Missed Opportunities

My 2nd grade teacher, a young, pretty, blond woman, Miss Johnson, did her best to maintain order in the classroom while also trying to teach us something.

I had my differences with her but, when I heard Miss Johnson retired the year after she taught my class, it never occurred to me that I might be responsible. It was curious that a teacher would choose to leave the profession at such a young age.

The first conflict I had with Miss Johnson makes sense in retrospect. She knew I was a fan of the great children’s book, “Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel”. It was a classic, stark depiction of how evil capitalists drive poor workers out of their jobs with their endless pursuit of ever more efficiency. Mike gets drawn into a contest to prove his steam shovel’s worth by out-digging some new gizmo that excavates faster and cheaper. (A thinly veiled updating of the folk legend, John Henry).

Mike proves to be so successful with his steam shovel, that he effectively digs himself out of a job by digging himself into a hole so deep that he cannot get out. (Politicians, take note.) Mike proved himself to be a hard worker, not the smartest brick in the pile.

Mike ends his days quietly tending his beloved steam shovel, now converted into a furnace, in the basement of the office building constructed above them. On reflection, the message seems muddled. But, at least Mike owned the tools of production!

Miss Johnson decided to dramatize this morality tale and engaged the whole class in the construction of a steam shovel out of card-board boxes. Unbeknownst to me, she was in a power struggle (with me) for control of the class. Casting me as Mike Mulligan was the center piece of her plan to regain control.

Being essentially a one character drama, and also being primarily an internal conflict, of Mike proving himself to himself, this was a boring story to watch (despite my stellar acting). More to the point, she expected the whole class to sit passively for the performance of a one-man show, when the essence of learning is active engagement. This woman didn’t know the first thing about stage-craft!

Did she cast me as the star and sole character to make me an ally? Or to disenchant the rest of the class with my ‘over-arching ego’? I will never know.

I sensed she held me responsible for the unenthusiastic response from my classmates. It couldn’t have been her writing, directing or choice of material.

Perhaps she felt I put in a lackluster performance. To be honest, the steam shovel kept upstaging me.

The real break between Miss Johnson and myself occurred later that winter. During lunch and recess, students were required to play outside in the snow.

Miss Johnson instituted a policy that anyone returning to class with wet pants, was required to remove them, and sit in class with their coat wrapped around their waist. Her stated reason was concern that we not catch pneumonia from sitting in damp clothes.

That girls were not subject to this draconian treatment, due to their wearing skirts and dresses, struck me as blatantly sexist. (True!) Requiring only boys to sit in their underwear in a co-ed class was an unabashed strategy of shame and humiliation. It was also weird.

Other boys attempted to play the situation for laughs by ‘accidentally’ dropping their covering and other antics. I would never submit to such undignified treatment.

Miss Johnson knew instinctively that she would have a first class war on her hands, should she ever demand that I remove my pants. Despite her efforts to intimidate, she knew her limits.

It was rumored (and I take no pride in this) that I was the cause of Miss Johnson’s premature retirement. My mother told me the full story when I was in college.

Miss Johnson told my mother that I had control of her class. She claimed, “When John wants to work, everyone works, and when John wants to play, everyone plays.” She further asserted that I had proven impervious to her attempts to win me over and wrest control of the class from my hands.

This came to light when Miss. Johnson requested an interview with my Mom, about my behavior. They discussed her efforts to control me, in the classroom, while my classmates and I quietly read.

I knew nothing of this power struggle. Imagine, a 2nd grader successfully conspiring to lead fellow students in rebellion against their teacher. Does this seem plausible? If only…

My mother claimed that as the meeting progressed, she watched me demurely read my book. She found it absurd that I was somehow diabolically defying this obviously incompetent teacher. I appeared incapable of the monstrous behavior described to her.

I was flabbergasted when she told me, and dismayed at the long, lost opportunity. If I had had any idea, of the power I held, imagine what I would have accomplished.

The course of my life could have been so different. I could’ve been a contender.

I could have taken over the world!


Boxing with my Dad

One of my earliest memories is standing out in the yard with my Dad and brothers, wearing boxing gloves. I used to enjoy watching professional boxers on TV with my Dad. The show was sponsored by Gillette razors and the commercials had a funny cartoon parrot. It was all very manly.

The boxing didn’t seem very real to me and the bouts rarely lasted long. But out in the yard it was suddenly very real. My Dad told me to hit him and, for the first time I became conscious of some serious inner conflicts.

I didn’t want to hit my Dad. I loved him. I actually don’t remember ever being struck by him except for an occasional judicious swat on my behind. But to get into fisticuffs with him seemed bizarre. I was completely ignorant of how the rules worked. What if I hurt him? I didn’t want to hurt him. And I didn’t want his response if I did.

It only made sense that he would also get a turn. Having much greater reach than me, at six, I was completely outclassed. And he was a former Marine. Who knew what he was capable of? I would have to take him out with my first punch. Either way, I would suffer consequences. It was all too complicated for my little brain. How had I gotten into this?

I declined the match.

The story of “Sir Gawain and the Green Knight” comes to mind. Gawain was one of the heroes from King Arthur’s round table. In it, Gawain is challenged to a dual by a mysterious Green Knight. Gawain is granted the first strike with his sword, an obvious advantage.

Gawain makes the most of it and triumphantly cuts the Green Knight’s head off. At which point, the Green Knight stands and picks up his head. The disembodied head then tells Gawain that in one year, he will return with his response, and that Gawain should prepare.

Gawain has a tough year. Anticipating the worst, he trains but knows he cannot withstand this threat. How can he beat the unbeatable? Defend the indefensible? He basically goes through the seven stages dying; denial, depression, bargaining, etc.

A year passes, and Gawain is resigned to his destiny. He is terrified but he does not run. The Green Knight arrives and Gawain submits to his fate. The Green Knight touches Gawain’s neck with his sword, and then withdraws it, mercifully.

It is a huge moment in the original and completely unexpected. Gawain had no reason to expect this. He didn’t deserve it. Yet there it was. There was nothing Gawain could have done to earn it. How can one demand that justice be tempered with mercy? He couldn’t.

Of course, I realize that my father also would not have acted on his right to get even with me had I clocked him that warm summer’s day.

That wasn’t his style at all.