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Looking back on a life of teaching: the educational journey of a teacher.


What does it mean to be a teacher? Why do people go into teaching, and what experiences shape, mold, and direct them? Writers have attempted to answer these and other questions, in many genres. Autobiographies like Frank McCourt's Angela's Ashes (1) and Teacher Man, (2) or Rafe Esquith's There Are No Shortcuts, (3) describe life-changing episodes that transform the ways teachers look at the world and interact with their students. Biographies like Mark Edmundson's Teacher (4) document the profound influence one teacher can have on the life of another. Memoirs like To the Lighthouse and Back: Writings on Teaching and Living, (5) The Art of Teaching, (6) and A Life in School (7) weave the threads of lessons learned into the fabric of lessons taught. Oral histories like Diane Manning's Hill Country Teacher (8) and Susan Dichter's Teachers: Straight Talk from the Trenches (9) speak to the reader with the impassioned voices of individuals to whom teaching is a way of life.

I have chosen to present this story of a teacher's life as an oral history. The narrative might aptly be subtitled a love story because it reveals the passion that has propelled one man to devote the past twenty-five years to teaching Language Arts at the elementary level. In a series of seven one-hour conversations conducted in his classroom at the end of the school day over a five-month period, the teacher (whom I call Tommy Calley) disclosed many of his thoughts, memories, disappointments, joys, and sorrows in his life journey. As he recounted his story and shared the intimacy of his recollections and feelings, I tried to capture the very essence of my subject by carefully transcribing each recorded interview and emailing it to him to verify the accuracy of our conversation. At our final meeting, Tommy Calley and I reviewed the entire story as it had been written to afford him the opportunity to make any additions or corrections he felt were necessary. While maintaining the accuracy of my transcript, I have taken the artistic license to modify the names of places, persons, and events in this oral history to maintain the confidentiality of the teacher.

The story demonstrates that Tommy Calley is both a teacher and a learner. It also reveals the challenges of being a male in a predominantly female profession, and Calley's reaction to critics who question his masculinity because he teaches in an elementary school. The presentation of his story is informed by the work of Madeline Arnot and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, who discuss the formation of self identity (and how it is influenced by society and culture), the roles assigned to gender (and the hegemonic power structure in which these roles are constructed), and the pedagogies that can either challenge or reinforce current structures. Arnot and Mac an Ghaill depict such considerations of gender as "only the beginning of a sophisticated analysis of the operation of social power within a transforming social order." (10)

One of the purposes of writing this oral history is to liberate the voice of the individual and explore the forces that have shaped and directed his life. There is no life that is insignificant, but a life can only be heard through the telling of it. As Vivian Gornick observed, "A serious life, by definition, is a life one reflects on, a life one tries to make sense of and bear witness to." Gornick added that the present age "is characterized by a need to testify. Everywhere in the world women and men are rising up to tell their stories out of the now commonly held belief that one's own life signifies." (11)

What follows is the story of Tommy Calley, a teacher of young children, based on his own testimony.
   Learning to Crawl


   When I was a child
   I spoke as a child,
   I thought as a child,
   I reasoned as a child;
   When I became a man,
   I put aside childish things.

--I Corinthians 13

There is a brass bell that sits on his classroom desk. He uses it at the beginning of class to start the lesson, or at other times when he wants to regain the students' attention. Their response to the bell is almost immediate; the gentle tinkling sound is followed by a hushed silence that serves as a prologue for the teacher's subsequent comments. If one were to look closely at the bell one would discover that his name is inscribed on it: "Mr. Calley." The bell was given to him over twenty-five years ago by an eighth-grade student named Damion Carter when he was a teacher at Turner Middle School in Chicago. The fresh luster of the bell has become somewhat tarnished and scratched over the years, and the original clapper was pilfered at some point in history by a mischievous middle-schooler who undoubtedly reveled in committing such a daring act. In its stead, a small, lead fishing sinker has been used to replace the primal tongue of the little bell, and the resultant voice of its owner is a bit more somber and heavy than it was before the theft. Nevertheless, it still rings clear and true, and faithfully captures the ear of all the students whenever it speaks.

As he sits looking at that bell, a kaleidoscope of colorful memories run through his mind. They are warm and precious treasures that fill his heart and take him back to the early days of his childhood and carry him on to the first day of his journey as a teacher.

Being a teacher was not in his plans. If he had listened to his own voice, he could very well have become a geologist. For as far back as he can remember, rocks have fascinated him, and as an avid rock hound he gathered rocks, stones, and gems on every outdoor excursion that was afforded him. His father's love for travel provided him with abundant opportunities to explore and discover what he perceived to be priceless finds on their summer excursions: dear quartz crystals that sparkled in the rolling hills of the Ozarks, rosy boulders of rhodonite that were scattered in the outback of Australia, black obsidian glass that hid in the recesses of the great lava beds surrounding Teotihuacan in Mexico, and rough chunks of grainy red granite from the Colorado Rockies, rich with mica and feldspar, were all precious additions to his rapidly growing collection. After carefully identifying, labeling and cataloging each of his gems, he proudly displayed them all on the built-in shelves of the living room, protected from dust and theft by leaded-glass doors that added to their elegance.

