The novel also takes a glimpse into Fisher's personal life as he tries to balance the perils of dating with the trials and tribulations of his profession. The result is a hilarious explosion of absurdity, both in and out of the classroom, that takes the reader on a rollercoaster ride of entertainment and edification.
Failing Mr. Fisher is based on the teaching experiences of James Wintermote and his family and colleagues. Using humor and candor, the novel gives us an insider's perspective into why the foundation of the American public education system is crumbling and how it affects not only the students, but more importantly the teachers who have been given the responsibility to educate our nation's children
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Read an Excerpt
Failing Mr. Fisher
By James Wintermote
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2010 James Wintermote
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Does this scare you?" the tall man asked as he gestured across the desert landscape. The July heat created shimmering images in the basin located a few miles south of the newly built high school.
"No," I answered, scanning the sparse terrain. "I grew up in the desert of southern California, so sand and sagebrush are nothing new to me. Besides, the heat I experienced in the Imperial Valley was about 25 degrees hotter than it is here." A warm breeze blew and felt refreshing against my brow. Both of us were wearing ties and long-sleeved shirts, but I noticed sweat starting to trickle down the tall man's face.
He continued the tour of the school, which was almost completed with the exception of the gymnasium. The hardwood floor had yet to be laid, and the various classrooms looked as if a dump truck had backed into each room to deliver the necessities of desks, cabinets, and tables. We ended up back in his office with an invigorating blow of air-conditioning swirling around us. He took a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the moisture from his brow.
Ted Crowe was tall, thin, and very tanned. He obviously spent a lot of time outdoors and looked to be in tremendous shape. I figured he was at least a decade older than me, but the sun had given his skin a leathery quality, making him look quite a bit older. His most prominent feature was his head, because he shaved it skin tight and it was almost flawless, with no age spots, scars, or strange indentations, and it reflected the fluorescent lights in his office like a mirror. I knew my own hairline had been rapidly receding over the years and wondered how I would look if I shaved my head like that. I just wasn't sure I wanted my scalp to be a reflective surface like Crowe's. He must have caught me staring at him, because he cleared his throat, which brought me out of my stupor.
"My main concern," Crowe continued with his interview, "is the high number of Hispanics and Native Americans that teachers are going to have to deal with at this school. Have you ever dealt with these types of students?"
I had recently completed my student teaching in a rural Wyoming town where the high school was populated by the sons of daughters of white ranchers and farmers. It was a rare occasion when I bumped into a Hispanic family, and the Native Americans tended to stay on their reservations. I knew this wasn't the answer he was looking for, so I tried to draw from my personal background.
"I haven't had much experience dealing with students of those types," I said, "but I grew up in a small California border town called El Centro. My high school had more Hispanics than any other ethnic group, and most of my friends growing up were Hispanic. I'd like to think I have a bit of an understanding of their culture."
"Hmm." Crowe arched his eyebrows at my response, and I thought I had made a good impression. "Well, Mr. Fisher, I think we can use you here at Manicomio High School. As a matter of fact, I'd like to go ahead and offer you the position. If you think you'd be interested, you can head over to the district office today and fill out the paperwork."
I eagerly thanked Crowe, and we shook hands, his engulfing mine. As I walked out the front door, the heat hit me hard after being in that air-conditioned office. I loosened my tie and breathed a little easier. I headed over to my Thunderbird, the first car I had ever owned, having bought it while I was in the U.S. Navy. It was an older model and a rather large car for just one person, but it came in handy when I had to move, because I could fit everything I owned in it and never had to worry about renting a truck.
District office was 110 miles away. As a matter of fact, any semblance of civilization was over a hundred miles in any direction, but I thought I could make a go of it here in Loco, Nevada. The town was a tiny gaming borough that relied on out-of-state tourists to maintain its revenue, but its population consisted mainly of Hispanics who had migrated from the Mexican states of Zacatecas and Jalisco in order to build a better life for themselves.
The town had very little to offer in terms of recreation other than gambling. During World War II, it had been a small U.S. Air Force base for top secret flight experiments, and this managed to draw a few curiosity seekers away from the bright casino lights. I asked some of the locals why the town was named Loco and was told, "Because you'd have to be crazy to live here." It was hard to tell if they were joking, especially with the often unsettling stares I received.
The main boulevard ran for three miles with five casinos lined up to offer the tourists flashy lights and loud music, enticing them to enter their adult playgrounds with fists full of cash and their minds set on winning "the big one." It reminded me of a microcosm like Las Vegas but without the tumultuous crowds, blistering heat, and various faux world icons rising out of the desert.
