GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION: Behind the Meal-Musings

My friend of nearly 30 years and fellow retired public school teacher George Frissell and I recently determined (or, more accurately, he forced me) to keep a Facebook journal of our samplings of the the array of mid-Missouri breakfast establishments. We’ve already met each other for breakfast and lunch many times since we were put out to feed, and we also host a concurrently running dining series called “Celebrity Breakfast,” in which we meet poor unfortunates who suffered us both as teachers and try to make up for it by picking up the check–and getting caught up on their progress.

We takes turns picking the joint (or taking requests from our Facebook audience) and picking up the check, meet each other at the crack of dawn (normally), and proceed to carry on like old men shaking our fists at the sky (our long-time theme song is “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train”–enjoy this version by a real desperado). In the interest of helping people new to the series catch up, I’ve decided to create duplicate entries here on my education blog, which puts them all in one place and allows me to slyly hyperlink words and phrases to broaden our audience’s understanding of our ritual shit-shooting. Seriously speaking, George has always been one of my strongest teaching influences as well as a loyal friend, so it’s only fitting that, like my Sancho Panzo to his Don Quixote, I follow him from place to place to make sure he doesn’t forget his jacket.

Boon appetites!

George and Phil and Nicole
My wife Nicole steadying George (left) and me in the halls of Columbia, Missouri’s David H. Hickman High School immediately after we learned we had been retired. As you can tell, we were crestfallen.

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GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 2: Broadway Diner

George did not really give me a choice this time, as he is strangely obsessed with pecan pancakes. Nonetheless, I was happy to visit a restaurant I’ve patronized since it was on the other side of Providence, more frequently in the ’90s–my “Stretch” years, when The Blue Note booked great shows that required culinary reinforcement and discussion afterward. My friend enjoyed his damn pancakes; I got a full order of their “legendary” French toast, the cinnamon tint of which DID justify that adjective. Hoping George would forget it was my turn to buy, I brought Nicole (who also got the damn pancakes), but he actually paid attention to his calendar and forced me to pony up. Our eggs on the side weren’t over-medium–rather, over-uneasy–thus an 8.5-9 rating. Under discussion: George’s minority religion education program (he’s spiritually indefatigable); law enforcement (I’m excited about Geoff Jones’ ascension); “class / club killers,” a school phenomenon identified by our friend Jami Wade that Nicole reminded us about; and the risen-from-the-grave aspect of another restaurant’s employee.

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP 3: JJ’s Cafe

(Thin-skinned snowflakes of all political stripes, read no further. Also, with this entry, I am caught up in the documentation George has threatened me that I must do. You really think he’s non-violent?)

This is one of our favorite breakfast haunts from before our tour, and will continue to be. But it is a unique experience. Should I enter the restaurant with a book (I am almost always carrying), the good ol’ regulars seated at the “big table” stop their discussion cold and look me up and down for signs of my preference; George is from Texas so his aura gets him a pass. Also, George and I once met two fond former students at JJ’s, which may have been the first time an Indian and a South Korean ever set foot on the premises (it was a gently tense situation)–we happily take credit for internationally integrating the restaurant. Upon getting seated, I always interpret the conspicuous sign hanging on the far wall–“Keep Calm and Carry”–as referring to my book or newspaper. Our service is warmly stellar, and one of our favorite servers, Sean, is a Hickman grad who, of course, only remembers George.

ANYWAY, though I am known to be intense, edgy, and demanding, I always make it simple: country-fried steak and pepper gravy, two eggs over-medium (and they purt-near always are), hash browns however they arrive, no toast necessary. George, supposedly the gentle, flexible, accepting, laid-back ’60s survivor, demands “EXTRA CRISPY!” bacon or hash browns…or back they go. My adaptability softens his attack, fortunately for the servers.

Discussion: usually we talk state politics just loudly enough to be heard. Also, Bob Dylan’s old “Theme-Time Radio” shows crept into our chat, and I reminded George that he stood my wife and me up last time (he was dodging the prospect of paying for three). At least he didn’t leave any of his personal items at the table as he seemingly dematerialized upon our having licked our plates!

Based on the number of times we’ve broken fast there, we rate it a 10, and enjoy demonstrating we aren’t interested in division–that is, unless unity ISN’T extra crispy!

JJ’s has free Wi-Fi–but no website…

See you next stop!!!

GEORGE & PHIL’S BREAKFAST MEDITATION, STOP #9: Heuer’s Country Store (“postponed”) / JJ’s Diner (back-up)

I should have been prepared for the unusual when my supposedly laid-back old hippie friend changed our embarkation time from 6:30 to 6:15 to 6:00 over the course of four days (what’s the adverb form of “persnickety”?), which resulted in our near-replication of two classic horror scenes.

