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Rosemary Adam: The world inside the word

I have a box of photographs from 1987, my junior year at Claremont High School, shot with the Pentax K-1000 I bought for my photography class. A group of these photos were taken in Rosemary Adam’s classroom and were developed in the CHS darkroom.

The beautiful chaos of her room is evident: the assignment on the board for Creative Writing (“When I was a child…”);  posters of Ray Bradbury who she took me to meet at a small bookstore that no longer exists in South Pomona (the word on the street was that they had dated briefly); a photograph of her at the podium, reading an ode to her daughter Cindy; shelves and shelves of books and, in the center of the room, an unkempt pile of poetry.

One of her most wonderful weekly activities was to have us anonymously submit our poems in the pile. She, too, submitted a poem for the week, and she ran a little game, including the unmarked and lesser-known verse of a famous poet.

We were to each take a small handful of these works and subject them to our emerging review skills. Students would remark, “Learn some grammar,” on a poem by e.e. cummings or add such thoughtful observations as “Who are these people?” on Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool.” We were both laughed at and revered in a spirit of camaraderie after the authors were revealed at the end of class. But we were writers, all of us. It taught me how important a community of writers really is.  

Rosemary Adam, or Madame Adam as she liked to be called, was one of the many teachers at Claremont High whose class was not just a period in the day, but an experience. Among the things I remember most about her teaching was her deeply-held view on the importance of creativity and the imagination. Not as codified, corporatized educational jargon for an amorphous ideal, but as the way to live, breathe and write. She believed in the power of the word to navigate the world, and it edified what I had known about myself since I was five, that I was meant to be a writer.

Ms. Adam encouraged (read: shoved) me to take my first poem—a satirical anti-development piece on North Claremont inspired in part by Dottie Shamah’s class reading of Thoreau’s Walden—to Charles Chase, who found it both amusing and amenable to the mission of Folk Music Center and posted it on the Poet’s Post outside the store.

She continued to support my writing endeavors long after high school, encouraging me to submit poems and stories for national publication. I last saw her about a decade ago, when I took one of my daughters, an emerging poet, to meet her. She was still who I remembered her to be—bossy, breathy and beautiful.

The death of Rosemary Adam represents something much greater than the loss of my first poetry teacher, and more significant than our loss of her as a community member. Teachers like her, and Dottie Shamah, Jack Knapp, Waldemar Vaskis, Johanna Grey, Ann Copple, Penny Herman, Bob Shamah and Marilyn Penn (to name a few) are indeed a dying breed. They represent a generation of teachers who, unhindered by standardization and the terror of lawsuits from parents for the egregious offence of saying something, anything, wrong, believed deeply in freedom of thought and action and taught us accordingly.

These teachers worked in a nearly-pre-Proposition 13, pre-standardization era that allowed for true diversity of mind and curriculum. Ask a student who attended Claremont High School in the 1970s through the late 1980s to describe their experiences, and you will be treated to an hour’s worth of reminisces about an expansive education, where the memorization of “Thanatopsis” or a week-long discussion of Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem were only a part of the genuinely human interactions required of one another. 

We learned to be citizens of our classrooms, and thus, of the world. We were respected and revered, not out of fear of parental complaints or administrative dictation, but out of love.

A cohort of teachers who comprised the faculty during that era founded the legacy course Family of Man—a comprehensive, interdisciplinary, multi-faceted approach not only to learning, but to living. Family of Man was built on a harmony of text, conversation, engagement and games, with a deep emphasis on philosophy, reading, and writing. A great deal of our learning at that time was founded on play. 

During my years at CHS, it was possible to take as many as 35 different English classes, from Short Story and Poetry to Advanced Composition and Advanced Creative Writing, from Fantasy and Sci-Fi literature to Biblical Liturgy to Drama, from Newspaper Writing to Literary Publication. It was nearly impossible, therefore, to not enjoy reading and writing with such an array of interesting choices taught by faculty who were truly invested and engaged in our ideas and our voices.

By the early 1990s when I went back to CHS as a TA for Dottie Shamah’s classes, the selection had been narrowed to English 9, English 10, English 11 and English 12, with a handful of AP courses for the “golden” students. Advanced Creative Writing, a formative course for so many of us, no longer existed.

The Claremont High teachers of my day knew what our system has forgotten—that literature teaches us how to live, and how to live with each other. We were more tolerated and commended for our differences and our uniquenesses at CHS than I have ever been in my life, even at the university level. We talk a lot about diversity these days, which represents our desired actions toward expression with respect to gender and race. But we speak very little of intellectual diversity, artistic diversity or freedom in our classrooms.

 

We now ask little of young people in terms of divergent thought. We expose them to limited, finite amounts of literature. We standardize what teachers can and cannot say about this literature and then, as a society, we expect diversity to live alongside this confinement.

 

I would argue that our classrooms, the place where thinking ought to be most encouraged, are some of the least free and most homogenized places in the nation. Teachers are often the most chained, not only to standards but to a confining artifice of education as a container rather than a window.

Approximately 85 percent of current Common Core instruction is required to be “information-based” reading for the 12 years our students spend in the system, leaving little room for literature or creative writing, which are key to understanding how to live. In her fortitude, Ms. Adam would likely not have bowed to this trend. I imagine that were she in her teaching infancy now, the strength of her beliefs about the significance of literature, writing and free speech in the classroom would spin a few administrators on their heads.

Like economics and biology, education is rife with a notion of progress and evolution, as though the improvements proposed year after year are the fleeting mutations moving us toward the beautiful democracy idealized by philosophers such as John Dewey. It is hard to gauge the exact successes that have come about since Rosemary’s reign with respect to education. Most are likely in the realm of STEM education.

But when I ask my university students, who arrive in their freshman year bored and jaded by their high school experiences, to describe what their education in high school looked like, and then, as a thought experiment, what it should look like, the answers reveal a sad lack of scope. They wish for coveted minutae:?pencils, lockers, more sports equipment—material essences. Some students will note that they wish their teachers had been more passionate. But I find it deeply troubling that the experience of learning to be human, of learning to create, of learning as pleasure, are not among their wishes. They do not, in other words, know what they are missing. Neither do many of their teachers who came up through the grim system themselves, without their own Rosemary Adam to guide them.

There is no YouTube video of Family of Man or of Rosemary reading poems to our class while we lay on our desks, eyes closed, so we could hear the rhythms before we even saw the words. There is no footage of Claremont High’s “America and the World” class trial of the dropping on the bomb on Hiroshima—a semester-long, rigorous multi-subject research and writing excursion that made pacifists of even the most rugged class conservatives.

Once lost, some things cannot wholly be replaced or retrieved or re-enacted with exactitude. We can chronicle them, write about them and long for them, but the image of an experience, no matter how artfully rendered, is not the same as the actual experience. 

The beautiful Rosemary influenced me so greatly that I actually became a poet and a teacher, although I feel merely a shadow of who she was. I have attempted to fashion my teaching persona in her image: brash, funny, warm. I learned more about how to teach from my faculty at CHS than I did in graduate school by a long shot.

I always imagined giving back to public high school in the many ways she and the others at CHS did. But my fight will be have to quieter. I cannot stomach the grind of overfilled classrooms and the cuts to English courses and the idea that some texts are too inflammatory for the tender ears of the young.

Rosemary, and the others of her era, believed in us. They fortified us. They changed our lives. They sent us forth to rock the world with poems and art and storms of song. They made us see who we really could become. 

 

 

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