I used to be a radio news reporter and talk show host. I worked on Cape Cod in the mid 1970s. Walter Cronkite once sent me a fan letter. He would listen to me while he sailed in the waters off his summer home in Martha’s Vineyard.
Getting a fan letter from Walter Cronkite was, as you might imagine, pretty heady stuff for a twenty-two year old who grew up watching him nearly every evening.
As nice a place as Cape Cod is, it is a small radio market; I was not making much money even though my talk show had fantastic ratings. I would regularly apply for jobs in bigger markets. I would get invited to send in tapes of my broadcasts and, if the station were nearby, I’d get invited for a visit and interview.
I never got hired.
I had a hard time figuring out why not. After all, I was good. Walter Cronkite was a fan. WALTER CRONKITE! He was MY FAN!
Of course I never mentioned that in the job interviews, but this thought always popped into my mind when I got the rejection letters.
“If I’m good enough for Walter Cronkite, how can I not be good enough for this job?”
What I know now, that I didn’t know then, is that I was a fantastic radio news reporter, anchor and talk show host on WCOD-FM in Hyannis. That was my most favorable context and that’s where Mr. Cronkite was my fan. I apparently was not as good in Framingham, Boston or Worcester, Massachusetts, Chicago, Dallas, Pittsburgh or all the other contexts I hoped to move into.
Cut to about ten years later.
Walter Cronkite and his wife, Betsy, sit down at the bar I manage. He orders a single malt whisky; I forget what Mrs. Cronkite ordered. I introduce myself and told him how much I treasure the letter he’d sent me. He asks me what station I’m on and I tell him I am the manager of the bar. We chuckle, I introduce my wife and he his, and I leave them to enjoy their drink.
I managed that bar for eighteen years before it closed.
I had a sterling reputation in the business so I got offers. I worked in one place for four months, the next for three and the last for a bit over two.
I was a creative and enlightened manager of North Star Pub for 18 years. That was the right context for me. I was the wrong person for the three jobs that followed, and they were the wrong jobs for me.
The students I teach are labeled hyperactive, learning disabled, behavior challenged, emotionally disabled.
But the more time I spend with these students I see that, in most cases, there’s not really anything wrong with them; they are intelligent, talented, creative and, mostly, articulate, just not in the ways compatible with the context in which they have to function.
Because of that contextual incompatibility they are called lazy, made to feel stupid, led to think of themselves as damaged in some way that separates them from other students their age.
I wish I could tell them to change their surroundings, change their context. Unfortunately, their context is called school, and attendance is mandatory.
So I make a promise to my students. I promise them that if they can manage to get through school they will have the tools to find the context that is right for them.
I know it is true. I wish they believed me.
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