Your Dreams Were Your Ticket Out by James Stafford

record-player-on-deskWe went to church and prayed for my father to come home. I knew my mother believed in God, but I’d never been in a church before. The preacher was nice enough, but he was monotonous. He was one of the adults in the Charlie Brown universe, only not as engaging.

My pre-church brush with religion consisted of staring at the paintings in my Children’s Bible. Here’s what I took from those paintings: 1) God is a sunbeam who pokes through the clouds; 2) Jesus is a hippie; 3) Nobody likes hippies until they’re dead.

And so as I entered my fourth grade year I was short one father, and my male role models were a dull preacher and a photo of a half-naked hippie nailed to a board.

The first day of the new school year arrived, and I landed in the same class as my best buddy from our old neighborhood, Curt. This was quite a windfall. He was the best baseball player in my age group, yet he always insisted that he wasn’t as good as me. He could ride his bike with no hands and build a model of Big Daddy Don Garlits’s dragster without getting gluey fingerprints all over it. All those talents, and you could still depend on him to share his pudding cup. I’d have a Robin for my recess game of Batman, a lunch buddy to borrow a spork from should I break mine on my mock chicken leg.

We ran to the back of the classroom and picked out seats side by side. We knew it was temporary, as the teacher would arrive any moment and move us to our assigned seats, but for a few minutes we could pretend that we were the bad seeds, the Sweathogs loafing in the back row.

Thirty-five nine year olds left unattended make a tremendous noise, so we didn’t notice the janitor enter and stand behind the teacher’s desk. He was smiling broadly through his long black beard, eyes bright and calm behind a pair of glasses just like John Lennon’s. His wavy black hair rested on the shoulders of his denim shirt, which matched his faded Levi’s. The janitor stood and smiled, loudly never said a word until all thirty-five nine year olds hushed and stared at him, and then he turned and wrote on the blackboard: “Mr. Rigoni.” He looked at his handiwork, looked at us, scratched it out and wrote “Gar.”

“Yeah, that’s better,” he said. “If I get to call you by your first name, why shouldn’t you call me by my first name? I’m Gar, and I’m going to be sharing the next year with you.” David Crosby once said that the Seventies were when the Sixties happened. I think he had Gar Rigoni, fourth grade teacher, in mind.

“Listen, I don’t want to come down on you with a bunch of rules. If you’re hungry, eat something! You’re not going to be thinking about school if you’re thinking about your tummy! If you’re tired, take a nap! We can catch up later. If you’re tired of sitting, stand up and walk around! Your ears still work when you’re standing up, right?” He walked to the back of the classroom and put his hand on a piece of blank butcher paper covering the entire wall. “If you want to write a poem or draw a picture or express yourself, come back here and write on the wall, not on your desk! But here’s my only rule. We have to respect each other. No writing things about other students.”

The first few days were the acid test. Kids would get up and walk around, take their new freedom for a test drive. Gar didn’t mind. Kenny, the only kid in the school who collected hockey cards, brought increasingly noisy food to eat, never earning more than a “that looks good!” in return.  We were never moved to assigned seats, so Curt and I stayed in the back row, next to the butcher paper.

This would be my hill to die on. This is where I chose to take on the man. While Kenny munched his way through another stack of Pringles and half the kids either pretended to sleep or wandered aimlessly, I turned around and wrote “Garfield Goose” on the back wall, underline and all. Garfield Goose was a local morning cartoon show, hosted by some old timer and his goose puppet. Yes, yes. This would surely drive the crazy hippie over the edge. I couldn’t wait for him to drift toward the back of the room. The anticipation was killing me.

About eleven and a half days later the recess bell rang, and Gar walked toward my seat. “I can’t wait to see what you wrote!” he said. Suddenly this was very real. I was going to prison, or at the very least would be expelled. I had insulted a teacher. There was no coming back from this.

“Garfield Goose,” he said, and then he started laughing. “Right on! You’re a very smart guy! You figured out my real name is Garfield and you made the connection! Right on!” I didn’t want to be Batman or a magician or a baseball player or an anything anymore. I wanted to be Gar.

