Here’s something I’ve learned: teachers are human.
They’re not superheroes or gods. Not saints or demons. They’re human beings, with flaws and weaknesses like all the rest of us.
Don Ward was a fine man who taught high school biology to undeserving students in the same crumbling, run-down building for forty-three years.
How bad was our school? When I was there, ceiling tiles used to fall crashing to the floor. I’d never actually seen one drop, but at least once a month we’d see one in the hallway by the lockers, broken on the ground with a cloud of white smoke that was probably 100% asbestos. In the ceiling, there’d be a gap that stayed there forever, never to be filled. No money in the budget. Or maybe nobody cared enough to bother.
Not such a great workplace for Don Ward. How did he do it? Why did he stay? It was impossible to know, because he exhibited no personality whatsoever. Zero. His face barely moved when he spoke. With his plain brown mustache covering his upper lip, you literally could not detect any change in his expression for hours at a time. He never smiled. It was like being taught by Buster Keaton without any of the physical comedy.
That was our biology class. Day after day, Mr. Ward stood in front of the class in his drab plaid shirts, droning on about chlorophyll and flowering plants. And in exchange for his years of service he was mocked and jeered and verbally abused by the teenagers who knew everything and had all the power.
Yes, power. Who knows where this power comes from? Teenagers are desperate, scared, and self-conscious. And also cocky, fearless, and totally in control.
I used to feel sorry for Mr. Ward. If only he’d tell a joke once in a while, he’d probably have a better chance connecting with some of the renegades forced to take his class. That’s all it took for other teachers, who could pal around a little. Anything to prove he was not a robot. If only he’d ask if anyone had seen the World Series the night before. Or say he heard something interesting in church last week. Or raise his voice in anger. Or smile.
But no: Donald Ward delivered his lecture in the same way, sentence by boring sentence, until the class, forced to submit to this for months at a time, had developed a kind of of pent-up frenzy. These were high school students, after all. Adolescents! Their insides were full of raging energies that had to be discharged. They needed to show off, to thump chests, to flirt, to challenge authority. They needed all this to survive.
In other classes, the teachers released this energy with a few little quips now and then, letting the students laugh and tease and push back, so the air would clear and the business of learning could begin. It was like the quick open-and-shut of a pressure valve.
Not in Mr. Ward’s class. In Mr. Ward’s class it was all pressure, no valve. For months. Something had to give.
Which brings me to the glorious day when Mr. Ward told a joke. Well, sort of a joke.
“Okay class,” he began. “Today we’re going to talk about buds. Now I don’t mean ‘Hey, Bud’ or ‘This Bud’s for you.’ I’m talking about the embryonic shoots on flowering plants…” And we were back into the lecture.
Not a great joke, to be sure, and gone as soon as it came, but there it was. Personality! His mustache even twitched a little, making us think he at least could smile, even if it was not 100% clear that he was doing so as he delivered his joke.
We all looked at each other to make sure we were not imagining this.
“Wow,” my friend Bobby mouthed at me, shaking his head in wonder.
I had new hopes for Mr. Ward. He had (sort of) told a joke! And a few kids had even laughed!
Granted, they seemed to be laughing at him, at the craziness of the moment. The guy waits five months to tell a joke and that’s all he can come up with? It was not even really a joke with a punchline. It didn’t work as a pun, exactly. If you analyzed it carefully, as I have many times over the years, you would probably conclude that it was basically a statement.
So yeah, it wasn’t really much of a joke. And so the general abuse returned. The pent-up fury was still rising.
And the next day, when Mr. Ward strangely repeated the joke, word for word, Ernie Starks was merciless.
Mr. Ward: Okay class. Today we’re going to talk about buds. Now I don’t mean “Hey, Bud” or “This Bud’s for you.” I’m talking about the embryonic shoots on flowering plants…
Ernie Starks: What the f—, dude? You told that same exact thing yesterday!
