We had some incredible
teachers at St. John's. I could name a dozen names of men
and women whose tutelage had a memorable effect on me.
However, there was one particular teacher, Mr. Powell,
who reached out to me in a very special way.
Mr. Powell was my 6th
grade English teacher. Not only was this was his first year at
St. John's, I think it may have been his first year of teaching.
Mr. Powell encouraged us to learn creative writing. One day early in the school year, he made us an offer.
If we wrote a 100
page story, he would type it up for us. There were
several students who took him up on the offer, but most quit early
in the game.
Only Nancy Paxton and I made it to the finish line. As part of our deal, it
was our job to produce 20 pages a month.
My book was the
Power of Gold. I wrote
a gruesome tale about Spanish conquistadors who ravaged helpless
Incan tribes of Peru in search of gold. I emphasized the
cruelty of the Spanish to help justify the eventual gruesome death
of every one of them.
I can still remember Mr.
Powell's first comment upon reading. "Well, Dick, I see you have
quite the vivid imagination."
This story was a
neverending blood bath. The Incans stored their
gold deep in an underground cavern complete with an Indiana
labyrinth. Conquistador after conquistador plunged to his
death in disguised pits, dying in agony impaled upon sharp stakes. The body count would make Rambo look like a
sissy. How Mr. Powell forced himself to type that garbage is a real
testimony to his honor. Obviously he was determined to keep his word.
And yet, despite my
garbage, I discovered I enjoyed writing. Mr. Powell encouraged me
to write, and write I did.
Mr. Powell did manage to
play a trick on me. He handed me back my first 20 pages with
notes. Mr. Powell wasn't willing to simply be a parrot and
type whatever I wrote word for word. He expected me to have a
plot, to tell my story in a logical fashion, and to develop
characters. I hadn't bargained for this. But I really
wanted that book. Don't ask me why, the idea just caught my
So I rose to the
challenge. At his request, I went back and rewrote several passages.
That wasn't good enough; now he wanted an outline. An outline?
Now that was tough, but I put my mind to it and produced a rough
could not believe how pleased Mr. Powell was to see me respond to
his suggestions. Mr. Powell was thrilled to have a student who
sincerely wanted to learn how to write a story. I developed a
wonderful rapport with the man. I probably came closer to
being "teacher's pet" with Mr. Powell than any teacher I ever had.
Imagine how excited I
was to see my long-hand scribble transformed into 100 neatly-typed pages enclosed in a simple binder. Oh my goodness, I
did it! I wrote a book!
I could not possibly have been more proud of myself. It wasn't
Hemingway, but it wasn't bad for the 6th grade. The point
is that Mr. Powell had found a way to inspire an eleven year old kid to
write a 100 page story. Nor did it stop there. Mr.
Powell encouraged me to continue writing. Mr. Powell thought I could
be a writer someday, although he did recommend I find a more
I was more than just flattered. I was inspired! This was quite
a compliment for an attention-starved kid like me. Not
surprisingly, I worshipped the ground he walked on. Mr. Powell
had not only encouraged me to write, he took the time to teach me "how" to
This is the kind of effect a gifted teacher can
have on a student. To men like Mr. Powell, I was a happy puppy
dog. My teachers never had the slightest trouble with me.
My teachers may not have
realized it, but they played a major role in keeping me from
becoming a bad kid. For nine years, teachers like Mr. Powell
kept me on the path. Getting my education was the
shining light that kept me focused despite my litany of problems.
Peter gulped and nodded
yes. In truth, he was so scared he couldn't speak.
To everyone's surprise -
including Peter - Mr. Curran reached down, grabbed Peter by the
ankles and flipped him upside down.
As Mr. Curran dangled poor
red-faced Peter upside down by the ankles, Mr. Curran said that the
correct way to solve fractions is to flip them over. Aha, so that's how you do
it! Mr. Curran was the master of slapstick humor.
Did Mr. Curran put Peter
down? No, not yet. He was waiting... waiting... waiting.
After the laughter and
hilarity subsided, some girl raised her hand and asked, "Mr. Curran,
why is called the Orroz Method?"
Mr. Curran smiled
because someone had finally taken the bait.
"Because when you turn Zorro
upside down, he becomes Orroz!"
More guffaws and
laughter ensued. From that point on, we began to call Peter by
his new nickname, Orroz. Peter loved his new-found fame.
Well, there was a method
to this madness. Mr. Curran's Orroz Method worked like a charm. Any
time I wanted to divide fractions, I mentally flipped Peter Zorro
upside down in my mind. While other St. John's instructors
preferred to use a no-nonsense approach, Mr. Curran was something of
a genius for his ability to use humor and warmth to communicate with
us. He loved to tease us and get us all excited, but the
amazing is that he never lost control of his class. Mr. Curran was a masterful
teacher. He proved to me a class can be fun and still be
effective... or maybe even more effective due to the fun.
One Sunday during the
8th grade, something weird
happened to me in my neighborhood and I didn't know what to make of
it. Even though Mr. Curran wasn't
currently my teacher, he was the only person I trusted to
ask this question to.
My mother and I lived in a
middle class neighborhood about two miles from St. John's, easy
riding distance on my bike. Out of our eleven different homes,
the apartment on Hawthorne was my favorite.
Lanier Junior High was
situated next to my apartment in the Montrose area. One Sunday afternoon I
took Terry for a walk. I was 13 at the time. I decided to circle Lanier. To my surprise, in
the back of Lanier, there was a huge touch football game being played on
Lanier's practice field. I did an immediate double-take.
I had never seen anything like this before. There were easily a
hundred people there, almost all men.
As I watched them play, I
I was certain that something was completely wrong, but I couldn't
figure out what it was. While Terry wandered around
sniffing everything in sight, I watched the football game from a
distance and played a game called "What's Wrong with this Picture?"
For one thing, the
players moved very awkwardly. They didn't move like athletes
at all. I had the impression that some of them had never
played football in their lives.
Their demeanor was
strange. For lack of a better word, they were 'silly'. I noted that every time
the ball carrier was down by touch, every player on the field would pile
on top and scream with delight. The sight of a giant human
pyramid with 20 or so bodies writhing in happy ecstasy was certainly
nothing I had ever seen before. With their squeals, they sounded more like girls
I noted there was a huge
crowd on both sidelines, but there were hardly any women. I
also noticed the crowd went wild at the end of every play no matter
what happened. Can you imagine cheering for an incomplete
pass? These men did. They would hug each other and jump up and
down. I had never seen men scream quite like this at football
games. This scene was totally weird.
I can't say I felt
threatened, but I didn't feel safe either. I guess I felt ill
at ease, so I refused to budge.
Now I noticed there was something strange about those cheerleaders. Waving their pom-poms furiously, not only were they the
most enthusiastic cheerleaders I had ever seen, but they were also
the ugliest. Big! Husky! Hairy legs! Hairy
legs?? I couldn't believe my own eyes.
fact, if I didn't know better, um... I decided to move a little closer for
a better look. Yup, those cheerleaders looked like men wearing
wigs. What is going on here?
Now that I was closer, I
could also understand the words to their raucous cheers.
"Hi ho, hi ho,
c'mon, let's go!
Hit 'em hi, hit 'em low,
c'mon fairies, hit
'em in the cherries!"
I was confused. What
kind of cheer was that?
Now that I was closer, a slender girl came over
to talk to me. She was pretty and I smiled. As if on cue, Terry trotted back to my side.
To my surprise, my border collie growled. I was stunned.
I had never heard my dog growl at a stranger before.
Well, that stopped the
girl in her tracks. I told her not to worry, Terry had never
bitten anyone. She wasn't convinced so I put my hand on Terry's
Terry calmed down, but decided not to leave my side. Now that
was unusual. Why was he protecting me? And protecting me
from a girl, no less? Nothing made sense.
Meanwhile the girl turned out to be very
She said this touch football game was determining
the championship between two rival bars in the Montrose area.
She invited me to come sit on the bench and watch the game with her.
Recalling Terry's growl,
maybe that wasn't such a good idea. I couldn't put my finger
on it, but something was definitely wrong here. I politely said no thanks,
adding it was time I headed home.
A championship football
game? Considering how hard they laughed and giggled in those
giant pileups, they didn't look like they were
playing to win.
I didn't have a father
to ask and I didn't care to ask my mother, but I was still curious.
So the next day at school I tracked down Mr. Curran down in his
classroom and told
him the story. Then I asked if he understood what was going
Well, of course Mr.
