The Accidental Leader (a career story)

25 Jun 2020. Maurice Perlman with Bob Kaplan

I never planned to be a teacher in the first place. I backed into it. 

I went up to Tufts, with the idea of becoming a doctor. So I became pre-med and majored in chem-bio. But when I saw other pre-med students staring into a microscope, getting so excited, I realized I don't give a shit. It wasn't me. You realize this isn't you. I ended up majoring in government, which I enjoyed. 

I did just enough to graduate. If a professor was awful I didn't go to class. I wouldn't honor him with my going. My papers were always last-minute, when the pressure was on. Lying in bed the night before I'd compose the paper line by line. Of all the papers I wrote, I only got one C, and I was proud of that. But, basically, I was lazy. I just squeaked by.

Senior year, my advisor asked me, "What do you want to do?" 

"I guess I'll go to law school," I said.

"Given your grades, you'll have to get at least an 85 percentile on the law boards." 

But I liked taking tests and I was in the 93rd percentile on the law boards. So I applied to BU Law and got in. 

But when I graduated, I really didn't want to practice law. Since high school, I'd been drawn to teaching. Being a teacher, I had said to myself, I'd like to do that. But I put it aside.‎

I told my parents, "I'm going to teach for a year, I always wanted to do that." I enjoyed going to class so much. My parents were disappointed—they expected me to become a doctor or lawyer—but they said, okay. They were good about it. They weren't the only ones who were disappointed. My first wife thought she was marrying a lawyer.

At the end of the year I almost quit. I'd lost two of my students. One, a freshman, climbed a telephone pole and fell on a high-power line. He was electrocuted and died. The other was a kid with a big chip on his shoulder who I befriended. It got to the point where he'd come by at the end of the day to see me. He got killed in a car accident. Another girl that I didn't know died. It was very hard to take but I decided to stay in teaching. 

I started at the very bottom—teaching business machines, business procedures, business math, record-keeping for kids who can't do accounting yet, really low level. All of it awful stuff. And often it was to slower students. And I was stuck at the very bottom for a few years. One year I had two business math classes and two record-keeping classes—Oh, my God. But it didn't feel like a come-down. I was just happy to have a job. I made the best of it. I got along with the kids and I learned a lot. 

In my second year the head of the department approached me about teaching a section of the typing class. I told him, "I'm a two-finger typist." 

"That doesn't matter," he said.‎ "Just don't demonstrate."

The typing class turned into a chance to stand out, though I had no goal or ambition to do that. Courses like that were highly prescribed. ‎There sure was‎n't any room for changing things, no room for doing my own thing. 

The main teacher had gone to secretarial college. She was the one who made up the final exam. It turned out my class did much better on the test. All I did that was possibly different was walk up and down the aisles and encourage the kids. "Good job," I'd say. "Get your head up—you're doing good." I just encouraged them and that was what they needed.

A couple of years later the principal asked me to take on a public speaking course. I'd mc'd a number of school functions so they knew I could speak. 

The principal said, "Don't go by what the outgoing teacher did. That course was terrible. The students would leave the classroom and wander the halls. Create your own course." It felt good he asked me to teach the course and it felt good he gave me that much leeway. It showed he had confidence in me.

I had seen what kids could do to other kids: someone would stumble, and people would laugh. On top of that, many of the kids in that class were discipline problems. On the first day I told the class, "There is one basic rule: you are going to show respect for your classmates."  After that, no one ever laughed at a kid speaking, no one made fun of them. The kids in that class all showed respect. Everyone applauded every time. 

I remember the principal came in once to observe the class. He sat down in back, and he turned to the kid next to him, a real troublemaker, and asked, "What's the topic?" And the kid said to him, "Shhh! Don't talk while someone is speaking." 

I gave the kids a wide variety of assignments. They had to demonstrate something. They had to imagine it was ten years later and you're running for office and you have to give a stump speech. Once they got used to presenting, I would question them when they were done, or I would take the other side of their argument. I'd interrupt in the middle of their speech. Some kids couldn't handle that. 

