My friend Ivan Dennis has passed on. Some of my fondest memories were shared with him. We knew each other for a lot of years. We shared time together at RTS and JIHS.
The world is a little sadder now that he has left it. My heart goes out to his family and friends.
Rest in peace, Ivan.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
“Alf! You found yours yet?”
“No, I’m still looking,” said Alf. He looked into the branches overhead. The horse chestnut tree was a mile from his house. He was supposed to be helping his dad with the boot mending but he wanted to find the best conker around. It was important.
He threw the stick he’d carried with him up into the limbs. It made contact this time swiping the edge of the seed pod just hard enough to detach it. The stick fell at his feet followed by the huge pod. Inside he found a perfectly symmetrical conker.
“It’s beautiful!” he said aloud in his excitement.
“You found a good one?” yelled his mate.
“I got a winna here!” Alf yelled back. His mate was running over to take a look.
“Sorry, Bob, but I have to get to me dad’s workshop. I’m late as tis!” he yelled at his friend. He shoved the conker in his pocket and scooped up his stick as he headed back to his house and the shed at the back.
As he ran the pressure of the conker reassured him he had found a winner. He slowed to a walk nearing the work shed. He stopped and raised his head to the window. The shop was empty. Maybe he wasn’t in trouble after all.
He quickly circled to the door and slipped in. His head received a smack from the back of his dad’s hand.
“Where have you been, boy?” He was wrong. His dad had been in the corner retrieving some leather for the boot on the last.
“I’m sorry, dad. I got caught up with me mate.” He rubbed his head which was smarting from the blow.
“I don’t need excuses, boy. I need help getting these boots mended. They’re expected this afternoon so get to work.”
He took the leather from his dad’s hand and placed it on the table. The prize conker he put in his hat which he gingerly placed on a shelf out of the way. His apron was on the chair. A moment later he tied it at his back then sat in front of the last. The boot needed a new sole so he began measuring it for the cut needed. His knife slit along the line he had drawn on the flat bit of leather. For a young boy he was very good at this. He’d picked it up quickly. Even his dad had been surprised at his agility in such a short time. He was so good, in fact that his dad depended on him more than he liked.
After the leather was cut and placed on the boot he took a handful of tacks. These he placed in his mouth to be retrieved one at a time. His hands quickly nailed the sole firmly to the boot. He cut around it to bring the leather in line with the outer edge finishing up by filing the ragged trim to a firm line outlining the shape of the foot.
“There,” he said. “One down.” He tossed it to his dad to inspect.
“You amaze me, boy. I couldn’t do a better job meself but don’t get to likin’ yerself too much. Get on with it.” He tossed the finished boot in the bin. Those in this bin stayed until it was time to be polished.
Alf grabbed the second boot and finished it off faster than the last.
“And here’s the second.” He slipped it off the last reaching over to his dad.
“Already?” His dad asked in disbelief. “Let me see.”
A close inspection showed the work to be flawless.
“Get to polishing them, then,” he said finding no fault.
“Yes sir,” said Alf reaching for the polish. The boots took on a shine that made them look brand new. There were two other pairs of shoes in the polishing bin which he cleaned up and brought to a fine shine.
“Can I fix my conker now?” he asked.
“You’ve got no time for playing as long as there’s boots to mend. Those on the table need work. When you’ve finished them maybe you can go meet your mates if it’s light out.”
It was no use arguing. His dad expected him to do until done. He reached for the next pair.
As the sky grew violet his dad tossed his hammer onto the shelf and called out,
“Alright, son, time to knock off. Supper’ll be waitin’.”
Alf looked up. There was no light in the sky.
“Can I use the drill to put a hole in my conker?” asked Alf.
“Not now. Yer mum will be waitin’ supper. So put everything away and let’s go up the house, now.” He had hung his apron on the coat rack. He grabbed the hat on the table. It was Alf’s hat. The conker flew out hit the wall and fell to the concrete floor. It cracked.
“You’ve broken me con..”
“Hush your whinin’, boy. If it broke that easy it wouldn’t have won nothin’.” You can look again in the morning for another. Come on, now. Yer mum will be cross.”
Alf picked up the horse chestnut. The crack ran half way round. It was useless. He tossed it in the trash as he walked past.
The next morning at first light he was out the front door and a mile away under the tree before his folks were aware he’d left. He threw his stick high into the tree hoping to dislodge another perfect nut.
His wish was answered half an hour later when he heard his stick make contact with a pod. The loud crack was followed by the stickered hull landing at his feet. It was a giant. The shell split easily revealing a shiny brown conker the like of which he had never seen. It was a giant. The weight of it overwhelmed him. This specimen would make a ninty-fourer or even more. Clutching his prize tightly he ran the mile back home going straight to the shed.
The boring utensil was right at hand when he went through the door. Carefully he lined it up in the center and commenced drilling straight down and through. He blew air threw the drilled hole then held it to his eye.
