He lurked out in the hall as we all took our seats and came to order. He took a drink from the water fountain, putting down what looked like a new briefcase as he did so. He picked up the briefcase and made for the door, then turned and walked back to the fountain, putting his briefcase down as he took another drink. He started for the door again. Changed his mind and returned for another drink. Then he squared his shoulders, picked up his case, re-rounded his shoulders and entered the room.
He was a little mole of a man—sniffy and hunched with scrunched-up eyes behind thick glasses. When he entered the classroom, he looked straight down at the floor, as though he wasn’t sure one foot would follow the other without great attention. He maneuvered his way to his desk and stood with his back to us. He slammed his briefcase onto the desk, then removed it again, as though in indecision over whether he really wanted to stay at all. Then he slammed it down again. Removed it. Slammed it down.
Finally, he moved around to face us and assumed a more teacherly demeanor. He actually looked at someone in the front row for two seconds, before retreating back around to the back side of the desk, perhaps seeking some protection.
It was the first day of my freshman year in college. Next to me was a very new friend who not only lived in the same dorm but who also had just pledged the same sorority. We sported our bug-like black pledge pins on the fronts of our sweaters, a hand’s distance above the nipple, as we’d been instructed to wear them. It was a bit like being in enemy territory, for we had already learned that the English department and the dormitories were not the best places to display our new status as Greeks so openly. Our sitting together was a bit like circling the wagons on a westward journey. We had each others’ backs.
“My name is Mr. Cole,” the dwarf said. “This is the honors section of Freshman English 101.” He had facial ticks and a way of floating off into dreams. Sometimes the end of a sentence just sort of wandered off, as though some other matter of greater importance had intruded upon his thoughts. We did not disturb him in these reveries. My new friend Linda and I would exchange looks and she would giggle the sexy little laugh that was her only laugh. We both admitted, finally, to having a bit of a crush on him.
It was my first of many crushes on “different” men. Men who had facial ticks or personality disorders that made others look on in horror or disgust just seemed to intrigue me, and my new friend was someone who gave validity to my strange behavior. She, too, thought he was intriguing. When we invited him to be a faculty chaperone for our pledge dance, he asked if he would be expected to function in the capacity of a bouncer and I assured him that no, it was more of an honorary position. To our surprise, he accepted, showing up with a tall willowy English department assistant who seemed herself to be of a literary bent. I don’t remember if they danced, but I believe they dated for the rest of my college career.
You can see by my relation of these details how little I really knew about this man. On that first day in Freshman English, I remember being frightened and feeling inferior to the big town kids in the class. If the truth were told, most of them were probably small town kids themselves, but coming from a town of 700, I thought of a town of 6,000 as a city , and I was sure that my own excellent academic record was more a result of comparison (there were 15 in my graduating class) than of true prowess. Mr. Cole explained that instead of studying grammar, sentence and paragraph construction, that as honors students we would be expected to write an essay or story a week which would then be read in class and commented upon.
The night before our first writing assignment was due, my insecurity had kept me from committing a single mark to paper. We had been given no topic and no direction. This paper was to function as a sample of where we were on the continuum of writing skills. This was to be my introduction to the strange gnomish man who had studied under Roethke. Although I had no idea who Theodore Roethke was and no easy way of determining who he was in this pre-computer, pre-Google age, I had made one of my rare forays into the college library and found a whole section dedicated to his books in the poetry section. So, I was about to be read by the student of a very important American poet. And, I didn’t know what I was doing, really. Our composition efforts in high school had been for the most part limited to essays and term papers. I’d once written a humorous sonnet about Goldwater and Johnson and that was about it. How did one go about writing a vignette, which as I recall was our assignment? Midnight, one a.m., two a.m. ticked away on the smoking room wall as I sat looking at the blank page.
A fly, brought back to action by the hot light of my study lamp, worried my ear before buzzing off to pin itself to the wall. The smoke of my cigarette curled between us, and suddenly, in a sort of astral projection, I was that fly on the wall getting high on the fumes of a doobie that smoked in the ashtray beneath it. The room was filled with the imaginary bodies of stoned kids splayed out on the floor or with headphones on their heads. I started to write. Forget that I had never smelled or seen marijuana, let alone smoked a joint. It was easier for me to imagine that fly getting high than to imagine myself doing so, but within a half hour, I’d completed the essay, set my alarm clock and had joined the fly in its herbally-induced sleep.
The next day, I placed my own sheet on the pile of papers on his desk. Mr. Cole entered as usual, slamming the briefcase, removing it, slamming, slamming. I had never been introduced to the term “Tourette’s Syndrome,” but many years later I wondered if perhaps this accounted for some of his oddness. He would stand at the desk and crane his neck upwards, roll his eyes. Sometimes he would look at one back corner of the room and then at the other, as though he were privy to some world and audience we had no access to. Seeing a film on Roethke, I wondered if he had patterned some of his odd behavior on his former teacher. This is just a scrap of a remembrance, so perhaps I dreamed it. In this era of YouTube it would not be hard to check out.
Three days later, he was ready to discuss our vignettes. There were many in this class, he revealed, who were able to put words down on paper but who were not writers. There was one student, however, who had portrayed the truth in a way that the others had failed. This student had displayed courage in telling about a part of themselves that no one else had been willing to be vulnerable enough to display. He then read my essay as an example of superior writing to the entire class.
What I felt? Relief, certainly. Pride? Sorry, but yes. I enjoyed being singled out. After the class, other students came up to me saying they would not have had the courage to write the truth like that or to admit they’d smoked pot and applauded my success in exactly expressing what it was like to be stoned. On the way back to the sorority house to do our pledge duties, my friend giggled and admitted she had never smoked pot. “Neither have I,” I confessed, with a sideways grin at her.
I took three classes from Mr. Cole. In Honors Freshman English, I earned an A. When I took creative writing from him a year later, he seemed to have me completely confused with another student who had taken a class from him the semester before. He kept calling me Jenny and commenting on how my writing had improved. The next semester, I took another class from him and in the margin of one of the first poems I wrote for him, he said, “Not quite up to the sudden fine standards you set for yourself last semester!” I knew then that he was still thinking of me as Jenny and was disappointed that I’d returned to my former standards of mediocrity. He’d given me a B+ on the poem. I tried harder for the remainder of my last semester in his class, earned another A and would like to believe I lived up to his expectations. Of Jenny.
We do not always stand out in the memories of those we admire with the same clarity that they stand out in ours. What happened to Mr. Cole, I do not know. As with many in our lives, when his importance in my own life ended, so did his existence. I tried Googling his name once and found nothing, which may mean his own poetry books were published in a pre-computer era. When I Google my own name, there are 209,000 entries listed, probably most having to do with some other combinations of my name, but most of the ones really referring to me have to do with writing. Probably all of those entries deserve a footnote of thanks to Mr. Cole, who was the first to find merit in my words and also the first to be deceived by them.
(You can see a 25-minutes YouTube video on Theodore Roethke here. Other than his reading style, he really doesn’t have much in common with Mr. Cole at all.)
The Prompt: Teacher’s Pet—Write about a teacher who influenced you.