By Erwin Coombs
The credibility of a writer is important. Of course, anyone’s credibility is important because without it, you are keeping time with someone who is a phantom of a personality if they can’t be believed for one reason or another. One must trust that the person telling a story is not sitting in a Starbucks for hours at a time nursing a small coffee and babbling away about things that never happened or didn’t happen that way. Just to put your mind at rest, I’m not currently in a coffee shop, I never linger over coffee and everything I say happened, more or less as I describe.
Here’s where my credibility might be called into question: I am psychic. There, I said it, it’s on the page, a frank admission that makes most people start to wonder where the nearest exit is, or perhaps you are now looking for the nearest recycling bin for this peice. I remember saying this to a fellow at a party once and his expression froze. Not being the most socially adept creature, he was looking for a way to get away from me before I put a hex or curse or whatever it is psychic people do.
He grabbed his cell phone and said, “Sorry, I better take this.”
And as he backed away his phone began to ring. So, either he was pretending to have a call, or he was the psychic — one who knew it was coming. But he found an almost smooth way out of a conversation with someone who might just be an oddball. You do not have to fake a call and presumably you’re reading this with open eyes and an open mind, so let me tell you a bit about this nether, dark world that both fascinates us and repels us like standing naked before a mirror once you’re well into middle age. Here is a story that might not be spooky in the other world sense, but it certainly gave me pause.
It was an overcast fall day in an old room in an old school. How’s that for a spooky, atmospheric set up? I was teaching another class of basic level grade 10 boys. These poor devils have been committed opponents to English classes likely since their first day in kindergarten. Again, it’s not that they’re dumb, at all. But they sure didn’t like English class.
I came up with a brainchild of an idea to get them to work. I could always keep them quiet and seated, which is a feat in itself. But to get them to work I thought I would go right back to a depression era technique and told them I would give the best student of the day a prize. Now these poor working-class sods were not used to prizes. Mostly at home they got slaps across the head for transgression both real and imagined on the part of parent(s) whose only embrace of parenthood involved forgetting to bring a condom. Their faces lit up at the prospect of a prize. An award! They had spent their school years running into punishments, but a prize!
I felt a little bad when they immediately grabbed their pencils (this time not as a weapon), opened their books (this time not for a pillow), and began to read and write. There is no more stirring or heartbreaking sight for a teacher who cares than watching students try so hard to do something well for which they have no confidence. I sat at my desk and began to wonder.
The first thing I wondered was what could I give for a prize. I assumed they would scoff and make some kind of a sucking noise with their teeth. In 1991, this was a favourite of rappers to display dismissiveness. I had encountered it many times as a teacher. My defense was to ask, in a sincere voice, if they wanted some floss.
“Floss? For what, man?
“Sorry, I thought you had something stuck in your teeth from lunch. I do have some floss in my desk. It’s been there for a while, but it might just do the trick of dislodging that bit of food you feel the need to suck out.”
With a lot of teachers this might well have resulted in a small-scale riot. But my kids knew I liked them, and I tease and, as I said, they might not be bookish smart, but they knew sarcasm when they heard it and they usually just laughed.
But back to the problem of offering a prize that I didn’t even have. I cast a quick look around the room for possibilities. There were some posters on the wall of an educational bent that I could use. There was a lovely one of a parachutist drifting down to earth with the caption below saying: “The mind is like a parachute. It only operates when open.”
I could imagine telling some poor slob that they could take that home for a hard day’s work. I imagine I would eventually make it out of the class, but not in one piece. The pounding I would take would put me on long term disability. Not a terrible idea but the journey to get there would be hard.
I thought about the money in my pocket, full five dollars and some change. But wouldn’t that be a bribe or some form of prostitution? And the next class all behavior and production would come with a price tag. And when the principal got word that I was paying my students, it would mean a different route to long term disability.
I rummaged through my desk drawer when I saw it. My salvation! It was a glass jar of shark’s teeth. Now why in God’s name would a teacher have such a thing on his desk. Simple. It cost me nothing and was a gift. My wife’s uncle was this eccentric but genuinely nice man who collected things. It didn’t matter what, he would collect them. He had scoured the countryside looking for Indigenous arrowheads and tools and guess what? He found them by the hundreds. His collection was so impressive that the Royal Ontario Museum gladly took them when he offered them up out of the goodness of his heart. So, one day we were in his cavernous basement, strewn with rocks and fossils and bits of metal and God knows what else. It was a summer day, and his hay fever had the better of him. He let out a sneeze that no doubt shattered an arrowhead or two.
He blew his nose into a handkerchief that would likely never be used again for any human purpose. He looked down at the contents and said,
“Oh, I thought my nose was bleeding, but it’s snot (instead of it’s not, you see).”
That was exactly the kind of joke this guy made and one of the reasons I found him so much fun to be with. The odd thing was he had survived a German work camp as a teenager during World War II, one in which his brother had died. Yet here he was, in his seventies, bent and old and so full of life and always finding a reason to laugh. How could I not like him? And now was he related to some of Tina’s family? They were people who could find a dark cloud in the second coming of Christ.
“You know he really should have called first. This is really not convenient.”
Anyway, this jolly old fellow saw me admiring his countless bottles of shark’s teeth lined up on a shelf.
“Geez, just take one. I got plenty.”
“That’s awfully good of you, Bill. But all the work you took yanking them out of their mouths. It just doesn’t seem right.”
He would never laugh at my jokes, but I know he liked them.
“Here, you keep ‘em. Mostly they were lost in bar fights anyway.”
