Hundreds of private schools throughout the Los Angeles region suspended their normal schedule of activities on Tuesday in observance of what has rapidly become one of the most significant -- and controversial -- dates on their respective calendars: LAUSD For An Hour Day.
"I just got chewed out for teaching my students Conrad," muttered Patricia Sewell, a lead English teacher at the Campbell Hall upper campus in North Hollywood. Sewell, who has taught Advanced Composition and AP Literature at the elite San Fernando Valley parochial school for nine years, admitted to being dumbstruck when informed that Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness was not deemed to be appropriate material for a high school English classroom, per LAUSD's curriculum content standards.
"Too long, too depressing, too French," said Raymond Brownlow, a district official in charge of instruction, who conceded that his knowledge of Conrad's opus was limited to the customer reviews section on Amazon.com. "But don't just take my world for it," he added, pointing to a review posted by 2MuchSexy4U that dismissed the novella as "Emo and gay."
Despite his concern over Sewell's teaching practices, Brownlow remained diplomatic.
"Look, I have nothing against Joseph Conrad per se," he said. "In fact, if you know of anything he's written that's between one-and-a-half to two pages in length -- and revolves around a pair of lost shoes, a garden patch or a miserly old man who finds happiness in the smile of a small African American child, let me know -- I'll include it in the binder for next year."
In her downtown office, Tamatha Ludwick, assistant directing co-coordinator of secondary classroom curriculum development instructional methodology and content delivery, said, "We feel that the teaching of novels is a hallmark of educators who lack ambition and creativity. It's much more challenging for the teachers, not to mention far more stimulating for their students, when a series of shorter stories can be taught at breakneck speed within a condensed time frame. We call them short storiellas. The ideal number per period is eight."
As Sewell instructed her students to remove their copies of Heart of Darkness from their desks, she dutifully distributed copies of Miss Maple and My Hand-Me-Down Pajamas to stares of bewilderment.
Moments after class, Sewell admitted to still being shaken by the ordeal. "Other than having to live out of my van since I started doing this job full-time, it was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."
Samantha Mackowski, math department chair at North Hollywood's Harvard-Westlake School, lamented an hour filled with a seemingly endless stream of trivial P.A. announcements, shortages of resources, student apathy, and unannounced intrusions. "Look, I get what they're trying to do here. But Harvard-Westlake is a perfectly calibrated success machine. Any interruption of our daily routine puts the prestige of this institution and the fate of its students in dire jeopardy."
When asked about the school's reputation for uncompromising selectivity in choosing its student body, Mackowski bristled.
"Are we exclusive? Without question. But I assure you, we get the worst of it. For the past four generations, every faculty member at this institution has carried the burden of upholding Harvard-Westlake's reputation as being one of the premier dream-smashers for families throughout the Southland."
Mackowski then gestured to an expansive string of commissioned oil paintings lining the wall of the school's library.
"Some schools hang paintings of their most prestigious graduates; we hang ones of our greatest rejects." As Mackowski gestured to some of the paintings, she reeled off the names -- a veritable who's who in the fields of art, entertainment and business from the greater L.A. region and beyond. "See that one over there, hanging above the bank of iMacs? Look familiar? It should. It's Ronald Reagan. Oh, and the one hanging by the young adult fiction section? Gandhi."
In a posh enclave, less than ten miles away, Brentwood School AP Calculus teacher Joan Wilkes crouched at the foot of a wheezing, fifteen-year-old Xerox photocopier, on loan from Crenshaw High School specifically for the occasion. Although the school is normally furnished with seven working copy machines, Thomas Broadline, the school's dean of students, had them placed into storage for the entire hour.
Then, to heighten the veracity of the experience, Broadline ordered the head custodian to jab the insides of the existing copier with a screwdriver "four or five times."
For her part, Wilkes worked feverishly to cauterize the ink hemorrhaging from the machine's innards, wiping sweat from her forehead and chin with one of the dangling felt reindeer antlers from her hand-made Christmas sweater - on loan from an educator at James Monroe High.
