“Our high school health teacher was old and wizened, a tiny scrap of a woman, pale and brittle and hunched over, like a dried out fingernail clipping. […] If she had ever known anything about health, she had forgotten it long ago. The only claim for her remaining in charge of the class was that, arguably, anyone who had lived to her advanced age must have known something about health, at some point in her life, many years ago.”
This month, instead of posting a serialized story on the blog, I’ve decided to post a series of short, stand-alone sketches … character descriptions, memories, brief moments in people’s lives, etc. Some of them were written more than a decade ago, and some of them were written this week. To begin, here is a piece from high school called The Teachers. I hope you enjoy it!
Our high school health teacher was old and wizened, a tiny scrap of a woman, pale and brittle and hunched over, like a dried out fingernail clipping. She had a mop of short, curly white hair, but everything else about her was parched and desiccated. Even the hair, if you looked at it closely, was dry: the curls like tightly woven clusters of wire, arranged in narrow loops around her small, pinched head. If she had ever known anything about health, she had forgotten it long ago. The only claim for her remaining in charge of the class was that, arguably, anyone who had lived to her advanced age must have known something about health, at some point in her life, many years ago.
Anna and I sat at the back of the classroom, where Anna could work on her manicure and I could draw funny caricatures to pass around the class, unnoticed and fancy-free. Mrs. Barker’s eyesight only penetrated to the desks in the middle of the classroom. Eventually, other students caught on, and the classroom became so back loaded that one day, the entire front half of the classroom was empty, and Mrs. Barker left, thinking no one had showed up. We were heartless, then.
That was the year of the strange teachers. My parents had switched me to Catholic school, after the Oakland public school teachers went on strike the year before, resulting in my missing half of eighth grade. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Previously, there had been student fights and stabbings, drug issues and gang violence. A kid with a plastic hip had been thrown over a chain link fence. There had been a student-teacher protest resulting in the banning of the Pledge of Allegiance in elementary schools. But when I missed six months of geometry, my parents had enough. Catholic school, it was.
There was nothing particularly Catholic about it. Many of the priests were openly homosexual. They were not evil or villainous, like the priests portrayed in recent news stories. They were kind and sympathetic and supportive, and had good fashion sense. No one was molested, as far as I know, although admittedly I would not have been of the preferred gender if anyone had been. The GLEE club (Gay-Lesbian-bi-transgender … we never figured out what the two E’s were supposed to stand for) was encouraged. It was a very liberal Catholic school. In the morning, prayer was said over the intercom. We were not required to participate (only a small portion of the students were Catholic) but we were required to hold still. At 9:05 on the dot, the entire school would freeze in place. A stranger, walking down the hallways, would have seen tardy ninth and tenth graders, with one foot in front of the other; an arm suspended in the air, reaching up to close a locker, frozen like statues in a museum of perpetual high school years.
Some of the Catholic notions had been modernized, and others had not. Abortion, for example, was strictly discouraged. Our Christian Sexuality teacher made us watch a graphic and alarming video of an abortion from the 1950’s, and then directed us while we practiced putting condoms on cucumbers. I had only the foggiest notion of what we were doing it for.
Other teachers had other quirks. Our Spanish teacher had a speech impediment. Our math teacher, Ms. Lindstorf, broke her hip a week before school started, so we never ended up meeting her. The substitute teacher had a degree in psychology, not trig, so she had us keep a journal of our feelings about math. I did not have any particular feelings about math, so I spent most of the class reading Jack Handy quotes under the table, and occasionally bursting into loud, uncontrollable fits of laughter. She would nod in my direction, beaming benevolently, because she wanted us to be happy. History was our favorite class because the teacher, Mr. Roberts, had invented a system for air-conditioning his classroom, by means of a large fan and a vat of dry ice. Also, he sold caramel apple lollipops for 25 cents apiece. We were not allowed to eat anything else in his classroom, but we slurped contentedly on those lollipops while he narrated the dramas of the Vietnam War. He probably made a fortune. Our biology teacher Ms. Trent seemed normal (and was in fact, a wonderful teacher) until we returned for our high school reunion five years later, and were introduced to Mr. Trent. She had undergone a significant operation in the interim. We always thought she was unusually enthusiastic about dressing up as Gregor Mendel and teaching us about genetics.
Our English teacher was the most unremarkable of the bunch. I liked Mr. Mednoza and I thought he liked me, until one day he kicked me out of class for what he wrote up in the principal’s report as my “excessive attitude problem.” I felt bad about this, and wished he had alerted me to the problem sooner, because the attitude could be moderated. It was an acquired thing, not inborn, developed by watching and imitating other students. I had even developed the skill of swiveling my head, in gradually tightening, concentric circles, beginning slow and deliberately, then rapidly speeding up, in a manner that must have looked extremely odd on a scrawny white girl, and which convulsed my classmates. I never meant to hurt Mr. Mendoza’s feelings. What could I say except that when you’re short and white and smart, good at school and bad at baseball, what can you do to survive in a school in the middle of a high school in downtown Oakland except have an attitude problem? I had witnessed Mr. Mendoza playing baseball himself once, on teacher-parent day, hunched over in his bunched brown slacks, the belt fastened just below the chest, with a fanny pack and socks sliding down his skinny ankles, spinning the bat in a circle and missing the ball entirely. You’d think he would have understood these things. ♦