I've been teaching for 11 years in public school in Pennsylvania, and because of the turnover in the profession, I am now one of the oldest men my large department. I'm 42. That's not that old by comparison to my colleagues in their 20's and early 30's, but I'm still "middle aged" by their definition. I never quite thought I'd ever be middle aged. But there you go.
When I started teaching, I was surrounded by people in my department much older than I. Most of these veterans had witnessed the massive transformations of youth from about 1964 to 1974, back when it felt as if the power to create order within an institution was transferred from the adults to the children. One of these longtime faculty members, an old, tough man born from Pennsylvania Dutch, said that it was as if the children went home at the end of one school year and came back the next autumn, radically transformed. Nothing could hold their attention, and none of them took authority seriously. Nothing had any relevance to them anymore. The Age of Aquarius had belatedly arrived to a working class neighborhood outside Philadelphia. He said teachers had to go with the new wave of being or simply not survive. The school became an open campus. Students rewrote curriculum. He used "USSR" (uninterrupted, sustained, silent reading) in which students could simply bring in anything they wanted to read in class. He adapted, but many didn't and found it impossible and left.
Ralph Baker #51 played at linebacker for the Jets during 1964-74, those years of transformation, and like Rogers Alexander, he came from Penn State, though when Joe Paterno was only an assistant. He arrived with the Jets the year before Joe Namath was drafted and left a decade later without having to witness the very worst of Joe's last seasons in Flushing. Baker arrived in New York at a time when you could be forgiven for not sensing the cultural shift to come, and left probably knowing that something profound had already happened.
A pair of turnovers among the 21 he netted in his career with the Jets seem like anchors to this story. One is from 1968, the year of our AFL Championship. With 3:16 left in the AFL Title Game against the Raiders, Daryle Lamonica connects successfully with Fred Bilentnikoff and then throws for Warren Wells, who pulls back, catches the pass, is tackled and then hit late by Jim Hudson, whose 15 yard penalty then puts the Raiders half the distance from the goal line.
LSpear76RCN has cleverly reconstructed portions of the game's original NBC audio with Jim Simpson and Al DeRogatis and illustrated it with the NFL Films' recap. What happens next at 3:31 of the clip is that Lamonica inexplicably throws a lateral pass that goes behind Charlie Smith, perhaps because of the Shea wind. The ball falls to the ground but is still considered free since it's behind the line of scrimmage. Lamonica knows it, though Smith does not appear to. Ralph Baker knows it, too. He picks up the ball and travels with it downfield into the end zone. It was not advanceable, so the Jets simply got the ball back from where Baker recovered. Had Lamonica gotten to the ball, we might still be speaking of Jim Hudson's blunder the way we do of Gastineau's late hit in 1987. Thank you, Ralph Baker. Somewhere in the midst of my embryonic world, I might have felt my mother leap to her feet when you recovered the ball that Lamonica had thrown so carelessly into the Shea swirl.
Then in 1974, as the Jets are making their late season surge, they are facing the Buffalo Bills at Shea on what appears to be a warm but wet December spell, where the rain has turned the unmanaged field into a muddy glop. The Jets went ahead late in the fourth quarter on a really desperate throw from Joe Namath to Jerome Barkum. Then Joe Ferguson throws an interception caught off a deflection by Ralph Baker, who, in his eleventh season, in what can only be described as middle age for a football player, takes it 67 yards downfield for a touchdown. Scroll to 6:09 in the clip. The score clinches the win for the Jets, 20-10. As the oldest player on the defense, Baker is mobbed by his teammates beyond the end zone.
Ralph Baker retired after the '74 season. What came after is something of a mystery to me, and only fascinating for where it places him and me, as high school educators.
According to Wikipedia (the only name in my students' research) in 1979, Ralph Baker "was hired as Vice Principal of the Chief Logan High School in Mifflin County, Pennsylvania. The period marked a time of trouble within the rebellious student body." As it is always a patchwork of information gleaned from a variety of scarcely checked sources, Wikipedia is filled with things like this. What was this trouble? What had happened? It doesn't say.
