By Dick Cummins
Dick Cummins is a fiction writer working on a memoir, and a regular contributor to this blog.
Here’s what we hope you’ll find to be a terrific example of creative nonfiction. The personal essay is about college sports, and much more—football with political implications, and better yet with a nod to the writing teachers in the audience.
I’ve been a Sandra Cisneros fan for a long time. She says in the introduction to her classic House on Mango Street, “At Iowa we never talked about serving others. It was all about serving ourselves…my (first) students had more difficult lives than even my storyteller’s imagination could have invented…with such learning problems they couldn’t manage a book by Dr. Seuss but could weave a spoken story so wonderful I wanted to take notes.”
That was about her first teaching job, after getting her MFA at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, tutoring dropouts on the south side of Chicago, kids and adults trying to get their GEDs. This in a neighborhood most of us would only see if we took a Bonfire of the Vanities wrong turn, or were looking to score a dime bag.
I remember Ross Howell’s post telling of his Elon students that had impressionistic spelling, “…the storm created kayos…take for granite,” examples of spelling-by-ear. In my first teaching experience, a football player wrote that he was, “…gone to cross the gold line.” If I’d ever assigned a discussion of existentialism it wouldn’t have been about some middle class meaninglessness-of-life abstraction. The discussion (and follow up writing assignments) would have been about real noir life-and-death existence on the streets of East St. Louis, Illinois or South Ellis Avenue in Chicago. Existential, as the Bee Gee’s later had it…just “Stayin’ Alive.”
My own first teaching job, like Sandra’s, was an eye-opener. Team teaching watered down Rhetoric in the morning then tutoring in the evenings after football practice. I’d go over my student-athletes’ writing assignments, interested and sympathetic, always discussing the substance of their personal stories, (stories I should have taken notes on too, Sandra) before getting into their woeful mechanics.
The crime scene of all this was Centerville, Iowa, a tiny town of maybe 4000 people if there was a 4-H parade that day. The Des Moines Register ad for a job opportunity at the junior college there went something like: “Assistant Associate Instructor of Basic English…,” obviously a steerage-level entry position, funded by a Federal Grant. But then I noticed the salary figure, $5,800.00 for a 10-month academic year. This was 1971 and I mentally compared $580.00 a month times ten to the $1.50 an hour and $60 a week I was then hauling in as manager of the hardware department at Montgomery Ward in Iowa City (with excellent opportunities for advancement I was assured). So I decided to look into it.
To me, a kid from rent-subsidized public housing, almost six grand in a single year sounded prodigal. Especially when it appeared no probability of jail time was involved.
“It’s the little town blues down there Dick,” Dan Gleason said, a friend from Bill Fox’s ’69 Workshop class who grew up in Centerville. He told me about attending the junior college there for two years.
“It’s a bit of a jock farm for the Big Ten and Big Eight. They get mostly black kids through the first two years there so they can transfer out and play in the big time. If you want to apply, I’ll put in a good word for you with the president. He’s an old family friend of ours.”
“How come you don’t apply?”
“Hey, I’d teach in prison or marry a rich old invalid before I’d go back home. I grew up there Dick and I need to keep moving on. It’s a big world and I intend to see some of it. But hey, it’s a job and I don’t see us getting offered any big time teaching position anywhere better.”
“It’s depressing all right. I haven’t gotten any responses from the résumés I’ve sent out so far.”
“Me either buddy. So stick it out down there for a couple of years if you get the job. Might give you material for a great book about getting unprepared kids into big time college athletic programs, change their lives.”
“You’re probably right Dan,” I said closing my eyes. “Hey, I can see ‘em now.”
“What? Pay checks?”
“No … chapters.”
Chapter One: The Interview
“A 3.75 GPA,” President Hellyer said, fingering my résumé. “Impressive. What’s the difference between an MFA and an MA in English then?”
“It’s a fine arts degree in fiction or poetry—pretty much like a Master’s in art and painting I guess, the paint would be words though, I mean figuratively, just not academic like, say, Comparative Literature.”
“Well not much need for a Comparative Lit man down here Dick. What we’re looking for is somebody who can teach basic skills—and I mean basic—and I mean teach too—under what you might call extenuating circumstances.”
“Extenuating would be?”
“I’m not going to sugar coat this but Mrs. Tumbleson started last January and by February she was gone. The students are a little rough around the edges. Well let’s just say it—some are actually pretty tough—so the job needs a person that can handle ‘tough.’”