Once the newness of being treated like a little adult wore off, our classroom normalized. Only sleepy kids slept, only hungry kids ate. The only reason any of us stood was to pick up something we dropped. Gar was electric. He was what the preacher should’ve been: full of love and enthusiasm and encouragement. Never mind times tables, let me show you what algebra is. What’s this story? Let’s read a novel instead. He was the Pied Piper, and we would’ve followed him anywhere.

One morning after we’d finished our math, Gar told us that we were going to have a schedule change. Once a week at this time Mrs. Hemmings, the music teacher was going to come to our classroom. Right on schedule, a 287 year-old woman shuffled through the door. Her back sported a mighty hump. She wore a sensible wool dress, a string of pearls, and old lady shoes. Red lipstick was drawn where her lips used to be.

“Helloooooo, children,” she said, and she continued her epic shuffle toward Gar’s desk. “Helloooooo, children,” she repeated.

“Good morning, Mrs. Hemmings,” someone said.

“Oh, lovely! We have one gentleman in the class. You shall all follow this young boy’s example.”

“Good morning, Mrs. Hemmings,” we repeated.

“Lovely! Mr. Rigoni will leave us now so that you can open your beautiful velveteen ears to the wonderful world of music.” Gar set a record player up on his desk, smiled and waved goodbye.

Mrs. Hemmings started the record. It was the kind of music I’d only heard in museums: strings and things. It was the musical equivalent of the boring preacher. Kenny pulled out a sandwich. Mrs. Hemmings turned off the record.

“What are you doing young man?”

“I’m eating.”

“We don’t eat in class.”

“Gar lets us.”

“Who?”

“Gar. Our teacher.”

“Young man, we do not eat in class and we do not call our teachers by their first names.”

“Gar lets us.”

“You will go to the principal’s office right now. You are causing a distraction, and these boys and girls cannot open their velveteen ears to Vivaldi.” After Kenny left we sat quietly and listened to her scratchy record.

When Gar returned and Mrs. Hemmings’s velvet ears were well down the hall, we told Gar everything.

“She’s crabby.”

“No, man, she just wants you guys to love music as much as she does.”

“She made Kenny go to the office just because he was eating.”

“Well she’s got her own thing going on, and we need to respect that during her time.”

“It’s boring, Gar. I don’t want to listen to her cruddy music.”

Later that day the principal came in and asked to see Gar in the hallway. We all thought Kenny was doomed.

This pattern repeated for weeks, with Mrs. Hemmings growing more and more frustrated with us and the principal visiting Gar more and more often. He took a shot at turning the hostile tide Mrs. Hemmings created by bringing in a Lovin’ Spoonful record. After he played it for us he explained that the guy singing was the same guy who wrote and performed the Welcome Back Kotter theme. We were duly impressed, but Mrs. Hemmings was even more annoyed when we told her that Gar had brought in that horrible hippie music that was bound to ruin our beautiful velveteen ears.

One afternoon I arrived home from school and found my mother smiling rather than crying. “Your father wants us back,” she said. “We’re moving to Texas.” He had been gone almost a year. I was happy that my family would be back together, but I knew I was losing something special. Sure enough, my small town Texas school teacher was a beehive and cat’s eyes kind of gal who didn’t cotton to any shenanigans.

Many years later I tracked down my childhood pal Curt. After we caught up on our own lives, I asked him whatever happened to Gar. “It’s funny that you asked me that,” he said. “I just asked my mom if she knew what happened. Not too long after you moved I got to school one morning and we had a new teacher. They never explained, so I just figured he quit. But my mom just told me that there were a lot of complaints about him, so he got fired. I guess not too long after that he hung himself.”

