"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Teachers–Wow! Have I Ever Had Some Doozies

I still remember my Second Grade teacher, Mrs. Tobocco.  On the last day of class before summer vacation, she wanted to give me a present since I was transferring to another school.  “Pick anything”, she said, pointing to her desk.  “Anything you would like”.  I chose a small cactus plant growing in a ceramic frog, and a copy of The Odyssey for Children.  I still have both, although there are dried flowers where the cactus was.

One day I was asked by Mrs. Tobocco to read to the class from a story by Rudyard Kipling.  No one in the class had gotten much past Dick and Jane, and she wanted to show me off.  After a few sentences, I started to cough. The pain in my chest was killing me and my eyes were starting to roll, but even at eight I was old to love bright lights and an audience.  She had pity on me, and said that it was all right if I didn’t finish reading; and the next day I was barking with croup, and in bed for a week with Whooping Cough.

I don’t remember much about Second Grade other than The Odyssey, the cactus, the whooping cough, and Mrs. Tobocco.

Miss Heckler was the Third Grade teacher in my new school.  She had her hair pulled back in a bun, always looked sour and unhappy, and thwacked her ruler down so hard next to the fingers of Herman Bilko that it sounded like a Fourth of July firecracker. She smelled of lineament and baby powder, banged the floorboards when she walked, and had a phlegmy voice.  My father said she was an Old Maid and old maids were like that.

That was it.  The warm, generous, and caring Mrs. Tobocco and the ruler-whacking, old maid Miss Heckler.  I remember no other teacher, no principal, no custodian.

I transferred to a private country day school in seventh grade. It was in an old 18th Century white frame Connecticut house on 10 acres, and it was a welcome change from the New Deal brick, mortar, and  linoleum factory public school I had attended. There were only 30 students, lots of recess, and it was five minutes from my house. The school had been started by one of the captains of industry 50 years before, and there were many legacy students – children of the old, wealthy families who had never left Adams Street, lived off private incomes, played golf at the Country Club and summered on the Vineyard.  Genetics had not been kind to these children, and most were as dumb as stones, so in a sense Palmer Hill was like a one-room schoolhouse. Teachers had to teach the A-B-C’s to the Adams Street boys and Latin and algebra to the two or three outsiders who raised the genetic and intelligence quotient by quite a few notches.  It was not an easy job, and I was surprised that teachers had so much patience.

Only one teacher, Mrs. Harris, who had been at the school longer than anyone else began to lose it.  She referred to the Adams Street boys as amphibians who had just crawled up out of the primordial ooze, troglodytes, and Platyhelminthes.  She enjoyed these clever metaphors all the more because the dummies just looked up at her and smiled.  She knew that there was absolutely nothing going on between their ears, and no one would even guess that she was being insulting.  “You have the brains of a lichen, Bobby Nichols”, she said.

“Like what?, Mrs. Harris?”

All the teachers decayed in some way after years of this.  Mr. Smith, the math teacher, wrote equations backwards and asked Jamie Pritchett to solve them.  Jamie was polite and always raised his hand to ask, “Mr. Smith, would you go over than one more time, please?”  He did that in every class, and was such a dope that even the Adams Street kids mimicked him and gave him a raised hand Heil Hitler salute every time they passed him in the halls.

Somehow, and despite three years in these intellectual bulrushes, I managed to do well enough to get accepted to a good boarding school and my real education began.  We may have had respect for the teachers as instructors, but to us they were all just clowns.  Mr. Peters, the Headmaster, was reported to have had his jaw shot off in the war and had it replaced by a dog’s. No matter how administrative or professorial poor Mr. Peters looked and acted, no one could see that pointy little under-slung jaw of his without thinking of the Doberman who had it first. 

Mr. Halburton had also been wounded in the war, and had a pronounced limp, so as he thumped down the long halls of Mason House, students would trail him, dragging their legs.  Mr. Price was the prissy, effeminate Latin teacher and organist who suffered from the palsy and did a St. Vitus’s dance every Sunday morning at chapel as he groped his way to the keyboard.  It was rumored that he and Mr. Halburton did unspeakable things in the chapel vestry. Of course, this being the Fifties, we had no real idea what those things might be, but imagined – thanks to Emmanuel de Marigny, a French exchange student – a raucous sexual circus act with contortions and a crippled trapeze act.

