I Friended a sweet woman on Facebook who had gone to school with me in our tiny two-room schoolhouse. She’s a teacher now.
“He inspired me to go into teaching.”
I knew who she was talking about, and found it hard to believe. “How?” I asked.
“Because I didn’t think teachers should be like him and I wanted to do it the right way. I didn’t want any other kids to be as scared as we were.”
The man, who I’ll call Phil, taught the lower grades, and should not have been a teacher of small children. Mainly because he didn’t like them. Our kindergarten rarely had arts and crafts, no unregimented exploration. Talking during class time was punishable by loss of lunch. Drawing a line of a letter upwards instead of downwards was noticed, and required the entire paper to be rewritten. No touching, not even to give someone a push on the swing. And don’t think bursting into tears would help, either. That just disgusted him.
“Go to the bathroom and clean yourself up!” he’d spit, in a tone I assume a especially vicious john would hiss at his whore. “And then get back here and you and me are going to round and round on this math problem until it’s done, little girl.”
Of course, whenever parents were around, you’d never met such a nice guy as Phil. These words are what you would have used. Congenial. Affable. Hands in pockets of his jeans, in a position of a good natured shrug. Happy. GENTLE. Such a sweet performance!
He was actually a very ruggedly handsome man, something that didn’t dawn on me till I was years removed from him. His darkness and anger cloaked his appearance to any little girl that might have developed a crush on him, had he been nice. Every lunch he changed into sweats and did a workout on a brown Jazzercise mat in the back of the classroom. I remember how uncomfortable it was hearing him grunt through push-ups and sit-ups while hoping at some point he’d stop and remember to check my work so I could go outside and eat with the rest of the kids. There was no raising hands to get his attention. That annoyed him. If you had screwed up and had lost your lunch break, you could damn well wait until he felt like dealing with you. Being alone in the classroom with him was terrifying. Like being left alone with simmering thunder.
One day, when I was in second grade, he told us a small bit about his life. The only time he ever did. It was PE, and he said the (really frickin’ hard ass) warm-ups we were doing were something he learned in boot camp. That there had been a war before we were born, and all men had to go fight. But, he said, there couldn’t be two brothers from the same family. So, (and this part I muddled, you’ll see), he had gone over to the war so his brother could come home.
Last summer Ompa Lundkrist died, my childhood best friend’s Grandpa and a pillar of the small town I grew up in. Though almost no one from my life in the 1980s lives in that town now, most came back for Ompa’s Celebration of Life. Jamie, my friend, hugged me tight after not doing so in ten years and then immediately said, “Oh my gosh. Phil is here.”
I wondered if she remembered that time she’d been unable to get a math problem in third grade, and when he demanded the answer for the seventh time without ever having given her any new information, she’d raised her voice in frustration, through sobs that absolutely wracked her little body, and said, “I don’t KNOW!!”
He leaped up and literally bared his teeth at her.
“Shut up! YOU SHUT UP!” he screamed at her.
“Shit!” I said, way too loud for a funeral. “Where?” I was nervous, burbling over with the curiosity I had cultivated about this man, and honest to god, a little scared.
Look at me. 35 year old woman. Educated. Mother of two. Large husband. Professional writer. But the thought of Phil towering over me, black beard and black eyes still drew a hard band around my gut. It was in this very same community hall 27 years earlier he’d singled me out during Christmas program rehearsal to berate my speech impediment.
“You are speaking with a MUSH MOUTH. No one can understand you. That will NOT fly.”
(Incidentally, two months ago when the lady from the BBC called to ask me to speak on her radio program, the first thing I said in my terror was, “I have a mush mouth! A speech impediment! I have a speech impediment.”
“I don’t hear it,” she said.
“It’s…probably cuz your British.”
You press a stone into the cement while it’s still wet and forming, it’ll be there forever.)
And there he was, in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. He smiled, and once again brought to life all those words he’d been for our parents. Affable, friendly. But there was something else. A disconnect. A looseness in his eyes and joints. He was so gaunt, nervous and displaced. And I believe I’d recognize his smile as a quickie paint job even if I hadn’t been under his command all those years.
This was a man who was not ok.
I pummeled him with a hug. I charged into him with violence that likely transgressed playfulness. I was going against a deeply ingrained fear of even being near him, much less touching him. I guess it was like jumping off the high dive. Close your eyes and go. Or maybe I was mad.
He smiled at me while I said useless things. I wanted to say, “What the fuck was your deal?” but instead I went with “What have you been up to?” He’d been tending bar and teaching English around the world for the past 25 years. Never settled in any one place.
A husky scowling man stood next to him. I never saw him with friends or family, so I blundered in.
“Hey,” I said, motioning to Phil. “You know this guy?”
Unsmiling, the husky man growled, “A little.”
Phil introduced him as his brother.
“Oh! I said, “Are you the brother he went to Vietnam to save?”
My episodic memory has disturbed people before. Episodic in that I form a complete story around everyone I meet as soon as I can, and when even the smallest details can be woven into the story, I don’t forget them. Any easier than I can forget what Jack and Jill were going up the hill for. But sometimes I mess up.
The big man’s scowling brows lifted in surprise. “No! I went to Vietnam to save him!” Unspoken was the “who the hell are you and how do you know that?”
And then…the story of Phil I had thought I owned turned out to be the Reader’s Digest version. Suddenly it filled out. Small memories I’d tucked away for later consideration over the years became salient plot points; overhearing someone else who once worked at the school saying how he was fond of facing the day high, a pastor saying Vietnam changed him and he’s never been able to get over it, and how he finally left our school after grabbing a boy’s shoulder so hard it left a mark. And now this jittery, ashen old man in front of me.
He’d had a rough ride. His pain had spilled out, all over the children in his care. And from the looks of him, he still barely had it contained.
He said he was thinking about writing a book about his adventures, and I said to get a hold of me if he was serious; maybe I could help. He didn’t ask for my number. I waved goodbye to him and he called, “Good to see you again, Lara!” I stopped. Lara is my sister’s name, who attended his school a decade apart from me.
But it doesn’t matter. Not now to me and not really to him, ever. I’m sorry for staying mad all this time, Phil. I don’t know what you’ve been through but I think it was rough. You did the best you could with what you had. And for what it’s worth, I remember every book you ever read us. Thanks for Harriet the Spy.