A lot of the students were very nervous standing in front of the classroom and speaking. When they began to get over that, we moved to the auditorium. ‎After a few classes there, we shifted to the school's TV studio. I used three cameras. Each time the kids had to overcome a new bout of nerves. Those cameras were manned by kids taking a different class. I pulled them out of other classes.

More and more kids signed up for the class, twenty to twenty-five kids to a class. The second year I had two sections; the following year, four; the next year it was six sections. I couldn't teach them all. The school had to get another teacher. The principal said to me, "Marty, I don't know what you're doing, everybody wants to take that course."

The kids signed up for the class less because it was an easy grade—they were guaranteed a C if they gave all the speeches—but because it gave them experience and they learned a lot. I was building their confidence. 

It felt good that the course was well received and that I gained the respect of the other teachers. I said to myself, I'm succeeding

Some of the students who went to Boston College told me how much the course helped them. At BC professors called on students and they had to stand up and give an answer. Lots of kids were petrified but the ones who took my speaking course were prepared. 

A few years went by and the principal came around again: "Can you think of a course—maybe a business management course?" 

I said, "Oh, what a great idea."

"Good, I'll put you down for that."

When I looked around for a textbook to use, they were all terrible, childish. So I instead decided to build a course around simulating a real-life business situation.

Everyone was in business for themselves—which involved opening and running a video store. Every kid got to open their own video store, and they each had to make a series of business decisions, at the start and along the way. The simulation was true, it was realistic. I had worked in a video store for a number of years. 

The kids were each given an outlay of capital, $100,000. Then they had to pick the size of the store from the different choices I gave them. They had to choose which town to locate the store in. They had to decide which videos to stock and there were three price points. They had to hire a part-time staff person, and if you hired such-and-so person, it turned out not so good—he was sneaking out films for his friends. Every Monday, how much money their store made or lost the previous week was computed. A few kids went bankrupt, and they got to go to Perlman Bank and Trust. 

I kept putting new twists in the simulation, which I created on the fly. It got very involved and I had trouble keeping up with it. 

The kids loved the simulation. They couldn't wait to get to class. They would get into arguments. They competed with each other like you wouldn't believe. I soon had a second section of that class with 20 to 30 kids in each class.

At that time, I was not only teaching full time but I had two or three jobs. I took every job I could get my hands on. Selling shoes I made 20 percent of my teacher's salary. It took multiple jobs to make ends meet. But I still managed to be happily married to my second wife and to help raise a family. We had four children, two from her first marriage and two of our own.

Back then I didn't think of myself as innovative. To me I was just solving for the situation. The next course that came along, a brand-new course in television production, took a lot of solving for. Again, the school trusted me, and they gave me a lot of leeway and that felt very good. There's no doubt it was innovative. Nothing like that had been done before.

Cablevision came to our town and offered to build a TV studio in the school. They'd rent space, supply all the equipment, and pay one-fifth of a teacher's salary. The studio would broadcast local content. They wanted people to sign up for their service, build up their subscriber base.

The principal needed some volunteers to learn to operate the equipment. I volunteered and so did another teacher. I wasn't very good at it because it involved editing but I learned. 

Another teacher and I put together a regular course teaching the technicalities of using the equipment—working the cameras, for example. Once they got the idea, I had them learn by doing. They worked the cameras for some of the shows we broadcast to the community. They learned a lot. Actually, they taught me. They were inspired and I enjoyed myself. 

I also taught them to edit. Editing is difficult so I developed a means of teaching the kids. It was very amateurish but very clever. I recorded the numbers one through ten on both video and audio. The audio and video didn't match. The kids had to put the right audio with the right video. I'd say, "Two, two, two, let's do two."

They made music videos that were excellent. Some of the kids were so creative, it got me in trouble. I had a couple of guys making a music video; they recruited a girl, a member of the class, and had her tied to the railroad tracks, very briefly. The video was on based on the song, "Along Came Jones." Jones would save the day. Somebody saw this going on and they called the police, who came by and said, "Oh, no, this is for Mr. Perlman." That was funny as hell.

