Category Archives: Teacher

Mr. Cole

Mr. Cole

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.

Waiting for the Bell

DSC07814Nine Minutes to Nine–Retablo by Judy Dykstra-Brown ( 5.5 X 7 X 1.25 inches)

Waiting for the Bell

From my upstairs bedroom window, I could see it all:
who got to school early to be first for tether ball,
the teachers driving up the street, avoiding children running
some children in the sandbox, and other children sunning
stretched out on the teeter-totters, waiting for a ride—
their friend the perfect size to balance, still locked up inside
cleaning off the chalkboards and dusting the erasers
with others who’d been tardy, or perhaps desktop-defacers.

We could hear the school bell toll the warning for
just one more bite of Cream of Wheat—no time for any more.
I stood and watched as sisters sprinted out the door.
Going on without me, for I was only four.
I waited then for recess, spread out on the grass
waiting for the hours and minutes just to pass.
Through open windows, I could hear all the teacher voices
quizzing all the children and listening to their choices.

The teacher on piano, the class singing along—
long before my school days, I’d memorized each song.
At 10:15, the bell was rung and big doors thrown out wide—
one hundred children, all at once, released to the outside.
Some ran to claim the swings and slides, or lined up for the games:
choosing sides for “Send ‘Em” by calling out their names.
But the creaking of the swing chains and whoops up on the slide
could not reveal the mysteries of what was sealed inside.

Year after year I watched and listened, storing up the clues
for the day that I could put on my new school shoes.
I’d have my school bag at my side while mother curled my curls
and keep it with me as I ate my breakfast with the girls,
spooning up my Cream of Wheat but listening for the bell
that warned the time was getting short for me to run pell-mell
across the street and up the stairs in brand new skirt and blouse.
I knew which room to look for.  I could see it from my house.

And then perhaps my mom would stand under our big elm tree
and the singing that she listened for would finally include me!

 The Prompt: August Blues—As a kid, were you happy or anxious about going back to school?

Unknowing

 

Wall piece

                       Wood, horsehair, bamboo, Wall Scupture  17″X23″, Judy Dykstra-Brown

BroochBrooch by Judy Dykstra-Brown: Silver, Fossil Ivory,
Ostrich Eggshell and Feathers on Textured Acrylic

The Prompt: Writer’s Block Party—When was the last time you experienced writer’s block? What do you think brought it about — and how did you dig your way out of it?

                                                                   Unknowing

It was in 1986 and I was in a writer’s workshop in L.A. that was run by Jack Grapes. For the past five years, I had been writing daily, studying screenwriting and then poetry and working as a publicist and P.R. assistant for a TV production company. My whole world had become writing after I quit my job as an English teacher and move to CA to do what I had been teaching others to do for the past 10 years. Then, suddenly, I could not think of anything to write.

I had seen this happen before to others of Jack’s workshop participants and he seemed to have an uncanny knack of finding unusual solutions. For one talented writer who was pale and listless under her spiked hair and punk clothes, he prescribed a program of daily exercise and, miraculously, her poetry came alive as she did. But for me, Jack prescribed another remedy. “Do art!” he said. “I forbid you to do any writing at all. Instead, I want you to do art!”

But I wasn’t an artist, I protested. I didn’t know how to do art! Jack continued to insist. He told me to go to the dime store and to buy whatever interested me and to put it together as a collage. And so for a week, this is what I did. I bought a rubber mouse, a block of Morilla paper, acrylic paint, Popsicle sticks and confetti. I glued the mouse and confetti to the Morilla block, constructed a fence around them with the Popsicle sticks and cut out words to surround them that said, “Party mouse wants to come out and play but can’t!”

I broke Jack’s rule and wrote, filling sheets with words that had no logical connections with each other, then cut them up and made sculptures out of the strips of paper. I took the foil lids of empty individual plastic jam and butter containers brought back from a trip to Europe and cut them up, gluing them down along with other strips of words to form three-dimensional shapes, forming other object/word sculptures.

