By Aaron Reiss
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"He accused me of using union money for a vacation," Fallon says, "and for taking money from vendors. God help the vendor who comes in here and asks, 'What can I do to get your business?' I throw them out. I don't mind being criticized for my opinions and my stands on the issues, but you cross the line when you touch on my personal life."
For a woman who often seems the picture of an old-fashioned, give-no-quarter union boss, Gayle Fallon springs from an unusual background.
Her father was a Philadelphia Mainliner whose family lost millions in the 1929 stock market crash and became "comfortable," Fallon says. He was an amateur historian who could trace his Hamilton family back to the royal Stewarts and talk you through the battle of Scotland, Fallon recalls. Her mother was orthodox Jewish, her father was Catholic and there were also Quakers in the family. She has inherited some money, she says, and has no trouble meeting her needs on a salary pegged to the rate of the highest paid teacher in the district.
Fallon came of age during the '60s and was shaped by the turbulent social changes of that time. She attended American University in Washington, D.C., where she majored in political science and got a close-up view of American politics. She worked on voter registration drives in the South, was arrested in demonstrations and was present when Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I have a dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
Music was also part of her transformation. She was just a suburban Philadelphia girl, she says, who fell in love with the acoustic blues guitar, which she still plays. She traveled to the black clubs and neighborhoods, sitting for hours watching Elizabeth Cotton and Mississippi John Hurt play and getting them to teach her. When she became a teacher, she would often sit on the floor and play guitar as a way of getting the interest and attention of her students.
But first she made a detour that seems to have shaped her attitude toward large bureaucracies. Graduating from college in 1966, she was slow to see the implications of the Vietnam War, and after scoring high on the hiring test for the National Security Agency, she was employed as a cryptographer for three years. NSA sent her to military language school, where she became fluent in Vietnamese in eight months, and then she began working on breaking enemy codes. It is work she cannot talk about to this day, but she does recall the incident that made her quit. One day her supervisors dumped a handful of Vietnamese billfolds on her desk. One of them was clotted with blood. "Don't worry about it," said one of her colleagues, "they've been sanitized."
"That drove me into teaching," she says. "I decided that I never wanted to do anything again that would destroy an innocent person."
Late in her college career she had married James Fallon Jr., the easygoing son of Oklahoma ranchers, and in 1968, they decided to move to Houston and get jobs in education (Fallon's husband has been a counselor in HISD for many years). After a few months working as an oil-company clerk, Gayle Fallon was hired in the fall of 1969 to teach the fifth grade at Oakwilde Elementary, a poor school off the Eastex Freeway in the Aldine School District. While working on her teaching certificate, she was thrown into a room with 12- to 14-year-old fifth-graders, but she found she could deal with kids.
"I never had a discipline problem," Fallon says. "I had kids who said I could just look them in the eye and that was all it took."
She got the books and read all summer, but mastering the required paperwork was the hard part. Years later, Fallon's union would protest excessive paperwork by stapling it together and rolling it out at length for television crews.
Fallon also taught special education and was teaching middle school when an opportunity opened up. For violating its desegregation order, the Aldine district was ordered by the courts to create a "contemporary learning center" for high school children in danger of dropping out. Situated in the old George Washington Carver High School in the low-income black neighborhood of Acres Homes, the center required that teachers create highly individualized curricula for their troubled students. In 1978, Fallon jumped at the chance to teach government to juniors and seniors at the contemporary learning center, even though it meant doing much more preparation than she had previously.
There she met Joe Colvin, who was working on his doctorate in curriculum instruction at the University of Houston. Colvin loaned her his books and explained what he had been learning in graduate school.
"Gayle is brilliant," says Colvin, "no question about it. She just picked up on my whole doctoral program in a few days. She was also an extremely good teacher. She knew how to communicate with kids."
Colvin recalls that Fallon and three other teachers shared an old gym that served as a resource center and open classroom. When Aldine administrators would walk in, most teachers would jump to their feet.