(Let’s pause here to appreciate the second sentence that emerged from Ernie Starks’s unwitting mouth. You told that same exact thing. Not told that same exact joke. Not said that same exact thing. It flew right past me at the time, but looking back, I realize what happened: Ernie was planning to call it a joke but couldn’t bring himself to give it that much credit. It did not rise to the level of a joke. It was more like a thing. Ah, Ernie: proving that sometimes even excited utterances can contain moments of linguistic genius.)
We all waited to see what would happen. Mr. Ward looked “surprised,” which for any other human being could be described by saying he “paused for a few seconds longer than normal.”
Mr. Ward: I did?
Ernie Starks: What is you, ignorant?
Mr. Ward checked his lesson plans at his desk and returned to the front of the room, flustered and apologetic. “Sorry, class,” he said. “I had my days mixed up.”
That joke, that non-joke, that thing he told, was in his lesson plans. He said it six times a year to six different classes, year after year after year. And in our case, he told it twice, word for word.
In other words, we were not exactly dealing with Richard Pryor here. But why should we have expected that? We were being taught by a good man, a hard worker. A tireless public servant. A human. Wasn’t that enough? Of course it wasn’t. Not for any of us. And especially not for a guy like Ernie Starks.
Ernie Starks was human too, but more on the criminal side of the spectrum. He was a mean kid, a troublemaker since kindergarten, a bad seed. He lived by the funeral home and used to shoot his BB gun at the processions of cars that drove slowly past his house on the way to the graveyard. Can there be a less human instinct?
But that was Ernie Starks: foul-mouthed, a jerk, a bully since he was old enough to sneer, a ceaseless fountain of pranks and negativity—and strangely charismatic! That’s the weird thing about high school. In regular society he’d be in prison. In high school he was the leader of the classroom, when he wasn’t actually serving detention or suspended from school.
It was easy to envision Ernie’s future: for the next several months he’d lead a small band of fellow criminals and wreak havoc on the school until he dropped out or was expelled, which would let him get on with his true calling of bar fights with pool cues and baseball bats and everything ending with a high-speed chase with the cops on the backroads of rural Wisconsin.
Poor Mr. Ward: his joke-thing, the highlight of his semester, had disintegrated. And right in front of Ernie Starks, who had all the power and was unforgiving. Ernie stared hard as Mr. Ward finished his apology, grinning in his sadistic way.
We all knew what was happening. Ernie Starks was not yet finished with Mr. Ward.
When Mr. Ward turned around to draw a diagram of photosynthesis on the chalkboard, Ernie Starks reached into the winter coat that he wore year-round and pulled out a Bic pen, which he converted to a weapon by pulling out the back end with his teeth and letting the ink cartridge fall to the floor. His expertise in executing this maneuver was impressive and seemed almost lethal; a trained Green Beret could have done no better. Then he ripped a page out of his biology book—the page on photosynthesis, a nice poetic touch but probably an accident—and tore it into eight pieces.
We all knew what this meant. Spitwad time.
Sure enough, Ernie loaded a square into his mouth and started chewing, a fiendish gleam in his eyes. His jaw churned; his tongue rolled around his cheeks. He was a spitwad master; years of practice had gone into perfecting his craft. His spitwads were especially disgusting because he chewed tobacco all day. This was in defiance of school rules, of course, but that didn’t bother him and it had a glorious effect in terms of spitwads: the paper came out soggy and brown and perfectly prepared for maximum distance and accuracy and impact. These were spitwads as elevated to an art form. I could swear they even sounded better than the spitwads prepared by lesser mortals.
Mr. Ward was drawing the chloroplast. Ernie Starks loaded his weapon.
Fffftooo. The ugly brown mess shot through the air and splatted against the chalkboard, six inches from Mr. Ward’s hand. Ernie grinned. In the back of the room, a couple of Ernie’s cronies sniggered.
Mr. Ward did not turn around. Had he not noticed? He must have. The thing was sliding down the board, leaving a brown stain.
Ernie frowned. This was the point where he was usually tossed from the class, his preferred result. Finally he shrugged. His face grew more determined. Okay, pal. This is how you wanna play, this is how we’re gonna play.
