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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida
Interviewee: Armando Enriques
Interviewer: Stefanie Wilkinson
Location: Gatana, New York
W: My name is Stefanie Wilkinson and I am in Gatana, New York talking with
Armando Enriques, Head of the English Department here at John J. High
School. Mr. Enriques, could you just tell me a little bit about your
background, such as your place of birth, how you were brought up and how
you were educated. Just so I can understand where you are coming from.
E: I was born in what, ah, sociology courses later informed me was a
Spanish ghetto in Tampa, Florida. And I was encouraged to pursue my
education by my parents who were people who did not get a good education
beyond their elementary school years. And on a work scholarship I attended
Urskin College in due west South Carolina, where a very committed faculty
got me very interested in books and the world of ideas and in dedicating
my life to some type of public service. In my senior year at Urskin the
Academic Dean entered my name in an Andrew Carnegie Fellowship competition.
This Fellowship was to be offered... (interruption) This particular
Fellowship was offered to about twenty graduates from Liberal Arts Colleges
in the South and we were sent to George Peabody College for Teachers to
earn our Masters in, in my case English, and with a Minor in education at
the Masters level. This experience at Peabody and in the joining Vanderbilt
University sort of changed the whole direction of my life in many significant
W: For example?
E: For example, while I was there I was part of four seminar groups, each
lasting for a quarter. And I was at Peabody for four quarters. And the
leaders of those seminar groups happened to be some of the top people in
public education at the time who had come to Peabody for the special
programs. People like Harold Benjamin of sabre tooth curriculum fame.
That was one of his books. Willard G J a who had just achieved some
notoriety in Pasadena. Nicolas Hobbs who was involved, ah, with the
MISC 8 A
E: ...non-directive technique of psychology and Felix Robb who happened
to be the Academic Dean of George Peabody College for Teachers. And
these four men were responsible for guiding the twenty of us the year
that we were there. After this experience I was all fired-up, ready
to go into college teaching. At the time I had no interest in going into
public school education at the time. But, it was time for me to try my
hand at the Army since my deferment had ended. But fate intervened and
I began to, I went in for my physical and I was turned down because of
partial blindness in one eye. And here I was with a Masters degree and
with the possibility of blindness looming over me and I decided that I
would get whatever job came along because I had to put aside all of my
graduate work for at least that year. Since already the deadlines had
passed. So, I happened to get a chance to teach in the hills: of West
Virginia. In a small town called Fort Ashley, Wdst Virginia and it was
there that I not only started my/ teaching career in public schools, but
I also met my wife who came there also that year as a replacement. And
I taught that year kkN1952 to 1953.
W: So, why did you decide to enter the field of English? What prompted you
to pursue English?
E: I think probably, ah, I was inspired by some very fine English teachers.
Teachers who, ah- one particularly in high school who I had in my senior
year-who made writing and reading exciting things for me. And I felt when
I went to college that this would be an area that I would want to pursue.
Also, in college there were a number of English teachers who inspired me to
try tormodel myself after them. One particular man in my junior and senior
year, a college professor Edward F seemed to be the kind of
person, the kind of teacher that I wanted to be.
W: So, would that also be the reason why you decided to become a teacher?
MISC 8 A
E: Probably I became, decided to become a teacher because I felt, ah, it was
something that combined my interest in reading and writing with my interest
in working with people. I felt that those two personal interest could be
met in a, in a job that required that I be involved with those two activities.
W: Why high school as opposed to college ;,le
E: I felt that high school would give me an opportunity to work with ideas,
ah, work with students at a critical point in their lives. I felt that
perhaps elementary school would be more concerned with building skills and
perhaps would not give me the kind of intellectual feedback that I felt I
probably would get, ah, in secondary school.
W: You mentioned earlier that there were some teachers who inspired you or
prompted you to enter the field of English. In what respect have they
molded the teacher that you are today? Are there certain things that you
see yourself doing or trying to do because they did it in the past?
E: Probably the things that I enjoyed, ah, the most about those teachers
that probably did have an effect on me were things like teachers who did
not talk down to their students. Teachers who were interested in me as
a person and not just as a student. Teachers who, ah, did not set them-
selves up as being, ah, absolute authorities of any issue. Teachers who
enjoyed teaching and made that obvious in the way they went about it.
W: This would be your ideal picture of a teacher?