I learned enough to gain early admissions to Yale, but remember little of my three years at Lefferts.  Only one class sticks out in my mind – Biology, taught by a young Amherst graduate who had a beautiful, sexy, blonde wife. Mr. Purvis was as perverse and twisted as my Muirland teachers, and in the final class of the year, he taught ‘Sexual Reproduction in the Human Animal’. Far from the standard, academy-approved syllabus, the class was subtitled (by us) as ‘How To Get a Girl Hot’.  Mr. Purvis knew exactly what he was doing and went into great, clinical detail and explained arousal, foreplay, and penetration.  Of course all of us could only think of the voluptuous Mrs. Purvis and how Mr. Purvis was arousing and penetrating her.  Listening to that class was exciting, but painfully frustrating. All of us left class hunched over, hiding our hard-ons.

None of the type of teachers who taught at Stanley, Muirland, or Lefferts would last more than a few weeks today.  Worse, they would be brought up on charges of sexual abuse or mental cruelty towards children.  The temptation to stray, however, must be even greater than ever before, for in our inclusive, mainstreaming schools there are even more  amphibians who have to be tolerated and moved upstream, and many ‘otherly-challenged’ students who in a less tolerant age would have been mimicked just as cruelly as blind Billy Barnes who rattled his overcooked peas around the lunch plate every Thursday. In our PC environment nothing is supposed to be funny even though everyone knows that it is.  It must be very hard for teachers to keep a lid on their laughter.

Harder still is teaching in the inner-city where schools are little more than penitentiaries with metal detectors, lock-downs, and maximum security window bars.  Although I am no fan of teachers’ unions, I was in sympathy with teachers in Detroit who went on strike because of what they saw was the unfair imposition of performance standards. “How are we supposed to teach criminals, delinquents, dysfunctional retards, sons of dope-addled, drug-dealing parents”, they asked, “whose uncles are in lock up, whose brothers are in the 9mm cemetery, and whose sisters are hookers, let alone improve their performance?”

Educators, school administrators, and municipal school boards are looking for the Holy Grail of education – the intelligent, committed, compassionate, and understanding teacher who can ‘make a difference’.  Of course any candidate who fits this bill knows of the stultifying PC environment of the public schools, the corrupt and venal unions, the corrosive racial politics of city hall, the blackboard jungles of the ghetto, and the piss-poor pay, and run the other way as fast as their legs can carry them.

Most talented teachers find their niche in good neighborhood elementary schools serving the children of professionals, business managers, and diplomats. Teaching in these schools is not all a walk in the park of course, for there are plenty of pain-in-the-ass parents; and as progressive as these islands of real teaching may be, they are still part of the city school system.  There is nothing that a City Supervisor or Union Rep likes better than to come down hard on uppity white teachers.

I have never had a teacher who ‘made a difference’, nor fortunately any who were ignorant or abusive. Except for their peculiarities and crazy antics (even with his bum leg, Mr. Halburton used to careen around the narrow lanes of campus in his Dauphine shifting without a clutch) I remember no special enlightenment.  I had courses that opened intellectual doors and gave me a glimpse into what real learning could be; but never teachers.  They were placeholders in my education; neither good nor bad, and I was always indifferent to them. I knew enough not to piss them off; and like most of my classmates did what they asked so I could get the grades to get into Yale.

My favorite teacher of all was Suitcase Simmons, aka The Pink Whale, a pipe-smoking, pompous 22-year old graduate of Williams who taught French, sang operatic arias to himself, and rolled down the halls of Batcher Hall to enforce lights out. He was a hilarious caricature, an improbable person, a fat sprite, but a happy man. I used to ride with him to riflery matches and ask about music.  He loved having a chela whom he could instruct in the finer things of life.  I had no interest at all in opera or music, but loved to listen to his pompous monotone and juicy sucks on his pipe, so I kept him talking from Lefferts to Choate and asked  him questions about librettos and scores and staging the whole way.

I think about these characters all the time, so I guess despite my demurrals teachers have played an important part in my life – if you count the blathering of the Pink Whale and Mr. Peter’s dog jaw.  

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