Since our trip required the traversing of over one mile, I insisted on driving out to wherever Heuer’s is. Ill-advisedly, I also insisted on immediately initiating a meticulous conversation while traveling 63 North in the pitch-dark and looking for Pinnacles Road. Remember Christopher Walken’s scene in ANNIE HALL? If George had been driving, I wouldn’t be alive to be writing this; since I was driving, we only narrowly escaped a Boone Country Traffic Incident text. Then, at 6:15, we arrived at Heuer’s, advertised as opening at 6, but emanating not a dim, mildly pulsating speck of light. We parked and decided to wait, and, for a few seconds, surveyed in silence the scene, which was dominated by an intensely lifeless cottage set just a ways back from the restaurant–intensely lifeless, that is, but for a single burning, lamplit window. George turned to me and stated, simply, “The Bates Motel.”

In record time, we were ensconced at JJ’s, our old stand-by, a place we claim to have once “internationally integrated” when we met our wonderful former students, Michele Sun and Maya Ramachandran, there for lunch. Apparently still rattled from the wee-ooo-WEEE eerieness of…is it Sturgeon out there?…Frissell 1) THOUGHT he was ordering from the senior menu (he’s not THAT old!), and 2) ACTUALLY ordered from the children’s menu! No, I am not kidding! Look at the pancake pic below! (I don’t ever have to think at JJ’s and thus avoid such eccentric displays: #7, over medium, no toast.) Our regular and wonderful former Kewpie server Sean did not even bat an eye. Of course, George was one of his teachers at Hickman, so why would he have?

Topics of banter: Love vs. Doors (those are bands, not emotional states); murder; NOMADLAND (it’s a great book!) and our own good fortune; Attica Locke (she’s a great writer–with a new book!); connubial splitting (in the dining sense); “cancel culture”; “Can human beings change?” (we have taught for a combined 3/4ths a century so they had better damn well be able to); political shenanigans; and the song “Hey Joe” and its misogynistic plot. Oh yes: and the Providence Bowl–George was sporting a vintage PB tee from the year Hickman won state.

A Supreme Love? (That Might Be Sacrilege)

220px-John_Coltrane_-_A_Love_Supreme

My current excellent crop of freshman writers at Stephens College have a new task: make a case for a musician, act, album, song, video, or music film or documentary. It’s essentially a persuasive paper, but I like to avoid the traditional labels, and we’ve been arguing pop merits in class lately, so it fits. Also, our recent Socratic seminar–focusing on Lana Del Rey’s Norman Fucking Rockwell–indicated that many of them are too comfortable with “like / dislike” to think deeply about whether a work works. Thursday, I arrived to work an hour early having made myself a challenge: write a rough draft yourself, to the exact specs you’ve given them, quickly enough to print them copies to critique. I’m a big fan of modeling skills you want your students to master; I’m not a professional, but after 35 years of teaching, you’d think I could, um, as they say we can’t, do. When I arrived on campus, I still didn’t know what I would write about, but as I took the sidewalk into Dudley Hall, it occurred to me that Nicole and I have a framed copy of Trane’s A Love Supreme in our living room. Out of tens of thousands of records in the house, why that one? So after getting coffee and brown sugar cinnamon PopTarts, I was off to the races. Here’s what I produced, in 45 minutes (still in its rough form, though I did have time to re-read it before class started):

Phil Overeem

English 107

September 19, 2019

“Making a Case” Rough Draft

The Album on the Wall

Should one enter our house through the front door and turn immediately to her right, she would see, hanging from the front wall of our living room, a framed album cover. In fact, inside that cover is the advertised LP, titled A Love Supreme after its lone 33-minute song, a four-part suite composed by jazz tenor saxophonist John Coltrane and performed by Coltrane’s legendary quartet. The black and white album photo that comprises the album cover is of the saxophonist in profile—significantly, looking very serious. In fact, A Love Supreme is very serious music. Elsewhere in my house are approximately 1,726 other albums; that does not count CDs, 45s, 1.5 TB of digital content, and music performance and documentary DVDs. How is it that, of all that musical tonnage, A Love Supreme is the lone piece honored by a place on one of our house’s walls? If one chanced to listen to it, she would very likely understand.

Jazz, though it is one of the few artistic inventions unique to the United States and known by practitioners and admirers as “black classical music,” does not command the attention of many young listeners. However, A Love Supreme is a great starting point for any curious Gen X or millennial listener. Simply put, the musicians—Coltrane, Elvin Jones (drums), McCoy Tyner (piano), and Jimmy Garrison (bass)—would make any list of the greatest performers on each of their instruments since the end of World War II, and likely before. In particular, Coltrane’s driving, searching, intense playing can yank listeners by the lapels into full concentration, and Jones’ stormy playing around (and suggesting of) the beat is one of the most easily identifiable percussion styles in jazz history. A Love Supreme is certainly a peak in each musician’s storied career. In addition, though curious neophytes, after their first sampling of jazz, often wonder whether they have the musical background to “understand” what the musicians are doing, particularly when they are improvising, and particularly in non-vocal jazz, this album only requires the listener to have ears, and to have lived. From the opening meditative sounds—a gong, a questing saxophone phrase, a brief chant of the album title—it is clear that the musicians (and listener) are going on a journey.

