Saturday, December 5, 2009

Year of the Robie - a chapter from 'The Class of '66'

In honor of the passing of Southwestern High School English teacher Harry Robie, here is posted a chapter from an unpublished manuscript, The Class of '66.


The Year of the Robie

Senior year was not the best year of high school. Junior year was.

Junior year, when the brain and body started somehow working together before real decisions had to be made. After junior year of high school, there's no real "I-must-make-big-bucks" summer job, no real need to sweat bullets about college. Not quite old enough to be a real adult, the summer after junior year is a simple time of enjoying a last gasping, crazed run at being a kid — irresponsible and getting away with it.

But senior year! Good God! Suddenly it was college looming and ever so quickly the Yale and Harvard-bound separated themselves out simply by applying and we — we of the next level in the echelons of higher learning — we knew that our colleges would be Oswegos and Brockports and Fredonias, state colleges of the vast SUNY spider that couldn't touch the tassel's of the top rung but still held plenty of reason to be smug when compared to the joke schools people clung to keep out of the draft: Parsons, Miami-Dade Junior College.

And right in the middle of all of it was Harry Robie, English Teacher, 5 feet 10 inches, a smug, smiling sonofabitch looking at us right in the eye and reminding a dozen of us that while we had slipped through his wide-webbed net by passing a state regent's English exam (after nearly failing his literature-based class as juniors), it was Robie who stood like a hanging judge waiting for senior year to be over and for us to head out to real literature classes in real colleges and have those real teacher/professors write real slashing comments on our papers like he did, but without the safety net of some kind of state test to absolve a semester's sins.

"Trying reading the book before writing the essay next time, Mr. Fitzgerald."
"How can you write so well and know so little?"
"Do you not read these books because your eyes hurt?"
"Even wrestlers need to read."

It was the Robie who waved my report card in the air like a greasy taco shell the final day of junior year and announced that he was "darn proud" that the Regent's Exam of the great State of New York recognized talent and ability and didn't penalize for flat-ass laziness.

"Nice job on the exam, Mr. Fitzgerald. See you next year When you're a senior."

And in senior year, Robie had us all, all caged-in for a double-class period, an hour and a half of sitting on skinny rear ends, starved by having to “make weight” for the wrestling team. He had us all in a senior-seminar English/History/Civics melange that no one really understood much about except there were 50 of us packed into a long, narrow study hall and the half-dozen teachers rotated in and out like characters on a Swiss clock — with about the same impact. We were supposed to be preparing for college, which I suppose it was, because it was long and boring and basically ineffectual in such a large group — precisely what happens in the large lecture halls of academe where balding professors drone about the reproductive system of the lizard-like anole while the real reproductive studies take place after dances called “mixers” by those in charge and "shake and bake" by the students.
Senior year was the year when a wild, angry wall-pounding punch broke my left hand — my writing hand — and Robie seized on the first paper I turned in a week later to show as an example to the class of what sloppy work was being produced. When he did, anger got the best of me.

"I broke my hand, Harry." (Sweet Jesus, did I really say Harry!)

I did! And in saying so broke an unwritten rule that was as big a sin as pissing inside the Mormon Tabernacle. You never, never call a high school teacher by their first name. For us, there were no first names attached to teachers, only Mr., Mrs., or Miss. No Ms. had appeared on the scene yet, though the boy/men could feel it in their bones when they watched a Sherry Tower or Carolyn Coulter calmly shred a male opponent to pieces in class debates by carefully blending the "I'm-a-girl, take-it-easy" coquetishness with a prosecutor's hard talent of going for the throat.

The class debates seemed more like Tijuana cock fights than structured academic contests, with the teachers throwing in their champions, asking other teachers to sit in to judge so they could sit on the sidelines and snort. They pretended to look serious but laughed like hell later, in the teacher's room, where the smoke was thick and the talk mostly about houses and upkeep with a smattering of socializing and flirting going on. These were the teachers who couldn't drink in a bar, get caught speeding or even avoid church on Sundays. There were moral clauses in contracts in 1966 (most often written and, if not, certainly clearly understood). If the male teachers seemed to be eunuchs, they had to be, if they weren't before they took the jobs.