“Perfect,” he whispered. “Now some string…”
The door opened. His dad came in.
“What are you doing in my shop?” he asked in anger.
He was answered with a cuff around the ear. The conker he slipped in his pocket as he regained his balance.
“I was looking to see what needed finishing up.” Alf said.
“Don’t get cheeky with me, boy,” he said.
“No sir. Wouldn’t think of it, sir,” said Alf standing straight with his hands behind him, fingers crossed.
His dad raised his hand but did not strike him again.
“See it doesn’t happen again,” he said. He hung up his coat and grabbed his apron. “Well, you’re in here. Let’s finish up what we started yesterday.”
The day went by quickly. Alf’s handiwork improved with each job he undertook. His dad looked at him secretly marveling at how good his work had become. It had begun to surpass his own.
In the afternoon his dad turned to him and said, “Why don’t you go meet your mates. You’ve finished up the jobs I had. I’ll deliver them. You go on, now. We’ll have more to do in the morning.”
“Are you sure, dad?” Alf asked flinging the apron over the chair back.
“Aye, I’m sure,” he said a faint smile on his lips.
There was no reason to ask twice. Alf grabbed his coat on the way out. He ran to the tree where his friends were standing under the largest limb. Walking up behind them he heard a loud crack.
“Bloody hell!” shouted Bob. He stood with a string dangling. The conker was a couple of feet away cracked into two pieces.
“Hard luck,” said the boy with the winning nut. “That makes mine a tenner.”
“Who says?” asked Alf.
The boy jumped.
“Who are you and what you mean sneakin’ up on me like that?”
“Didn’t sneak up. Just arrived. Who says yours is a tenner? I don’t know you so how do I know if it’s true.”
“I said it’s true,” said the new boy straightening his shoulders. He was a couple of inches taller than Alf. He raised up on his toes to be even taller. His face was a scowl.
Alf stood his ground.
“You callin’ me a liar?” the boy asked inching up on his toes.
“All I’m asking is who did you beat to become a tenner?” He leaned into the taller boy.
“You want to try to beat me?” said the boy.
Alf looked at the end of his string.
“I don’t believe that shriveled up thing is a tenner. It wouldn’t be worth my while to shatter it. I wouldn’t know how many wins I could claim but certainly no tenner.”
The boy dropped his string and swung at Alf.
Alf ducked and brought his fist up into the boy’s belly. As his opponent doubled over Alf hit him with a right. The boy fell flat his eyes rolled up into his head.
“Oh now you’ve done it,” said Bob.
“He’ll wake up,” said Alf.
“No, I mean there,” Bob said pointing to the road.
Alf’s mother was marching across the grass straight for him. Her stern look told him he was in for it.
As soon as she reached him she grabbed him by the ear. Bob had run. The stranger on the ground was sitting up shaking his head. He realized what was happening and laughed out loud.
“Yer mum had to come gitcha, huh?”
Alf tried to look back with menace but his mother’s grip was tight bending his ear in the direction of home.
“How many times have I told you about fighting? You are going to get a hiding you’ll remember for a long time.”
She held his ear tightly the entire way home. When they got to the house she went in still leading him by the ear.
“You stand there while I find a switch.” She left the room and came back with a doweling rod.
“Bend over that chair,” she said. He complied preparing himself for the first swat. It came with swift severity followed by nine others. He didn’t make a sound but the tears were streaming down his face when she stopped.
“Now maybe you will remember how I feel about you fighting,” she said as harshly as she could. “I let you off light this time but don’t let me catch you ever again or it will be even worse.”
Alf straightened up rubbing his backside. His snuffling angered her more.
“One more and I’ll have you leaning over that chair again.” Her face was set with grim determination.
Alf wiped his eyes. He allowed his nose to run.
“May I be excused now?” His face was red and wet but he was determined not to sniff again.
“Yes. Be certain you think on this.”
“Yes ma’am. I won’t fight again. Now may I go?”
“Get out of my sight!” she yelled at him.
He ran upstairs. In his room he lay across his bed upon his stomach. There he fell asleep until morning.
Saturday he stood while helping his dad in the work shop. He remained quiet the entire day.
“You did a good day’s work, boy,” said his dad.
“Thank you, sir,” answered Alf.
“I think you ought to go out and see your mates,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.” Alf slowly rose, removed his apron and grabbed his coat off the chair beside him. He felt for his conker in the pocket. It was there in its hugeness. It brought a smile to his face.
He walked around the house. As he rounded the corner there directly in front of his house was the boy he had KO’ed the day before. He stood at the gate with three of his friends none of whom Alf knew.
“There he is. His mummie had to come rescue him yesterday.” His words made his friends laugh.
Alf’s hands were tightening into fists when he heard a tapping on the window of his house. He turned to look. There was his mother shaking her finger at him, her mouth pursed and her brow darkly weighing on angry eyes.
