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A tragic trip

Looking at him, standing in front of a roomful of college kids, there is absolutely no question that this is the Pied Piper of local higher education.

"Everyone with us?" he says, eyeing his students as he rocks back and forth on his brown loafers, shirt sleeves rolled up in earnestness, a piece of white chalk clenched between two fingers. "Ready to move on? Isn't this fun? Cool."

Mr. Cool is a 36-year-old history instructor at the Collin County Community College in McKinney. He is good-looking. He is energetic. He is funny. He is full of jazzy pitter-patter about his subject, a highly informative hipster who can somehow make a long-dead American president sound like the next star of a Jackie Collins novel.

"Andrew Jackson grew hemp on his plantation," Joe Jaynes says with a mischievous smile. "So we're not quite sure what he's smoking, right?"

"Screw the Supreme Court," he says moments later, prompting broad smiles around the room. Later, popping in a videotape--a dramatization of the Battle of the Alamo--for their perusal, Jaynes wisecracks, "I can tell I'm getting old. When I was young, it was the Playboy channel. Now it's the history channel."

Yes, his students are mesmerized. They hang on his every word. They chuckle. They scribble in their spiral notebooks.

"Don't try to take dictation," he admonishes them at one point, as they drag pen across paper. "We'll hit the high notes here in a minute."

Yes, he is an 18-year-old's dream.
He is also the worst nightmare for at least one 18-year-old's parents.
And he is about to become the newest Collin County commissioner.

A little background for those south of Plano.
Last Friday, Collin County Commissioner John Witherspoon held a press conference. The 40-year-old accountant and two-term county official had a startling announcement to make: Although he had been campaigning for months for re-election--and had successfully beaten back two of three opponents and was now headed for a runoff election on April 9--he was abruptly withdrawing from the race.

It had been no secret to the voters of Collin County that their commissioner was very ill. Last November he'd been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig's disease--a debilitating, incurable illness that cripples the muscles and has left Witherspoon confined to a wheelchair, unable to use either arm. Though the disease does not affect a person's mental capacity, people who came in contact with Witherspoon saw an obviously ill man--his voice slurred, his energy zapped, his extremities withered.

Witherspoon persevered--determined to serve a third term. Doctors assured him last November that he had six to 15 years to live, but last Wednesday, with Witherspoon clearly in a downward spiral, doctors revised the estimate down to a year.

Enter Joe Jaynes--Witherspoon's opponent in the runoff. Since no Democratic candidate contested the race, the winner of the runoff election would become the next commissioner.

On paper, Jaynes would seem to have been an insignificant threat--a little-known virgin politician with no business or government experience. But he's clearly had the wind at his back. More formidable pols in McKinney--the heart of this predominantly rural commissioner's district--had stayed away from the election in deference to Witherspoon. But the incumbent was sick. And the energy and charm Jaynes exuded in the classroom played nicely on the campaign trail.

In the Republican primary elections two weeks ago, Jaynes led Witherspoon by three percentage points. "Joe is a very politically astute individual," Witherspoon says. "And he is a very, very vigorous campaigner. He has been campaigning for the last one-and-a-half to two years. I just hope he can do as good a job as commissioner as he can campaigning."

Howard and Susan Geffen don't think so.
Last October, the Geffens suffered an enormous personal loss: Their 18-year-old daughter, the oldest of their three children, was killed in a terrible car accident on a remote stretch of highway in Tennessee. They blame two people: the 21-year-old who fell asleep at the wheel, Olivia Ritter of Plano, and the history teacher who sent them to Tennessee, Joe Jaynes. "I hope you make it perfectly clear in your story that this man is not fit for public office," Howard Geffen told me bitterly last week.

Well, I wouldn't go that far. But certainly the Geffens' incredibly sad story raises some legitimate questions about the judgment and maturity of Collin County's commissioner-elect, who will take office next January at the end of Witherspoon's term. It raises just as many questions about the goings on at the publicly financed Collin County Community College where Jaynes has worked since it opened in 1986.

In those 10 years, Jaynes estimates he has taught history to 3,500 people--one of whom was a shy, quiet girl named Angela Geffen. "There are always two or three students you zero in on--you're not connecting with them," Jaynes told me in an hourlong interview at the end of his history class last Wednesday. "So you almost gear the whole class toward them to get their attention. That's what I tried to do with Angela. She used to look so bored."