But his mother had other plans for him. Tommy's father was an attorney, and she envisioned him as an obvious successor to his father's throne. "You will be a lawyer, just like your father," she would tell him, "Rich, and famous, and powerful. Eventually, perhaps, a senator ... or even, yes, ... some day, the President of the United States."

"But, Mother, I don't want to be rich or famous. I don't want to be a lawyer or President," he would timidly protest."! want to be a geologist like Uncle Mike."

She would just chuckle. "Oh yes, I know, I know. Dear Uncle Mike, he is such a sweet man. Crawling on his belly in those dark, muddy, God-forsaken cave holes in the ground looking for who knows what ... oh my. Yes, I know you boys like that sort of thing, bats and all, but you.... you, my little Tommy, you are so much smarter than Uncle Mike, and you have so much more to offer than he does. I know you like your little rocks, and they are very pretty in our cabinets, but you will outgrow all of that and someday you will be thanking me for guiding you along the right path."

"But Mother ..."

"No, no, no, I think we've had enough of this discussion. I believe it's almost time for your piano lesson, isn't it? You need to go to your room now and tidy up so you'll be presentable for your teacher, Mrs. Kirkendall. Go along, now, so you won't keep her waiting. Hurry, hurry ..."

There were never really any dialogues with his mother, just diatribes.

Before he was even born, his mother seemed intent on giving birth to the world's next Leonardo da Vinci. Consequently, she began reading to him and playing classical recordings of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart while he still resided in her womb. Upon birth, to ensure his precociousness she arranged for him to receive piano lessons at age five, soon followed by instruction in the arts: oil painting, ballet, acting, and voice.

"Your father is a wonderful man, and an exceptional attorney," she would say, "but he is lacking in some of areas of culture. You, however, my dear sweet Tommy, will have no such failings. You will not only be an attorney par excellence, you will be a man of culture. You will be unique. You will be the ultimate Renaissance man."

And so his life unfolded, not as he would have it, but as his mother planned it.

His father, on the other hand, seemed to have no concrete plans for him. Sigmund Calley's passion was his work, and Tommy saw very little of his father as he was growing up. On the occasions when he had the good fortune to travel with his father to various locations around the globe, he cherished the rare moments that they shared as they wandered together through the exotic and sometimes hostile frontiers. It was on these remote excursions that the two seemed to be most relaxed and happiest. Mother never went with them, and it often made Tommy feel that perhaps his father, like him, preferred life apart from the mother.

Tommy believes that one of the greatest gifts his father gave him was the opportunity to see the many faces of the world. Not only did their travels together bond them more closely to one other, they also endowed Tommy with a sense of kinship to those whose global homes he visited. At a very early age he began to see the world through their eyes, and within him grew a deep appreciation and respect for the diversity of the human experience.

As a result of his travels with Father and the countless hours he spent reading the classical literature that his mother provided him, by the age of ten he felt that the world was his home. He had acquired a deep reverence for the varied life forms that inhabited the Earth, and became particularly concerned about the disparity of wealth between the rich and the poor, and the noticeable imbalance in the consumption of the earth's resources. It became apparent to him at an early age that poverty was an unnecessary plight of millions caused by the greed and corruption of a powerful few.

He recalled an early case of being sensitive to the suffering and hunger of the masses while walking with his father on a crisp July day to the market in Cuzco, Peru. As he was admiring the precision with which the ancient walls were shaped and assembled by the Incas, his thoughts were interrupted by the raucous sound of a gang of young boys barreling down the street. The boys appeared to be about the same age as Tommy, but that was where any similarity ended. A thick shock of jet black hair on their heads erupted in all directions, and they were shabbily dressed in torn, ragged, baggy pants and sleeveless shirts that were smeared with dirt and grime, as were their faces, hands, and feet. They wore no shoes, and the skin of their feet looked like elephant hide. The entire band of vagabonds was in eager pursuit of one particular sprite. Smaller than the rest, the boy scrambled frantically past Tommy and his father, his eyes wide with terror, clutching a very large, round loaf of bread close to his chest. Close at his heels was a much larger, red-faced boy shouting as he rapidly gained ground.

"Damenos el pan, cabron! Damenos, ahorita, marecon!"

The boy with the red face then leaped upon the back of his prey, and both slammed hard onto the rough, rocky road. The impact of the two jarred the prize of the fugitive from his grasp, and propelled the large loaf across the span of the street. No sooner had it landed in a large, muddy puddle than the entire pack of ravenous urchins pounced upon it like wolves, tearing and clawing for bits of the soggy, dirty bread until no crumb was left to be found. Upon completion of their frantic repast, the young orphans gazed upon the ground to detect any possible remaining morsel, furtively glancing at each other, and then, with heads down and bodies bent, they shuffled past Tommy and his father and quietly vanished as they turned the corner.

