All About Multiple Sclerosis

More MS news articles for January 2003

Not even MS slows longtime Adams English teacher

The San Francisco Chronicle
BYLINE: Meredith May

It may not be high literature, but English teacher Oline Floe knows how to reel in middle-schoolers.

As students pass between second and third period, she presses play on her boom box:

"Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk, I'm a woman's man, no time to talk . . ." the Bee Gees croon in falsetto to a disco beat.

Heads nodding, students come into her room and start dancing.

Whether it's teaching disco line dancing or Shakespeare at Adams Middle School in Richmond, Floe, 56, has a way of making things interesting - but never easy. Nothing stops her - not job offers from other districts, not the kid who repeatedly fails to bring his book to class, not the multiple sclerosis that has been weakening her body since the disease was diagnosed in 1986.

Even though her doctor asked her to retire two years ago, she's not about to call it a day, not after 35 years of turning sassy, insecure middle-schoolers into kids ready for high school.

And if that means around-the-clock care at home to help her eat her meals, get to bed, get dressed, and get to school, then so be it.

"Students at this age are like puppies who need someone to instill discipline," she said. "The last thing kids need is another friend. They need a teacher."

As the grande dame of Adams, she has been

nicknamed her "Benevolent Dictator." And, she actually uses a wooden gavel made for her by a former student to get her points across.

Other teachers come to her for advice on how to teach lessons or getting control of their classes.

Rumors about her workload circulate in elementary school, and incoming sixth-graders pray to the God of Easy Classes that they don't get assigned to her. The librarian has even rearranged her collection and bought more books to match Floe's syllabi.

Yet somehow, the students who sit in Floe's classes survive the assignments - acting out scenes from "The Taming of the Shrew," learning to recite Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Lewis Carroll and Dr. Seuss, and getting over the jitters to deconstruct "Where the Red Fern Grows" or "White Fang" in front of class.

"She guarantees that you will learn," said Antonio Martinez, 13. "She will take you to college."

Floe has been teaching for 28 years in the West Contra Costa Unified School District, which she graduated from, and has won so many teaching awards she has lost count. She lives a few minutes away from campus, and she knows everyone in town. That comes in handy when she warns ne'er-do-wells that if she doesn't know their mama or their pastor, she can find out who's in charge in a matter of two phone calls.

"Don't play me!" is one of her famous warnings.

In one day she teaches eighth-graders who read at a third-grade reading level, their peers who are ready for high school textbooks, and all levels in between. Third period is a disco line dancing class, and she calls out the steps from memory from her days in the '70s doing the hustle at Ashkenaz in Berkeley.

"Everyone stand up and face the clock that doesn't work, please!" is her typical first order of the day.

Her classes, which average 30 students, stand and recite poetry from memory: Robert Frost, Longfellow, Paul Simon and Seuss.

"I like that Longfellow dude, he's my favorite," said Keynon Westbrook, 13, who likened memorizing poems to remembering lyrics to his favorite songs. "He's cool, he writes about himself and his feelings and that kind of stuff."

As the soft click-click of her motorized wheelchair draws near, students bury their noses in a Longfellow poem, desperate to avoid being cored by her razor-sharp wit.

Her wheelchair stops near the boy who never brings his book.

"By not bringing your book, you are depriving all the other kids, see? Because if you brought it, I'd fall out of my chair and make a big spectacle, and you'd all laugh. It could be our little amusement," she whispered, drawing a soft chuckle out of the sullen boy.

MS has restricted Floe to the partial use of her left arm. She's no longer able to hand-grade papers, so she prints out students' progress reports from a computer. When she needs to get a file out of the cabinet, or pick up something off the floor, she calls on a student, who is ever eager to oblige. She can't decorate her classroom herself anymore, so except for the fading Rolling Stone covers ringing the ceiling (Marilyn Manson, Prince, Jack Nicholson), she awards students by having them put their posters and maps on the wall.

"I used to visit students at home a lot and help them with their college applications, and I don't do that so much anymore," she said.

"My doctor expected me to retire two years ago, but my brain is stimulated here. And a lot of these kids are coming from difficult home situations, and school is survival to them. I am going to be here for them. I'll be here until my brain goes south!"

While she likes the teaching awards, it's the small rewards that keep her working: The former students who bump into her at malls and grocery stores, eager to tell her that they are in college or learned to love English under her tutelage, for example.

She thinks often of the former student who was living in a car after his parents moved away without him. She and colleagues made arrangements so he could shower in the boy's locker room before school started. Floe helped him get into UC Davis by helping him apply to the school and for financial aid, and she wrote a letter of recommendation for him.

Or the 12-year-old at the Gatesville Boys Reform School in Texas who asked her for more poetry books, risking ridicule by his peers.

"She puts a lot of pressure on you to get it right," said seventh-grader Ashley Addison, who spent one day learning the bunny hop to ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man."

"You want to do it right for her. She makes you want to learn it," Ashley said.

© Copyright 2002 The Chronicle Publishing Co.