Wednesday, May 16, 2012

An Ode To Mr. Smith, My Seventh Grade Grammar Teacher

Class has just ended, and I am waiting in line with my classmates to hand in my homework to Mr. Smith, my seventh grade grammar teacher. He has taken up his customary position beside the classroom door and is collecting each student's assignment as they leave, giving it a quick glance to ensure that correct procedures have been followed. This is troubling to me, because once again, I have not done my homework.

Now, this is not unusual: It is probably the 18th time this year that I have found myself in this very position. You might say I've got some experience in this field.

On previous occasions, I've managed to slip past Mr. Smith unnoticed without handing over my homework. But lately, he's taken to watching me like a hawk -- a stern looking, British hawk with bushy white hair, thick-rimmed glasses and an intimidating air of authority. Nope, there is no way I'm getting by this time, because Mr. Smith is blocking the doorway, and he's wearing the game face of an NHL goalie.

The line is moving quickly and there are now only five kids ahead of me. My heart rate kicks up a notch. Running out of options, I grab a piece of blank notebook paper, scribble my name on it, and hand it over to Mr. Smith, avoiding eye contact as I walk out. Fortunately, just at that moment, some howling eighth graders came running by in the hallway, distracting Mr. Smith momentarily from his homework collecting.

"Boys! Stop this roughhousing at once!" he booms at the eighth graders, as I skulk down the hallway in the opposite direction. For a moment, I think I'm in the clear. But approximately 25 seconds later, after Mr. Smith has had a chance to scan my "work", the jig is up.

"Mr. McLaughlin, come back here at once!"

And just like that, Mr. Smith has busted me, again. Not that this is any great surprise. If you looked up “problem student” in the encyclopedia in those days, you’d have seen a photo of me. I was a legend at Newtown Friends School, but not for good reasons. In sixth grade, I set a school record by getting sent to the principal's office 37 times in a single school year. As far as I know, that record still stands.

Great teachers bring out the best in their charges, pushing them to greater heights of achievement, imploring them to look beyond the surface for deeper levels of meaning, and helping them discover abilities they hadn't previously known they possessed. Mr. Smith, the assistant headmaster at Newtown Friends School, was all of these things. Later in life, I came to realize that he was the best teacher I ever had.

However, as a mayhem-minded seventh grader in Mr. Smith’s homeroom class in 1982, I didn’t have this perspective. He was just a big old adversary to me; a formidable one, who despite having a funny accent seemed to always be one step ahead of me, waiting to foil my devious plans.

It was Mr. Smith's job to teach us the ins and outs of the English grammar -- proper usage, diction, irregularities, and so on -- and he viewed himself as a defender against lazy habits he saw creeping into the American version of the language. As someone instilled at an early age with the virtues of the Queen's English, Mr. Smith approached his grammar teaching with the seriousness of an air traffic controller.

Mr. Smith could be very strict and authoritarian when the occasion called for it. In my case, that was all the time. His aforementioned booming voice had a fierceness to it that filled me with dread. It was the voice of the tyrannical teacher in Pink Floyd's The Wall, the one who shrieks "How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?" Actually, if Pink Floyd had not found that guy, Mr. Smith would have been a perfect second choice.

Now, I don't want to paint Mr. Smith as some sort of harsh disciplinarian, but he was by no means averse to corporal punishment. He was quite skilled with the yardstick, as I personally found out on numerous occasions. You would never see it coming with Mr. Smith: You'd just be running around, or laughing and screaming, when suddenly, "THWACK", you'd feel the sharp sting of the yardstick on your butt. It didn't hurt as much as it was embarrassing, and that "THWACK" definitely got your attention.

The most memorable yardstick episode came during class one spring day. We had broken out into groups for an assignment, and a few of us -- I think it was Ben, Dave, Mike and myself -- were leaning out the classroom window staring intently at something that had captivated our attention. It might have been a shiny car, a pretty girl, or two squirrels mating, I don't quite recall.

Suddenly, we felt the "THWACK" of Mr. Smith's ruler, hitting across all our butts with a single stroke. We returned sheepishly to our seats as the other students roared with laughter. Later, we figured out that Mr. Smith must have used something longer than a yardstick, because we measured our butts with a yardstick and the width was way more than 36 inches.

Another memorable seventh grade episode came during the month or so when I became very skilled in the production of spitballs. I experimented by chewing many different paper types, including notebook paper, brown bags, and glossy magazine pages, and eventually developed an arsenal of short-, medium- and long-range spitball projectiles. I didn't use a straw, and instead would lob my soggy projectiles at the classroom walls, and more often than not, they would stick, with an audible "splat".