So, thank you very much, Bill. Now I could give my winner a reason to not add my teeth to the collection.
The class came to an end, and I knew I had my top student. I would have liked to have given them all something because they had all tried, and I was very proud of them. But if you give a prize to everybody then it takes away from the very idea of a prize which is a celebration of accomplishment in a field of others. It reminded me of the increasingly bizarre notion that had come up in education in the last few years, namely that everyone is special and stands apart and should be recognised as such. I am all for increasing students’ sense of self-worth but here’s the trick: if everyone is special, then nobody is special. If every child is recognised and labelled as having poor behaviour or attitude because of their genetics or how they were raised or because they weren’t tucked in at night in order to maximise their potential, then they all have an out.
Unfortunately, it gives every kid a playing card that they can pull in any situation. I remember breaking up a fight and as I guided the hulk along to the office, he looked at me wide eyed and said, “It’s not my fault…I have anger issues.”
This was a kid that was not exactly a future student of psychology. A future as a study model of aberrant psychology possibly. But he had been told by teachers and counsellors and no doubt his parents that his ‘acting out’, to put it mildly, was the result of this syndrome. It is to laugh for.
Though I wanted to reward them all, I knew that I had to choose just one. Bobby Mack (yes, it did sound vaguely like a cosmetic line) was the one. I don’t think anyone ever made fun of his name to his face. He was very tall and naturally very strong. His strength wasn’t achieved from holding big books in the library. His love of academics was an empty love. He was, however, a very good future plumber. That’s why he was at school. He was a likeable fellow with a good sense of humour, I knew this because he laughed at my jokes. 16 years old in grade 10, turning his life around to pursue his love of plumbing. It would also help him support the two children he had with two different girls similarly young. Ah, well, he had a goal and I felt he could do it.
With a few minutes to go before the end of class I stood before their expectant faces and said my piece.
“Well, after careful consideration, and after having fed data into the computer, it has been calculated who is student of the day and thereby the winner of a prize that will change their lives.”
I love a big build up, but the faces in front of me told this young teacher that they didn’t use computers, only had calculators for projectiles and didn’t think lives could change. I cut to the chase and told Bobby to come on up and get his prize. He lumbered to the front of the room with a shy smile as the class applauded. I’m sure the guy never won a prize in an English classroom in his life. When I say applauded, I mean a few did, several whined that they should have won. One fellow called out,
“Oh, sir, that’s not fair. You’re a racist.”
I looked down at this white face, back to Bobby’s white face and wondered where he got that complaint from.
“No, it’s not racist. For one thing I didn’t even know you were Chinese.”
“I’m not Chi…!”
He cut himself off realising that there was both a joke as well as a jab in there for him. Bobby stood in front of me and I slowly, for even more dramatic effect, took out my little bottle of shark’s teeth, took one out and put it in his outstretched hand. The smile didn’t run from his face, it sprinted. He looked hard at the tooth and held it as though he were holding a turd.
“What the hell is this?”
As he was genuinely angry and outraged, I let the swear word go. It floated up into the air not to be addressed by the tough teacher I usually was. It fled the room along with his smile and his joy at having won. He was angry. He was big. I was scared.
“That, my friend, is a shark’s tooth from Florida!” I said, pumping up the item like a door-to-door salesman.”
“I thought I was getting chocolate, or money or something not weird.”
“I want you to know why that is such a prize, far more valuable and lasting than chocolate.”
He still looked angry, but I sensed he would listen. I figured I better talk fast and good or start running. At the Faculty of Education, they taught us that running away from threatening students can chip away at one’s credibility in the classroom. I addressed the whole class as well.
“A hundred years ago there was a shark swimming in the warm waters of the Atlantic Ocean. It didn’t know about death; it didn’t know about anything. It simply existed. That’s all it wanted, to eat and swim and make little sharks, not because he thought those were good things to do. He just did what came naturally to him…stay alive and make more life. But he died, in some way we will never know. And now Bobby here is holding one of his teeth in his hand.
This is a reminder to all of us that life is beautiful, but it doesn’t last. That shark had a last day on this earth and so will we. We don’t know how or when. But one thing we do know is that we should treasure every day we have, and remember, always remember, this is the only life we have and today is the only day we get, so make the most of it. Value it. That shark, though he didn’t know it, has taught us that lesson.”
Bobby now had the tooth between his fingers and smiled.
“Yeah, that’s kind of cool sir…thanks.”
He tucked the tooth into his pocket and took his seat. The bell went a minute later, and I was pleased to see several kinds around Bobby as he showed off the prize that had meant less than nothing to him moments before. I was proud of myself for having taught a lesson, a life lesson that would hopefully stick with those kids for their whole lives.
I know it stuck with Bobby for the rest of his life. For his life ended that night. He was at a party, a drunken argument and another kid came back with a gun and shot Bobby in the head. I like to think he had the tooth in his pocket and that maybe his last day on earth, he might have valued the little things a bit more, his child’s smile, his mother’s farewell hug. I even fool myself into thinking he looked up at the sky for once, not to check the weather, but just to be happy.
Erwin Coombs is a retired teacher of philosophy, history and literature who has rejected all forms of retirement. He is an avid writer, reader, and observer of life. When not observing and reading and living, he is writing. Erwin has lived in Egypt, Jamaica, England and travelled a great deal but, in his mind, not enough. His writing is a celebration of people and opportunity, both of which life gives in abundance. These stories are from his, as yet unpublished book, Dusty the Cat: Her Part in My Downfall.
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