He loaded a second shot. Nobody stopped him. Maybe we were afraid of Ernie. Maybe we thought Mr. Ward was so ridiculous he didn’t deserve our help. A joke in his lesson plan? And not even a funny one? How much of this were we supposed to endure? Of course Ernie Starks would try to liven things up. Anyone who knew the guy knew he had no choice.
Fffftooo. Another soggy missile smacked the board. This one hit the drawing. Still no response. Mr. Ward started labeling the diagram.
Fffftooo. A third hit the board just below the word sunlight. Nothing.
Fffftooo. The word glucose now read “g—e” with a brown splat in the middle. That one had just missed Mr. Ward’s hand. Still he kept writing. Still he kept his back to us.
Ernie smiled his cruel smile and held up his hands to the class, shaking his head. He had a whole textbook full of paper and plenty of spit. We could do this all day. I imagined an entire board smeared with wet brown pulp. Probably not an ideal educational environment.
We stared in shock. This one had hit Mr. Ward himself, who now had a dripping brown wad stuck to the back of his neck, above his collar and below his hair. It looked as if he’d been dive-bombed by an enormous beetle, which he had smacked with the palm of his hand, so that now all that remained was a dead carcass oozing with brown blood.
Ernie smiled with cruel satisfaction. He had hit skin! The shot of his lifetime, one in a million. In the back of the room, his cronies high-fived each other: their leader had demonstrated his ability, and their discipleship was justified—nobody else in the school could have pulled it off, or would have dared.
“Holy sh–,” Bobby mouthed at me.
Mr. Ward paused for a moment, his hand in mid-letter. Still he did not turn around.
After a half a minute, Ernie Starks started to chuckle. Then he began to laugh. Then he leaned back, put his hands behind his head, kicked his chair up on its back two legs, and laughed harder.
He was not alone; the rest of the class started laughing as well, although we did so nervously, somewhat afraid and somewhat ashamed. But we had to laugh, we couldn’t help it. This had been the strangest day: first the repeated joke, then the spitwads on the blackboard, and now a spitwad right on the neck of our boring teacher.
If you’d been in class with Ernie Starks for ten years, as most of us had, you knew how much this meant to him. His whole life to that point had been building to this. Years of bullying and cruelty had all built up to this one single moment. And for everyone else in the class, who had been tormented by him for so long we had come to understand that his cruelty was just part of his nature—well, we couldn’t help but feel like he’d met his perfect victim and carried out his perfect crime. There’s something inspiring about witnessing the pinnacle of any endeavor, no matter how pointless or disgusting.
Our laughter wasn’t because we liked Ernie. We laughed because we knew him, truly knew him, in a way that only kids who’ve grown up together over a long period of time can understand.
And yet, even as we were laughing, we felt sorry for Mr. Ward. Why did he have to be such a patsy? We had to put up with Ernie’s abuse. But Mr. Ward was an adult, with resources to draw upon. Why did he just take it? Was he so embarrassed about the joke fiasco he couldn’t even muster up the courage or energy to send Ernie to the principal’s office?
Finally Mr. Ward turned around. Everything in the room changed in an instant. There was still no change to his expression. But his eyes were lit up like I’d never seen them before.
The class fell silent immediately. Not even Ernie made a sound.
Of course Mr. Ward knew exactly who had done it: Ernie’s book, with the half-torn page, still sat on the table. Not that any evidence was needed. We had a lot of bad kids in our school. But there was only one Ernie Starks.
Mr. Ward took a step toward him, surprising us all. Ernie dropped his chair onto all four legs. His hand closed his book. His eyes were still on Mr. Ward. He was not afraid, but he waited like the rest of us. In the charged atmosphere it seemed like anything could happen. I suddenly wondered, for the first time, whether Mr. Ward could beat up Ernie Starks.
The teacher, the notoriously unexcitable Mr. Ward, kept walking slowly, still not saying a word or changing his expression. His eyes were almost hard to look at, full of an intensity we did not know he possessed. He raised his index finger.
