!

Since playing around in the sandbox of social media for a couple of years now, I have found that the exclamation mark has been greatly devalued and now needs to be used multiple times in a sentence!!!

I was always taught to use the exclamation mark sparingly because it was like shouting. However, that is old school!-for sure!!  Nowadays, I see a string of them after phrases such as Hello my friend!!!!!! or Have a beautiful day!!!!!!!

I have to admit that I am no longer comfortable using just a period at the end of a social media message. It sounds like I don’t care, or I am half asleep. Nothing says I Love You more than six exclamation marks.

The gods of the internet, they live in Wikipedialand, tell me that the exclamation mark comes from the Latin word io which meant hurray. Like, “Hey man, I haven’t seen you in a long time, hurray” The gods also share that slang words for the exclamation mark include a screamer, a gasper, a slammer, or a startler. Now maybe my mind is in the gutter, but three out of four of those words I could find sexually suggestive!!!!

I also have a problem with the name of the punctuation symbol. Is it a mark or a point? Perhaps in this era of never offending anyone, we should hyphenate it to be an  exclamation mark-point, but I kind of hate to drag the hyphen in on this whole sordid affair.

O.K., I have an idea. Let us create a new punctuation mark, or system of marks. Hang with me here. A ♛ might be worth ten marks-points. Or, perhaps it is time to redo the mark-point altogether. Say you’re using 12 point font, the mark-point should  be like really big

! and one ! would be enough!

Whatever the solution, we need to find one quickly!!!! As is often the case, the old American television program Seinfeld said it best!!!!!!!!!!!!!

The Class of ’64

(One reason that I started to blog was to find out if I would like to write and to see if I could write.  One of my very early posts was about a person who is very important in my life. Since I first posted that story, I have spent some time editing it, adding to it, and putting more of myself into the story.  This is the final version of of that story.  I still don’t know the answer to the would and could questions, but I continue to explore.)

 

The Class of ’64

He was not a physically imposing man, or one to demand the spotlight. His daily wardrobe was understated, consisting of earth-toned clothes, well-worn shoes, and a cardigan sweater. Calm and soft spoken, he had full, black hair and a darker complexion. But most of all, I remember his smile, a wry smile seeming to suggest that he knew something the rest of us did not.  Some of his other physical characteristics have faded from my immediate memory; after all, the last time I saw him, The Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” was Billboard’s number one song. Yet I still feel his spirit, as if he were standing right in front of me in room 21 at Hennessy Elementary School in Grass Valley, California. His name was Albert Ali.

I met Mr. Ali when I was ten years old and beginning the sixth grade, probably the youngest in my class. Until that point, my experience with formal education had not been positive. I struggled, and I mean really struggled, especially with the most important of the citizenship qualities categorized on the left side of my report card: “Quiet and does not disturb others.” No, that was never meMy classmates sat properly at their desks, aligned neatly in rows, like everything else in our classrooms, where we were apparently being trained to be soldiers or factory workers. But my young mind didn’t align neatly with anything. What I loved was socializing.

As a four-year-old in kindergarten, my desire to socialize got me in big trouble.  One day, when I was failing miserably at being “quiet and not disturbing others,” my teacher decided to remove me from all temptation by placing me in solitary confinement—in a dark coat closet.  Only a faint light came in where the door refused to touch the floor. I was quite sad, and as often happens with sad situations, it got worse. My teacher forgot about me. I spent the entire school day locked up, listening to the others sing songs, eat cookies, and take naps. At the end of the day, after all the other children had left, along with all the school buses, my warden retrieved her coat to go home. There, in the dark corner, squinting his eyes from the sudden bright light, was a quietly sobbing little boy. Amazingly, my very own Shawshank Redemption experience did not break my social spirit.  For most of my early years in school, I continued to receive “Needs Improvement” marks on my citizenship skills. (My academic marks weren’t very “good” either.)

My first grade teacher was a welcome change after the kindergarten jailer, but then my luck turned bad again. For the next four years, I was stuck with teachers who were close to earning their pensions and didn’t seem to have patience for little boys with poor penmanship, boys who couldn’t wait to get back on the playground for recess and lunch. But my troubles weren’t limited to poor teachers. I was a skinny kid who tended to get sick a lot. My ears were large, and they didn’t lie next to my head in a socially acceptable manner. Some classmates teased me, calling me “Dumbo,” a popular movie character at the time.  (Years later, when I chose to wear my hair short, some “friends” would try to nickname me Yoda.). Fist fights were common, and about the only way to stand up to bullying—except they didn’t call it bullying back then.  It was “boys will be boys.” Hennessy Elementary was no Montessori heaven.

