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The Education of Brother Mac 

Torthel McClodden taught at one of the worst high schools in the city and loved it. Now they don't want him back.

He speaks with a deep, rich radio voice, and he is articulate. Mostly he speaks with passion, especially when the conversation veers toward the lives of black inner-city teens. Every now and then, quite suddenly, he becomes reflective and sad and even borderline bitter, puffing away at a cigarette, staring into space. He has an unusual name-- Torthel Lockli McClodden -- that he has turned to some advantage. In the hallways and classrooms of Beaumont High, which are filled with teens from low-income black North St. Louis families, he was known simply as "Brother Mac." He insisted on that, rejecting the standard "Mr. McClodden" because he felt it cut down the distance and formality of the student-teacher relationship. His voice jumps a couple of notches when he talks of one of the bright spots in his otherwise ordinary life: the honest conversations he has had with the teens about sex, drugs, race, family.

At 43, Brother Mac spoke the students' language better than many of the older teachers at Beaumont did. And it didn't hurt that he is a single father and that three of his five children, still in their teens, live with him. At Beaumont, he used his own brand of tough love. The administrators, he says, "were even willing to let me go to "Motherfuckerville' -- you know, where sometimes I'd have to drag a kid: "Sit your ass down, motherfucker, let me tell you something.'

"And then later you see the same kid telling other kids, "Hey man, Brother Mac's all right,'" he says. He pauses, seeming overwhelmed. "Man, that shit tears you up. It's enough to make you cry."

A couple of colleagues at Beaumont note that Brother Mac had a way with the kids. The kids, it seems, needed Brother Mac as much as he needed them.

When we first met, in early December, he'd been teaching at Beaumont for three years. He talked of how he was raised primarily by his mother, who divorced his father three months after he was born in 1957. He saw his father (who lived "a shady life" in East St. Louis) on weekends and holidays, but he grew up with his four siblings and his mother, who worked several jobs at a time (waitress, hairdresser, scrub nurse). Then she moved her family to St. Peters, where young Torthel was the only African-American in the class of '75 at Fort Zumwalt High School. After floundering for a while, living briefly with his dad in East St. Louis, he joined the Air Force in 1977 and was put to work cleaning and maintaining warehouses. Ten-and-a-half years later, including more than three years in England, he quit the Air Force as a disabled veteran after sustaining a severe ankle injury. Along the way, he fathered a child out of wedlock (now 22 and in college); married a woman, with whom he had four children; and became an ordained minister. He moved with his family to Greenville, S.C., busy with "ministerial pursuits," working low-skilled jobs, taking pre-law courses at Greenville College.

"It was all about trying to find out what kind of man I was," he says.

By 1995, he was divorced and back in St. Louis. He worked at St. Louis Artworks and the Black Rep, then at a chemical firm in St. Peters. Still searching for an appropriate vocation, in 1997 he signed up, at the suggestion of a friend, as a substitute teacher in the St. Louis Public Schools.

When his assignment took him to Beaumont High, his lifelong search ended.

For the first time ever, he felt needed. "The thing that hit me was, these kids hung on every word I had to say," he says. "I quickly realized that they don't have a father figure; they don't have a black man in their life. I mean, these kids were glad I was there; they were glad to see me."

Beaumont is an essentially nonintegrated school of about 1,400 students at Natural Bridge and Vandeventer avenues. It has the lowest attendance rate of all the district's high schools, meaning that fewer than 1,000 students show up each day. At parent-teacher conference days, about one in five parents shows up. As far as test scores go, Beaumont ranks in the bottom tier.

His first teaching assignment was a Spanish class, yet all he knew of Spanish was "bar talk." Keep the kids busy until the Spanish teacher returned to school, he was told. "We would sit and talk about everything -- sex, racism, gangs," he says. He returned to Beaumont every day, doing stints teaching social studies, math, special ed, whatever was needed. Both in and out of class, he listened to and talked with the students -- the "young lady" whose father got her pregnant, the rebellious boy who cussed at the teachers, the dozens of students who saw no reason to pay attention in class.

What, in his experience, motivated the kids the most? "They were as motivated as you showed concern for their lives," he says without hesitation. One day, he had students name all the rap artists they knew, and he wrote the dozens of names on the blackboard. "Then I told them I'd give 20 bucks to the first person who can name all 50 states," he says. "Only one kid could do so. So I turned it around into saying, "If you can name all these rap artists, how come you can't name the states?'"

For the past year, he told me, he'd been teaching biology. Seeing nothing in his background regarding that subject, I ask what he knows of biology. "I don't know a damn thing about biology," he says.

