Woodrow Wilson High School had four Grecian columns at the entrance. Over the columns were written 4 important words. I am sure they were good words. I was not inspired. I walked 2.5 miles from home to school and back every day. I could have taken a bus, but it was generally filled with the usual assortment of teen age bullies who made me feel even worse about myself. The idea of climbing up the steps to the bus with my pile of textbooks, made me nauseous. Like a passenger boarding a plane, you would see rows of kids. Unlike airplane passengers preoccupied with their pending trip, the kids were actively looking to see who was boarding the bus. They were not my friends. I was not greeted warmly.
I was 16 years old. I was 6 ft 2inches and chubby. I never felt tall, but I did feel chubby. I hated to look at myself in the windows of the stores on 2nd street as I walked to school. I had a few friends from the outcast intelligentsia . The word nerd was still unborn. Andy, Nick and Don would meet me along the way as we walked and climbed a slight hill to “Wilson.”
The school was a closed campus. This meant that large gates would be closed once all the student inmates had arrived.
My teacher was Hazel Newton. Her name is a giveaway isn’t it? She wore braided hair, tied up atop her head. Somehow her horn-rimmed eyeglasses were stern. She spoke with a very pronounced Southern accent. The class was Junior year English. Mrs. Newton taught the organic outline that dictated the structure of all our writing. The outline:
An introductory paragraph -
“Say what you are going to say”
A body of text which marched straight to the concluding paragraph-
“Don’t discuss anything that wasn’t introduced in the first paragraph.”
And of course, she taught us the word “recapitulation”to describe the conclusion paragraph.
“It must never…ever… have any new ideas. It is your ending. It is Your conclusion.”
As teenagers, my fellow students mercilessly ridiculed Hazel Newton for her schoolmarm demeanor. Plus, the class just loved to sneer at her accent. In Long Beach, California a drawl was an unusual sound. To my fellow students her way of speaking was hilarious.
Almost any utterance could send the class from quiet tittering to full out uncontrolled contagious laughter.. Did I mention they were very rude? I knew some of my classmates from that bus that I no longer used for travel.
The key moment for me involved a rather long poem written in chalk all across two blackboards. When we arrived, Mrs. Newton asked us to read the poem quietly to ourselves. Briefly the class hushed and did read silently. And then:
A pile of books collapsed; Laughter.
Large boys in small desks twisted about on the wood floor.
Girls rummaged through their bags and slipped notes about.
Whispers, snorts and loud coughs amongst the boys in the back row.
A cacophony of clattering tapping pencils, notebooks snapping open a closing with a bang, feet twisting, papers shuffling, plus general chattering began to rise louder and louder.
Mrs. Newton clapped her hands as she moved to the front of the room.
She stood in the exact center of the blackboard.
“All right. You’ve all read it. What do you think about it!” She spoke loudly above the din.
The first to speak was Jim. He wore his letterman jacket over a white t-shirt despite the fact that the room was warm. Mrs. Newton required that we stand when we speak. Jim brought his huge body up and began to speak without looking up.
“It’s about mice.”
“Oh, it’s about mice”
“Yes, they are running all over, digging holes burrowing into the mounds of dirt. It’s about mice.”
“Yes” “Yes” the class chorused. “Mice! Mice!” “It’s about mice.”
Mary raised her hand.
Mary stood by her desk, gripping the back of her chair. She spoke very softly but we could all hear her. “I think it is about a family of mice. The little ones are digging and playing and the bigger mice must be the parents.””
Murmurs of agreement: “Yes, Yes, mice mice”
Bob the comedian shouted out without standing.
“This poem needs a cat!” “This would be better if a big Sylvester cat was chasing the mice.”
Bob was not all funny, but the class was now bored with the poem about mice. They laughed to break up the routine of analyzing a “mouse poem.” A boy began a gasping tiny but loud squeak. A girl did a mock shriek. She clasped her hands in a classic melodrama pose.
Mrs. Newton suddenly whirled around and pointed at me.
“What do you think, Mr. Gorodezky?” “Yes, I’m pointing at you.” “What do YOU think.”
“Uh,…”uh…” I struggled up from my tiny desk in the middle of the classroom. Everyone turned to look at me. “I think it is about soldiers and war.”
Mrs. Newton raised her eyebrows, smiling, tilting her head up and looking around the entire classroom.
“Oh, you think it is about soldiers and war do you!!?” She seemed to be sneering at me.
“Are you sure about that? REALLY! What do you others in class think? Is he right?” She waved her hands then put them on her hips in a defiant pose? Her sarcasm shocked me.
Now the class was getting out of control with laughter.
“It’s bout Mice dummy. The title is Mice. It’s not about…”
“Mice, Mice, Mice” they rhythmically chorused..
Mrs. Newton silenced the class with another clap. “Actually Mr. Gorodezky is right and all of you are wrong. The poem is about men in trench warfare during World War I.
The class became silent.
I felt unlike all the other students. I felt empowered to think.
Mrs. Newton smiled.