Getting Schooled

A legendary debate teacher has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson

The rain, on this October Sunday afternoon, is coming down as a near-solid mass, the kind of rain where you wait in your parked car for five minutes vainly hoping for a slight letup.

Finally you give in and get soaked as you scramble to the Rice Village campaign headquarters of Jim Henley, a Democrat running in the very Republican seventh congressional district. There's supposed to be a blockwalking expedition taking off from the site today, but the few volunteers in the office have pretty much written it off. No one's going to go out in this weather.

But soon enough some semi-drenched folks start straggling in. High school students, older couples, younger kids with their parents. The Henley workers tell them it probably will be less of a hassle if they make phone calls instead of blockwalk through the soggy streets, but as the rain lets up the group makes a decision -- they're getting on the school bus purchased by Henley for the campaign, and they'll knock on doors throughout Meyerland. Into the drizzle they go.

Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
Daniel Kramer
Legendary debate teacher Jim Henley has a lesson plan to knock off Congressman John Culberson
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.
Photos by Daniel Kramer
The Young Democrats of Lamar High hook up with Henley.

Why? Not because they're hardcore Democrats. A few of the parents who are accompanying their kids are Republicans, and most of the others are political neophytes who've never before volunteered for a political candidate.

The waterlogged group is there not for a political party, but for Jim Henley. Because if you've ever taken Henley's legendary debate course at Lanier Middle School, you've never forgotten it. And if he asks for help, you're not likely to say no.

Henley in the classroom is Robin Williams in Dead Poets Society -- a shouting, dramatic, hyper-enthusiastic teacher of a seemingly deadly dull course who awakens something that many kids didn't know they had inside them.

Henley outside the classroom is not quite as over-the-top, but as tenacious as the rest of his family. And that family includes his sister Susan McDougal, the woman who went to jail for 18 months rather than tell Whitewater prosecutor Kenneth Starr what he wanted to hear, because she believed he had no interest in the truth.

As he approaches retirement after almost 20 years at Lanier, Henley has decided he wants to give his students "one last lesson plan": taking on an incumbent who he thinks epitomizes everything that's wrong with the pandering, hypocritical, ugly shoutfest that is American politics today.

And because of his volunteer army, because of the seeming wave of discontent with Republicans, because he thinks his opponent is taking reelection for granted, he believes he has a chance. He may be somewhat alone in that view among political observers, but he doesn't really care. Henley's never had a lesson plan when he's teaching, but he has one for winning the campaign, and he's sticking to it.

I.

Get Yourself an Inspired Army

Hundreds of Henley's former students have sent in donations or are volunteering in his campaign, springing their well-honed articulateness on unsuspecting residents who answer the door or the phone.

What is it about having gone through Henley's course that makes kids eager to get involved in politics?

For most people, a debate class in middle school -- when you're at an age where the only thing worse than talking politics is having to speak in public -- is nothing less than a trial. But not if you're in Henley's class.

"One of the students in our debate class was nervous about public speaking and presenting in front of the class," says Kane Kenney, now a student at Strake Jesuit. "When Mr. Henley called on him and he responded timidly, Mr. Henley ordered us all outside onto the football field. He then commanded us to scream as loud as we possibly could. After that, shy and extroverted students alike broke out of their shells."

There's "The Mother of All Timelines," where Henley wraps butcher paper around the classroom and everyone plots out the history of the world. There's the weekly Jeopardy game. There's the 11-year-olds yelling "Pig Sooey" down the halls when Henley's Arkansas Razorbacks are making noise in the NCAA tournament.

Last year the debate team won yet another tournament, but they were all convinced the judging in San Antonio had been unfair. "A lot of the debaters...could not stop complaining about their ranking," says Sesenu Woldemariam, now a Bellaire High student.

Henley ordered everyone off the bus.

"He told us that everyone had been rooting against us, hoping to see Lanier's reign as national champions end, but we had overcome adversity in the most noble of ways: by just kicking the butts of the other teams because we were just that good," says Ashley Reed, now at Lamar High. "He then pulled out from behind his back a paper grocery bag. He told us that in the bag were all of the Lanier ballots from the final round."

Henley placed the bag on the parking-lot asphalt and set it on fire. "We all shouted and sang out in joy as the graduating teams and the coaches put their arms around each other, danced around the flaming bag of ballots and sang Queen's immortal song 'We Are the Champions.'"

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