Thursday, September 20, 2012

Kevin Bacon, David Koresh, and My First Male Teacher

When I was in third grade, I started out the year with a male teacher. He was my only male teacher until sixth grade, and he did very little to replace my notion that only ladies should teach young children. I've since learned that there are many exceptional male teachers in elementary schools, and my sixth grade teacher was definitely one of them. My initial third grade teacher, however, was exceptional only in the sense that he was exceptionally unqualified to teach anything smarter than a chicken. In the event that your experience with chickens is limited, I can share with you that birds in general are lacking in cognitive ability [hence the term bird brain] and that chickens are notable even among birds for their ineducability and overall stupidity. My first third grade teacher was known for similar qualities.

This teacher had a most amusing surname, to children, anyway,  which I cannot mention here for obvious reasons. Instead, I'll call him by another name: Mr. Oldbottom*. The fictitious name I've given him is a makeshift compound word.  The first root of the compound word  I've created is an opposite of the first syllable of my former teacher's actual surname. (Note: old has more than one opposite, and  the opposite to which I'm referring is not young.) The second root of the compound can be a four-letter synonym of the second syllable of my former teacher's name, referring particularly to the "body part" definition of bottom.

So the man was saddled with a somewhat unfortunate last name, which isn't necessarily a good thing for a teacher. A teacher with a surname likely to be the subject of ridicule among students has two viable courses of action. The first is to develop a thick skin, to laugh along with the students, and to tell them you've already heard every joke that could ever be made about your name, and so students may as well not even waste their time trying to make jokes about it. If the first option isn't practical for whatever reason, a teacher with an odd and ridicule-prone name should perhaps change it to something with which he can live more easily. Doing so legally would  probably be a bit of both a hassle and an expense, but if one's family name is sufficiently loathsome, it might in the long run be time and money well spent.

Mr. Oldbottom* exercised neither of my disclosed options. Instead, he warned all students on the very first day of school that any lampooning of his name whatsoever would result in swift and severe consequences both to the person lampooning and to any poor soul so lacking in self-control as to laugh at any joke made of Mr. Oldbottom's*  name.  Mr. Oldbottom* could have done very little more to issue an open invitation to students to poke fun at his name than what he did. I wish I could share all the  plays on words that my classmates and I  devised, but I cannot without more fully exposing myself to litigation than I already have.

Mr. Oldbottom* was the most humorless creature with whom I've ever come into contact. This is a considerable distinction, as I"m related to many people on my father's side who cannot understand even  most knock-knock jokes or Helen Keller jokes without clarification. .Mr. Oldbottom* was humorless both in the sense that he lacked the ability to comprehend most forms of humor and in the sense that he had absolutely no sense of self-deprecation.  Add to the mix that he was flatulent by nature, and that most of his episodes of gas-passing were audible. He once sent an entire reading group to the office because they couldn't (or wouldn't) stop laughing after he let loose with a  roughly seven-syllable rip that was probably heard in the next zip code.

For the most part, I should have been the very least of Mr. Oldbottom's* troubles, as I had the misfortune of having been born to parents who expected me to stay out of trouble at all costs when at school.  My mother and father tolerated a reasonable degree of  nuisance from both my brother and me at home, but at school we were expected to fly under teachers' and administrators' radar.  This was easier for my brother than for me, as I've been a magnet for controversy since I was an infant, but I still managed, for the most part, to avoid school discipline with very few exceptions.  My behavior did  in fact escape Mr. Oldbottom's* awareness.  Mr. Oldbottom's* disapproval of me concerned my writings.

The root of most of Mr. Oldbottom's* complaints about my writings pertained, for the most part, to my honesty or bluntness to the point of rudeness. He frequently asked his students to write essays detailing what we would change about his class if we could. (Why ask the question if one doesn't wish to hear or read the answer?)  I could have,  as did other students, criticized the teacher's fashion sense (he did laundry once every two weeks, which meant that by the end of the cycle, shirts and pants didn't necessarily match), taken issue with his musical incompatibility with my own ( Christian rock music was played as background musics almost nonstop), or critiqued his  rigidity  in terms of our physical education program (our class played tether ball for P. E. every day that the weather permitted us to go out). Instead, I pointed out misspellings and misuses of the English language that appeared on the classroom whiteboards at whatever time a given essay was written. This did not endear me to Mr. Oldbottom.*

