The Unchanging Face of Milby

For more than 70 years, Milby High School has educated working class kids from the East End. In the early 1960s, I was one of them. I recently went back to Milby to see not what had changed, but what, if anything, remained.

Such a resignation probably wouldn't attract any attention from the news media today, but then it made all the three daily papers. Many of us felt that Parker was the victim of the very witch-hunt he had ridiculed. The students in the speech classes were upset. It seemed to us as though the teacher we needed most, the one who made school both the most fun and the most intellectually engaging experience, had been taken from us in spite. He died of lung cancer a dozen years or so ago, nursed in his final illness by a Milby graduate.

The current speech teacher, Robert Myers, is not likely to have the same problem. Last year Myers was named Milby's best teacher. He is a spirited young black man with a background in radio broadcasting, and he has some of the jaunty irreverence that kids should relate to if they can keep up with him. His speech class records the morning announcements, along with music, quotations and a thought for the day. Some of the teachers call it a bit too much like Good Morning, Vietnam. I visited his class and saw him draw out kids by building on his knowledge of radio and advertising. At 35, he can still whip them one-on-one on the basketball court, and goad them into speaking up in class. He is a blur of energy, dividing the class into groups, one to write a slogan for Milby radio, another to design a logo, a third to practice the morning announcements, another to work the recording equipment.

As he reads the morning announcements, he flips from the humorous to the earnest without dropping a beat. It's the anniversary of the death of Jimi Hendrix, and so he requests "a couple of seconds for Jimi ... okay, that's enough." His thought for the day (Myers is also the weekend pastor of a small church) is "Love works in ways that are wondrous and strange, and there is nothing in the world love cannot change." And he means it.

Myers hands an announcement for a student to read aloud, but the boy doesn't want to do it. "Be a man," Myers says, "suck it up." The boy looks spooked, embarrassed. "That's why you've got my class!" Myers talks to them about inflection, tells them that to read on the air, they've got to make it sound alive. "I want personality. Remember," he says, "you're not disc jockeys. You're called air personalities." The boy reads.

They listen to the morning broadcast of the announcements they had recorded earlier. "Hector!" says Myers, turning to another student, "that's Hector. You sound good, man. Give me a little love, guy," he says bumping fists with Hector. "Give me a little love."

He improvises a speech about an auto-truck accident on the Ship Channel bridge that almost killed him two days before. He was shaken up badly. "Then they tape me," he concludes, "physically taped this brother to a wooden board. I was crying. I'm a brother, but I was crying."

Then he gives them a quiz on the key points he has made in the speech, because he reminds them the most important thing in debate is listening. It's "PBT." P is for Pay attention. B is for Block out distractions. T is for Think about what was said. They may need this sometime when a cop stops them for driving under the influence of melanin. "I'm not going to be easier on you than the world," he says. "When you get stopped, I want you to be able to debate with that cop in a calm and rational manner."

It is easy to see what Myers was doing; he was teaching out of the pure force of his personality and his love of the children. Milby has always had a stock of such teachers -- teachers who pushed students to get out front, to practice, practice, practice, and to perform.

It took me almost no effort to find such teachers. There was Gail Williams Stevens, a social science and economics teacher who has taught at Milby for 20 years, and for eight years before that at the feeder junior high, Deady.

Gail graduated from Milby with me. We talked a while in her classroom, very likely the one where I went to homeroom. She opened her gradebook and showed me the entries she has made concerning her seniors. It seemed that at least two-thirds of them were working 25 to 30 hours a week. They had no time for extracurricular activities. But when prom night arrives, they may come to her for instruction on the proper use of silverware and other matters of etiquette. She won't be an economics teacher then. She'll be their mom.

There is Lee Martinez, the young baseball coach, who says he's seen a drop in school spirit and extracurricular participation since he graduated from Milby in 1989.

"What kills me is the low participation here," Martinez says. "It kills me. I want it back."

Back to 1989.
Martinez blames the low turnout in part on "no pass, no play," a rule he says he wouldn't necessarily change. But there are kids who won't even go out for clubs and other activities because they expect they'll be failing something. And because the school is more security-conscious than ever, the clubs must meet in the cafeteria instead of classrooms. No student is supposed to be in the halls after 3:45 without a teacher. The burden of rules seems far heavier today than in my time.

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1 comments
drewp10
drewp10

What a great read,Mike is very talented. I will enjoy sending this on.

 
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