The annual Valentine’s Day card exchange was always a good barometer of where you stood in the classroom’s pecking order, especially with the girls.  Kids dropped the best cards in the brown paper bags that sat on the desks of the most popular students.  When I reviewed my own bag, it usually contained cards with generic sayings, like “Have a Great Day,” which failed entirely in comparison to “You and I Go Sweet Together!”

It didn’t take long for me to decide that I hated school. I especially dreaded getting report cards, as my father was becoming increasingly frustrated with my citizenship marks and grades. I couldn’t keep my mouth shut long enough to learn anything—at least, that was how Dad interpreted it, and he didn’t need to read between the lines to reach that conclusion; it was essentially what my teacher’s comments always said. Each year, I worried that my final report card would read, “He’s not ready for the next grade level, but he is really good at playing games that involve a ball.”

By the end of fifth grade, after so many years of academic and social failures, I was no longer curious or even hopeful, in school or out.  I was fearful, considered myself ugly and stupid, and I had the attention span of a hummingbird. Something else happened that tanked my self-esteem even further during this time; I was introduced to the issues of race. I had begun to notice that my skin was a bit darker than most of the other children’s, especially during the warmer weather. No African-American children lived in Grass Valley, although we had a few Italian families, and one kid in my class had a Filipino mother. So I was used to watching most of my classmates turn red in the sun. Now, though, I became aware that my own skin was getting darker and darker as the days grew warmer. One day, on the playground, one of the kids called me the N-word, a term used commonly (by certain people) in that rural community. It bothered me enough that I went home and told my father about it.

Dad was not one for subtlety when it came to emotional issues. He tended to deal with them head-on and quickly, something like a car wreck. This time was no different.

“Your mother’s not your mother,” he told me, going on to reveal that my “real” mother lived somewhere else now, but had grown up in Yosemite National Park with her grandmother, who was an Indian. Then, in what I recognize now as ignorance, rather than ill-will, he used the language of the day to tell me what I was:  a “Digger Indian.” In that brief car wreck of a conversation I went from being a “nigger” to a “Digger” and to understanding that the woman I had been calling “Mom” my whole life was no relation–nor were my brothers and sisters fully participating with me in the same gene pool.

As the last day of fifth grade approached, my classmates had only one big question: Who would be lucky enough to get Mr. Ali next year for sixth grade?  I joined these conversations, but without much optimism. By this point, my emotional well-being was about as good as my citizenship marks. Why should I expect anything about school to change for me? My analysis, however, was flawed. Without my knowledge, Mr. Ali had been watching me and others like me – energetic boys who liked to play sports.

During the last period on the last day of fifth grade, we were allowed to go look at the teachers’ rosters for next year that were posted outside of their classrooms.  I desperately wanted to be in Mr. Ali’s sixth grade class, but I didn’t run to see who my teacher would be like the other kids did …until I heard one of the students say to me, “Hey, you’re in Mr. Ali’s class.” I know it’s a cliché, but I truly couldn’t believe my eyes.  This could not be so. School did not like me.  I just stared at my name because I half expected it to disappear off the paper. It didn’t and all summer long, I looked forward to school beginning. The night before the new school year began, I laid out my new J.C. Penney’s denim jeans, a bright white tee shirt, and brand spankin’ new Converse high-top tennis shoes with laces done the cool way – going over the top of the eyelets, not underneath. I wanted to make the best impression possible on my new teacher.

Albert Ali (pronounced Al-Lie, not Ah-Lee) was a small town hero in Grass Valley, California. His father had migrated here from Albania and his mother from Mexico, and neither spoke much English. Of course, I didn’t know those details then; what I knew about him was what the whole school knew: his past as a local sports legend. Although short in stature, he had been a standout high school athlete in football, basketball, and baseball.  With interest from the Chicago White Sox, he signed a professional baseball contract with the Great Falls Selectrics in Montana, a team in the historic Pioneer League. In his first professional game he held his opponent scoreless, pitching a shutout. He was off to a promising start, winning four games.

Then he started having trouble, first with his swollen left knee, then both ankles, and finally his other knee. Mr. Ali’s promising pitching career came to an abrupt end at age nineteen, when he was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis.  For the next three years, the best athlete to come out of Grass Valley, California couldn’t even dress himself.

Fortunately, a new “miracle” treatment offered by doctors at the University of California made it possible for Mr. Ali to walk again—in fact, within days of treatment. He found his way back to college, earning a teaching credential at Chico State, and then returned to his hometown to take up his post in a sixth grade class room at Hennessy Elementary.  By the time I became his student, Mr. Ali was the husband of his high school sweetheart, Theodora, a Native American woman, and the father of two young daughters, Robin and Tammy.