He looked at her then looked at the boys who were moving quickly toward him. He received the first blow to his right eye. Several fists hit him in his midsection. He doubled over as a right came toward him. He ducked from that into a second fist which cracked his nose. As he fell to the ground several more fists from all directions pounded on him. Alf’s hands remained unclenched as he hit the grass. The lights went out for him.
He woke in his bed. He tried to move but his body was one mass of pain. Mercifully he fell asleep.
That morning his mother had gone to the grocer’s. Alf was awakened by his dad.
“Get up, boy,” he commanded.
Alf slowly rose holding his side.
“Get dressed,” he ordered. “I want to talk to you downstairs.”
Alf nodded gathering his clothes to dress.
When he got downstairs his dad was waiting for him. His fist caught Alf on the jaw. It lifted him up and over the couch.
“I saw you outside yesterday. You didn’t stand up to those boys once. You didn’t raise a hand to them. You just let them beat you silly. I’m going to tell you once again that I expect you to fight when the time comes. You don’t back off from a fight. You go at them. I’ve told you over and over that size doesn’t matter. The bigger they are, the harder they fall. You understand, boy?”
He stood with his fist clenched as Alf pulled himself up by grabbing the back of the couch.
“Yes sir but…”
“I don’t want any buts from you. If I ever see you allow someone to beat you like that again. I will let you have it.”
“Now go get some breakfast. We have a lot of work to do.”
There were boots and shoes enough lined up for repair to keep them both busy until the sun went below the horizon.
Alf’s soreness eased up over the day. The next day was a repeat of the last. Then halfway through the third day his dad put his tools aside.
“How do you feel today, son?” He asked looking his son in the eye.
“I’m doing better,” answered Alf.
“Good because you and I are going to take a little stroll.” He gathered his coat and hat then tossed Alf his.
“Think your mates are over at the conker tree?” he asked as they slipped past the house without being seen by his mother.
“Yes sir,” Alf answered. This did not bode well.
“Good. Let’s you and me find out.” He stepped a little more lively. Alf had to run to keep up. As they approached the tree the boys were cracking conkers and laughing uproariously.
His dad stopped and pointed at the group.
“Aren’t those the boys who laid into you in front of the house? Speak up, boy.”
His eyes bored into him.
“Uh..yes sir. That’s them.” Alf replied.
“Go teach them a lesson, boy. I’ll wait right here.”
Alf wanted to run away but his father’s anger would be too much to deal with. It was easier to go challenge the boys who had left him on the ground.
He slowly walked toward the group. One of the boys looked his way and pointed for the others to look. Smiles flashed across their faces.
“I have come to set things right,” said Alf. “I’ll take each of you on one at the time.”
“Why should we fight with you? We’ve already proved you are a sissy that won’t fight back,” said the big one.
“Try me.” Alf stood still waving him in.
“If that’s what you want,” he said. He ran at Alf fists flying. They met air but his jaw took a left which put him in the dirt immediately.
“Who’s next?” Alf challenged.
Another came running. He stopped to look down at his friend who wasn’t moving.
“You scrawny…” he yelled taking a swing. Alf weaved out of the way then brought his right into the boy’s midsection. A left cross took him out of the action.
The remaining two looked at each other. They nodded then charged in unison. One jumped to grab Alf but he side stepped him while slamming his left into the second’s gut taking his wind. Alf turned as he struggled for breath just in time to see the first’s right circling for his jaw. Alf deflected his swing then jabbed him in the nose bringing blood and a scream.
When Alf turned to finish the last boy he saw nothing of him but his back disappearing behind the tree. It was over in minutes.
His dad waved him over. He stepped over the two boys still flat on the ground. He had been untouched by any of them. It was a marvelous feeling but he would not let it show as he walked over to his father.
“Well done, boy.”
That was all he said as they walked side by side back home.
“I think you ought to take tomorrow off,” said his dad opening the front door. “We are caught up. I might just go to the boot fair in Sandwich. Care to come?” He looked down at his son.
“No sir. I have a conker that I want to try out.”
The next morning his dad drove to Sandwich. Alf entered the work shed. He found a nice heavy piece of string to thread through the hole in his conker. When he had finished tying off the heavy duty knot he slipped it into his pocket then looked around the shop for a few minutes. In the corner he found a can of paraffin which he took down and opened. The vapors rose heavy as he sprinkled it around the shop. He laid a trail up to the door. He replaced the top and put the can back on the shelf. He opened the door and stood for a moment looking at everything that had become so familiar. When he was satisfied he removed a box of matches from his jacket. He took one out. It spurted flame when he struck it. The flame took and began burning steadily at which time he dropped it onto the trail of paraffin. With a whoosh the fire flared and followed the trail lighting everything in its path.
Alf smiled. He closed the door. He moved with stealth in case the neighbors were looking in that direction. He was around front and halfway down the road before the fire was noticeable.