At the end of the week, I believe I had about seven works of what I didn’t think anyone would even loosely call “art.” Jack had told me to bring them in with me; but when I got to his walkup apartment in Hollywood, I left them in the car, embarrassed to show them. There were 25 others in the workshop. Perhaps he’d forget. I should have known better. When it came my turn to present, he asked me if I’d followed his “prescription.” When I admitted I had, he asked where my product was, and soon Bob (a man in the workshop who would in less than a year become my husband) and I were negotiating the stairs, carrying my “sculptures” up to face their first audience. I remember being so embarrassed to show them, but I was as accustomed as everyone else in the workshop to doing exactly what Jack said.

The reaction was the opposite of what I expected. Everyone loved my sculptures. One of the women in the group who had a gallery on Melrose asked if I’d like to have a show at her gallery. I was stunned. No way. I wasn’t an artist! But from that day on, for ten years I did no writing but did only art. I started out gluing found objects on stones, then when I married and moved to northern CA, I studied metalsmithing and papermaking and made my living for the next 13 years exhibiting in galleries and doing craft shows across the country

Ten years later, as the curator of an art center, I staged a show called “The Poet’s Eye/The Artist’s Tongue” that featured art that included words. This was when I started writing again, and I’ve been writing ever since. When I came back to writing, however, it was from an entirely different place—a place of “not knowing.” I wasn’t trying to write according to a preconceived idea of what writing should be, but rather from a place of intuition and what wanted to be written.

By forcing me to do something I knew nothing about, Jack taught me how to do something I knew how to do so well that it stopped me. My expectations were too high for myself. All of the things that happen naturally when one goes down deep in themselves and just writes got dammed up in me when I thought of what they should be instead of just letting them happen. By doing something that I knew nothing about, I learned how to better do something I knew too much about, and I’ve been writing ever since!

Daily Post: The Avid Student

Today’s Prompt:  You can choose any person from history to teach you any topic you want. Who’s your teacher, and what do they teach you?

The Avid Student

Mrs. O’Leary, teach me how
please oh please, to milk a cow.
I won’t leave here till you do.
I’m bored today, and feeling blue.
Yesterday I baked a cake
with that new baker, name of Jake.
It didn’t rise.  It tasted awful.
Couldn’t eat but one small jaw full.
Day before I went to see
Joe the tailor.  Him and me
made a dress of chambray lace
but when I held it near my face
I found it itched me terrible.
To wear it was unbearable.
So I went on to see the preacher.
Wanted him to be my teacher.
But when it came the time to pray,
he found he hadn’t much to say.
I fear that I destroyed his faith.
I left him white as any wraith,
but found the cobbler in a pew
and asked him how to make a shoe.
He’d witnessed what the preacher did
and so he ran away and hid.
So Mrs. O’Leary, it’s up to you
to show me something I can do.
I know it’s dark, but I need right now
to know just how you milk your cow.
I brought a lantern.  I’ll hold it high.
It’s not real light, but we’ll get by.
I’ll just sit on this straw bale.
You fetch the cow and fetch the pail.
I love the way the hot milk steam
swirls around the rising cream.
I love the rhythm and the pomp
of my light squeeze and Bessie’s stomp
whenever I let loose her tit.
I cannot get enough of it!
But now we’re done and I can see
that bucket’s much too much for thee
to lift,  I’ll put the lantern down and
come with thee to give a hand.
I’ll come right back and close the barn.
Tomorrow, I’ll have quite a yarn
for everyone I want to tell
I finally did something well!!!!

For those of you unacquainted with Mrs. O’Leary, I include this description of The Great Chicago Fire of 1871:

“The summer of 1871 was very dry, leaving the ground parched and the wooden city vulnerable. On Sunday evening, October 8, 1871, just after nine o’clock, a fire broke out in the barn behind the home of Patrick and Catherine O’Leary at 13 DeKoven Street. How the fire started is still unknown today, but an O’Leary cow often gets the credit.

The firefighters, exhausted from fighting a large fire the day before, were first sent to the wrong neighborhood. When they finally arrived at the O’Leary’s, they found the fire raging out of control. The blaze quickly spread east and north. Wooden houses, commercial and industrial buildings, and private mansions were all consumed in the blaze.

After two days, rain began to fall. On the morning of October 10, 1871, the fire died out, leaving complete devastation in the heart of the city. At least 300 people were dead, 100,000 people were homeless, and $200 million worth of property was destroyed. The entire central business district of Chicago was leveled. The fire was one of the most spectacular events of the nineteenth century, and it is recognized as a major milestone in the city’s history.”