FIGHTING FOR YOUR FAMILY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

There was a first grade teacher at my elementary school, Mrs. Houk, who was widely feared and hated by both students and parents. She yelled and bullied and called kids stupid. But she had tenure so the school couldn’t fire her. She was also considered to be ‘good’ for certain boys with behavior problems.

I was severely traumatized by her. My father yelled a lot at home and I was afraid of him. Mrs. Houk did not help. I was terrified of her. I was so afraid to raise my hand to go to the bathroom, that one day I wet myself. Very humiliating.

Me around first grade

Every night before I went to bed, I’d sit on my mother’s lap and cry. I would plead with her “Please don’t make me go to school tomorrow!” I was very bright but I developed learning problems. My already existing anxiety issues were exacerbated. I was put into therapy. I was six.

My parents went to the school and requested that I be transferred out of Mrs. Houk’s class. As therapists, they explained the psychological damage that Mrs. Houk was doing to me. The school said that if they moved me out, they’d have to transfer out half of the rest of the class, who also wanted reprieves. My parents accepted their position and dropped the issue. It wasn’t until fourth grade that I began to overcome my school fears.

Mom and me (a few years younger)

Several years later, a friend of my mother’s, Helen Cooper, had a son who got stuck with Mrs. Houk. Mrs. Houk constantly yelled at him, made fun of him and called him dumb because his writing looked like hieroglyphics. One day, Helen taped something her son had written for her on the mirror. Lo and behold! In the mirror, the sentence was clear as day and perfectly written. Her son was dyslexic!

Helen marched into the principal’s office and read her the riot act. She didn’t request that her son be removed from Mrs. Houk’s class, she DEMANDED it! She threatened that if her son wasn’t transferred immediately, she’d go to the New York Times with the story. Helen’s husband was one of the labor lawyers for the Times, so the school knew that Helen could make good on her threat.

Helen’s son was placed in another first grade class and started to thrive. He was the only child, before or since, that I know of, to be sprung from Mrs. Houk’s grasp.

Helen Cooper

I have tremendous respect for people like Helen, who fight for what they want and usually get it. When her teenage daughter was in the hospital having surgery, Helen demanded the attention and care of the nurses to keep her daughter comfortable. When no one responded to her repeated requests for assistance, Helen threatened to stand in the hallway and scream until her daughter was attended to. And she started to scream! Her daughter got top-notch care and 24/7 attention from the staff from that point on.

I couldn’t do anything like that. I’ve always been proper and polite. But sometimes I wish I could be a badass when the situation called for one. Helen advocated for her kids in any way she could. And she got results. She wasn’t afraid of being called ‘pushy’ or ‘demanding’ or even crazy. Those labels were anathema to my mom and to me.

I certainly wish my parents had some of Helen’s ‘chutzpah’ when they were dealing with my school back when I was in first grade. There are many times when I wish I had shown more guts when fighting for myself or my family. Maybe in my next life …

There was one time that Helen fought for our family – something she often did for friends. My grandfather died on a Thursday before a Jewish Holiday weekend. So if we didn’t get his body to the funeral home by Friday morning, we couldn’t have a funeral for several days. We were so stressed out already, that would have been very difficult for all of us. For legal reasons, Grandpa needed an autopsy. The medical examiner’s office was backed up so we weren’t going to get a speedy funeral.

My mother and Helen towards the end of my Mom’s life

Until Helen stepped in. She knew the medical examiner personally. She woke him up in the middle of the night and told him he had to get my grandfather’s autopsy done by 10 am Friday morning. I don’t know what strings he pulled in the wee hours, but somehow he got it done. I went to the funeral home to make the final arrangements and identify the body at around noon on Friday.

And there was Grandpa. Right on time. We never forgot that Helen went to bat for us in a time of need.

16 thoughts on “FIGHTING FOR YOUR FAMILY – BY ELLIN CURLEY

  1. This rang bells with me. I recall some truly terrifying teachers when I was in primary school. Older ladies, they were sarcastic and yelled at kids. Worst of all they didn’t listen. These were the sort of teachers who did make you afraid to ask to go to the bathroom or sharpen your pencil at the communal sharpener. Then if you had an accident or your work was unreadable it was your fault.

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    • In our system, when teachers get tenure, they can’t be fired. So the school has to put them someplace. This teacher was considered a great disciplinarian for unruly boys who were behavior problems. Though I can’t believe that yelling and belittling is the only way to deal with difficult kids.

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      • This is why most schools today make it VERY hard for teachers to get tenure. Short of a general cut down of all departments, it is nearly impossible to fire a tenured teacher. They would have to do something actually illegal. I’m all in favor of unions, but this needed a fix 50 years ago. It never got it. So schools got around the problem by making tenure close to impossible.

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          • The bad part of this “non” solution is that about every three to five years, they fire all the teachers and get new ones because if they keep them, they are up for tenure. It means that schools are always in a state of flux and there is no consistency from year to year. The teachers’ union should have dealt with this problem when I was a kid because it was a huge problem then, too. They had all these very old teachers from Word War One who were decades out of date … and many of whom were not nice people at all. They couldn’t be let go and they stayed until they couldn’t stand on their feet anymore. NOT fixing the problem left school systems to come up with their own fix. Not a great fix, but the old way wasn’t working either.

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      • The same system exists here and it is such a shame. I’ve seen teachers who were so good that the children awaited for every word spoken. She never raised her voice and the children worshipped her.

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  2. ‘I’ve always been proper and polite. But sometimes I wish I could be a badass when the situation called for one.’ Me too, Ellin – oh, how I wish that for me too! 🙂

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