Mr. L, my sixth grade teacher, was rather intimidating. He was a tall, Asian man who was basically the only source of testosterone in the school. I have based my teaching—for I am a teacher-- on how to not be like him.
He was well respected by the powers that be—Mrs. Joyner, the principal with her sleeve always stuffed with Kleenex. We had a “student teacher” who was a menopausal nun and about as exciting as eating cornflakes without milk. Between the two of them, my last semester of sixth grade was not a fun one.
Mr. L loved to assign projects that were due the day after a holiday vacation. That Christmas, my family drove to Yosemite. On the drive there, before my father put on the chains—a skill that always amazed me—we were almost killed. We hit a patch of ice on a mountain bend. My mother summed it all up: God! Oh God…Oh, my God—an adjective added as the car slid out of control and neared a cliff. And when the car stopped just at the edge of the road I think I was probably thinking that death would have been a welcome relief from Mr. L’s looming due date.
Safely ensconced in a cabin in the valley under Half Dome, just below where the “firefall” used to be, I tried to enjoy my Christmas vacation. I skied at Badger’s Pass, skated on an outdoor rink in a Norwegian sweater and ate meals at the festively decorated lodge---all the while worrying about that damned paper I was supposed to write about Rio de Janeiro. My stomach churned. And then I realized that I had the stomach flu, and so did my entire family.
Mr. L did something that, to this day, still irks me. Every Friday he and the student teacher nun would give a math test. I never finished in the allotted time. And every Friday he would mark my unfinished questions as wrong. I never have understood how something not done can be “wrong.” Then, every Monday, he would divide the class into two halves. The nun would take one half and he the other. It didn’t take too much to realize that the class was separated into the smart and dumb groups. I only had to look around and I did not appreciate where I had been placed.
One of the oddest days in Mr. L’s class was the one when all the girls were sent to the auditorium. There, innocent of what was to come and curious as to why the boys had to stay in class, we were shown a movie in black and white with a pompous British narration that proclaimed we were about to become women. I was mortified that Mr. L would need to know this, and slightly appalled with the sudden realization that Mr. L. had a penis.