Mrs. Brauer, 1st grade. Mrs. Beck, 2nd grade. Mrs. B., 3rd grade. Mrs. Matzke, 4th grade. Miss Woodruff, 5th grade. Mr. Duffek, 6th grade.
These are the teachers I had back at Pershing elementary school. I still remember their names and I can still see their faces. It must have something to do with that mental exercise that writers perform every day, when they store away memories in that treasure vault inside their heads.
Five of those teachers had a positive impact on my life. The one, Mrs. B. (anonymous), had no business being in the teaching profession. Frankly, she scared the hell out of me. She once grabbed little red-headed Gregory Montcastle by one ear, drug him across the room, and slammed him down in a desk so hard he actually wet his pants. Mrs. B. towered over him, watching him cry and squirm in his puddle of pee in one of those deep-seated wooden desks. He ended up going to the nurse with a bloody ear, and was sent home because of his soggy corduroy pants. My classmates and I tiptoed in fear of Mrs. B. the rest of that year.
On the other hand, Mr. Duffek was this mild-mannered teacher who allowed us to listen every day to a Wrinkle in Time on his tape recorder. We sat there fascinated by a “book on tape” long before anyone discovered them. We were even more amazed when we found out Mr. Duffek had narrated and performed the voices of this astonishing new art form. He was far ahead of his time, and his award-winning performance on that small tape recorder made me aware of how powerful a good story could be.
Mr. Beaman, 7th grade. Mr. Valilee, 8th Grade. Mrs. Beal, 8th grade. Mrs. Conway, 9th grade.
Now the memory gets a little fuzzy when it comes to all of those junior high teachers who had an influence on me. Mr. Beaman was this cool, long-haired, bearded Art teacher. He was a good role model. Mrs. Beal was the first teacher to recognize my talent as a writer. I had her two periods per day, and she allowed me to sit at the back of the room, scribbling away in an old three ring notebook. She and I had an understanding, as long as I did not disrupt her class (as I was prone to do), she left me alone. I wrote 900 pages of a story about bikers that year while quietly entertaining myself during those two periods I spent with her.
Mrs. Conway was the first teacher to invite me to her house, to share with her husband some of my writings. She was also the first teacher in all those years to mark my story with a BIG, FAT 1 at the top of the page. It was the first 100% I ever received during my school years.
Mr. Valilee was a natural story teller. He was also the fist teacher to ever really connect with us students. When he put away the math book to tell us a story, we were in awe. On the day I came to his class drunk (on this horrid stuff known as orange vodka), Tom Valilee conveyed more with one look than any words he might have said. I felt his disappointment all the way to the core of my soul. And the worst part is, he never uttered one word about my condition, just looked at me with these sad, tired eyes that spoke volumes. I never went to school drunk again.
Mr. S, 8th grade. Mr. D., 8th grade. Mr. L, 8th grade
These three teachers had no business being in the teaching profession. As head of lunchroom duty, Mr. D once shouted at me, “Get outside, Frye!” To which I replied, “Yes, sir, D!” He came storming down the hall, drug me into the boys bathroom, and slugged me in the center of my chest. He then snarled down into my face, “You better show us teachers some respect!” When I could catch my breath, I spluttered, “Respect? What gives you the right to slug me because I didn’t put a mister in front of your name?” He then hit me again!
Mr. S. was the coolest teacher at Robin Mickle. He joked with us and he let us listen to the radio during Art class. However, one day Mr S. was busy at work on the pottery wheel and he’d forgotten to turn the radio on, so I said, “Mr. S. would you turn the radio on, please?” He was so engaged with whatever he was creating, that he simply walked past the radio. When he walked past it a second time, I said, “Mr. S. what about the radio?” Mr. S. completely ignored me, leaving all us baffled. Third time, however, was the charm. As he passed the radio the third time, I simply said, “The radio??” And Mr. S. transformed into the Tasmanian Devil! He ripped the cord out of the wall, swung that radio around his head, and slammed it down on a desk, sending parts flying in all directions. He glared at me and snapped, “That’s what I think of that damned radio!”