The tourists, mainly older couples interspersed with some middle-agers and the occasional young honeymooners, rode the local transit system between the casinos, ate all they could at the buffets, and dropped coins into slot machines like children at a carnival arcade. The older men usually wore colorful shirts with white shorts, their bare legs even whiter. Their female counterparts wore spandex pants that remarkably held up well past the testing they must have endured at the factories where they were manufactured. The stereotype of the ugly American tourists that Europeans were so fond of mocking was never more obvious than here in Loco, Nevada.
I got into my car, started the engine, and pulled out of the parking lot. The AC was still working, but it had been a while since I'd last had it charged with coolant. By the time I had reached the interstate, the AC and the sun beating through my windshield were in a battle for control of the car's climate-and the AC was quickly losing. It was going to be a long drive to the district office.
Chapter TwoLater that month, I made the move from Laramie, Wyoming, to the Silver State. I left behind a "promising" career in broadcasting that was paying $5.25 an hour and a woman who had fallen in love with me after one month of living together. It was a refreshing move for me, and I was looking forward to my new job with much anticipation.
I had very little cash on hand but managed to find a small studio apartment. It took me less than three hours to get my belongings placed where I wanted them, including the futon my parents were kind enough to buy for me. The bulk of my furniture consisted of that futon, a 13-inch color TV that sat on an old chest, and a secondhand computer I had bought from a student while I was attending the University of Wyoming. Life was simple, but it was good.
I had a few weeks before I had to report to the school and get ready for my classes, but I was bored and wanted to make sure I was prepared when the first day of school began. I showed up to the high school and wanted to get my classroom keys so that I could start organizing things. I entered the office and found Ted Crowe talking to a lanky man dressed in a western sports coat and wearing cowboy boots. Crowe saw me and motioned for me to come over.
"Hi, Jim," Crowe smiled as he shook my hand. "I'd like you to meet our vice principal, Les Gerber."
"It's nice to meet you, Mr. Gerber," I acknowledged.
"Please, call me Les," the man said with a friendly voice.
"Okay, Les." I shook his hand, and as he smiled, his eyes crinkled around the edges.
Les Gerber had an easygoing manner. He was soft-spoken and smiled easily. He didn't wear a necktie but instead wore a bolo tie with a turquoise stone in the clasp. He was tall and thin like Crowe, but the way his stomach protruded made him look as if he had swallowed a small volleyball. It made him look like one of those inflatable clowns that children used as punching bags. I struggled to keep my eyes focused on his.
"Ted tells me that you were in the U.S. Navy," said Gerber.
I nodded, proud of my military service.
"I spent four years in the army myself," he continued. "Did a tour in Vietnam."
I again nodded, acknowledging our common military bond. Gerber didn't strike me as the typical Vietnam vet I had seen in movies and read about. I was just a child during that war, and the only other Vietnam vets I had met were while I was in the navy, but they had never really experienced any firefights. The conversation between the three of us continued for about ten minutes until I started to run out of things to say to them.
"Well," I said, "I just came in to get my classroom keys and try to get a jump start on things. It was nice meeting you, Les."
"Same here, Jim."
I went over to the school secretary and was then issued a set of keys to my classroom. After that, I headed down the hallway to my room, which was located in the west wing of the building. The hallways were spacious and carpeted, and huge banners promoting Excellence in Education hung from the large air ducts that ran parallel to the ceiling.
I peeked into the gymnasium on my way down the hallway and noticed the floor had been completed. I could still smell the varnish that had recently been spread. A large, hand-painted badger had been carefully created in the center of the gym floor. A circular frame ran around the artwork with the words "Manicomio Badgers" inscribed on it. The badger was perched on a rock with its sharp teeth bared toward all and its front paws raised in the air. While I thought the artwork was very realistic, it also gave me an unsettling feeling, as if the animal were about to come to life and the only prey around was me. I wondered why they couldn't have picked a bulldog as a mascot instead.
I left the gym and continued down the hallway, taking a left turn and then following the carpet to two classrooms, each across the hall from the other. Mine was on the right, and because it was located within the center of the building, there were no windows. At least I won't have to worry about outside distractions, I thought.
I unlocked the door, entered the room, flipped the light switch on, and saw what looked like the remnants of a recent hurricane. The students' desks were piled haphazardly, and my own desk was shoved into a corner. On top of my desk lay my computer with wires and cables stretching across it like slumbering serpents. About ten boxes were placed in the back of the room. I went over to open them up and saw crisp, shiny textbooks in each one. I looked around the room and noticed something peculiar. There were no shelves or cabinets in the room. This should be interesting, I thought.
I spent the rest of the day organizing my classroom and setting up my desk and computer. I even managed to obtain a podium and two bookshelves from the school library when no one was looking. The classroom finally looked presentable except for one thing-the walls were bare. I had no posters to hang on the walls, and in a classroom without windows, the room seemed to lack warmth as a result. I told myself that I could always get posters later. Besides, I could cover the bulletin board with colored paper if anyone needed to focus on some kind of pigment to prevent the snow blindness that might occur with four white walls surrounding him or her.
