- Tales Out of School
Words that capture the imagination are what truly educate children. Words from stories read to us by teachers, [End Page 397] words from comic strips spoken in the deep melodious voice of a father, words that construct the stories of childhood—these words are what Glenna Davis Sloan calls "powerful magic." In her captivating memoir Tales Out of School, Sloan traces the complex and changing educational system from the l940s to the present that offered little educational opportunity, except to those who had the passion and desire to read and to learn on their own. The magic that nourished Sloan was the stories that she read: Anne of Green Gables, the Hardy Boys mysteries, and the series that narrated the adventures of a Canadian schoolgirl, Ruth Fielding.
Told as a series of vignettes, Tales Out of School chronicles the life of a dedicated teacher who began her education in a one-room school house in Canada, where children were left much on their own to learn for themselves. Sloan's description of her education, from the elementary grades through high school, allows us to see the blatant sexism and elitism that characterized schooling in the 1940s and 1950s, where women, particularly those without wealth, had little career choice but to become nurses or teachers, positions that were policed by men who knew little more than how to humiliate the young women in their charge.
It was courage and determination and the love of learning and reading that allowed Sloan to manage this often cruel and oppressive system. Sloan points to her teachers like Miss Shaw, whose evenness in spirit and love for literature nourished young minds and gave Sloan a glimpse of how this one teacher made a difference in her education.
Sloan draws on this familiar trope (one teacher can make a difference) as she constructs her heroic narrative, in much the same way that many stories of teachers and schooling do. Schools appear as wastelands. Teachers are heartless and mean. Children suffer punishments that are cruel and that scar them for life. Most good teachers are men. The cruelest ones are more often women. (In Sloan's story only two of her many women teachers are helpful and caring.) Sloan's portrait, no doubt true to her memory, does not contextualize these images historically or question these images of teaching or teacher. After reading several of the opening vignettes, one might wonder why anyone with any other choice would decide to teach at all. Yet there is at least one counter narrative in the novel that works against the dominant storyline. In one vignette, Sloan has been asked to teach in a school, but the grade level has been changed at the last moment. Her mentor, Miss Widmeyer, saves her from what would have been a disastrous day by reminding her of the importance of getting to know her students first. This image of collaboration among women as teachers offers the possibility of cooperation in a climate of competition and of the sharing and helping that is missing in a patriarchal school culture that isolates teachers from each other.
While most of the memoir documents Sloan's fight against schools' oppression, Sloan interestingly explores her failures as a teacher in several vignettes. In two vignettes, in particular, [End Page 398] she narrates the consequences of failing her students—a time when she failed to prepare students for a standardized test and another when she witnessed a brutal lashing of a student by the principal. In the first instance, she understood fundamentally how reading good literature creates a stimulating classroom and furthers students' intellectual growth. What she had to learn was that the testing establishment trivializes reading in order to "measure" it, and that good readers can also learn how to pass the required test, even if that instruction takes the place of more purposeful and true reading. In the second lesson she learns to trust in her own interactions with her students and to look to them for what they need to know. Both lessons are important...