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The Miracle of Me  – CHAPTER 15


Walking through your day you step past the most undervalued, precious assets we have: those few still willing to be our children’s teachers.

As parents, we no longer pay them, encourage, or respect them as our parents and their parents once did. Worse yet, since parents don’t, the children don’t either.

The temporary shell was needed to relieve the school’s overcrowding, a lonely cube of a portable classroom deposited out on the back lot. Students sat on their desk-tops, happily laughing and tossing whatever was at hand at each other across the room. They were celebrating that happy event when their teacher was out sick, and a substitute was needed. Then I walked in.

I had been substituting for about a month at some of Tucson’s tougher schools. All of them had serious problems due to funding requirements that reduced the number of teachers while retaining each student no matter how disinterested, disruptive, and abusive they were.

As I began taking the roll, I asked the students to settle down and please take a seat. Most did, with a few I had to repeat myself and one, a 13-year-old named Tommy — well he was different. Tommy remained seated on his desktop with his back to me. “Very funny,” I joked, “but I need you to take your seat so we can get started.” His response commanded the clear vocal projection of a seasoned actor on the Broadway stage, “Fuck You,” along with a crowd-pleasing hand gesture on a limb streaking toward the ceiling, announcing to all that I was his number one.

Now I was an imposing presence, 6’ 4” and 245 pounds of mostly muscle at the time. I instantly wondered how Mrs. Shenfield, my third-grade teacher at 5’ 2”, would have handled this. I had no idea, so I simply towered over him and with a stern voice ordered him to take his seat or he would be sent to the principal’s office. Tommy redelivered his line and gesture, adding that they didn’t have to do anything some dumb substitute said.

I wrote out a pink slip and told him to get out and go to the principal’s office. He sneered, snatched it from my hand and stomped out. For what remained of the 50-minute class the portable was rocked, first by him launching his body against its sides and then by rocks and bricks, until just before the bell rang when I had to unplug the air-conditioner because it started to spit out dirt and then smoke.

As soon as the bell rang, I was out the door chasing Tommy around the building where he entered the class from the opposite door. Pushing over all the desks and chairs he could, he ran out the opposite side.

I did not catch up to Tommy until the last bell of the day. He was trying to sneak out through the one gate students could get to their school bus. The march through the school’s halls to the principal’s office was a long one and for the ages. Every disgusting, vile thing he could think of, and I dare say you too, was disgorged in an endless tirade of colorful descriptions regarding my privates and how I used them. I was amused, silent and just made sure he stayed on track directly to the principal’s office.

When we got to the office, the principal was on her way out, and as I quickly explained about the destruction of property, she blurted, “I don’t have time to deal with this now,” and walked away.

Arriving the next morning there was a note on my desk saying, “Report to the principal’s office immediately.” It was there that I found the principal, Tommy and his two angry parents. The principal immediately announced that I was being dismissed. As my jaw went slack and I dumbly responded with a ”Huh?” there was a knock on the door. It was another teacher who said she had something to say. As she closed the door and began to speak there was another knock on the door, then another. Within less than a minute the room was filled with strangers, all teachers, none of whom I knew.

It appears that Tommy caused such an uproar in our walk down the halls to the office the previous day that teachers had streamed out of their classes to watch the scene as we passed. I had never seen them, nor do I remember what each one had to say that morning in the principal’s office, but it was pretty much along the lines of what that first one said who claimed she had never seen anyone suffer through such outrageous abuse and yet remain so perfectly calm.

Turns out neither Tommy nor I got released that day. With Tommy the school needed to continue counting him as a student because funding depended upon student retention. With me, well that was because if I had been fired a dozen or so other teachers were about to take a walk.

I think the world of schoolteachers (unlike college professors, who are unfortunately better paid, often full of themselves and get to teach people who pay to be there). Schoolteachers are never full of themselves and are given our youngest minds, at their most vulnerable, absorbing, educable time in life, yet we strip them of authority, money and our respect, yet still expect our children to excel in reading, math and have some knowledge of civics — all of which plummeted in recent years.


Next to my 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Scheinfeld, Mr. Evans became the greatest teacher ever with nothing more than a moment out of his day. He was the school’s track coach with a sideline as the remedial math teacher. Or maybe it was the other way around, I really didn’t know.

I was working on some simplistic bit of math designed for pinheads in the school’s remedial math class. He walked up behind me, stood there a second checking my work. Then he did something no other teacher had ever done, would do, think to do, or have any cause to do: He put his hand on my shoulder, smiled, and said, “You’re good, too good to be here.”

With that moment from an adult I admired, I took off like a rocket into the unknown. I devoured math, excelled at math, and suddenly became better than anyone I knew at math. Within two weeks I had been taken from Mr. Evan’s remedial class and dumped into Mr. Karloff’s advanced trigonometry class. I had begun having dreams of being a great architect or astronomer.

