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other personal autobiography

A good fight?
Borehamwood, UK: 1969-70
Yet another clash between individual and authority

Background: Fresno State College
Background: Fresno to London

Documents related to this case, including newspaper stories, not otherwise on this web site
(12mb/200 pages)

Next: Background (Fresno State College)

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February, 2008
NOTE on dates: The reader should remember that in the UK, dates are written day-month-year--e.g., 4-3-70 is March 4, 1970.


You may remember seeing Borehamwood  (or Boreham Wood) as the Hertfordshire partner location, with Elstree, of major English movie studios, including EMI and MGM (which closed in 1970 and merged with EMI, though I don’t think because of the troubles described here).  In 1969 I was hired at a UK college of further education (FE) in Borehamwood, a commuter train ride from my home in London.  FE apparently still exists in England , but has probably changed in the last 40 years. (Borehamwood College itself seems to have changed name to Oaklands College.)  When I was there, FE covered a number of post-secondary education aims, of which two were relevant to me:

  • A-level and O-level classes to prep for national exams self-selected students who had finished regular school, may have passed one or more A- or O-level exam, but needed  more exam qualifications to qualify for college or university
  • One-day-a-week educational requirements for secondary school-leavers* who had signed up for apprenticeship programs in industry: most of the day was spent in technical courses, but the students were also required to attend one section of "liberal studies" (among its various names), which was to be a non-technical class to broaden their minds

I was hired to teach exam prep courses (in English literature) and liberal studies courses to various apprentice groups.

A few months into my first term, fall 1969, I assigned a text (Alex Haley's The Autobiography of Malcolm X) to which the school authorities objected.  My department chair told me not to teach it, and I refused to obey. After many months of wrangling, meetings, appeals, newspaper articles, union involvement and (to my mind) official duplicity within the college, I technically failed probation for not being able to get along with my superiors.  All new full-time FE teachers had a mandatory 1-year probation period.  It was almost unheard of to fail probation.  During my struggle, some teachers from elsewhere in the country said that they thought I had had bad luck working at Borehamwood--that what happened to me there would almost certainly not have happened anywhere else.

While the specifics of my experience are not universal, the overall arc has been told a thousand times in history and fiction:  opposition by officialdom (in this case based on rumors) to the action of an underling/refusal of the underling to obey/ensuing battle of many words and documents that becomes public/official manipulation in the background/almost always (in real life), victory for officialdom.  

The shenanigans behind and during my particular battle included:

  • A reference letter from Fresno State College (now Fresno State University), received at Boreham Wood after I had begun teaching, that included a statement by a Fresno official who said that while he hadn't known me, he heard that while teaching English there in 1965-66 I had publicly advised students to break laws
  • A report by one or more unidentified fellow Borehamwood faculty that they heard me preaching Marxism (or maybe black power) to at least one of my (all-white, as I recall) classes
  • A 15-page statement sent by me in January, 1970, to the college's board of governors, an uncool action within English pedagogical culture
  • Student access to this statement, which I facilitated, and its wider public distribution as a result
  • My objection during a faculty meeting to the principal's use of the expression, "nigger in the woodpile"; other faculty later discussed my concern with some soul-searching about the propriety of a phrase most of them had apparently always taken for granted
  • A spontaneous comment by me that prompted the college principal to stop a meeting with him and other officials (including, I think, a union rep or two): as the principal explained how ungrateful I was after he had hired me despite handicaps (my being American? Jewish?--I never found out; I always thought they wanted the prestige of having an M.A. on the staff) that would have stopped others from doing so, I interrupted and said approximately, "And the violins played and chirping birds sang"
  • Anonymous rumors and one or two anonymously mailed threats
  • Memos (late in the sequence of events) from my frustrated head of department complaining about my eating habits and putting my feet on my desk while teaching

I write those bullets with a light tone, but this period caused me enormous anguish, threatened my ability to keep my British work permit--and my ability to pay my share of living expenses for the apartment I was sharing at the time with my honey,--and ended up putting me on tranquilizers for a couple of weeks.

Next: Background (Fresno State College)

*It was my observation that numerous working class kids of various races and ethnicities viewed the school-leaving age (16 at that time, moved up from 15 a year or two earlier, I think) as a date to look forward to, after which they would never have to attend school again but would be earning meaningful money.  (I should note that in general salaries were very low in England at that time.  Americans would still take a trip to London just to shop.  My annual salary as a full-time teacher in 1969-70 was, I think, roughly $2000; at Fresno four years earlier it had been $6700.)  I also had the impression, both from FE and a state school where I briefly taught, that valuing education was not in vogue in the working class, but I had a narrow data sample.  To get into an apprentice program was a triumph; to learn that you had to spend a day a week back in school was disillusioning; and to find yourself stuck for an hour or more of that day in a class not obviously relevant to your work was embittering--not unlike getting into college in the US and then finding you had to take freshman English comp.  The behavior of these kids in FE varied widely and seemed culturally related to their chosen apprenticeship program.  Radio repair boys, for example, had especially low status and were terrors with me; I dreaded those classes.  Another job category which I can't remember, of higher perceived status, were pussycats and fun to teach.   Had I, however, been a more knowledgable and experienced teacher, perhaps I could have managed radio-repair-type kids better; my great friend, Harry Newland, a bulwark of support throughout my troubles at Borehamwood, got along great with the radio repair guys: he taught classes in their actual trade, and was himself  quite down-to-earth and from a working-class background.  I have a vague, perhaps false, memory that in the midst of my troubles he made an at least partly successful plea with these kids to behave well with me.

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