The Good Old Days: “Everyone is Facing a Battle”
Some say their high school days were the best years of their life. I believe it all depends on how much support they were given by family and teachers. It is a known fact that some children have parents and relatives that support them all throughout their school years, from the very first day until graduation. Meanwhile, others, including myself, were left to depend on the help of a good teacher. It has been over 50 years since I attended the Norwich Free Academy. I can still recall that first day, walking down the wide stone steps that would take me below the Slater Building and to the classroom of Alan K. Driscoll, my English teacher. I had no idea for the next four years he would become my mentor, and without his help, I would have never graduated.
In 1967, the bottom level of Slater had the appearance of a dungeon with cranky floorboards that squeaked and saturated the nose with dust. A wooden clock from a bygone era chimed and reprimanded me for being late. With smug indifference, I walked brazenly into the classroom, handing my late pass to the teacher slouched behind a desk piled with worn and tattered books. The slumped, round body and thick-rimmed glasses made him look more like a sleepy owl than an English teacher. The comical appearance, however, did not match the voice that was confident and painfully sharp.
“You’re late. Find a seat,” beckoned the voice of authority. “I have already begun reading to the class.”
I almost fainted. Is this a joke? I stumble to a desk in the back row with the f-word carved over every square inch. Then I notice the boy sitting next to me. A hoodlum dressed in a black leather jacket who keeps kicking his dirty boots on the chair in front of him. I look back at Mr. Driscoll, who looks as though he doesn’t have a care in the world reading the newspaper and biting into a jelly donut. The crumbs fall silently to the floor, making a home next to a pile of spitballs hiding underneath the desk. And just when I think this is going to be another boring class, Mr. Driscoll smiles and addresses the class.
“Pray tell, what will you do with your allotted time on this good earth? Will you dream big or will you settle for cutting fudge into perfectly measured squares at Grant’s Department Store? Whichever path you chose, I hope you leave the world a better place than how you found it.”
Hoodlum kicks the chair: “This guy’s more nuts than me.”
Despite the laughter, Mr. Driscoll holds up a dilapidated book with several pages hanging loose. “Ahem! Attention, please. The bell rings in less than one minute. For next class, I shall continue reading ‘The Catcher in the Rye,’ by J.D Salinger.” He attempts to brush donut crumbs off his shirt, unaware that he is rubbing powdered sugar into his tie. “In order to read a novel of such complexity I must have no interruptions, no distractions, and no comments from the peanut gallery. Do not be fooled by the logistics of this class nor the manner in which I teach. Your participation and attitude will determine your final grade.”
As time progresses and the months pass, Hoodlum is back for a second semester. His first semester consisted of failing every freshman class with the exception of English, which meant he was tossed back into Mr. Driscoll’s lap. The equation is a simple one that even I can understand: having the most difficult students is the reward for being a good teacher. Due to his explosive nature, Hoodlum is assigned a seat in the back row.
I walk into class five minutes late and Mr. Driscoll barely catches his sneeze — “KER-phewww!” — and looks at me with disdain. “Now I understand why Helen Keller said, ‘The highest result of education is tolerance.’ Connie Falcone, once again — you’re late!”
He is clearly agitated when he sees a spitball fly across the room.
“Please, everyone, take a seat! Goodness gracious — settle down! Due to a deplorable cold that has left me in the clutches of despair, I will not read today. Instead, each of you will write a short essay pertaining to ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ This should be extremely effortless, since I have been reviewing the importance of an essay having a beginning, middle and end since the beginning of the Ice Age.”
After a long silence, Hoodlum snaps his pencil in half and the rest of the class starts to murmur.
Mr. Driscoll looks concerned. “Come, come, good people. This is a very small writing assignment,” he says, and sneezes again. “Here is the question: Holden is isolated during the most trying times in life. Have you ever experienced this kind of isolation and loneliness? If so, explain. This is an easy task … correct?”
“All right, how about you McQueen, what’s your take on the question?”
Hoodlum gives the chair in front of him a swift kick and snarls, “This class is B.S.”
Whenever a student speaks disrespectfully to a teacher, no one cares. What everyone does care about is how that teacher responds. All eyes look toward Mr. Driscoll, who is pretending to be busy sorting papers. Being ignored is not the response Hoodlum wants, so he strides up to the teacher’s desk, his leather jacket crackling menacingly, and rips his paper in half. The students watch in awe thinking how wonderfully dramatic it is, when Hoodlum does something even better. He takes his book and flings it across the room. Not impressed by this display of bravado, the portly, middle-aged teacher stands and faces a lean, muscular McQueen.
“William, I suggest if you have an issue with me or this class, we take it outside.”
Hoodlum shakes with anger. “Problem I’m having? What about the essay you sprang on us? And you know what else? I know why you read to us. You think we’re stupid. You’re a phony, Driscoll — just like all the people in that book and every teacher in this school.”
The confession appears to have opened a wound. Hoodlum looks down and stares at the floor and as if transported by time, sees a young boy standing next to him. Hoodlum knows this boy well. He is the same boy who would wait for the school bus believing he would always succeed in school. He tries to stop his tears from flowing with the sleeve of his jacket but cannot wipe away the tears of a lifetime.
“I don’t belong here. I don’t belong anywhere. I’m sorry I couldn’t be the person you wanted me to be.” He walks out, slamming the door.
In an effort to regain normalcy, Mr. Driscoll sits down and opens the Norwich Bulletin. His smile returns when he sees the NFA Wildcats won again. Without further disruptions, we resume our work. Yet my mind wanders as I try to figure out how innocent children become Hoodlums in the first place. On the first day of school every child is filled with hope. Why is it, then, that so many children lose hope by the time they reach high school?
One week passes and then another with Hoodlum still gone. When Mr. Driscoll calls his parents, he discovers the phone is disconnected. He goes so far as to drive to Hoodlum’s house, which is nothing more than a vacant lot. A week later Hoodlum casually strolls into class and takes a seat. Mr. Driscoll stops lecturing mid-sentence to observe Hoodlum’s dirty clothes and sees his leather jacket is gone.
After class, Hoodlum is the last to leave.
“May I speak with you after school tomorrow, Mr. D?”
“Why, sure William. Pardon me for asking, but what happened to your leather jacket?”
McQueen shrugs his shoulders. “I lost it.”
Mr. Driscoll’s gaze never leaves Hoodlum’s face. “Sure … sure thing William. You always know where to find me. Here in the dungeon, fighting the good fight until I finish the race.”
In the following weeks, Mr. Driscoll places a black top hat on his desk and asks students to sacrifice their cigarette or soda money for a good cause. All our change and spare dollars go into the hat. And when Hoodlum comes to class for the last time, Mr. Driscoll hands him a new leather jacket he bought with the collected money. Hoodlum stood in front of the class and bawled. A week later, he dropped out of school.
Mr. Driscoll eventually discovers that Hoodlum had not been living with his parents but inside an old abandoned car, but he never forgot the lesson learned. Even though he could not save Hoodlum, he did something just as important: He eased his pain and gave him comfort. Before Hoodlum left, he knew how it felt to be loved by a good teacher. A love he had never known. It does make you wonder, though, why some children must go through life without a loving parent and the only kindness they will ever know comes from a stranger. This is why we must understand that everyone we meet is fighting a battle we know nothing about.
So be kind. Always.
Concetta Falcone-Codding is the author of “The Lonely Nest.” This is an edited excerpt from her book. To contact her, email email@example.com.