Monday, April 14, 2014

Mr. B

The class fell silent, the door closed softly on its hydraulic hinge. He looked over the sea of waiting faces and consulted his thoughts a moment, hands planted casually in the pockets of his loose wrinkled dress slacks. He paced, eyes lowered, back hunched, in perfect back and forth movement, his careless necktie swinging to the rhythm of his steps.

It was social studies hour. How to begin, how to begin?

And how should I begin this memory, Mother, in a way that you won’t close the book and toss it? Bear with me; all good stories are worth repeating. 

All eyes traced his every movement, studying this strange bird. He wore battered white runners that stole attention from his charcoal pants. The shoes were his statement to the machine that was the Catholic school board:

“Damn your dress shoes! You won’t own me!”

His hair was purchased from Korean causes; impoverished maidens hung from his head. He paid more for that obvious mop than he paid for his entire wardrobe. Would God approve, I wonder from time to time, of His creation being covered in such a fraudulent fashion? Surely He blesses baldness if He allows hair to fall away from a man’s skull, never to return. Perhaps bald men have bigger brains, a kind of compensation for losing the locks. It’s a comforting belief that I carry, Mother, as I count the hairs in the mirror each day that fall fast from my own skull . I’m not planning a trip to Korea. 

He convinced himself that nobody knew of his vanity secret, but
everybody knew. No one dared utter a word about it. Shame to the one who made even the smallest reference to the fake hair: You makin’ fun of Mr. B.?  When he’d sweat, blue streaks from the wig’s double sided fastening tape ran down his face. That in itself garnered him fame among his student followers; fame in a protected, respected hush-hush sort of fashion. Had his eyes been better eyes, he would have noticed the blue goo. His mandatory collared shirt, standard white, screamed: “Get me off of this man!” as it hung wrinkled and only half tucked in, yanking itself free from his bargain basement belt. 

Every man has to bend to the will of another if he wants to survive. God owns the heavens, man owns the earth.

He was a fashion nightmare. He was the biggest class clown...a collision of Einstein and Mr. Bean.

Mr. B. never planned too far ahead, preferring the magic of the moment. Inspiration cannot be found in a day planner, much to the bewilderment of many of his cronies.

He finally stopped and spun a vacant front row chair to face him and rested one leg upon it, folding his arms over bended knee, securing the students in his view. The scrape of the chair on the concrete floor offered a gentle echo off of the white-washed cinder block walls, as if to say:

“Good morning, Sir.”

A clock, industrial issue, hung in a far corner. It could have stopped altogether in this room; nobody gave it much attention. No grade six face dared move...a gesture not born of fear, like so many other rooms within this maze, but of awe. The magic man was here. Whatever tricks he’d brought, it was sure to be a treat.

I watched nervously, Mother, as the tape fought to keep contact with the lens of the VCR. Let it snap, you say?  Sorry; I eventually secured it to DVD before history was sacrificed altogether to the gods of bad technology. It was a mini movie made for new recruits within the board. When the boss wanted a solid This is how you do it video, he often went to Mr. B. The camera rarely caught the Nike shoes; their existence could be denied quite safely. Mr. B loved the camera, but he didn’t dull down his performance during the less rewarded, unrecorded day to day.

“Ok Ladies, Gents…Chris….”

A short burst of laughter, Chris smiling wide, eating up the attention. 

“I gave you guys a survey last week…”

He held the submitted papers high in one hand as though he’d made a pertinent discovery into the adolescent mystery. He’d forgotten the chair and began his journey on foot.

“Let’s see what the survey says...”

The answers rolled forth at a perfect pace, to everyone’s educated amusement.

This was a happy place. Laughter was allowed, but not at the expense of learning. Nike shoes were Nike shoes; a child’s future required a more solid footing.

“Everyone agreed that it’s not ok to steal…which is kind of encouraging!” A clown face lit up. Mild chuckles.

“Three people said that yes, it is alright to throw your candy wrapper in the street!…two people said that it’s better just to drop it.” Drum roll.

“33 of you said that if you accidentally throw a ball through someone’s window, you should tell him or her….8 said no…”  Crooked, goofy grin, scolding stare.

Glances intermingled in amused suspicion.

“3 of you said “I’m not sure!”

Smile widening on Mr. B:

“Some of you said you should just send a telegram or a letter.”

Swing cane, tip hat off head. Take that, Letterman.

Time raced. Most of the kids wanted the clock to stop.