But it wasn’t his personal life that interested me then; it was his impact in the classroom. Long before anyone at Hennessy Elementary had heard the words “diversity” and “inclusion,” Mr. Ali embodied those ideals.  I had already experienced my community’s limited views on race, typical then for a small town in northern California that lacked much ethnic diversity. Yet people here fully embraced Albert Ali as their collective son. Wherever he went, his darker complexion was never remarked upon; instead, people greeted him with firm handshakes and warm smiles, and often their arm on his shoulder. The racial attitudes evaporated when Albert Ali was in the room or on the field.

It didn’t take long for me to realize that Mr. Ali’s reputation as our school’s favorite teacher was entirely deserved. One day, early in the school year, he noticed that I was not, as they now say, “on task,” during the time assigned to work on math problems in class.

“Gary, come up here,” Mr. Ali said, pulling a chair next to his in the front of the classroom.  Then, going desk by desk, he asked each student to answer a particular math problem. I had no answers to share with my classmates and dreaded my question, which soon came. “Gary, what is the answer to number thirty-three?”

The old feelings of being an academic screw up quickly rushed back into my mind. But then, ever so slightly, in a gesture noticeable only to me, Mr. Ali slid his left index finger to the answer in his teacher’s manual.  I took the cue and read the correct answer.

“Good, yes, that is correct,” Mr. Ali replied.

Mr. Ali, it seemed, wanted me to succeed. For the very first time, I seriously considered the possibility that all those rules about perfect handwriting, perfect spelling, perfect book covers made from brown paper lunch bags—which required a strong aptitude for the fine arts—and of course, the ultimate rule, Citizenship, might not be written in stone.

 

But Mr. Ali’s influence extended beyond the classroom. Despite the dramatic changes that had transformed him from a professional athlete to an elementary school teacher, Mr. Ali’s passion for sports was never compromised, as I soon learned.  He made sure that students like me—kids who loved playing games with balls—were enrolled in his class. He took ball games very seriously, spending countless hours coaching children in afterschool sports, and he had the ability to connect with each of us. Sometimes, after practice, Mr. Ali would give me a ride home in his old Willy’s Jeep, a World War II version—no top, no radio, doors that rattled. I felt like the most important person on earth, alone with Mr. Ali in his Jeep. I don’t remember talking very much on those rides, but I remember how my chest puffed up and filled with pride to be riding with my teacher, all by myself. Who cared about the best Valentine’s Day card? I had Mr. Ali.

My academic problems weren’t solved immediately, but something was indeed changing. I didn’t want to disappoint Mr. Ali.  Nobody wanted to. And it wasn’t just the boys who adored him. I think he purposely enrolled in his class some girls who also had difficulty being “quiet and not disturbing others,” girls who today might receive a diagnosis of oppositional defiant disorder.  Actually, I don’t think the disorder was on their end. My classmates and I had some crazy teachers at Hennessy Elementary, like the one who locked me up in kindergarten. The girls I remember were not the types to quietly accept solitary confinement in a coat closet. They spoke their minds—constantly. Yet they, too, were putty in the hands of our master teacher, a man who could figure out a way to reach and inspire every kid he taught. He said, “Jump,” and we said, “How high?” Long before the term “classroom management” was discussed in teacher education programs, Mr. Ali knew how to manage a classroom.

Despite his kindness, Mr. Ali was no pushover when it came to our wayward behavior. He could be a tough disciplinarian. This was toward the end of the era when corporal punishment was viewed as an appropriate tool in California, a tactic for shaping young minds, while also reshaping their butts.  His enforcement tool of choice was the one favored by everyone with security clearance to the teacher’s lounge: a wooden paddle drilled with holes.  The holes helped to reduce wind friction, which might slow the speed of the paddle as it bore down on its target.  (Memories triggered by scientific principals like this contributed to my dislike of physics in college.)  Unlike some of his colleagues, Mr. Ali was slow to use this aerodynamic technology on his students. I can remember only one time when I saw him use it—well, not actually saw it—felt it.

I was on the schoolyard basketball court, in the middle of a great struggle with another team, as Mr. Ali sat quietly on the sidelines coaching us. For some reason, most likely because I had seen one of my favorite professional athletes do it, I decided to spit on the blacktop court while playing in the game. At the time, it felt like a manly thing to do, an expression of my developing alpha maleness.  Mr. Ali saw it differently; I had disrespected the honorable court of competition. He made it clear to me that I would have to pay a price for my actions.  I remember thinking that I had seen other students do similar acts without much consequence. But Mr. Ali had a different standard for his kids. He poured his soul into us, and he wasn’t going to stand by and let the slippery values of a changing world interfere with our development into “good” people.  I had to bend over and…whap. For some reason that I can’t explain, I wasn’t embarrassed, nor did I feel separated from Mr. Ali or my other teammates. I had done something wrong, and I held my nose and I took my medicine.  I never again spit on any surface where a game was played.