E: That would be, in a sense, the ideal that I aspire to try to reach in
my classes. Ah, to enjoy the experience of teaching and enjoy the sharing
of my humanity with those students that come in contact with me in my
W: Along with that idea, since you chose to become an educator you must have
had some other specific goals or ideas regarding education in itself.
Could you share a few more with me?
E: By that you mean what kind of goals?
MISC 8 A
W: 1/ /M What should education be? What should it be as a profession?
As a, as a leader of youth?
E: Well, I really went into it without too many preconceived notions about
what I wanted to accomplish in teaching other than perhaps gaining some
personal satisfactions from the process of teaching. My feeling, I think,
from the very beginning about teaching has been mostly along this particular
line. My main job as a teacher, I think, has always been to try to help
students recognize that they have special worth and value as students and
more importantly as people. And my teaching has had that particular
thrust-of trying to help students discover through what they read, through
what they write what that special value is that they have. And then
perhaps helping them in some way to channel and express that special
worth that they have discovered in themselves as a result of the teacher
and the learning.
W: What particular difficulties do you think as __ _V__ you find?
What makes teaching English different from teaching any other field of
E: Probably the most difficult thing is that English is something that is
required of all students for all four years. And that of course makes it
difficult to teach a class where some of the students are ino class
because they sincerely want to be in the class and others are there by
virtue of the fact that it is a requirement. I do not think this exists
to quite the same degree in all the other disciplines. Also, I think the
thing that makes it difficult is that an English teacher does not have
much time to call his own while he is in the process of teaching. It is
constantly an avalanche of papers andAgrading process of compositions
are like so that he not only has to work hard at the job, but he has to
work equally hard off the job at home. And this sometimes stands in the
way of his own personal fulfillment in terms of his own independent
MISC 8 A
E: ...reading and his own independent writing and those things that he may
want to do as person apart from his job as a teacher.
W: How do you cope with that? T..\ .C 4,'
E: Well, fortunately in public education you have some time off in the
summer which you can arrange if you are able to, financially, where you
have saved some time for yourself. Where you read the things that you
want to read and the things you have to read. Where you perhaps arrange
your location to take advantage of opportunities that might come up during O 'r
or during the year that will enable you to grow as a person and as a
teacher. But, it is not easy and, ah, more often than not you find your-
self even using those vacation times and catching up with the things you
have not been able to do while you were teaching.
W: You mentioned grading. An important part of teaching is testing. How do
you grade your tests so that they are adequate measures of students'
E: Well, as the years have passed I have changed my attitudes about grading.
There was a time in my early career when I felt that I knew how to make
a test that would be a definitive instrument in evaluating. But now I
have come to the belief that, ah, that type of grading or that type of
evaluation which tries to reduce the students' learning to a grade or a
number is not of much value to you as a teacher or as a student. So that
I find that whatever evaluations I do now are evaluations that are based
on helping the student assess what he or she is learning and helping me
assess how well I am teaching and giving the students an opportunity to
use the test as a way of crystallizing their thinking of what it is that
is being learned. Rather than some kind of guessing game between the
teacher and the student. And I have found that in those classes where I
have de-emphasized testing that I have had the best results with learning.
MISC 8 A
W: -1 7i' C rt dC 4 32t- and I remember not having tests and yet I
remember enjoying them the most. Especially when it came to writing
because Le rl 4o ce Q ,) and I put everything I had into it and
enjoyed it. ,,
E: Well, this is what I feel. I think we have done a great disservice in
making the grade more important than the learning and whenever that happens
I think we have got things confused. The value Xf Wez C,^ce,
W: And I think most students would agree with you! (Laughter) I do not
know if they would understand the principle involved. Over the years,
have Coa r,,Ce S 4 any unusual situations because of your role as an
educator. Specifically, what kind of feedback have you gotten from
students,or professors, or other persons as you have changed your role
as an educator.
E: You mean what has happened to some of my students?
W: Yes, what kind of experiences have you found yourself in because of your
role as a teacher?
E: Well, ah, here in this particular town--a small town where I have worked
now for thirty years--I have had an opportunity to see my students grow
and become intrical parts of the community. Perhaps the most interesting
experience that I had withthat was one day I was going home and I came to
an intersection, ah, where one of the lights had gone off and I was having
a quandry about when I should make my left turn at this rather busy
intersection. And as I sat there, I heard my name being called as though
it were coming from somewhere up in the blue--saying, "Mr. Enriques!"--
and I looked and wondered where this voice was coming that was calling my
name. And it turned out to be a former student of mine whose had, what
was it-- a police car and is a policeman now. And he was guiding me through
his intercom system about when to make the left turn to guide me safely
through the intersection. So no matter where I am. Even where in places
MISC 8 A
E: ...where I think I have total anonymity, I have heard my name being called--
through the smoke or the traffic or wherever--of someone who maybe I taught
fifteen or twenty years before.