Brother Mac did what all substitute teachers do when they find themselves teaching subjects they know nothing about -- they cram the textbook, they ask the experienced teachers for help, they wing it. The district's substitute pool has about 725 people. On any given day, more than 300 substitute teachers are working in public-school classrooms all over the city. By definition, none of them is qualified to teach. All have at least 60 college credit hours, the only requirement necessary to teach (besides passing a police-record check). They are not certified full-time teachers because they either don't have a college degree and the requisite courses or haven't passed the state certification test.

And yet about 300 of them are, like Brother Mac, considered "permanent" or "long-term" substitutes. Some have been teaching the same subject at the same school full time, every day, all school year long. Some have been teaching for six, eight, 10 years. The rest of the names in the pool are people who work on and off, a day or few days at a time.

Before last fall, substitutes got just $62 a day for teaching. If they worked for 25 days straight, on the 26th consecutive day their pay jumped to $132.50 a day, retroactive to the first day. Long-term subs were allowed one sick day a month and time off for family funerals. In August, the district changed the pay-and-benefits policy. The starting sub pay was increased to $85 from $62, with the same $132.50 a day after 25 consecutive days, but the retroactive provision was taken away. Sick days and bereavement time were also eliminated. In effect, the changes improved pay for short-term subs but penalized the long-term subs.

On the face of it, it makes little sense to reduce benefits for the substitutes who teach all year long -- especially in a district that, on any given day, has 300 or more full-time certified-teacher vacancies it cannot fill.

David Flieg oversees a small staff facing a gargantuan task. As head of personnel for the St. Louis Public Schools, he is on a relentless mission to lure and hire certified teachers -- and to retain the teachers already here. The district, which has about 100 schools and about 3,800 teaching positions, is always short 250-350 teachers. It's a never-ending battle for Flieg. Even as he struggles to fill vacancies, more are created each day when teachers retire or leave for better jobs. Last year, nearly 240 teachers left the district or retired.

Flieg uses all the standard recruitment practices: ads in local niche publications (he added foreign-language publications to his list this year), ads on the Internet, two career fairs each year to sign up teachers on the spot pending certification, reaching out to third-year college students with a bargain -- get your fourth year of tuition paid if you teach for three years in the city schools after graduation. He is also putting together, with help from local developers and banks, a $15,000 loan program to help teachers make the down payments on their first homes; if they work three years in the district, the $15,000 will be forgiven.

Statewide, there is no shortage of qualified teachers, but many change careers rather than take a job in the St. Louis district. Besides the usual bias against city schools (crime, inadequate academic resources, etc.), the starting pay for teachers (about $26,000 now) lags behind that in suburban districts. In its desperation, the district sent a two-person team last year to South Africa to recruit teachers; the privately financed trip netted a dozen math and science teachers.

Flieg says he will try anything as long as he thinks it will work. "We're leaving no stone unturned," he says. "We're not letting anybody get away. Anybody who shows interest in the St. Louis Public Schools, we're gonna grab them the best we can. It's like the all-state basketball player -- if he shows any interest in Mizzou, that new coach down there, (Quin) Snyder, he's going to be at his house, talking to his parents, going out to the school -- that's what we do."

A lifelong St. Louisan, Flieg started teaching in the city schools in the mid-'60s; he went on to become principal and then into administration, supervising elementary principals, and now serves as head of personnel overseeing a 28-person department, only one of whom is a full-time recruiter. The Chicago Public Schools, for instance, have a 300-person human-resources department, covering about 600 schools, or about 50 staff members for every 100 schools. Flieg has 28 people to cover the city's 100 schools.

But Flieg is quick to note that the district is short of money, and he is quick to defend his higher-ups. "We don't have extra money to spare," he says. "Our money, as best as we can, we put it into teacher salaries. So I have to make do with what I have."

The recruitment effort -- the financial incentives, the career fairs -- is directed at finding new teachers. None of it is directed at the existing group of 700-plus substitute teachers, especially the 300 or so who are long-term or permanent substitutes. After all, these are people already teaching in the schools -- doing a satisfactory job, according to the principals -- and yet they aren't qualified to teach what they are teaching. But the district sets aside virtually no money to get these substitutes -- the Brother Macs of the world -- to finish college and get certified. No district money is allocated to pay their tuition if they choose to pursue certification.

Brother Mac says he'd love nothing better than to become certified and get full pay and benefits to teach something he knows something about. Given the chance, he says, he would get qualified to teach social studies. But with $132.50 a day in income and three teenage kids at home, he hasn't been able to afford health insurance for his kids, let alone college tuition for himself. Would he attend evening classes and pursue a degree and certification if the district paid for it? "I'm there," he says.