Since that day their hollow stares have followed Tommy, and their desperate faces still haunt him. He is followed by their reincarnations on the streets of every bustling borough of the world: Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo, Singapore, Sydney, New Delhi, Rome, Paris, Stuttgart, Rio de Janeiro, London, Los Angeles, and Chicago. They are everywhere. However, unlike the humorous depiction of zombies that currently proliferate the screens of primetime television, these living dead are very real, and they are not going away. They are found in every geographical location of the world whether it be a major metropolitan area, a farm on the back roads of India, a swamp in Louisiana, or a Sandals resort in St. Lucia.

Some of their faces report to his class every day, and although their clothes are not tattered and their hair is more well-kempt, their eyes reveal the hunger and pain that pervades their body and their spirits.
   His First Steps


   Love bears all things,
   Believes all things,
   Hopes all things,
   Endures all things.

   --I Corinthians 13

Such was the impact that the travels with his father had upon Tommy as a child. However, they not only made him more aware of the economic disparity that existed among nations, they also instilled within him an appreciation of the richness of the diverse cultures that exist and an awareness of the phenomenal beauty of the earth and its fragile ecosystem.

His frequent trips away from home, especially those trips that extended throughout the summer months, made it difficult to establish long-standing relationships with his peers. In addition, his mother's persistent efforts to shape and mold him into a genius precluded any opportunity to participate in what Mother referred to as "common" activities. As a result, he was perceived by his classmates as a model geek, and he was often the victim of verbal assaults and name-calling, including "nerd," "sissy," "weirdo," and "faggot." Feeling victimized, he further alienated himself by shunning any social activities of the school. He soon began to embrace the life of solitude that he had adopted and immersed himself into the development of his talents and abilities.

By the time he graduated from high school he had become an accomplished artist and had been offered several art scholarships. His artistic ability in painting was complemented by his hobby of photography, and he often used the pictures that he had taken as models or themes for his paintings. Tommy also excelled in mathematics and science, and had a penchant for creating theoretical designs of bridges and skyscrapers. His enthusiasm for geology had waned, and it was supplanted by the possibility of pursuing a career in architecture.

But, then, there was Mother. She was intent on him following in his father's footsteps, and she would not conceive of any other possibility. After a thorough search of possible campuses, she announced that he would be attending Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, a small male college located in the charming Ozark Mountains. The school was rich in tradition, and had a reputation for attracting dignitaries from around the world as speakers, and also was known for providing an exceptional foundation for those who wished to ultimately be in the legal profession. There was no choice in the matter of which college he would attend. It had been arranged. Fulton, Missouri was to be his home for the next four years.

Tommy does admit that his first impression of the campus was quite favorable. He was impressed by the ornate Georgian architecture of the buildings and the brilliant foliage that decorated the campus and hillsides. Being a small private school he also entertained himself with the thought of engaging in coffee shop discourses with his professors through the night to match his wits with theirs. However, his warming to the new surroundings was transient. As he participated in the traditional opening ceremony and passed through the columns two-by-two with the other freshman, he felt like he was boarding Noah's Ark.

But something unexpected happened his freshman year that caused him to abandon the plans that had been laid out for him. It was early one morning in September as he was looking at the bulletin board in the student union that he noticed one particular announcement:






7:00 P.M.

Ever since he was a child, Tommy had always lived in a make-believe world created to fill the loneliness caused by his father's absences and his mother's oppressiveness. His fantasy world had him playing the roles of Batman, Tarzan, the Lone Ranger, and countless other heroes he imagined himself to be, and he spent most of his time away from his assigned expectations living out his illusions in a kingdom on a cloud. The idea of having the chance to "pretend officially" appealed to him, and so, that Friday night he found himself auditioning for a children's play that was to be presented shortly after Thanksgiving. When the director told Tommy that he would like him to play the role of the servant, Toot Sweet, he was ecstatic. The role required extensive makeup and a complete transformation of voice and body mechanics in order to effectively portray a seventy year old man, and he relished the challenge.

From that point on, the theatrical world consumed him and every moment apart from his academic studies was spent on stage or back stage. His existence revolved around being in a play, and Tommy had become the consummate player. What was most amazing to him, however, was the metamorphosis that occurred. He was no longer the shy, awkward boy that had been ridiculed and mocked in high school. His newly-acquired confidence allowed him to feel more comfortable in any setting, and he found himself plotting the course for the new direction in which he had set his life.
   Learning to Walk


   Now we see dimly, as in a mirror,
   But then face to face.
   Now I know in part,
   Then I shall know fully
   As I am fully known.

   --I Corinthians 13

The remainder of his college days found Tommy heavily immersed in the world of theater. Everything else was secondary. He had determined that he was going to devote his life to the theater, and he was happier than he had ever been before in his entire life. He felt as if he had discovered a giant hiding inside of him, a giant that was allowing him to undertake challenges and activities that heretofore would have seemed overly daunting. He participated in every theatrical production that was performed at William Woods the next three years, and with each play he acquired new skills and knowledge that enabled him to become more adept in the art of theater.

