By Ben Joravsky

To the fellows in room 118 at Triton Junior College, Clairene Terry is the “lady teacher” in jeans and a lab coat who explains the ins and outs of combustion engines.

But to the denizens of Taste, an R & B club on the south side, she’s best known for dressing in leather and dancing the dog, or as she calls it, “the low-down dirty dog.”

“During the workweek my life’s about cars and engines. Come Fridays, it’s about dance,” says Terry, the only woman auto-shop teacher in the city colleges system. “I’ve got my feet in two different worlds. One doesn’t know the other exists.”

She’s been a study in contrasts since her days as a tomboy growing up around 70th and Stony Island. “I was heavy into sports as a kid,” says Terry. “I loved basketball. I played all the time at the courts at 70th and Dante. I wouldn’t back down. Guys’d be talking their trash and I’d beat them.”

She says her toughness comes from her mother, Dorothy. “My father, Theodore, was a wonderful man–he was a clothing salesman. But my mother was the lawmaker in the house. She was the iron brick, the last person you’d want to have a run-in with. I remember telling her years ago, ‘Mama, I don’t want to be like the other girls. I don’t want to have kids.’ She said, ‘Baby, that’s OK, you do what you want.’

“I knew what I wanted. I wanted to work. I got my first job buying groceries for some of the older folks in the neighborhood who couldn’t get out. I’ve been working ever since.”

In 1974 she graduated from Hyde Park High School. Since then she’s been a housekeeper at a VA hospital, a security guard, and an insurance salesman, among other things. She earned a junior college degree in psychology, did a stint in the national guard, and at age 28 enlisted in the air force. “I wanted to fly,” she says.

She spent the late 80s at bases in Oklahoma, Hawaii, Texas, and California. While she was in the air force, she took auto mechanic courses. “It was something I wanted to do because I figured I ought to know how to fix a car if I’m going to drive one,” she says. “Then I got hooked. I love taking engines apart. I love seeing how they work.”

After her discharge in 1989, she returned to Chicago, where she had a variety of jobs repairing cars, selling car parts, and managing auto parts stores. She self-published a guide to auto repair and began teaching private auto classes to women. One year ago she took a part-time job with the city colleges. She keeps all her degrees and certificates–right down to her high school diploma–in plastic envelopes in a big spiral notebook. She even made up a degree of her own.

“It’s my honorary degree of PMT, or Put Myself Through,” she explains. “It reads, ‘As an announcement and declaration to the world, and in celebration of my own achievement in earning a college degree, I hereby confer upon myself, Clairene H. Terry, the well-deserved honorary degree of PMT.’ Hey, you have to be proud of what you do.”

And all the while, wherever she lived she found the local dance club. For the last few years she’s been a regular at Taste’s Friday night R & B set, where the MC is Richard Steele and the DJ Richard Pegue. Everyone knows her as Terry.

“Terry’s what I call a dancing motivator,” says Pegue. “Because when she dances she makes everyone else want to get up and have as good a time as she’s apparently having.”

She has a variety of partners. For steppin’ sets she pairs with Marty Majewski, a city colleges drafting teacher with whom she’s won several contests. For faster routines she dances with Cranston Smith, a security guard.

Last fall she and Smith brought down the house when they won a freestyle dance contest. “Cranston and I are best known for doing the dog,” she says. “You know what the dog is. It’s where you get down on your knees and do it like a dog! I’ve been dancing the dog since the 60s. I learned it from watching the older people who did it. When my mother saw me doing it, she put her foot in my behind and said, ‘Don’t let me see you do that again.’ But I kept on doing it. I love just letting it go.

“They came out with a remake–‘Atomic Dog’ by George Clinton. It’s really cleaned up. But I still like the original ‘Dog’ by Rufus Thomas. That’s the low-down dirty dog where you lay it all down and get lost with it.”

She’s a striking figure on Fridays in tight leather pants and muscle T-shirt. “The song that really sends me out is ‘Body Heat’ by James Brown. When ‘Body Heat’ comes on, there’s no telling what I’m going to do. The music takes over and I take off. I don’t worry about what my feet are doing, they’re just doing. Those dances are raw energy. I love the bass. The bass has a way of vibrating at a level where it shakes my body. The harder the bass, the harder I go. I get lost. I’m gone.

“I go from one song to the next. I love that break where Richard [Pegue] goes from Marvin Gaye’s ‘Give It Up’ to ‘Atomic Dog’ to Junior Walker’s ‘Shotgun.’ Then ‘Dog’–gimme that dog. I don’t get tired ’cause it ain’t working.”

On Saturday morning she’s up early to get over to the auto-parts store. She works there five or six days a week. On Mondays and Wednesdays she teaches afternoon classes at Triton.

Her room there is in the auto-tech division, a low-lying prefab building on First Avenue just north of the Maywood Park harness racetrack. It’s a dreary brick room without windows. The walls are lined with auto parts, tools, and engines. She puts on a lab coat with “Ms. Terry” above the heart.