“Well frankly sir, Gleas mentioned that you do—what did he call it—‘jock farming’ here, pass kids along so they can transfer out and play for two years at the university level. Or was he wrong?”
“Let’s just say we field some extremely competitive football teams. I see you lettered in track, set some records up at Iowa. That’s interesting because we’re looking for an instructor who will—how shall I put this—be sympathetic to our mission, an instructor who can relate to student athletes, unlike poor Mrs. Tumbleson.”
“Well if you’re implying that I’d have to pass students for doing no work sir, I’d have a problem with that.”
“Not the idea at all Dick! Work ’em to death; love to see you do that. Leave ’em better than you found ’em; just grade for improvement, grade on progress. Grade on an honest curve, from point ‘A’ where they begin to point ‘B’ where they end up.”
Soon we were walking around the tiny campus, between modular classrooms and finally President Hellyer stopped in front of a doublewide with recent extensions built out from both ends and the middle. It was the library.
“You could expand the little reading and writing lab Mrs. Tumbleson tried to set up in a room in here. She taught remedial English and had some experience teaching adult reading classes, good on paper, but the intangibles didn’t work out.”
“Well sir, in high school my mother and I lived in the public housing projects after my father died. Not exactly Cabrini Green, but tough enough—‘black, brown and poor white trash’ we heard a lot.”
“Sounds like a good background Dick. Would you like to see our athletic facilities?” he said smiling buoyantly, steering me off, palm on my shoulder, the assumed close presumably.
There was a big new workout area, a large state-of-the-art (if that’s the right term) weight room, shiny new lockers, all built with “booster” money, President Hellyer assured me, not taxes.
“I know we don’t look like much in this little town, but you could make a real difference here. Remember, without this opportunity most of our black kids won’t ever see another opportunity in their lives. At least one that doesn’t involve a gun or a knife.”
Back out in the parking lot I told him I was interested but needed to think about the position and took his card. He seemed disappointed. Actually I liked him, honest, a mover and shaker in that little community and good-hearted too. Heading out of town I put two quarts of oil in my rusted ’53 Chevy so I’d be sure to make it back to Iowa City, without ‘lunching a rod’ as we used to say.
Turning off US 63 onto I-80 I was thinking hard. Felt like that guy Picasso painted with both eyes on one side of his head, symbolic of not wanting to look at both sides of things too hard maybe. The down side of the job was teaching at a woeful little junior college in a culturally destitute farm town, 14 miles north of the Missouri border. I’d be isolated from my writing friends and hot weekend nights at Lil’ Bill’s in Iowa City. Not a walk in the park.
It appeared I might be expected to give passing grades to some barely literate jocks and kid myself that my passing C would be equivalent to a C or even D in a freshman Rhetoric class at the University of Iowa. Denial is a terrible thing.
Then I put the Picasso eyes on the other side of the face, head cocked like an abstract robin looking for a positive worm. President Hellyer had offered to anoint me as an unpaid receiver coach too, because I’d played the position, so I could build rapport with the kids on the field to help with my classroom responsibilities. And it wouldn’t hurt he pointed out, that I could threaten any wise guys with a bus ticket home, back to their dead-end (literally maybe) street life, if they didn’t appreciate my efforts at enlightenment. Or if they gave me any kind of crap at all he said. Nice to have a big stick.
Then there would be coaching track in the spring, he reminded me. I’d have some real talent to work with and build even more trust there too. But the biggest draw of course was that munificent $580 a month pay check. It was 1971 and there were already school loans to start paying and I sure needed a little better car—well, a lot better car.
Feeling into my shirt pocket I pinched out President Hellyer’s card, holding it respectfully, like a pay check, between my thumb and forefinger. Well what the hell … it might not be a perfect situation, but sure better than the annual inventory of every nut, bolt and vice grip in the hardware department at Monkey Wards, so… Centerville J. C. HERE I COME!
It was early September, my first day and I sat in the English Department doublewide trailer, in Centerville. I had my own metal desk, facing a blank wall with no window, on a metal chair with no cushion. It was my entrylevel teaching job, garnered with a “prestigious” MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—a job I could not have gotten without the M in MFA.
But everybody has to start somewhere, so if I had to live in Centerville for a couple of years, I’d just stick it out and see what developed.
What could possibly go wrong, I asked myself? Several things as it turned out.
Chapter Two: The Work
When I signed my one-year Federal Grant contract, President Hellyer shared that some of my student athletes had test scores of below 200 out of a possible 800 on their SAT verbals. How was this possible I asked, when couldn’t you just randomly guess and do better?