He wasn’t home when his folks came back from Sandwich. He had walked into the throng of boys and challenged all comers. He became the champion of the neighborhood. He had a true tenner that nobody could dispute.
“Lemme have a go,” said the big kid he had laid out the day before.“Why not?” said Alf. “I’m on fire today
Sunday, April 13, 2014
He was awakened by a bird’s song welcoming the dawn. Opening his eyes he saw the morning’s purple shades slowly lightening. That bird was joined by others filling the morning air with a joyous song that made his heart beat with happiness. He smiled as the disc of the sun broke the horizon filling the sky with blue broken by orange clouds. The cool of the night gave way to the warmth of light spreading along the rocky ground. It was a morning like no other he had experienced as the world around him burst into life.
What a difference from just two days before, he thought.
His bed had been the rocky ground just off the path leading out of town. A flat rock had been his pillow; his mattress the broken-rock covered sand.
Why am I sleeping here? The thought slipped into his mind. Ah, now I remember.
Last evening there had come a storm like no other he had known in his ten years. It was as if the heavens had been at war with the earth. A deep and terrible darkness had covered the land. The weight of the air oppressed every living thing as darkness shut out all vestige of the sun. It was rumored that graves had opened and spirits had been released into that darkness. Their swirling presence in the area had driven many mad with fear. There was even talk that the veil of the temple had been ripped asunder. Everyone ran to their homes desperately seeking shelter from the evil in the darkness.
His father, in fear and anger, had gone straight to the wine. He drank in excess all the while ranting about the preacher.
“He was supposed to end this oppression!” he screamed at his wife. “He was the messiah, they said!”
His anger spilled over into his family. Joshua’s mother received the back of his hand when she tried to pry the wine from his fingers.
“Get away, woman!” he screamed. He slapped her to the floor. Her hands rose over her face to ward off any further beating. He ignored her as his words bit through the air.
“The messiah be damned! He’s just another criminal tacked to a cross for the public to heap abuse up. How could we have been so foolish as to believe?”
The man’s ten year old son, Joshua, cowered behind a table in the corner as his dad looked around for someone else to bully.
While hiding in the corner, Joshua thought back to the week before. He had been in the crowd that rejoiced at the city gate. Palm branches waved in the air held by men and women yelling,
“HOSANNA! ALLELUIA! KING OF KINGS! PRINCE OF PEACE! MESSIAH!”
People lined up in front of the man sitting on a small donkey as it edged through the crowd at the city gate. They lay palm branches in the road along with their coats and garments to soften the path of the animal bearing such a sacred burden.
He remembered how the excitement in the air was so intense that Roman soldiers began to gather in groups for fear a riot might ensue.
The man in white looked out over the crowd smiling upon them. Many rushed just to touch this white garment. The twelve men behind him quickly came to his rescue pushing them aside. He said something to them. His words were lost in the din of the crowd but not to his followers. They bowed slightly and returned to their place behind the donkey. The crowds were growing. The palm branches held aloft wafted currents of air which warded off the heat of the afternoon. His path was littered with them as he rode past, the crowd moving with his progress.
Joshua stayed behind as the crush of the crowd was a struggle for one so small. His face was lit with a smile, however, because the man riding atop the donkey had looked directly at him. His face glowed with an unearthly light that seemed to settle on Joshua filling him with a joy he had never experienced. It had left him entranced.
What a day it had been. The excitement had been overwhelming. Upon his arrival home his father had met him at the door sweeping him up and around as he danced to an inner happiness. He had never seen his father in such a state of mind. His father had always been a man of even temperament. His daily job of wood working kept him busy all the hours of light and often into the night. He had made a good income selling crosses to the Roman oppressors. He hated them as all the Jews hated them but he was very happy to accept their money for his handiwork.
“These crosses bear the scum of the earth,” he said to his family often enough. “Why shouldn’t I profit from the death of criminals? They are justly punished in the Roman court of laws. I am happy to provide the means of execution for the scum of the earth.”
Joshua agreed with him in light of his understanding of life around him. His father was the wisest of men. His principles were becoming his son’s as is natural. Yet, his father never seemed to be a happy man. His enjoyment of life came from the wine skin he brought home each evening. It was a hard life but this old man had come to terms with the difficulties he bore with the help of the fermented grape.
On this night after the preacher had entered the city gate to praises never heard before, his father was a jubilant man celebrating life to its maximum without the smell of wine on his breath.
“Joshua! Joshua!” He sang. “The day has come! Our life will be filled with milk and honey! Our oppression is over. No more crosses will I make. No more punishments will be meted out! The world is going to change. The messiah has come. He has come upon a donkey through the front gate. God has answered our prayers!” He danced around singing with Joshua aloft in his hands. The continual movement began to upset his stomach and he asked to be put down.