Frank Healey, headmaster at Chadwick School in Palos Verdes, and founder of 'LAUSD-For-An Hour Day,' says the observance, while painfully unpleasant for all its participants, serves as a stark reminder to the stakeholders of L.A.'s private schools that many local public schools often face an array of daunting challenges too frequently overlooked by more privileged institutions. This holds especially true for the LAUSD, a district in which eighty-seven percent of its students have never had either Blink 182, The Black-Eyed Peas, or the Foo Fighters play at their sweet sixteen parties.
But through force of will, Healey has succeeded in blending the school's already rigorous approach to student learning with a new philanthropic imperative. And with the imprimatur of the school's membership community, he has already successfully altered Chadwick's slogan from "You're not good enough for us" to "We're sorry that you're not good enough for us."
Dave Reynolds, a junior at Viewpoint School in Calabasas, was heartened by the fact that the plight of his public school counterparts was gaining wider exposure. "This guy I know on the baseball team, his cousin celebrated his birthday at Pizza Hut. And so I'm all, 'I didn't know Jack Black did birthday roasts at Pizza Huts.' And he was like, 'Uh, dude, he goes to public school.'"
Flush with emotion, Reynolds, a hulking power-forward on the school's varsity basketball squad, bit into his trembling lower-lip. "So, in other words, it was just him, his parents, and some friends -- no Kobe, no Will Ferrell -- not even a Kardashian. Some things make you so mad and so sad all at once, you just don't really know what to say. But this is the kind of stuff that needs to get out there. The public has a right to know."
The occasion is also a reminder to private school educators that, while their salaries remain woefully modest, their instructional domain is largely shielded from many of the daily frustrations that their public school counterparts must endure -- from overcrowded classrooms, to layoffs and mandatory furlough days, to reluctant learners, to having to adhere to cookie-cutter curricula that include mandatory testing schedules.
After teaching one of its strands to his 10th-grade English class, Ribet Academy's Xavier Trombley stared glumly at an ample binder loaded with mandatory prep materials for the California High School Exit Exam (CAHSEE). "I feel filthy right now," said the fifth-year teacher, his voice cracking with despair. "And that has nothing to do with the fact that I just went to the bathroom and then washed my hands with pink sand." Trombley said that, although he had planned for his students to act out the first act of Macbeth, "instead, we spent forty minutes of class time dissecting a fake instructional manual for a VHS player."
Trombley, whose typical class size hovers in the mid-teens, was awestruck by the sight of forty-seven bodies streaming into his room at the beginning of the period. To make matters even more tenuous, he quickly discovered that various students had pronounced learning deficiencies or emotional disorders. Others could scarcely utter a coherent sentence in English.
"It was a horrible scene," said Trombley. "Kids were left standing, sitting on tops of desks and sprawled on the floor. In my rusty Spanish, I told one of the boys to please remove himself from his girlfriend's lap, and he just glared at me. Later, I found out what I'd really said was, 'Your lady's lap is a dangerous carnival.' Talk about humiliating. What an awful one-seventh of my day."
Still, despite the influx of unfamiliar students pouring into their classrooms, many private school teachers throughout the region showed, for a full hour, why they can also handle their share of challenges -- and why they are held in such high esteem.
Teachers like The Sierra School's Robert Simmons incorporated some of their cutting-edge pedagogical techniques to adapt instruction to an array of student learning needs and skill levels.
"Come on!" exhorted Simmons, when he noticed two new students in the back of the class failing to take notes during his Powerpoint on polynomials. "Let's go! Work harder! Do work! What's wrong with you two? Come...on!"
While some teachers begrudged having to interrupt or limit their lessons for an entire hour, Aaron Jackson, a fourth-year Chemistry teacher at The Buckley School called the occasion "a profound learning experience" and admitted to being startled by the myriad challenges facing some of his more troubled students.
"One of them spent practically the entire period with his head down," Jackson said, "so already, alarm bells are going off like crazy. Then, when I go over to ask him if he's okay, I notice a single tear rolling down his face. Heart wrenching, right? But then I saw that it wasn't just a tear -- it was a tattoo of one. That's when I thought to myself: How sad must a boy be to get a tattoo of a teardrop on his cheek? The saddest boy in all the world, that's who."