By his senior year he was eager to begin a career as a professional actor. His mother had disowned him upon the discovery that he would no longer comply with her dictates, while his father was consistently occupied with his legal practice. No matter. The day after graduation, he stuffed as much as he could in his backpack, and began an odyssey that started at the San Diego Repertory Company in California, continued in the Lyric theater in Sydney, Australia and the Canterbury Repertory in Christchurch, New Zealand, took a dramatic shift in New Delhi, India with another detour to Beijing, China, and culminated in Tokyo, Japan. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the journey changed course rather than culminated, primarily since he did not stop traveling, and ultimately found himself backpacking through Europe along the Mediterranean coastline.

In his travels he preferred to stay in hostels, and rarely commuted via traditional transportation. Hitchhiking provided him with the life of a vagabond, and he loved it. However, while backstage in New Zealand, he reflected on his theatrical experiences up to that point, and realized that he was valued much more for his technical skills than his acting abilities. He was seldom cast in a part when he auditioned, and his reputation as a creative lighting and set designer placed him in high demand in the theatrical circle. Working primarily backstage did not appeal to Tommy and, as a result, he impulsively set sail for India after working for only one month in Australia. Upon arrival in India, Tommy found a job as an English teacher at Delaware Academy High School in New Delhi where he was introduced to a new and very different culture. He was intrigued by the native Indians' perspective on life, their values, traditions, and deep spirituality. He quickly grew very fond of the indigenous population, and found himself learning as much as he could about Buddhism, Hinduism, and the Eastern Philosophy. He spent two years in India, and before heading back to the United States, he visited China and Japan.

It was in China and Japan that Tommy was most aware of a clash of Western

and Eastern thought--between a preoccupation with material wealth and appearance on one hand, and a regard for tradition and Buddhist philosophy on the other. When Tommy visited with Chinese and Japanese educators they expressed alarm at the increasing anger, violence, and lack of respect for humanity evident in their younger generation. The educators believed there was a desperate need for the schools to instill within students a deep concern for, and a thorough understanding of, their connectedness with others. Many of the educators feared there was little hope if young people did not take personal responsibility for the well-being of the world.

Tommy observed the reality of their concerns early one morning while strolling through the newly constructed Nogawa Park in Tokyo. He had just sat down in front of a very ornate fountain when a gang of young boys suddenly raced past him. One of the boys had a large, brown, woman's purse clutched to his chest while the others laughed, cheered, and shouted taunts at a screaming short, middle-aged woman who struggled as she pursued them. The boy with the purse looked back at the irate victim of his theft and laughed as he offered her a series of expletives. Her face reddened, and the intensity of her efforts to catch the band of thieves multiplied in response to their chants. But when the boy with the purse had turned to deride the hapless woman, his attention had been diverted from a young woman pushing a perambulator. The two collided, and the young boy sprawled upon the pavement as the purse spewed forth its contents. Scrambling to his feet, the boy and his accomplices quickly grabbed what little bits of treasure they could before dashing off, leaving behind them a distraught mother with a bawling child and a winded woman with no money.

The scene transpired in no more than a few seconds, and yet during that brief period of time Tommy felt as if he had been transported back to Cuzco, Peru where, as a child, he had witnessed a somewhat similar event. But as he reflected upon the two episodes, he realized they were not similar-not really. In Peru the boys were impoverished; they had nothing, and were fighting among themselves over a mouthful of bread. The boys in Tokyo, on the other hand, appeared to be well-fed and well-dressed. For whatever reason, at a very young age they had become predators and chose as their victims those who were weaker than they and unable to defend themselves.

Tommy slowly rose from the park bench and approached the woman who was now stooping over her purse crying loudly and gathering what was left of its contents. She glanced up momentarily and looked at him. Her face clouded up and she began to hurl what sounded like epithets at him in Japanese. He had no idea why she was angry at him or what she was saying, but it was clear that she did not want him to come any closer. Tommy immediately pivoted and headed in the opposite direction towards his hotel room, sulking as he went with his tail between his legs.

Why had she been so angry at him? Did she blame him for what had happened? How could she? Had she wanted him to try and stop the boys, or to chase them? Did she not like Americans? There was no way of knowing. By the time Tommy finally reached his hotel room he felt as if his head was going to blow up. Words and images and feelings were boiling in his head: her face, the faces of the boys, their voices, their screams, their taunts and jeers, their laughing, their crying--they were all intermingled with the discourses he had had with the teachers in Asia and the writings of the Eastern philosophies; he felt as if he were being nailed onto a cross made of the ubiquitous poverty and oppression that existed wherever he traveled, and each word, each memory, each image hammered itself deeper and deeper into his flesh. He sat there heavily on his bed in that Tokyo hotel and began to sob uncontrollably.

From that point on, his life has never been the same.
   Learning to Run


   If I give away everything I own
   And if I hand my body over so that I may boast,
   But do not have love,
   I gain nothing.