“Certainly my boy!” he said dropping him to the earth floor. Then he grabbed his wife whose smile was the biggest the boy had ever seen. The night continued with celebration into the wee hours.
His father and mother had never been happier. However, that night’s joy faded as one day followed another. The week wore on without the trumpets from above. The Romans were not swept aside. Daily life plodded on and the leaders of Jews began to question this man about his status. No, the week bore no overthrow of the oppressors. The week continued with the Jewish leaders questions. They began to debunk the claims the people had bestowed upon this young man entering by the front gate. The doubts about his being the messiah grew daily amongst general population. The preacher did not call the people to take arms for rebellion. No, he spoke to the people in a quiet voice extolling love, not only of one’s neighbor but of one’s enemies as well.
Is it any wonder the people who had welcomed him as the messiah began to turn on him? The hopes he had come to fulfill were slowly dashed into the dirt. The oppression of the army became more threatening. The dreams of the people once again ruling vanished. The feeling of exultation dwindled. The leaders brought the peoples’ expectations back to earth by showing this itinerant preacher to be just a man, a man like any other man. With that revelation the hatred of the people began to grow. There is no hatred as strong as love grown sour. The love they had gladly poured out on him for the promise he offered simply vanished in that week. There was an ominous cloud gathering. Only a few believed now. Those few wept when he was arrested. The majority felt it was deserved simply because he did not meet their vision of him
They watched him as he appeared before Pilate. They shouted, “Give us Barabbas!” when Pilate offered them a choice. Then they shouted, “Crucify him!” when Pilate asked what should be done with Jesus who called himself King of the Jews.
Thus, the week that had begun with such jubilation as the country had not seen since David ruled came to an end.
That was yesterday when the earth seemed to punctuate the entire week with an end more spectacular than anything witnessed by anyone of this generation. The elements had been the back drop to his father’s drunken anger. An anger that frightened Joshua so much he had fled into the night. He stayed away, fearing his father’s wrath, for more than two days. He knew his mother would be worried but he had done it before when the nights had been filled with too much wine. His father’s drinking had been bad often but none as bad as this. His father had never been so bitter about life. To escape the boy fled into the night.
He awoke to a morning so wonderful that he took his time rising from his bruising rock strewn bed. The light was more luminescent than he’d seen before. The air was purer in some way as he breathed deeply. The plant life amongst the broken boulders was more lush. The sound of birds was more exotic. Insects buzzing seemed to exude joy into the warm air. The newly awakening day seemed completely alive. It filled his heart to bursting.
He began to walk just to be a part of everything around him. A palm branch lay in the dust its fronds were brown since it was cut the week before. Still, he picked it up and waved it whispering to himself, hosanna, hosanna. He was caught up in the memory of the triumphal entry into Jerusalem. It didn’t matter what his father thought. His memory was of a heart bursting with joy and the man on the donkey smiling at him.
He continued along waving the palm branch and whispering hosanna. Behind him the clatter of sandals pounded toward him. He turned to see the cause of the noise when the man running pushed him aside.
“Mind, boy,” the man shouted. Joshua stumbled when a second man ran quickly behind the first.
“Move, boy!” he shouted. They both disappeared as quickly as they had appeared.
Joshua got up still holding his branch. He looked after the two men.
“What was their hurry?” he asked himself.
His thoughts were interrupted by terrible sounds up ahead beyond that big rock. He ran to it. Peeking around it he saw a group of boys beating a small lamb that must have strayed. Its bleating was answered by the boys’ curses as they pounded it with clubs they wielded. It was covered in its own blood. Falling onto its side it bleated one last. The boys continued to beat on it with their clubs until their fun was ended. One of them kicked the poor creature to see if there was life in it. Satisfied, they began to walk away. The last boy gave one final blow to the lifeless form.
When they were out of sight, Joshua ran over to the dead creature. He began to cry over this lifeless thing. To see a life extinguished so brutally was too much for him. Tears came in answer to all the hurt and pain he himself had suffered over the prior week. As he wept a shadow fell over him. It wasn’t like any other shadow he had seen. It appeared to exude a light richer than that around him. Surrounding the shadow was a preternatural brightness which made him look up.
Above him stood the man who had ridden through the gate on the donkey.
Joshua was startled. This was the man who had been nailed to one of this father’s crosses. He had died on that cross. It had been on everyone’s lips that he had died just as the storm blew across the country.
“Fear not, little one,” said the man.
“Are you a ghost?” asked Joshua.
“I am nothing you should fear, my son.”
The boy settled down inside then glanced at the dead lamb on the road.
“Some boys killed it for no other reason other than meanness.” His words mingled with his tears.
The figure stooped beside the boy. He placed his hand on his shoulder. From this hand Joshua felt warmth filling him with the joy he had known while watching this man, who had been crucified, entering the gate to such worship as the city had not given in centuries. He had been crucified but here he was beside him speaking to him.
