The Complicated Mr. S.

He’s why I started to write. I wish I could leave it at that.

I’ve been getting paid to type words into computers for 13 years now. There are a lot of people I can thank for that. But the list begins with Mr. S.

I’m calling him Mr. S. because I’m going to say some unflattering things.

He was the best teacher I ever had. But he was also kind of racist.

Mr. S. taught seventh and eighth grade, math, science, and — most importantly — creative writing. That last subject wasn’t a real class, just something he devised to run out the clock on Fridays. He kept a list of “story starters” in a cabinet. He’d write one of them on the board, and we’d have to come up with a story based around that phrase.

“Come with me,” said a deep, husky voice, “and I will make you a king …”

That was the first story starter — the first story I ever wrote, and the first time any of my classmates saw me being good at something.

It was those Friday afternoons, as much as any book I’ve ever read, that set me on my path. For that, I’m always grateful to Mr. S.

But other memories of him are more troubling.

Like the time he told us an extended joke about “Rastus” and “Elijah” that would’ve been at home on “Amos ’n’ Andy.”

Worse: the time, when he — and we — all knew that the church across from our school had a group of African missionaries visiting.

He stood in the front of the room and sniffed melodramatically. “I smell n‐‐‐er,” he said.

That might’ve gotten some polite or nervous laughter from me. I don’t know. I certainly didn’t call him on it.

I can’t remember any other specific incidents, but they were frequent enough that my friend Kevin — who hated Mr. S. — fantasized about getting revenge by hiring a black guy (Patrick Ewing, he suggested) to “come kick his ass.”

These memories hurt. Despite what Kevin thought, I really liked Mr. S. He demanded excellence from his students. He was funny, given to halting classes to tell fantastically epic stories about his life.

(My favorite one involved him and his neighbors banding together — against the warnings of police and wildlife officials — to hunt down a rabid dog.)

He didn’t cotton to bullying. He was a big, tough guy who valued art and beauty. He could make an “I just got hit in the balls” joke in the middle of class, and then tell us how moved he was by the local high school’s version of Man of La Mancha.

Yet there are those ugly jokes.

Like I said, Mr. S. was a big guy, well over six feet. As the only male teacher, he loomed large at our school, and in my memories.

I just wish he hadn’t made himself so small.

Article © 2012 by Tom Coombe