In October of that year, Mr. Oldbottom* asked us to research and write a report on  the topic of "An Influential American."  We began the project on a Monday. We were to work on it each day of that week. Completed reports were due on Friday of that week. Had Mr. Oldbottom* asked us instead to research and write about any topic of interest to us, I probably would have chosen Siamese twins, or, more politically correctly, conjoined twins, as that was my major obsession of that particular period of my life. My first choice of an influential American about whom to write had been Kevin Bacon.  One of my cousins had attended Albright College in Pennsylvania, where three students developed a sort of party game centering around Kevin Bacon. The premise of the game, probably known now to most people, is that Kevin Bacon has worked with so many other actors and actresses that he can be connected to virtually any English-speaking actor of the modern era (mid-twentieth century to the present) by a very finite number of degrees. My cousin who attended Albright College was not one of the inventors of the Kevin Bacon game, but she was closely acquainted with all three of the actual creators.

On Thursday when he picked us up after school, my dad asked my brother and me what we had done at school that day. My answer was that I had worked on my "Influential American" report. He asked what influential American about whom I was writing. When I told him it was Kevin Bacon, my dad laughed  and asked if I had cleared the topic with my teacher. As far as I knew, none of us had cleared anything with, or even had been asked about our subjects by Mr. Oldbottom*.  We worked on our reports each day in the computer pod between our classroom and two others. As we did our own research and writing, Mr. Oldbottom* did something else on his own laptop. I never once saw him even checking what a student was doing on a computer during this time. We could all have been having a third-grade version of cyber-sex for all he could have known.   The idea of asking Mr.Oldbottom* about Kevin Bacon's classification as an influential American had never occurred to me.   I went out of my way not to talk to Mr. Oldbottom* about that or anything else.

My father told me he was reasonably certain that what Mr. Oldbottom* had in mind was a person involved in government, or possibly a person prominent in a major exploration or historical movement, or maybe even someone important in the religious world, but definitely not an entertainment figure -- even one as prominent as Kevin Bacon. I thanked my dad for his advice,  considering it just that -- advice --  but thought I'd go ahead and write the report  on my original choice of subjects.  My dad,  reading  my vocal tone accurately, restated his "advice" into the form of a directive.  "Alexis, " he said firmly, "Change your topic. And I'll want to see the finished product."  Arguing would have been pointless. . All my Kevin Bacon research had been for naught.

After the entire incident came to light, my dad told me, "If you ever have to write another "Great American" report, Alexis, just do Ben Franklin. Forget about your current obsession, whatever it happens to be. Don't worry about your report being unique or compelling. Just stick with  Ben Franklin. Got it?  You won't go wrong with Ben Franklin . . . as long as you stay away from anything about his illegitimate son."

During our computer period the next day -- the final day of the project -- I turned my attention to another obsession.  My dad had mentioned a significant religious figure as being an appropriate subject for my research and report. David Koresh and the entire Branch Davidian movement, which ended rather explosively in Waco, Texas,  had long held my fascination.  Typing at as furious a pace as my little seven-year-old fingers would go in effort to make up for time lost on Kevin Bacon, I completed  my report with just minutes to spare.

Mr. Oldbottom* found my report,  and my un-age-appropriate interest in David Koresh and his religious group, to be perplexing.  He showed it to the school psychologist, who found my choice of subject  unusual, but not overly disconcerting, as I didn't seem to focus unduly upon  the especially violent, graphic, or sexual aspects of the whole Waco event.   He did tell  Mr. Oldbottom*  that he could talk to my parents if something in the story was especially  bothersome to him. The psychologist insisted to my mother after the fact that what he actually said was that Mr. Oldbottom* could broach the subject at the parent/teacher conferences that were to be held in less than two weeks.

Mr. Oldbottom*  did call my parents.  Despite work and cell numbers listed in my contact information that would have enabled him to speak live with either parent, he instead called the  home phone and left a rambling message that used up all the space on the answering machine (and caused my Bluebird adviser not to be able to leave a message to inform my parents that the week's Bluebird meeting had to be cancelled, so I went to the community center for the Bluebird meeting to find the place locked and deserted, but that's neither here nor there). In his lengthy diatribe,  Mr. Oldbottom* demanded that both my parents appear in his classroom the following day after school.

