The Cane (A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #32)

cane

He was of average height and build, with blond hair and a disconcerting smile: his mouth expanded, his teeth flashed white, but his eyes expressed no joy or excitement. At best they looked nervous and slightly desperate, like those of an animal caught in a trap. At worst they looked dulled over, like the animal resigned to its fate, seconds from death.

With magnanimity I confessed that I hadn’t yet learned his name.

“It’s Kyle,” he said.

I probed for the last name in the time-honored way. “Kyle…?”

Kyle,” he repeated. His dead-eyed smile sprawled across his face.

“Okay. And you’re the one with the roommate who…?”

“I’m sorry about that, Mr. Wilson. I won’t be late again. My dad was angry, but I told my mom what you said about plugging in my alarm clock even though it has batteries and she said you were completely right. I just didn’t know.”

He looked so crestfallen I apologized for not having cared more, though frankly my heart wasn’t really in it.

“…and I’m sorry your father was angry at you,” I concluded.

“He wasn’t angry at me, Mr. Wilson.”

“Okay, then. Well, what can I–”

“He was angry at you.”

I tried to hide my irritation. Angry at me? Because his kid hadn’t managed to come to class on time? Would excusing the tardiness have been fair to the students who had gotten up when they should have, and who had spent twenty-five minutes in an active discussion that Kyle had missed?

Already I wanted Kyle to leave my office. “What brings you here, Kyle?”

He smiled nervously and said that he would be presenting on Friday. Since he was the first one to present, he wondered if I could tell him what the grade would be based on.

“Effectiveness,” I said grandly. “You have to be able to identify the important points and convey them to your fellow classmates. But don’t worry. I’ll be there to make sure things stay on track.”

“Are we graded on creativity? You said we should be creative.”

“Absolutely!” I said. “The best presentations are the ones with energy. Teaching’s not as easy as it looks, you know, especially on a Friday morning on a campus where the parties begin on Thursday nights. Not all students have learned the trick of plugging in their alarm clock.”

This was meant as an olive branch, but he only nodded seriously. I sensed that he was a little dull, and that he knew that this was one of his weaknesses. Something he would have to overcome.

“Have fun with this,” I said. “Surprise me.”

#

On Friday I launched into some preliminaries to warm up the class. I previewed the Michael Pollan essay we would be discussing on Monday. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kyle. I didn’t want to stare at him, but he didn’t look too good. He looked gray.

Oh, great. A kid with stage fright for the very first one. Well, this will be good for him. He’ll need to be able to speak in public to advance in this life.

I wrapped up my introductory remarks and turned the floor over to Kyle.

“Kyle’s not here,” a creaky voice said.

I blinked and stared. Kyle had spoken, but it did not sound like him.

“Kyle…?” I said carefully. “Kyle, it’s time for you to…”

As my words trailed off, Kyle finally rose from his desk. He was wearing a robe and holding a plastic pipe. He had some kind of powder in his hair. He shuffled to the front of the room, using a cane for support.

I thought he might have lost his mind.

“Um…okay, everyone, Kyle’s presenting today—the topic is semi-colons, I think.”

“Kyle’s not here!” Kyle said sharply. He had adopted a high-pitched, quavering, old-man’s voice. Air whistled through his teeth as he feigned anger. Continue reading

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100 Objects Special: Back to School Week!

Summer’s almost over! Back to school time! This year I thought I’d celebrate the week with a tribute to all hardworking teachers and their achingly confused students…

Jacke Wilson’s Top 5 Stories Celebrating Teachers

Object #7 – The Keyboard*

I started on “Three Blind Mice.” I stopped halfway through. For some reason it sounded terrible.

“There must be something wrong with the piano,” I said.

Miss Steiner reached forward and for a second I thought she might choke me. Instead she seized her clipboard and flung it halfway across the room. It bounced off the top of a kettle drum.

“THERE’S NOTHING WRONG WITH THE PIANO,” she shouted. “IT’S YOU—YOU CAN’T PLAY!”  Read the whole story

Object #10 – The Spitwad

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… Read the whole story

Object #14 – The Bass Guitar

I was in a band with my son. A real band. A rock band. Who knew where this would lead? His younger brother liked to bang on things and claimed his favorite instrument was the drum. His mother had a beautiful voice. We wouldn’t be Van Halen or anything, of course. But maybe a few local gigs…? Not now, but maybe in a few years…? Read the whole story

Object #15 – The Coffepot

I had not realized how much courage this was going to require. Ms. Laporte, who was sitting in a student desk at the center of the room, reading words one at a time out of a notebook she kept locked in her desk, was an imposing figure in normal times. When running a bee, she took her intensity to a new level. Her straight black hair was pulled off her forehead and secured in a tight bun, exposing her forehead, which was lined with the permanent anger she kept just below the surface at all times. Read the whole story

Object #23 – The Passage

It was left to the wise professor to provide the comment that took me into a whole new world of literary possibility. Not, in other words, literature as what-have-you-read-I’ve read-that-too. Not lists and check boxes. Something else. Read the whole story

*The Keyboard comes with a special followup, in which I hear from an old friend whose artistic father memorialized the music teacher in a fantastic painting.

Onward and upward, everyone!

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #15 – The Coffepot

This is the story of a young man who was an excellent speller. He won seven spelling bees in a row, dominating the competition year after year after year. And then, in the eighth grade, with a trip to regionals (and state! and nationals!) on the line, this champion lost for the first time in his life, shocking the town.

How could this happen? How did he stumble?

Readers, I have some tough news to deliver. A difficult set of truths.

The Eighth Grade Spelling Bee of Cadbridge, Wisconsin, in the Year of Our Lord 1984, was fixed. Completely rigged. The boy, the potential champion, lost on purpose. For reasons that remained murky for years, he threw the bee.

I know because I was that boy.

It was the worst thing I ever did. But not for the reasons you might expect.

Continue reading

A History of Jacke in 100 Objects #10 – The Spitwad

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.

Continue reading