18. May 2006 · Comments Off on The Dead Hand · Categories: General, History, Media Matters Not, Pajama Game, That's Entertainment!

Once upon a dark and distant time in military broadcasting overseas, the only thing there was in the weekly television broadcast package that resembled daytime talk shows as we now know them was Phil Donahue, which we used to rather enjoy in a mild sort of way. It was occasionally intelligent, mostly interesting, and the host seemed to treat the guests and audience with friendly interest and respect. As such, it was easy to take— the give and take, the various viewpoints and inputs— especially in the small bites dished up on the AFRTS program schedule. How little we knew, that out of this innocent, and fairly innocuous chrysalis would blunder the ilk of Jerry Springer, the king of trailer-trash cat-fights, and the omnipotent Oprah, amongst others to horrible to mention. A mere decade later, we would be channel-surfing the wilderness of mid-day talk shows on the break-room television, looking for the trans-gendered/transvestite hookers which would inevitably be featured on one or another of them during the week – usually by Wednesday, Monday during sweeps week.

But one of the guests featured in the dear, long-gone innocent early days of Phil Donohue, was a veteran teacher who had garnered a small bit of fame by establishing a college-prep academy in the heart of one of the nastier big-city ghettoes. By all accounts, she was a gifted, hard-driving teacher, as demanding as any military TI – and like the TI, had hit upon success by working her charges hard, and keeping them too busy to be any more than exhausted – too exhausted to even think about getting up to counter-productive mischief. By all the print media accounts, she was a miracle worker, transforming academically floundering African-American ghetto kids into well-educated college-intake bound citizens, well-suited to join any freshman class at the more exacting institutes of higher education. To the best of our knowledge, reading the advance Teletips, this was the first time she had appeared on any of the limited television venues available to us overseas, and those of us who had even heard of her were at least a little intrigued.

The miracle-working teacher turned out to be a middle-aged black woman, very thin, very intense, and with very scary, piercing eyes; the eyes of a fanatic, I thought. She seemed to quiver with suppressed emotion; an emotion held on a very tight leash. She was accompanied onto the talk show set by her lawyer, which should have been some kind of clue to her expectations of the whole interview, but somewhat – well, overdrawn, given that the audience was cordial, curious and quite interested in her experience and insights, to judge from the initial questions from the moderator and the audience. It started off well, what with her explaining her goals, methods and intentions; I thought she was being a little more confrontational than the audience merited, what with the lawyer and all, though. I really don’t recall with any precision the actual racial mix of the audience, probably something around the average for this sort of thing, at that point in time, and in that place (Chicago, if memory and Google serve) but again, interested, respectful, polite, and her answers reasonable and well-considered, right up until she fielded a question from a middle-aged white guy about why she had picked Milton’s Paradise Lost as part of the English syllabus; what could that particular work have to say to the average black, inner-city ghetto kid, and how did she go about making it relevant— (that dearly beloved buzzword of the time.)
I thought it was a fair question— Paradise Lost is one of those difficult, old-fashioned classical English-lit texts. I didn’t encounter it myself in any depth at all until college and then only wading in to about shin-deep. There are any number of thoughtful, honest answers to be had to that question: Personally, I thought she may have been trying to best the best of the old-fashioned, beating those rigorous and retro prep-academies at their own game, throwing down an academic challenge, going toe to toe in teaching the classics that are the foundation of Western thought and literary tradition. She would have made points by explaining how she wanted to graduate pupils who were erudite, the equal of anything the well-endowed and exclusive— and expensive—academies could turn out, to prove that her disadvantaged sow’s ears of inner-city materials were capable of being woven into silk purses. She might also have expounded, as did another teacher of the classics that I read of a couple of decades later, who wrote about how he went about teaching the classical core texts to dead-enders and no-hopers, thinking that it would give his students a way to cope with human experience, by giving a means to touch the divine, and thereby becoming fully-realized, thoughtful human beings. Or pointed out (as did another teacher of the classics, possibly the same one, since I have near-perfect recall of the ideas I read about, but not the personnel responsible for them, or the venue that I read of them) that things like the Iliad and the Mort d’Arthur and Beowulf actually spoke with a more resounding voice to inner-city gangster youth than it did to middle-class preppies, what with it’s world of violence, ritual and touchy personal honor. But it appeared that the emotion on a short leash was anger, and the leash was readily snapped.

No, the genius woman teacher, with the fanatic eyes, and the lawyer in tow, took off after the poor, unwary white guy that had asked a seemingly reasonable question. She chewed him up one side, and lectured him down the other, calling him a racist, and several other sorts of horrible, nasty human being for even daring, even presuming to ask that question; having her lawyer along for the ride might have been a good idea, all the way around. The chill on any additional questioning was perceptible; the notion of any more easy and honest and collegiate give-and-take exchange was pretty well killed from that moment on. No one in the audience wanted to hurt anyone’s feelings, or to be screamed at, and called a racist. And so, any number of pertinent or interesting questions were strangled before they were even asked, because no one dared to ask them for fear of being thought rude, or a racist, or whatever, even if the answers to the unspoken questions might be interesting, or relevant. It does no one any favors to not even to dare ask the questions, and open them up for air, and discussion and disputation� never mind answering them -even if the answer is ambiguous.

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