“I have no idea Dick. Just let it be a challenge to you,” he shrugged.
That weekend I drove back to Iowa City after renting an infinitely depressing $30 dollar a month sleeping room, no window, the bed no bigger than a cot. In Iowa City I spent two afternoons in the El Ed stacks trying to find out how the hell you teach reading, not to kids, but to young black adults who’d never opened a book in their lives and were definitely not Dick and Jane material.
Finally I came across something that made perfect sense and began taking heart. “Many adults have extensive auditory vocabularies but have never seen the words they know and use on paper. Teachers can develop adult reading fluency quickly by using sight, sound, symbol correspondence teaching techniques.”
Well that’s all well and good, but would you mind telling me how to go about it?
So first things first. Needed to do some testing of my students’ reading levels to get an idea about where to begin. The recommendation was to get sight word testing materials, tests that consisted of words displayed in echelons equivalent to grade level difficulty. They even started out with the alphabet, which I thought would be irrelevant. Well not exactly.
I only gave the sight word test in evening private tutoring sessions to avoid embarrassment. This brings me to the story of poor George S., a 6’3” 320 pound center who confidently pushed huge defensive tackles around like a bulldozer. But off the field he was excruciatingly shy, a gentle-giant kid, visibly sweating when I pointed to the word about, a third grade word on the test. He shook his head, couldn’t say it, didn’t recognize it.
Okay, next: always, a second grade sight word. Same thing. Then the first grade word after; no joy there either. Afraid that poor George might get up and lumber out of the library, I pointed to the letter A and thankfully he got it. Then down the alphabet, success after success, until I pointed to the letter W. He stared at it, sweating again and shook his head. Man mountain George had graduated at nineteen from an all black high school, not only totally innocent of reading it appeared, but even the end of the alphabet, the text book definition of word blind.
“Let it be a challenge to you,” President Hellyer had said. No shit, Lyle.
To get to the library after football practice for my evening tutoring sessions, athletes had to find a ride in from their “athletic dormitory.” This was the second story of a booster-donated working horse barn, on a farm well out of town. This habitat was provided as a buffer to some of the racist and ill-educated small town elements in Centerville, itching to start trouble. And of course, community tensions ran especially high after school dances, teen hormones raging and there being no black girls in the Centerville community to speak of.
But on the bright side there were a few immediate success stories.
Rick Upchurch was an extremely shy kid and smelled of marijuana every day to help assuage his shyness I guess. He was only about 5’ 7” and maybe 170 but was the Ohio schoolboy 100 yard dash champ and had gained entire Sudetenlands of territory for his Springfield Ohio high school football team. But Woody Hayes didn’t want him because he was too small for the Ohio State cloud-of-dust football ethos then and of course his SATs were not good enough to “predict” either, as that euphemism had it.
But this shy kid ran a 4.2 forty (4.4 was considered extremely fast in those days) and that made up for his lack of size. Way up. One evening on the high school basketball court he yelled, “Watch this coach Cummins,” and taking three steps with a basketball in each hand, he double dunked both of them with one leap! Rick had the talent and potential to make a lot money in the NFL, if his small body could only hold up on a Division I gridiron long enough to get him drafted, always a worry.
Then there was Tony Galbreath, another great kid, a 215-pound back from Missouri. There was no doubt about his being NFL material either. Not particularly outgoing, Tony wasn’t totally shy and withdrawn like Upchurch, just quiet and dignified, a classy gentleman in all respects. Perhaps this was due to the cultural context of his small town family upbringing in Fulton, Missouri—not anything like the influences of the South Side of Chicago or East St. Louis.
Tony told me in our first tutoring session that he never paid any attention to academics in high school, “…none, zero, zip” he said frowning, but he sure wished he had, not being thrilled with the racial tensions of life in Centerville, especially when he could have been the starting halfback for the Missouri Tigers if he had just studied even a little.
And then there was my favorite, a little guy, Tommy Mitchell, just 5’ 5”, a kid with a personality like the sun. I was always telling him that dynamite came in small packages too and that he was going to be a somebody someday so he needed to study his butt off and get ready for the leadership positions in his future. Tommy was the kid that helped me come up with a how-to technique that worked to teach these hard-nosed kids reading fluency, the key to everything that would help them improve their unprepossessing lives to that point.
Tommy lost sight word recognition at about the fifth grade level but because he had such a good speaking vocabulary I decided to ask him to try using a ninth grade level word, predicament, in a sentence. This is what he said with a huge grin.
