In 1974, when Benjamin Malone taught fourth grade at James R. Doolittle Jr. Elementary on Chicago's South Side, he was my first male teacher and my first real crush.
Mr. Malone (which is how I still refer to him) was tall and dark and handsome and wore wide-collared shirts and bell-bottom pants. He had a mid-sized Afro and eyes that were slanted, leaning toward the exotic.
Back then the threat of a Chicago Public Schools teachers strike at the beginning of the school year was as perennial as the trip to get brand-new clothes and notebooks. Maybe that's why every time I heard last week's strike was the first in 25 years, something felt a bit off-kilter.
Over the decades, I've been fortunate to be able to keep in touch with Mr. Malone, who retired from teaching in 1999, and his wife, who's also a retired CPS teacher. Last week, I spoke with him about how his profession changed during his nearly 30-year career.
He said among the major differences is the way teachers are evaluated. One of the big sticking points during last week's Chicago Teachers Union negotiations was how to create a system that doesn't have teacher evaluations weighted so much to student test scores.
"Years ago, you had two official classroom observations by the principal," he said. "You would be made aware of the first visit, and the second was unannounced. The principal had a checklist that looked at your attendance, your involvement with the community and parents, your classroom management, and your mastery of the subject matter."
There were a few differences between now and then that I vividly recall: On several occasions Mr. Malone took us downtown to Orchestra Hall and museums via CTA buses. He demanded that his class of 32 students be quiet and respectful, and boys were expected to give up their seats to women standing in the aisles.
Can you imagine a teacher doing that today? CPS' legal team would go ballistic.
When a couple of my male classmates couldn't seem to get along, Mr. Malone invited them to spend a weekend at his home with him, his wife and two sons. That would never happen now.
And there were also spring days when, out of the blue, Mr. Malone decided to have class on the lakefront. We'd line up and walk in an orderly fashion across Cottage Grove Avenue, then over the bridge spanning the Illinois Central Railroad tracks and Lake Shore Drive to sit on the grass for an afternoon lesson. That would hardly happen today.
When Mr. Malone started working at Doolittle Elementary in 1971, it was his first teaching job after a year and a half of serving in Korea as an Army medic. He was married and had one of his two sons. Both would later attend Chicago public schools.
Doolittle sat in a community of public housing projects, middle-class apartment buildings and a sprinkling of 19th century brownstones.
"But it was the inner city, and the implication back then was black children couldn't learn," he said. "I didn't believe that and I was going to prove it wasn't true. I felt I had a moral obligation to see that the students performed. Excuses weren't acceptable."
When kids were truant or had academic or discipline problems, he went to their homes to talk to their parents. He demanded that his students complete all homework and class work. And, the 3:15 p.m. class dismissal bell meant nothing to him. Even the twitchiest children knew to remain seated until he closed his lesson book.
Sometimes I would remind him that I had to pick up my younger sister and he would tell me: "Go get her and bring her back here with you."
"You had to perform," he said. "The kids could achieve when you clearly defined and set goals and gave them a support system."
He was at Doolittle Elementary for 10 years and spent the remainder of his career at an elementary school in the Roseland neighborhood and another in South Chicago. Throughout his career, he taught every grade from fourth through eighth.
But as the years passed, he said, in too many instances the parent-teacher relationship became more of an adversarial one.
"I think that had to do with the age and maturity of some parents," he said. "Too many are so young and haven't finished high school. Even if parents didn't have an opportunity to finish (high) school in the 1960s and 1970s, they emphasized the importance of education to their children and held them accountable."
And what would he do differently now if he were a school administrator? He would open schools to the community so that parents could come in and get their GEDs or take parenting classes. He said that while he supports CPS' longer school day, he would also have a Saturday school for disruptive students.
"They would have to come in for a half day on Saturday and there would be no academics," he said. "It would be to teach them, and demonstrate and model correct school behavior."
He said he still believes, as I do, that teaching is among the most noble of professions.
"I see some of my students almost every day I walk out the door," he said. "I have taught some very bright students. I felt they had to achieve, whether it was by attending college or (a trade school). That was their only option for success."