Let me begin this week’s story by sharing with you that I flunked the 4th quarter of high school 10th grade English. At that time, I detested English. I hated writing and if someone had told me that one day I would be using spare time to write stories, (even if they are true accounts), I would have laughed right in their face and asked them to share with me whatever the heck it was they were smoking because it must be great stuff!
Despite my terrible attitude and habits that year after getting dumped by my girlfriend, (that’s this story if you’re interested), I honestly did not like English. I was an honor’s student so all of my college preparatory classes were the “H” category, for those who were not supposed to score D’s and F’s. The H classes were designed to be more difficult than other similar classes. I hated English for the same reason I hated Art classes – I felt I didn’t have a creative bone in my body. Oddly enough, I received an A in my Grammar class. I’m sure it’s not showing up here in my writing, but because of that class, I can explain the difference between affect and effect. I also know what a gerund phrase is and that’s just sad.
If you’re following the stories, you might recall that I swore off Art in the first grade (link). I was sharply left brained back then, I loved mathematics! Math had precise rules and if you learned the rules, you could solve the problems. Perhaps that’s why I enjoyed my Grammar class – it was all about simply memorizing a bunch of rules. In my first year of P&G, I took a personality test, the Keirsey personality test (keirsey.com). It reflected what I already knew about myself, that I was very analytical. Twenty years later I took the same test and it was like looking at the results of an entirely different person – I had shifted to the middle somehow. So while today, I enjoy writing these stories, thirty years ago I would have gotten off more by solving calculus problems.
I guess I can blame the flunking on pot smoking, (from this story), because otherwise I probably would have at least skated by with a C. C’s were easy to get; all we had to do was to show an effort. I couldn’t even tell you who my teacher was that year. I wrote this earlier, but I dropped a hundred spots in class ranking in that year. So I may have found getting good grades to be easy, but that doesn’t make one smart – being smart also has to do with making good choices. I guess you could say that I enjoyed taking risks, like a lot of teenage boys I suppose…..I wasn’t smart.
I didn’t try and so I received a big fat F! I still remember my grade point average for that final quarter, a whopping 1.7. I am still ashamed of that. I know, I know – we were kids. I know too that everything we did factored into who I am, who we all are today. Over the summer I got clean and vowed that I was going to get back on track. I didn’t know how I was going to get to college, but to even have a chance, I knew I needed to get back to the books and good grades. The local college was Miami University, located in Oxford Ohio and it required four years of high school English credits. Guess who was going to enroll in the fourth quarter to retake English in order to wipe out that F? Yup, yours truly.
The teacher’s name was Mrs. Brown, (and I suppose she had a lovely daughter). She was short in stature, maybe 5’1″ tall, short brown Sally Fields hair, wore glasses and was a ‘everyone follows rules’ kinda’ teacher. I showed up in her class on the first day of the fourth quarter, 1975, eleventh grade. I walked right up to her at her desk as everyone was milling in. My friend Joe knew I was coming and we met eyes and he laughed when I gave him a little ‘this should be a fun class’ smile. Mrs. Brown was taken aback a bit and pulled out her roster sheet, saw my name and said, (more to herself), uh-huh, Robert Wyatt, here you are. And why are you here? I explained to her that I flunked out last year and I wanted to make it up for my college requirement. She gave me a great big welcoming smile and said, well ok, why don’t you take this seat up front here in the second row?
English had most of the same characters that I wrote about in this funny story from my Spanish Class (link), primarily Joe, Jim and Dave. The difference however was that Mrs. Brown didn’t let chatter go on in her class. Friends weren’t allowed to sit any old place they wanted, so we were spread out. Joe was sitting two rows over and one chair back. Dave was three seats behind me and Jim was a couple behind Joe and another row over.
Mrs. Brown liked me from the get-go. Looking back, I suspect she might have appreciated that I was taking the initiative to retake English. I’m not certain, but I suspect not a lot of kids did that because, likely not a lot of them received F’s in H-English. I didn’t pick up on this right away, my friend Joe had to point it out to me. One day as we were hanging out in The Alley, he said to me,
“Have you noticed how you are Mrs. Brown’s pet?” I laughed and said no, what are you talking about?
“Duck, she calls on you all the time, haven’t you noticed? Even if you don’t have your hand up, she asks for you.”
You’re making that up, that’s not true.
You watch; watch Monday and see if you don’t get called on more than anyone else.
Oh, it’s probably because I failed last year…she probably just feels sorry for me. Besides, I think you’re making this up.
