Did you have a great teacher or two who made a significant impact on your life, growing up? I know I did - the first was in fifth grade, 1965, when I was ten years old. In the 1960s male teachers were extremely rare in elementary schools - ours had only one, and I consider it my good fortune to have landed in his class. (Although it was well known that he got all the "trouble" kids.)
This man had been in the war, in Italy, and sometimes he'd tell us tales. In fact he had a bit of a ritual: he called them "Torture Stories", since sometimes they were gruesome, and some were literally about torture - one I recall involved placing a device composed of two metal bowls welded together at their bases on the midsection of the horizontally-bound victim. Beneath the inverted bowl was placed a rodent of some kind; a fire was kindled in the upper bowl. The heat drove the rodent to a frenzy of scratching: the conclusion of its escape was inevitable. Others of these stories were less feasible, and were told in reaction to some unpleasant behavior observed in one of his pupils, and had a moral. The most memorable of these came out when he caught someone picking their nose. A man went to his doctor complaining of stiffness. Examination revealed that he had an entire plant growing in him, narrow branches and roots in his arteries, somehow caused by a seed coming loose from beneath his fingernail lodging in a nasal crevice and taking root. It may have even been a tree, with a small leaf popping out of his nostril. Another was in reaction to catching someone sucking on a button, perhaps detached from a shirt. "Do you know where that button's been? I'll tell you - it fell out of a bin in the button factory and landed on the floor, and the janitor, an old colored man, picked it up and put it into his mouth" - here some my classmates (all WASPs <1>) groaned out loud: "Eeeww!". Inconceivable these days, what went on in his class. Sometimes to avoid real schoolwork we'd beg him to tell us Torture Stories, and he'd put it off, teasing us - then that was the torture. Finally he'd relent. As for the War, he didn't ever tell us about being in battle - instead he waxed nostalgic about how well he was treated by the Italians, giving me a glimmer (even at that youthful age) of the superior quality of European life. He described wintertime beds being warmed prior to occupancy, not just with portable warmers, but with the blankets being suspended upon bowed racks over the beds and the bedwarmers (containing glowing embers) being placed between the down-filled bedclothes and the feather-bed mattress.
These were the positive activities which made his class special: he had a couple of big annual projects which, out of the whole school, only his class engaged in. During the holidays we built the Christmas Castle - a big cardboard structure covered with a white stucco-like substance, illuminated from within by an automotive trouble-light. It had turrets, windows, little sparkles all over, miniature trees and snowy landscaping. Barely completed on the last day before vacation, at the class Christmas Party it was the centerpiece, and the parents were invited too, just to view it. In the Spring we put on the play: Tom Sawyer and the fence white-washing. The big performance was in the evening, again with parental attendance.
On slow afternoons he'd sometimes break into popular song: "King Of The Road", "Mr. Blue" <2> or "Red Roses for a Blue Lady". Never rock and roll, of course - like my parents, he was too old to like that stuff. His age must've been late thirties - early forties when he was my teacher, and we knew he was single, a bachelor, although he never discussed his "status". Once after school I ran into him strolling rapidly down the hallway smoking a cigarette - a shocking sight. He must've been puffing daily, but only in the teacher's lounge during lunch and recess so we'd never see him in the act - I'm sure there were rules, to set a good example <3>. And this was so brazen to me - I was floored by his audacity. He would break the rules, too - I felt a certain kinship. (Probably an enabling factor in my own smoking experiments, which began soon afterwards.) That sighting must've been the following year, when I was being punished - kept after school by my battle-axe of a sixth grade teacher - she came out of that mold so typical of my elementary school's teachers - elderly women who'd tolerate no nonsense. The suffering I endured under their thumbs is another story, but be advised that third and sixth grades were especially traumatic.
I was in one of the upscale grocery stores here yesterday ("Piazza's") where I saw something worth recording. Up by the front door they have a few quarter-sized shopping carts for the little ones to push around in Mommy's wake. I wouldn't have noticed them were it not for one youngster doing just that, and I thought "How incredibly cute!" Later I had my doubts, however - wasn't this just the merchant prematurely conditioning his client's children towards the life of the happy consumer? On the other hand it'll happen anyway, and maybe the girls receive such fond memories of grocery shopping that they return there when they're adults... but that's also conditioning! We just can't win... may as well embrace the Consumer Culture.
WASP - White Anglo-Saxon Protestant
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<1>There were two Jewish families with
kids my age in our school, but I don't think either were in my class that
year. All the Catholic kids in the neighborhood went to the local parochial
school. It wasn't until seventh grade, when I began attending the new
middle school, that a black kid was in my class, and I don't recall
any Asians until High School.
<2>...during which certain of my
class-mates would start howling and barking like dogs; I never
understood that - perhaps some late-night television reference?
<3>This was right at the beginning
of establishment anti-smoking hysteria - the 1964 Surgeon General's
Report was fresh news.