Teaching the `Unreachable'

`FOR Teilhard de Chardin, teaching is profoundly religious, for it advances the fallen and defective world toward its inevitable perfection. For Plato, teaching is the ultimate act of love, for it is the means by which we propagate the existence of our highest values. And, while that is happening, I am convinced that the teacher is undergoing a greater transformation than the student.'' Quincy Howe Jr. concludes his book ``Under Running Laughter'' with these words. Howe comes by his references conventionally enough. He was a classics professor for 15 years when he simply packed up and left it all behind. For four years, he has taught at Leake and Watts, a 170-year-old private residential facility for troubled 12- to- 18-year-olds in Yonkers, N.Y., just north of the city - the cauldron that emotionally scarred most of the young people served. The children stay a maximum of t wo years.

Residents come from street-tough backgrounds, of course. The word ``oppositional'' appears often throughout the text. There is a good bit of trench humor and sass, but the pith of the book is how much can and can't be done to bring dignity and solidity to these children.

Howe's approach will be controversial. He undauntingly uses ``behavior modification'' with his students, rewarding them with candy, for example, to reinforce positive behavior. According to Howe, candy, challenges, and compassion can work wonders.

Throughout the book, he offers critiques of the system. For its first hundred years, Leake and Watts was a private philanthropic project. It later became a city- and state-supported residential treatment center. As such, staff members stagger under the paperwork. He writes, ``When I ask a social worker what is the most debilitating aspect of the job, the answer is always: the crushing burden of paperwork.''

Howe's writing style is personal, yet pragmatic - serviceable, assertive, and not stunning. He is at his best when applying scholarly thinking to his classroom and when relating funny anecdotes involving the young people.

There are touching experiences related here, such as the time Howe gave an affection-starved boy a birthday party at the Howe home. Similarly, there's a boy who was academically poor, but came to shine when the author made photography equipment available to him and taught him related skills.

Then, too, there's the girl who was ``exceedingly wild and difficult.'' She was valedictorian at her graduation. Recalling experiences at Leake and Watts, she broke into sobs. By the close, many had joined her in tears. The staff was taken aback. Most had assumed she was unreachable.

Ever the classicist, Howe compares his role to Chiron of antiquity. ``The classic example of the educator was Chiron the centaur who taught the Greek heroes fortitude, probity, rhetoric, music and skill with arms. I spend the first three hours of every day with a group of adolescents to whom I teach language arts, mathematics, how to read a newspaper, how to process photographs, how to operate a computer, how to avoid venereal disease, how to use a sewing machine. I am also trying to teach them how to e steem themselves and others, how to accept adults as benign influences in their lives ... By being with the children day after day, week after week, the teacher becomes a persistent reminder of hope, competence, progress, and self-mastery.''

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