Mr. Scott expected us to earn our way

May 12, 2007|By GREGORY KANE

I'll bet Walter Carr and I aren't the only ones inquiring about Calvin Scott.

Walter e-mailed me Wednesday, just a few days after we'd met for his mother Janet Carr's homegoing service at Mount Hebron Baptist Church on West North Avenue. Mrs. Carr, a lovely, elegant woman with a gentle spirit, died a week earlier. Walter flew in from San Diego for the service. At the repast afterward, we reminisced about our days as classmates at what was then Harlem Park Junior High School, where Calvin Scott was our ninth- grade English teacher.

"Let me know by e-mail or phone call anything you learn about Mr. Scott," Walter said in his e-mail.

Mr. Scott was part of a superb cadre of teachers -- others included Bill Golden and Robert Drain -- at Harlem Park. Mr. Scott was never "Calvin Scott" to us. He'll always be "Mr. Scott," the tough, erudite English teacher with the even tougher standards. Walter said he wanted to get in touch with Mr. Scott so he could thank him for being one of the best teachers he ever had.

I definitely seconded that motion. When I entered his English class in September 1965, Scott challenged me -- and I suspect the rest of my classmates -- in ways we'd never been challenged before.

"I don't give out E's," Scott told us. At the time an "E" meant that you had a grade average of 90 points or better. Our class designation -- 9D2 -- meant we were supposed to be the second-ranked ninth- grade class in the school, right behind our counterparts in the hated 9A1. Some of us were quite used to getting E's. Now here Scott was saying he didn't give the things out?

That's exactly what he said. And he meant it. But by the time June 1966 rolled around, I became probably the first Scott student to get an E. It required me reading all of Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and writing a book report on the novel to do it, but I got the E.

After seeing the unexpected E on my report card during the last quarter of the 1965-1966 school year, it dawned on me what Mr. Scott was saying: It wasn't that he didn't give out E's. It was that a student was going to have to work pretty darned hard to earn one in his class.

But it wasn't just reading and writing a book report on Great Expectations that got me my E. Memorizing and reciting several passages from William Shakepeare's Julius Caesar -- another of Mr. Scott's requirements -- helped, too. So did winning a debate that Mr. Scott had arranged.

Mr. Scott kind of "volunteered" Walter and me to be the pro team in a debate on teen curfews. Our opponents were two of our classmates from 9D2. The experience no doubt helped Walter more than me: he went on to become a detective in the San Diego Police Department before pursuing a career in acting. Walter developed impeccable diction, in part because of parents who insisted he speak the English language properly, and in part because of a ninth-grade English teacher who required him not only to read Shakespeare but to quote Shakespeare.

I don't think Mr. Scott could have gotten away with that today. Shakespeare is regarded, in some circles, not as one of the greatest playwrights who ever took a pen to paper but as one of those dead white males whose works are part of a "Eurocentric" education that needs to be consigned to the dustbins of history.

Mr. Scott's constant refrain to class 9D2 -- that we "weren't ready" -- probably wouldn't pass muster either. He would no doubt be accused of damaging our self-esteem, which is a precious commodity in today's educational system. But Mr. Scott was simply telling us the truth: He wasn't saying we weren't as smart as we were purported to be; he was saying we weren't as prepared as we could be.

His job was to prepare us, and he did it well. Walter noticed it -- and no doubt appreciated it -- years later when he was still with the San Diego Police Department.

"When I taught at the police academy," Walter told me when I visited him in San Diego several years ago, "we'd get cadets -- college graduates -- who couldn't spell or string together an intelligent sentence. And it was across the board: black, white, Asian, Hispanic."

Students who couldn't spell or string an intelligent sentence together wouldn't have lasted one quarter in Mr. Scott's class. He had a method for dealing with students who couldn't cut the mustard or live up to standards.

He called it "flunking them."

That, too, might have made Mr. Scott a teaching persona non grata these days. But there are at least two of his former students who would like to give him a shout out if he's still alive and happily retired.

And they would like to ask for his blessings if he's gone to that great ninth-grade English class in the sky.

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