My junior year in high-school was one of those amazing years, the kind of year that does not come around often. If you’re fortunate, you have a fair share of these years, and the funny thing is that you, or at least I, only know I’ve had one of those years in retrospect.
It’s true, I’ve never lived through a year saying to myself, day after day, wow, this is one of those terrific years of a lifetime. It’s tough to see that when you’re struggling through homework every night, washing the dishes and carrying out the garbage, digging weeds, and trying to buy beer waiting outside of stores for guys who are willing to pruchase it for you. All of those nagging quotidian activities make it hard for us to see the forest for the trees. The big picture is sliced up into irritatingly imaged moments that can beat you down, bore you to tears, or make you wish you were living next year like a kind of 2021 do-over of 2020.
The big picture of a pleasurable year passed, more or less, comes into focus only after the fact, and then sometimes you wish you could do it all over again, especially when you fall to the bottom of those abysmal valleys when you’re having a particularly crappy year.
Crappy years, I can tell I’m having right while I’m having them. I don’t know about you, but when I’m hurting, I know it, suffering, that too, getting ground down and rolled over by the wheel of fortune, yeah, then every day is a sigh of Geeez Louise, why even bother to get up in the morning?
11th-Grade was a highest mountain peak year for me. I met two teachers who would have a profound effect on my life right up to the moment I’m writing this. So important were these two men, that when I wrote my doctoral dissertation, I dedicated it to the two of them.
They couldn’t have been more different.
One, a young 30ish haole guy who, with his glorious beard, looked like he was still living out a 1960s dream vision, had come to Hawai‘i after he answered an ad seeking teachers for the public school system here. Born and bred in Washington State, he was working for Boeing at the time. Back then it was who isn’t working for Boeing?, kind of like the way nowadays up there you’d say, who isn’t working for Microsoft?
Tired of the grind there, I suppose, and lured by the promise of idyllic hours whiled away under palm trees swaying in technicolor sunset infused tropical splendor, he surprised himself happily by getting the job, and thus he was bound for Honolulu, possibly propelled by a plane he himself had helped to build.
Once here, he settled out on the blissful West Side, assigned an English teaching position at Waianae High School. He lived, and although he loved it there, when the opportunity arose to come to University High/Lab School, he could not resist. How could he? We were an experimental school, and he would prove over his 40 year career, to be one of the most important innovators our school would ever see.
As well, he may have been lured to our home of the Junior Rainbows by some sense that he would meet the love of his life, a fellow English teacher, would marry, and would have three wonderful children with her. Maybe he could feel it in his gut.
Fortune placed my junior class in this man’s hands, and he was to shape us, well me for certain, in a way I’d not been shaped before. As I’ve mentioned, I am a slow reader. This would not bode well for the reading intensive class we were about to experience with this man. Or so you might think.
It started out slowly enough. This was good for me. We spent almost the entire first quarter reading Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms. What kicked my ass initially was not the pace of the reading, but the exams he gave us. I began to dread Fridays. Every Friday we would have to respond to essay questions about the book. I’d never taken an essay exam, so I had not a clue about how to write one. The pain became easier as I figured out the ropes, listening to samples from essay answers written by classmates far smarter than I. It was with great relief first, that we finished the book and, fingers crossed, we had also finished with essay exams in my wildest dreams, although I doubted it, and second that this young innovator announced just before quarter grades were due that he was going to allow us to grade ourselves.
Well, problem solved. I’d barely passed those exams. I’d never received anything lower than a A for English. My folks would expect an A for English. And by God, by the luck of the hammer of Thor, this Norwegian innovator from Washington State was going to grant me the gift of keeping my streak alive.
As it turns out, I was not alone in my notion that, while I might not deliver the most stunning grades in some of my other classes, I would kill in English that quarter. I’ll never forget how he discussed our self-grading efforts.
“Well,” he said, sitting on the desk and smiling – for like the first time all semester, “you all might not be surprised that all of you gave yourself As.”
We all nodded and smiled. We had done our self-evaluational soul searching duty with due diligence.
“All of you except, Miss Ushiroda. Miss Ushiroda asked for a B.”
Miss Ushiroda – this is not her real name – was a brainiac. I figured if anyone had actually earned an A, it was Miss Ushiroda. But she was as humble as she was brilliant, obviously.
