VISITS WITH PAST TEACHERS
Copyright © 1998, 2015 by Jim Hull
(Please cite the author if you quote from this work)
There's an e-mail list put out by the "Chicken Soup for the Soul" folks: every day they send you an inspirational story from their immense library of such tales. Corny, tear-jerky, friendly, they have a whiff of Norman Rockwell or Reader's Digest. Charming. One told of a guy who returned to his old high school, where he'd been an indifferent scholar, to seek out a favorite teacher. He found her, and in struggling for words he blurted out something like, "You were important to me." The teacher burst into tears and hugged him.
Does this happen to everyone who goes back? I wonder. I'll bet there are people who return to their old schools only to be booted out: "Get off the grounds or we'll call the police!" Then it hit me: I'd already gone back myself. Not once, but FOUR times. Each visit had its poignant moments, but each also had a dark side. None had the simple, obvious, didactic results of a "Chicken Soup" story. Still, they bear retelling.
. . . . . . .
I grew up in the San Fernando Valley. My first school was Hesby Street School in Encino, tucked into the armpit of the San Diego-Ventura Freeway interchange. One day years ago I chanced by, parked my car, and walked onto the campus. The place looked unchanged except that it was now a storage depot; instead of children, bureaucrats dashed about. Memories flooded back: here was the covered lunch area where that kid would finish his daily tuna-salad sandwich and then wash his hands in the remains; here was the first-grade classroom where I had lain down on the floor and - while the teacher read aloud - managed to sneak a look up her dress; here was the arcade where Billy Wilcox had smacked right into a door that had opened abruptly, and I had laughed so hard I hurt myself. Ah, elementary school...
I found my very first classroom. Cautiously I opened the door: inside, the room seemed smaller but otherwise just as I had left it decades earlier. I looked around, eyes brimming with nostalgia. Then I noticed a young woman - some civil servant, I assumed - seated at a desk, staring at me, eyes wide in terror, mouth open in the first shape of a scream. "Uh, excuse me," I said quickly. "Sorry to disturb you. I went to kindergarten in this room." Her mouth closed, but she kept staring, as if expecting me to leap at her. I stammered, "Uh, well, I'll... I'll just, uh, go now." And that was the end of that nostalgic visit.
I finished my elementary years in the West Valley, and graduated from Taft High in Woodland Hills. The school that meant the most to me, though, was Gaspar de Portolà Junior High in Tarzana. One way or another I've retouched base with it three times over the years. The first was a 25th-anniversary celebration: alumni and teachers gathered in scattered groups around the main quad for old times' sake. And there they stood - some of them, at least - my past teachers. Mr. Anderson, the PE coach, still looked fit but had lines in the face. My greatest mentor, English teacher Mr. Hanson, and his wife were there. He looked thin and wan; I learned he'd suffered a stroke some time earlier; still, he was cheerful, if a bit disorganized in his speech. They asked me what I was doing, and all I could claim was a rather piddling existence as a performer at school assemblies. Suddenly this reunion idea didn't seem so smart. I imagined Coach Anderson that night at the dinner table: "Saw some of my old students today. Jim Hull hasn't amounted to much." Chew, swallow. "Stayed in shape, though."
As part of my work presenting international dance to school kids all over the L.A. area, I found myself back at Portolà Junior High a couple of years later. I was the lecturer, and I took the opportunity to ask whether any of my old teachers might still work there. I specifically asked for Charles McClure, the dryly witty math teacher I'd been lucky enough to study with. Later that morning word came back: McClure was, indeed, still there, and he wanted to treat me to coffee during the lunch break.
I showed up at the faculty dining room - first time I'd ever seen it; as a kid it never occurred to me to skulk around - and we sat down over breakfast cakes. McClure was older, more gaunt, but still garrulous, so we had a good talk. I asked him how he managed to last so long at Portolà, and he confessed he'd returned to put in a few years at higher pay and improve his pension. Fair enough. I wondered what he thought of today's students. He snorted. "They're nothing like you kids. Can't read well. Poor work habits."
