Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Full Circle

Not too very long ago, I found myself at home, that is, the place where I grew up, north of the Broad Mountain in Schuylkill Co., Pa. I left after work on a Wednesday afternoon and drove the 450 miles from Raleigh, NC to my mom’s house in Cresswell Gardens, down in the valley, on the road between Frackville and Ashland.

Family was the motivation for my visit. My mom was having cataract surgery that Friday, and my stepfather had a cardiac arrest scheduled for the following Sunday morning, though we didn’t know it at the time, but that’s another story.

On Friday, after the cataract surgery, but before the cardiac arrest on Sunday, I was browsing the local paper, The Republican-Herald. Buried in the first section, I noticed an article highlighting an art exhibit that evening from 6:00 - 9:00 at “Uptown Ashland” featuring several local artists. Two things about this piece of news drew my attention. One, I got a chuckle at the image and idea of “Uptown Ashland”— 95% of the town is built on a hill. I guess the “uptown” idea gave some weight and class to both Ashland and group sponsoring the exhibit. Either way, it was funny to me.

The other striking thing in the article was the name of one of the local featured artists, Robert McCormick. Yes, ole Mr. Bob McCormick, my 11th grade English teacher; this is the cat that, whether either of us realized it at the time or not—let alone admitted it, had a huge impact on the direction my life would take over the next 25 years.

Bob was an interesting character, and in many ways very much an anomaly in our small Catholic high school. He was a male, and he wasn’t a priest. That, in and of itself was unusual. Next, he was an English teacher. We didn’t know men, let alone ones who weren’t priests, could be English teachers at Catholic schools. Finally, he was cool. He was groovy; he was hip and he was bohemian. Bob was tuned-in and rumored to have turned-on and dropped out during his younger days. Yes, he definitely had a hint of hippy about him dwelling just beneath the surface of his thin frame. Yet another rumor hinted that he’d been at Woodstock—the real one, and there was another story circulating that he’d been held captive across three western states by fleeing bank robbers. Apparently, while in the midst of hitch hiking across America, a thing a hippie was reputedly disposed to in the days of peace and love, these bandits picked up Bob and a companion. I know there were a few other rumors floating around back then; they elude me now, but the bottom line was this: Bob had myth. He had an established Odyssey, and that mythology made him legit in my book.

Me, I was a large, sixteen-year old, hormone driven, Warrior Poet—though I really didn’t understand that last part at the time. I was in medias res with an internal struggle that would define a large portion of my life…trying to find my place, trying to figure out who I was, and trying to make sense of it all. In between that and drinking beer, I wanted to play football and basketball, I wanted to kiss girls, I wanted to write poetry and play the guitar, I wanted to act and dance and sing, and I wanted to learn to play the sax. I was able to do some of those, but others I left behind. Oh well. Back then, north of Broad Mountain, you made your choices early and rolled with them. Things were black and white, but mostly black, and there was no room for blurrin’ lines.

Until my junior year in high school, English class was a rather insignificant event in my academic life. That’s really a shame because I loved to read and write, and along with running and hitting, these were things I could do easily. Here’s a snapshot: Our freshman English “B” class was reading—aloud and in sequence, person by person, row by row, word by word, To Kill A Mockingbird, starting from page one. The good thing was that I felt myself getting hooked two pages in, the bad was that after the painful readings of the first few students in the first row, I couldn’t be held back. I looked across the room and did my calculations; there were three rows and 14 students ahead of me. I vividly remember thinking “I’ll just read the first chapter,” and off I went. The ugly would follow shortly.

Well thanks a bunch Harper Lee for writing a classic. I don’t remember how far I had melted into the text, but once my over-active imagination kicked into overdrive, I lost all sense of time and space. I wasn’t reading the book; I was the book.

Nothing kills a good book-buzz quicker than the sting of Sister Earnest Borgnine's ( or whichever nun she was) ruler smashing into my hands and knocking the book out of my hands. Apparently, much to the amusement of the students, I had not responded to several prompts by Sister EB to read. Much in the furtive fashion of ladies and gents of the cloth, she had hushed the class and moved in on me, just like a cat stalking a mouse. She delivered the deathblow with surgeon-like precision, the shiny metal edge implanted in the heavy old wooden ruler ripped into the flesh of my fingers, and the book leaped out of my hands like a fly fleeing the swatter.

She barked. “Pay attention! What’s wrong with you? You’re always day dreaming Robert! Get with the class, it is your turn to read.” I could swear she was cursing me under her breath as she returned to her perch at the front of the class. “Now read! We are on page 5, paragraph two…”

I don’t even remember anything about my sophomore English teacher, the curriculum, or anything earth-shattering that plugged me into learning. Nothing. No books, no short stories. Nada, nill, zip, zilch... zero.

Academic life for me changed on the first day of my junior year, first period. There he was, Mr. McCormik, Bob Mac, standing at the door of room 103, intoxicated waves of dark hair spinning about his head, a slightly mad and wild look in his eyes, wearing the dark blue v-neck regulation school sweater, with a silhouetting blue shirt and dark blue tie.