We also filmed the school's sports events. Football games, basketball games, field hockey, soccer. I rotated the kids through the different roles—helping to direct; announcing, except at football games; working the cameras; being a "camera-puller," a role I created. The camera person sitting on the sidelines could get killed by a player crashing into them.

Broadcasting a game was a lot of work and, by the time we put all the equipment away, ‎we were the last ones to leave the field. ‎The very last thing we did, we formed a tight circle and cheered, "HCAT, HCAT!" Holliston Cable TV. It was phenomenal. 

After a couple of years teaching that course, I realized I couldn't be in three places at once. So each year I took two juniors—up to that point the class was only for seniors—with the understanding that when they were seniors, they would be my assistants and help teach the class. They were terrific, it was a great relationship. 

In that course all the kids got a lot of responsibility. They were taking home for a night or a few nights $10,000 worth of equipment, and they had access to a studio with $100,000 of equipment—which is even more money in today's dollars. And they weren't supervised. 

Everyone in the class had a key to the studio. That's how much they were trusted. They had to sign up for time but they could go in 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and they did. They fought for time—to do their music videos, matching up their filming to the music. They worked on those videos for weeks. I never saw such enthusiasm. Unless someone didn't do any work, which was rare, everyone got an A+, and A or an A-. 

At the end of the year we showed the videos to the whole school. The rest of the kids couldn't wait to see it. 

By the end of each course the kids and I had become friends. It was much less of a teacher-student relationship. Experiences like that is why I stayed in teaching so long. 

Halloween came around and the doorbell rang. My wife answered the door. Standing there were a number of boys, all dressed the same. They were all wearing sport coats and ties.

"What's this all about?" she asked.

‎"We're Mr. P!!"

Around that time, I was nominated by a member of the town's school committee for Massachusetts Teacher of the Year. His kid was in one of my classes. The first round and the second round you had to answer written questions. I didn't want to do it. I was lazy. My wife made me do it. She's been terrific. 

I made it all the way to finalist. But when I was told that if I accepted the award, I'd need to spend six months going around the state making speeches, I realized I couldn't do that. I couldn't give up the TV production course. No one else could teach it.  

The TV production course was the climax of my career. Of all the courses I taught, that was the one the kids enjoyed the most, probably because they had the chance to do so much.

By that time, I had forged a good relationship with the principal to the point where he made me part of his inner circle. He would talk over school policy with that small group. Including me was an acknowledgment of what I knew and what I could do, which felt pretty good. 

Cablevision hired me to manage the studio, which meant being responsible for programming. Another way to supplement my income. We had adult volunteers, talented people, go out and film community events. The kids taking the course came up with their own ideas for shows and I let them go. 

Cablevision held an annual competition. We submitted our best shows and won a lot of awards, sometimes major awards.

I came up with a program called Holliston Happenings. I co-hosted the program with a very bright woman, a former selectman, that I knew. Actually, she did everything—produced the show, wrote the script, put everything on teleprompter, and she would come up with any guests we had. I didn't have to do any work, I just had to show up. I used to ad lib and she had a great laugh. We had so much fun.

The show, which we did every couple of weeks, would run all week. It was always on, at different times. The town loved it. I'd go into a store and they'd say, I saw your‎ show. 

Probably because of that show, I was chosen by the town as Citizen of The Year. Each year the town selected a man and a woman. There was a parade, fire engines, a marching band, the whole works. The other recipient and I rode in a convertible with the top down. The only problem was it rained! 

I stayed in teaching for 34 years and I was very happy. I couldn't have done it without the support of my wife. She was wonderful. She didn't complain that I would be gone almost every weekday night working with the kids and away on weekends with all the sports events. She never complained. Very supportive.

My whole career my ambition was to give the kids experience, practical experience, that they could learn from. And give them confidence—that was the whole point. 

Teachers were often told, never live in the town where you teach. But the kids would always say, "Don't worry, Mr. P, we've got your back."

I guess someone could look at me, a graduate of a prestigious liberal arts school and law school, and think, this guy could have made more of himself, he didn't fulfill his potential. But the opposite is true. I found my true calling. 

I gave up a lot of money for happiness. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.