Friday, August 3, 2012

Coach V and the Native American Project

And I've been holding onto the gold,
When letting go would free my hands.

 —"The Rifle," Alela Diane

I went to two high schools as a kid. The first was a suburban public school: huge, full of bustle and energy, smart kids and middling kids and weird kids. It was fun, and I liked it, most of the time. The second was a Chicago Catholic high school.

Now, in retrospect, there probably wasn't an insane amount of difference between these institutions, but to adolescent me, the second school was a turd. I had no friends there, it was dingy and weird and unpleasant, and I felt alone in having any kind of intelligence (I wasn't, I discovered later: the smart kids just didn't act the way I expected them to, and I didn't recognize them for a while). Oh, and many of the teachers were hacks.

One such teacher was Coach V, who taught my English III class. Let me break that class down for you a little bit:
  • First, this was a non-honors class, so I was surrounded by and expected to perform at the same level as (what I would have then thought of as) my "intellectual inferiors." (My experience in school inculcated a thoroughgoing elitism in me that I failed to recognize until I hit college. [Translation: I thought I was better than everyone else.]) This was misery. But, to be fair, I probably deserved it.
  • Added to this was the fact that Coach V did not challenge his students very much. We read—in a high school English class in America in the 21st century!—a total of one novel in the course of the school year. A day's lesson would regularly consist of just reading out loud together from a textbook, with little discussion, analysis, or thought required of kids. We'd fill out worksheets. Sometimes, we would watch a movie.
  • Lastly, Coach V was a neglectful teacher: he was laughably bad at returning our work. At the time, I was unexposed to adults who would straight up lie or make promises to children that they had no intention of keeping. So when Coach V would tell us it'd just be a day or two more before our homework was graded, or our grades were calculated, I totally bought it and forgot to notice when work never came back or grades came out months after they should have. Grades were apparently based on Coach V's general feeling about how we were doing, since he clearly hadn't graded most individual assignments. 
At the time of the incident in question, then, Coach V was either sort of a loser, not really cut out to teach English, or he was a lying, manipulative, lazy jerk. I'm about to make the case for the second option. 

Early in the year, Coach V mentioned that we would be doing what he called a "Native American Project." He just let us know that we'd be doing one, and that he liked to keep students' projects to show to next year's classes, even going so far as to show us one from a previous year. He said he was famous in the school for having a really effective way of convincing students to let him keep their projects. And then he went back to his lesson. 

So later in the year, when the Native American unit came around (represented by reading about two short stories about/by Native Americans) everyone was primed for the Native American Project, and we were all "No way am I doing work on this project and letting this guy keep it."

Coach V's Native American Project was assigned as follows: 
  1. We were to go to an "angled street" (not one of the rectangular grid streets that characterize Chicago's layout, but one of the few streets set at diagonals to those streets, like Milwaukee or Elston) becauseand I can neither confirm nor deny this—they were the city's "old Native American trails" paved over and made into streets. 
  2. Once on such a street, we were to purchase something "related to Native American culture"—and here, Coach V held up, I kid you not, a Land O'Lakes butter container, which he claimed a student had brought in for his project the year before. We were not supposed to create something, just, you know, buy it. 
  3. We would bring this item to class, along with the receipt which would demonstrate that we had bought it during the time in which the Native American Project had been assigned, rather than simply brought from home. And then we would explain to the class how our item related to Native American culture. 
So the Native American Project was obviously horse hockey, plain and simple. But it was going to be a little challenging, since the places you could buy things were limited geographically and the things you could buy were limited by the general stupidity of them having to be related to Native American culture, which, c'mon. I'm pretty sure the Land O'Lakes butter thing is related to Native American culture exclusively via cultural stereotypes.

But, Coach V, said—and this was, it turned out, the truly devious part—if we were worried about the difficulty of getting something related to Native American culture under the constraints of having to go to an angled street to do it, there was an easy workaround: just go to this store up on Milwaukee Avenue; he discovered it recently, and it's a store that just specialized in Native American cultural wares!

So, naturally, we all went there. It was the only way to accomplish this ridiculous project without dignifying it with actual effort. I bought a cheaply framed, soft-focus painting of some eagles and Native Americans in feather headdresses or something. It cost $15.

The day of the project presentations came around. I stood up and gave my talk, as did everyone else. (Mind you, I took the project quite seriously: I wrote a nice little essay and expected a good grade for my efforts. My cynicism toward all this came later, though I suspect it was already present for many classmates.) We all gave Coach V our purchased objects, all from the same store, and—and this is crucialthe receipts for said objects along with them. And we never saw them again.

Coach V's famously effective method for persuading his students to let him keep their projects? He never spoke about them. He never offered to return them. If we asked for them back, he politely changed the subject.

Sometime after the end of the school year, a true understanding of the nature of the Native American Project finally clicked into place for me. It changed from a story about an absentminded teacher who forgot to grade papers assigning a silly project and forgetting to return it to us, to a story about a teacher who scammed his students out of hundreds of dollars. My classmates never forgot or forgave: whenever we'd see Coach V in the hall or he would visit one of our classrooms to talk to a teacher, someone would utter an unconvincing cough laced with "Native American Project," or, even better, just straightforwardly shout from the back of a classroom, "Hey Coach, where's that Native American Project, huh?" And Coach V would smile, wave his hands, say hello, even occasionally address our concerns directly and promise the projects would be returned sometime. But they never were.

Coach V was a lying, manipulative, lazy jerk. Fortunately, the school administration forbid him from ever assigning the Native American Project again after my year. And then, a year or two later, they fired him.

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