“If I’d ah got my lessons in high school coach, I wouldn’t be in this predicament!”
“Have you ever read any articles in Sports Illustrated?” I asked. He shook his head. “Well let’s get you started right now!”
Eureka! I got all the back issues of Sports Illustrated I could find in the library and then read football articles into three tape recorders. Next I had our “inexperienced” readers listen to them at slow speed, following the text by touching each word they heard. It was the sight, sound, symbol recognition I read about in the EL Ed library at Iowa and I’d just figured out how to use it.
After that it was Katie bar the reading fluency door. Those kids loved the Sports Illustrated work and improved by leaps and bounds, recognizing words they already knew and learning new ones, their writing and spelling improving too. And of course I graded them on President Hellyer’s honest curve, on improvement, lots of it.
I knew I’d hit a line of sevens when Upchurch came in grinning with a library book in his hand. The book was The Jim Thorpe Story: America’s Greatest Athlete and he told me it was the first book he’d ever read cover to cover and he understood every word! Also Rick was starting to succeed with his schoolwork as much as he was succeeding on the football field. Let it be a challenge to us all, and it was.
This from a kid who told me later he had considered sneaking to the bus station and going home when he first got to Centerville because he was so lonely and lacked the confidence that he could succeed at a junior college.
Although things seemed bright and shiny on the football field and in the classroom for these kids, racial tensions in the community were anything but shiny or bright. Despite the Civil Rights Act of ’64 nothing had changed the small town attitudes about race and we all sensed trouble. One morning Ron, our defensive back coach, hurried into the English Trailer and told me that overnight, the head coach’s office had been broken into and three .38 caliber slugs fired into his radio, “…warning shots,” Ron thought, a warning about bringing black athletes to school there and the little town maybe.
Sitting on that metal chair with no cushion, at my metal desk with no window, snow swirling outside and 14 below, I decided to get a résumé together with my new reading and writing lab and coaching experience and send it out to community colleges, to schools anywhere where it was warm. By late spring I had sent out more than fifty.
Early that fall I got a call from the president of Florida Keys Community College asking if I was interested in a position that had just opened up. They had grant money to install a reading and writing lab there.
“$9,600,” I lied when he asked what I was currently making. I held my breath.
“That’s quite a bit higher than what we normally pay down here,” President Smith said. “But if you want to direct our intramural athletic programs too I believe we could go as high as $10,000 for ten months.”
A week later I packed my raggedy old speakers and hifi into the trunk of my semi-reliable ’62 lay-down Rambler and headed south out of Centerville. In Key West I bought a little 23-foot live-aboard sailboat and was able to teach a creative writing class as well as design and direct a brand new reading and writing lab at FKCC.
About six months later I got a call from the former head football coach from Centerville, the one whose radio had been shot up, asking if I would consider coming to work with him in Yuma, Arizona, at Arizona Western College where he was the new head coach. I declined because of the salary but he did mention in passing that there had been some real trouble at Indian Hills CC—what they called it now—predictably racial problems, but he didn’t elaborate and rang off.
It was warm and comfortable in Key West living on a sailboat with my best girl from Iowa, now wife of many years, who came down to give sailboat living on an island a try. It was isolated and quiet and we didn’t even have TV as the Miami stations only came in with tall antennas. Life went on and there was no snow in Key West.
I followed the careers of two of my most highly visible Centerville student athletes over the years because they starred in the NFL. Rick Upchurch was drafted by the Denver Broncos as a receiver and kick returner out of the U of Minnesota, was voted all-pro five times and finally, one of the top 300 players ever to play in the NFL.
And gentleman Tony Galbreath ended up drafted by the New Orleans Saints after starring for the Missouri Tigers for two years, then played for the Vikings and Giants for a total of eleven seasons, becoming the most prolific pass-catching back in NFL history.
Forty-two years have passed since I labored at Indian Hills Community College; I decided to Google around to see how life turned out after football for my four most memorable reading lab kids. Looking up Tony Galbreath first, I came across an interview with him in the Fulton Missouri Sun (Tony’s home town) by Josh Mosely, printed this year.
Imagine my disappointment at missing all this!
“Today’s first part interview focuses on Galbreath’s college career, beginning at a small junior college in Iowa before wrapping up at Missouri. ‘Bullets pierced the walls and floorboards and a light—later discovered to be a blazing cross—shone through the windows.’
Members of the Indian Hills Junior College football team, including Tony Galbreath … dodged the bullets anyway they could. Some even hopped out the windows of the house they were staying in to save themselves. It was the Ku Klux Klan, which had recently burned down the team’s original dormitory.
