Thursday, May 31, 2007

Big R

I had a teacher when I was in the eleventh grade who made a deep impression on me and who I still think of frequently. Occasionally I’ve written about the boarding school I attended in the North Carolina Mountains, when my parents had to perform emergency triage because in my adolescence I was hemorrhaging good sense and flunking out of high school. They sent me sulking and moping to a prep school with a student body made up of about 150 hormonal southern boys (mostly) and left me to stew, and cope, and find something about myself to salvage.

Reed Finlay taught English. In the eleventh grade, at this school, this meant that the authors we read were American and male. I remember reading The Spoon River Anthology, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (where the discussions on Maggie the Cat were spirited and borderline-crude—the student with the least desire to hold back his raging adolescence would blurt out what we all were thinking), The Great Gatsby, Death of a Salesman, and The Sun also Rises where we thought we were pretty clever for coming up with the saying, “the sun may rise, but Jake don’t,” based on the main character, Jake Barnes’, notorious war injury.

Big R let us get away with this kind of thing. We called him Big R because he had a son in the grade below ours who, sensibly, everyone called Little R or just Reed. Big R was a tall, thin, bespectacled character, and it would be stretch, but I might suggest Hugh Laurie to play his part in a movie. He was Southern, I believe he went to Sewanee, and his lectures on Faulkner and Tennessee Williams were draped with kudzu and whippoorwills. He forced us out of ourselves and made us read tracts of writing which we, at that time, did not even realize held meaning for us.

The first positive thing anyone said to me at this school was from Big R. I was skulking from one class to the next one morning and he and another teacher were coming out of the main building where classes were held. He bounced a little when he walked, and I could never understand how someone could actually be happy at this place—the confidence and vigor that our English teacher showed both amazed and offended me. He stopped me and made a point of telling the teacher with him that the school now had a bonefied creative writer in its midst. He had read one of my assignments and liked it. It was a short story completely lifted from Pat Conroy about father and son tension with a gimmicky ending involving a sand-dollar. I had read The Lords of Discipline the year before and by osmosis had adopted the language of the smart-assed southern boy that Conroy liked to use in his dialogue. Between this and the back and forth between Brick Pollitt and Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Big R seemed to think I had hit on a recurring theme and read some of my story in class as I melted into a thick pool of embarrassment. The reading elicited a few grunts and a snicker, and life went on.

I had spent part of the summer, prior to enrollment at the school, in Normandy. With such a brief time in France, I had little time to get to know much about the country, but I was proud of the fact that I had spent time there and wanted to get the word out that I wasn’t just some bumpkin from Clemmons, North Carolina, that I had actually seen parts of the world. Big R would assign journal entries where we were free to write on any subject we wished and I decided I would try my hand at art critic. I had found some paintings by Jacque Louis David in a library book and figured that since he was French, this would be a good way to get in the fact that I had spent time in France. I wrote a long homage to the paintings of David, embellishing on how powerful it was to actually view them in person and remarking that they were the high point of Renaissance art. I remember Big R’s large red hand-writing on the paper when I got it back. It just said, “Neo-Classical,” with an exclamation point.

Big R saved me that spring by employing me as the editor of the literary magazine. It was mandatory for all students to participate in an organized sport and I had ducked and dodged to avoid being placed in an activity where I would be the scrawniest and slowest participant. One afternoon after biology class, the teacher, who doubled as the school’s vice-principle, announced that he was fully aware that I was not signed up for a sport and that if in the next day I did not sign up for one he would sign me up for one. I told him that I would see what I could do. He told me I had better.

I went to Big R, and as I stuttered out my explanation as to why I had not signed up for a sport he stopped me and succinctly paraphrased what I was trying to say. “So you’ve gotten yourself into a fix and you need ole Big R to bail you out, is that it?” All I could say was “Yea.”

The deal was that I would double as trainer for the track team and editor of The Struan, the literary magazine. Between raking the long-jump pit and operating the stop-watch I would take a folder of student work to the bleachers and try not to let the pages blow away in the wind. Here I would organize, to the best of my ability, the work of introverted students like myself, who along with being talented wrestlers or aspiring chemists, were also able to tack two sentences together and squeeze some deeper meaning out of them. The Struan was illustrated as well, and the talents of artistic boys who might be chastised for their work away from the magazine, now, for some reason, held weight with the other boys, as if the staples and rough cover of the magazine was proof of their worth.

The magazine came out and Big R congratulated us on our work. I had three illustrations in it plus the derivative story with the sand-dollar. I used to have a copy around, but moves and other upheavals have caused me to misplace my copy, although there might be a way to get it through the school.

Another instance that comes to mind about Big R is just about a car ride into town. On Saturday afternoons we were free to do what we wanted around campus and usually there were bus-rides into town. For some reason we had either missed the bus-ride or the bus wasn’t going that day and a friend and I managed to catch a ride into town with Big R and his wife. Big R was in the passenger seat, his wife was driving, and as we drove Big R turned the dial of the radio. He found a country music station and stopped. He listened for a moment and nodding long appreciative nods he turned to his wife and said, “Listen, this is a song about a man whose heart is so broken he doesn’t know what to do. Can you hear it in his voice? It’s just killing him.” His wife watched the road and clicked on her turn signal. “I mean, can you just hear it?” Big R continued, “Do you appreciate the heart-felt emotion that this man is trying to convey?” His wife absently said, “Um-hmmm.” Big R just turned his head and looked out the window continuing to nod in time to the music.

My friend had ignored the entire exchange. But I thought it was funny, and I got what he was saying. What I know now is that Big R, out of the classroom, was the same as in, taking meaning from human voices and constantly relating it to those around him. The country singer was an author of sorts to Big R and he practiced his interpretation and conveyance with his wife who, undoubtedly, had been there before. But for a seventeen-year-old kid sitting in the back of a car it demonstrated what we can do with the world around us if we listen closely.

I got a call from Big R some years ago at a very unlikely place, the country club where I worked for all those years. He was calling to ask me if he could use some of my drawings in a book he was doing about the school. I said of course he could. He had relocated to another town, and I just can’t imagine my old school without his presence, but I imagine he added just as much to the new school where he was working. It was fascinating to hear his voice over the telephone in that loud bustling kitchen, and it brought home how far removed from the school I had become. Something about the far-off nature of his voice made me realize that while I was experiencing the pangs of adolescence I was unknowingly being formed by teachers like Big R, who could draw on the sexuality of Maggie or the dilemma of Jake Barnes and tell us something that would resound within us as we moved through our later-lives. That memory, of Big R’s classroom, occupies my mental space like my first guitar, where I learned how to assert my voice in unsure tones, and practice the first movements of being an adult.


Emily Barton said...

This is a GREAT post. Funny, I always thought you actually ran track. You probably don't remember this, but I remember either right after you graduated, or maybe while you were still there, having a big discussion with you about Lewis Carroll and thinking "Wow, we've grown up."

imichie said...

I "ran" cross-country in the fall, and actually lettered, but in the spring I was shurking again.

Froshty said...

You really brought Big R to life and I could see the guy in my mind's eye, even though I don't think I ever met him. I had a professor at UNC that was like him, except that she was a woman named Daphne Athas. She also had that same ear for people and interactions and coincidentally, she contacted me four years ago by e-mail to see if she could use something I wrote for her in anthology. I'll never forget her; she taught me so much about southern writing and then recommended me for an honors creative writing class with Doris Betts, one of my idols.

linser said...

This is so good. I'm glad Big R noticed what a good writer you are right away. Wish you could find that story.

imichie said...

I think I may have the original in the class journal we all kept. I'll try to dig it up.