 

She wasn't. But she was not a carefree student. She had ADD--attention deficit disorder--and that meant school had never been easy. Tests were hard; lectures frustrating; good grades hard to come by. But that didn't deter Angela from pursuing her dreams. She was a scrapper--accustomed to obstacles, such as the scoliosis, or curvature of the spine, with which she was diagnosed in the eighth grade. She went to sleep strapped into a hard, pink body brace every night for several years.

Angela had high hopes--she wanted to be a child psychologist, and she wanted to go to a good, four-year college like UT-Austin. But she had decided to wait a year before leaving home. Not only had her physical frailties left her somewhat academically and socially immature, but her father had had an unexpected midlife career change that made money tight--better to live at home a year and go to the community college.

It was this girl--a sweet girl who dutifully drove home several days a week to have lunch with her mom, an at-home piano teacher--who sat before Joe Jaynes in history class.

And it was this girl who got swept up in Jaynes' approach to teaching.
It goes beyond the fact that Jaynes is a cool dude with a flair for the soap-operatic. (In the Andrew Jackson lecture I sat through, Jaynes spent as much time discussing Jackson's pipe-smoking wife--an alleged prostitute--as he did discussing the president.) Jaynes is equally creative when it comes to giving kids assignments and grades.

"I hate research papers," Jaynes told me. "There's only one thing worse than having to do a research paper--and that's having to grade 40 of them."

Ditto reading assignments. "I have them watch movies," he says, referring to his students. "I'm realistic. I know they'd pick up a movie before they'd pick up a book. Maybe I'm doing them a disservice. But most people coming out of high school have never read a book--and they're proud of the fact. They've had some coach teaching them in high school, and then they come here."

Instead of term papers, Jaynes says he assigns his students "MTV-type videos." A student picks an historical event, shoots videotape--of Dealey Plaza, perhaps--and then puts music to it.

Though there is a textbook for the class, it's "highly condensed," Jaynes says, and he assigns only "the important parts." He's more likely to send them to Blockbuster to rent a movie. Or he'll dispatch them to the movie theatre; this semester he assigned Oliver Stone's Nixon.

Instead of giving quizzes--25 percent of the total grade--Jaynes will just as likely send his students to a homeless shelter to do a few hours of volunteer work. Or he might ask for canned-goods donations for the local homeless shelter. Or--and this is a history class, remember--he'll ask for a monetary contribution for a local charity. "The McKinney Heart Fund has a fundraiser for the heart association," Jaynes says. "If they donate something for that, it's considered a quiz grade. They give it to me, and I give it to the charity."

Which is why the Geffens first became suspicious of their daughter's history teacher. "I gave her a couple of dollars," Susan Geffen says. "But that's when I first raised my eyebrow. I said, 'That's kind of odd. That's unethical.' But Angela said, 'It is not. It's 100 on a quiz grade.'"

Jaynes is the first to admit that his teaching methods "might be a tad unorthodox." But he believes it's important for every teacher to sprinkle a few real-life experiences into the academic mix. For example, Jaynes has offered a perfect quiz grade in exchange for working a few hours on someone's political campaign. (Jaynes says he has not recruited his students to work on his campaign, though two of his students told me Jaynes recently offered a quiz grade to anyone who would attend one of his candidate debates and then write a review of it. Jaynes also sees nothing wrong with tapping former students for help: He put in calls to all of them, he says.)

"The most important thing to the average student today is not being so much involved in something, but in getting a grade," Jaynes says. "So if you can mix the two together, it's a good thing, I think."

Jaynes also assures me that the president of the college, John Anthony, supports what he does 100 percent.

 

"Our president has a great policy," Jaynes says. "It's OK to screw up. Just don't stand up there behind the lectern. Try new things. Try innovative approaches. If they don't work, that's OK. At least you tried."

Anthony concurs. "You have to take risks in education," he said Monday. "It's not just textbook learning today. Things are changing so dramatically."

Jaynes says he wouldn't want to teach under more formal circumstances, which is why he has no interest in teaching elsewhere. "You have a lot more freedom here," he says. "You can say 'pissed off' in the class without getting fired. You can talk about more controversial things. And you don't have to do a lesson plan. It's not like we just fly by the seat of our pants."

