Faster off the Block

Mr. Cook was my high school English teacher. I had him for two years: Honors English in tenth grade and AP Literature in 12th grade. Among the competitive academics in my high school, he was the one to please. His classroom was hidden away, down a side hallway on the 3rd floor. Because he was the drama teacher as well, half of his domain was a traditional classroom and the other half was a stage and seating area that you had to walk through before reaching the classroom. When we read Julius Caesar, it was there in that theatre we performed Mark Anthony’s eulogy.

He had my respect from the very first day in the way that people do when they set high expectations of me and demand that I jump and meet them. I had recently transferred back into the school after two years in the local junior high because my mother’s car had gotten repossessed and there was no visible means to transport me to and fro. Plus, I had failed the seventh grade and gone to summer school to stay on track, so I wasn’t in a position to claim that sacrifices needed to be made for me to continue my studies at the optional school.

But, after ninth grade, I got on my very first plane and flew to New Hampshire to attend Phillips Exeter, a school that I had hoped would make my boarding school fantasies come true. Ultimately, I settled for an all-expense paid summer session. When I returned, I vowed that those six weeks would not have been spent in vain and decided that I was going back to the place of my failure to try again. My mother said that she was not opposed to me pursuing this path, just as long as I was aware that she did not have the resources with which to support my dream. Transportation would be my responsibility. And so it was. The next three years was a mixture of cabs, buses, overnight trips at my dad’s who lived around the corner from my school, hitchhiking, and trips from friends. But, I graduated.

The first day of tenth grade English, I learned that honors classes begin over the summer. I was not armed with my completed summer packet on Pride and Prejudice, one of Mr. Cook’s favorite books that we reread as seniors (I did not appreciate the beauty of this book until a year ago, living in Guatemala). The students had had to identify about 50 quotes and analyze their significance and then respond to a mixture of short answers and essays. As the other students passed their work forward, Mr. Cook looked over my transcripts from his power position atop his stool that he rolled towards the lectern he straddled. He looked down his nose at me as he handed me the summer work packet and the syllabus for the fall semester.

“You have this marking period to catch up. You need to finish this packet, but also, keep up with the new material. If you don’t get it done by the end of the six weeks, you will transfer to the standard English class.”

Oh never that. I worked and I finished it. But still, I was behind. Mr. Cook made no bones about having favorites. And his favorites were more often than not, students whose siblings he had taught in years before. My first introduction to the privileges of legacy was in that sequestered classroom loft. My class seemed to have an unnecessarily large number of legacies. He fawned over them all class long and told stories about their siblings’ triumphs. I sat there just trying to keep a lid on how overwhelmed I felt.

Every month, there was a new challenge that seemed insurmountable. Before I could celebrate finishing my packet ahead of schedule, it was Halloween and we had a new project that I spent hours on the phone, bemoaning with a friend from Oregon that I had made at Exeter (she was a year or two older, so she often had wisdom to share). But then, that too, passed. After every survival, I tried to take deep breaths and regain my composure.

But then came December and poetry. Writing in general triggers deep-seated insecurities, but poetry just really gets under my skin and makes me look over my shoulder, expecting to see someone approaching with the dunce cap. For our Christmas project, we had to write a poem related to the season and satisfy a list of requirements: onomatopoeias, metaphors, similes, iambic pentameter….and the list went on. I wanted to cry looking at the list. What did I do to deserve this? How was I going to make it through?

Try as I did for a month to start – much less finish – the assignment, I found myself sitting at my kitchen table the night before it was due, staring at a blank piece of paper. I eventually called it quits and said fine, I’ll take the F. It’s not worth this agony.

Projects were serious business in Mr. Cook’s class. Any written portion had to be typed, Times Roman, 12 pt font, 1-inch margins, with the proper heading. There must be a hard and soft copy (on floppy discs!) presented to him when your name was called. He went through the roster and called students one by one to the podium. The student must then read their essay or poem before the class while he reviewed the soft copy on his computer and edited it. He had connected the computer to the 20-inch tv in the room that faced the classroom, so we all bore witness to his praise or, more likely, his displeasure. I was sitting there one while a classmate read her essay with my glasses off and when I put them back on, to my horror, I saw a sea of red commentary flash across the screen. Red was never a good sign.