   --I Corinthians 13

For the second time in his young life, Tommy made a decision to pass through a door that was entirely foreign to him. The incident in Nogawa Park had stirred up emotions and thoughts that had been buried deep within him since early childhood. And suddenly, everything became very clear to him. At that moment, he resolved to dedicate his life to serving others. Although he was not sure how, he was determined to use all his knowledge, all his experiences, all his talents, and all his energy towards that purpose.

The day after he arrived back to the U.S. in San Francisco, he submitted an application to the Peace Corps. It wasn't long before he received a letter saying that his application had been approved, and six months later he found himself serving as a volunteer with the shamans outside the Mongolian capital of Ulaanbautar.

Shamans are found around the globe, but the word shaman, meaning "one who knows," comes from the Evenki, an indigenous reindeer-herding people in northern Siberia. Initially, Tommy was skeptical about the entire concept of shamanism. But over the next two years, his skepticism was replaced with a deep respect for shamans and for the people of Mongolia. They live an extremely harsh, simple life that is steeped in tradition. The environment is brutal, and the rigors of everyday life have made the Mongolians durable and persistent. They are a fun-loving people, quick to share their homes and affection with foreigners. They welcomed him into their hearts and had become loyal disciples of the teachings that he had brought from the Western world. Yet in spite of their kindred spirits, they clung steadfastly to their traditional thoughts and customs. It was their way of life.

As he acclimated to the Mongolian way of life, it became apparent that the philosophy of the shamans closely resembled that of the Cherokee Indians of North America. The shamans believe that the universe is a unified whole. They believe that it is a giant network in which everything is linked--mountains, lakes, rivers, sky, animals, humans--everything. They also believe that we are connected not only to each other in the present time but also to our ancestors in the past as well. They believe that ancestors are guardian angels who are real people. The love that is felt for them and from them is an energy that unites them forever and never disappears. So in spite of having a strong sense of individualism, the shamans also believe they are inextricably connected to the past and to nature.

When Tommy left Mongolia, that feeling of love and connectedness did little to buffer the sorrow he experienced as he left behind many families and friends. The sadness in his heart brought to mind Kahlil Gibran's verse:
   When you are joyous, look deep into
   your heart and you shall find it is only
   that which has given you sorrow that is
   giving you joy.

   When you are sorrowful look again in
   your heart, and you shall see that in
   truth you are weeping for that which
   has been your delight. (12)

While in Mongolia, he had come to the realization that he had a great passion for teaching, and so as he approached the end of his term of service, he sent out over fifty applications for teaching positions around the continental United States. Much to his dismay, only a handful responded, and those that did graciously said that there were no positions open at that time.
   The Marathon


   So faith, hope, love remain,
   These three;
   But the greatest of these is love.

   --1 Corinthians: 13

Tommy was disappointed but not discouraged as he hitchhiked from California to Chicago, Illinois. His childhood friend, Kenny Bauer, had written to him and told him of an opening for a librarian at the Chicago Public Library. While the job did not match his desire to apply his skills to teaching, he saw it as an opportunity to reacclimate to the Western culture while preparing for the required teacher certification exams. It also paid his bills.

He had been working at the library for eight months when he received a call from Sylvester Gibson, the human resources director of the Chicago Public Schools. Mr. Gibson told Tommy there was an opening for an eighth grade Language Arts teacher and he wanted to know if Tommy was interested in interviewing for the job. Tommy assured Mr. Gibson that he was, so a time was scheduled to meet with him and Mr. Gooden, the principal of Turner Middle School.

The day of the interview there was about a foot of newly fallen snow on the ground, so Tommy decided to use the L-train to travel to his appointment. Arriving about 30 minutes early, he announced his arrival to the receptionist, who barely glanced up as she acknowledged his presence and promptly ordered him to find a seat and wait. There was a row of oak wooden arm chairs directly across from her desk, so he quickly took the nearest one and ruminated as he predicted the battery of questions that might be thrown at him in the interview.

Tommy's thoughts were interrupted as the office door to his left opened and he heard his name called. Mr. Gooden stood at the doorway and extended his right hand to greet him, "Mr. Calley? So good to meet you."

Mr. Gooden was a tall, thin African-American man with an Ernie Kovacs moustache and thick, black-rimmed glasses. He had a deep, sonorous voice and was much younger than Tommy had expected. He made Tommy feel at ease with his gentle demeanor, and during their entire discourse Tommy felt as if they were having a friendly conversation rather than an interview. Towards the end of the interview, Mr. Gooden looked at Tommy intently, paused, reached for his phone and dialed a number. "Sylvester, this is Dwight. Yes, yes, yes. I've just been talking with our young man Mr. Calley here, and I do believe he is just the right man that we've been looking for. Yes, I know, but he understands all that. This is the man that I want. We don't want to lose him. I'll be sending him with the necessary paper work to your office so that we can get started on this. He'll be ready to start on Monday. Thanks so much. We'll talk more later. Bye." Mr. Gooden looked at Tommy and smiled. "Mr. Calley, I am delighted to have met you. I know that you will be an invaluable addition to our faculty. There are some preliminary procedures that you will have to go through before you begin working on Monday, and you are not officially hired until the board approves you, but those are no more than technicalities. Welcome aboard."

