Tom Mooney: A Teacher First

By Bill Bigelow

I met Tom Mooney in the spring of 1973 when we were students at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Tom invited me to be part of a political discussion-action group there called Praxis. And Tom was full of such charm and good humor that who could say no? The group met on Sunday afternoons for several hours: 25 or so of us crammed into the living-dining room of a collective household. We were in training for the socialist revolution, albeit a revolution long on introspection and critical self-evaluation.

The following fall, a group of seven of us moved to Cincinnati to teach for six months at Citywide Learning Community, a public alternative school housed at Hughes High School, across the street from the University of Cincinnati. This was Tom’s hometown, and he had made arrangements for us to work at a school where a couple of his friends taught and where he’d be nominally student-teaching. I say nominally because Tom was barely supervised, working at the school as an equal with the other regular Cincinnati Public School teachers. Even as a youngster — and Tom was the youngest among us, having graduated high school when he was just 16 — he was brilliant, articulate and self-confident. (He liked to tell the story of his first political activism: a union of one, picketing his own house demanding higher allowance.) No one could truly “supervise” this precocious activist.

We lived collectively in two houses and approached teaching on the basis of all for one and one for all. The school gave us an enormous amount of freedom — indeed probably an illegal amount of freedom. We could teach whichever courses we wanted, so long as we could attract and keep students. Even before moving to Cincinnati, the seven of us held long meetings to discuss prospective classes and which teams of us would work together. We had the kind of “we can teach anything/we can do anything” confidence that was characteristic of politicized youth of the late 60s and early 70s. We decided to offer courses like “Crime Study,” “Our Bodies, Ourselves” (for young women), “Capitalism vs. Socialism,” and “What is Cable TV and What Can We Do With It?” The school provided us church basement space for classes but no budget for photo-copying, books, field trips, or anything else. Instead we taxed ourselves on the basis of pay what you’re able, and then collectively decided how to allocate our funds. We met in small planning and evaluation sessions daily, and then gathered as our full collective twice a week to discuss particular students and to study political economy.

Tom was my teacher in countless ways. In class, his mind was lightning fast. When a student made an interesting comment, Tom would smile and cock his head, put his finger to his temple and respond in a way that made the student feel that she had just said the smartest thing in the world. We had scripted our lesson plans in embarrassing detail, but I tried to imitate Tom as he built off students’ comments and improvised within the lesson plan. Tom peppered class discussions with jokes — delivered in an assortment of accents he’d picked up over the years — stories and quickie lectures on Irish history, the Haitian revolution, or his own high school organizing.

Tom and I had similar upper middle class roots, but Tom transcended these much better than I. He had a rainbow coalition of friends: Appalachian housing organizers in Over-the-Rhine, African-American activists in the West End, white street kids struggling with drugs and alcohol — at least one of whom Tom convinced to enroll in CityWide and join our classes. It reflected Tom’s bone-deep belief in people’s capacity to change. And in Cincinnati, Tom was ever the tour guide, taking our Antioch crew to his favorite haunts, especially one particular Irish pub, where he alternated between political and bawdy songs late into the night.

Of course, we had our new-teacher moments that year. We were radicals and wanted students to question and think critically about society. So when the second Dirty Harry movie, Magnum Force, opened, we thought we’d take our Crime Study class downtown and encourage kids to critique the way violence was used to resolve conflict, along with the movie’s machismo and sexism. Rookie move. Much to our chagrin, kids loved Magnum Force. They couldn’t stop talking about all the cool guns. Even Tom failed to get them to think critically about the film.

After Tom became president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers — at age 25, probably the youngest teacher union president in history — he visited several times in Portland. We didn’t always see eye to eye, but I never lost my appreciation for Tom’s quirky brilliance. Tom was determined to remake the educational landscape, and I suspect that he thought the classroom work I was doing was too small a canvas. Even when I felt that Tom over-estimated the value of winning contract reforms and neglected the critical, social justice classroom work that needed to be nurtured, I admired his iconoclasm, his willingness to play with ideas like teacher career ladders, peer evaluation, and novel partnerships with administrators.

Other friends and colleagues are better positioned to write about Tom’s work as president of the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers and the Ohio Federation of Teachers, and in broader union reform circles. What I can attest to is that all this work was grounded in a profoundly democratic spirit. From the beginning, Tom knew that he could make a difference in the world. What’s more, he knew that everyone else could too.

Bill Bigelow is an editor of Rethinking Schools.