What kind of journey? Aside from being an outstanding “first jazz album” for the inquisitive, A Love Supreme stands tall in the annals of general music history as one of the greatest spiritual albums ever made. In his original liner notes for the album, Coltrane explains that the suite is a seeking after, and a paean (or a song of praise) to, God. He does not specify a religious denomination, which is a good thing: the surging emotions (carried by the players’ imaginative exploratory phrases and solos), the extended focus, rising tension, and serene relief represented by the suite’s sections, and the resulting aura of mystery and majesty, should be familiar to anyone who has ever been filled by religious passion and devotion—be she Christian, Hindu, Muslim, Buddhist, Sikh, or First Nations, to name but a few possibilities. The effectiveness with which the composition and the performance mirrors the path of the seeker can arguably overcome the musical persnicketiness of even the most skeptical of audiences, and, even so, can appeal just as strongly to atheists and agnostics, most of whom are no strangers to the search for enlightenment themselves.

A Love Supreme is an aural experience for jazz initiates and spiritual veterans that carries considerable potential for landing in their personal pantheons, but one more aspect strongly commends it to adventurous ears: among the hundreds of thousands of records released since the dawn of the turntable, when it is absorbed by two or more present in the same space, it can be a profound communal moment—and not just a moment, but conceivably the birth of a ritual. Many fans of A Love Supreme whom I happen to know excitedly tell stories of having listened to it with other people, a situation that has heightened significance in the age of headphones and heatedness. Sitting side by side with friends and family, in a candle-lit room emptied of smartphones and other modern distractions, one can be transported from the grinding monotony of this world—wake, eat, work, eat, sleep, rinse, wash, repeat—into a more complex, absorbing, mysterious, and—paradoxically–real one, one that can bind the group together and promote true inquiry and produce epiphanies.

That kind of transport, that kind of bonding, readers, is why A Love Supreme hangs on our living room wall. Thirty years ago, crushed flat by serial romantic disappointments, I’d vowed to become monk-like, and disavow romantic love. I drove to my friend’s house to inform him of my decision; he wasn’t home, but a young lady who was renting a room in his house was. I introduced myself, and as we were chatting, I looked over her shoulder to my friend’s stereo and stack of records. In the stack, I saw a certain LP. I asked her if she’d mind me putting it on—she hadn’t heard it. We still have that actual copy. We have it on CD and mp3, too.

Besides providing my students a copy, after I’d read the best final drafts from their last assignment, I read it aloud. Instantly, I noted the same ol’ bugaboos: convoluted sentences, unnecessary italics, inconsistent voice–they noted them, too (which was the point: if I struggle and it’s OK, then why not them?). I also tried to be Mr. Clever and, as I repeat too often, “stick the landing” on the final sentence; maybe it worked, but most of my students wanted to know more. However, I used the reading as a lesson on “Killing Your Darlings.” I love writing personal narratives, but I forced myself to abjure the story and just make the goddam case.

One student commented: “I want more of your story, and I don’t like the title! What about A Supreme Love?

Me: “Um, well, er…I’ve been married almost 30 years and my wife inspired the essay–but maybe let’s not go that far!”

Anyway, submitted, still rough, for your approval, too.

The Walk-Out

The beginning of my friendship with Shawn was inauspicious. He punched me in the mouth.

Shawn and his older brother Kyle were protecting their turf at the Carthage baseball field. I was about as far from invading it as I could be. Looking back, I imagine my parents had dragged me out there hoping sports would rub off on me by osmosis and distract me from Birds of North America, comic books, and dinosaurs. Perhaps I was a bit too old for those pursuits; one thing’s for certain, though—soft, brown-shoe-clad, uncoordinated, nine, I was no threat to the boys’ diamond kingdom. By the time I’d gotten off my back and the ground, the brothers were gone, their point made all out of proportion to my willingness to understand it.

A couple summers later, I was horrified to learn that, after my dad built us a house out on the rural route, Shawn would be one of my new neighbors. Barely had fear balanced upon my brow when he came in the yard, walked up to me—I was probably looking for interesting insects—and demanded, “Do you want to learn to box?” Based on past experience, that was the last thing I wanted, but I quickly considered my options: being beaten up for sport, or as social punishment? In the ensuing years, I’d learned that Shawn was already involved in Golden Gloves, and the ominous metallic image conjured by the program’s name assured me that escape would not be a choice. I stuttered, “Sure”—and Shawn beamed a grin at me and proceeded to enthusiastically stick-and-move me through some basic steps. I was hesitant to believe it, but it appeared his intentions were…good. I’d thought he wanted to teach me to box so kicking my ass would be more of a challenge, but he seemed sincerely to want me to learn for my own good, and for fun. He was a patient teacher, he was manically hilarious, and he didn’t seem to think I was a pussy. That much of one, anyhow.

