How I became a teacher

Published Categorized as Memory, Writings Tagged

In 1963, Mary Alyce and I did the same 3 things as all our close friends. We graduated from UC Berkeley (Cal in those days), got married, and moved on to a new life—Mary Alyce as a grad student in a post-baccalaureate MA credential program at Stanford and I as a newly minted member of the management training cadre within Macy’s San Francisco.

Mary Alyce loved her MA program at Stanford—the early days of STEP (aptly but prosaically short for Stanford Teacher Education Program). I hated my job at Macy’s. But I tolerated it because I knew it was only a stepping stone for graduate study in American intellectual history. I had been accepted in that field at Stanford in the Fall of 1963 but had to defer to the following year because, as was not uncommon in those days, I had not been offered either fellowship or assistantship support. Mary Alyce didn’t really have the money to pay even the incredibly modest tuition of something like $500 per quarter in 1963 (think of that! Stanford for $1500 per year!!!). So my lot was to be the wage-earning—at least for a while. The deal that Mary Alyce and I made was that I would work while she finished her MA and teaching credential; then she would teach in the Bay Area while I went to graduate school at Stanford in history.

My intern experiences at Macy’s were quite varied in scope but uniformly boring in spirit, no matter what I did in carrying out day to day duties. There was a short stint as an assistant buyer in men’s ready-to-wear, followed by assistant posts in the credit department (most interesting of all the boring posts!) and inventory control, where I conducted audits of furniture control, cash register security, and shipping dock security at the branch stores. I was unhappy, truly unhappy! So unhappy that I invented illnesses to avoid going to work. Bee sting allergies were my best excuse because they were chronic and dangerous (lots of clover in the lawn of our apartment building in Mountain View, California)—and I did have my share of them.

After the STEP program, Mary Alyce was having trouble getting a job as a history teacher in the Bay Area, mainly because most of those slots were earmarked for football and basketball coaches. By the way, Mary Alyce was always sorry that she did not volunteer to be the wide receiver coach and do a little X and O chalk talk right there in the interview. She continued to interview—But because we needed money, Mary Alyce took a temporary job as a customer service rep with Pacific Bell (Pac Bell did not know that it was temporary!). Unlike grad school, Mary Alyce hated her job at Pac Bell. So instead of one, we now we had two unhappy souls in our one-bedroom apartment at 779 Bailey Avenue in Mountain View.

Little did we know that an escape from our boredom and misery was just around the corner in the form of the Thursday edition of the local grocery store flyer masquerading as a newspaper—the Mountain View-Sunnyvale Standard Register Leader. In addition to the Safeway and Purity Store ads, it also ran little filler stories off the AP wire. In mid-July of 1964, one of the filler articles was about 9 rural counties in California that were so hard up for teachers that they would credential you on a provisional basis IF you were (a) a college grad, and (b) breathing. So we each created a little resumé and sent off letters of inquiry to the county superintendents of these 9 rural counties. This would be an adventure, we thought. And a relief from the boredom of the corporate world.

At first, no response, but late one Wednesday afternoon in mid-August, Mary Alyce got a phone call from the secretary of the district superintendent in Porterville (Tulare County had been among the 9 we contacted). She said that (a) the superintendent (one Harold Hammersten) was on a recruiting trip in the Bay Area, (b) he wanted to meet with us that very evening, and (c) we should meet him poolside at 7 pm at the San Jose Inn. I hopped off the Peninsula commuter train at Castro Street in Mt. View at about 6:20 pm, and Mary Alyce, decked out in a spirited floral frock, said, “Quick, get in the car! Leave your suit on (yes, I wore suits—mainly three-piece suits—to work every day! And a fedora!) We have an interview with the superintendent of the Porterville Schools at 7 pm poolside at the San Jose Inn!!!” We hustled down what is now the 10 lane version of Highway 101 (then it was 4-laned Bayshore Highway with stoplights every few miles). Dressed to the nines, we hustled through the lobby to the pool area, which was quite crowded on a hot August evening! We looked at each other and said, at the very same instant, “HOW WILL WE RECOGNIZE HIM?”

We started to circle around the pool, lined with canvas lounging chairs on all sides, looking for someone with the gravitas and the outfit to be a superintendent! Someone in a grey flannel suit—maybe seersucker. Just then, a large bald head emerged from the pool, dripping with water; “You must be Dave and Mary Alyce Pearson. I’m Harold Hammersten, Superintendent of the Porterville Schools. Great to meet you. Let’s grab some seats over at my table so we can talk”.
Not what we were expecting, but if Mary Alyce and I were anything in those days, it was flexible. Go with the flow! That was us. So we sat down at his table—a popular sixties design—36 inch aluminum table (pale yellow as I recall) with aluminum tubed chairs and striped vinyl straps across the seat and back of each—and began what can hardly be described as a conversation. Harold Hammersten didn’t so much interview us as proselytize us—making every attempt to sell us on Porterville as our future home.
“In Porterville,” he explained, “We don’t teach the 3 Rs, we teach the 4 Rs!!! Readin’ Ritin’, ‘Rithmetic and…Respect!!! And we mean it with that 4th R!” Then he added, “I know you’re from Berkeley, but you don’t look too Berkeley, so we might be able to work something out.”

As we talked, he engaged in the most peculiar habit of continually scratching his legs, as if we were inflicted with insect bites from thigh to heel. For at least a half hour. But he never skipped a beat in his monologue. After he had described the virtues of Porterville Junior High School and ensured us that Mary Alyce would present no problem as a hire—after all, she had a valid credential and a degree from Stanford!—he got around to me. “You, on the other hand,” he added, with contrast, “Will take some work. No credential. No experience. Just a Cal degree…and was it really in history, English, and philosophy?”

Might heart sank a little as I steadied myself for one of those yes-but rejections. But to our surprise and delight, Harold took another approach, “So I think I can get this by our local school board easily enough. But the trick will be the Tulare County Office of Education. They’ll have to approve the provisional credential. But…Eileen Rounseval—she’s in charge of credentialing for the county—she owes me a big favor, and I can collect it now—for you”.

Long story short—it all worked! Three weeks later, Mary Alyce was ensconced in Porterville Junior High, teaching American History and Civics, and I was a 5th grade teacher at West Putnam Elementary School on the western outskirts of Porterville. We traded our lemon of a car (1954 Buick Convertible—robin’s egg blue with an ivory rag top) for a sensible 1960 Ford Falcon, rented a 3-bedroom house for the stately sum of $100 per month, and became real live teachers. As a provisionally credentialed newby. I received an annual salary of $4700; because Mary Alyce had a master’s degree and a credential, she got an extra $400 per year. Oh, but I did make an extra stipend for after-school coaching in the boys’ sports program ($25 each for football, basketball, softball, and track!). We were never so well off financially! And we were so emotionally well in terms of our identity development. We mattered because we were teachers, and we knew that teachers mattered. Porterville and teaching changed our lives forever.

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