But he has been waging a different battle against the St. Louis Board of Education. He has been showing up at board meetings and politely but firmly asking them to address the concerns of substitute teachers, whom he began trying to organize last year under the auspices of the St. Louis Teachers Union Local 420. They have proposed, among other things, that daily substitute pay be increased from $132.50 to $140. In August, less than two weeks before school opened, says Brother Mac, the district sprang a surprise: Not only didn't the subs get the pay raise, they had their retroactive pay, sick days and bereavement time yanked. Asking the district to pay college tuition for the substitutes seems pointless under the circumstances.

When he spoke at the Dec. 12 school-board meeting, accusing the board of misleading the substitutes early in the year and then springing the cutbacks in the fall, nothing happened. Board president Marlene Davis politely shut the door in his face. "We approved a budget, and that's it -- that's the end," Davis told him. "I have nothing else to say about it."

Three days later, Brother Mac was notified by the principal at Beaumont High that his substitute-teaching gig was up: The district had hired another teacher.

Not only was he no longer working at Beaumont, he was back last week dialing up the district's computerized phone system for substitute assignments. He filled in for a learning-disabilities teacher at an elementary school. The next day brought a different school, a different assignment. Worst of all, his daily pay is back to $85, down from the $132.50 he was making at Beaumont, because he no longer has 25 consecutive days of teaching to qualify for the higher amount.

When he showed up at the Jan. 9 school-board meeting, he told the board of the things beyond the call of duty he had done at Beaumont: how he had helped start up a young men's rite-of-passage program that was about to get a $1,500 grant; how he was helping prepare students for a Shakespeare contest; how he was called on to provide rides to students to and from home when there were threats of violence; how he had worked with the ninth-grade "initiative facilitator" on a Saturday program aimed at keeping problem kids in school; how he had planned to perform at a February fundraiser with the Beaumont choir, the same choir that sang at his mother's funeral in October.

He asked for an explanation of why he was removed from Beaumont. "People told me I would pay a price for taking the stance that I've taken on behalf of the substitute teachers," he told the board. "But I was foolish enough to believe in the possibilities. I guess now I am foolish enough to believe that no one in this room knows a blessed thing about what I'm talking about, either."

After a brief exchange, Brother Mac was referred to someone in the district who could tell him about a private fund that might pay for him to finish school and get certified.

It was the first Brother Mac had ever heard of it.

Known as the Parsons-Blewitt Fund, it was set up in 1916 to help recruit and train teachers in the St. Louis Public Schools. Mostly it pays for the district's certified teachers to pursue graduate work. Tom Stinger, a spokesman for the fund, says income from about $35 million (the principal amount) is used each year to help teachers. Last year, says Stinger, about $1 million was spent, with about 60 teachers getting some form of aid.

In October, says Stinger, the fund announced a public meeting at a local cafeteria to inform teachers how to apply for grants. About 15 people showed up, and grants for two were actually approved as a result of the meeting.

For a school district that has been under threat of having its accreditation revoked, a district whose primary goal is to improve test scores, neglecting the large pool of substitutes right under its nose seems insane, if not a dereliction of duty. Surely Brother Mac isn't the only substitute who would take up a district offer of help getting certification. If the district were to set up a focused program aimed at interviewing and selecting current substitute teachers, paying college tuition for one or two years so the subs could get their degree and certification, they would fill a large chunk of the vacancies with qualified teachers -- and not have Brother Mac trying to teach biology all year. What better way to improve the quality of education than to direct as many resources as possible toward getting qualified teachers? How on earth is it acceptable to have more than 300 substitutes teaching classes every day that they are not qualified to teach?

And if all the district can do when someone like Brother Mac beats down its doors is to refer him to a limited private fund that may help him pursue certification, and if few of the other substitutes even know about the fund (the substitute-teacher handbook makes no mention of it), it's a reasonable conclusion that the board and administrators are either asleep at the wheel or so distracted by less important concerns as to not be paying attention to the basic issue of classroom education.

On a gray, damp, overcast Thursday afternoon, Brother Mac stands across the street from the entrance to Beaumont, looking at the imposing building that became so familiar to him over the past three years. School is over for the day, the buses are gone and teachers are trickling out. From out of an upper-story window, one teacher waves to him. Minutes later, a couple of students walk by, saying, "Hey, Brother Mac." They make small talk and walk on. Brother Mac recalls that when he was young, his mother sold sandwiches from a cart on the streets around the building, when it was full of white students.

It is apparent that he misses the school, misses interacting with the teenagers. "My whole life prepared me to do this," he says finally. "It's ministry, man! It's making an impact. And my self-esteem is tied up in it. I don't know what I'm going to do."

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More by Safir Ahmed

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