Entering junior high school in the mid-1970s was crossing the bridge between generational approaches to education. My last teacher in elementary school, Mr. Gosling, had had a classroom full of straight, neat rows where the smell of fresh pencil shavings was always thick in the air. He had been similarly orderly with a stern flattop, thin tie and one foot seemingly still in the 1950s. In contrast, many of my teachers at St. Helena’s Robert Louis Stevenson Middle School were cut from an entirely different cloth.
“This year we are going to learn all about Greek mythology,” said Ms. Gay in her happy, sing-song voice.
In contrast to the straight rows to which I’d been accustomed, here the desks were arranged haphazardly into a rough circle. Instead of pictures of old men on the walls, in this room hung posters of mythological creatures and heroes, each drawn dark and sinister, such as Perseus holding high the severed head of Medusa, her snake-strands of hair still writhing in anger.
“Now this is my kind of place,” I mouthed to my friend Brendhan, who was sitting directly across from me.
Ms. Gay held a thick copy of “The Odyssey” over her head.
“Get ready to read,” she said enthusiastically.
My body froze and my palms grew clammy.
“You can find your own book in your desk,” she said. “Take it out.”
I pulled out my own book and opened it. The tiny words seemed a jumble of letters on the page.
“I’d like you to read at your desks for the remainder of the class,” she said.
Thinking that we were going to read out loud, I let out an audible sigh of relief.
Within minutes the other students were engrossed in their own books and my buddy was pages in, one thumb poised at this lip as he chewed on his nail.
“Psst,” I whispered, but he didn’t look up. “Psst,” I hissed louder.
A couple of kids briefly glanced up, but my friend remained unresponsive. Trying to be quiet, I slipped my hand into my desk and fumbled for a piece of paper. I tore off a corner and placed it into my mouth and with practiced efficiency then wetted and kneaded it into a slimy ball. I had no straw to fire my attention-getting spitball, but I could fling it across the room easily enough, aiming for some open skin on Brendhan’s face or arm.
My attempt was a complete miss — the sticky wad arched wildly to the east and landed within 2 inches of my new teacher’s feet with a tiny but discernible “thwack.”
“This is it,” I thought as she approached. “A couple of hours into junior high and I’m already doomed.”
“You’re Tim, right?” she asked as she knelt down.
I pondered denial but then smiled a toothy grin and nodded. She smiled back and then looked around the room. I followed her gaze. She’d approached so quietly that the other children apparently had not noticed the impending drama. She looked down at my book.
“Do you like to read?” she asked.
I shook my head slowly.
“Not really,” I whispered.
Her face softened and she pulled at her lip with her fingers.
“But you like stories about adventure?” she asked.
I nodded slowly.
“But you don’t like to read?” she asked again, seemingly confused.
“I’m not a good reader,” I said.
She looked up at the ceiling and then around at the posters.
“Can you meet me after school before you go home? I have a special project that I think you’d be perfect for,” she said.
During lunch I slipped away from my friends to sit under a small cluster of redwood trees at the back of the schoolyard. I opened the book. If I could read the story a few times I might memorize it, imagining that Ms. Gay’s special project meant reading to her out loud as other teachers had had me do in the past.
Years later I wrote a poem about those earlier experiences.
“You have/two,”/She paused./Again
I stood./The letters,/a school/of glitter.
Words/under water./Each I/the enemy.
Eye shook/my head./Please./I will not
After school that day I reluctantly returned to Ms. Gay’s classrom. She asked me to sit down, and I readied myself, recalling the general meaning of the story I’d memorized earlier.
Her expression was serious.
“I’d like you to create a comic book for me about your adventures,” she said.
My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath.
“OK,” I said.
“I want you to use pictures and words to tell your own stories,” she said.
I nodded in relief. That was something I could do, and by the end of that year I had created a series of adventures for my hero, Super Duck, who was a mix between Scooby Doo and Bugs Bunny meets Perseus the Medusa killer, but that’s another story.