The lesson didn’t stick because I didn’t seek out further opportunities to practice them. However, Shawn and I became fast friends anyway. We landed in the same sixth grade homeroom, where we ritually tortured our Baptist minister-cum-teacher Mr. Lawhon. I was not as abashed in the classroom arena as when faced with proving my manly mettle in nature; I enjoyed doing schoolwork so much I did it quickly so I could do what I wanted, and I’d developed a taste for mischief to complement my interest in stegosauruses and Green Lantern / Green Arrow. One day, just before the recess bell was due to ring, Lawhon asked if any of us had questions about the social studies activity we’d just survived. Shawn raised his hand. This act alone stretched my eyebrows to the back of my head: Shawn normally lacked even a molecule of seriousness about his studies. I craned my neck across the room in anticipation of his inquiry.

Lawhon, eyes narrowed, murmured, “Yes, Shawn, what is your question?”

A long squeal of gas, sounding like it was being forcefully expelled from a balloon, followed, then was bisected by the bell—which, among other forces, propelled Shawn out to the playground before the teacher could even sneer one of his frequent idle threats. Nearly in tears and collapsed into laughter at my desk, I was courting disciplinary action myself. That, I thought, was a masterful emission, and over such natural phenomena young friendships are sealed.

Meanwhile, on weekends, as summer cooled into fall, Shawn continued to lure me into neighborhood danger. A few weeks later, he and the even-more-feared-and-a-damn-sight-older Butch Adams showed up at my door to tell me I’d be joining them in a game of sandlot football at Shawn’s house. I didn’t even know how to play football. They simply needed a body, though now I suspect it was yet another stage of Shawn’s altruistic mission to toughen me up—what kid does that for another kid? Five minutes into the game, I blinked my eyes and noticed I’d caught a pass from Shawn. I did not drop it (at this point, I was still literally striking out in kickball at recess). Also, a culvert ran just behind me, and, as I broke the trance brought on by my impossible success, I looked up to see Butch streaking toward me, shoulder aimed at my midsection.

Have you ever gotten the wind knocked out of you? As it turned out, my vain attempts to suck mine back into my lungs and see through the stars spinning in front of my eyes at least took my mind off the pain cycling through my back and neck. I lay sprawled in the ditch, but, again, to my amazement, I hung in there and completed the game. Nobody praised me; nobody even seemed to notice. Somehow that was just right, and, from then on, Shawn never missed a chance to invite me to play. Before long, I was knocking on neighbors’ doors myself, recruiting.

Also, I was growing. Having sprouted to nearly six feet, at 13 I was big enough to do actual damage myself playing football and basketball. I’d taken an odd route to being player, though. As a premature nerd, along with a fascination with zoology, superheroes, and mythology, I’d developed an obsessive interest in sports statistics—that’s just a little hop over from mythology, anyway, isn’t it? Aside from feeling I had no choice but to play (thanks to my father) and barely believing I could survive playing (thanks to Shawn), that I could actually make the statistics I was fixated upon was a temptation I couldn’t resist. I picture this process being reversed for most athletes; they learn to excel at sports, then they get interested in its tantalizing and deceptive numerologies.

Sad to say, the most important statistics during my first two years on the hardwood and gridiron were our won-loss records—put more succinctly, our loss records. We didn’t win a single football game, and in basketball we were little more successful. As players, like any junior high kids, we boasted only the roughest-hewn skills. However, in ninth grade, things changed for us again, and Shawn was right in the middle of those things, as usual. So was I, to my surprise.

We won our first-ever football game, right out of the gate. Our season opened way out of town, in Fayetteville, Arkansas. When we trotted out onto their field, we confronted a marching band and cheerleading squad both of which were bigger than our entire roster. Their football team itself appeared thrice our size—both in number and bulk. They proceeded to run back the opening kickoff and waltzed in for a two-point conversion, and we were down 0-8 with only mere seconds having elapsed. I experienced a bad mythology flashback as I watched their running back spin the pigskin across the end zone: this was a very, very bad omen.

Minutes later, our helmets bowed in prayer after we’d made negative progress on the ensuing kickoff return and quickly dug ourselves into a third-and-27 hole deep in our own territory, I began to contemplate the thin line separating an omen from an actual shootin’-fish-in-a-barrel prediction, and looked across the huddle at Shawn, who happened to be our quarterback. His eyes were mean slits.

“Awright, they’ve been playing us up. We’re going deep to Nathan on a post. That’s not the play call, but that’s what we’re doing. Keep ‘em off my back. ON THREE!”

Shit. He was serious.

Result: 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown. We blew the extra point, but hell—it was now a game. And ol’ Shawn had the stones to just improvise according to what he was seeing.