Most of her students are white or Hispanic high school boys (they get dual high school and college credit) from Elmwood Park, Franklin Park, River Grove, and other nearby working-class suburbs. “We’re gear heads–most of us have been working on cars since we were little,” says Erick Cardona, a 17-year-old junior at Elmwood Park High School. “At first it was kind of different having a woman teacher, but it’s no big deal now. She knows her stuff. She knows a lot. We want to be here. This is what we want to do–work on cars.”

In the minutes before class begins, Cardona and some of his classmates chat about their futures. Almost all have weekend jobs fixing cars. “I’m planning to go to Wyoming Technical Institute,” says Michael Hopp, a 17-year-old senior at Elmwood Park High School. “If you’re not into cars you probably wouldn’t know about it, but it’s one of the best auto-training schools in the country. After that I’ll probably come back and go to work.”

Today’s lesson has to do with electricity. “Electricity always likes to take the path of least resistance, just like people,” Terry begins. “If I said you had to take this hard course to get your degree you’d probably say, ‘Why? I’d rather take the easy route.’ Electricity is just like that. It needs resistance to find its route. In this case the resistance are the insulators around the copper strands that won’t allow the electricity to diverge from the path.”

In August Terry will take another path in her life, when she goes to work as an auto-shop teacher at Schurz High School. “It’s a dream come true for me,” she says. “The people at the board told me I’m the first female automotive instructor the school system’s ever hired. That’s quite an accomplishment. It will be good for me. I’ll leave the auto-parts store and work a steady weekday job teaching. Then on Friday night I’ll go dancing–dancing the dog.”

George Schmidt’s Test Case

The school board’s bitter battle against George Schmidt has moved to a second front, a termination hearing.

Schmidt’s the high school English teacher who angered CEO Paul Vallas and board president Gery Chico by publishing portions of three achievement tests the central office requires high-schoolers to take twice a year.

Schmidt’s point, echoed by other teachers and students, is that the Chicago Academic Standards Examinations are confusing, misleading, inconsistent, and a big waste of the teachers’ time and the taxpayers’ money.

Those issues aside, the board and Vallas contend that Schmidt misappropriated trade secrets by publishing portions of the tests in Substance, the maverick newspaper Schmidt edits. In January 1999 they sued in federal court, demanding that Schmidt pay the board the $1.4 million devising new exams would allegedly cost. In March they fired him.

So far Vallas and Chico seem to hold the upper hand. At least they don’t have to pay for their lawyers, as does Schmidt, who’s been forced to pass the hat to cover his legal bills. As Schmidt sees it, Vallas and Chico want to break his spirit and send a message to other rebel teachers by engaging him in a war of legal attrition.

As he fights his termination, which left him without a salary, he must defend himself against the suit. “Their lawyers are paid by the taxpayers,” says Schmidt. “That’s why they’re so arrogant and cocky. They think they can spend us down.”

According to Schmidt’s supporters, it’s absurd to assume that Schmidt ruined the tests. Even if thousands of high school students read Substance (a very unlikely proposition), so what? Substance didn’t publish the answers. At best, high school students could use the paper as a study guide, learning, for instance, that they might be asked to identify the climax of Romeo and Juliet (to cite one particularly criticized question). They’d still have to figure out the answer–maybe even by reading the play.

So far the suit’s been bogged down in expensive and time-consuming discovery as opposing lawyers offer briefs on such issues as whether Schmidt is protected by the First Amendment. “Whatever decision the federal judge makes on these matters will probably be appealed,” says Schmidt. “It could drag on for years.”

In the meantime, there’s the matter of the termination. In firing Schmidt, Vallas exercised his prerogative to fire any teacher without a hearing. To retain his job and get back pay, Schmidt initiated an appeal that begins with a hearing before an arbitration officer.

“It’s a kangaroo court,” says Schmidt. “The hearing officer makes a recommendation to Vallas, but it’s only a recommendation. After that, Vallas makes his recommendation to the school board, which then votes on whether I should be permanently terminated. It’s a no-win situation for me. Even if the hearing officer recommends in my favor, the board has the final say. At that point I have the right to begin the process within the judicial system, which can be four steps long–circuit court, Illinois appellate court, state supreme court, U.S. Supreme Court. At every step I’m paying for lawyers on both sides. I’m paying for the board’s lawyers with my taxes and I’m paying for my own lawyers out of my pocketbook.”

Schmidt mounted an aggressive defense at last month’s termination hearing. He brought in two out-of-state testing experts who testified, as one of them put it, that some of the CASE questions were “really stupid and really awful.”

“I would be, as a professional, embarrassed to have these tests go out under my name,” testified Gerald Bracey, the former director of research, evaluation, and testing for the Virginia Department of Education.

For their part, board lawyers called on central office bureaucrats to explain why it will cost $1.4 million to replace CASE.

There will be another hearing in March.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.