But Robie was no eunuch. He kept up a play-by-play banter through five classes a day that made even Silas Marner mildly interesting to the farm kids who sat in the back, too tired to argue early in the morning after milking the cows, tossing a little hay, and riding a solid hour on a diesel-smoke-spewing schoolbus to get to high school. Robie used the now-famous technique favored by politicians wanting to have a "down home" image. He started class with his sports coat and tie intact, gradually taking his coat off and loosening his tie, sometimes rolling up his sleeves. Eventually he would give up the podium and walk around the room, becoming “one” with the class, making everyone forget he was the teacher, Mr. Robie, though calling him "Harry" nearly cost me a trip to see the principal, a man whose smile had all the warmth of a cobra on acid.

Drugs weren't a part of the Year of the Robie, though we heard weird strange tales from some of kids had graduated and gone to “big schools” when they came home for their first break, freshman, but full of themselves, strutting down the halls of the high school during class, laughing aloud, calling teachers by their first names!

They talked quietly — very quietly — about smoking “stuff,” but if we knew they were talking about marijuana, we didn't say it aloud. We maintained our reverent attitude toward these older brethren who we really didn't like much anyway, having played the junior student to their senior superiority.

Our drug of choice senior year was alcohol, mostly beer, though a nice mixture for insulation against the New York winter was slugs of Southern Comfort washed down with gulps of Colt .45 (if we bought it) or Rheingold (if we stole it from the stashes kept by parents). The combination was lethal if you drank it fast enough, and we did, of course, as if by imbibing what was illegal for us to even carry around, we could avoid getting caught. Of course, we got stinking, puking commode-hugging drunk, a fast high that frequently faded fast, too, but when it didn't, it usually turned into a wild Mr. Toad's ride for the non-drunk who loved to parade the drunkest person in public for what we would later recognize as some kind of rebellious demand for attention via shock value.

We were oddly scrupulous at that age about not driving and drinking. Jesus! Can you imagine, getting caught drinking and driving and then losing your driver's license? In New York, if you were seventeen and had passed a driver's training course, you could drive at night. And the world was clearly demarcated between those who could drive and night and those who couldn't. And if you couldn't, you were doomed to double-dating with some smug bastard who was just a little older than you or who lucked out and got into driver's ed a half year before you did. And after a date, the bastard would always drop you off before your date, with a wink and the suggestion that your date could sit up front.


But if losing your license was a horrible, unendurable agony, so was driver training, particularly if you already had your license and the driver's ed teacher had seen your new Mustang or GTO or Chevy Malibu in the parking lot, a decided step above his Chevy Bel Air, Ford Fairlane four-door, or aging DeSoto. Between teaching wood shop to an odd assortment of seventh grade miscreants, the socially retarded and a third group so generally backwoods, upstate-New York weird that they defy description, these driver's ed teachers came out to a carload of 17-year-old boys with an unsettling mix of anticipation of getting free of the school for 45 minutes and utter dread at the thought of teaching us how to pass on a slippery ice-covered highway.

My group drew arguably the gem of the group, a dark-haired Swede named Mr. Anderson who despite 15 years of watching accidents ready to happen in a metal shop filled with lathes, ball peen hammers, and hacksaws, retained a wolf-like smile that revved up us when he would get into the car, always a minute or two late, reeking of cigarettes.

"Ready boys?" And we always were.

We were mostly ready to see who would drive first, who would get the chance to accidently let the dog-of-a-Chevy fishtail ever-so-slightly when we turned out of the parking lot, in full view of the main study hall where at least 50 or so upperclassman were probably looking out the window instead of reading whatever claptrap the Robie had presented that morning. The trick was to let it slide just enough for people to see but not push the smile from the Anderson's face. If you did, he would watch out of the corner of his eye for the rest of your turn and a single instant of one-hand-on-the-wheel would draw a sharp rebuke.

We always came back with some tale from those drives. Rick Shevalier would slide the wheels off the asphalt to send us briefly spinning. Jack Eckdahl would keep turning around to say something to us in the back seat, only to have Mr. Anderson demand that he stop talking. These outings were like a conjugal visit with freedom.

Out on that road we were still shackled by the school, but with only a single bull to watch us, and in Mr. Anderson's case, he was as close to a friendly guard as we dared imagine.



Unknown said...

This is incredible! Thanks so much. I well remember how the dress slipped into informality and work mode and he would get into trouble for it.
You make me laugh and cry. What a gift.
And thanks, Jennifer, for sharing this.

SnoresLikeBuffalo said...

Just found this, Michael. Great start! When do we get to see the rest?