This may seem sexist, and it probably is, but my parents have always had a division of labor in parenting, and school was always my mother's responsibility. If at all possible, my dad attended the twice-a-year parent/teacher conferences, and on the rare occasion that a school couldn't reach my mother in an emergency, they called my father's cell phone next. About one-third of the time, however, my father's work took him hundreds of miles from our home. (It's not beyond possibility that my father is a polygamist and uses his weird works schedule as an excuse to travel and meet up with his other wives and families, but I digress.) At that particular moment in time, my father was in San Diego, while we were living in Contra Costa County, in a small town in a relatively remote part of the San Francisco Bay area.  Dad wasn't scheduled to return for another two days. Even had my father been in town at the time, odds are that he wouldn't have gone with my mom to meet with my teacher, as he didn't consider school to be his job.

So my mom left early  from her work as a Director of Psychological and Special Services at another school district in a neighboring city to meet with Mr. Oldbottom* after school the next day. Mr. Oldbottom* was so incensed that to see only my mother and not both parents that he refused to disclose his concerns to my mother. He demanded that my father make himself present at the school immediately. My mother told him it was not possible. Mr. Oldbottom* walked out, leaving my mother alone in the classroom. She waited momentarily for him to reappear. When he hadn't reappeared after a few mimutes, she left.

The next day, I showed up for school as usual. Mr. Oldbottom* sent me to the office and told me I was suspended from his class until both my parents showed up to meet with him. I had no clue at this point as to what was his concern. I hadn't heard his answering machine message and didn't even know that my mother had been to my school the previous day.

I went to the office as directed.  When I got there, all available personnel were dealing with  a problem concerning a bogus memo to parents from the school cafeteria  that had been circulated the previous day. Parents were calling almost nonstop  to complain about the mystery meat sold to the district's food services department by a local funeral home (for a price too good to refuse)  that was reportedly to be used in the day's tacos. The office staff, in addition to answering calls from irate parents, was trying to determine the culprit of the school menu prank. (It was not I, if  you were wondering.)  With all the commotion, it was nearly 11:00 a.m. before anyone noticed the undersized third grader sitting among sixth graders awaiting interrogation.

When asked, I relayed to the secretary the reason my teacher had given me for my presence in the office. She asked for my name, which I told her.  She thumbed through and located an index card with my information from a container holding alphabetized cards supplying contact information for all students in the school.  Scanning my card, she whistled softly.  She picked up her phone and called someone who was presumably the principal. "I don't know how it happened, either," I heard her say into the phone.

Years after the fact, my assumption is that children whose parents were in any way influential were simply  not placed in Mr. Oldbottom's* class. My brother and I were new to the district that year, having moved in July from the San Joaquin Valley.  When my mother registered us as soon as the school office opened for business in early August, someone had failed to notice that in the Occupations spaces for my parents, "school administrator" was written in the mother blank, and "research physician" appeared in the father blank. Is it right that children of wealthy, educated, or prominent parents are routinely exempted from the system's poorest teachers? Of course it is not right.  Is it a reality? Absolutely.

Someone sent the speech therapist into my classroom to watch the class while the principal spoke with Mr. Oldbottom* in the inner office. I remember hearing snippets of raised voices -- of what must have been the principal's voice saying "You just can't do that, Neil" and Mr. Oldbottom's* whiny, denasal  "I know my rights as a teacher"  in response.

In the end, my mother was contacted at work by telephone and informed that a clerical error had placed me in the wrong class. I would be transferred to Mrs. Hazelwood's class. Someone brought my backpack and lunch to the office from Room 32, and the principal walked me the short distance to room 29, where I would spend the rest of the year,  The principal and Mrs. Hazelwood held a brief and hushed conversation, after which I was seated at Mrs. Hazelwood's reading table until an additional desk was brought into the classroom.

  • The remainder of the school year progressed without incident. Every so often I would encounter  Mr. Oldbottom* in a corridor or somewhere on campus. He always gave me an "if looks could kill, your corpse would already have been half-consumed by worms" sort of glare. I didn't know exactly what was the problem. I was just relieved to be rid of the man.

*not his real name

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