“Your tears show a tender heart, young one. That is what one must have to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I saw that in you upon our first encounter.”
Not knowing what to say he blurted out,
“Is there anything that can be done for this poor lamb? I know he is dead but so were you, weren’t you? You must know the secret to restoring life.”
“You are wise beyond your years, lad. If you pray for him and believe then, yes, something can be done.” The man placed his hand on the creature as the boy closed his eyes and prayed.
“Will God hear my prayer?” he asked opening his eyes. He was alone with the body of the sheep.
Joshua stood frantically looking around but saw no one. At his feet the lamb shook its head. It gathered its feet beneath and stood. He looked into the eyes of the lamb but saw only a bewildered creature blinking back at him. The boy fell to his knees and embraced the small fleecy animal. His tears rolled from his eyes and he smiled.
Monday, April 7, 2014
“Hey, Rickey. How was your first day at school?” asked my mother. She had just walked in. I looked at the clock. It was 4:30.
“Hey, mom. It started out alright.” I had that look she was used to.
“Yes?” She said coaxing me along.
I put the book down on the table and looked directly at her.
“All my classes seemed OK until we got to English class after lunch. I was pretty happy about them, til English.”
“What happened in English?” Still coaxing.
“Well, we got this new teacher. I really don’t like her. She lectured us on how we all needed to study hard in her class because she had mapped out a year that will make us ready for any college.”
“That’s good isn’t it?” Mom asked. She took off her coat, draped it on a hangar and placed it in the closet. I still wasn’t responding quickly enough so she continued. “Isn’t it?”
“Yeah, I guess so but she sounds mean. She isn’t going to make it easy. She made that clear. Lot’s of essays and themes and a couple of major papers. Plus she said she loves discussion questions on tests.”
“She sounds like she wants all of you to learn. I think that’s a good thing.” She had gone to the kitchen and begun to rummage around in the pots and pans.
“Well, I really can’t stand her. I don’t like her attitude.” My lips poked out into a pout as I thought of all the studying this course was going to put me through. This was my senior year. It was supposed to be the easiest of them all.
“You know, Rickey, every year there is one teacher that you decide you really don’t like. Then by the middle of the year you can’t praise that teacher enough. Usually it’s the one that makes you think.”
“It certainly won’t happen with this one,” I growled.
“Wait and see,” said my mother. “Wait and see.” She was smiling when I looked up from my gloom.
“Not this time,” I said with determination.
The next day I dragged my feet into HER class and slumped down in my chair near the back. I looked up on the board where SHE had written an assignment. There was a list of titles. We were to choose one, it read, for our Term paper due in December.
SHE was sitting at her desk fiddling with papers. SHE would look up occasionally, smile and nod at another straggler coming through the door. The bell had rung a while back.
SHE stood as the last person came in to find the last seat available.
“Close the door behind you,” SHE said.
SHE came from behind her desk. SHE walked in front of it. SHE stood for a moment looking around at the faces in front of her. SHE wore a plaid skirt, white blouse and a green knit sweater that buttoned up the front. My eyes glanced down to her legs which were covered in stockings with thick stripes of differing colors. None of the other teachers dress like that, I was thinking. SHE began to speak.
“I think all of you are a little intimidated by my expectations of you.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Already you are telling us to pick a term paper topic.”
She zeroed in on me.
“And your name, please?” SHE demanded.
“Rick Croucher,” I said. Lingering after that statement was an implied, what’re you going to do about it.
“Yes I did, Mr. Croucher,” SHE responded. “And for a very good reason.”
“Yeah?” I interjected.
“Yes.” SHE returned my attitude. “I want each of you to pick one of the topics on the board and begin your research as soon as possible. Too many times students leave these papers until the last minute and it shows. I want your full attention on it. I want your best work in this paper since it is going to be one-third of your semester grade.”
The entire class broke into light hysteria.
“A third?” shouted a voice from the back of the room.
“Yes. One-third. When you go to college you will need the writing skills I want to instill in you.” SHE smiled. I saw the devil smiling at me.
“But some of us aren’t going to college.” That voice in the back of the room shot back at her.
The devil’s grin left her face as SHE spoke over the din that was rising.
“Alright! Quiet down! Whether you go or not is up to you. If you are in this class you are going to be prepared. If you don’t want to be involved in this class there are other English classes into which you may transfer. If that is your wish you may leave my class now and head up to the office. They will do what they can for you. As for this class, you will be studying hard and you will be a much better writer by the end of your senior year.”
Several students gathered their books and left.
“Shut the door behind you, please,” SHE said to the last one. SHE watched him as he pulled it closed. The slam of the door sealed the rest of us in with HER.
“Ma’am?” My Southern breeding came to the rescue as I was cursing inside.
“Aren’t you going to leave with your other classmates?”
“I have to stay. I’m going to college.” I slid down in my chair giving her a rebellious look.
