By David Hunter
For the sixth grade at Hughes Public School we had Miss Rowan for the year; that would have been sometime in 1982 if I recall. She was a wonderfully flighty lady with a Scottish lilt and a penchant for storytelling, often reading aloud to us at the end of the day from assorted books. Sometimes she’d tell us Scottish folk tales and legends, acting out the parts and doing the voices. She was the type of teacher you remember for the rest of your life.
At least until someone like Mr. Edgar Bolex shows up. But I’ll get to that.
Miss Rowan sat in front of the class one day, sometime in December of that year, and told us she had to leave – she was going into the hospital for a procedure. That’s what she called it, a ‘procedure’. We all gathered around her, gave her a giant classroom hug, and she cried.
She never came back. In fact, no one knows what happened to her, whether she lived or died. In those days the school ‘authorities’ never shared such information with students. It’s still one of the great mysteries of my life.
Enter Mr. Bolex. A more diametrically opposite teacher to Miss Rowan could not exist.
After enjoying our former teacher’s grace and warmth, where we were free to verbalize our thoughts, we were shocked when this man, six foot two and standing with his hands on his hips like an army sergeant, stared down at us through his glasses and ran through his list of rules: No Talking, No Whispering, No Gum Chewing. Also on the list: No Arm Movement, No Turning Heads to Look at Other Students, No Speaking Unless Spoken To. Bathroom Breaks Two Times a Day at His Disclosure, Once in the Morning, and Once in the Afternoon. He would keep a list in case someone went three times.
He gave extensive homework assignments every night, and if you didn’t finish them you’d have to get up in front of the class and tell them why you didn’t finish and then he’d make you stand in the corner. If you did it twice, he’d make the whole class stand up for an hour reciting text from our books.
We never got to enjoy the spectacle of the punishment of our fellow students because we ALL got punished.
I’ll say one thing; his was the quietest class at Hughes. We’d sit there listening to that lonely clock tick, the muffled sounds of the other classrooms; laughing, cheering, talking. We’d have our noses buried in composition books. If we looked up for any reason, by God, Mr. Bolex wanted to know why.
The entire year went like this. He excluded us from class trips, outings, and events. We grew to hate our teacher.
I figured I was doing okay on most of my assignments and tests (Mostly out of fear) but I never knew for sure. Mr. Bolex never gave us our papers back, or our marks. It was just his way, I suppose. During Parent/Teacher night he would disclose this information to our parents, but never us. I hate to admit it (and I never let on to my fellow students, only grumbled along and commiserated) but in that Fascist atmosphere I was actually learning.
“Who can tell me the Elementary Principles of Composition?” Mr. Bolex stated, standing at the front of the class shooting his steely gaze at us.
“I know an Elementary Principle of De-Composition – Flies!” whispered Robbie Lane, behind me. It was so quiet that I barely heard it myself, but Mr. Balls, as he was becoming known, cocked his head like a puppy upon hearing a strange noise.
Mistake; those with sharp ears burst out laughing and Mr. Ball’s head turned into a nice beet color.
He zeroed in on Robbie. Those ancient glasses must have contained a radar chip or something.
“Mr. Lane, would you approach the front of the class?” he said.
Robbie looked surprised.
“Right this minute.”
Robbie extracted his ample body from his desk and slithered the necessary distance to the blackboard where Mr. Balls was standing.
“Now …” he began, “Please state for the class the entire table of the Elementary Principles of Composition.”
Robbie’s brow scrunched and he scratched his head.
“I don’t know the …”
Mr. Bolex’s face opened up in an exaggerated and comical expression. You could have called it sarcasm, I guess. He had both arms out; one hand clutching an old copy of “Elements of Style”.
“Well! Mr. Lane does not know the Elementary Principles of Composition! Mr. Lane has been sitting in this class for nearly an entire school year and can’t name ONE – ELEMENTARY – PRINCIPLE - OF - COMPOSITION! He said loudly. He punctuated his sentence just like that.
“Here,” he said, handing him the book. “Turn to page 10 and read it to me.”
Robbie was flushed with embarrassment now, because his reading was horrendous. We could barely understand him, and when he mispronounced words snickers and giggles drifted forward from the class. I have to admit, I smirked as well.
But Robbie only saw me smiling, almost like no one else was there and making fun of him, like it was all my idea. He bore down on me with a gaze so malevolent that his face looked like the face of a fat-assed demon, and not a 12 year old kid.
Mr. Balls snatched the book away, satisfied. He turned back to the class.