Naturally, since I wasn't paying attention to Mr. Smith's grammar lessons, I had plenty of time to devote to spitball research and development, though I did have to be careful not to get caught chewing (Mr. Smith did actually see me chewing paper once, but mistakenly thought it was gum).

As luck would have it, there was a large, five foot tall relief map of Africa on the classroom wall near my desk, and I figured out that I could easily hit just about any country on it. A majority of the spitballs ended up landing on northern Libya and Egypt, which soon became decorated with more than a dozen little dots. After a while, I recruited my classmates to join the fun, and other countries on the map became similarly adorned.

The best part about all of this was that Mr. Smith seemed completely oblivious. He wore thick eyeglasses, and I suspected that they were not of sufficient strength to allow him to see what was happening to the map. But eventually, Mr. Smith did catch on. He always caught on, no matter what subversive activity I was engaging in.

In classic Mr. Smith fashion, he approached the situation like a move in a chess game. He asked me to stay after class one day, and then began questioning me.

"Mr. McLaughlin, can you tell me, does Libya have mountains?"

"Um, yes, it has some, I think."

"Where are the mountains located? Show me on the map."

With a familiar feeling of impending punishment washing over me, I walked over to the map and pointed to the mountains in the central part of the country.

"Are there any mountains in northern Libya and Egypt?"

"Uh, no, it's pretty flat, I think."

At this point, his voice rose, becoming edged with irritation. “Dear child, then why are there mountains on THIS map?"

Needless to say, I spent the next couple of recess periods removing the crusted -- and surprisingly adhesive -- spitballs from the map of Africa.

Mr. Smith was a tough, no-nonsense teacher alright, but when your work met with his high bar of approval, you could rightly feel proud. This was especially true of his grammar class, in which he required students to memorize a series of poems over the course of the school year, including Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"and "The Pirate Don Durk of Dowdee" by Mildred Plew Meigs.

It is important to note that we didn't just have to memorize the poems; we were also required to recite them aloud to Mr. Smith at his desk. If you didn't demonstrate an acceptable mastery of the poem that day, or hesitated between verses, Mr. Smith would send you away to study some more. You really had to nail it perfectly to receive his stamp of approval.

Some poems were short and easy, others long and difficult, but at the end of the school year, when you came to the last one -- the task of memorization made more difficult by spring breezes wafting through the window -- you felt an indescribable surge of accomplishment.

The most important thing to remember about Mr. Smith is that he was much more than just a teacher. He played piano in the weekly school assembly; he ran the weekly soft pretzel sale; he dressed up for school Halloween costume parties; he whacked our butts with a ruler when we got out of line; and it was his voice you heard on the school public address system at the end of the day, announcing the arrival of your bus. He was, quite simply, everywhere in our lives as students.

More than any other teacher, it was Mr. Smith’s caring spirit that made Newtown Friends School feel like a family. Which is why many of us were moved to tears on graduation day, when we realized that he would no longer be part of our everyday lives. No longer would we be able to snicker among ourselves about his plaid pants, or see the twinkle in his eyes when we pleased him with our hard work. That was a tough realization, for all of us.

When you were on his good side, Mr. Smith’s demeanor was more kindly uncle than imperious disciplinarian. He really was a good man.

Though I was a perennial thorn in Mr. Smith's side, I always felt that he and I had a certain kinship, like that which exists between a warden and inmate. After all, it was his job to maintain order in the classroom, and I saw it as my duty to disrupt it. His main problem with me was that I was lazy and could be a much better student if only I would apply myself. Every teacher has students like this, but Mr. Smith cared enough not to let any of his fall by the wayside.

In 1988, while home from college on break, I went back to Newtown Friends School, dropping by unannounced to see if Mr. Smith was still there. I wanted to let him know that I was doing better; that I had stopped slacking and was on the right path. Also that I still remembered him and appreciated what he'd done for me. I hoped that he would remember me, too -- and not as the borderline sociopath who had once taken up so much of his energies and attention.

Mr. Smith was there, and he did remember me. We chatted for a half hour, and his face lit up when I told him I was majoring in English. Despite the irony of one of his all-time worst grammar students having chosen such a path, Mr. Smith seemed genuinely happy that I had come back to see him and deliver this news. And perhaps a bit proud as well.

Before leaving, for old times' sake, I gave Mr. Smith a recital of "The Road Not Taken", which I somehow still remembered, word for word. Nailed it on the first try.