“Ah.” SHE said. “I guess we are stuck with each other.”
“I guess so,” I said in my churlish manner.
“Yes,” SHE said looking down her nose at me.
SHE went on to explain what SHE was expecting from this class.
“My tests will consist of Essay questions mostly. Some True and False or multiple choice questions may be a part but mostly Essay. I will require several Theme papers in addition to the main Term papers. The themes can be subjects entirely of your own choosing and at least three to five pages long.”
I threw my pen on my notebook. SHE arched her eyebrow at me then turned to the board.
“These are your topics for term papers. Choose something that will capture your imagination. I want meticulous notes on three by five cards. These notes will help you flesh out your ideas. In two months I want to review those cards to see if you are on the right track. When you write the paper I want footnotes to show your sources. I do not want a plagiarized paper. I want your thoughts and yours alone when you have finished. Everything you draw from your sources is to be used in your determining your own ideas about what it means as a whole. Is all of this clear?” SHE asked as SHE turned to view the class.
“What do you mean you want to see our note cards?” I spat out.
“Ah, Mr. Croucher. I would think that would be obvious to you. You take your notes on the aforementioned three by fives. When you have a stack of them, you bring to me one day in class and we review them together. I will tell you if you are on track or not.”
“Seems kind of stupid to me.” My attitude blazed out.
“Yes, I’m sure it does. To you. Be that as it may, it will be a part of your grade for the semester. It will prepare you for the second semester Term paper. So I would make a real attempt here if you plan to pass.” SHE dismissed me with a slight toss of the head.
I sat smoldering and watching the clock. When would this hell class be over.
SHE continued her droning on as I doodled on my notebook. Finally the bell rang. I gathered my books, jumped up and ran out without a backward glance.
“…if you plan to pass…” Those words continued on a loop through my brain.
I walked to my mother’s car to the side of the classes. One of the other guys from class approached me.
“What do you think of the new teacher?” he asked.
“I think she should go back where she came from. I really can’t stand her.”
“It sounds like she will be good for anyone planning to go to college. I hear they make you write a lot of papers in college.”
“Yeah, I expect that in college, but not our senior year. It’s supposed to be a crip year. We’re Senior’s for goodness sake. We’re supposed to be having fun. Not taking up valuable fun time with work outside class.”
“I like her,” he said. “She ain’t hard to look at neither.”
I jumped into the tancan. I had to pick my mother up from work so I headed that way. I found a parking space just outside the back door. While I waited I looked at the list of topics I had copied from the board. Some of them sounded OK. There was a tap on the window which turned out to be mom. I reached over to unlock the door. She got in.
“Well? How did it go?” she asked.
“How did what go?”
“English, with the new teacher you hate.”
“I still hate her. She singled me out in class and then had the audacity to tell me I better straighten up if I want to pass.”
“What did you do?” She looked concerned.
“Nothin’” I said sheepishly.
“Does she still seem so bad?”
“Yes, she does. Already she’s got us picking out term paper topics. It isn’t due until December but she’s got us picking out topics AND on top of that we have to fill out cards that SHE HAS to check in two months.”
“Sounds like she will be good.”
“I don’t want to talk about HER anymore.” My mother was used to my tone and just smiled at my petulance.
I whipped through my homework that evening. There wasn’t much on the TV so I went to my room and closed the door. The list was on top of my notebook. I picked it up again. An author caught my eye. I decided to give that one a go since there was no way out of the assignment.
Each day I walked into HER class planning to hate every moment. SHE had brought in a record player the next time I actually listened to HER. I had missed the introduction but was glad to hear something besides HER droning on. My English book was open to the right page but I hadn’t read it because it was gibberish, some kind of original English that sounded like a foreign language and of absolutely no use to me.
“Now listen closely,” SHE said. I looked up as SHE deftly placed the needle on the first groove.
“Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages); “
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
Tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the ram his halve cours yronne,
And smale foweles maken melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open ye
(so priketh hem nature in hir corages); “
And there it was, the gibberish on the page in front of me mellifluously flowing into the air around us. Rich tones wafted across the ear. I closed my eyes as it continued. It made no sense but it certainly sounded like poetry.
The needle was lifted. The sounds ended and SHE began to speak.
“That is how English sounded at that time. Nothing like we are used to.”
“Why do we have to learn it then?” asked a voice in the back.
“Because it is the beginnings of English literature. I will play it again. I want you all to learn the pronunciation so you can repeat it for me. You should be able to feel the merging sounds that make up poetry. Here we go.”
Once again it drifted into the air around us and we were caught up in the sounds. This lady was the first teacher to bring in a record for students to hear.
“Now, let’s try to repeat those sounds,” SHE said.
The class spoke in unison. I joined in. We made a wreck of the sounds almost from the beginning. The mistakes made some of us laugh and then the entire class began laughing.