Well it didn’t take long to convince me. Monday afternoon rolled around and we began discussing our reading assignment. Right out of the chute, I began noticing what Joe was talking about. She made eye contact with me a lot and when I answered a question, it was never wrong – even when it was wrong! On one day that week, I think I got called on at least a ten times. If I didn’t have my hand up, she’d ask – Rob, what did you think?
On one funny occasion, she asked a question of the class and several hands were up in the air, including Joe’s who was frantically waving around like Arnold Horshack from Welcome Back Kotter. Mrs. Brown was taking a little longer than normal to call on someone and she looked at me, our eyes met and without even raising my hand, she asked “Rob?” I commented and we had a short back and forth and then she resumed calling out others. I looked over at my friend Joe who still had his arm lazily propped up and his jaw wide open, looking over at me in utter astonishment. He was over doing it of course for effect, (note the proper use and not “affect”), and my benefit. I responded with my best Barney Fife smug look as if to say ‘yep, yep, yep…some of us have got it and some us do not’. After that day, (now that I was a believer), I had fun with it. If I saw Joe’s hand go up, mine would go up just to see if I would get picked.
The funniest memory I have though from that quarter’s English class was not about being called on, but it was a moment in class we were discussing definitions of assigned vocabulary words. I briefly mentioned Dave. Dave Moore was a little shorter than average guy, small build, longer brown hair parted at the side and wore eyeglasses of the type that were almost rimless in appearance. He was funny and had a good sense of humor, but quite a bit introverted, only letting his true character show for his friends. The word up next for discussion was “credulous”. Mrs. Brown had called on someone and that person read off the definition that he had found in his dictionary – easily disposed to believe without evidence.
Dave’s hand shot up. Mrs. Brown recognized Dave immediately because Dave didn’t always participate. He could be a little shy in class so this must be good, (I’m sure she thought). “Yes Dave?”
(Clears his throat)…”well MY dictionary says”, (emphasis on the word “my”), “disposed to believe in ESP on slight belief!” And he sat back as if to say “ha! There!” Obviously Dave felt he had stumbled upon the Dictionary of Ancient Aliens or had possessed knowledge which had been covered up for the past millennium.
Without cracking a smile, (yet), Mrs. Brown shifted her weight a bit and said:
“Um, that’s “especially” Dave and not ESP”.
The crowd erupted in laughter. Meanwhile Dave, with a straight face, simply stated, “well, that’s what it said”. I thought Joe would pee his pants, he was laughing so hard that he cried. We all were. Maybe it was one of those ‘you had to be there’ situations or maybe because it was Dave and his matter-of-fact demeanor at that instance, but it’s something I’ll never forget. We teased Dave about that for weeks, it was a great moment.
I ended up getting through that English class and Mrs. Brown awarded my participation that quarter with an A, averaging out my F to a C in the transcript that would eventually go to the college. I doubt my work reflected an A, but looking backwards now, I can see that had I been in her shoes, I would have done the same for the student retaking his class and obviously trying to make better for himself.
There is yet another reason that I remember Mrs. Brown so well and why I respect her. At the time, she was not one of those teachers that ‘everyone loved’, you know the type; the type that either tries to act very cool or else lets the kids get away with everything? No, she ran a tight ship, did not joke around with the class and expected everyone to do their fair share of work. So she wasn’t the type that all the kids naturally gravitated to with loving affection. But one day, she earned my respect and I never forgot what the true meaning of what ‘composure’ looks like.
During class, she was standing up front in the middle of the floor, just as she always did. From my front row seat, I saw it fly through the air from the hallway. A bright, hard and shiny red apple came flying in and smacked her right square on the side of the jaw. I didn’t see any faces, but the instant I saw the apple coming, I saw into the hall to see three kids quickly running off. Like anyone would be, Mrs. Brown was surprised, shocked. She quickly stepped into the hallway, but no one was to be seen. She excused herself briefly, we assumed to go downstairs to the administration office, but was back in less than a couple of minutes. She resumed her position in front of the class, her door still open, and simply said – let’s continue, shall we?
She didn’t take time out. She didn’t let her anger show. She said and did absolutely nothing that would hint at what she was really thinking or feeling at that moment. She was obviously a little shaken, but she wasn’t going to let that incident define who she was. At the time, (I was only 17), I didn’t fully appreciate or understand Mrs. Brown’s conduct. I didn’t fully understand it, but I was “impressed” by it, I guess you could say because it has remained such a vivid memory for me.
I think it took a shifting of my brain to the middle to appreciate that Mrs. Brown was a role model, had a strong set of principles and had scruples. She would not be good at selling bibles and that’s a good thing. Mrs. Brown, if you’re still out there – thanks for helping to show us how to not be too credulous and for showing us what it means to let our actions define who we are. A little bit of growing up on Prytania happened this day.