In honor of National Teacher Day, which was Tuesday, May 7, Slate is running an article titled “What’s the Worst Thing A Teacher Ever Said to You?” The staff writers who weigh in think they’ve got some doozies. One teacher told Matt Yglesias that Native Americans make up “a subset of yellow people.” A gym teacher told Dahlia Lithwick’s mother that girls shouldn’t play sports. Torie Bosch’s sex ed teacher informed his students he was addressing a distasteful subject under protest.
What a stinking bunch of begrudgers these pundits are. For one thing, this kind of talk fled the public school system when the Slate writers’ generation graduated to the other side of the big desk. Nowadays, if you want your kids to hear it, you have to homeschool them and supply it yourself.
Besides, teaching means living in a fishbowl, a fishbowl populated by piranhas. Kids are merciless judges and breakers of self-confidence. For anyone with a gross personal flaw or a morbid self-consciousness, the job can amount to a spiritual drawing and quartering.
I learned this through my experience with Mr. B. Along with teaching our seventh-grade class English, Mr. B was our homeroom teacher, which according to the customs of the school meant he also took us out to the park at recess and assumed primary responsibility for the development of our character. Basically, he was meant to be our good shepherd.
To understand the impression he made, it’s necessary to go back a year, to sixth grade, when the school placed us under the care of Mr. I. An Italian-American fresh out of grad school who wore leather vests and aviator shades, and smoked Marlboros while watching us play kick-the-can, he was the first adult we’d ever seen who carried himself with an air of irony. He drawled out his lectures, grinning sideways. To dumb questions, he’d respond, “Oh, horrors, no,” and roll his sleepy eyes at us. Compared to our previous teachers, who’d reminded us of our mothers, only fatter, grayer, or hoarser, Mr. I was Dean Martin. Whoever tried to fill his shoes would have had to be a Sinatra.
Mr B, who replaced him the following fall, was anything but. He was a wreck. Though no older than Mr. I, he was nearly bald across the crown but insisted on growing the hair that remained down past his ears. He had fish lips and oversized, chapped hands and bit his nails down to the quick. He dressed in earth tones and Hush Puppies. From behind thick glasses, his eyes pleaded for our friendship.
Of course we denied him it. Indeed, we rode him like a pony. It was the girls, already deep into puberty, who look the lead. Noticing that crust had a way of forming around the corners of Mr. B’s mouth, they dubbed it “schmookie,” a portmanteau of “schmutz” and “dookie” that could only have been coined at a Manhattan school whose students came from both sides of Morningside Park. They wrote a song, “Crust Busters,” and made a practice of singing it right at the edge of his earshot.
It marked Mr. B as untouchable, and the rest of us respected the taboo, though mainly by omission. When Mr. B cracked jokes, we stared back blankly or smirked. When he tried chatting us up outside class, we turned dumb. With weary sighs we greeted each request to turn to our notes or pass forward our homework assignments, each question on the major themes in The Chocolate War. Mr. I’s approval had been like gold, a commodity worth competing for. Like the shadow of a Dalit, Mr. B’s was something to shrink from.
Mr. B seemed to sense what status we’d assigned him. Gradually, his manner changed from diffident to dictatorial. But in his hands, the rod of authority wilted. Raised, his voice had a tremolo that, like clunking beneath a car’s hood, seemed to signal that some vital part was wearing itself out.
The signs of wear intrigued us. To that point, our teachers, whatever fatuous qualities we might have detected in them, had seemed impervious to slights against their dignity. They had over us the advantage of being grown-ups, fully enfranschised members of society, and they knew it was a trump card that could take any hand. Mr. B’s grown-up status seemed to be made from some more fragile substance, one that could oxidize and corrode. And so, more in a spirit of clinical inquiry than malice, we let our contempt fall upon it in a steady drizzle.
Our school occupied a five-story building that had once served the Cartier family as a carriage house. It was built around a courtyard and came equipped with dumbwaiters, through which the kitchen staff sent lunch to each class’s own homeroom to be consumed under the homeroom teacher’s supervision. One afternoon in April, after we’d served ourselves arroz con pollo and orange juice, Mr. B ducked out of the room. Where he went nobody knows. But the unexpected freedom, together with the springtime air, affected us like you’d expect it to affect any gang of 13-year- olds. Within minutes, the girls were dancing to New Edition and the boys were playing Spades, noise bursting from us all.
The lights went off, then on, then off again. We looked up and saw Mr. B standing at the head of the classroom. His hands were trembling, his lower lip quivering. Sucking in his breath, he balled his fists and snapped, “Silence!” The word was so alien to our experience, smacked so strongly of some vanished world of dunce caps and switches, that, for once, we gave Mr. B exactly what he wanted. For a moment, Mr B stood there, blinking and panting, as though gulping down the new evidence of his mastery. Then someone giggled.
With lunch in those days came bread — cheap, brown bread spongy enough that a slice could be compressed with a single squeeze into a ball smaller than a plug of chewing tobacco. With a great flap and a jerk, Mr. B snatched a loaf of that bread from the lunch cart. Clutching it in his two hands, he held it above his head. For a moment, he stood with arms flexed and legs bent. He could have been Samson in the Temple. Then, screaming, he tore the loaf in half. The bread, which came pre-sliced, sailed into every corner of the room. Some flew out the window, tumbling five stories onto the flagstones in the courtyard below.
The headmaster kept his offices on a mezzanine between the second and third floors. The office had a window that faced out onto the courtyard. A New Englander and nature lover in the Thoreauan mold, he seemed like the type to gaze dreamily out of windows while sipping his coffee or his Maalox. For that reason, nobody was surprised, when, barely a minute later, he stormed into the classroom and demanded, “Who threw the bread?”
Mutely, we pointed at Mr. B. The headmaster let out a fine, Yankee snort and repeated the question, with extra flint his voice. Again, we pointed to Mr. B, a few of us adding swift recaps. The headmaster held up his hand, said something to Mr. B, and stormed out again. With head drooping, Mr. B followed close at his heels.
That was, more or less, the end of Mr. B, at least as far as we were concerned. He was allowed to finish out the year as an English teacher, but homeroom and pastoral duties went to someone more agreeable to our tastes. The new teacher was an antic wit and raconteur whose stories tended to begin “When I was young and dumb…” The formula amused us even as it put in our place, which is all any student can ask for.
Don’t ask me what happened to Mr. B. Probably, he ended up doing all right, earning an advanced degree in library sciences and rising to command some prestigious archives. But once I’ve seen someone’s inner fragility expose itself so completely, before eyes so unworthy to behold it as ours were, I can’t help fearing for his safety. The world has never been kind to Mr. Bs. Part of me is convinced he went home after the faculty’s end-of-the-year party, stepped into a warm bath, and slit his wrists, leaving behind a volume of heartbreaking poetry:
If I should die, think only this of me:
It was those kids, those kids, those rotten little punks,
Especially their ringleader, that sassy, overdeveloped black girl,
Who drove me to it; may my blood
Be forever on their heads.
It was poetic justice that eventually got me. Less than a decade after the flight of the bread, I took a job teaching ESOL in Mainland China, and ended up making Mr. B look like Edward James Olmos in comparison. The experience made me a partisan of all the sorry specimens who man white boards from K through post-doc. Not the ones who seduce or molest kids or hit them, maybe, but definitely the rest — the ones who are dull or shrill or capricious or dress badly or smell funny. May they find peace in this world and the next.