Working at an inner city high school used to be like soldiering in an unpopular war.
I loved teaching.
Yet outside the classroom and in the miles of hallways of the sprawling campus, the gang violence, drug use, lack of security, and the gauntlet of danger that teenagers had to traverse on a daily basis made it, frankly, an astonishment that any educational achievement could occur.
Between bouts of teaching paragraph unity and Shakespeare's sonnets, I joined colleagues in chasing, catching and transporting trespassers, druggies, and gang bangers to the office of our lone police officer.
That I was able to stay on the job for 20 years was largely due to the example and inspiration of our English department chairperson, Lee Kingsmill.
Kingsmill was a Hemingway hero exhibiting poise under pressure. Whether confronting teen tantrums in the cafeteria or a teacher’s tears of exasperation at a department meeting, he relied on experience and wisdom to put out fires. With a self-deprecating joke, or an encouraging word, he somehow managed to commend whatever you were trying but failing to do, in a way that made you feel it was worth persisting.
Once, in addressing my frustration at keeping order in a study hall with 100 students, he tried to implant in me his own brand of aplomb: “No matter what happens, even if students bring an elephant into the room, keep your cool. Take a deep breath, force a smile, then say, ‘OK, time to take Dumbo outside.'”
I was fortunate to share the same English classroom with Kingsmill, who spent his own money to purchase colorful book and movie posters to brighten the drab facility.
His teaching style was soft spoken, Socratic, and most of all, prepared. Every teenager, no matter how initially resistant, ultimately succumbed to his brilliance and humility. Often I had to wait outside the door when his energized pupils continued class discussions after the bell.
“Sorry,” Kingsmill told me after one of the late sessions. “On days like this, I feel there is nothing else in the world I’d rather be doing.”
But likely his greatest contribution was as the spokesperson for the English faculty, the largest group of teachers at the institution.
When a faculty meeting threatened to derail with multiple teacher complaints, followed by scoldings from other chairpersons, Kingsmill ascended the podium to express optimism about a new idea to improve student writing skills across the entire curriculum, and raise standardized test scores schoolwide.
With his lexicon, his humor, and his philosophical manner, he reminded many of the late William Buckley, and made me proud to be an English teacher.
We left the room spirited and hopeful, rather like the Denver Bronco football players in the 1987 American Conference Championship Game: Down a touchdown with five minutes left, and backed up on their own 2-yard line, quarterback John Elway huddled and told his teammates with a sly grin: “We got ‘em right where we want ‘em,” before marching down the field to tie and win the game.
Tributes to teachers don’t usually come till after they are gone, and Lee Kingsmill is is alive and well and happily retired in Indiana. So the primary reason for my reflection on his great leadership is the current crisis in our nation’s capital.
People can argue about Donald Trump’s stance on foreign policy, immigration, taxation, health care, and the environment. Such debate is normal. Such is politics.
But what I perceive as the most severe and damaging affliction for our country is Trump’s devastating failure as leader.
A leader like Kingsmill lent encouragement and empowerment through his words and actions. Whereas Donald Trump sows consternation and embarrassment.
From his earliest days in office, Trump has depicted the state of our nation as failing and dire, starting with his theme of “American carnage” in his inauguration speech, doing little for the country’s morale.
Worse than those dubious dark assessments have been his negative diatribes against individuals and groups, from war hero John McCain, actress Meryl Streep, ex-FBI chief James Comey, and his own attorney general Jeff Sessions, to Muslim Americans, Mexican citizens, and the entire free press, which he labeled as an “enemy of the people.”
Even Trump’s staunchest supporters wish he would desist in his demoralizing tweets, from which The New York Times has compiled an index listing 300 Trump insults to individuals and organizations. So far.
And when Trump takes to the podium on TV, Americans cringe. We have learned to recognize the Trump “tells," his use of hyperbole and repetition and the handful of vacuous adjectives that signal either a falsehood or his lack of preparation for an important issue, as with this quote on health care: "Despite what you hear in the press, health care is coming along great. We are talking to many groups and it will end in a beautiful picture!”
Or the whopper about his inauguration: “Now, the audience was the biggest ever. But this crowd was massive. Look how far back it goes. This crowd was massive.”
Or his denial about fired National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, whose actions Trump had known about for weeks: “I don’t know about it. I haven’t seen it. What report is that?”
While we long to be led by a leader who is prepared, articulate, and encouraging, we get, instead, prevarication, meaninglessness, and cynicism from President Trump.
Good leaders impart vision and hope. Trump's recent defense of white-nationalist protesters in Charlottesville and his criticism of the removal of Confederate monuments are his most egregious failures yet at leading and unifying America.
Donald Trump makes us ashamed of him, and sad for our country, every single day.
Emeritus English professor, College of DuPage, David McGrath is contributing columnist for Hayward's Sawyer County Record and author of "The Territory." email@example.com
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