Sixth grade, which I had so dreaded, started going very well for me.  I rarely missed school any longer, because Mr. Ali’s classroom was my favorite place to be in the whole world. He had managed to remove the fear of failure from me, and as a result, I started getting interested in the academic subjects, too. I began spending more time on my homework and actually started becoming a good citizen of the classroom. In some mysterious way that I attribute solely to who he was as a person, Mr. Ali had created what now is commonly called a “learning community.”

For the first time in years, I became joyful, and never more so than when that wonderful wandering minstrel, Mrs. Paye, our music teacher, came to our class for our weekly music lessons.  She had full buy-in from me.  Whatever she wanted us to sing, I would sing it loud and proud. (As a matter of fact, on several occasions she did mention how loud I was. I couldn’t help it; I was happy.) Mr. Ali also appointed me to a very prestigious unit, the school crossing guards. Not only did I get to wear a bright yellow uniform, but I also got out of class early in order to ensure the safety of my fellow classmates.  Nobody crossed that street until I said it was safe to do so. Trust me, you had to be something really special to become a member of that unit. In my mind and heart, it was comparable to being a Navy Seal.

I was given another prestigious assignment from Mr. Ali, too.  Whenever the small kids lost a ball in Wolf Creek, which ran next to our playground, I was one of those selected to go retrieve it. One day, trying to grab a ball, my retrieval partner Jerry and I accidentally fell in the creek. It was winter and cold, and we were soaked. Jerry and I had to stand next to the radiator furnace in our classroom for most of the day in order to dry our wet clothes. Mr. Ali was not happy with us. He made it very clear that we should have put a board across the creek to support us and then reached down to get the ball. “Ah, pure genius,” I thought.

The playground god soon smiled upon Jerry and I again, presenting us with an opportunity for redemption. Near the end of the same day, another emergency request came in, this time to save a red rubber kickball.  Mr. Ali, looked at us, in our freshly dried clothes. “You two, go get that ball, and do it right this time,” he instructed.

How could you not love a man who had that type of faith in you?

“Yes, sir, we’ll get that ball!”

We took the master’s advice and put a board across the narrow creek. Then we both ventured out onto the board, because neither of us wanted to miss this kind of excitement. Unfortunately, the board broke. Once again, Jerry and I were both soaking wet as we returned to our classroom—this time with a red rubber kickball in hand. It was one of the few times that I saw Mr. Ali’s dark brown eyes open wide—very wide.

In October, Mr. Ali brought his transistor radio to school, and we quietly worked on our assignments while listening to the powerful New York Yankees play the Saint Louis Cardinals. Baseball fans know that this Series was a major tipping point for Major League Baseball.  The Yankees had dominated the sport with a team of traditional white players, while the Cardinals built a more diverse team, consisting of very talented Hispanic (the term of the day) and black players.  You could have heard a Number Two pencil drop as we listened to the first two games, on a Wednesday and Thursday during class, and then three more games the following week, including Bob Gibson’s legendary Game Seven, when he pitched with just two days of rest.  During those two weeks, my classmates and I listened to over fifteen hours of baseball, and nobody made a peep; we just silently did our school work. Even our sacred lunch period was ignored; we chose to stay by Mr. Ali’s side instead, listening to every pitch, every hit, and every play. We didn’t cheer, but exchanged knowing glances, like old grizzled veterans who understood the nuances of the grand American pastime—just like Mr. Ali.  (In reality, the scene probably looked more like Snow White and the thirty-three dwarfs.) I was never happier, nor ever would be, in an educational setting.

I continued playing all the sports, and in baseball I developed into one of the better players. My circle of friends rapidly expanded, and I would spend weekends with them on the schoolyard, playing whatever sport was in session. Occasionally, Mr. Ali would even stop by to see how the games were going. On Monday mornings, he always wanted the details, especially the score. He did not like to hear that our class had lost a game, any game, and he made his expectations known with a tight-lipped, disapproving shake of his head. The competitive fire which had propelled him to a professional baseball contract still burned in his belly. Unbeknownst to any of us, however, something else was also burning in our beloved teacher.

Late in 1964, it was Mr. Ali who was missing school. The miracle treatments for his rheumatoid arthritis had involved cortisone, a drug whose devastating side effects were unknown at that time.  At first, Mr. Ali was absent just a day here or there, then for a week at a time. We didn’t know it, but he needed a stomach operation for an ulcer caused by his arthritis treatment. In his compromised condition, his arthritis became worse.