I nodded, looked away. Then I took a deep breath. "I want to make a confession. I once cheated in your class."
It had been the only time I'd cheated in my entire stay there, and it came about because my best friend - and chief competitor - had taken McClure's class the period before me, and he had boasted at lunch about how he'd solved a difficult extra-credit problem on the week's math test. I couldn't let myself fall too far behind in the ongoing competition with him, so I used his report to my advantage when I took the test the following period. "I'm sorry about it," I now said to McClure. He smiled, waved his hand in front of me like a priest making the sign of the cross, and intoned, "Te absolvo."
A few years later, during a fit of "Let's clear up loose ends," I called Bill Hanson, the junior-high English teacher. As a kid I'd practically worshipped him. Tall, skinny, with salt-and-pepper crewcut, big ears, and a toothy grin, he drove us hard but encouraged us with his colorful enthusiasm for books and words. Typically he'd start a class by reading a passage from some famous work, then pull off his black-rimmed reading glasses, squint into the distance, and ask, "I wonder what this means?" We were enthralled. Had he been a music teacher, he'd have been Leonard Bernstein. Mr. Hanson also had that knack of talking to you as if you were the most important person in the world. (I remember the shock, one day, of realizing that he was more important to me than I was to him - a mighty intellectual achievement for a narcissistic youngster, but painful nonetheless.)
And he goaded us endlessly with, "What have you been reading lately?" I slaved over books I barely understood just to win his approval. Lord Jim, Erewhon, Looking Backward, 1984. I was in eighth grade!
In high school I travelled with him, one summer, on a trip to Europe. Each year Hanson would take a gang of kids overseas, typically to Greece or Italy. That year it was, of all places, the Soviet Union. We hit all the high spots: Leningrad, Moscow, Yalta, Novgorod, then Kiev and Vilnius, and finally a leisurely train ride back across Europe toward London. (I remember the sleeping car through northern Germany, then the headlines the next day shouting that - while I'd snored to the clickety-clack of the rails - Soviet tanks had roared into Czechoslovakia to crush the "Prague Spring.")
Now, in early-middle age, I found myself dialing his old home number, hoping to get lucky and find him and his wife still living there, atop that hill in Tarzana. And lo, his wife answered. She remembered me at once. I asked for her husband. "All right, but you should know he's been in poor health. Sometimes he doesn't recall things." Would he remember me? "Probably not."
Go ahead, Jim, thank him anyway for all those years of inspiration and education he gave you... I said I'd love to speak with him.
After a moment his voice - more gruff with the years - rang through. "Hello?"
"Mister Hanson, this is Jim Hull. I was a student of yours in the 'Sixties. Do you remember me?"
Gulp. "Well, I... I just wanted to thank you for being my teacher back then. It's meant a lot to me."
"Oh, well, thanks. Thank you very much." There was a pause. "So, what have you been reading lately?"
I smiled: still the old Mr. Hanson. As it happened, I'd just finished The Count of Monte Cristo, and I proudly relayed that fact. He said, "Good. You know, I was just reading something interesting myself when you called. It's... Hmm. Can't remember."
Alzheimer's? I may never know. My brother - who knew of Hanson from his own days at Portolà - told me a few years later of a rumor that my old teacher had died. This would be a simple fact to confirm, but for some reason I've never tried to find out.
. . . . . . .
My visits to past teachers weren't as
clear-cut and tidy as the "Chicken Soup" story. In fact, the
reunions were sort of messy, awkward, incomplete. Still, nobody
threw me off the property. And somehow those gawky encounters
were the right ones to have.
TALK TO THE AUTHOR!
But caveat auctor: Jim reserves
the right to put your little screed on his Web site! (And he
has no dignity about this, so be careful what you say...)
AND THE READERS SPEAK!
I just read your article
about calling your teacher, Mr Hanson and thanking him. I very
much enjoyed it. My parents were good friends with Bill and BJ
back in the 1960's and 1970's. I have fond memories of them
both. -- Thanks again, Tamara Johnston
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