“This boy,” he said, pointing with the book, “Can’t even read. And yet he chooses to make insolent remarks at my expense. A fine road you’ve all chosen; to laugh at this slovenly creature and give him merit. Sit down Mr. Lane, and don’t waste any more of my time.”
But Robbie never moved. His bottom lip was pooched out like he was going to cry, but it was more from anger.
Mr. Bolex tilted his head and looked over his bi-focals at the young insolent.
“Is there a comprehension problem my boy? Sit down.”
“Don’t you ever call me stupid. My father calls me stupid.” He said quietly.
Mr. Bolex was un-mollified. “Mr. Lane, when you cease acting stupid, you’ll be judged accordingly. Now sit …”
That’s when Robbie rushed him, screaming, calling him a bastard. The whole class started whooping and hollering, on their feet. He knocked old Mr. Balls down to the floor and was flailing his arms and hitting him. Bi-focals went sailing across the wooden slats.
Seconds later he was back on his feet, restraining Robbie by the scruff of his shirt.
He said only one thing before hauling Robbie out to the Principal’s office, he said: “Dear boy, when there’s a large object blocking your path, don’t go through it; find a way around it.”
The next day in class we were quiet as church mice. Robbie came in, sulky face and all, and went to his seat in the back. He made it a point to pass my desk, and I heard him say, quiet as the wind: “You’re Dead, loser.”
Despite this moment of stomach-flipping dread, we were buoyed by the presence of Mr. Reed, the nice 5th grade teacher. He walked in and did a double take at how quiet and composed we were.
“Mister Bolex is away for a few days. So I’ll be taking over his class till then.” He said, and then sat down. He gave us some light reading to do, some spelling exercises, and some math stuff. Afterwards we had a discussion on the Nuclear Arms Race, and Reagan. All was well, but we dreaded the day that Mr. Bolex came back. Every morning we waited to see who would walk into the class, the jovial Mr. Reed, or the sour Mr. Balls.
During those days I was running scared, of course, trying to keep away from Robbie. I don’t know what he was waiting for – did he have a set schedule for when to beat the shit out of me? Mostly he would just see me from afar and scowl. Who knew that a 12 year old like Robbie could be studied in the art of psychological warfare?
One day, he appeared in front of me on the way home after class. He had stepped out from behind the northeast corner wall of the school and there we were. The building, built in 1912, was 5 stories tall, and had lots of meandering angles. We were in a cul de sac of sorts, an odd square in back of it. Perfect place for an ambush. There, no one could hear you scream.
I tossed my bag at him and ran. I was a wiry little thing then, could run fairly fast, but Robbie was fueled by rage. He caught me and hauled me down. I smacked my head on the concrete and saw stars. The last thing I remember was his fists and his spit flying.
I was a mess; and Mom wanted to call the police, demanded to know who did it. My father said the same, but I wouldn’t give up the name. Sometimes you gotta wonder about kids and their schoolyard code.
The next day we waited to see who would come through the door. We sat quietly. Robbie had passed my desk again, and again he said, “See you after school, punk.”
Come on, I thought. Isn’t there a statute of limitations for this kinda stuff? My face was already a disaster – two black eyes and a busted lip. Never mind my aching ribs. I had to break the code and snitch or I’d have no teeth left.
Mr. Bolex waltzed into the room, arms laden with stacks of paper. We all deflated audibly, like air being let out of a party balloon.
“Listen up, class. We have a lot of work to do!” he said. The test was a killer; 6 pages long. By the time the final bell rung my brain was fried.
After the class filed out, I lingered at my desk till everyone was gone. Mr. Bolex was at his desk buried in papers, marking furiously. After a while he looked up and saw I was still there.
“You may go now, Mr. Polansky. Class is over.”
I gathered my books up and walked over to his desk. He looked over his glasses at me. “What on Earth happened to your face, Polansky?”
I told him about the ‘student’, how he had cornered me and beat the hell out of me, and he was going to do it again today.
“Well, the next time you decide to laugh at someone, you’ll probably think twice, won’t you? You deserve everything you get in this world.” he said, and went back to his work, leaving me standing there with my eyes welling up. How did he know about the laughing, about Robbie? I left him there, the old bastard, and realized that …
… I actually wished he was dead.
The thought scared me, and I immediately took it back, but the truth was, it was out there now, in the ether, swirling above my head and headed for space. One thing about thoughts; you can’t really take them back once you’ve thunk them.
I was walking along the sidewalk adjacent to the school this time, hoping there were sets of eyes on me from inside the houses along the street, and that someone would help me before I got my jaw busted. Looking back over my shoulder every now and again, head on a swivel, I hurried along. What a way to live, huh?
