and the unknown became knowable.”
As luck would have it, I had more than three “real” teachers at Franklin, but Frank, Roberto and Don led the way, not by fetishizing the rulebook, but by living their lives in ways that clarified the links between objective fact and larger truths. They showed us how seeing the world as it is means pulling on someone else’s shoes and walking around in them for a while; how real-world education requires the stamina to seek out the look and feel of things beyond the gated communities of the mind.
So as I head for my reunion in Seattle, I’ll be remembering my teachers for the spirited ways in which they underscored a belief in the “beautiful and very precious” truths the better angels of our national makeup still encourage us to hold as self-evident.
This post is based, in parts, on unpublished remarks to the Academy of Distinguished Teachers at the University of Texas at Austin. (Photo at top: Roberto Maestas, Frank Fujii and author at a 2008 reunion event at Franklin High School. Photo courtesy of an unidentified but appreciated classmate photographer.)