That moment of encouragement would live on in my recreations of it for other children to this present day, whom I have strived to have that same effect upon.


Well, I did not become an architect, and my astrophysicist dreams ended abruptly with Mr. Karloff’s trigonometry class.

On my first day in his class. Mr. Karloff a mean, craggy 300 pounder with a scowl cemented to his face, caught my best buddy Stevie Bogard, who had been in the advanced class for some time, chewing gum. Mr. Karloff explain to the class that “Stevie must not have been on his mommy’s tit long enough,” as he picked him up by his heels and shook him until the gum fell out.

Unseen, in the back row I swallowed my split of Stevie’s gum and slunk deep into my seat, invisible again, my glory days with digits over.


Now Mrs. Upham, the history teacher, was the school’s oldest, with long gray-white hair pulled back so tight it must have hurt. A joyless woman and devoted sleuth, searching for any and every fault a child might have.

Now back in the 1960s, and maybe even with some teachers today, being unappreciated as they are, what they taught in history class was tested something like this:

Event #1, who was involved and on what date?

Event #2, who was involved and on what date?

And so on.

Little effort, at least in my experience, was made to make history exciting and relevant. Tests were simply exercises in memorizing names and dates, apparently with the purpose that you can still remember them to this day.

But one Friday, Mrs. Upham really hit a homer with me. She said, your homework assignment is to do a report on Arizona’s gubernatorial history.

Wow, now that is relevant, that is the office my dad ran for, and I was all in. Screw the neighborhood games and TV. I didn’t work on it all weekend, I reveled in it all weekend.

When Monday morning came around and the other students put in their one and two-page papers I handed in a 30-something page manuscript of each governor’s accomplishments, records, and dates, complete with what pretty pictures I could find of governors visiting historic sites cut from Dad’s stack of old Arizona Highways magazines. I gave Mrs. Upham a big smile as I set my masterpiece in front of her, knowing my work would be as unexpected as it was treasured.

Mrs. Upham picked it up, quickly leafed through it and then wasted no time on her evaluation. “You didn’t do this,” she scowled, then ordered me back to my seat.

I got a D.


Almost all teachers, in my experience, were on the student’s side. My French teacher was named Mr. Gauntlet. How perfect is that? It was my sophomore year, and I am pretty sure that I chose French because I thought it would impress girls. In fact, one day it did impress one. She was very cute, a new student who came to school wearing a blouse with La Fleur de Jardin printed on it. A remarkable streak of luck, since those happened to be the only four words of French I knew and would provide me with the only truly impressive opener I ever had.

She did not know what the words meant. “Why you are the flower of the garden,” I said. She turned beet red and gave me a smile to die for.

It made me want to follow up with, “Would you like to go out, fall in love, make babies and spend the rest of our lives together?”

At the end of that sophomore year a remarkable event was brought to my attention. It looked like I was going to make the Honor Roll. The Honor Roll! Me, the invisible idiot? The Honor Roll? All I had to do was somehow not flunk French. Not possible I thought, I had flunked every French test, quiz and question Mr. Gauntlet had given me. It had become so hopeless that I had stopped handing in homework assignments weeks earlier simply because I no longer understood what the assignments, now given in French, were. Mr. Gauntlet, who seemed to like me despite the grinding wreckage I made of his native tongue had mercifully stopped calling upon me in class.

But with the Honor Roll there was the chance I could announce to the world that I was not as stupid as I thought and was sure everyone else knew me to be. I went to see Mr. Gauntlet, told him about my Honor Roll dream, “if only I could somehow pass French.” A kind, gentle fellow, he wanted to protect me from myself, and told me that if I could get just enough questions right on the final exam to get a D he wouldn’t flunk me.

I went home and crammed for a full 20, maybe even 30 minutes. It was too painful, just too hopeless. When the following week’s exam was scored Mr. Gauntlet pulled me aside and told me that I did not do well, that I had not only gotten the worst grade in class but that I had the second worst grade in the entire school. “Second” I thought, well that’s something. Then to my excellent surprise and what I would later see as symptomatic of the lax educational system’s “keep students happy” horror spreading across the land, Mr. Gauntlet gave me my D.

For that D, he wanted a deal, as he put it. “I’ll give you a D on one condition.” “Yes, anything,” I said. “That you promise me you will never take French again as long as you live.”

No winning lottery ticket ever felt so good. I made the Honor Roll, dubious as it was, and Mr. Gauntlet would not have to worry that I would enter some colleague’s French class claiming to have passed his.

(New chapters will be added roughly once a week)

Richard Kimball, Vote Smart Founder

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