And that was it. Tommy Calley has been a teacher ever since.


We are shaped and fashioned by what we love.


Tommy believes his journey as a teacher actually began the day he was born. Every experience since that time has been a resource to be utilized for his students' benefit. Every lesson Tommy teaches is a fingerprint of his life that he freely shares; the students, in turn, offer their hand to Tommy to imprint their lives upon his soul. Tommy's travels have enabled him to understand the connectedness to which the shamans of Mongolia refer. He has had the good fortune to see through the eyes of so many others, and, as a result, has come to believe that he, the earth, and heavens are one.

Teaching is his passion. It is what he does best. It matters not to him whether he is male or female, black or white, tall or short, or possesses any of the other limiting characteristics that society may attempt to bestow upon him. When he was a child, there were those who called him a "sissy" or a "geek." Today, because he is employed in what is perceived by many to be a woman's profession, he continues to be referred to by some as gay, a pedophile, a loser. Tommy thinks that perhaps his passion is a threat to their masculinity, because he has freed himself from the shackles of conformity that some others placed upon themselves. If he were to label himself at all, it would be with these four words: I am a teacher. Tommy also recognizes that being a teacher is a collaborative effort, for a teacher is a learner. Tommy believes that all of his students are his teachers as well. During the course of each day that Tommy learns as much from the students as they learn from him. As partners, they travel the path of experience together.

Tommy's students live in a community where they frequently face gang violence and drugs; severe physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse; pregnancy, poverty, and malnutrition; and the incarceration of parents, or abandonment. The overall absentee rate at his school is high, and a large number of the students who attend his school drop out by the time they reach the ninth grade. However, Tommy's students are the exception to that pattern. A student is seldom absent from his class, and he so inspires them that they often come to his class even when they feel sick. They regularly gather on Saturdays on the school stage to practice their roles for an upcoming play, and their conversations during the lunch hour revolve around their projects and assignments in the classroom. And apparently his effect on them is lasting. A large number of them continue on to college after they have graduated from high school. Some have become lawyers, doctors, engineers, architects, and teachers. Others have been successful in establishing their own businesses, while still others have found a career in the arts. A group of his former students organize a reunion about every five years for all of those who have had him for their teacher to pay special tribute to the man they feel had a significant impact on their lives.

Due to Tommy's passion for education, success with his students, and positive effect on the learning community, he has been honored with the State Teacher of the Year Award. He has also enjoyed honorary membership in the Kiwanis Club, the Rotary Club, and the Lions Club over the past ten years.

There are no words that can adequately describe the richness and satisfaction that Tommy has experienced on his journey as a teacher. As he reflects upon each moment, day, and year--and upon each pupil who has entered his room and his life--he has come to realize that they have inspired him far more than he could ever hope to inspire them. In each student Tommy recognizes a brilliant spark just waiting to ignite, blossoming into a dazzling shower of illumination that perhaps will allow those around them to see the world a little more clearly.


Tommy is not a typical teacher. What, then, are the characteristics that define him as a person and establish his identity? What is it that makes Tommy's teaching exceptional?

Tommy might be described by some as a modern day polymath. He speaks five languages fluently. His passion for reading has resulted in an extensive home library that includes books on the natural and political sciences, inventions, art and architecture, philosophy, religion, biographies, and geography. Besides being an accomplished oil painter, pianist, and guitar player, he continues to perform in community theater and sing in a large chorale group. His talents, interests, and experiences have a profound impact on the lessons that unfold in his classroom. Tommy says, " I present an idea along with questions, and then my students and I go on a journey of discovery. The purpose of our lesson is for them to discover as much as they can about the world around them and about themselves as well, and to come to understand how they are a part of the world, and how the world is a part of them."

According to Shaun Johnson and Brenda Weber, education is one of the "quintessential 'caring' disciplines." (13) As a result, many men regard being a teacher as suitable for women and not a "viable career." (14) Why, then, did Tommy choose to become a teacher? In his own words, Tommy's choice was prompted by "the tremendous influence that many of my teachers had on me growing up: Mr. Baylor, my sixth grade teacher; Mr. Vogler, my seventh grade teacher; Mr. Elliot, my senior English teacher; Ms. Graybaugh, my philosophy teacher; and Ms. Hemley, my English Lit. teacher ..." Tommy then elaborated on each of them and how they had nurtured and respected him and instilled within him a sense of self-worth and an excitement for learning. He discussed their varied styles and their concern for each of their students. "Most of all," Tommy said, "they made me feel important. They seemed truly interested in hearing of my travels, and they in turn would share highlights of their past with the class. One of the things I remember most about their classes is the stories they would tell about their many experiences as they were growing up."