Nobody in the class could breathe. We thought he might burst into tears, or quit his job on the spot, or scream and attack Ernie Starks with his bare hands. Who knew? Twenty years of teaching, twenty years of putting up with guys like Ernie Starks. What happens when the dam finally bursts?
He stopped, his index finger still raised. Now he was within five feet of Ernie, who returned his stare with unyielding defiance.
And here was the problem for Mr. Ward, even the animated Mr. Ward who had suddenly appeared. What could he do to Ernie Starks? The guy had been punished since he was five. His parents didn’t care. He hated school and couldn’t wait to be expelled. You’d have to kill him to wipe that smirk off his face. Even that probably wouldn’t do it.
Mr. Ward’s mustache twitched, enough to make us think he was about to speak. His index finger was still pointing upward.
No one in the school would have believed what happened next, had there not been thirty eyewitnesses.
Because at that moment, at that very instant, with Mr. Ward staring at him and pointing up and not saying a word, a heavy ceramic tile fell from the ceiling directly above Ernie’s head. It whisked his nose on the way down and landed smack on the table in front of him, shattering into pieces with a huge cracking sound. A cloud of dust flew up into Ernie’s face, whitening his face and hair.
Everyone gasped. A few people screamed.
Only Mr. Ward did not change his expression.
“Next time it won’t miss,” he said.
Suddenly it seemed as if he too had been getting ready for this moment for a long time. He lowered his hand as if he were a sheriff returning a smoking gun to its holster. Then he turned around and walked back to the board. The spitwad was no longer on his neck. There was no sign of it anywhere, not even a stain, though I couldn’t remember seeing him remove it.
Ernie Starks sat for a moment, his lips trembling and his body shaking, something I could hardly bring myself to watch. Finally he stood up and rushed out of the room. At first I thought he was going to the bathroom to wash his face and brush the dust out of his hair. But no, of course he wasn’t: we heard his motorcycle start up and roar out of the parking lot. It was the Way of the Bully: he could not live in a world where the balance of power had shifted from himself to Mr. Ward. He never came back.
The rest of us never got over the experience either. To everyone else it became a funny anecdote, a school legend, but for those of us who were actually there it was something larger. The unchanged expression. The intense eyes. The unworldly coincidence of the ceiling tile just missing Ernie Starks. The spooky magic of it all.
And then the perfect line, next time it won’t miss, delivered by the only man in the world who could have kept a straight face as he said it. It was the funniest thing I had ever heard any teacher say. A joke, a real joke, on the very day Mr. Ward needed it the most.
If it was even a joke.
I’m not sure that matters: it makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up either way.
Yes, as I said, over the years I’ve learned that teachers are human.
And sometimes, every now and then, they’re a little bit more.
Ah, Mr. Ward. I remember absolutely nothing about embryonic shoots, and yet in a sense I learned more from this class and the Incident of the Spitwad than all my other classes combined. If you enjoyed this, please share it with as many people you know, particularly any bullies deserving comeuppance and of course all of your favorite teachers. Let’s show them a little love! And a sense of triumph! And feel free to run through the rest of the series:
- #9 – The Intersection – Hamlet Dad goes to the movies
- #8 – The Burger Car – a father orders burgers with a slice of Proust
- #7 – The Keyboard – a music teacher pushed beyond her limits turns a child’s dreams to nightmares
- #6 – The Mugs – while slicing up life into tenths of an hour, I get a sudden ray of hope
- #5 – The Motorcycle – learning a life lesson from buying a motorcycle in Taiwan and learning to drive one (in that order)
- #4 – The Sweater – a Wisconsin boy moves to the big city and pays a visit to a therapist
- #3 – The Blood Cake – in which I recount my experience sharing an office with Jerry Seinfeld
- #2 – The Spy Drop – a neighborhood war waged by five-year-olds takes a dramatic turn
- #1 – The Padlock – a doomed football coach struggles to survive a winless season
Are you a reviewer? Free review copies are available! If you’re interested in posting a review on your blog, or if you’re willing to write a review at Amazon (or anywhere else), just let me know and I’ll ship you a book. And many thanks for helping to get the word out!
Image Source: Wikipedia Commons