S.M. Park

Risen Apes: Teacher’s Pet

S.M. Park’s column Risen Apes about being a 70-year-old boomer. In “Teacher’s Pet,” Park pays tribute to all the wonderful teachers who have helped him along the way.

 

When I have difficulty beginning one of these columns, or when I think I’ve simply run out of stories three memoirs later, I go to the back of an old notebook of mine, take another peek at what I call the “Unmentionables.” These are the memories I’ve deigned too self-serving or smarmy to write about, and (though the list isn’t as long as some readers would like) I’ve carefully avoided it over the years.

But today I thought, Fuck it! If I write something that makes me uncomfortable that’s what Delete buttons are for … it’s not like the world is waiting on another Risen Apes post. So there’s little at stake but time (which, like many people my age, I’ve too much of, anyway), and I thought I’d start with the first entry on the list.

“My Teachers.” It’s hard to imagine a person whose teachers, from kindergarten through college, were better to him or her than mine were to me. It amazes me still, and I can think of only two explanations for it.

First was that absurd 168 I scored on an IQ test. I was just a kid, and I didn’t learn about it until my thirties (if asked then I would have described my IQ as average at best), but it was a life-changing event nonetheless. The instant I heard of it, in fact, all that attention from teachers snapped into focus. Of course they encouraged me; of course they forgave my quirks … my transcript claimed I was a budding Einstein!

The irony being, of course, that it wasn’t even remotely true. I don’t know if they got my test mixed up with some other kid’s, or I made a series of guesses that defied all logic, but I’ve way more luck than brains. In high school and later in college I sat in math, physics, chemistry and foreign language classes without grasping the simplest concept. I only passed geometry by cheating (using my height to peer at the tests of kids around me) and those other subjects I either dropped or failed miserably. (We took another IQ test in eighth grade and I scored a “minus five” out of a possible hundred on the Physics portion. I remember Mr. Perkes, my homeroom teacher, accusing me of intentionally failing because only a smart kid would know enough to answer every question wrong!)

I’m serious. And don’t get me wrong here … I’m a reasonably clever guy. I wouldn’t be much of a cartoonist otherwise, and I’m certainly savvy enough to act smart when I have to. Which leads to the second reason my teachers were partial to me, i.e. I was curious and loved learning. Like the drinking and drugs and writing later, those—along with drawing—were my passions as a kid.

It’s hard to imagine now, when I’ve the attention span of a gnat and the notion of sitting through a lecture or lesson is intolerable, but I thoroughly enjoyed school when I was young.

Then right about the time that hunger dissipated, at twenty-three, the Evergreen State College opened in Olympia, Washington. Talk about lucky … I no sooner give up studying than a Psychedelic U. appears one hour north, a place where I can major in drugs and alcohol. It was too good to be true.

My kinship with teachers began in kindergarten. Mary Fowler had taught it at the Coolidge School for decades and was a bright, caring woman with no kids of her own. She became a lifelong friend later and was also the one who revealed that IQ nonsense to my mother. It angered her that Mary would always ask about me when she called (the dissolute family wino) instead of my successful brothers, all of whom she’d taught as well. This prompted Mary to reveal the IQ results to her, which disconcerted my mother even more.

This underscores the enormity of those tests and what they meant to a kid (at least in the Fifties). I mean I would have favored me, too, how often do you get raw meat like that? Just as someone who didn’t like teaching could direct their resentment at me, which also happened periodically. (I wasn’t every instructor’s favorite, of course, not when some gave such scathing depictions of me that my mother stopped attending parent/teacher conferences altogether.) But Mrs. Fowler and Mrs. Jaten and Mrs. Desmond? My kindergarten, third and fourth grade teachers? I visited and corresponded with them for the rest of their lives.

 

These were all men and women who owed me nothing and gave me everything in return, changing the course of my life in the bargain.

 

Then when I was twelve my family moved to the Hillsborough school district and I enrolled at Crocker Junior High. Ray Yarborough was my seventh-grade teacher and he’d moved to the Bay Area from Alabama that summer. He was a sweet guy with a southern drawl who emphasized grammar and encouraged his students to write stories. I stood in front of the class and read one of mine a week into the term, and afterwards Yarborough asked me to stay after school.

I sat down at his desk, clueless about what I’d done this time.

“Wilson,” he said, “I’ve been watching you closely. Your stories and imagination—not to mention your cartooning skills—are really quite exceptional.”

“They are?” I said, genuinely surprised. “Gee, thanks, Mr. Yarborough.”

“But your grammar? It’s atrocious! Did they even teach it at your grade school?”

“Well … yeah. Sort of, I guess.”

“Talents like yours are useless if you can’t speak and write properly. So here’s what I propose: I’m going to keep you after class every day until you have the English language down pat.”

I just stared at him. I remember his flattop was way better than mine.

“Well, Wilson,” he said, “what do you think of that?”

“I, eh, don’t understand,” I said. “Have I done something wrong?”

“No, no … it’s what I’ll teach you to do right! It means special tutoring and I don’t have time for that during class hours.”

“But I’ll still be able to play sports after school, right?”

“I’m afraid not,” he said, handing me a sealed envelope. “This is much more important than that. Please give this note to your parents.”

I walked out of there alternately confused and horrified: I was used to teachers singling me out, but this was over the top. Fortunately my father was my staunchest defender and I was sure he’d set Yarborough straight.

I gave him the note when he came home that night. He read it, seemed puzzled, then read it again.

“Well, Wilson,” he said finally, “looks like you’ll be staying after class for a while. What Mr. Yarborough’s offered to do is pretty amazing … I’ve never heard of such a thing.”

“What!? No wait!” I gasped. “What about flag football?”