This was all new for Galbreath, but then again, Indian Hills CC wasn’t exactly where he thought he’d be starting his collegiate career. It was 1972 and Tony’s road to college football— and eventually the National Football League—took a detour to the tiny rural town of Centerville, located in southeastern Iowa.
The student union was a barn in the middle of the countryside, gravel roads were the primary routes of travel and cow pies littered the ground like land mines. None of that was a big deal to Galbreath but the Klan was something he’d never encountered in Fulton and was a completely different matter. ‘I sure didn’t want to see them any closer than that,’ Galbreath said. ‘It was scary.’ Going to Indian Hills due to academics was already a wake-up call. ‘It was a rude awakening for me to work harder on my grades,’ Galbreath said. ‘… But it was an experience I wish I hadn’t had, that I didn’t have to have, if I had just applied myself in high school.’
Tony…studied hard when he wasn’t working with the team…talented players with similarly-plagued academic hardships coming out of high school. The players at Centerville were bigger and stronger…and he remembers some as ‘hardcore,’ even ‘thuggish.’”
I immediately got President Hellyer’s e-mail address from Gleason. Lyle’s retired now of course, in his 80s, and I asked about the newspaper interview.
“Dick, I have a feeling that the newspaper author is a fiction writer because the Klan story is not true. The “Klan” was the Bates brothers and 3 or 4 other local hoods. The rifle shooting is the truth though, it was Pancake Day about 8:00 in the evening and I was going to the dorm to check on things. As I left my car to go in, 3 or 4 football players came running out and carried me because bullets had been fired through a dorm window. It was a case of the locals hating the college kids. Tony was a great young man and I know the story is fabricated because he was a very quiet guy. Best Always, Lyle.”
Next I ran a search for current news about Rick Upchurch, now 61. The news is not good: “Rick Upchurch…we are sad to report, recently began chemo therapy treatments for leukemia at a cost of $10,000 a month…” “…after raising four children…Rick and his wife Donna started a community leadership foundation for at-risk inner-city youth with the goal of ‘…giving our kids and community a vision of hope through sports, tutoring and mentoring…It was a small business…we were doing youth football camps and we worked for the Department of Social Services in Colorado. We were able to get some health insurance when we were doing that, but they cut money from the program and we had to close the business down. My medical expenses are all out of pocket.”
Rick and his wife obviously have been giving back as I assumed he would, remembering him as I do, another success story from that little school, in a little town, 14 miles from the Missouri border.
Of course I didn’t know what became of my favs Tommy Mitchell and George S. because they weren’t NFL prospects so I e-mailed President Hellyer again.
“Dick: Northern Illinois took Tommy and he immediately won a starting job and I think they moved him to free safety when they saw how he could jump…he could dunk a volleyball and he was only 5’5″ on his most upright days. He wore homemade stuffed lifters in his shoes. He was a star there and was elected team captain his senior year, then stayed on as a grad assistant to get his Masters. He landed a job back in his hometown of Steubenville…as assistant coach and then…he was named head coach and I imagine he held that job until he retired.
A few years before I retired, Tommy, his lovely wife and two handsome sons showed up at the Ottumwa Campus…I spent the better part of 2 days and one night with them. The family then went to Centerville so he could show them where he got his start in college. I told him I should apologize to him for starting a program with such poor facilities and in a town that was not at all receptive to a large number of college kids, let alone a few inner city black athletes.
He told me, ‘Thank the Good Lord you did or I and many players, especially the black kids would never have had a chance at higher education.’ His wife, who was at OSU at the time, said she would cry all night when he would tell her all he had to eat that day was a few Oreo cookies!…I imagine his boys are out of college by now and no doubt successful too.
BTW big George S. ended up at William Penn in Oskaloosa and I went to see him play once. Have no idea what happened to him after he got out of school but he was just a big lovable kid and was really happy to see me when I found him after the game.
See Dick, how you influenced young lives…helping a young person succeed is the greatest reward of being an educator… Best Always, Lyle.”
So that’s it, snapping off the prose home movie Super Eight now. Need to get back to writing my postponed nonfiction bestseller—the one Dan Gleason thought I should write about my experiences at IHCC. How’s this for a working title? “Grading On An Honest Curve: The Story of Upward Mobility in the Unlikely Small Farm Town of Centerville, Iowa, 14 Miles from the Missouri Border.”
Teachers, what qualities in your students ensure them permanent residence in your heart?