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Christian Science Monitor
My Philosophy is Simple: Learning Should Be Fun
By William J. Dean
April 12, 2004
My first job after law school was not as a lawyer. After three rigorous years of study, followed by intense cramming for the bar exam, I needed time away from the law. And so I became head of an elementary school in Fajardo, Puerto Rico, exchanging my 19-year status as a student for that of teacher and school administrator.
This came about because, while a law student, I taught one afternoon a week at a school in New York. The headmaster asked me to go to Puerto Rico to open a school and stay for four months until the permanent head could come from England.
In San Juan I was met at the airport by the school board chairman and driven directly to meet Sister Maria Jose. She ran the Roman Catholic school in Fajardo and was concerned that the new school would take her best pupils. My apprehension about the meeting vanished when she opened her mouth and I heard the familiar accent of Brooklyn, USA. Sister Maria Jose and I got along fine.
The school was located in a beautiful house, once a private residence, with a garden. The students were the children of parents working as executives at the Fajardo East Sugar Co.
The school opened with a student body of 21 boys and girls and three teachers, including me. I taught Grades 4 to 8 (11 children) in all subjects but Spanish and art. My presentations on American history drew heavily on Henry Steele Commager, whose book I fortunately had taken with me.
My educational philosophy is simple: Learning should be fun. Passersby on the street would hear gales of laughter issuing from the open windows of the school.
I was assisted in making learning fun by the arrival of Misty.
One morning we came upon an abandoned undernourished puppy on the porch. The children named her Misty, and the school adopted her. Spoiled by all of us, Misty became quite the performer, jumping on my desk and wagging her tail to the intense delight of the students. Later, during her teething phase, she occasionally nipped children on the ankle as they sat at their desks.
No child dozed with Misty in the room.
Being human, at times I would be grouchy with the students, especially when they were sloppy in their work. Too grouchy; some of the girls would cry. Having attended only all-boy schools, I was not prepared for this.
One day I had my comeuppance. A letter arrived from the New York State Board of Law Examiners notifying me that I failed the Bar exam.
From that point on, I became more sympathetic to the academic difficulties of my students.
These events occurred in the fall of 1962. Mother would call at night from New York about a missile crisis in nearby Cuba. I'd tell her that I had no time to worry about such things, being too busy preparing lessons for the next day.
My inability to speak Spanish was not a major liability, since the children all were bilingual. When dealing with the garbage collector, who spoke only Spanish, or by telephone with education officials in San Juan, I would summon an eighth-grader to serve as my interpreter.
I purchased a pocket watch. When a child arrived late, I went through an elaborate ceremony of taking the watch from my pocket and staring at its face; far more dramatic than glancing at a wristwatch. To this day, I carry a pocket watch.
Time passed quickly, too quickly. As Christmas drew near, the students bade me farewell. Tears were shed, including mine.
The new head arrived from England. His first act was to banish Misty from the premises, though she found a home with one of the children. I returned to New York City to take the bar exam again - this time successfully - and begin my career as a lawyer.