At twelve I was already taller than my father. He reached out, clasped my shoulder and spoke the words every boy dreads:

“It’s for your own good, son.”

For the next eight months, after a long day of school, I sat at a desk while Yarborough stood at the blackboard, tirelessly drilling me in conjugation, diagramming, pronouns, direct objects, transitive and intransitive verbs and anything else he could think of. I was apoplectic with grief. My father had to come by once a month, salve things over between us, because I wanted the guy dead! I missed sports, I missed spin-the-bottle parties, I was lucky to be home by dinner and was doing twice as much work as any kid in the school.

And I hadn’t done anything wrong! It was torture for a twelve-year-old. What’s more it lasted the entire year. It was a long time before I appreciated what that gentle little man had done for me, that he’d given up hundreds of hours of his own time for a kid who repaid him with venom.

While so grinding English grammar into me that I could have taught it myself afterwards. It was a gift of extraordinary magnitude, particularly for someone who ended up writing later. I was twenty-two, fresh from my first mental ward and living in a wino hotel, when I returned to Crocker to thank Mr. Yarborough. I knocked on his classroom door, beckoned him into the hallway and hugged him harder than I’ve ever hugged anyone before.

We both broke into tears, me in gratitude and him, I suppose, because I was dressed in rags and smelled like a brewery but hey! you take what you get in life.

The summer after eighth grade I took a typing class from “Big Joe” Taylor, a 6’9” character who’d played professional basketball. There were fifty other kids in the class and I sat in the last seat in the last row (a deference to my own height), but somehow he spotted me peeking at the keys. This wasn’t unusual behavior (I figured the whole class did it), but Big Joe covered my eyes with a handkerchief, then sat down next to me and read the lessons aloud, forcing me to learn to touch type.

 

 

He didn’t do it for any of the other kids; hell, he barely even spoke to them. Yet I made my living as “The World’s Fastest Typist” later because of his personal attention.

In high school I had a series of teachers who encouraged me, not to mention administrators. (Elmer Lee, the Senior Class Advisor, hid me from the Vice Principal when I was drunk, and Dr. Proppe, the Principal, sent inspirational quotes to my homeroom every week.)

Coaches were a different matter, of course; they were generally adversaries (from eighth grade through junior college they raged about my “bad attitude”). I was perplexed by this then but accept full responsibility for it now, given that I was a lazy, chain-smoking wiseacre who preferred the idea of basketball to playing it.

Then came the college years. There was Professor Suvajin, who gave me a “C” instead of an “F” in French because I made him laugh. Or Dick Kent, with his grants and tuition waivers even though I was a drunk. Or Dr. LeFevre, who—when I showed up in an alcoholic blackout for my World Lit final—sat beside me for two hours, shaking me awake when I passed out. (I filled six Blue Books and couldn’t remember a second of it later.)

Most crucial of all, perhaps, was Tom Fallon, my creative writing professor in ’66, who after I read a story I’d written kept me after class (just as Yarborough had) and told me to drop out of school, go have some adventures and write.

These were all men and women who owed me nothing and gave me everything in return, changing the course of my life in the bargain.

None more than Pete Sinclair, my mentor at Evergreen State. As I described in an earlier column (“Class of ’73”) we met at my “sanity hearing” in the Spring of ’71. He was an immediate advocate for me, and when I asked him about it later he said I reminded him of his old buddy Moe Honey.

“You’re kidding me, right?” I said. “Moe Honey?”

“Yeah,” said Pete. “And believe me: he was crazier than his name.”

“Was?”

“Oh yeah. He was a big boozer like you, and we were sitting around the campfire one night when he drew a gun, blew his brains out right in front of us.”

I miss Pete. He and I did a writing contract my senior year and never tore it up. I’d be working in a casino in Nevada later, or driving a tractor in some god awful backwater, or recovering from the d.t.’s in a dingy motel room … and when everyone else had given up on me (and rightly so), there’d be a letter from Pete. Always positive, always telling me how much he enjoyed the last writing I’d sent him, always dropping everything to see me when I came through Olympia. We never had a cross word and, aside from all he taught me about creativity and literature, he was replete with life lessons as well. He’d led mountain rescue teams in the Grand Tetons in the Fifties, had the biggest balls on campus and represented everything an Evergreen professor should be, i.e. he loved characters and was never censorious.

He was, in sum, the embodiment of what I’ve looked the hardest for in this world, a truly authentic guy. Which meant I trusted him implicitly and what he told me mattered. I don’t see how I would have kept writing without his encouragement and, even then, I was sixty-five years old when I was finally published.

Pete had slipped into dementia by then. The disease overtook him slowly and, for a long time, he kept passing his driver’s test, anyway. Then on his last trip to the DMV he was okay until the vision check. He leaned against the headrest, looked in and recognized all the letters … but couldn’t remember their names.

It was the cruelest of ironies for this hugely literate man. Somehow he kept his dignity and sense of humor intact, so you wouldn’t notice the Vacancy sign until you spoke to him.

Then all he could do is cackle. When I last saw him I helped his wife squeeze him into the passenger seat of their car. As she circled around to the driver’s side he looked up at me and, just for a moment, it was like the veil lifted. He crooked his finger and I bent down, put my face to the open window.

“Yeah, old buddy,” I said. “What is it?”

“Not like all the otters, Moe,” he croaked.

 

S.M. Park is the author and illustrator of his memoirs High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

 

S.M. Park

S.M. Park lives two blocks from the Salish Sea in Port Townsend, Washington. His passions include walking, wondering and weed. Park, in his guise as Wilson High, has written and illustrated two memoirs, High & Dry and The Grass Is Greener, both published by University of Hell Press.

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