As we headed back into the locker room at halftime, still down 6-8, the Fayetteville fans—they seriously dwarfed the handful of parents who’d made the trip to see us—rained insults of a nefariously nasty nature down on our heads. “It’s just a ninth-grade football game,” I thought—but I converted the hurt into fuel. Soon after the second-half kickoff, we scored again—Shawn connected with me on a 20-yard pass play to take it down to the one-inch line—made the extra point, went up 13-8, and that, as they say, was all she wrote. I had never before cried from happiness, nor have I since except quite a bit more discreetly at the altar. My tears, though, were for more than just having won a game against pretty imposing odds. They were also from astonishment at our power—a bunch of 14-year-olds determined for themselves that they would win, then won. Or maybe, simply, Shawn did, and sold us on the prospect.

In basketball, a new coach met us for tryouts. In his recent past, he’d been a star guard at Missouri Southern State College, but his court skills weren’t what really made him special. He had charisma, style—a lime-green three-piece “game” suit? Why not?–and great instincts for coaching youngsters. He was the first adult Shawn and I had ever met who talked to us like we were his equals, and entrusted us with serious responsibilities. One might be skeptical of this approach when applied to 14-year-olds, but Shawn had been ready to lead for a while, and spending time in his orbit had caused me to wonder (and fantasize) about my own capabilities. Coach Stevens sensed this, and soon we were both involved in planning strategy with him. He expected me to provide leadership for the starters on defense, on the boards, and in sheer hustle; Shawn was the “captain” of The Blonde Bombers, our mad-dog reserve squad who uncorked lightning nearly every time they touched the court, especially when we were playing at home. Our gym was smaller than regulation; if memory serves, it had to be a good 15 to 20 feet shorter and 10 feet narrower than any other high school’s. After Shawn and the Bombers checked in, spectators might be treated to long-range set shots that, while launched from almost half court, were actually “only” 25 to 30-footers. Shawn would bring the ball across the midcourt line, then, without hesitation, uncork a Steph Curry-like high-archer into the hoop. The Curry comparisons end there, though, as Shawn launched his shots off his shoulder and beside his ear, the action resembling a shot put / slingshot hybrid. We won most of our games, but Stevens surprised us by giving us the reins and encouraging us to have fun, to the extent that we came to expect it.

I didn’t know this then, by a long shot, but I do now: leadership, paired with the belief that one can change one’s circumstances, is pretty dandy in the sports arena, but those qualities are frankly wasted if they’re confined to the circuses which, along with bread (take that how you will), distract us all from the more important crises in our lives. Imagine all those great Greek myths if they had only been sung about athletic competitions. Most high school athletes have to wait for opportunities to test their training in the world outside gyms and off the fields, and often don’t (or won’t) recognize them; Shawn and I were fortunate to be presented one the very next year. Looking back, and considering the nature of our friendship, I am wholly unsurprised we went for it.

 

As sophomores, we both found ourselves splitting time between junior varsity and varsity football duties. As such, Shawn and I were at the bottom of the food chain, though the toughness we’d both developed had spared us some harassment. One thing, though, that made our situation agitating was that the seniors we were encouraged to worship and fear had, as towering freshmen when we were mere scrawny seventh graders, subjected us to routine physical hazing in the hallways, often with teachers (and some of those teachers coaches) laughing if not egging the assaults on. Every morning, when they saw us in the hall, they’d “chip” us: ball their fists, flatten them out, and cudgel our chests with them (stop a second and recall what a seventh grader’s chest tends to look like: it’s already concave). This was different from getting knocked silly into a culvert in a sandlot contest; that had a somewhat larger purpose, at least. This was intimidation based on nothing but being physically bigger and chronologically older—it didn’t necessarily carry with it any talent of which we should have been in awe. Collectively, they also lacked charisma. In our current fraught time, I can imagine some readers saying at this point, “Shoot, schools actually need that kind of ritual today—these kids have no grit!” Well, grit’s a complicated thing in 2019—for example, just going fearlessly to school today is pretty admirable—and I’m simply not one to advocate any kind of abuse, physical or otherwise, having taught young people for 35 years. However, since we’d last had to be in the same space we were all now three years older, the size difference between our two groups had withered, their lack of character (at least among some of them) had become more apparent, and their primacy in all matters including football had become much more difficult to take seriously. But it was reinforced by our coaches, so we had little choice but to swallow our resentment and pretend to look up to them, though we could occasionally work out moments of vengeance in scrimmage. And a scrimmage is what soon presented Shawn and me a worthy door to open.

On a Monday night, we’d traveled a relatively far piece north to play a junior varsity game against a rival. The game was hard-fought, smash-mouth football that required all of our defensive energy, resilience and acumen, and extended into overtime, when we finally prevailed. I can’t recall why, but we stopped at an all-night diner on the way back (why wouldn’t we have eaten before the game?), and didn’t arrive at our houses until well past midnight. Most of us surely weren’t asleep any earlier than two a.m., and school started at 8. None of us were of the inclination (or had the freedom) to skip—after all, the best thing about high school is that’s where everyone is—but at least, surely, we’d not have to scrimmage after school. Surely our coaches understood.

Within seconds of dragging our asses into “the sophomore lounge”—a very dark, squirreled-away, and symbolic section of the school’s bottom floor—we discovered we’d be going full-pads after school against the varsity. Teeth grinding, I turned to Shawn; of course, he was right there. He looked me in the eye and said, “This shit ain’t right.”

It’s not that we couldn’t have taken it. I’m sure we had no doubt we could. But considering what we’d just done on behalf of the team, how we’d done it—old-time football, coach!—and when, as a result of choices that weren’t even ours, we’d finally returned, we didn’t feel respected. You might argue that, as sophomores, it wasn’t our place to be respected. I’d submit that one good thing about leadership, a great internal gumbo of toughness, self- and other-belief, courage, and inspiration, is that it makes it hard to accept one’s place. In this case, we preferred, and chose, not to. We huddled, right there in the bowels of our school, and developed a plan, which Shawn barked out to the passel of JV players who’d gathered by that time in the lounge:

“Alright, we ain’t goin’ to practice tonight. We’ll take whatever punishment they wanna give us, but we’re in the right on this one. We left it on the field last night and they don’t even give a shit. Well, we’ll make ‘em give a shit right here, with this. If any of y’all do go to practice, you’ll have to deal with us, and I think you’d rather deal with the seniors and the coaches than that. Are we together on it?”

Solemnly, determinedly, we were. The rest of the school day was tense, but, together, we kept the plan muted. I remember walking out to my car at 3:00 with my short hairs at attention and chicken-skin rippling up my neck and down my arms: this was real, and I felt more alive than I ever had. My first kiss hadn’t been one-eighth as electric! More important, regardless of what happened next, I already felt vindicated—and respected. At least our coaches had had to acknowledge and answer to our existence.

The turd had hit the proverbial rotary blades when we arrived at school the next morning. A couple coaches were waiting for us in the lounge, and tersely informed us that the seniors would be running practice that afternoon, and that we’d regret it. I recall chuckling (not too loudly); the fear I had of them had diminished, and I even thought to myself, “Oh, so you’re responding to this by taking an afternoon off from your paid coaching job?” Still, the prospect of two hours at the mercy of this particular group of seniors didn’t fill any of us with delight and, in good conscience, we couldn’t ditch again. This was about having made our point and showing up to answer for it. If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t have been right in the first place.

Lord, it was quiet in the locker room that afternoon. Somehow, the upperclassmen had already dressed out, and we could see them over the berm looming and glowering on the practice field as we filed in. When we re-emerged and assembled in their wake, the senior defensive captain bellowed, “You could have come to practice yesterday and scrimmaged instead of skipped like a bunch of fags. So today it’s two hours of drills. Just drills. Conditioning drills. If you can’t hack it, you’re done here. Go home and don’t come back.”

Though I recall thinking, “Hell, just conditioning drills? You’re gonna have to kill us, and that’ll be on you,” our punter, Danny, had other ideas. Danny, in many ways, had prepped me for meeting Shawn, when we were both very young and lived on the same block, before my family moved out to the country where Shawn lived. Danny, too, had kicked my ass (a couple of times, actually—you weren’t anyone in Carthage until you’d done that), but I’d gotten his sister Tammy’s birds-and-bees talk out of the bargain. He was tougher than boot leather, much quieter than the two of us, and a bit of a loner, but he was also a warrior. As the captain bloviated, Danny was standing directly in front of him about 15 or 20 feet away, holding a football. As the sound of that final threat was deteriorating in still air, he extended the ball out in front of him, took two steps, punted it just past the captain’s left ear and over the upperclassmen’s heads, and walked over the berm toward the locker room.

“Collins!!! Get back here! You don’t want to mess with us!” Without turning around, Danny lifted a third finger, and was gone.

Have you ever witnessed false authority deflate? It’s an enriching experience.

We survived the two hours of conditioning drills. It helped that Danny’s punctuating of the statement we’d made confirmed for us that we’d won. We didn’t deserve the punishment, but by administering it to us nonetheless, the senior leadership fell further in our esteem. To their credit, afterwards they seemed to respect us more overtly; I’m not sure the coaches recovered, because I detected incrementally dispersed micro-retributions being launched against us for the rest of the season.

We finished up the season strong, but our protest justified the whole season for me. I’m not sure how the rest of the players, especially Shawn, remember it, but the strategy, bravery, and common cause he inspired us to demonstrate have been a part of my fiber ever since. I’ve had several other occasions to employ them, though honestly, and regrettably, I haven’t always taken them. Whenever I have sheepishly and uncourageously avoided an opportunity to exhibit such valor, I always remember our walk-out, and what my 15-year-old self knew to do.