Curran turned red when I asked him to explain. How does one
explain a risky subject like homosexuality to a lonely male student
alone in a classroom on school premises? Mr. Curran looked
very worried. After some thought, he decided to help me out.
He said in a low voice that
those were men who preferred men over women for companionship.
But, Mr. Curran, what
about that girl who talked to me?
Mr. Curran said he
imagined that was a young boy dressed as a girl. My eyes
bulged. Really? She sure looked like a girl.
Mercifully for Mr.
Curran, the bell rang. Saved by the bell!!
This was the first time
I had ever been exposed to the gay community in Montrose. The early
Sixties was an era where things were still hush hush and kept in the
closet. However, this odd incident was clear proof that there
was indeed a thriving gay community at the time.
I had no idea, but I had
put Mr. Curran in a precarious position by asking him to explain.
Mr. Curran took a real chance by answering my question candidly.
That was the sort of topic that could have gotten him in serious
trouble if I had naively relayed "what Mr. Curran said" to another
student who might have passed it on to a parent or another teacher
and so on. The witch hunt in Salem Village started with a bunch of rumors that spiraled out of control. Mr. Curran deserved credit for having the courage to
explain what had been going on to me.
I was excited to have
Mr. Curran again as my English teacher in the 9th grade, my freshman year. I was surprised to see his teaching approach had
changed dramatically. His new style didn't employ the same
goofy slapstick that had made him so popular with us in the 7th
grade. No more picking up kids and turning them upside down.
Instead he used his profound warmth to put us at ease in a way that
made classroom discussion an exciting event for us. There were
15 students in my class. Using Mr. Curran's version of the
Socratic Method, we openly discussed the issues of novels like
Charles Dickens' Great Expectations and Tale of
In Mr. Curran's
classroom, we developed a rapport that was based on
a shared enthusiasm for learning. All those bright minds
eagerly debated the various dilemmas of the stories. We were
encouraged to think for ourselves. English class was a
chance for all of us to wrestle with life's problems and argue about
what we would have done in a similar situation. This class was a
perfect example of the kind of education St. John's offered on a regular basis.
In my Freshman year, Mr.
Curran took a personal interest in me. Mr. Curran was the
only person at St. John's to pull me to the side and
ask what had happened to my face when I had my acne explosion.
I burst out crying. Over tears, I told him what had happened
and how upset I was. Mr. Curran put his arm around me and sat
with me for several minutes while I cried my eyes out.
From that point on, Mr.
Curran went out of his way to check on my progress. Seeing how
disturbed I was with my struggles, he frequently kept
me after class to ask how things were going and to give me a pep
talk. Mr. Curran was one of the few shining lights in the most
miserable year of my life.
In the 12th grade, I had Mr. Curran for English again. Without Mr. Curran, I
don't know how I would have ever made it through my Senior year.
He could see how sullen and tense I had become. Mr. Curran
could tell something was wrong with me, so again he offered to help.
At least once a week, Mr. Curran would pull me aside after class
just to check on me.
We developed an odd
ritual... an eight minute 'how are you doing?' chat.
This was the kind of talk that I wasn't getting at home.
I had 10 minutes between
classes. We would talk till the last possible moment, then I
would use the remaining two minutes to sprint to my next class.
It was a blessing from heaven that I had Mr. Curran as my
teacher in my difficult Senior Year.
One day I think Mr.
Curran decided I needed a lot more attention than eight minutes
permitted. So he invited me to
meet him for breakfast at a local diner "to talk about my upcoming
senior essay". I noted the tact in his face-saving reason
to meet with me.
Mr. Curran had such a gentle way. I was immediately
"That would be great.
When, Mr. Curran?"
"How about this coming
I was immediately
disappointed. "I can't, Mr. Curran. I have Detention
Hall on Saturday morning."
Mr. Curran laughed.
"Not again? What did you do this time?"
Mr. Curran knew I was no
stranger to Penalty Hall. I had complained about my ongoing
struggles with my nemesis Mr. Murphy many times. Now he covered his mouth
with his hand in mock disappointment. Mr. Curran loved to
tease me. With a grin on his face, he asked me to explain my
"Oh, you-know-who caught
me running in the hall again."
"Young man, shame on you. You
know you aren't supposed to run in the hall."