Johnson and Weber cite the fear many men have that, in choosing a teaching career, they would subject themselves to increased scrutiny about their sexual orientation as well as speculation about their interest in young boys. Tommy smiled and shook his head when questioned about this perspective. "There are all kinds of people," he sighed. "I guess they just never really learned how to think beyond what they want to believe, and never really open their eyes to see the world around them. Having the opportunity to teach is probably the greatest gift that I have been given. It is such a privilege to be able to work with young people and to help them to discover their potential and to grow as individuals."

He attributes his awareness of this opportunity to his travels to countries where he was a stranger and enjoyed little privilege. This awareness was especially profound during his two years of Peace Corps service in Mongolia. Although Tommy was honored for his knowledge and respected for the personal contribution, he felt the shamans always viewed him as an outsider who had much to learn about life. He described that particular experience as "enlightening, humbling, and exhilarating."

The many qualities that Tommy exhibits seem to match the ideal that Stephanie White describes in her study, "Dads as Teachers: Exploring Duality of Roles in the New Zealand Context." (15) Tommy feels his many abilities and varied interests are a direct result of the numerous cultures he experienced during his travels around the world.

Tommy admits that while it is a financial sacrifice to be a teacher in a public school, monetary success does not define what he believes is most important in life. He believes that serving others and giving of one's self is of much greater value than attaining material wealth. He adds that after witnessing abject poverty in his travels, he wants for nothing, and feels more than comfortable with the lifestyle a teacher's salary provides him.

In their study of "Masculinity, Violence and Schooling," Jane Kenway and Lindsay Fitzclarence state:
   ... hegemonic masculinity mobilizes around physical strength,
   adventurousness, emotional neutrality, control, assertiveness,
   self-reliance, individuality, competitiveness, instrumental skills,
   public knowledge, discipline, reason, objectivity, and rationality.
   It distances itself from physical weakness, expressive skills,
   private knowledge, creativity, emotion, dependency, subjectivity,
   irrationality, cooperation, and empathetic, compassionate,
   nurturant and certain affiliative behaviors. In other words, it
   distances itself from the feminine and considers the feminine less
   worthy. (16)

It is interesting to note that while many of the masculine characteristics defined in this hegemonic model could be applied to Tommy, it is also true that many of the feminine traits apply to him as well. The reason for this ambiguity is not to be found in Tommy's nature, but in the invalidity of the model that has been constructed. Tommy has created his own model: a model based upon an independent spirit fed by thoughts and feeling from around the world over a lifetime. As a result, Tommy is not hampered by having to decide whether his actions are manly or not. He only concerns himself with his students and what is in their best interests. When the students audition for parts in their annual Shakespeare production, Tommy casts the roles based upon the personal characteristics and abilities of the students, not upon their gender. In his lessons he always attempts to avoid referring to any activity or characteristic as being appropriate or exclusive only to boys or girls. He joins in all the activities with all of his students. As a result, an observer of his classes may find him dancing ballet, knitting a hat for a play, or baking and cooking with the students in preparation for a theatrical performance. Students have responded positively to the equitable manner in which he engages them in activities. They exhibit a very high energy level, and their interactions are devoid of the bickering and sexist remarks that are common with many students at this grade level as observed by Barrie Thorne in Gender Play. (17)

It is unlikely that the hegemonic model presented by Kenway and Fitzclarence will be completely deconstructed anytime soon. As Ana Martinez Aleman wrote in "Faculty Productivity and the Gender Question," teaching is still perceived as a "narrative of femininity, a tale of the meaning of relationships." (18) However, there are indications that challenges to this characterization are beginning to slowly transform the way individuals perceive themselves and form their identities. As Stephanie White noted, teachers like Tommy Calley are creating a positive environment in which education becomes a powerful tool to combat sexism, racism, and other forms of prejudice. (19) Ironically, the institution that has been categorized as feminine and of less value in an economy of exchange may be the very same instrument that will empower individuals to overcome the current hegemonic model.

Tommy is an exceptional teacher because of his passion for the profession and love for his students. He refuses to accept the notion that manhood is dictated by the culture in which he lives rather than by his own volition to select his personal identity. His approach to life has allowed him to embrace diversity and welcome challenges. He has the rare gift of being able to see the world from his student's perspective, and with that knowledge he has the ability to engage students as active members of a learning community they create together.

Yes, it would be beneficial to have more male teachers, especially at the elementary level, but only if those men have the desire and commitment to devote themselves to their profession and the courage to challenge existing biases that categorize teaching as a reproductive process that has no market value. As Thomas Barone noted, "A teacher affects eternity. He can never tell where his influence stops." (20)

In order to change the perception of the male teacher and the role of education, it will be necessary for the men who enter the profession to have an intense passion to effect change and create an educational model that is equitable and respected by all. As Johnson and Weber noted:
   A man who is passionate about teaching often belies the gender
   codes that constitute the mainstream. It is not only the plurality
   of our students' sexed and gendered lives that must be built into
   the collective consideration, but the appearances and actuality of
   our own lives that must be factored into a pedagogical practice.

