I saw Mrs. Hickey for the first time in several years a few days ago. She recognized me right away, which surprises me more than it should. I’m bigger than most people. This makes me terrible at hide and seek, but easy for people to recognize. If you don’t know many people who are freakishly big (my wife’s term), the process of elimination that leads to recognition when you see one doesn’t take much time.
Mrs. Hickey was my 9th grade English teacher. With kind eyes and a sweet spirit, she fought against the foolish arrogance and impetuous bravado that filled her classroom in hopes of teaching us how to write in complete, coherent sentences. I liked her and she helped me, even though I use too many commas, dashes, and semi-colons. And I probably use them incorrectly. And I sometimes don’t write complete sentences. And I start too many sentences with conjunctions. See the last few sentences for proof. Any failures in sentence structure are completely the fault of the writer. Mrs. Hickey was a teacher, not a miracle-worker.
There are two main things I remember about her class. One is gross and the other led to a special gift with worth that I didn’t realize until much later.
The first memory came courtesy of a guy who seemed starved for attention, although from my perch of judgement he received far too much. That seems to be the problem with attention; receiving a little only leads to a burning desire for a lot which, if received, leads to a desire for even more. This is even true for introverted people who would never admit it and become hostile if accused of it. At least it was true for me. Being shy doesn’t mean you want less attention, it means that your insecurities prevent you from openly seeking what you secretly desire.
Needing attention can lead people to do ridiculously disgusting things. Like pee in a garbage can. That’s what the attention-starved guy did when Mrs. Hickey left the room with strict instructions that no one else do the same. Her instructions to not leave the room is probably what gave him the justification he needed to urinate in front of his classmates. After all, he had to “go” but was told not to leave the room. What else could he have done? We can be awfully creative with our reasonings when we need to be. Or want to be.
I never knew before this that peeing into a garbage can in front of girls made them like you more. It’s the exact opposite that seems like it should be true. I think that I may have even heard that advice from my dad–“Son, if you want a girl to like you, treat her with kindness…and don’t pee in a garbage can in front of her.” Public urination worked fine for him, though. The girls swooned at this bad-boy act and the guys cheered him on. I sat there stunned with the knowledge that the reaction would have been far different if I had done the same thing. All men may be created equal, but there is a big difference in our urine.
The other main memory is much better; partly because it is urine-free, but mostly because it involves by paternal grandmother who passed away a few years ago. Mrs. Hickey gave us an assignment to interview someone older than 70 on tape and then write a report about it. Then we had to turn in the tape along with the written report. I chose to interview Nannie. She was over 70, articulate, and was a great story-teller. The choice was easy.
I had heard many of the stories that she told that day, so I wasn’t very impressed. Mrs. Hickey was, though. She was so impressed that on one particular day she played my interview with Nannie for every single class. You may wonder if it is possible for a person to be both proud and embarrassed at the same time. Trust me, it is. I was. It didn’t help that a couple of my friends got in trouble for talking while they were supposed to be listening to my grandmother answer questions that I read to her. They blamed me. It was awful.
I held on to that tape, which is something that I am not known for being good at. Holding on to things, that is. I’m sort of unorganized. But that tape was important. Or at least I knew it would be eventually.
Eventually came in 2002. That’s the year that Nannie died. That’s the year that my ability to hear her voice in person ended. That’s the year that the tape I had recorded years ago become one of my few prized possessions. I played a portion of it during her funeral and gave a copy to all of her children and grandchildren.
I don’t listen to it often, but I know that it is there when I need it. When I need to hear her voice.
Assignments from 9th grade English teachers aren’t always memorable. In fact, they are often forgotten soon after they are completed. Not this one, though. This one has stayed with me. Mrs. Hickey, just in case you are reading this I want to tell you two things.
First, I’m sorry that I never told you about the pee-in-the-garbage-can incident. I really should have. You deserve better. Second, thank you. Thank you for making us do that assignment. Thank you for seeing how special that tape was even when I couldn’t. Thank you being a good teacher, for caring.
It was good to see you the other day.
(Do you have a tape like this? Did an assignment from a teacher ever end up touching you in ways you didn’t imagine? Share away.)