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Detroit’s Fiery Schoolhouse Crusader

Out this month is a fascinating “tell-all” autobiography by Dr. John Telford, a long-time Detroit area schoolteacher, administrator and social activist. Pulling no punches (he’s a former boxer) and pushing his “tell-it-like-I-see-it” philosophy, Telford describes his five-decades crusade to save Detroit kids from educational neglect and mismanagement.

Telford’s fight for educational equality (as well as his personal missteps along the way) has created enough entanglements for five lifetimes, which makes for a page-turning book.

Metro Detroit natives might recognize Telford’s voice and colorful personality in A Life on the RUN: Seeking and Safeguarding Social Justice, published by Harmonie Park Press. He was a long-time contributor to the Michigan Chronicle, has authored columns and editorials for the major Detroit papers and has hosted local radio shows.

The book form has afforded Telford the opportunity to expand on the theme he has propounded in the media — and anywhere else he can find an audience — for more than 50 years. He decries society’s abandonment of African American students of Detroit’s, and the nation’s, inner city schools and says it will haunt us for generations to come, in the form of economic woe and social unrest, unless we reverse course.

In a fast-paced sprint through the author’s professional and personal peaks and valleys, Telford (also a former world-ranked runner) lays out his philosophy of equality, based on an ancient Celtic code of honor instilled by his less-than-perfect but courageous Scottish father.

From his rambunctious and randy formative years in Detroit to his nearly equally rowdy professional years in and around the city, Telford made himself a magnet for controversy, and thereby ensured that the problems in Detroit area schools and communities (inequitable school funding, illiteracy, racism, classism, moral decay, violence) were not overlooked.

A Life on the RUN will, by turns, break your heart, make you chuckle and fan your flames of indignation whether you’re a school reform activist, a feminist (he freely admits he was a womanizer and eventually apologizes), a Republican (he’s a vociferous liberal Democrat) or a Detroit school administrator (many of whom he condemns individually and collectively).

Telford relished and thrived in an environment that would cause many another teacher and administrator to suffer, at the least, stress-induced high blood pressure or, worse, debilitating depression or numbing fear.

He relates how he routinely broke up violent encounters — not just between students at the inner-city schools where he worked but involving administrators, parents and unwelcome “outsiders” such as truants, drop-outs, drug dealers and pimps — and attempted to deal with the soul-crushing personal, family and gang problems of his students.

In one particularly stomach-churning and heart-stopping incident, Telford recounts how he was on another floor, unable to stop a mob of students from beating to death a young man inside a Detroit high school (the victim had gone to the school to avenge some slight suffered by his sister). One can only imagine the effort it must have taken (and takes today) to bring kids back from that kind of horror and/or desensitization.

The excerpted journal entries of students he taught in English classes through the years are quietly poignant, making clear how little things have improved for black kids in urban schools over the last several decades.

Considered together, his stark anecdotes bring home the near-insurmountable challenge that resurrecting the Detroit school system represents. Yet, rather than leaving the reader feeling discouraged and hopeless, Telford’s energetic joy in his mission makes one believe there is hope. With a fearlessness verging on lunacy, Telford managed to blaze a navigable, positive path for many students who were influenced by his example and swayed by his love for them. Others will have to do the same.

Despite the autobiography’s occasionally laborious self-indulgence and name dropping (the author is perhaps too proud of his athletic success and connections for this reader), Telford’s heart and energies are, and have been, in the right place. A Life on the RUN is an education in and of itself for anyone who cares about improving children’s futures.

With his traditional career waning (he is now 74 but has, by no means, “retired” from his crusade) it’s clear the overarching purpose of the book is to create more activists and improve the lives of more Michigan children — a noble challenge that this book meets head on.


Bookworm Jean B. Eggemeyer owns the Williamston-based communications and marketing firm Carillon Communications LLC, serving the business and association communities.

January 16, 2010 · Filed under Bookit Tags: , , , , , ,

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