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Hector Isn't The Problem
The country has been sold a bill of goods that the problem of modern schooling is Hector. Thats a demon we face, that misperception. Under its many faces and shape-shifting rhetoric, forced schooling itself was conceived as the frontline in a war against chaos. Horace Mann wrote once to Reverend Samuel May, "Schools will be found to be the way God has chosen for the reformation of the world." School is the beginning of the process to keep Hector and his kind in protective custody. Important people believe with the fervor of religious energy that civilization can only survive if the irrational, unpredictable impulses of human nature are continually beaten back, confined until their demonic vitality is sapped.
Read Merle Curtis Social Ideas of the Great Educators, a classic which will never be allowed to go out of print as long as we have college courses as gatekeeper for teacher certification. Curti shows that every single one of the greats used this Impending Chaos argument in front of financial tycoons to marshal support for the enlargement of forced schooling.
I dont want to upset you, but Im not sure. I have evidence Hector isnt what school and society make him out to be, data that will give a startlingly different picture. During the period when the skating incident and school stickup occurred, Senator Bob Kerrey of Nebraska was putting together an education plank in order to run for his partys presidential nomination. To that end, his office called me to inquire whether I could meet with the Senator to discuss an article I wrote which had been printed in the Congressional Record. It was agreed we would meet for breakfast at Manhattans famous Algonquin Hotel, site of the famous literary Roundtable. Hector and his close friend Kareem would join us.
Our conference lasted three hours without any bell breaks. It was cordial but businesslike with the senator asking hard questions and his assistant, a vivacious attractive woman, taking notes. Hector dominated the discussion. Concise, thoughtful, inventive, balanced in his analysis, graceful in his presentation with the full range of sallies, demurs, illustrations, head-cockings, and gestures you might expect from a trained conversationalist. Where had he learned to handle himself that way? Why didnt he act this way in school?
As time passed, Hector gravitated bit by bit to the chair where the woman I thought to be Kerreys assistant was sitting. Hector perched in a natural posture on its arm, still apparently intent on the verbal give and take, but I noticed he cast a smoldering glance directly down at the lady. By a lucky accident I got a snapshot of him doing it. It turned out she was the movie star Debra Winger! Hector was taking both Washington and Hollywood in stride while eating a trenchermans breakfast at a class hotel! He proved to be a valuable colleague in our discussion too, I think the Senator would agree.
In April of the following year, Hector borrowed fifteen dollars from me to buy pizza for a young woman attending Columbia Universitys School of International Affairs. As far as Hector was concerned, being a graduate student was only her coverin his world of expertise as a knowledgeable student of the comic book industry (and a talented self-taught graphic artist), she was, in reality, a famous writer for Marvel Comics. The full details of their liaison are unknown to me, but a brilliant piece of documentary film footage exists of this young woman giving a private seminar to Hector and Kareem under an old oak tree on the Columbia campus. What emerged from the meetings between writer and diminutive hold-up man was a one-day-a-week private workshop at her studio just north of Wall Street.
In November of that same year, utterly unknown to his school (where he was considered a dangerous moron), all gleaming in white tie, tails and top hat, Hector acted as master of ceremonies for a program on school reform at Carnegie Hall, complete with a classical pianist and a lineup of distinguished speakers, including the cantankerous genius Mary Leue, founder of the Albany Free School, and several of my former students.
The following spring, just after he produced his unblemished record of failure as a high school freshman, Hector came to me with a job application. An award-winning cable television show was packaging kids into four-person production teams to make segments for a television magazine format hour like 60 Minutes. Hector wanted to work there.
I sprang the bad news to him right away: "Your goose is cooked," I said. "Youll sit down in that interview and theyll ask you how youre doing in school. Youll say, Listen, Im failing all my subjects and oh, another thing, the only experience I have with TV is watching it until my eyeballs bug outunless you count the time they filmed me at the police station to scare me. Why would they want to scare me? I think it was because I held up an elementary school and they didnt want me to do it again.
"So youre dead the minute they run your interview on any conventional lines. But you might have a slim chance if you dont follow the form sheet. Dont do what other kids will. Dont send in an application form. Guidance counselors will pass these out by the thousands. Use a typed résumé and a cover letter the way a real person would. And dont send it to some flunky, call up the station, find out who the producer of the show is, say in a letter that youre not the greatest sit-down student in the world because you have your own ideas, but that youve come to understand film through an intense study of comic art and how it produces its effects. All thats true, by the way. Mention casually you have a private apprenticeship with one of the big names in the comic business and that youve done consultation work for the famous Nuyorican Poets Café...."
"I have?" asked Hector.
"Sure. Dont you remember all those times you sat around with Roland chewing the fat when he was trying to shoot his film last year? Rolands one of the founders of the Nuyorican. And toss in your emceeing at Carnegie Hall; that ought to set you apart from the chumps. Now lets get on with that résumé and cover letter. As sure as Im sitting here, theyll only get one cover letter and résumé. That should buy you an interview.
"The only way you can squeak through that interview though is to convince someone by your behavior you can do the job better than anyone else. Theyll be staring the spots off your every move, your clothing, your gestures, trying to see into your soul. Your goose is cooked if you get caught in a grilling."
"You mean Ill shift around," Hector asked, "and get an attitude in my voice, dont you?"
"Right, just before the shifty look comes into your eyes!" I said.
We both laughed.
"So, what do I do?" Hector asked.
"The only thing you can do is quietly take over the interview. By quietly, I mean in a way they wont understand whats happening. You and I will just sit here until we figure out every single question they might ask, and every single need they might have which they wont tell you about, and every single fear they have that some aspect of your nature will screw up their project. Remember theyre not hiring a kid to be nice people, theyre hiring a kid because thats the gimmick of their show. So what you must do is to show by your commanding presence, impeccable manners, vast range of contacts, and dazzling intelligence that their fears are groundless.
"Youre going to show them you love work for its own sake, that you dont watch the time clock, that you can take orders when orders make sense, that you are a goldmine of ideas, that youre fun to be around. Youll have to master all this quickly because I have a hunch youll be called in right after your letter arrives. Can you do it?"
Six weeks later Hector started his new job.
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