Saturday, February 09, 2008

They were better back when they sucked: my friend the teacher learns to teach

The subject of this story was born to be a teacher. He possesses all the essential character traits of a good teacher - he's extroverted, he's intelligent, he's confident but not arrogant, he's great with kids. By all accounts, today he is a wonderful middle-school science teacher, but it's oddly comforting to remember that his start was not so smooth.

I witnessed (and video-taped) his first ever attempt at teaching. It was actually a rehearsal for a physics lab for elementary education teachers he was to run solo, without a professor in attendance. It was notable because the word 'OK' was used every 3rd word or so. The tape has since been destroyed.

My friend also aspired to inspire the youth outside of the classroom. He taught Sunday School. He taught swimming lessons in the summer, in his big brother's backyard pool. He was a camp counselor. He was, without any question, going to succeed at growing up to be what he wanted to be when he grew up (I would not, but was blissfully ignorant of it).

The two of us lived in a house owned by a Physics professor, along with several other students, all male, all science or math majors, all tall, most blond. All of this was purely coincidental. We could have just as easily been tiny female dance majors. This was a pure fluke, the kind of thing that happens randomly in nature.

Our next door neighbor was a woman in her 70's, and we became friendly with her, or, more accurately, my friend, who loves people in general, became friendly with her, and I became friends with her as a result of tagging along with our mutual friend. She told us stories about her daughter, a wild child who had run away to play the flute with Alice Cooper's touring band. My friend accepted the idea that Alice Cooper would have taken a flautist on tour with him. I was skeptical, but steered clear of confrontation. Wild child got mixed up with some guy and the two of them started a fake religion together out west. Eventually the guy's drug use got out of hand, so she ended up running back to and marrying some sorry schlub who'd been infatuated with her since his teenage years and was now working for an insurance company in the L.A. area. In this case as in every other case I've witnessed, when a nerdy dude gets to marry his infatuation object 20 years after first developing an obsession, it is not a happy ending. It ends up being an unstable situation with a grotesque, unresolvable power asymmetry, as laughable and ugly a compromise as any physics nut who wanted to understand the mysteries of the universe but instead ended up designing bombs that would kill people without damaging property. Nobody's fooling anybody.

One summer wild child visited us, and brought the then 10-year-old spawn of her relationship with the cross between Jim Morrisson and Jim Jones. She represented southern California with all the necessary stereotypical attributes in place: blond hair, vapid California accent, the 'bringing culture to the rubes' condescension, the 'radio station that comes in and out' brain.

My friend saw in wild child's spawn yet another opportunity to practice his chosen craft. A little quick background is necessary: one of my friend's hobbies was buying junk from yard sales and re-selling it to antique stores for profit. This was in the pre-eBay days of the early '90s. We called him 'the Junk Man', but he made a fair amount of extra money at it.

Also around this time, H. Ross Perot's campaign to destroy George Bush I's re-election hopes was getting underway. My friend was enamored of Perot and the mythology around this self-made billionaire. A key story: as a child, Perot sold a pocket knife for several times what he paid for it, and this was how he discovered a love for making deals.

My friend thought it would be fun to give the California kid a knife and take him to an antique store, where he could see if he could get a good price for it. Before the trip, he asked the owner of the shop to play along, and let the kid 'talk him up' to $7.

This went over better than my friend could have ever hoped. The kid loved suckering the store owner out of $7 so much that as soon as he got back to Grandma's, he essentially turned the house upside down looking for things he could sell. He didn't find any Antique's Roadshow-worthy Civil War swords or the legendary 'Depression Glass', but he did stumble on some particularly embarassing poetry written by his mother, presumably on the Alice Cooper tour bus. The opening line of one poem: 'Babies are high all the time'. Having experienced living with a baby since then, I'm not sure I agree.

This was a classic lesson in unforeseen effects for both my friend and all witnesses. The California Kid never became a Perot-esque billionaire, but the skills he learned that summer were ones that would come in handy later in his career as a crackhead, when he'd ransack relatives' belongings for goods that could be exchanged for money.

No comments: