School lessons

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DIVAGATING column by Gwen Clarke

My computer, Hal, the Malevolent II informed me that May 1 through 5 is Teacher Appreciation Week and promptly came up with ten pages of merchandise, running the gamut from a “50 Reasons to Love Teaching” bookmarks, lapel pins stating that “Teachers make all other professions possible,” and, probably the most useful of all: stress relievers.

I had an English teacher who used a blackboard eraser for a stress reliever. She threw it across the classroom at the source of her aggravation with dead-on aim—from years of practice. Occasionally, she would tell a disruptive student to “cease, desist, and stop” whatever, usually triggering a bewildered silence. She was big on synonyms.

Of course, I loved my journalism teacher, who sits on my shoulder with every word I’ve ever written in the plenty-six years since graduation. But remembering Ralph Paige, my homeroom teacher for all three years at Citrus Grove Junior High blurs my eyes, makes my nose red, and renders me choked-up beyond speech. By present day lights, his teaching style would have attracted villagers bearing torches, but he and Oscar ran a tight ship, and one without barnacles.

One day, Mr. Paige announced he could use some help with his boat on Saturdays. It needed to be de-barnacled, sanded, and painted. Said boat resided at the deceptively-named Pelican Harbor Yacht Club, a spit of land along a causeway with a few rickety docks. I look back on those Saturdays fondly.

Another club member took us out in his boat one day, for the ride of a lifetime. The sleek, open speedboat skimmed over Biscayne Bay faster than we believed possible. I later learned the skipper was one Gar Wood, and we were traveling in a world-speed-record boat. All we knew was that we were passing a Saturday.

For our ninth grade graduation, Mr. Paige chartered a double-decker party boat for a class party done up right. We may have had more parent/chaperons than kids.

Back to the aforementioned Oscar. He was Mr. Paige’s paddle. Really. Oscar had place of pride on our classroom wall, was about 14” long, 8” wide, 1” thick, varnished to a high gloss, with a few nickel-sized holes drilled in it, for aerodynamics. Once class ground-rules were established, such as answering him with a “yes, sir” or “no, sir” instead of “uh, huh” or “uh, uh”, and treating female classmates with respect, the boys in the class were safe (girls were exempt, I recall). A life lesson here was that the object of his displeasure had the option of swatting Mr. Paige first—or second (and only one swat was exchanged). Critical thinking, the issue.

A new kid joined us in the eighth grade. By his build, we figured we had a new catcher for the baseball team, or a football lineman. Willie proved to be both.

Saying “sir” didn’t come easily to Willie, and he had a good number of tries at first-swat vs. second-swat strategy but he could wield a sand-block on Mr. Paige’s boat better than anybody. Unfortunately Willie had way too much time on his hands, a bunch of questionable friends and, lacking a father figure at home, was headed for trouble. Near the school year’s end, Mr. Paige announced that Willie was being awarded a summer-camp scholarship, as the camp bugler. Willie jumped up, stating the obvious: he didn’t know how to play the bugle. “You’ll have four weeks to learn”, Mr. Paige replied.

Fast-forwarding through a successful high-school career, football scholarship to the University of Miami, and noteworthy Air Force career, where he flew a pokey little L-5 as an artillery spotter behind enemy lines in Korea (with a price on his head!), Willie stayed close to Mr. Paige.

When Mr. Paige went to his reward, Willie was holding his hand. Until his own death quite recently, Willie talked openly about what his life might have been without Mr. Paige in it. And never without tears coursing down his big lug of a face.

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