(Part One of Three)
In November of 1967, Mrs. Flamm, my second-grade teacher, wrote on my report card, “Robert is very good in mathematics. He must learn to pay less attention to his classmates, however, and do less talking.”
One year earlier, Miss Patricia Terrell, wrote, “Robert is enthusiastic but at times he pays too much attention to other children around him.”
Four years after Miss Terrell I had Mr. Kingston at a different elementary school in another county: “Robert is a fine student but could be doing much better if he didn’t pay so much attention to the others around him.” Mr. Kingston might have talked to Mrs. Wolpert who as my fourth-grade teacher wrote, “Robert pays too much attention to those around him.”
If anyone were responsible for reporting about my life now other than me, I’d like to believe the comments would be similar, that I’ve spent my time paying attention to the people around me, talking and listening, caring more about relationships than arithmetic. I understand the importance of education, obviously—I spent exactly half of my life as a college professor. But if I learned anything in school when I was a child on the Island, I certainly don’t remember it. I liked reading. In Mr. Kingston’s class we would read short stories we chose ourselves from a table covered with boxed books, like a filing cabinet, and we’d have to read the story and answer questions. When we were done, we’re return the book to its place and if time allowed, choose another. I did well at this.
Mrs. Flamm pointed out I did well in math. Yes. Always have. In fact, I can glance at a list of numbers and almost immediately add them up. What I can’t do, however, is care much about that ability. Nor my ability to know why two elements mixed together make table salt. Or the differences between the three different types of rocks. I’ll tell you what, though; if Miss Terrell had let the red-haired girl in the next row tell me about the three different types of rocks, I’d still know the material. I listened to her. She talked about rain, and she talked about her cat who woke her up every morning because her mother sent the kitty into her room to climb on her head, and she’d wake up laughing.
We were in class together for three years, and then my family moved much further out on the Island to a different village in a different county, which might have only been twenty-five miles away, but in the mid-sixties she might as well lived in Topeka. At the end of third grade, I wrote a card to her that said, “I love You and I’ll miss you!” but for all of my “paying attention to the people around me” I didn’t have the balls to give it to her, so while she was picking up her books in the hallway that last day, I threw the card at her and kept walking. Looking back, I suppose I should have helped her pick up the books. I was eight.
But I remember that. I remember talking about music with Mark Wells, who became a musician, but I don’t remember a blessed thing about penmanship. I remember many conversations in both elementary school and junior high (young readers—I’m talking about Middle School now) about sports with Boomer Esiason (yes, that one), but I don’t remember liking or caring about P.E. I liked the visceral, the pulse of things, the sweat and anxiety and rush of it all. I liked walking blocks from home to where I wasn’t allowed to walk just to talk to my friend Chris about things I shouldn’t have been talking about, I’m sure, though I don’t remember what. I don’t remember history or Social Studies, but I liked that my sister used to quiz me every freaking night at dinner about “Who is John Mitchell?” and “Who is Spiro Agnew?” and “Who is John Ehrlichman?” I remember Watergate, but I don’t remember history. I remember every single song lyric from the brand-new Beatle’s album “Let It Be,” but I don’t remember one single writer from English class.
I simply didn’t learn very well from teachers. I listened, but only enough to pass the tests, and I spent the rest of my time making others laugh or listening to others talk. Note here that everyone else was paying too much attention to the others around them as well, and I do recall the others telling me the teacher made similar comments on their report cards, and even then I was just enough of a wiseass to wonder if the problem wasn’t us but perhaps the teacher.
One of my first classes as a college professor was Introduction to Literature, and I was teaching Hamlet. Now, I didn’t know a blessed thing about teaching literature, and I certainly only understood Hamlet because it is a fairly well written piece, to be sure, but I did study it and learned all I could about teaching it. I went into class the day they should have all had it read, or at the very least, I told them, watch a version, any version. When no one answered a single question for the first ten minutes, I closed my book and asked, “Honestly—truly, no penalties here, how many of you read or watched the play?” No one raised their hand. So I said, “Okay, everyone is absent today. Go home,” and I walked out. The dean called me into his office the next day and said in his slow, beautiful Kentucky drawl, “Bob, several students complained you counted them absent when they were there.” I told him what happened. “Well, yes, I’ve done that as well, but in this climate perhaps a better approach would be to simply give them a quiz.” He was a gentle leader, and I understood his point. So the next class, I went in and opened my book to Act One Scene One, and said, “Okay, listen. Some of you complained to my boss about what happened, and I just want you to know he talked to me. I want you to know that at this college if you speak up about what you find to be wrong, people really listen.” They seemed happy. “Okay, then, it’s honesty time again. How many of you read or watched the play?” Two people out of thirty-five raised their hands.
