My favorite elementary teacher of all time was a man named Art Adams. Only Amy Wright, my third grade teacher, came close to rivaling the level of care and instruction doled out by Mr. Adams. This story I am about to share touches on the dark side of Art Adams, (if he ever really had a dark side).
Art could be stern if he had to be, but only when he thought it had to occur in order to help us grow or learn to be respectful. And as far as I know, he never laid a hand on any of kids, (meaning punishment). He gave a lot of space to the kids, but it was done in a way that made you feel older and more grown up than we really were – he treated us with respect and not like the little deviants that most of us really were. He was generally soft spoken, a Mr. Rogers kind of guy, a true gentleman. I have heard others state that they were afraid of him. Perhaps it’s because he was the lone male teacher at that time and place. If you knew Art Adams as I did and as many other kids did, then you knew that he loved his kids….and we loved him.
Everything about growing up during the 60’s and 70’s was better than it is today and this included school. There was no internet, no Googling for our paper subject matter. If we wanted to plagiarize, we had to do it the good old fashioned way – copy from an encyclopedia! If we made a mistake on our homework, there was no backspace or delete key – we had to break out the trusted pink eraser. Lord help you if you had to write a lot of words and you did not have one of these. All of our assignments were done in a standard #2 pencil in those days. A #2 pencil came equipped with a stub of an eraser built onto it. If you got in a hurry and pressed down too hard on your eraser, you ran the risk of breaking off the eraser head. Kids knew this spelled doom for the life of the pencil and if you were smart, you had a spare. If this ever happened to you when you went into an English class and had to write a long paper without a healthy eraser head, you ran the ever-present risk of erasing so far down on the head that you reached that sharp metal ‘eraser-holder’ which doubled as a paper eater. This was the best kept engineering prank of all time. The creators of the #2 pencil would intentionally make the eraser heads flimsy and the metal head-holder sharp…and then they would enjoy a private laugh together knowing some poor 6th grade schmuck somewhere was at this moment having a heart attack because he was erasing through his sheet of paper and was going to have to raise his hand, asking if he could approach the teacher to borrow a strip of Scotch tape. Every kid snickered when they saw one of their classmates walking up to their teacher with their paper in hand – they knew what had happened as it had happened at least once to every child on the planet since the invention of the pencil-eraser combo. I swore I would one day seek vengeance on all pencil makers…but I digress, back to the story.
The best part of growing up in those times was the lack of laws, the lack of fear of being sued by a litigious parent. This extra power that the teachers had allowed them to do almost anything in their classes; anything that enhanced the learning experience or anything that increased our fear of the teacher. Everything that would get a teacher sued today was fair game then – what a great time. The Sixth grade in Mr. Adams class was an experiment in life. It was the year for our ever-important sixth grade boyfriend and girlfriend relationships. Forget all the puppy love of fourth and fifth grades – this was “real” love baby! It was the year that the girls got the secret movie in the gym with coverings over the windows so we boys could not peek in. (To this day I still wonder what the movie as about. The girls always came out giggling and a couple of them looked frightened and nauseous). Electricity was certainly in the air in sixth grade – ever more so in Arthur Adams’ class for Mr. Adams had in his classroom a genuine foot-pumped electrical generator capable of lighting up the classroom…literally. I kid you not. I don’t know how many volts or amps it was capable of dishing out, but it was the size of a small piano.
I assume the generator was allowed in the classroom under the guise of science. I don’t remember the science lesson one iota – I do however, remember the fun! On several occasions the entire class joined hands. I recall the first time we asked about it and Art offered to demonstrate to us. I remember he lured us in by telling us that the more people we got to join hands, the less strong the electricity was. I know today that was bull hockey, but it made perfect sense to a sixth grader and looking back on it today I proclaim it to be borderline prankster genius.
I remember being very excited about the prospect of holding hands with a sixth grade cutie while jolts of electricity were coursing through my body. On the flip side, if I had to hold hands with Tim Crane I could be assured he would try to crush my fingers and I would have to stand there and act like it didn’t hurt. This never worked by the way – he would only crush harder. The first time we did the “experiment”, we were lined up alphabetically. I remember holding hands with a girl named Diane Wolfram. Holding hands with Diane seemed like it was going to be fun, but we either had no one in class whose name began with Y or Z or else they were out that day. So I was curious what I was going to do with the other hand. I soon found out that two lucky classmates had the honor of touching the conductors on the pump generator. Yours truly was one of them. Oh, and here’s another line Mr Adams drummed up – I guess he sensed my trepidation so he whispers to me ‘the kids in the middle get the best part because the little electricity meets them there from both sides’. Well I swallowed that one hook, line and sinker; and Mr. Adams? Well of course he had the fun part as he got to touch the foot pump. He would ensure we were all touching each other in a complete circle with two of us at the ends with our hand on the generator conductor. With a gleam in his eye and a question ‘are you all ready?’ he would hit the foot pump.
Zap! The tiny electrical jolt was instantaneous in all of us. Without fail, someone would break the chain and the jolt would be gone. Typically we would all pretty much shake loose at the same time, (unless of course I was holding hands with Barbie Dalton, (read me) Julie Herbert or Pam Albright – on those rare occasions, my hand would become melded to theirs as if we were Siamese twins joined at the fingers!) I guess you could say we did learn something – after all, I learned that electricity can travel from person to person. I learned something else too – it could be fun to be a teacher.
Wow! Now THAT was education! We loved it! Could you imagine doing that in a school today? There’d be a small class action lawsuit for everything from trauma to electrical burns to heart palpitations. What a great era to grow up in!
Later in life, Mr. Adams would volunteer his services to me to be a proxy for tests associated with my first post-HS degree. It was a correspondence program I had enrolled in as a way to cut costs and manage my time on my way to my bachelor’s and I needed a responsible and trusted adult. At the end of each quarter, I would drive out to his place towards Millville and he would have a nice quiet place set up and ready for testing. The school had mailed the testing packet directly to Art. Number two pencils with eraser heads were present (grrr). He was always there for “his kids”. You see, he and his wife were unable to have their own children. Perhaps this is the reason he seemed to care more than other teachers. Often in life we take for granted the gifts that were given to us and yearned for by others.
Art Adams is alive and well, living in Tennessee. I looked him up one day a couple of years ago and telephoned him. It was so fun chatting with him. He told me that he had several of his past students who would call him occasionally and once a trio of girls stopped in for a surprise visit. This warmed my heart and the telephone call reinforced for me an important lesson – don’t wait and don’t be afraid to reach out. All we really have is each other. Reach out and say thank you, or I love you, or you were once special to me. It’s so easy on our parts to do. It means so much on the receiving end.
If you read this, I hope it touched you in some little way. I enjoy writing these and I hope you enjoy reading.