He continued. “I disagree with Miss Ushiroda’s evaluation of her work. I will be giving Miss Ushiroda an A. She deserves it for her good work.”
Oh Crap. Was he going to actually give us what we’d earned. I was instantly ill.
“And I’m going to give all of you As, in fact. But I won’t be doing this again. When grades come due at semester’s end, I will decide what grade each of you should receive.”
I breathed a sigh of relief. My parents would be so pleased. At least this quarter they would. Who knew how I might fare in second quarter.
If the unearned A was a surprise, I was equally stunned when the entire class process was revamped beginning second quarter. We never had an essay exam again.
Note. I wish we had. It would have been good for me, I think. I eventually became much better at essay type exams than at any other, including multiple choice, which often drove me mad. Who knows but I might have been better faster if the essay exams had continued.
Once at UH, I took an introductory course in cultural geography. There were three multiple choice midterms, and one comprehensive multiple choice final that carried twice the weight of a midterm. I aced the first midterm.
After the first exam scores had been posted, Professor Sledgehammer said, “I think I wrote too easy an exam. There were so many As that I am going to change the exam format. It will still be multiple choice, but there will be anywhere from one to five correct answers for each question. Oh, and there also may be no correct choice at all.”
Good luck to me. This guy couldn’t settle for the idea that maybe we’d all done so well was because he was a good teacher?
My mind was a mess after each of the succeeding exams. I never knew, really, how many answers were correct if any, most often guessing, and then second and third guessing my responses. I pulled a D in that course. In future years, since we only knew our scores, not seeing the corrected exam scan sheets, I would come to believe that there really was a correct answer for each question, and by that I mean there was only one correct answer for each question. He’d not changed it up at all. What he’d done was simply mess with our minds.
Anywaysies, as Reverend Mark might say in transition, back to English class. We no longer had essay exams. And what was greater is that what we did next would become the stuff of legend in our English Department. Our next book was Phillip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint.
Now remember, we were, and still are today, an experimental school, and the choice of this book would push the envelope of Lab School experimentation in the extreme. If you’ve not read Portnoy’s Complaint, let me just say that the language is what we called back in those days “foul,” and if you like liver, as I did, you may have some difficulty eating it after you’ve read the book.
One of the mothers did not appreciate the experiment that was about to be visited upon us. She was what we called back in those days “outraged.” So royally and completely pissed off was she that she called my mother to try and rally her support against the book and my teacher.
Now remember that my mom was an English teacher as well, and I must say that she had been quite taken by my English teacher at Parents’ Night. So when Mrs. Evangelist – this is not her real name, although it hints subtly at her outlook on life – called my mom, who believed religiously in the educational experimentation mission of my school, Mrs. E was up against it.
Of course I could only hear my mother’s side of the phone conversation, but I took easily what I consider to be insightful guesses at what Mrs. E was preaching on the other end of the line.
To sum it up, my mother applauded Mr. Heyerdahl’s – this is not my teacher’s real name, although it hints at both his adventurous spirit and our shared ethnicity – Mr. Heyerdahl’s visionary approach to teaching literature, and she assured Mrs. E that should she attempt to rally other parents against my teacher, that my mother would also call all the other parents and present her side of the argument in defense of my teacher.
Suffice it to say, the uproar was quashed to interior prayerful silence, and my class did indeed read Portnoy’s Complaint. And loved it, I might add.
I was fortunate to have this man as my English teacher for both my junior and senior years. Again, you would think that my reading ability would have hampered me when I tell you I read, both assigned for class and taken on by personal choice as outside reading for pleasure because he made them sound so good:
Trout Fishing in America
The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
Manchild in the Promised Land
Soul on Ice
Dharma Bums and On the Road
Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels
One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sometimes a Great Notion
Johnny Got His Gun
A Clockwork Orange
But, no, I was having so much fun discovering all these great books that I just kept plugging along. It was the most fascinating two years of reading I’d ever had up to that point.
Oh, and that’s only a partial list of titles. If I remember any others, I’ll include them in the second draft.
Now the other teacher I met that junior year in high school, as I say, was quite a different person, but he was equally important in my development. But more about him later.
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Happy #WriterThursday. Today’s #WritingPrompt is
Use it to inspire a piece of writing, and then post that piece somewhere I can read it. I would love to read what you write : )