My adult mind understands that there is nothing that I could do, but inside me is a little boy who truly believes that if he would’ve just told Gar once how much he mattered then thousands of little guys like me would’ve had the joy of knowing that beautiful man. And every time I hear John Sebastian, that little boy pops his head out. Gar Rigoni was that sunbeam peeking through the clouds. He didn’t deserve to be nailed to a board.

james straffordJames Stafford is a freelance writer from Northern California. You can follow him at wimwords.com or on Twitter: @jamesostafford. This is his second contribution to Hippocampus.

 

 

 

 

IMAGE CREDIT: Flickr Creative Commons/Boris Bruckhauser

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  • Ed Chaveste

    Great read. Good job James.

  • Elise

    Beautiful. Thanks for sharing.

  • Rory

    Reading this story is even better the second time. I’m at work, getting ready for Monday, so it is a great reminder of what to keep striving for.

    • Cheers, Rory. Keep fighting the good fight.

    • hurdygurdygurlCANADA

      Even better the second time, that is for sure!

  • Dina Honour

    Those teachers! Those teachers that, as you put it, shine, ‘like a sunbeam peeking through the clouds’—it is amazing the space they take up in our memories and brains, even after all these years. My fourth grade teacher played Pink Floyd. It made me feel like a ten year old badass when there was nothing badass about me. I ran into her recently, and 35 years later she knew exactly who I was. I think with teachers like that it works in both directions, their students are etched in their memories just as much as they are on ours. It is a shame Gar’s story ended the way it did, but you got that small beam of light from him, and it was enough to shine through all these years.

    • Pink Floyd? Now there’s a legendary teacher.

    • hurdygurdygurlCANADA

      sweet!

  • David Corbett-Kelsall

    My old man was a teacher for years. For decades, even. And he was the very opposite of a hippie: a button-down, short-haired, tweed-wearing middle school English teacher. But he energized his classroom with humor, with puns, with puppets. He didn’t do it to be a better teacher, he did it because that’s just who he was, and who he happened to be was a better teacher. It was unforced, organic. He easily crossed that great divide from “a living” to “a vocation.” Here’s to great teachers everywhere, living, dead, and still to come.

    • Love that. Here’s to your pops.

    • hurdygurdygurlCANADA

      Cheers!

  • Robbo

    It was my sophomore year in high school, I think, when I walked into my
    art class and saw a man seated behind not a desk but a podium. Mr.
    Collins had a beard and wore blue jeans. Of course, we had to complete
    the required art projects to satisfy the powers that were, but we were
    also allowed to create on our own. Very soon it became obvious that Mr.
    Collins didn’t care if you wanted to sleep in the back of the room.
    However, you got the grade you deserved. He didn’t push it.
    But what
    was different about this teacher is that he would very often bring up
    certain topics of art and invite anyone who was interested to gather
    around up front and participate in the discussion. I learned so much
    from that man, not necessarily the ‘how’, but the ‘why’.
    I had a lot
    of teachers throughout my schooling, but Mr. Collins is the one I
    remember most fondly. He made a difference in how I thought about art,
    and that’s something I’ve carried with me ever since.

    • I’m enjoying reading you guys’ teachers stories much more than my own. Keep ’em coming!

  • John Simon

    Nice work, buddy.

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  • I love how, even writing as an adult, you were able to tell this story through the narrative of your 4th grade voice. I can’t recall a single teacher who made any impression on me. You’re very fortunate. It’s a wonderful piece.

  • hurdygurdygurlCANADA

    Wow. I miss Gar. Never knew him, except through this story. Gar sounds electric and inspirational. I had my first male teacher in grade four. It was Mr. Ibbott’s first year of teaching. I must have sensed that, so I gave him such a hard time, by being rambunctious in class. By the end of Mr. Ibbott’s first month teaching, he had enough of my shenanigans and I will never forget being lifted up, against the cloakroom wall, by my shirt and having my fourth grade teacher scream into my face. I believe, I became a quiet, hard-working student immediately,.after that. I put Mr. Ibbott to the test and gave him a challenge. In return, he taught me, that I needed to respect him, whether I wanted to or not. Years later, Mr. Ibbott became Principal of my elementary school. And I have since, never needed to put another teacher to the test, quite like that again.