When he called my name to read my Christmas poem, I tried to sound as controlled and apathetic as any of the students at my old junior high, “I don’t have it.” I had been expecting a side eye followed by an eye roll and shake of the head accompanied by a simple flick of the hand in the grade book. I had not anticipated the look of shock and disappointment that crossed his face.

Mr. Cook had never seem impressed by my intellectual capabilities. The one compliment he had ever given related to my nurturing abilities. We had been speaking about rambunctious children during a discussion and I said that if the child in question were my own, I would channel that energy into a constructive activity, like karate, thinking of my brother who had wanted and needed those lessons so. Mr. Cook had smiled at me and said, “You’re going to be a great mother someday.”

A good mother, yes. Capable of changing the free world with this mind of mine while more qualified candidates like my peers walked the earth? Unlikely. My sole claim to fame in his class was my ability to catch biblical allusions, but that was nothing considering the fact that I was in church seven days a week.

Mr. Cook stared down at me with such disdain that all of my affected coolness vanished on the ps. Wait, could this mean that he actually thinks I’m worth something? Why else would he be so shocked by my shortcoming?

“I am so disappointed in you.”

“I…I…I was sick,” I stammered. This was partly true. I had been battling a cold, but normally, illness never prevented me from staying on top of my studies. My best friend nodded her head vigorously in assent. He stared at me for a moment and said, “Tomorrow. You have until tomorrow.”

“Okay.” I slunk down in my seat and coughed a couple of times for good measure, trying to ascertain whether I felt relieved, stressed, or both.

That night, after everyone had gone to bed (there is no writing poetry in a house with four other children and television set that blares constantly) and all was quiet on the house front, I sat at the kitchen table, staring at the blank paper once more. Except this time, Determination had decided to join me. I could not go back in the classroom empty-handed once more. Just do it. I started writing and the poem…just came out. There is no other way to describe it. I wrote and rewrote until had satisfied all of the requirements. And then, I crawled into bed for just a few moments as the darkness began to grow faint.

When my name was called the next afternoon, I strolled proudly to the front and read my poem. When I was done, I quickly turned my head to the left to face him and see if I could sneak a peek over his shoulder to his screen. The quick look didn’t blur my eyes with red, so that was good news. I waited to see if praise was forthcoming, but he merely looked at me as if to say, “So all that drama was for what?” and excused me to go sit down.

Junior year was AP Language with Mrs. Sparkman, a bleeding heart liberal from Minnesota who looked and behaved like Carol Brady. She taught us plenty and demanded a great deal from us, but because she did it with a smile, she only garnered a fraction of the respect and veneration that we lavished on Mr. Cook.

Every Friday, we wrote essays in response to a test prompt. I dreaded those sessions. My essays were always mediocre at best. Every single week, she would write somewhere on the paper, “Clear and concise.” I was so embarrassed by my inadequacy. Finally, I got up the courage to do the unthinkable: ask for help. I went to her after class and asked her to explain what she meant by clear and concise. She pulled my essay out of my hand and walked me through how I was failing to express my arguments in a succinct number of steps.

The next week, I was absent on Friday, so the following Monday, she gave me the prompt to do at home. She warned me to stick to the time constraints because it would be good training for the exam. Lucky for me, I didn’t work at the barbecue restaurant on Mondays, so I had a free afternoon.

When I got home, I set my watch and got to work. I managed to finish early and was feeling quite proud of myself. When the essay came back, I had received an A, my best grade to date. She told me later that it was worth full credit, but since I had done it at home, she couldn’t be sure that I had only used the allotted time. I didn’t care about those missed points. I understood her reasoning and I knew the truth. I had figured out the mystery behind these essays! In the months to come, she would always tell me, “Gosh, Andrea, I have never known someone to hear a piece of criticism, take it in, and then turn right around and act on it. It’s like night and day with your writing since that talk we had.”