I closed the book, picked it up, and on my way out the door said, “You are all absent. You can complain again, or you can grow up and do the work YOU signed up for.” I went to the dean and told him what happened and that I didn’t want one single student to think that they could run like children and complain instead of doing the work, and he laughed and raised his index finger and shook it at me slowly.
“What?” I asked indignantly.
He laughed hard and kept shaking his finger. “They’ve learned, Bob. I LOVE it! They’ve learned.” He pushed his finger higher toward me. “Don’t fuck with Kunzinger.” I left. He is still a dear friend.
The following class (no one complained), I sat waiting to start class, and everyone was talking to each other, laughing, talking about the coming weekend, other classes, food, about other college things—this was pre-cell phone, and people talked to each other, interacted.
They paid close attention to the people around them in class.
And I thought about Hamlet and how, to be completely honest, I wouldn’t give a rat’s ass either. So when it was time to start class, I looked outside toward the lake and noted what a beautiful day it was, and I said, “Let’s head outside. Grab all your stuff.”
They settled down on tables and the lawn. I had their attention, maybe because it was so distracting outside, they simply had to find something to focus on, and this “stunt” might have piqued their interest.
I pointed south. “The Outer Banks are just over an hour that way. Keep going and you’d be in St Augustine by the end of the day. Keep going and this time tomorrow you could be in Key West. Lots of bars there. They’re hiring.”
They all turned and looked at me.
I pointed east. “If I were your age and worked all summer and put some money away, I’d be over there. Europe.” I moved my hand a bit. “Africa.” I turned around. “Canada. I’d see the world, I’d meet people and get jobs and spend a few years learning about life and make new, treasured, lifelong friends, and I’d come home with stories. God! What a life it can be! What an amazing chance for you to do, now, finally after almost two decades, anything you want, ANYWHERE you want! This isn’t a joke! Who has thought of things like this?” They all raised their hands. “So more of you thought of tending bar or working in a store or hiking some country road in distant lands than even read one page of Hamlet, which, ironically, out of ALL of those choices, is the one YOU landed on!” They laughed, kind of. It was more of a half-laugh/half-sigh thing.
“Guys,” I said. “What the hell are you doing here?”
I let that sit a long time. Then I stood up, swung my backpack over my shoulder, said, “See you next class,” and walked to the car, my mind contemplating a nearly identical question.
I have finally learned something about teaching after three decades: I am perhaps one of the better teachers for bad students, or, I should say, bored students, they may actually be excellent if they’d give it a shot. Because I know what it’s like to be completely distracted, to rather be talking to some little red-haired girl than listening to the teacher. Granted, I was eight and these people were nearly twenty, but I know how it feels to need to be dragged into finding relevance, pointed in the right direction, which isn’t always the standard, predictable direction.
Some years later I read aloud Frost’s “The Road not Taken” and asked them if they were sure they were on the right one. “Seriously, what do you think,” I’d ask, and that conversation would last days and days, and we’d learn about each other, and we’d carry the conversation into the hallway, out to the lake, into our lives, because the conversation that the poem ignites is so much more interesting than the stanzas on the page. And that’s the point of study anyway; that’s what sent them all back to read more Frost.
Anyway, that was my problem my entire youth, and even still. Stop talking to me about the three different types of freaking rocks. Bring me into the hills and let’s skim some stones. I guarantee you I’ll remember them the names then.
But this has nothing to do with education, or Hamlet, or, like Charlie Brown, the Little Red-haired Girl.
I stand in line at the convenience store and my neck muscles tighten when I hear some dipshit proselytizing about the lunacy conspiracies associated with vaccinations. My heart rate speeds to dangerous levels when someone at the gas station smokes and talks on his cell phone while pumping gas into a metal container in his trunk while two toddlers lean out the back window sucking on cans of coke. And some fuck in a pick up tailgates me on a road when I obviously can’t pull over or speed up, and he pushes me to either risk my own life or, if I was driving my older car, slam on the brakes and talk to him when he comes ripping through my back window. Just writing this is pissing me off and I can hear, I swear to you I can hear as clear as the sound of my fingers on this keyboard, I can hear Mr. Kingston at Timber Point Elementary saying to my parents at the teacher/parent conference, “Robert would be better off if he didn’t pay so much attention to people around him.”
Wow. Damn right Mr. K.