W: Has any student given you a sort of critique of how fcj1s vJ/ Jyou are- -
teacher and have you because of that have you ever changed your teaching
style V C. tvr&J)g Ic L^vA- .^.-
E: Probably the kinds of things that I do in my classes have been affirmed
by, ah, some of the successes that some people have had who have happened
to have been in my class. And if I have seen them become successful and they
have told me in letters or in personal conversations that it'was something
that I did that perhaps turned them around to become interested in whatever
they were interested in. That I have taken as a way of affirming what I
am doing. But I make it a practice at the end of every course to ask students
to tell me as honestly as they can what was something about the course
that they liked and also to suggest to me things which I might be able to
improve my teaching. And many of them have come up with suggestions that
I have been able to take into, ah, into consideration as I have planned
the teaching of that course the next year in a different way. I think, ah,
if you listen to your students, you will probably learn more about teaching
than if you listen to your supervisors. I can say that since I am a super-
W: (Laughter) The teaching environment influences your role as an educator.
Why did you choose to teach in ?ro&sor- school district? And why
did you stay here for the last thirty years?
E: That has been a question I have asked myself many times. Like, like the
man who came to dinner I do not really think I meant to stay thirty years.
I, ah, I started here because I felt that this was a school that gave me
a great deal of freedom to grow as an educator. When I came to this school
district in 1953, the graduating class had forty students. This year we
MISC 8 A
E: ...are graduating about three hundred students. That is a considerable
amount of growth in thirty years, but what I have enjoyed most about this
school is that it provided me with all those thinks that, ideally, teachers
should have to enjoy their work. One, a lovely campus setting where you
did not feel cramped or where you did not feel that you were just part of
a business. The setting has been beautiful. The students have been
special. I have had students that have graduated from the school that have
gone on to become writers, to become college teachers, even one Rhodes
Scholar who now happens to be a professor at Harvard who is having a book
published this spring in the Atlantic Monthly. I have had students who
have gone on to become professional writers, doctors, teachers, and it has
been a marvelous way of vicariously going to some of the top schools in the
country. It has been a way of, of doing those things which economic
circumstances and other factors kept me from doing in my own personal
W: How do you feel about the school today?
E: I find that, ah, the biggest problem that I see with the school today is
that there are many forces outside that are acting upon the students. That
perhaps are keeping some of the students from functioning at their highest
level. I am concerned about the family and the home situations that many
students have to deal with in our society today. I, I am concerned about
the fact that students are not as happy during the time that they are
students. I felt that when I first came here in the, in the early 1950s,
that students were much happier being students. Today, there are pressures
that are being put upon many students to become adults long before they
are really ready to become adults. And they are having difficulty handling
that and that of course has an impact on how they function in school. I do
not find students as hhppy as they used to be.
W: What do you hope you can do about this?
MISC 8 A
E: Well, there are two things you can do about. You can sit around and
bemoan the fact that, ah, the world is not as happy a place as it used to
be. That we are having economic problems and social problems and problems
with drugs and problems with disrupted homes and sort of curse the darkness.
Or, you can, ah, light candles.
W: I thinki:there is a poem in there somewhere. (Laughter)
E: And I spend much of my day trying to light candles when I see that candles
are in order and that it might be helpful. And that usually takes the place
of, ah, having a student coming to my office or sit under a tree somewhere
out on the campus and just talk and share our common humanity with each other.
And, ah, I do not really know. I have no way of assessing how useful that
is or how helpful that is. In the long run I really do not busy my time
worrying about how useful it is. I try to do the best that I can and hope
that it is useful
W: Where do you see this school ten years from now?
E: Ten years from now I see, ah, a situation where economics is going to begin
to have an impact on an education and I think probably some of the luxuries
that we have enjoyed, i particularly this school district, are going to
become, ah, are going to be decreased to at least some degree. I do not
think that we are going to be able to enjoy some of the luxuries that we
used to have in terms of field trips and smaller classes and, ah, some of
things that, ah, I think have made thiSschool special. I hope that that
is not an accurate prediction and maybe things will change so that it might
be possible to n c- Cn (- but I think, ah, there, there
needs to be a change in the education in the next decade, or certainly
by the turn of the system. Not just the system here in this school, which
I think in a sense is atypical, but as I view public education, as I discuss
it with teachers that I meet at national conferences and the like, I find
that we are trying to perpetuate an educational system that is, in a sense,
MISC 8 A
E: ...no longer adequate to meet the changing times.