“Another question on the survey: Are we unique?” A field of hands. Me, me! Pick me! 

“Are we unique….is there only one Mike Davis? Yes, thank God!”

They’re on the floor.

“Moving along, survey asked: “Do you agree or disagree with this statement:

“I like to do my own thing.”?  Planted pause. “I like…to do…my own…thing.” He drew the words out long and slow, hanging like, do and own in deep loops in the air with a pointed finger, conducting his orchestra. He studied the faces. The faces studied him:

He knows something that we don’t, What is it? Did I answer correctly? What does the question really mean? Were “yes” or “no” the only options, like an answer extracted by a TV lawyer? Is the world black and white or is it a million hues of reds, greens, yellows and blues?  Is A minus closer to A or closer to B plus? Who decides? If exactly halfway, will my life always be caught between two places?

Their minds turned and churned. He could read their thoughts in this pinnacle moment of silence. The teacher had taught, the lesson now twisting all of their faces.

Long…drawn…silence. Halt.
“Chris, what are you doing back there? You've been fiddling all morning!”

All backs straight, eyes dead ahead. A tinge of fear. Teacher didn’t look pleased. Teacher was always pleased. The forgotten corner clock now had the floor as the seconds hand cut the silence with its dull mechanical march.

“What have you got? Get him on the camera, Frank. I’d like to see what he’s got!

Come up here Chris. What is that, a gym bag? Bring it up!”

Chris approached the bench and stood frozen to the floor. 

“Can I open this on camera?” The defendant nodded yes.

Mr. B allowed a faint smile from the corner of his mouth as he peered inside. The class relaxed in collective relief. Maybe he’d get off easy.

They’re all on the bag now, all but leaping out of their chairs. What is it? God forbid a nudey mag in the Jesuit house! Chris’s fame grew by the second.

1 bag of chips.

“Oooooh!” a subdued choir.

A second bag of chips.

“Ooooooooh!” Crescendo.

Long…drawn…silence. What to sing next?

“You’ve got everything in here but your Aunt Martha!”

Fortissimo chorus of hilarity. Mr. B lifted the gym bag to his face, peering inside.

“Aunt Martha?”

Keep the choir singing, conductor, but bring it back down; bring it down; hold the reins.

“Do we have a rule about eating in class?” Mr. B cut through the gaiety with the edge of a stone face.

“What’s the rule? Anybody?” He searched. The obvious answer came forth from a frail female voice hidden from the camera.

“Is Chris being fair to you guys?” No reply from the sea of silence. Do we sell out our own?

“Ok, what if I cut the class short to take Chris down to the office? Chris would be stealing your time, because he wanted to do his own thing. (loops in the air again) “He wanted…to do…his own…thing.”

Never steal our time with Mr. B.!

The conductor met each face formally with his eyes, in an eternal moment.

“Did we play well, Sir?”

“You tell me. Did you play well?”

He sewed up the lesson neatly, almost right on the hour:

Life is, in fact, a rainbow of hues. Black and white is no life at all. Do your own thing if you so choose, but know there’s a time and a place for it all. Damn right I wear my runners to school, but I strap on the noose necktie as I’m told. Don’t bring food to the classroom of life, the janitors are starting to bitch about mold!

The ride was over. Elation prevailed. There would be no reckless balls thrown through windows by this class.

Where would they go from here? Where are they now, those delicate flowers that left their innocent print on a frozen moment full of the colors of dreams, when tomorrow was really in a long line of tomorrows, all waiting with open arms and abundant gifts?

Like most men who dared breach the safe surface of things, Mr. B had enemies for miles. But his coworkers could not understand. They spelled their instruction in planners and calendars with black and white words. Education was no laughing matter.

The bell would ring in a moment. This was the only time the clock got any attention, most of the disciples hoping the hour wasn’t up.

“Ok, you guys know this was a setup, right?” Wide sly grin.

We did? All eyes intermingled again. Major plot twist. Confused, mild laughter.

Let him think we knew.

“Chris, this one’s yours…” Mr. B. tossed the star actor his payment: a bag of Lays chips. “These ones, I’m keeping” 

He kept the Cheese Doodles.

And like a true magic man, he disappeared when school was out. You knew that more than anyone, Mother.


  1. After reading this I felt like I was sitting in the classroom all over again. My ignorance blinding me from the truly tortured souls I see daily now. What a captivating man, despite his flaws. Again Jay, well written.