SHE was laughing too.
“Quiet down, now,” SHE said. “We don’t want the other classes complaining. Now, let’s try again from the beginning.”
We all smiled and recited once more. It was more fun here than at home trying to make sense of it.
SHE had a translation that brought those ancient words into the present.
“OH!” I shouted. “That’s what it’s about.”
SHE looked over at me and smiled.
The chink in the armor I wore cracked just a bit because I smiled back. When I realized it I returned to my sullen self and looked down at the page. The bell rang announcing the class’ ending. I ran out.
The next day I strolled back into class to see the record player still there. SHE was sitting at her desk checking her attendance record. SHE looked up nodded and checked my name.
“Are we going to listen to more old English?” I asked with a crack of a smile.
“Actually, Mr. Croucher, I brought in some ballads. I thought we’d listen to some of the songs of Chaucer’s time.” SHE looked back at her book to mark another student in.
“In that alien English?” I asked, thinking it funny.
SHE didn’t look up but said, “No, you will recognize what is being said.”
I settled into my seat. Another day of records wasn’t a bad way to send an hour. At least we weren’t discussing another passage in a musty old English book.
The class settled in after the bell rang. All eyes faced front. SHE got up from HER chair. Picking up an album SHE proceeded to the record player.
“Today we listen to Old English ballads as sung by troudadours of ye oldee times.”
Everyone chuckled. I smiled. SHE placed the needle on the record. We listened to ballads for an hour. Barbry Allen stuck in my head from that day to this, it being my favorite of that day. My attitude toward this class began to soften from that moment. I was beginning to see that learning could be fun.
“Thank you, Ms. Smithwick,” I said as I passed her desk. “I enjoyed that.”
“I’m glad you did, Mr. Croucher.” She turned to another student who was thanking her.
I looked back as I turned at the door to see her looking at me with a bit of a smile on her face.
The corridor was packed with students headed to their next class. I slipped through the crowd heading to the car.
“That was really a good class,” said my buddy who had asked me for a ride home.
“Yeah, it was. Maybe she isn’t so bad after all.”
“I know she ain’t bad to look at. She always makes me feel like I’m her only student.”
We got into the car. I took him home then went to pick up my mother.
“Well?” asked my mother as she sat in the passenger’s side.
I knew what she meant.
“It wasn’t so bad today. She brought I some records and we listened. You gotta hear one of those songs. It’s called Barbry Allen. I think you would like it.”
My mother smiled at me. She had known all along that this teacher would be my favorite before the year ended.
The next day when I walked through the door she looked up with a smile on her face.
“Mr. Croucher, have you picked your Term paper topic?”
“I’m thinking about writing on Thomas Hardy,” I responded dropping my books on my desk.
“Thomas Hardy?” She pondered a while. “I can see that. However he is a very depressing writer. With your morose inclination he might not be the best choice for you. Would you like to think a little while longer on your topic?”
“NO! Ma’am,” I spouted out before thinking. “I chose my topic. I’ll stick with it.”
“Your choice then.”
‘Yes ma’am,” I said with a smile.
As the year wore on our teacher-student relationship improved slowly.
AS class was almost over near the holidays we were gathered in front of her desk talking about our plans for the Christmas holiday. The kids began to slip into the hallway preparing to leave for the weekend. She asked me to stay behind.
“Yes ma’am,” I said in my best Southern manner.
“I just wanted to say that I’ve looked over your term paper and found it surprisingly good.”
“Yes, I am. To betruthful, I thought you would be one of my dimmer lights. You had such an attitude when you first came into my class that I thought you were lacking somewhat in intelligence.”
In the beginning, SHE had divided her students into two categories, “flickering candles” and “brightly shining lights.” Obviously I had been seen as a flickering candle.
“Yes’m, I guess I was a little rebellious. I never had to work in a class before. They were all easy. You were the first teacher who ever made me dig for my education.”
“A little rebellious? That chip on your shoulder was practically a boulder.”
“Yes’m. I’m not sure when I lost it but I guess I did. I believe this class is the most enjoyable of all my classes.”
“That’s flattering, Rickey. I’m glad you have blossomed into one of my shining lights. I’m glad I didn’t give up on you.”
“So am I. I really couldn’t stand coming to this class for the longest time. Now, I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Thank you, Rickey. I hope you have a very Merry Christmas this year. I believe all of you students are the best Christmas gift I could have ever had.”
I blushed and wished her a Merry Christmas too.
It has been fifty years since that year in English has been over. SHE has probably been the most important influences on my life. I know SHE has always been in my heart and spirit. I saw her this last weekend and she is still as vibrant and beautiful as she was all those years ago. We all loved her. We all love her.
Our Senior English teacher at JIHS Class of ’64, Mrs. Smithwick who is now Mrs. Cone but we finally feel comfortable enough to call her Sally Lee, the best English teacher a student ever had.