In Ray Blaskowisz’s company my sense of humor became cruder and more cynical. Mad Magazine was our bible. Authority figures were our straight men. Our eighth grade social studies teacher earned our wrath.
Mr. Yarrow dressed in a light colored suit and tie, his head cropped into a tight blond crew cut, almost indistinguishable from his pale skin. He was vanilla colorless, except when he got mad. The first day, he wrote his name on the chalk board. Then he gave us his idea of a pep talk.
“As a young man, I sought out important men of business, asking them for their secrets of success. One of them told me: ‘I’ll tell you the secret of success, it’s simple.’”
Mr. Yarrow wrote it in large letters under his name on the board. As he wrote, with his back to us, he scratched his butt with his free hand. It was a nervous tic we were to see often.
He turned to face us while pointing at the words. “I am the BOSS,” he delivering the last word loudly with a forward jerk of his upper body. “And YOU,” another word punctuated by a jerk. “YOU are nothing!”
The room was silent. I wondered what we were in for. He went on.
“We are going to live by this rule. Any trouble will be dealt with.” He paused, his eyes boring into each of us boys in turn before finishing the sentence with a single word. “Severely.”
He put down the chalk. “This classroom is not a democracy. It’s like a business corporation, or the Army.”
So much for the spiritual depth of capitalism, I thought. This teacher personalized all that I hated about our conservative society. Money was god, success the means to get it. Communism was the great enemy. To him it was black and white. We were in a life and death struggle against tyranny and oppression. We had to do anything save ourselves from languishing behind the Iron Curtain.
As he continued speaking he walked along our rows of desks in a peculiar manner. His hands clasped behind his back, his feet splayed out forty-five degrees as his upper body rhythmically jerked forward, punctuating key words. Yarrow appeared to be a great goose about to charge us.
I looked across the aisle at Ray. Under Yarrow’s eyes a faint smile played across his face, which was otherwise serenely angelic, marking him as an obedient boy. As soon as Yarrow passed us, Ray’s grin widened as he mouthed, “He walks like a duck.”
That cracked me up. I failed to stifle a snicker, which erupted into a belly laugh. Yarrow swung around.
“Do you think this is funny?”
“I think I sneezed,” was all I could come up with as I vainly struggled to control myself.
“Get out, report to the Principal’s office–now!”
Yarrow, our “boss,” proved to be a pain in the ass, a big joke. We spread our slogan around the school. “Mr. Yarrow walks like a duck.”
Phillip Tritthardt was a quiet boy; he’d been working on the cover of his three-ring binder all day. He didn’t seem interested in world events, so it surprised me to see what he was doodling in large letters.
IS A KEEN
I wondered at his choice of the word, keen. Cool had long ago superseded it in popular usage. He probably meant it as an ironic joke. There were no Communists among us. Not yet. After lunch and recess, we seated ourselves in Mr. Yarrow’s class for the rest of the afternoon. Phillip sat in the row of desks to my left, putting the final touches on his masterpiece, working carefully to darken the perfect Gothic lettering.
The bell rang and Mr. Yarrow began winding into his lecture. Phillip put his pen down and sat up in his chair, eyes front like the rest of us. It was Yarrow’s usual rant, but we knew we’d better appear to be listening, even if our minds were elsewhere.
Yarrow walked in his jerking fashion up and down our rows of desks as he droned on. He passed between Phillip and me, circled around and came back again.
Wham-bam! The room shook with a loud crash. I looked up to see Philip’s desk flipping into the aisle, banging against shocked students, scattering papers and pens over the room.
I realized with horror that Yarrow, his face flashing deep crimson, had thrown over Phillip’s desk. With lightning speed, he pounced on Phillip, grabbed him by the scruff of his neck and lifted him from his seat. With demonic energy, Yarrow tossed Phillip to the front of the class where he landed in a heap.
Phillip’s face was ashen, dumbfounded. He obviously had no idea what this was about. Yarrow shoved him into the hall, shouting “Wait here. I’ll finish with you later!”
Slamming the door, which shook the room, he confronted us.
My fellow students and I sat frozen in shock. What had innocuous Phillip done? His notebook didn’t immediately come to mind. Yarrow, his face still beet red and breathing heavily, looked as if he’d emerged from the depths of hell. He began addressing us in a soft, questioning tone.
“Red China is a keen community?” He glanced at each of us. I stared down at my shoes, wondering if he might throw another of us out on our ass.
“Red China,” he repeated, “is a keen community?” He drew himself up like an enraged fowl about to spring, then his whole body jerked forward as he shouted, “Red China is NOT a keen community!”
He picked up the offending notebook and roared: “I will be right back. I don’t want to hear any noise!” We heard “Come with me, young man” before he shut the door. I imagined that he hustled the rag doll that had been Phillip down to the Principal’s office.
Stunned silence gave way to a collective sigh of relief. Someone finally whispered, “What the heck happened?” Several versions of the fantastic display were offered. Few students had caught a glimpse of the binder. What could we expect when our maniac teacher returned?
Hearing footsteps, we lapsed into silence, lambs waiting for the slaughter. Yarrow was in good humor, refreshed after his battle with Communist propaganda. He took up his topic where he’d left off. He was livelier in his delivery, as if nothing had happened. After class some of us even wondered if we’d imagined it all.
I was always in trouble and used to it. But this was new to Phillip. He had never
felt Mr. Trotter’s rubber hose on his backside in the sixth grade like I had. He’d never
been in any kind of trouble. It was time he learned what the smallest step away from
conformity could bring. When Phillip got out of detention, he didn’t want to talk about it.
He became even quieter and more withdrawn than before.