During Mr. Ali’s absences, our class had many different substitute teachers, and for the most part we behaved; we knew Mr. Ali would be back soon, and we didn’t want to disappoint him. However, Mr. Ali was soon missing so much school that we were assigned a permanent substitute teacher. As a class, we were not kind to her. The “good” kids were still well behaved, but the rest of us, the borderline (and often over the border) outlaws, reverted to our old behavior. I didn’t singing as loud or enthusiastically for dear Mrs. Paye.  Schoolwork became the same chore it used to be. Being a school crossing guard wasn’t as prestigious now that Mr. Ali wasn’t here to nod in approval as I donned my yellow uniform, and I no longer saved drowning red rubber balls from Wolf Creek.

To be fair, nobody could have replaced Mr. Ali. He brought his entire spirit to the task of teaching children. I realize now that all his unique experiences contributed to that endeavor: his childhood as the son of two immigrants, his athletic successes and heartbreaks, the ethics regarding honor instilled in him by his family and our small town, his deep wisdom into what makes children “tick,” and his soulful joy in the rhymes and rhythms of life. These things could not be replicated. Our entire class had lost its spiritual guru and along with it, our spirit.  Our long-term substitute teacher used the “tried and true” approach to elementary school education: rigid and depersonalized instruction.  It failed, miserably. I was miserable, too.

By spring, it was time for Mrs. Paye’s annual musical performance. That year, Disney’s “Mary Poppins” was a big hit, and Mrs. Paye chose a song from the film for us to perform, “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious.”  Based upon my prior enthusiasm for singing, Mrs. Paye placed me at the center of the top row of our choir, a highly visible position. The whole world, or at least, all the parents jammed into the small gym/auditorium, would see how much I loved singing. Perhaps I would even drive the performance of others to new heights.

It was a bad strategy.  My desire to learn the words of the song was nil. I spent my energy and time nailing the word “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but didn’t bother learning the rest of the lyrics. I had a plan for the performance, though. I would lip sync the rest of the words, and I would do it convincingly, summoning my early energy for singing and pouring myself into my voiceless performance.  When it was time to perform, I really did nail “supercalifragilisticexpialidocious,” but my strategy was unsuccessful for the rest of the song.  I was “lipping” for sure, but I was not synced, simply guessing what the next lyrics might be, and guessing very wrong. I might as well have been reciting the Pledge of Allegiance—in fact, I might have been.

Poor Mrs. Paye looked horrified as she directed us through the song. I knew I was sinking, so I reverted to my usual tactic whenever my actions caused a problem: I doubled down, putting even more of myself into the lip syncing effort. Perhaps with more energy, I could sell this thing.  (Imagine the most desperate salesperson you’ve ever met, multiplied by about a thousand.)

By the end of the—my—performance, Mrs. Paye looked distraught. I knew I had blown it, and there might be hell to pay, even from kind Mrs. Paye. But before I could worry too much about my fate, everyone spontaneously ran off the stage.  My first thought was that my classmates were trying to get as far away from me as possible, in order to avoid becoming collateral damage from Mrs. Paye’s wrath. (In honesty, Mrs. Paye, a very kind person, was not capable of wrath.)

Then I heard someone say, “Mr. Ali is here!” In an instant, I understood the sudden departure of the choir.

I couldn’t see him, even from the empty top row on the stage, so I made my way down, my glance alternating from each next step to the crowd, searching for Mr. Ali. I should be able to see him, I thought, looking for the familiar figure I expected to see standing above all the children; and not only students from our class, but from all the classes, who had run to greet him.  Once on the floor, I could only see a tight circle of students, with the “oppositional defiant” girls clustered in the inner ring.  I edged nearer to the center of the circle, and when I was still about 15 feet away, something amazing happened: the crowd opened up, and I was looking directly into Mr. Ali’s dark brown eyes. They looked tired and weary, but he focused clearly on me, and I knew he was waiting for me to come to him.

But I didn’t.  I couldn’t move.

My hero was now thin and worn, and he sat feebly in a wheelchair. I don’t know what expression my face wore, but it probably reflected the sadness I felt at seeing my teacher in such straitsWe continued to stare at one another, and then, in another of his loving acts as a teacher, Mr. Ali broke his gaze from me, releasing me from the expectation of approaching him, as all the other children had done. I believe he understood that I couldn’t do it, that I was too stunned by what I had just realized: Mr. Ali wasn’t superhuman, after all.

No one had ever told me that my heroes were just human beings, especially the teaching kind of heroes.  Nobody had told me that my athletic heroes might someday be unable to walk. To me, Mr. Ali had always been superhuman, fully capable of conquering whatever needed to be conquered, for the good of us all, but especially for me. I needed my hero to be standing, dribbling a basketball with one hand and driving his beat-up old Jeep with the other. That hero had saved me from teachers who locked up four-year-olds in dark closets and forgot about them. He had trusted me to help younger children cross the street, and to save the red rubber playground balls from Wolf Creek. Most importantly, my hero had made me happy enough to sing with my entire being.