 

I didn’t return to football—I’d seen enough, really—and I wouldn’t spend as much time with Shawn again. Strangely, I now realize, that was partially his fault: the confidence and leadership he’d helped me access within myself pushed me to sample student government, where, with other students, I helped revise the school attendance policy into a fairer and more motivating document, and exert myself more fully as a writer for the school paper. For some issues I wrote nearly 75% of the copy; make no mistake, that was not a good thing, for anyone. Sports receded in my life, and academics advanced. In the future, when Shawn and I did find ourselves in league, it was to cross the state line to drink, dance and get back intact, or pile ourselves and other wild comrades into my college dorm room, celebrate our friendship as wild comrades do, check out a local rock show, and avoid jail (or, more precisely for me, avoid getting kicked out of the dorm, and school). Forty years later, he remains one of my fondest friends, one to whom I owe so much, though as increasingly older men living in different towns we see each other too infrequently.

I’ve been teaching young people across what will soon be five decades, and from bell to bell (as a current mantra goes) I am presented chances to pass along the wisdom Shawn helped me gain, as well as the wisdom we picked up together on the way to becoming men–earlier than most, to my reckoning.  Each class I meet also challenges me to keep practicing those lessons myself, since no matter what age I’ve reached, I will never truly be exempt from the necessity of leading, making difficult decisions, and protecting myself and others against threats to our integrity. I may have been left sprawling in the dirt after my first encounter with Shawn, but without him afterwards, I might not have learned how to truly stand up.

The Bad Ones, Part Two–Junior High (1974-1977)

It’s not like I’m picking on anyone here, or maligning public schools, which I will philosophically support until the day I die, which produced me (a decent if not perfect citizen), and which provided me a space to do what I was born to do, a fact for which I’m deeply grateful. It’s just that, again, when it comes to teaching, sometimes it’s the learning what not to do that really counts. I think of a line Bob Dylan sang, “…I’m loving you / Not for what you are / But for what you’re not”; I think of the unfortunate truth that you can’t know if and why a book’s great unless you’ve read a horrible one. So that’s how I’m going to frame this–by what I learned what a teacher shouldn’t do as a student of those who did those things.

Don’t physically abuse students.

I realize that this is fairly easy to avoid today as–in most schools–corporal punishment is forbidden. I caught the tail end of the corporal punishment era, and I can verify that the practice does not achieve its intended effects, and that its unintended effects are the opposite of what the punisher desires.

I was whipped–yes, whipped–with paddles carved for that express purpose, that an alarming number of teachers had handy–37 times when I was in 7th grade. I know this because I was a statistics and mathematics freak, and I counted everything that mattered (my fascination with Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point game, a little over a week after I was born, was likely the stimulus). Administering these mild beatings were usually study hall-“teaching” coaches, but my shop and art teachers also got into the act, and my phys ed teacher, a coach whom I respected, whipped me on the last day of school because (he told me) he was the only coach who hadn’t yet.

What’d I do to deserve this treatment?

Early on, I was simply testing limits. The art teacher just called my classmate David a “Polack”? What would he do if I not only pointed out his bigotry but also asked him how he’d feel if someone called his wife a slut? OK, so I was not very good at equivalency statements, but I was 12! His also being my church’s minister did not keep him from whipping me and sitting me out in the hall for a week.

So my study hall teacher / football coach has a funny voice and covertly dips snuff in the classroom? Why not, when he steps out to talk to another coach, duck down in my seat, hide behind the head of the kid sitting in front of me, stuff my tongue in my lip, and precisely imitate his trademark idle threat: “Y’all best keep your mouths shuuuut or I’m gonna take ya out in the halllllllllll!” I didn’t know who Levon Helm was at the time, but he’s exactly who this guy sounded like. My impression was so close to the real thing I could make the entire study hall sit up straight. One day, he didn’t quite step outside; he was tucked just inside the door frame, beyond my line of sight. I let it rip, picking on one of my best friends: “Hey, Mike Craig? You best git yer mouth shut or I’m-uh take you out in the hallllllllllll!” Mike, sitting a few seats in front of me, had seen the coach get up and move, but still he stiffened like he’d taken an electric shock. Unfortunately, the coach heard–and saw–me, too: “Overeem, grab the board off my desk and git out in the hallllllllll. Nowwwww!” He actually asked me what “cheek” I wanted it on, then blasted me thrice as the two other coaches he was talking to burst into laughter.

 

After those initial encounters, I’d come to a few important conclusions:

1) It’s more than possible to get punished by a teacher for something the teacher himself did wrong that you just happened to point out.

2) Some teachers are sadistic bastards that enjoy inflicting pain.

3) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who have no sense of humor about themselves.

4) Some teachers are sadistic bastards who, out of laziness and lack of imagination, are short on strategies.

5) “Getting busted” (what the coaches called it) only hurts for about 30 seconds.

6) “Getting busted” is also a guaranteed attention-getter–and a laff-riot.