* * *
I spent the next few weeks exploring the town and casinos, taking my car out into the desert, and hiking in the foothills. I enjoyed hiking, and even the August heat was unable to dissuade me from exploring the desert area.
The northern Nevada desert was unlike its southern counterpart, because there was much more vegetation and the climate was not as harsh. The summers weren't as blistering as they were in the Vegas area, and the winters-even though they could provide whiteout conditions on occasion-rarely cause any inconvenience, such as power outages or closing of schools. Still, trees were a rarity, and anyone used to lush vegetation and verdant pastures who came to visit this part of the country might have been in for a shock.
Before long, I had gotten to know the area fairly well, but I had not had the opportunity to meet many people. I was engrossed in getting my lesson plans ready for the first few weeks and had to familiarize myself with the literature I was going to teach. I found it amazing that with all the literature courses I had taken in college and all the books I had read from high school, I was not teaching any of the literature I was already familiar with-the exception being Hamlet. I felt like I was cramming for a college final.
The classes I was scheduled to teach included English for grades ten, eleven, and twelve, as well as a combination drama/ speech class. There were three English teachers at the school, and I noticed that I was the only male and had been given the biggest load of classes. The other two English teachers only had to teach two grades of classes. I didn't think this was fair, but being a first-year teacher, I thought it was best to hold my tongue.
While most of the faculty and I were first-year teachers, I was a bit of an oddity, because I was thirty-two years old. I had joined the navy at seventeen and had spent six years traveling around the world. When I was discharged, I entered the University of Wyoming and received a degree in broadcast journalism. I worked in radio for a few years, but in order to supplement my income, I resorted to moonlighting as a substitute teacher. My dad, who always had sage advice for me, thought I should consider getting my teaching license, which I later did. I went back to Wyoming for a couple of years and got another degree in English/journalism education. With military service and two college degrees under my belt, I definitely stood out from the younger teachers who were eager to begin their careers, for I was already beginning my third.
As I began interacting with the staff, I found I got along with all the teachers fairly well. There was one teacher in particular with whom I became fast friends. Her name was Cindy Leigh, one of the two other English teachers. She was easygoing and quick-witted, and she had a great sense of humor. I found her easy to talk to, and the fact that she was pleasant on the eyes was an added bonus. She was fairly short with blond, curly hair, and she had that girl-next-door look. Though she didn't have the classic beauty look, her facial features were well-defined, and she kept herself in shape by jogging. She was also married to one of the science teachers, Lawrence Leigh.
When I first met Cindy's husband, I made the mistake of calling him Larry. He was quick to correct me and tell me his name was Lawrence. He was a pleasant man, but there was also an underlying intensity about him. He was quick with a joke but quickly managed to become serious again. It seemed to me that there was never a piece of him that wasn't in constant motion. Either he was twitching an arm, a leg, or a finger or his head was constantly swiveling around, taking in the local environment. He reminded me of a prairie dog in constant vigilance for predators.
I never got to know the other teachers as well I had gotten to know Cindy. The remaining English teacher was named Dani Lipford, and although she was very attractive, she kept to herself. Conversations with her never ended up with more than a hello and a good-bye. She was an extremely focused woman, and I guessed that she just didn't want to make friends with anyone.
The other science teacher was Garvin Slother, a huge pumpkin of a man. Everything Slother did seemed to be in slow motion. He walked, talked, and ate slowly, and he seemed to be in an entirely different space-time continuum. Trying to hold a discussion with this man was almost intolerable, because I was always able to finish his sentences for him. Whenever he stood in the office, he looked like a wax figure, and I often felt as if I should have poked him with a stick to get him going again.
Sam Womack, the metal shop teacher, was a tall, gaunt man with recessed eyes and a road map of wrinkles running throughout his face. He was very pale, and his hands were gnarled from much labor. He was a pleasant man, but the first time I saw him, I was taken aback by his striking features. If he ever wore a black robe and hood and carried a scythe, he would have been the grim reaper himself.
Thad Mitchell was a math teacher who looked like he was still a freshman in high school. The first time I saw him, I thought he was one of the students, especially because he was eating a candy bar and he had a chocolate smudge on his face. His hair had a constantly tangled look, and his clothes were always rumpled. He was a quiet man and seemed oddly out of place with other adults.
Excerpted from Failing Mr. Fisher by James Wintermote Copyright © 2010 by James Wintermote. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have been in the teaching field for many years, and I have found this to be a very enjoyable book. I think anyone that is thinking about going into teaching should read this book! Shows humor, the aggravation one can incounter. I also feel that many parents should read this book to get another point of view as to what a teacher deals with in the classroom, from staff, administration, and of course students and parents. I would highly recommend this book.