When I was a young girl of 13 or so, I had just finished fifth grade under the tutelage of a wonderful and brilliant woman by the name of Helen Vile. She taught me to open up my mind and put the first inklings of my passionate love for writing into my still-growing brain. Once a day in Mrs. Vile’s class, we’d line up and march over to a classroom across the school, where we’d trade places with a classroom of children in the grade above us, students of the infamous Mr. Deane. Our class would visit Mr. Deane for Spanish lessons, while the 6th graders would visit Mrs. Vile for English lessons.
Spanish was an ordeal, especially at that tender age. The high-energy Mr. Deane would tease and quiz and keep us constantly on edge – you didn’t attend Mr. Deane’s Spanish class so much as you endured it like a bilingual hurricane. He gestured, he spun, he would even break into song when the mood suited him, which was often. He was a one-of-a-kind act and – though I couldn’t appreciate it then – a truly incredible person.
In time, I passed Mrs. Vile’s class and moved on to the coveted sixth grade, a mere year from the nirvana-like twinklings of Junior High School in the distance. This, however, meant that for a year I needed to suffer under the puppet-strings of Deane, equally feared and respected by the 6th graders that had occupied the seats only a summer prior. I went into my first day as a 6th grader with a heavy heart and a knot in my stomach, dreading a long school year with the man who seemed to single me out for picking on in Spanish. I was invited into my school’s Gifted and Talented program, or G&T, and Mr. Deane was the educational gatekeeper, herding our young minds into some semblance of order. I had set my heels and gritted my teeth, and I glared at the flamboyant Hispanic man in the front of the room, ready to do battle for 6th grade supremacy. I was defiant at every turn, constantly sneaking Nancy Drew novels to read in the hollow of my desk, forgetting my homework and experimenting with my newly-discovered sense of sarcasm at the expense of my teacher. He bore it all with grace, sarcasm of his own and a blinding stage-worthy smile that a Broadway choreographer couldn’t outshine.
He teased me. He made fun of me in ways that today’s politically-correct classroom would try to spin into lawsuits. But he treated all of us as equals, he spoke to us as adults and we all came to learn that year that the teasing only happened when we got lazy. He knew we knew the answer, and taking the easy way out garnered you a healthy dose of Mr. Deane’s razor-sharp wit. We learned not to take the easy way out to avoid it, and that clever bastard managed to do for a roomful of 6th graders what entire school administrations can’t begin to today.
He took our SAT-level vocabulary book and painstakingly worked six or seven of our week’s words into a rewritten news article about some international event – I learned effervescent and ubiquitous alongside the political leanings of Arafat. He wrote these – god only knows with how much of his free time – and covertly taught us about the entire world while we were busy puzzling out the vocabulary words. This learning-within-learning was a signature style of Mr. Deane’s, and as a result we’d come out of the classroom each day able to hold adult-level conversations without realizing it.
He tossed us the newspaper for a lesson, instructing us to pick a profession, an apartment, and a used car out of the classified ads. He let us have it with both barrels, tearing through our faux income with taxes, insurance, loan repayments, food, utilities and unexpected expenses, little by little. He nickel and dimed us to death. He left us penniless, wide-eyed and slack jawed – but he prepared us for the realities of life, and I doubt a single one of us stumbled out of High School four years later without remembering the shock and awe of that particular day of 6th grade. He made adults into humans for us, and made us realize – even for just a moment – how much our parents truly did for us each day.
We did science – real science, not flashy add chemical A to chemical B entertainment – and we kept a dedicated journal that needed to be written in the third person. We were reporters scooping ourselves, and to this day I can close my eyes and see notebook page after notebook page, “Today, young scientists…” at the top of each.
Midway through the year, we put on an operetta. A real, true, honest-to-god operetta. Costumes, sets, props, singing and choreographed dancing. It wasn’t a drama class or an extracurricular activity, it was just another thing that happened in 6th grade. Every class of Mr. Deane’s included a mandatory Gilbert & Sullivan operetta performance, and my now-7th grade friend had already related to me the rigors associated with the previous year’s Pirates of Penzance. Facing stage fright or an alternate 20-page paper, we all suited up in pantaloons and ridiculous hats and pulled together a hell of a Ruddigore of our own. I learned how to cope with the eyes of my peers on me, speak clearly and cooperate soundlessly behind the scenes between acts. I learned why the show must go on, why sometimes bad people need to get good parts, that being upset can be just as easily turned into motivation as tears and that maybe, just maybe, Mr. Deane actually knew what the hell he was doing.
Mr. Deane probably still remembers me some 20 years later, mainly because I vexed that poor man with some of the strangest problems he’d probably ever seen in the classroom. I pried out all four of my molars with a pen cap, four days in a row, just to get out of science class. I broke my wrist and managed to lose 2 or 3 pens in my cast trying to scratch my arm. Three days before graduation, I managed to get my thumb stuck in a novelty globe pencil sharpener.
Mr. Roberto Deane – Mr. Roberto Font-Russell, Mr Roberto Font of Vermont, as I’m unsure what you go by these days – I’ve unsuccessfully tried to hunt you down to tell you how much you’ve done to make me, well…me…in that short year, and what an incredible person you were to make education a brave new world instead of towing the curriculum line. You were weird and wonderful, and I hope like hell my children have a teacher exactly like you some day. Thank you for sculpting my mind into the freelancing powerhouse it is today – I owe a debt to a lot of English teachers along the way, but it Mrs. Vile that laid the kindling, and it was your spark that lit the fire.