Schooled

by Jennifer McGaha 

My fourth grade teacher was exactly like John Denver in every possible way — only hotter. Mr. B was twenty-something years old with ruddy skin and shaggy blond hair, and he had that same laidback attitude John had before drugs and alcohol made him a touch volatile.

It was 1976, in rural western North Carolina, and our class was part of The Beaver Pond, a cluster of classrooms in which one hundred kids rotated among four teachers. Mr. B was technically my science teacher, but he was also my homeroom teacher. He wore blue jeans and flannel shirts to work every day, except when he had to dress up, and then he wore a button-down shirt, tie, and blue jeans. And whenever he laughed, he laughed with his entire head, a slinging, tilting motion that brought to mind a religious frenzy.

In his free time, Mr. B sang and played guitar and fiddle and mountain dulcimer in a traditional mountain music band, and some days, just when we were starting to get bored by a discussion on the life cycle of a caterpillar, he would gather us all into a circle on the carpet, break out his guitar, and belt out “Tom Dooley” in a voice as clear and old as the mountains surrounding our school.

Mr. B also offered guitar lessons after school. One afternoon each week, Mr. B and I sat side by side in short wooden chairs while week after week, he patiently showed me the exact same cords to “Oh, Susanna” while, week after week, I played them the exact same incorrect way until finally he decided we should just let that song rest for a while, and we moved on to “Get Along Home, Cindy.”

Those afternoons with Mr. B were my favorite part of fourth grade — except for our weekly field trips. Each Thursday, The Beaver Pond — all one hundred kids and four teachers and a handful of parent volunteers — spent the entire day at a nearby camp where we wrote poetry by the stream, grilled corncakes at the mill, hiked through the woods to study the curves of leaves, lay on our backs in the meadow and watched the clouds.

At the end of the day, we gathered in the lodge where Mr. B rocked the house playing old time ballads like “Barbara Allen” on his fiddle. As he closed his eyes and crooned about the man who died pining for the woman he could not have, a woman who realized too late the love she had lost, my best friend, Shelley, and I sat knee to knee on the hard, wooden floor and sang along, the tragic end to Barbara and her lover something we felt as keenly as the splinters in our bare legs.

And then one day that fall, Mr. B made an announcement: There was going to be a new extracurricular activity offered in the school gym — clogging. It was going to be a lot of fun, and he really, really hoped we would all give it a try. Shelley and I needed no further prodding. We donned flannel shirts, jeans, and clear, plastic belts and hightailed it to the school gym where we heel-step-stomped our way through the crowd wearing blue-striped Nikes and tube socks.

A petite blond with a Dorothy Hamil haircut, Shelley was an excellent clogger. In fact, she was good at everything at which I was average — cheerleading, gymnastics, math. And as if that weren’t enough, Shelley was worldly. By which I mean that she had actually seen people having sex — her parents, that is. She walked in on them in their bedroom one night, and afterwards her mother forced her to sit through a long this-is-what-grown-ups-do-when-they-love-each-other chat. Now Shelley and her mother regularly talked about things my mother would sooner have gouged out her own tongue than tell me.

This insider knowledge gave Shelley an elevated status among the fourth grade girls, a certain sophistication, and we turned to her with all the questions our mothers didn’t want to answer — questions about sex and periods and shaving our legs. Shelley knew a lot of good stuff, but when she didn’t know something, she pretended she was wondering and asked her mother who then told her who would then tell us since her mother most surely knew since, unlike our mothers, Shelley’s mother was actually having sex.

Though I did not know it then, what I would not realize for many years, was that there was something about all the clogging and fiddle playing and storytelling that stirred a sort of regional pride in all of us. In Mr. B’s classroom, the poverty that was all around us became not insignificant but somehow more significant, more reason to wonder at the grit and determination of our forebears. And the log cabins our great-grandparents lived in, the places with outhouses and no running water and no electricity, were transformed from pitiful shacks to magical places where music and stories and truth-telling converged.

Back then, though, I didn’t know any of that. I only knew that every single time Mr. B was around, I felt jittery and flushed, like I’d guzzled too much grape Kool-Aid. Still, my fourth grade crush might have gone down in my memory as a passing thing had Mr. B not taught me at that moment when I was most vulnerable — which is to say, the year I got glasses.

Mr. B was the one who suggested to my mother that I needed to have my vision checked. He had picked up on subtle signs, like the fact that whenever we were supposed to copy notes from the board, I ran to the front of the room and pressed my nose into the chalky letters.

If anyone with less star quality about him had reported this to my mother, I would have had a big fit, but it was Mr. B, so I went calmly to my appointment with the optometrist and was cooperative when the glasses lady helped me pick out frames that were a sickly, marbly tan. It didn’t really matter what they looked like since I didn’t plan to actually wear them.