Later, while trying to convince the vice principal, Miss Clark, that she had a raging madman as an Art teacher, she was about to send me back to his class, when we walked past the nurse’s office. There sat Teresa Leer with a bloody ear caused by the in-coming shrapnel of those flying radio parts! I looked at Miss Clark and said, “I rest my case!” I never went back to Mr. S.’s class again. Either did Teresa.
Mr. L. takes the cake, however, of what lunatic fringe may be hidden behind the role of teacher. He was an exception, mind you, but there are teachers out there who do not belong in the profession. Have I said that before? Yes, to make a point.
On the day that old man L. blew a gasket the 7th period bell had rung, the halls were packed with students, and I had an audience for the explosive episode that followed. He picked a bad time to pick on me.
After I saw Easy Rider with Peter Fonda wearing that American flag on his leather jacket, I had my mom sew a flag on the back of my cut-off jean jacket. I wore that flag everywhere, and although it caused me some amount of grief, I thought I was making a statement. Mr. L. did not see it that way. The moment he spotted me walking down the hall, displaying that flag, he went into a frenzy. I kid you not. He came barreling across crowded hall, shoving students aside to claw talon-like fingers into that flag on my back. He then forcefully slammed my face against a metal locker, and proceeded to rip my flag off. The entire crowd of stunned students simply stood there silenced by the spectacle. Mr. L. shouted, “Do you know how many friends I lost during the war to protect this flag? What gives you the right to wear it? It is mockery! I must remove it!”
Now, looking back on it, I can sympathize with old man L. for being distraught over losing friends in the war, but back then, with my face plastered against that cold metal locker, and his claws hooked into the flag covering my back, I did not realize what had set him off. I only wore that flag in memory of the Vietnam soldiers who died so that I might wear it to show my support of their sacrifice. I also might add, that I wore it, too, because I was a rebel who did not give a crap about what others thought of me for wearing it. And the rebel inside came out that day, as I freed myself from the raging lunatic by ramming my elbow into the center of his ample chest. Mr. L. forgot all about me for several seconds as he tried to figure out why he could not breathe. But once he got his wind back, he came charging at me again. This time, I fended off his claws, and said, “Leave me alone, you crazy bastard!” I then ran for the exit doors with Mr. L. hot on my heels. I made it to the doors, but glanced back as I went through them to see Mr. L. red-faced and spluttering angrily, setting a fine example for a Lincoln Public School teacher.
You might think that these negative experiences I had with certain teachers has had a profound effect on me and perhaps it is the reason I write so openly about those experiences now, but that is not the case. At least not in the negative aspect. Those unstable “people” who tried to pass themselves off as teachers, really showed me what I “did not” want to be as I worked with kids in my time. They set the stage for how I connected with kids and how I portrayed myself as a gifted and at-risk mentor, as a truancy tracker, as a foster parent, and as an artist who writes books for hard-to-reach, at-risk kids.
I remember the saying, “To teach is to touch a life forever,” and I would commend my fellow workers who do what few do everyday in their own classrooms: Touch lives.
It was a rare moment in life when my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Duffek, appeared at my book signing last year to congratulate me on my 12th book. Little did he realize how much of an impact he had on me and my writing in my earlier years. I guess even I as write this I get a little sentimental, not even realizing until this moment how great some of those teachers in my past actually were.
I will leave you with this:
As I started on my journey,
To be a Teacher of young lives,
I imagined myself a gardener,
Planting seeds of various kinds.
Like a guardian of deep woodlands,
Who tends to forest trees,
I pursued my quest most wisely,
At times, on bended knees.
My prayers were, “Let me be worthy,
To plant, to prune, and tend,
These young trees of the forest,
Preparing them for Life’s strong winds.”
As Guardian of the Forest,
This Truth I did know,
That deep must grow the roots,
Before the winter winds blow.
Autumn breezes and summer rains,
Can topple young trees to the ground,
Therefore, it is my task,
To plant knowledge that is sound.
So I instill sturdy bits of wisdom,
That young saplings might grow strong.
That bright leaves grace their branches,
As they weather the Seasons’ song.
And when my task is over,
My gardening tools I’ll put away,
I’ll gaze back over the Forest,
In the fading light of day,
To see the beauty of the woodlands,
And in my heart I’ll surely know.
That those trees are standing tall,
Because of seeds that I did sow.