Now, as I watched him continuing to talk and smile with the other, more emotionally mature children, I wanted to cry; no, I wanted to bawl my eyes out. I had no way of knowing then what effort it had taken Mr. Ali to get out of his bed and attend that springtime concert, motivated solely by his love for children. These days, I often hear people say that they have no regrets in life. I am not one of those people; I deeply regret not running up to Mr. Ali that evening. Even now as an old man, I wish I could re-live that day, run up to Mr. Ali, lay my head on his shoulder and tell him, “Thank you.”

I left the auditorium and never saw Mr. Ali again.  His health continued to deteriorate, eventually necessitating long-term care in the county hospital, where his family faithfully ate dinner with him every night. In 1968, the community and his former teammates gathered at the new high school, where the gymnasium was being dedicated to him: the Albert Ali Gymnasium.  The honoree was too disabled to attend, but a telephone line was hooked up to his hospital bed, so he could hear this public expression of love from those who regarded him so highly. Less than a year later, on April 28, 1969, Mr. Ali died at the age of forty.

The lessons that Albert Ali taught me have lasted for over six decades. I use those lessons nearly every day in my work with college students at Chico State, where he earned his teaching credential.  Nearly all the young people I work with are first-generation students from low income backgrounds. Many of their parents are immigrants who don’t speak much English. I have a great fondness for all these students, but especially for the ones who have decided to become school teachers. I share with them the importance of caring enough about someone’s well-being to understand that it’s ok to break silly rules for them; I tell them that when it comes to people’s needs, the little things are really the big things; and that personal values should not be compromised—life has a way of eventually swatting you, if you do so. These values are deeply embedded in my perspective on people, life, social justice, and fairness; and most of all in my belief in the ability of one person to help many.

Of course, I am just one of Mr. Ali’s former students. By now, his lessons have undoubtedly been amplified by hundreds more of them. And I am certain that, to this day, they too still love Mr. Ali as much as I do.  Many years after he died, I got together with some of my boyhood friends from Hennessy Elementary School. As we were recalling our sixth grade year, I said what I sincerely believed to be true: “Well, I was Mr. Ali’s favorite.” There was an immediate protest, as each of my friends instantly declared that he was Mr. Ali’s favorite. In truth, Mr. Ali had the rare ability to make each of us feel special, to make each of us feel like his favorite.

A few months ago, I entered the Albert Ali Gymnasium for the first time since 1971. My grandson was playing a high school basketball game there, on the visiting team. Before driving over to Grass Valley for the game, I told my grandson how much the gymnasium meant to me, and about the lessons I learned from its namesake: “Respect your opponent. Play with honor. Give it all you have at all times.” At the gym, I sat on the top row of the bleachers, watching my grandson scrambling and scrapping on the floor, despite being matched with a Grass Valley opponent of nearly six feet nine.

As I sat there, my sore back supported by a cold concrete wall, tears of pride and memory came to my eyes. I knew I had to write this story down. I had to write it for Mr. Ali’s daughters, Robin and Tammy, to provide perspective on their father’s last year in the classroom. And I had to write it for everyone in the profession of teaching, and for those preparing to enter it. To them I want to say this: There is no job you can do that is more worthy of your time on this earth (even when having to deal with students who need improvement in the area of “quiet and does not disturb others”). Finally, I had to write this story for myself, as a belated attempt to run up to Mr. Ali, lay my head on his shoulder, and tell him what I could not say on that day 52 years ago: “Thank you. I love you. And so does everyone else in the Class of ’64.”

What the Hell?

I, eventually, grew up attending a Southern Baptist church. And, I always believed that nobody does the threat of going to Hell and facing eternal damnation, not to mention the pain of being constantly on fire, any better than the Southern Baptist. They can do it in the most pleasant manner too, often with a warm Southern accent.

Now, however, I am reading the highly respected, by many but not all, and consequential autobiography by Thomas Merton – The Seven Storey Mountain. (The last time a pope visited the USA he cited Thomas Merton as one of the 4 great Americans, right up there with Abraham Lincoln.) Let me tell you, the Southern Baptists have nothing on the Catholics when it comes to scaring the hell of ya. I am at the point in his story when he is about to convert to Catholicism. His beliefs about Hell, during the time he wrote the book, rank right up there with the scariest sermons I ever heard as a kid.

Ok, so here is my problem. I really don’t want to go to Hell when I die, yet many people I love and respect probably think that is my ultimate destination unless I repent from my backsliding ways and man,oh, man have I backslid.

I do believe in God. I do believe in God’s Holy Spirit. The story of Jesus has me completely baffled. When it comes to all the stories about him, well I ain’t sayin’ yes and I ain’t sayin’ no. I do believe in the possibilities. The problem is that there seems to be some basic exam of one’s beliefs that must be passed in order to get into the pearly gates. The Virgin birth? Uh, can I have another test question? The Perfect, sin-less life? Oh oh, got any easier test questions? The Bible is God’s holy and exact words. Ah shit, I am going to Hell.