Each morning after that, my mother pressed my glasses case in my hand, and I walked into school, then shoved the case into my jacket pocket, where it remained until she picked me up that afternoon.

“How are your glasses working out?” she would ask as soon as I got in the car.

“Fine,” I would say. “Really helpful.”

It wasn’t exactly lying because I actually could see better since Mr. B moved my desk to the very front row. Which was great because I got to sit right in front of him where I could watch him close-up. It was sort of like stalking, but not really since I was actually supposed to be watching him.

“Excellent job, Jennifer!” he beamed when I remembered what deciduous meant.

“Fantastic!” he said after I described the mating habits of red newts in a few stumbling sentence fragments.

Then one day, we were discussing erosion when Mr. B went to the board and made a series of large, sweeping motions with his arm. He stood back and gestured to the board with his open palm.

“This diagram shows what happens when overuse of a trail leads to erosion,” he said. “Copy this down in your notebooks, so you can use it to study for your test on Friday.”

I squinted and cocked my head one way and then another, but all I could see were a few squiggly lines interspersed with smudges. Mr. B was standing to one side so we could see the board, but when he saw that I wasn’t working, he came over to my desk.

“Jennifer, why don’t you try wearing your glasses?”

“No!” I said.

“Please,” he said.

“No!” I repeated, only louder.

Today, this sort of response would necessitate a trip to the principal’s office followed by endless rounds of phone calls to parents and so on and so forth possibly followed by prison time, but it was, after all, the seventies, and we were all about free expression. Mr. B gave one lovely sweep of his head.

“Why not?” he asked.

I shrugged.

“Why not?” he asked again.

Another shrug.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to tell him. I couldn’t tell him. Though it was already November, I had thus far spoken to Mr. B only in fragments of actual thoughts. I had yet to utter one complete, articulate sentence. There were other kids with real issues in our class — like the kid who came to school smelling so bad that the teachers washed him in the janitor’s closet one morning or the kid whose case was more extreme than mine — he had not spoken one word all year long — but somehow Mr. B intuited something fundamentally needy in me, like the frogs we rescued from the lodge steps at camp and returned to the creek. He looked at me for a moment, then knelt beside my desk.

“Well,” he said, “what if you sat under your desk and put them on under there where no one could see you?”

For a moment, I thought I heard him incorrectly. But he was so earnest, kneeling and gently nodding, his head bobbing with optimism and encouragement, that I thought, well, why not? I gathered my jacket and my notebook and No. 2 pencil and crawled underneath my desk.

“What is Jennifer doing?” a kid across the room screamed.

“Yeah, what is wrong with her?” another kids yelled.

“Never mind what she’s doing,” Mr. B said.

Down under the table, I pulled my glasses case from my pocket. It was pink with a gaudy flower print. An old lady case. I pulled my jacket over my head and slipped on my glasses. The lenses were almost as thick as Little Women, which I had just completed reading in less than a week without my glasses, thank you very much. I blinked a few times, and a picture appeared — curly clouds, a weaving trail, a rocky bank that was falling into the river. I copied it all down and added a pair of red newts mating on the river bank..

“This is what happens when overuse of a trail leads to erosion,” Mr. B said. “Can someone define erosion for us?”

Suddenly, a body appeared next to mine. Warm and tiny, Shelley sat with her legs crossed, her gaze directed straight ahead. Her royal blue cheerleading jacket smelled like glue, and she had drawn a heart on the knee of her jeans: “Shelley loves Doug.”

I tried to mouth to her that I was the only one who had permission to sit under the desk, but she wouldn’t look at me. She was there, but she wasn’t there. So instead, I added some raindrops to my drawing. I was just getting ready to add another newt couple when Mr. B squatted next to me. His eyes were cast down at the carpet, and he spoke quietly, as if he were coaxing a stray dog from behind a dumpster.

“How about you, Jennifer?” he asked. “Can you tell us what erosion means?”

I nodded.

“Erosion is when material is worn away from the earth’s surface,” I said.

A complete sentence.

“Like how?” Mr. B asked.

“By wind,” I said. “Or water.”

“Excellent!” he said, hopping upright. “Excellent, excellent! Can anyone tell us another way erosion occurs?”

“Me, me!” someone shouted from across the room.

Mr. B moved away from me, his voice evaporating like dew from a field. I could see the creases in his jeans, the flecks of mud on the backs of his loafers, and as I reached over and gripped Shelley’s delicate hand, I was already pining away for him, my fourth-grade soul a tangled mess of relief and devastation.

Jennifer McGaha is a native of western North Carolina, and her nonfiction and creative nonfiction have appeared in dozens of magazines and literary journals, including Baltimore Fishbowl, Your Impossible Voice, Gravel, The Brooklyner, theNewerYork, Toad Suck Review, Switchback, Still, Portland Review, Little Patuxent Review, Lumina, Mason’s Road, Now and Then, The Chronicle of Higher Education and others.

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