Along about 1967 the tsunami of money from the Federal Government to “Education” that was created by the nerve shattering “beep-beep-beeping” of the world’s first space vehicle had reached its crest and was receding. It was Russia’s vehicle. . . and it was called “Sputnik” or fellow traveler. Those beeps were heard in 1958 when we were in the prolonged deep-freeze of the “Cold War” and they spread panic across America. The root of the problem we were told was in America’s schools. They had failed to produce scientists who could compete with “the backward” Russians. Horrified senators and Congressmen reacted as politicians always do. They began throwing money at the problem. Proposals for summer “Institutes” for science and math teachers began flowing from college grant writers like frankfurters in an Oscar Meyer factory and soon American Education was awash in money.
The smell of money is pervasive and it didn’t take long for the “National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) to pick up the scent and begin chasing it like hounds baying after an Ozarks raccoon. “We mustn’t have our graduates be simply egg-headed scientists; they should also be attuned to the arts,” they cried. Their wishes were granted. Millions of dollars of federal money were piped to colleges, universities and to individual teachers to pay for educational programs not only in the sciences but in the arts as well. Some were such ill-conceived and transparent boondoggles as to be ludicrous. Some actually provided a needed service to teachers and schools. Others provided mostly a nice summer trip and relaxing vacation for teachers.
This is a tale about a 1967 summer institute in which I participated. I leave it to you to decide into which category it fell.
At the end of the 1966-1967 school year I was ending my first year as high school band director in a suburban school near Wichita KS. I had been teaching ten years but had just made a major career move from suburban Chicago to the plains of Kansas. Now I was and still am truly a lover of “the arts” – all of them. Among the artistic performances that appeal to me is Classical Ballet. The sight of a Prima Ballerina dancing in classical style can bring tears of appreciation to my eyes.
On an early spring day in 1967 I found a curious letter and brochure in my mailbox. It was advertising a 6 week “Summer Institute” to be held at Wisconsin State University in Stevens Point WI. The subject matter of this “Institute?” Ballet! The “Director” would be a professional dance teacher with the jaw-twisting name of Nadia Chilkovsky-Nahumck, a Russian-born immigrant who operated a dance school in Philadelphia. “Scholarships” would be awarded to 30 people – mostly professional dancers; but in a thinly-veneered ploy to legitimize it as something beneficial to Education there were slots for five teachers whose teaching field could/or might incorporate something about ballet into their teaching plan. That pretty well narrowed it down to P.E. and music teachers. Each participant would get a handsome stipend that covered expenses quite well. Well, I thought, I enjoy ballet. I expose the kids in my bands to ballet music occasionally and my family had previously enjoyed summer vacations in northern Wisconsin. I took the bait.
A few weeks later my wife, our 4 children, Boxer dog and I were on the road to Wisconsin pulling a 15’ travel trailer capable of sleeping six behind our Ford Station Wagon. The “sleeps 6” feature was true only after converting the small dining table booth into a bed, folding a bed down out of the ceiling and changing the “sofa” into a bed. Those steps had to be done every night and undone every morning. Fortunately we were parked next to the campground toilet/shower facilities for our small trailer didn’t provide those amenities.
The following several weeks were an “adventure” for which my wife should have divorced me. It came at a time in my life when, for reasons previously written, I was quite self-absorbed and insensitive as to how what I was choosing to do with my life affected her. By the grace of God and her strength of character she stayed with me. I have since tried to make amends. The campground was some 15 miles north of Stevens Point, on the shores of a large lake. On weekends we took trips to various places to “see and do” what was there and give my wife somewhat of a break from being isolated in that campground with four kids while I was in town “studying ballet.” The other five days a week my wife kept our kids fed, clean, safe, and entertained alone. Her life was very close to that of a pioneer woman’s “housekeeping” in a Conestoga wagon.
In my “study of ballet” it became clear that Madame Chilkovsky-Nahumick had little interest in the few of us who were not aspiring dancers. We were expected to try to do what the dancers were doing as best we could and left alone. “Class,” for the most part, was in a gym. And I will tell you that if you think ballerinas and their male counterparts are not athletic, you are very mistaken. I discovered or made use of muscles in ways that were as challenging as any athletic training you care to name. But did I become a ballet dancer? No. Was I given any suggestions as to how what I was learning could fit into my teaching? No. Was any judgment made as to how useful this experience was to American Education? No. I did come away with even more appreciation for the beauty of ballet and the dedication it takes to become a dancer. Our children enjoyed the summer, for they were pretty much footloose and fancy free all day long in a new and interesting environment. My wife survived the summer without complaint for the most part. At the end of the Institute we towed the trailer on a long, circuitous route back to Wichita, visiting the Black Hills, “Wall Drug Store,” and other attractions that presented themselves.
One of the non-dancer participants was a dark, swarthy-looking high school PE teacher/coach from New Jersey. He summed up the whole thing quite well one day in the gym when, as we were executing a ballet movement that involved criss-crossing between one another, he said to me as he passed, “The boys in the poolroom are never gonna believe this.” He spoke truly.
Wonderful read Don! The absurdity that runs rampant in our government never ceases to amaze me. The fact that we are still, as a nation, as successful as we are continues to baffle me.
quite self-absorbed and insensitive as to how what I was choosing to do with my life affected her..... will you please write a book about that change so that all men could experience the same thing? Wow. Marvelous story!
Joyce, the book has already been written. It is simply called "The Big Book" by recovering alcoholics and it is published by "Alcoholics Anonymous." It,the grace of God, and lots of help from fellow alcoholics gave me 12 steps to follow that led me up from the pit I had fallen into. As I've written previously I have been a recovering alcoholic since 1981. By the grace of God not one drop of alcohol has passed my lips since July of that year. The 12 Steps, however, have been applied successfully by many people to diverse kinds of character defects. Addictions come in many forms and any one of them can turn a reasonable, loving human being into a narcissistic animal.
Thanks, Tom. The "wisdom" of hindsight coupled with "old age" is a gift. Too bad it isn't given to us when we're young.