The answer seems to come from an account of Baker's tenure at Chief Logan, originally written in 1994 by someone named Caesar Pink, a musical artist and a '79 graduate of Chief Logan. He portrays the children of the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era as disrupting everything institutional around them for no reason other than to create disorder for its own sake. Enter Ralph Baker:
One of the defining factors in this drama was the faculty's decision at the beginning of my senior year to reestablish order and respect for authority among the students. To achieve this they hired a new principal', X-marine sergeant Thomas Best, and am [sic] X-football player who was a member of the New York Jets when they won the superbowel [sic]; vice-princapal [sic] Ralph Backer [sic].
Pink speaks openly about the rampant drug use among students at Chief Logan, at a time when you could openly confront a Vice Principal on a disciplinary issue, the way he apparently did to Ralph Baker in an art class. Vice Principal Ralph Baker, whose hair had grown a bit like Joe Namath’s in his last years in the NFL, was nevertheless a part of a reaction that was beginning to rumble throughout the public schools in the late 70's, an effort to end the experimentation with having the inmates run the asylum.
It sounds like an empty struggle on both sides - an ex-football player acting as an administrator (the way so many of them are), posing as a role model with only his Super Bowl ring as his mark of achievement, facing off against a pothead with drug-addled realizations like this one:
"... as the teacher droned on I found myself thinking about death. I Thought, 'I know I'm going to die so I might as well get out and enjoy life while I can.' "
How profound. Still, Pink adds something truthful to his largely sad account of these generations limply clashing with one another in rural Pennsylvania:
I believe it's true that this nihilism was reflected in the youth of that time. I can tell you firsthand that my classmates didn't have a clue why they acted the way they did. Most of them were strangely unaware of Vietnam or the social revolution. The nihilism was a quiet spirit that snuck in through the unconscious and struck out at society with the giant proclamation of our generation: "So What!"
It's interesting, but when Christian Fundamentalist parents ask me about my curriculum on back-to-school night, they often mention this word nihilism to me, as if by proximity to Catcher in the Rye, their children might catch it. They speak as if it were a disease they fear will return where it once flourished, like polio.
After 1979 came Ronald Reagan and Morning in America, and the insistence that you could avoid drugs by merely saying No. Nineteen seventy-nine might have been one of the last years when Chief Logan High School was considered a haven of this kind of creeping nihilism. The high school I went to in the mid-80's had plenty of drug use, but not in class. Kids smoked pot and did pills in the bathroom and wrapped cars around telephone poles when they drove drunk around the tight corners and hills of my small town. But things were changing. By the time I became a public school teacher in 2000, the tide had fully turned toward restoring order in high school. Suddenly, there were dress codes, behavior referrals, standardized grade books, standardized testing.
Today, if there is attrition among teachers it is largely due to the institution itself and its bureaucratic love of order. The institution is now rigidly defined by the stupidest law since Prohibition - No Child Left Behind - a law that, in its manifestation in Pennsylvania, makes learning less interesting for everyone - teachers, parents and students. Lesson plans are scripted, teaching to the test is mandatory, teaching content is less important than repetitively teaching skills, and developing new ideas in class is less important than having students clinically dissect literature as if it were a rat preserved in formaldehyde.
Trends among students come and go, but at least one of the hallmarks of Pink's account is that there was a sense among young people - albeit ridiculously stoned adolescents - that any institution truly exists only for the purpose of its own self-preservation. If this was true to a teenager then, shouldn't it be particularly evident to their counterparts today? Would it not be advantageous for kids to demand more from their education? And yet, two useless wars later, amid an economy where jobs were long ago sold away to the Third World, I see none of that gleam of righteous indignation among them. Their world is Wikipedia, a patchwork of ideas, without coherence. It almost makes one sentimental for the days of "rebellion" Pink describes.
Though perhaps not. The students I teach are sometimes without manners or apparent self-consciousness, but it doesn't take long to see that their sense of entitlement comes from a lack of intellectual rigor, not from being spoiled. Mostly they want what apparently the children of the old generation of Aquarius didn't - consistency, predictability, affirmation, and the gentle reminder of order. They are different from those in the past who didn't have to struggle with the pervasive cognitive dissonance of the Internet. The class of 1979 may have done a lot of drugs, but for a lot of people the allure of drugs wears off, while the Internet's rewiring of our children's minds is eternal. I would never trade places with a Vice Principal Ralph Baker, arguing with a stoner about detention and suspension across an art classroom, but I still regret that our students are sometimes unaware of their own powers of independent thought.