The writing in our little group is often all over the place. The six or seven of us, or on a busy and crowded night, maybe eight, huddle over our notebooks or laptops and pour our words onto the surface, reflecting our lives, passions or dreams. I have heard fiction, memoir, sci-fi, fantasy, horror so thrilling it set me back in my chair with my mouth open. Thank you, Tanya, for that one. Kathy leads us and joins in, reading last after she is certain all in her charge have had their say. It always works, even when it is a struggle and words come slowly. This piece came slowly because I was back in elementary school, experiencing daily life fully. Time travel will never become practical, if only because going back is so painful.
The prompt: You learned basic grammar from a specific teacher when you were young. Write about it for 30 minutes.
He called me Kev. That was enough to turn me on my head. Never before in my life had anyone except my father called me by a nickname. I did get the occasional “Hey, doofus!” or “Dork”, but that was about as creative as the kids could get in sixth grade, and after that I learned to disappear.
Mr. McNamara was an English teacher. He was there to teach us how to read, write and speak like proper little ladies and gentlemen. Unfortunately for the administration folks at the Tuckahoe School, Mr. McNamara was one of those adventuresome teachers, and he would often give us an example of good or bad grammar by quoting something from Beowulf or Ulysses, and the whole exercise would fall apart. He did one thing brilliantly, though. When no one else in the world could see, he recognized me.
I was the lost child. He knew that I was always the one called out behind the school during recess so the class bully of the day could beat me up. He knew that the bully didn’t have a gender or a color or a reason. Somewhere along the line as playground monitor, he must have heard the siren call of the bully: “If you’re not there, you’re a chicken, and I’ll get you tomorrow twice as bad.”
So, one day in the Fall, after English class was over, Mr. McNamara said, quietly, “Kevin, could I have a word with you for just a sec?”
The chill of the outcast child ran through my body, and I stayed in my seat as everyone else left for lunch. I gazed ahead, miserable and defeated, waiting for something dreadful from the only teacher I liked. The last thread of good in this school was about to be cut.
“So, Kev,” he said, “what’s been going on?”
My face must have flushed bright red, and my head must have sunk down just a bit more. I looked up with tears in my eyes and didn’t say anything.
“I thought so. I didn’t know it was that bad, but I thought so.” Mr. McNamara got up from his desk and came over. He sat in the chair next to me. There was no comforting arm around my shoulder. There was no shoulder to cry on. Those things would have ruined it all, and he must have known that was so. I knew then that he was one of the good guys.
Ten minutes and a tissue or three later, a pat on the back, and I went back out into the world of fear and pain. My eyes were red from the outpouring of all the torment, but this time I had a secret weapon to hold and guide me. Tucked into my pocket was a short hand written note from the English teacher. It read “Kevin Cooke has my permission to read in the library each day after lunch and before his first afternoon class.”
The first book was about parachuting, and how to do it. The next one was about flying an airplane. It was Mr. McNamara who got me interested in science fiction, and I read my way through the meager holdings of the library. Back in the Sixties, sci-fi was not legitimate, and would get you the same response as finding a Playboy in your locker. Isaac Asimov seemed to be on the approved list. I read all about the Pacific Islands where my dad had fought. I still read comic books at home, but when I was finished with lunch at school, I would head down to the library and enter worlds where I could be me. Sometimes more than me, and sometimes a super hero me, but often just me learning how to do something that the kids out on the playground didn’t or couldn’t do. Sometimes I read something and would write a book report for Mr. McNamara as a thank you gift. Just being there was enough, but just in case you didn’t know it, thank you, Mr. McNamara, for calling me “Kev.”