I don’t want to go to Hell. I have been told a few times by strangers and friends to ‘go to Hell,’ but I never wanted to take them up on it. When I used to drink beyond moderation, I used to ‘feel like Hell,’ the next morning. I have been ‘mad as Hell.’ I have done things just for the ‘hell of it.’ I have answered difficult questions with ‘Hell if I know.’ When I say difficult, I mean like “What is the cube root of 9?” I have been told that something might happen when ‘Hell freezes over,’ which is often complimented with ‘ a snow ball’s chance in Hell.’ When something had gone mildly wrong, my grandmother used to say, “Oh Hells bells.” I have had people in my life who were “helluva good friends.” I have had summer days that were ‘hot as hell.’ I have found objects that I didn’t recognize and I asked, “What the hell is that?” It seems that I have been squirming around the edges of Hell my whole life but I just don’t want spend eternity there.

On the other hand, what the hell do the Hell Exam proctors know? Two verses in the Bible stand out to me. Well actually three do because I just remembered the one where the patriarch’s daughters were going to seduce him, but he tricked them by “spilling his seed” outside the tent. I always wondered what the ladies inside the tent thought about that? “Is he actually jacking off out there?” Obviously this was way before Viagra. (Man, I digress easily.) The two I had in mind were, “Jesus wept,” and the verse where Jesus tells the man being crucified with him – the one that says something like, “Can’t you see we are guilty but he is innocent,” – he tells that thief that he will spend eternity with Jesus. I love that verse because it takes away all the detours that will only lead to Hell. All the thief had to do was acknowledge the truth. I find myself deeply attracted to that Jesus. That Jesus is someone I want to be with, ‘come Hell or high water,” forever. Hell, yes, I say.

O.K., now I feel strong enough to continue reading Morton’s book!

The Great American Novel? (Looking for Jesus, I.)

(I have been thinking about giving a go at writing a novel. Here is the first unedited chapter. Not sure I have the skills for it.)

 

Looking for Jesus

I.

“No, you’re not.”

I stood my ground, “Yes, I am.”

Retirement was a real bitch. I knew it was coming. I had tried to get prepared for it. I bought and diligently worked through books on designing the next stage of my life. I colored mandalas. I tried making a belt in hopes that it would lead to a wallet and perhaps, one day, to a pair of sandals. I took a painting class. I even tried reading the Holy Bible all the way through. I got as far as where God created the world. I stunk at golf and I thought fishing stunk. I created a Facebook page, but had nothing to post. I created a blog site, but had nothing to blog. I tried to learn how to play the guitar, but I couldn’t play an F chord so I said, “F it.”

I was lost and I was bored and I was anxious and I was getting depressed.  I did not want to find myself back with a therapist who visits with you for fifty minutes and then charges for sixty minutes of their time. Who in the hell said that was proper?   My life seemed to be centered upon visits to the doctor’s, the dentist’s, and attending somebody’s ‘celebration of life’ service.  The last time I went to the doctor he said that I wasn’t going to win the swimsuit contest. It is not a good thing when your primary care physician is making fun of you.

So here we are. When I told my wife I was thinking about getting a private investigator’s license, she, at first, just stared at me. I had seen that look many times before. I saw it when I told her I was going to start a worm farm. I saw it when I told her I was going to start a tree farm. I saw it when I told her I wanted to buy a farm farm.

“You’re fuckin’ me,” she said.

Unfortunately the combination of blood pressure pills, pills for high cholesterol, and pills for controlling blood sugar had made her statement a near physical impossibility. I was too cheap, or too embarrassed, to pay for the boner pills.

“No, I am not,” I said. “I completed all the paperwork and Randy said I could set up an office at his place.”

“Randy, the massage therapist, spiritual healer, and psychic? He is going to expand into private investigations too? Perfect. Are you out of your mind? You’re kidding right? You didn’t even talk to me about this? Randy,… your cousin,… is an … idiot.”

I had expected that the conversation might go this way which is one reason why I kept my plans to myself. Why have the bad conversation over and over?

“Ok, first of all Randy is culturally engaged and … granted he does have a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit.” I said looking directly into her angry eyes. To break eye contact would mean she won.

“I get it. You’re bored. Why don’t you write a book? Go volunteer at the homeless shelter. Start playing the guitar again. Go get a goddamn girlfriend. What do you know about investigations? You need a hip replacement. We gotta a dog to take care of. And, shit, you might get yourself killed.”  She was as angry as I thought she might be.