Jaynes admits, though, that he has, in fact, screwed up. In 1989, one of his ideas got so out of hand that it attracted a TV station from Dallas. "We were studying segregation, and I had the students do arm bands--half black, half white--with the black arm bands being second-class citizens," he recalls. "The class met at 8 a.m., and before I got here, they went to all the water fountains, bathrooms, and elevators all over the building, and put up signs that read 'whites only' and 'colored only.' Well, the minute the other 2,000 students got here, we almost had a riot." The school's minority employees were so upset, Jaynes says, that the administration formed a "human-relations task force" to smooth over the hurt feelings.

That didn't stop Jaynes from being creative, though. Which brings us to the Geffens.

Last year, Jaynes invited his students to watch him participate in a Civil War re-enactment--a hobby of Jaynes. This hobby involves dressing up like an 1860s Confederate soldier and going on a pilgrimage--period rifle in hand--to some famous U.S. battleground, where Jaynes, his local buds in the Allen, Texas, chapter of re-enactors, and up to 7,000 other equally obsessed people show up to shoot at each other with phony gun powder.

To get students to go, of course, Jaynes would have to offer an inducement--so he gave kids the option of going on the trip or taking a final exam. In fact, any student who went on the trip and wrote a two-page paper describing what he saw would be given a perfect score of 100 as his final exam grade--25 percent of the total course grade.

"They'll do almost anything to get out of a final," Jaynes told me. "It's unusual. It's fun."

Last October, Jaynes had a re-enactment in Tennessee. It was a three-day-weekend affair--Friday through Sunday--with one big battle scheduled in the afternoon of each day. Although Jaynes says he encouraged his students to fly up to Tennessee--after all, he was flying--that was not possible for most of these kids. Including Angela Geffen.

"I was making $5 an hour at the time--and you can quote me on that," says Howard Geffen. "Plus, even if we'd had the money, this battlefield was in such a remote area, you'd have to rent a car to get there. Even if she'd had the money, you have to be 25 years old to rent a car."

The Geffens begged their daughter, whose only previous road trip had been a high-school choir excursion to Corpus Christi on a school bus, not to go. But she was adamant. "She said, 'I'm going to do this. I need the grade. I need that 100,'" her dad recalls. "This trip was a lark for some of these kids. But not for her. She didn't take risks. She didn't do things that were reckless." In the end, Angela and two other students cobbled together a driving expedition, using a borrowed car. Since all three had work and school commitments on Friday and Monday, they were forced to leave at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, which meant they had to drive through the night in order to complete the 12-hour, one-way trip, see a battle, and return home by Sunday night.

At 4:10 a.m. on Saturday morning, 60 miles east of Memphis, Olivia Ritter--who, unbeknownst to the Geffens, had no car insurance and had once been cited for driving without a license--fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the interstate, striking a massive steel guardrail that shot through the passenger door like a spear, killing Angela, who was asleep in the front seat. Ritter and the third student, who had been asleep in the back seat, survived.

Jaynes says he was in the airport on Sunday, returning home from Tennessee, when a fellow community-college instructor paged him and gave him the bad news. "That's been one of my low points," Jaynes says. "Not just in teaching, but in my life."

 

No doubt. Jaynes, clearly shaken by the tragedy, sent a heartfelt letter to the Geffens immediately upon his return and offered to meet with them in person. They declined.

Life carries on at the community college. The Texas Legislature made community colleges legally immune from such a scenario; if the trip had been a requirement, as opposed to an option, and if the students had been on a school bus driven by a school employee, that could have been a different story. The Geffens have tried in vain to find out if Jaynes' field trips break any kind of school grading policies--and even if they don't (and they don't), they'd like the school to stop them. But the college isn't talking to them; they keep referring the Geffens' attorney to the school's insurance company.

The school did talk to me, however. The re-enactment trips will continue, Jaynes says, though he'll try to pick battles that are closer to home. The college also wants students to start signing liability waivers for the trip--double armor against lawsuits, I suppose. Anthony adds that he is reviewing Jaynes' policy of substituting a field trip for the final exam.

As Joe Jaynes enters public life full-time at his new salary of $51,000--he's quitting teaching, he tells me--he finds himself in the unusual position of having two serious, permanent watchdogs in the Geffens. He also has some fellow politicians breathing a sigh of relief.

Says one Collin County elected official: "If I had lived in the district, I would probably have voted for Joe Jaynes because he could probably do less harm on the commissioners court than the classroom."

We'll see.


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