John Cummings: ‘Give ‘Em Hell!’

John Cummings, left, with Ann O'Halloran, Lou Kruger and Rep. David Sullivan in Fall River.

by Ann O’Halloran

Dialing the Fall River number a year ago in January, I wondered, “Who is this guy?”  As it turned out, John Cummings, retired teacher, was quite a surprise. Listening to his voice, tremulous with age, I realized that he exemplified the quality that the best teachers have in common — as human beings, they understand and care deeply for their students.

John, who was then 87, had been a child in the roaring twenties and an adolescent in the Great Depression.  After Army service in World War II, graduation from Harvard and working in business, he found his spot in life – teaching at Durfee High School in Fall River.

He had heard about Citizens for Public Schools and wanted to connect. “I want to know how we can stop the MCAS graduation requirement,” he said. “People who have not been in a classroom have no idea how stressful it is for kids who are so afraid they won’t pass the test. . . It’s a shadow over their lives . . . This is just not right . . . It affects their future.”

He and former colleagues had begun to chat at their monthly lunches about what was happening to “their” kids and what they could do to help.

“I see the kids here so stressed by MCAS. Many of them just give up. They drop out. What I’d like,” said John, “is for us to work together on a petition to the Governor.  I want him to know what’s happening here – what this is doing to the children of our community.”

At 87 John was eager to stand up for his kids. He knew that students need schools which open windows to life, not shutter them.

What is it about some people who can step right outside themselves and experience the anxiety and pain of others? Sometimes I talk with teachers half the age of John and say, “If you know what’s wrong, what’s hurting kids and destroying schools, you have to speak up.”  Perhaps they’ve been whipped into silence by the relentless attacks on teachers in the media and elsewhere. But perhaps they have not yet learned that we teachers are the guardians of childhood and are responsible to the future. John knew.

Perhaps he knew because of his joy performing in the Little Theater of Fall River. John absolutely understood that many schools, lacking the arts, can’t fully educate children and open their eyes to all of the world’s possibilities.

Perhaps that is why he keenly felt the deprivation of schools in a system where millions are spent to create, monitor, prepare for state tests, while the great lifetime gifts of art, drama, music and libraries are mercilessly destroyed.

John rented office space in Fall River and provided gratis tutoring for those returning from prison. He knew huge numbers of prison inmates had special learning needs.

Perhaps he knew because he had lived Harvard and Fall River.

John could have been taking it easy, sitting at the beach, but no, he was worried about his Fall River kids.

We had a chat a couple of weeks ago. I told him that the state of Massachusetts – considered to have one of the best school systems in the country – was moving rapidly toward using student test scores to evaluate teachers.

“Oh, no, that’s terrible,” said John.  I said I’d be speaking about it at the Board of Education the next day. Later, I opened a message he left on my phone. “Ann, just remember, tomorrow, give ’em hell.” I’m not sure I did that – but I did try to follow in his footsteps.

On Tuesday, May 9, came the sad news that John had passed away.  Scheduled to speak at the State House hearings on MCAS reform the very next day, I dropped my prepared comments and instead told John’s story and read the petition from those Fall River teachers who wanted to send a message to the Governor.

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