“Look, I’ve told you. I don’t want to just live my life out like that dumbass we talked to in the parking lot with his customized van telling us that it cost a lot of money, but this was his last go around. I want to live, get up excited in the morning. Homeless people smell bad. I am a gagger, you know I can’t handle odors, like puke and piss and shit.  We got enough retirement money. I don’t have to take on anything dangerous. Just a little whom is fuckin’ whom and maybe some insurance fraud stuff. I’ll be taking a lot pictures, might get some titty shots. It could spice up our love life some.  It’s better than being an Uber driver.”

“It could use it and who said anything about being an Uber driver?”

“I’ll even start working out.”

She got quiet. I knew she was worried. She has always been worried about me which is why our marriage has lasted so long.

“Ok, so tell me just one thing. How does being a retired religious studies professor make you qualified to be a private investigator?”

“I’m smart? I don’t know…but here is the state license to proof it.”

She took the paper from my hand and went back between staring at it and me.  She was pissed off, but slightly impressed.

‘Mark Chambers, licensed private investigator, State of California’

It took the two of us to create one interesting life. When she did her crazy things, I performed the role of the grown up. When I went crazy, she was the momma. It created some epic arguments through the years, but it worked for us.  I just didn’t think this was crazy.  It was to stop me from going crazy.

“So, you say you’re thinking about it and then you pull out the fucking paper to show me you already did it?”

“You know, you curse a lot for a grandmother.”

“And, you’re the fuckin’ reason why,” she said with equal emphasis on each word.

There was a sudden lull in the shit storm. She shook her head and then said, “Sure you don’t want to give that worm farm another try? Maybe you were ahead of your time.”

“I usually am baby. I love you.”

“No guns. You promise me?”

“No guns, baby. Just a really cool Nikon camera.”

 

“What is your name?” she asked.

“Rooster,” he replied.

“You want to be my boyfriend?”

“No,…You’re too old,” he said.

“I look older than I am, but I am a good lover, a really good lover… if you’re a good boy. I haven’t seen you before. Where you …”

“No, No…You put that back you fucking sonuvabitch, you asshole!” the young man suddenly hollered to nobody while swinging his arms.

The woman paused, cocked her head a bit to her right, and ran her left hand through her stringy, dirty, blond hair. Although she had not met this particular one before, she knew him. She got off her bicycle, which was hooked up to a small cart full of aluminum cans, and she slapped him with her right hand across the left side of his face. He just stared at her.

“You got your meds, Mr. Rooster?” she asked.

“Uh, uh.”

“Ok, you stay with me now. We’ll get ‘em. My name’s Fat Shirley,” she said as she took Rooster’s hand and led him along the sidewalk.  “We need to get your meds.”

Rooster obeyed.

 

 

II.

I met Randy at the gun range on the north side of town….

 

Just Between You, Me and the Fence Post

A Sunday night memory:

My grandfather would sometimes start a conversation with me by saying, “Just between you, me and the fence post…” which meant I was to keep what followed to myself. It made me feel a bit special, as if he actually thought I could keep a secret. (I couldn’t. We actually had a joke that went like this, “you can telegraph, telephone, or tell a (insert your friend’s name here.)” Grandpa would say things like, “Just between you, me and the fence post … I want to kill your grandmother.” Or, “JBYM&TFP, I think they should all go to hell.” In reality, he was a very kind man, well mannered, and generous. JBYM&TFP was just when he was exasperated with a situation. His wife could exasperate an angel.

He was the hardest working man I ever knew. He got up at 5:30 every single morning. He would brag about it too. He would watch the sunrise, drinking coffee with his wife, every day. After lunch, he took a 20 minute nap, usually outside. Then he’d jump up and start working on his little ranch/farm until dinner where he would drink one beer, out of a can, but not before letting his wife drink the first sip because she liked “the foamy part..” “Best part of the beer,” she’d say or I would hear probably more than a thousand times in my life because we lived next door to each other.

Alzheimer’s crept into my JBYM&TFP buddy’s mind. One day he asked me where I lived and I said, “I live in Paradise grandpa.” (That really is the name of the town I live in. I wasn’t being metaphysically a smart ass.) He said, ” You do? My grandson lives in Paradise. Gary McMahon. You ever hear of him?” Being that was me, I wasn’t sure how to respond and I was worried he might follow up with, “Yep, the dumbest sonuvabitch you’ll ever meet.”

Now here is the odd thing. This man was actually my stepmother’s stepfather. I had known him since I was three years old. He treated me like I was his first born. He shared his talents and treasure with me. He told me his secrets. Just between you, me, and the fence post, I wish I had recognized the uniqueness of this loving man’s spirit during my youth. Sometimes I think about heaven and I hope I can thank all the people who loved me during my life, especially the people I took for granted. JBYM&TFP.