With Ms. Sparkman, English class became less about the performance (pleasing Mr. Cook was a full-time job) and more about the strength of my craft and the love of the work. She assigned us the one research paper of my high school career.  I wrote mine on the Habsburg Empire (AP European History was my all-time favorite class) and after I finished my presentation to the class, I looked up to see Ms. Sparkman grinning away. “Oh Andrea, I have never seen your eyes light up as much as they did while you were talking about your term paper. You’re obviously very passionate about the topic.” Hmm yes, but where does a passion about the old German monarchy lead you in life?

In the last month of AP Language, Mr. Cook made a rare appearance outside of his lair. He strolled into our English classroom to give us the summer packet for AP Literature. Much to the dismay of some, only students who were currently enrolled in AP Language could continue on with him next spring. He had had a few pets in Honors English who had not taken Ms. Sparkman and they were shocked that they were being denied an opportunity to reunite with their adoring teacher. Meanwhile. I was reflecting on my first year with Mr. Cook and trying to imagine what new challenges would come my way in the fall.

College essays. The first hurdle was college essays. Over the course of the first marking period, we had to write three college essays in response to actual prompts from our list of colleges and of course, read them in front of the class while he edited them. It was a horrible and nerve-wracking time. What could I write about that I wouldn’t mind sharing with the entire class? It’s one thing to write a story for a group of people miles and miles away to read behind closed doors. It’s a horse of an entirely different color to lay one’s thoughts out friends, enemies, and acquaintances to dissect and mull over.

Mr. Cook hated all of my essays. My first one was about role models and how my obsession with celebrities prevented me from appreciating the real stars in my daily life. I tried to be cute with my title: Reel v. Real Role Models. He was not pleased. My second essay was about diversity and he mockingly read the concluding quote in an obnoxious tone. Shallow and generic was the judgment on that one. Ok, fine. You want real? I got real.

My third essay began with something along the lines of, “My father is a puppetmaster. Every thing he gives is attached to a string that he yanks and pulls, jerking us around to do his bidding.” I went on to share that I could never seem to hate him though, because all of his games and challenges had turned me into the strong young woman I was proud to be, a nod to Christina Aguilera’s “Fighter.”

“You sound suicidal. Colleges are not interested in accepting students who are going to jump out of the window the first week of classes.”

Well, I had tried light and happy and I had tried the truth, but neither worked. One friend did come to me after class to say that she had enjoyed the essay about my dad. She thought the imagery in the first paragraph was strong and was a testament to my voice as a writer. I loved her for saying that, but this is the same friend whom I would get rides home from school with while we talked about the burdens of our home lives. It was she who gave me a birthday card for my 18th birthday, celebrating the fact that I was a mere few months away from being free to go find the life I deserved. I couldn’t really stand on her recommendation because if I was on the verge of jumping, so was she. So, I trashed the essay.

I ended up writing a story about a class I was taking that semester (as life would have it, the story about my home life got written anyway, by my guidance counselor, who felt it was important for colleges to know my struggles and weigh my accomplishments accordingly), but I never showed the essay to Mr. Cook and just sent it in with my application.

Last he knew, I was completely incapable of writing an appropriate personal statement. That might be why when I had gotten into most of schools on my list and my best friend was shouting all around that I had gotten into Harvard too (she had gotten in early decision), he stared at the two of us in absolute incredulity, “Get out of here!”

“No! She did!” my friend exclaimed in that beautiful way that only your ride-or-die can truly do.

I didn’t respond and just stared back like, “Jeez, man. Thanks for the vote of confidence. I’m so glad you were one of my recommenders.” But choosing him had been a wise move. I know. I saw the letter. I had the letter. Colleges discouraged teachers from giving recommendations to the students and requested that they mail them directly to the school; however, we do what we want in the South. Both of my recommenders gave me copies and I’m sure, I still have those letters in my memory box somewhere.