The bell rang to start class, and he began, in a soft voice, his introduction. “Hello, I’m Mr. Bob McCormick, and…”

15 minutes in, and I was addicted. I don’t think I’d ever had a teacher that was talking to me, rather than at me. It was weird. I mean, it was really weird. It was mesmerizing. I had a “mind-buzz” and it felt good and different. .

I wish I could say that I remember specific things that Bob Mac did in class to pull me in; I must confess, it has been a long time. However, I do remember some of the literature and authors I encountered: The Red Badge of Courage, The Tell-Tale Heart, The Great Gatsby, The Crucible, Emily Dickenson, Robert Frost, and Earnest Hemmingway. It was all good. I decided I was going to see Bob Mac and his artwork. It had been at least 25 years.

At 8:30 that Friday evening, I crept up the stairs of the “Uptown Ashland” building. Typical of a coal region home, there was a steep and narrow staircase rising above me, and I could hear voices and see light as I climbed higher. Finally, out of breath and at the top, I tried to slip into the room unnoticed…not an easy feat for a man of my girth. The room was brightly lit; paintings filled the walls, and about twenty people were milling about, drinking wine and coffee, and talking about art. It was somewhat surreal.

I put my back to the crowd and began to study the artwork, slowly working my way around the room until I saw Mr. Mac. He looked …well, he looked exactly like a cat of his stature should look. Still cool and hip. He wore a red and white Hawaiian shirt, loose khakis, and sandals. His hair was a little long and a little gray, as was the beard and moustache he was sporting. However, he seemed cool and casual, sipping wine and chatting with guests.

I pulled out one of my business cards and moved in on him quickly. Handing him the card with one hand, and shaking his hand with the other, I presented myself professionally. “Sir, I represent a very wealthy individual client. He is interested in purchasing all of the Robert McCormick work that is on sale here this evening.” He furrowed his brow, and glanced down at the card for a fraction of a second, then up at me. “Bobby Alexander! Bobby Alexander! I thought that was you!” His arms flailing about, he hugged me. “It is so good to see you! How are you? You look fabulous!”

I didn’t want to monopolize his time, so I excused myself and went over to look at his prints while he continued to work the crowd. His artwork was striking, colorful, and filled with representations I recognized. The main muse was the hard surroundings of Ashland, and Schuylkill Co. However, he seemed to have found a knack for bringing out, even in this drab and dreary little corner of the world, some brightness and beauty. I was really blown away by the images.

Eventually, he worked his way back over to me, and we chatted about life and what we were up to, about his work, and we shared a few chuckles over some high school moments when we both took ourselves way too seriously.

“I tell my students all the time about how I assaulted you during Pippin, do you remember that?” An appreciation of drama was also one of the gifts Bob imparted to me. He directed plays during my junior and seniors years, and when I was a senior, we staged a production of Pippin.

In Pippin, I played the role of Charlemagne, King of the Holy Roman Empire. Very early in the third act, I am slain by my son, Pippin. I die, and my corpse remained on stage for the rest of the scene. On, I think, the third night of the play, as I lay there dead on stage, I found myself completely and totally relaxed, almost asleep. I was so relaxed that I didn’t even notice the mighty fart I emitted in my corpse like state until it was too late. I am sure that the force fluttered my cape up in the air. It was loud. This, in turn, caused many of the other actors on stage to break character, and I can remember seeing shoulders shaking and the muffled laughter as the players tried hard to keep it together. When the scene ended, Bob was waiting for me, worked up to a froth with fury.

“You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show!” He kept repeating it, flailing his arms wildly in the air, the whole time following me back stage, down the stairs, into the locker room. “You’ve ruined the show! You’ve ruined the show…”

We both laughed out loud. It really was an unforgettable moment. “I’m sorry Robert, I thought it was Broadway back then. Did you ever forgive me?” I smiled. “The question is Bob, did you ever forgive me?” We laughed again.

As I thumbed through the stack of his prints, he asked which one I liked the most. I pulled out two, both Ashland landscapes. He said, in a low whisper, “Here Robert, take them. I’ve got enough money anyway.” And he smiled. “So, why did you come here tonight?”

In my twenty-year teaching career as a high school English teacher, I have been lucky enough to cross paths with many former students out and about in the world. Each time, almost with out fail, they tell me how much my class and my teaching meant to them. It really didn’t matter to me if they felt that way because of the content or because I was likable, and therefore, their favorite teacher, or just that they were sorry for acting up a million years ago. The thing is I did something to make teaching and learning memorable for them. Validation, even if it is delayed, is important to our human existence. It was time to bring it full circle.

“Thank you, Mr. McCormick. I just wanted to say thank you for doing what you did. I don’t know what it was, and it really doesn’t matter now, but the point is, you did it. You helped create a memorable experience, and you had an impact on my life. I never have forgotten you, and I will never forget you. Your influence and encouragement helped light a spark in me, and I’m still fueling the fire today.”

Bob Mac smiled, gave me a hug, and whispered, “Thank you, Robert. Thank you.”