Last April, a wall fell down from my alma mater, Mount Vernon High School. Given the dump that this already was years ago, I doubt anybody noticed.
Truth be told, my disaster of a high school didn't look much better when I was there. Inside, the place always looked like the maintenance staff was a week behind when it came to fixing things. Everything just seemed to be a little bit broken.
Luckily, I was only there for three years ---tenth through twelfth grade. At the time, the high school was spanking new (it didn't look it) and couldn't hold the traditional four years of high school students. The ninth graders were sequestered to the "Annex," which was the old Mount Vernon High School then named after some old time tool A.B. Davis.
Frankly, when I look at the high school experience I see on TV shows like "Glee," mine was a Red Cross disaster area in comparison. I couldn't wait to get home at the end of the day. I made very few lifelong friends there. The mix of the student body was never a comfortable one. You had all the Black kids from the south side and a lot of Jewish kids who wanted to be Black from the north side. The rest of us were up for grabs. And, if you hit the boys' bathroom at the wrong time, your wallet was also up for grabs.
As a result of this lack-of-comfort zone, I didn't spend enough time there to get too invested in any of the teachers. There was certainly no Lloyd Haynes who made a lifelong impression on Len. If positive effects were felt, they were fleeting. When I look back on those instructors, the memories are short and sometimes hard-to-come-by.
Perhaps the best teacher I had was Mrs. Taylor. She's so good that I actually took her twice. Once in the ninth grade for English and then in my senior year for some elective called "American Novel." Mrs. Taylor looked like an old lady, but probably was in her 30s when I had her. She was prematurely gray and her hair was styled after Veronica Lake. Mrs. Taylor could have been in some Warner Brothers potboiler from the 40s.
Mrs. Taylor's other throwback to the olden days was her almost daily pronouncement that she didn't own a television set. This was an alien thought to all of us who planned our homework around the CBS primetime schedule. But, Mrs. Taylor spent her off hours reading literature and, as a result, she did infuse us with a love for books. In a very bizarre way, she inspired us. Not enough for us to turn off "The Andy Griffith Show," but, at least, we learned to multi-task and read "Silas Marner" at the same time.
A ninth grade social studies teacher was a little guy named Mr. Crews, who, although he was from Texas, looked like Joe Jitsu from the "Dick Tracy" cartoons. Mr. Crews always seemed to be unprepared for class at least one day a week and would announce that we could take the day as a "study hall." Oftimes, my social studies class was where I did my best math or science work.
One day, a friend and I were headed to our class with Mr. Crews when he shot out of the room. It was so startling that I asked who had died. Mr. Crews heard my question.
Ironically, we heard about a year or two later that Mr. Crews himself had passed on. It certainly wasn't due to exhaustion at work.
Once we got to the "big" high school for the tenth grade, the bizarreness of the faculty seemed to multiply at geometric proportions.
Mr. Bickford was an English teacher who lisped and butchered every book title he assigned.
"The Housh of Sheven Gables."
"The Lash of the Mohishans."
"The Great Gatshby."
Nobody wanted to sit in the first three rows of class.
Another teacher was this un-enthused possible lesbian named Miss Dennis. Well, we didn't know the lesbian part at that point. At that time, if somebody mentioned that word, I would think they were referring to Danny Thomas. But, in retropsect, Miss Dennis couldn't possibly be anything else but one big ole dyke. Everything she focused on was Broadway. Duh. Forget the great American Novel. She wanted to teach us all about the latest play starring Jason Robards Jr..
Carrying out her fervor to the extreme, Miss Dennis took us on a field trip to a Broadway matinee. It was my first exposure to the theater and I'm glad I didn't let this experience cloud me for life. We didn't exactly go to see "Hello Dolly." It was some existential mess called "We Bombed in New Haven," which shortly thereafter bombed at the Ambassador Theater as well. No one had a clue what the hell was going on. Let's face it, in those days, my ideal plotline was watching Lucille Ball get stuck in something. But, Miss Dennis was so enamored by the play that we discussed it for the next three weeks. Yawn. And, not surprisingly, it starred Jason Robards Jr..
Spending three weeks on that play was nothing compared to how long we analyzed "Hamlet" in the troll-like Mr. Merendino's twelfth grade English class. We spent four solid months groping over every single word in Shakespeare's drama. It got so frustrating for us that one friend of mine actually threw a Bic Pen at the teacher. This prompted another friend to mention that it was symbolic of the "poison rapier."
I liked my American History teacher, Miss Castriota, who came off like this tough old broad but was really a softie. This was another one who looked much older than she was. Years later, I found her in the Fordham University alumni directory and I was shocked to find that she was not even 40.
Miss Castriota's big bug-a-boo was gum chewing. If she caught you, she would immediately stop class.
"You owe me a dime."
You had to cough it up. Both the gum and the dime. The gum went into the trash can. The dime went into a jar in her closet and she said she would use it at the end of the year to buy a bottle of Scotch.
There was no surprises, though, with Mr. Russell's age. My twelfth-grade Physics teacher looked to be and probably was 100. In hindsight, Mr. Russell was President Reagan during his second term. Clueless. To wit, Physics was going to be the last state Regents exam that I would take. It was a big deal to do well in these statewide tests and I aced them all up to this point. The only problem was that Mr. Russell didn't teach us anything that was in the exam.
I failed it and totally blew my Regents diploma and this news didn't sit well with my father, who didn't accept my excuse when I tossed Mr. Russell under the bus. I had hoped my father would come to school and have it out with the old fossil. He didn't.
But, Dad showed up when I ran into an issue with my gym teacher, some Black screwball named Mr. Lee. He was also the wrestling coach and that seemed to be all he knew. He tried to infuse wrestling into everything we did. If you were playing baseball, the shortstop would be encouraged to field the grounder and then manuever the runner sliding into second base into a half-nelson.
My problem with Mr. Lee arose when we did the gymnastics and acrobatic part of our gym curriculum. You may remember, from a previous rummage through the memory drawer, that I had hurt my back doing a forward roll in day camp years before. Well, Mr. Lee wanted me to do it again and ridiculed me in front of the class for not attempting it.
This did not set well with my father when I relayed the news.
To this day, I know my father had words with Mr. Lee. I don't know what they were. But, Mr. Lee was like Doris Day to me for the rest of the school year.
No high school teacher scared the bejeebers out of us more than our tenth-grade world history teacher. Miss Kass. She was this lunatic who treated us like we were taking the course for PhD credit at Harvard. She was something akin to Professor Kingsfield in "The Paper Chase." She'd look out into the class and call on you by addressing you as "Mister" or "Miss." If she picked you out, you were dead.
Luckily I was seated behind this fat girl. I'd come to class and crouch down behind her, hoping to stay out of Miss Kass' eyeshot. One day, I was busted.
"Are you hiding?"
"No use doing that. I can still see you."
"You don't know the answer to my question, do you?"
Well, I can answer that one. No.
To this day, I don't think any of us totally understood what we were taught in that class. Byzantine Empire. Ottoman Empire. It all sounded the same to me. The only thing I focused on was trying to stay out of Miss Kass The Conqueror's way.
Yep, that was what high school was all about me. Watching my back and waiting for the final bell to ring.
Dinner last night: Popcorn chicken at the Arclight.