The practice’s impotence as a deterrent transferred the power to me. The practice’s extremity transferred attention to me. The practice’s barbarism transferred civility to me. As a true-blue seventh grader, little was more important to me than me, so I tried to get busted as often as possible.

Having finally caught on, teachers only whipped me 18 times my eighth grade year, and I didn’t get whipped once as a freshman (more than a little credit should be given to my having incrementally matured). But the lessons those 37 beltings delivered stick with me still: admit your mistakes, work at reducing student pain, learn to laugh at yourself, develop a tool-kit of strategies for non-violent direct action against student “high-spiritedness,” control the show by making your lesson attention-worthy and witty, and strive for justness, not power.

“I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Math, 8th grade

Another Last Day of School Picture

Don’t just stand or sit there. Don’t just flip transparencies, hand out worksheets, or click through slides. Don’t drone like a muezzin. (Actually, I would now find that interesting.) Look the hell alive! Life is short, education is forever!

Many of my junior high teachers acted as if they’d rather be anywhere else. I had a math teacher that you’d have thought must have had an invisible gun to his head. He taught grudgingly–think about that! One of my science teachers relied on overheads to let him think about his football playbook for the bulk of the hour. One of my history teachers blatantly twisted his eyebrow hairs and read wrestling magazines behind his desk while we worked on endless worksheets. Another history teacher we called “The Tree,” due to his tendency to break down our past into dualities: “Over herrrre [left arm extended, left palm turned down and cupped], we have the Axis, and over herrrre [right arm extended, right palm turned down and cupped], we have the Allies [hold pose, pause, let learning sink in].” It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that history did not necessarily tranquilize those who taught it.

When a teacher did show enthusiasm–I’m serious about this, and you have to remember, I was a junior high boy–it was almost sexually arousing! In the case of one of my math teachers, there was no “almost” to it; you’ve seen it in the movies, but I was once forced by an unexpected anatomical event to decline her invitation to work a problem on the board. Sexual attraction and engaging educational content: a devastating combo!

To be clear, though, the lesson I took with me in this case was to try to teach each lesson as if it were my last, as if each second mattered, as if, should I bomb, students’ lives would be scarred forever and they’d remember me as a failure. Easier said than done, perhaps, but I have always refrained from micromanaging my lesson plan so I’d have to spend some of my class time operating without a net. It works. And, at least for me, it’s exciting, and fun. For all involved, I hope.

“I repeat, I was only the photographer!”

Exhibit A: Shop, 8th grade

Last Day of School 7th or 8th Grade

If you don’t know your stuff–if you don’t love your stuff–do us all a favor: Do something else for a living. Having your summers off (news flash: it’s actually more like two months, we don’t get paid for it, and the time we spend working at home adds up to at least a summer’s equivalent) is not worth ruining 179 days of 120 students’ lives.

An art teacher who didn’t do art. A science teacher who excelled only in handling transparencies. A social studies teacher who clearly was connected to the study of society only as far as the textbook explored it, and who could communicate about history only in the textbook’s words (“Don’t read it to us again! You assigned it for us to read last night!”). An English teacher (oh so many of those) who didn’t seem to think that, for example, the ideas of Mark Twain applied to her own life–wasn’t that the whole point? A physics teacher who asked me not only to write and/or proofread but also grade his tests. I was in eighth grade. And not a fantastic science student.

I’ve been lucky in this regard because I loved to read and write before I knew I wanted to be a teacher. But once I made the decision and began contemplating the difficult practical realities ahead of me, I flashed back to those moments when I’d made an ass out of myself and disrupted my and a whole classroom’s education. The common reason why? Not because I wasn’t being challenged; that’s my problem to solve, not the teacher’s. Most of us recognize and respond to teachers who are not only lively, and just, and kind, but who also know and especially love their material. The energy generated by deep and broad knowledge, natural enthusiasm, and a desire to share what the material’s done for you is the best classroom control tactic of them all. Why did Miss-uh Phipps-uh never have to lift a finger to redirect me? She knew Dickens, Steinbeck, Homer, and sentence diagramming like her own name, understood it so well she could simplify it for us or show us multiple ways into it, and actually enjoyed it to the extent that her fun was contagious. Why could I not wait to go to Mr. England’s physical science class, even though I was a notorious science bungler? He could not wait to put us in the driver’s seat and help us do science, with majestic but affectionate sarcasm and fool-proof advice. He could always convey what science was worth, and when you finally earned his praise, which was never withheld without logical reasoning, you got repaid with warm humor and a grin that crept ever so slightly out of his stoic visage.

I got into this business largely because, whether this is the experience of the average American or not, I frequently saw a fun job being botched, and realized it wouldn’t be so hard to do correctly, and really enjoy. For once, I was right. I thank my “Bad Teachers of Junior High, and quite sincerely, for making the mistakes that sent a beam of light down my pathway to success. Without them, I’m not sure I could have honed my understanding of a very complex task, and reached the point where I could freely make mistakes of my own.