"Well, aren't you one to
talk! It's your fault! Mr. Murphy caught me leaving your
Mr. Curran grinned.
"Oh really? Blame it on me? Please explain."
"Whenever I talk to
you, I lose track of time and then I am late for class. Seriously, that man
is a lot smarter than I realized. Mr. Murphy figured out I like to
stay late to talk to you and then I have to run to class or be late.
He even knows what path I will take. So he hides in a
different place along the route. This is the third time he has
caught me running from your class."
Mr. Curran rolled in his
eyes in mock despair.
"Well, in that case, you have my apology. I have an
idea, let's agree to talk one minute less from now on. I'm not
sure my conscience can rest knowing you are suffering in
Penalty Hall on my account. As for this Saturday, let's try
lunch instead of breakfast."
I smiled. "That'll work.
It will give me something to look forward to."
What Mr. Curran didn't
know was that I had to beg my manager to let me off work that
day. Even though I needed the money in the worst way, I needed
Mr. Curran's encouragement far more. Mr. Curran had the most
wonderful way of cheering me up. Unfortunately I needed all
the help I could get. I was a perpetual basket case that
Not long after our lunch appointment, Mr. Curran invited me to his
home for yet another long talk. Mr. Curran was reaching out to me.
I suspect he sensed I was starting to go off the deep end. I
would visit his home on three different occasions in my Senior year.
Mr. Curran had recently gotten married.
His pretty wife would bring us coffee and then leave us alone in the
living room. The moment she left, I would begin to pour my
These invitations were always made with the face-saving excuse that
we would discuss my class work, but invariably our talks drifted
into long conversations about my home life and my
problems. Without question, my senior year was the toughest
year of my life. Without Mr. Curran, I cannot imagine how I
would have survived that year.
For my senior year
English project, I begged Mr. Curran to let me write about The
Graduate. I had discovered the blockbuster movie was
based on a fifty page short story. Mr. Curran
preferred I write about a classic novel like Wuthering Heights or
Pride and Prejudice, but he finally relented when he
saw how important it was to me.
When I turned in my
eighteen page hand-written thesis, Mr. Curran gulped. Mr.
Curran forced a smile and said, "Um, very impressive, my friend.
You do know, of course, that I only asked for ten pages??"
"Yes, sir, I knew that,
but I had a lot to say. Besides, you tell me all the time how
much you like my hand-writing."
I was being sarcastic. In truth, Mr.
Curran teased me all the time about being left-handed because he
could barely read my pathetic chicken scrawl. Now he groaned at the
thought of being forced to slog through eighteen pages of teenage
angst penned in my hieroglyphic hand-writing .
Nevertheless, Mr. Curran read my
thesis. Then he asked me to visit him at his house to discuss
what I had written. When I arrived, he asked why this project
had been so important to me. It took us about an hour to get
to the bottom of my motivations, but I finally figured it out.
The story was about an underdog kid with no direction in life.
Somehow our hero managed to win the heart of a popular girl who was engaged
to a handsome USC fraternity man. I suddenly realized I had
been writing about myself. I was the kid who feared I wasn't
good enough or handsome enough to compete with the boys at my school
in the courtship game.
A wave of emotion came over me and
tears filled my eyes. Yes, this had been the
major theme for me throughout high school... the underdog, the
creepy loser kid who wanted desperately to show his best and
brightest classmates that he was just as good as they were.
Mr. Curran smiled.
Obviously Mr. Curran had understood this from the start.
He also realized I was such a confused kid that I probably had
a blind spot on this. Sad to say, he was right. I could
not believe I had missed the fact that I had been writing about
myself the entire time.
When the tears stopped,
Mr. Curran asked me how I intended to remember my difficult high
school years. I thought
about it for a moment. "I think when I grow up, I want to show the world that I used
education to the best of my ability."
Mr. Curran smiled warmly.
"I have a feeling you will do just that."
As one can gather, I
found in Mr. Curran at least a semblance of the father I never had.
My stories of Mr.
Powell and Mr. Curran serve as a powerful example of how skilled my teachers
were. They showed concern for me and I responded in kind.
Movies such as
Goodbye Mr. Chips and Dead Poets Society have been made about the special rapport
that can develop between students and gifted teachers. A teacher can have a
profound effect on a student. If anyone
would know, that would be me.