Is it possible that Paulo Freire was right in proposing that revolution might be the only recourse in creating a change in our culture that would remove the oppression experienced by the majority of the world's population and allow them to be truly liberated through education? Freire believed that liberation is a praxis, the result of women and men reflecting and acting upon the world in order to transform it. Freire argued that liberating education was problem-posing education that consists in acts of cognition, of consciousness, of intentionality. (22) Is it feasible to believe that teachers like Tommy, whether they be male or female, can create the elements of consciousness within the hearts and minds of their students to such an extent that revolution will evolve from their internal transformation? The seeds of thought that teachers plant in the minds of today's students may emerge tomorrow as the new life that we will all come to experience.

Oral histories of teachers are one of the most powerful literary devices to show who teachers really are and why they form the foundation of a society. The importance of having teachers tell their stories has been well expressed by Lucy E. Bailey, who wrote," ... life narratives should be written, savored, shared, discussed, analyzed--indeed, used ... their lasting educative value lies in part in their everyday use ..." (23)

Bailey draws upon the title and symbolism of Alice Walker's short story, "Everyday Use," to vividly convey how sharing the voice of the teacher subsequently engages the voice of the student, which leads to a personal transformation in both of their lives.

What difference do teachers make in a student's life? That question is answered in the memoirs of Mark Edmundson in Teacher: The One Who Made the Difference, and of Jay Parini in The Art of Teaching. Edmundson and Parini report that one teacher changed their lives forever, a perspective that is echoed in countless other narratives and biographies.

Such was the case in the life of Tommy Calley, whose family prescribed his role early, but who defied conformity and ultimately sought his own destiny. Tommy's curiosity to discover the world, his comfort with himself, and his ability to distinguish truth from prejudice separated him from his peers and allowed him to flourish. Tommy's decision to become a teacher was the result of the profound effect his teachers had on him.

Tommy Calley's story dispels so many of the myths and stereotypes that have been associated with men who are elementary teachers. It also presents for examination the concept of white male privilege and the degree to which it has affected career and vocational choices. Through Tommy's unique voice, presented in this oral history, readers find the inspiration to listen to their own conscience and to follow their own path.


(1) Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes (New York: Scribner, 1996).

(2) Frank McCourt, Teacher Man (New York: Scribner, 2005).

(3) Rate Esquith, There Are No Shortcuts (New York: Random House, 2006).

(4) Mark Edmundson, Teacher (New York: Random House, 2002).

(5) Mary Aswell Doll, To the Lighthouse and Back: Writings on Teaching and Living (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, 1995).

(6) Jay Parini, The Art of Teaching (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(7) Jane Tompkins, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned (Reading, MA: Perseus, 1996).

(8) Diane Manning, Hill Country Teacher (Boston, MA: Twayne, 1990).

(9) Susan Dichter, Teachers: Straight Talk From the Trenches (Chicago: Lowell House, 1989).

(10) Madeline Arnot and Mairtin Mac an Ghaill, eds. The Routledge Falmer Reader in Gender & Education. (London and New York, 2006), 4.

(11) Vivian Gornick quote in Robert Nash, Liberating Scholarly Writing: The Power of Personal Narrative. (New York: Teachers College Press), 23.

(12) Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (London: Oneworld Publications), 40-41.

(13) Shaun Johnson and Brenda Weber, "Toward a Genderful Pedagogy and the Teaching of Masculinity," The Journal of Men's Studies 19, no. 2 (2011): 138-158.

(14) Ibid.

(15) Stephanie White, "Dads as Teachers: Exploring Duality of Roles in the New Zealand Context," The Journal of Men's Studies, 19, no. 2 (2011): 173-185.

(16) Jane Kenway, Lindsay Fitzclarence, "Masculinity, Violence and Schooling," The RoutledgeFalmer Reader in Gender & Education. (Arnot & Mac an Ghaill, Eds.) (New York: Routledge, 1997): 206.

(17) Barrie Thorne, Gender Play: Girls and Boys in School (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2004).

(18) Ana Martinez Aleman, "Faculty Productivity and the Gender Question," in Unfinished Agendas. (Glazer-Raymo Ed.) (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008): 142.

(19) White, "Dads as Teachers," 173-185.

(20) Thomas Barone, Touching Eternity: The Enduring Outcomes of Teaching (New York: Teachers College Press, 2001).

(21) Johnson and Weber, "Toward a Genderful Pedagogy and the Teaching of Masculinity," 138-158.

(22) Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2006).

(23) Lucy E. Bailey, book review of Deconstructing and Reconstructing Lives: Auto/Biography in Educational Settings by Lucy Forsyth Townsend and Gaby Weiner (University of Western Ontario: Althouse Press, 2011) in Vitae Scholasticae, 2012: 58.

Tim Neller

Southeastern Oklahoma

State University
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Author:Neller, Tim
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Essay
Date:Mar 22, 2015
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