On the first day of third grade I sat in the very front row and Mr. Doyle was standing in front of me. When we stood up to do the Pledge he looked down at me, made this frowny face and dropped into a slouch. I guess he thought I should stand up straight and smile. I didn’t get the hint though and just looked back at him.
That makes him sound like a dick, I know, but he was actually the coolest teacher in our school. He had been in the Marines or something, so he had this drill sergeant demeanor most of the time. But if I just told you about the stuff we did in and out of class you would think he was a total hippie, or at least some kind of Druid.
We rearranged the classroom so that we could build a wood shop in one corner and make cool shit out of wood. I was hell of interested in Ivanhoe, King Arthur and the like, so I made a shield and broadsword. He taught us ancient Celtic songs and read Beowulf to us for story time. We went on nature hikes in the woods around our school and he showed us which mushrooms, berries and plants were edible, and which ones would make you sick. In the winter we would go out on cross-country skis and do similar stuff.
He taught us about commerce too. In another corner of the room we set up a mock supermarket stocked with empty boxes and cans that we had brought from home. We were instructed to empty the cans from the bottom so as to preserve realism. We had a working cash register with which to conduct our transactions. This was very educational in that it helped me learn at an early age that I had little interest in this sort of thing.
Did I mention he was funny as hell? He called us ladies and germs, and said things like, Pass out but don’t faint when we were going out to recess, and he would randomly throw these crazy faces that looked like kabuki masks.
He introduced us to art too, and by that I mean Kandinsky and de Kooning and the like. Grown-up stuff. I asked him if we would also be studying Norman Rockwell and he just gave me one of his kabuki faces.
Mr. Doyle also got us to start journaling, and thanks to him other teachers started doing this with their students too. We were each given a blank journal with a cover that looked like blue jeans, and we had journal writing time every day. He told us to just write down whatever comes to mind, which was surprisingly hard at first, but it got easier as we went along. I’ve kept up this habit my whole life since then.
Poetry was one of his things too, especially haiku. We would take our journals out on those nature hikes and sit down in the weeds somewhere and have quiet time, just soaking up the experience and turning it into a haiku in our journals.
Now Mr. Doyle is starting to sound pretty touchy-feely, but actually he was a total hardass whose paddle was the most feared in the whole school. Corporal punishment was A-OK back then and Mr. Doyle was legendary at it. Remember the woodshop? That’s where he forged his paddle, and I’m sure if we had been a little older we would have come up with a nickname for it like Butt-Bite or Scourge or The Ass-Assinator. As it was, it remained that-which-must-not-be-named, and we trembled at the thought of it.
One day we were standing in line to go out to recess. Jason Dambacher turned around and passed me a chewed-up pencil stub. Here, he said, Let’s go write on the fence. I took the pencil and made like I knew what he was talking about, but actually I did not have a clue. What a strange thing to request. What would we write? My curiosity was up.
As soon as we got outside Jason hunkered down by the split rail fence and got right to work. I hunkered down too, but I had a bad case of writer’s block so I leaned over to get a peep of what he was working on.
Aha. Think I got it. Just as I started on my graffiti we looked up to see this second grade girl with coke bottle glasses just standing there looking at us. Finally she said, I’m telling, and ran off. At that point it dawned on both of us that this development was really, really not good, and we ran off too.
We skulked around the far end of the playground until the whistle blew to go back inside. So far so good. We lined up with our class, being extra well behaved. One by one the classes filed in. When it was our class’s turn the teacher on duty said, Dambacher and Keene, in the corner! We had to stand on either side of the doors with our noses in the corner as the rest of the kids filed past us. Maybe this is all we’ll get, I lied to myself.
Once we got back to class Mr. Doyle said, Dambacher, in the hall. Everybody knew what that meant, especially me. A minute later Jason came back in the class with his face beet-red and streaming, and then it was my turn.
There was no preamble, nothing about “this hurts me more than you”, no checking to make sure I understood why this was happening. Just grab your knees and – WHACK! Followed by the most intense, purest pain I had ever felt, like a sustained, very high musical note. The Ass-Assinator had spoken.
Say what you will about corporal punishment, for a kid like me who was not chronically lawless it was an effective deterrent. That was the first and last time I ever got it at school.
The thing that made Mr. Doyle so great was that he was inscrutable. We learned and did the most amazing things, and he had the most hilarious way with words, but he was also kind of scary and unpredictable. I think that was a good mix of traits for us third-graders to be exposed to. It kept us curious and alert.