Whereas my history teacher’s letter was two-pages of praises about my intellectual curiosity and my leadership skills, Mr. Cook’s was short, sweet, and to the point. He only expended three paragraphs of effort. Clear and concise, indeed. For one of my friends, he had written a two-page ode to her Southern charm and grace. She was very proud of her letter – she walked around with copies of it on top of her books for weeks – and pitied me for my half-pager. But, I was proud of what he had said. It was pretty much read, this girl right here, has a force and power that is all her own. She will not fail in this life. What else is there to say?

Turns out, there is a lot more to say. I asked Mr. Cook to sign my yearbook. Reading his paragraph later, I felt like he had delivered a surprise punch to the ribs. I guess he thought he would be remiss if he were to write a generic, “Best wishes. You will do well.”

He said that when he met me, he could not understand a word I said and I had the strangest of all rural accents (him being from Mississippi meant that this was a great insult because, honestly, who is more country than people from the deep Deep South?), but over time, he found me to be one of the kindest souls and a human waiting to be born. A human WAITING TO BE BORN? Are you serious? What in the name of all that is pure and good in this world made you think that I needed to round this year out with that kind of commentary in my yearbook, of all things?

But you know, sometimes, his words come back to me and…I don’t think he was all wrong. I totally see it. Definitely, on an emotional level, I had died some time before I met him and was experiencing a rebirth around the time I left for college. There are still parts of my emotional development that are still kicking into gear once more, even as I write this. And as far as intellect goes, I have to be honest and say most of the books and discussions we had in that class went right over my head. It is a miracle to me that I survived because I didn’t understand a word.

And yet, as the words soared over my head, they headed straight into my heart and remained there until I had the knowledge to help illuminate the truths I had read, but could not connect to. Sophomore year, we read The Screwtape Letters and I remember us having a conversations about jargon and humor that I was participating in on a very literal level, but now, I want to jump back into my memories and my teenage body so I can yell out, “Yes! Jargon obliterates the potential for critical discourse and certain categories of humor suffocate true affection and attachment.”

We also read Robert Frost’s “Mending Fences” and as much as the very format of a poem sent me into a glass case of despair, this poem managed to speak to me. For years, the first line would come back to me.

Something there is that doesn’t love a wall

When lecturing on a new poem, Mr. Cook would repeat certain lines over and over and stare at us, waiting for one of us to have a breakthrough and start spewing wisdom. It rarely happened and if it did, it was the class genius who spoke first. I hated when he did this because I could feel the expectations mounting and I knew they would make such a mess when they shattered in response to our deafening silence. But, the lines he repeated stayed with me.

In my head, I inverted the order, so I heard, “There’s something there that doesn’t love a wall.” I heard it when I thought about my mom. I heard it when I tried to make friends and was repelled by people’s barriers. I heard it over and over again.

Recently, I got the urge to look up the full poem and I read it again, trusting that my comprehension skills were high enough now to get some understanding. I read and reread the last third, finally grasping what had eluded me ten years before. I felt like I had a 1 Corinthians 13 moment where I knew in part, but now I know fully as I am fully known. I felt like the poem jumped up out of its hiding place, grabbed me by the hand and was like yes, I’ve been waiting for you. Let’s be friends now. You finally understand me, and yourself.

Ambivalent. It’s the word I used to think best described my feelings for Mr. Cook, but no, that’s not true. I love that man and I loved telling this story. It felt great to plunge into my history and remember certain truths about myself that I need to arm myself with in these trying times. Mr. Cook was a hard man and I thought he hated me or worse, was apathetic to my existence. But now…I guess, I see him as Jack Nicholson in Something’s Gotta Give when Diane Keaton says, “I can’t tell if you hate me or if…you’re the only person who ever really got me.”

I think Mr. Cook did see potential in me and planted seeds of inspiration in me while giving me obstacles to help me test my abilities and mold me into a fertile being that was able to harvest those seeds. I channel a lot of his energy when I teach. I’m all high expectations and no excuses. Sometimes, I know I assigned books and articles that, for the most part, went over their heads, but I hope the stories left a residue whose trail they will be able to follow when understanding comes to guide them down the path.

 

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