W: Do you think the government should take a larger role in this or a lesser
role? -77;- .Q / /.cC \,rrv- \Cy r&\c .,0?
E: Well, I think that the government is going to have to realize that, ah,
public education is, has to achieve a high level priority in its heirarchy
or priorities. I think right now it is being given 4ocq attention
in the fact that in the last few years there seems to be going, ah, back-
wards in terms of government support. And I am concerned that we still
have in this country functional illiterates that are coming out of public
schools. I am concerned that in a country that has probably the highest
standards of living in the world that such a thing could take place.
W: You think that is not the students'fault.then? Or the teachers fault?
E: Well, it may be a combination of both. Ah, I do not think we can blame
it all on the students. Ah, I think it may be that, ah, we are trying
to educate them for the 1950s instead of the year 2000. And the 1950s
are gone. And I think we are going to have to ask ourselves a few main
questions. We are going to have to ask ourselves what is our reason for
being? I am talking about secondary public education or just public
education in general. What are we here for? We are going to have to
ask ourselves should education be the same for everybody? Or should there
be ,a greater differentiation of ways in which we educate our citizens?
W: Such as like they have in Germany? Where you have to pass a test when
you are fourteen to enter the real high school or else you get more vocational
"-fA Is that the change you are talking about?
E: Well, that could possibly be one direction that we would go. I, I think
it is very important that there be some common strands in the educational
process that, ah, is necessary to maintain, to avoid a class society--which
would be imcompatible with our democracy. I, I am not in favor of an elitist
kind of school system that would necessarily say that one type of education
MISC 8 A
E: ...is better than another type. I am interested in developing a system
of education where the systems might be different, but not necessarily
that one would be better than the other.
W: Then what is your ideal educational system?
E: My ideal educational system would be a system that would enable each student
to achieve his full potential as a human being.
W: Do you think that is possible?
E: I think it is more possible than is being achieved now. If we were willing
to devote the amount of effort, the amount of time, and the amount of money
that it would take to achieve that goal--realizing that you are not going
to achieve it totally.
W: O.K., I thought of two last questions regarding your personal goals. At
this date, what would you see as being your greatest personal accomplishment
in teaching or whatever?
E: I think probably my greatest personal accomplishment has been that I have
been able to stay in the same place and teach for thirty years. Essentially
teach the same discipline for thirty years and have survived the 1960s,
with all its turbulence; the apathy of the 1970s without being burned out
as a teacher. Just the ability to survive those three decades and still
gain satisfaction from what I am doing has been probably the, ah, the
greatest accomplishment that I can name.
W: What do you:hope to achieve in the future? What are your personal goals
as a teacher and as a person c, ^ ,er :i? \\ ?
E: Well, I am contemplating now some changes in my life, perhaps, in the next
decade or so. I probably will remain at the job that I am now in for
probably the next two to five years. After that, I would like to bring
some of the experience that I have gained from teaching in this very fine
school district to other levels. I would like to, ah, bring some of what
I have learned from working in secondary schools to the college level. I
MISC 8 A
E: ...would like to maybe work with maybe, beginning teachers and try to, ah,
help them to discover those things in themselves that will enable them to
be good teachers. I also, ah, feel that the heavy demand of paper work and
so forth as a teacher has kept me from writing at least one good book.
W: (Laughter) The great American novel.
E: Well, not so much a novel as perhaps a book dealing with the whole art of
teaching. Because I consider teaching a art, rather than a skill. And I
do not think there is very much written about that. So, I would like to do
that. This summer I have this opportunity to meet with fifteen teachers,
from all over the United States, and ostensibly we are going to be getting
together at Saint John's College for a month to discuss Plato's Republic.
And he, of course, has many things to say about education in that work.
But I hope that probably the greater value of that experience will be to
exchange ideas with fifteen educators representing six different disciplines
and with an age differential of about thirty years. And perhaps out of that
interaction in living together for a month, I might get some ideas about
the state of education in the United States from a broader prospective from
just being in the same small school for the last thirty years.