I was a teacher in public schools for eleven years. I estimate that I never failed a student in my career as a teacher. I always gave a student at least a D-, even though he or she clearly had not earned a passing grade. Thus, when I hear the politicians demanding that social promotion be stopped and that teachers and students should be held accountable and so on and on, I sympathize with teachers and rejoice that I left the profession when I did; for if I were still teaching, I would continue to promote for social reasons, the administration’s policies to the contrary notwithstanding.
I favor social promotions for a number of reasons but the main one is that I was the recipient of social promotions; and as I look back upon those who gave me a grade and upon the likely consequences of their not having done so and upon the consequences of their having done so, I can attest that their grade from the heart was not given in vain. To the contrary, The gift made all the difference in my life and the babying of me by them did not ruin me or result in any detriment to society.
Measured by grades, I was never a good student in public schools. I had no trouble passing, however, until I reached junior high school, when I failed algebra and Spanish. In spite of the F’s, I was allowed to go to high school with my class. In high school, I failed history and had to repeat it. And I received numerous D’s, some of them gifts, I am sure. Mr. Steadman, who taught trigonometry, a passing grade in which I needed to graduate with my class, called me to his desk in the last week of school and told me that he was going to pass me but that I should not for that reason believe that I knew a D’s worth of the subject. The longer I live the more important I see Mr. Steadman’s social promotion.
The biggest gift that I received, however, was from Virgil Flynn, principal of Roosevelt Junior High School in Charleston, WV. It was in 1933 when I was in the seventh grade. At the time, my parents and sisters and I lived at 1520 Jackson St., just a half block from the school. In March of that year FDR called for a bank holiday and after the holiday many banks did not re-open owing to insolvency. One of those banks was my father’s employer. The situation then was that my dad had no job and he and my mother were on the verge of a divorce after years of dissension. I was distressed and preoccupied with familial and personal troubles and I yearned to go early to visit my grandparents where I had spent all my summers since age two and where I knew in my heart that I could find peace, purpose and prospects.
So on my own, I went to Mr. Flynn’s office and told him my story and how I wished to escape to go to live with my grandparents then, even though there was six more weeks of school. Mr. Flynn got out my report card and before me filled it out with C’s in every subject and wished me well; that is, he socially promoted me in every subject that I was taking for a six-week period. And owing to the financial difficulties at home, I didn’t return to school until six weeks after it had begun the next fall.
I graduated from high school in May, 1939, ranked in the bottom quarter of my class. In the fall of 1939, I entered Morris Harvey College when it was located in the old library building. At the end of the semester, I received four F’s and a D-, no social promotion there. In addition to my addiction to day dreaming, I was in the throes of first love during that semester and I spent most of my time dreaming of floating away on a cloud to some utopia with my love. The earth and its realities I found difficult to cope with. My inner person was in a state of turmoil and disintegration.
When Pearl Harbor was attacked, I was in music school dreaming of becoming a world renown pianist. Three days after Pearl Harbor, I enlisted in the Army Air Corps, where I met face to face for four years with realty in its starkest aspects. I saw the world and returned unhurt, wiser, integrated, disciplined and motivated. Thus, with my new person and with the GI Bill, I returned to Morris Harvey in January of 1945 and ended the semester with one A and four B’s.
But cheating at Morris Harvey was rampant. The chemistry final test was available a week before it was given, one temptation that I walked away from. Good students were besieged by poor students for assistance such as writing papers for them. So I decided to seek a better academic atmosphere.
In June, 1945, after inquiry, I went to Washington and Lee University to talk with Dean Gillian. He had reviewed my credentials and had concluded that I was not capable of meeting the standards there. He pointed particularly to my standing in my high school class. I argued that I was a changed person and that I needed a chance to prove myself. He relented and put me on probation: I was to enter summer school in July and earn at least a C in two subjects in order to continue there in the fall. I did better. I made an A in history and a B in English.
When I graduated in June, 1949, I was an honor student. I had been elected to Phi Beta Kappa in my junior year and I graduated summa cum laude. And in my senior year I was chosen by the school as a candidate for a Rhodes Scholarship, for which I was not chosen. Nevertheless, I was considered worthy and I went to Richmond to participate in the competition. Honor enough for a student who had failed his first attempt at college.
George W. Bush’s grating repetition of his mantra of accountability, responsibility, and consequences with regard to education is hogwash. The saying that one can take a horse to water but that he cannot make him drink is pertinent to education. If a child is healthy of mind and body, normally self-possessed and motivated, he or she will learn in spite of poor schools; but if he or she isn’t, there is little the best schools can do except to help the child to health, self-possession and motivation, and wait. Social promotion helps. Competition in education should be with oneself and no one else.
During the four years I was in the army, I changed; I became integrated, disciplined and I developed a desire for education and established educational goals. The change made the difference between failure and success.