There was a lane I pass through to get to my street, a narrow corridor between some of the houses, and Robbie was standing at the end of it, glowering. I cursed myself for not realizing he would be there.
This time I didn’t throw my bag at him, I didn’t run. Mr. Ball’s words ran through my head again, though; ‘My dear boy, If there’s a large object in your way …’
“I saw you talking to Mr. Bolex, shit face. Did you rat on me?” he said.
“No, I didn’t.”
He got this confused look on his face. I guess he was conflicted. I didn’t give a shit about his conflictions; I just wanted to get home with my teeth in place.
“Why?” he said.
I shrugged. “Why make things worse? And besides, I’m no snitch.”
He considered this. “Okay. We’re even then.”
And then he turned to leave – and I called out to him. To this day I don’t know why I did, and I said, “I’ll help you with your reading, if you want. No one has to know.”
“Who says I need help reading, punk?” he said, marching towards me. But he stopped a foot or so away, still too close as far as I was concerned.
“Come on, man, everybody knows. Let me help you. It’s no big deal.”
“Listen, just leave me alone. And don’t let me catch you laughing at me ever again, got it?” he said, poking me in the chest hard enough to make me sway.
I got it.
During the last week of class in the academic year of 1982-83 Mr. Bolex walked in with a stack of papers; our final test of the year. We were all nervous, expecting the most arduous and difficult quiz ever. We waited, eyes forward. He put the stack on his desk and stood there behind his desk; he had his chin up in that arrogant way of his, and his hands on his hips like the guy on the Captain Morgan bottles, the ones my uncle used to drain.
“Students, this is my last week in this fine profession,” he began. He gently took off his glasses and touched the desk reverently. “I’ve been teaching since 1957, and I must say, you are a fine group. It has been an honor teaching this class. It could not have been easy for you, for I am not an easy man, but remember these words by Booker T. Washington, ‘Nothing ever comes to one that is worth having, except as a result of hard work.’”
We all exchanged looks.
“Now, let us get down to business. Everyone - heads down for a few moments. Let’s clear our thoughts.” He said, sitting back down behind his desk, crossed his arms, and closed his eyes.
We did as we were told. Long minutes passed. Robbie even fell asleep; I could hear his muffled snoring. I was lulled by the distant sounds of the other classes and the traffic outside. After a half hour I looked up; Mr. Bolex was sitting upright, arms crossed, eyes closed, just like before.
“Psst – Robbie,” I said over my shoulder.
“Huh? Wuh ya want, geek?” he stammered. There were crease marks on his face and eraser shavings on his chin.
“Look. Old Mr. Balls fell asleep!” I whispered. I tried to be as careful as anything. That old geezer could hear a fly fart at 50 yards.
“No way! Let’s go see!”
My turn to say ‘No way’.
“Are you crazy?”
“If we let him sleep we don’t have to do the test.”
By this time a murmur ran through the class, giggles and whispers too. Everyone was looking at Mr. Bolex. Ha ha, the old man fell asleep.
I got up.
“Jeez, are you deranged? He’ll kill you,” hissed Heather Oncutt from the other side of the class.
“We need to do the test and we can’t start without him,” I said. I made my way up to the desk, kinda like the cowardly lion walking up to the great and powerful Oz. I said softly, “Mr. Bolex? We’re ready to do the test now.”
He must have been a heavy sleeper, because he never moved, or flinched. Didn’t even bat an eyelash.
I reached over and picked up one of the test papers from the pile. Everyone sat up and watched me, and that murmur started again.
I started flipping through it.
Every page was blank.
“What is it?” said Blake, the class nerd. He had huge glasses and wild white-blond hair. He looked like a pint-sized Albert Einstein.
“This must be a joke; there’s nothing here.” I said.
The class gathered around the desk to come take a look, forgetting old Mister Balls for the time being. If he woke up we’d be in deep shit. But Robbie, not to be confused with Plato or Isaac Newton, said something that made everyone stop. He had been staring at Mr. Bolex when everyone else was flipping through the papers.
“I think he’s dead, guys.”
We all gasped. A few girls started to cry, more out of fear than anything.
“Look, he’s not breathing.” He said. We all gathered closer to look. Indeed, he wasn’t breathing.
“What do we do now?” said Blake.
Heather butted up ahead of the crowd, “Duh! We go tell the principal! What’s wrong with you people?” she said.
Despite that, we all stared at him there behind his desk, sitting upright, arms crossed, eyes closed. We were strangely reflective. This man had been the bane of our existence since Christmas. He came and went with the bell. A mystery. A rumor.
“He wasn’t so bad,” said Robbie.
“Yeah,” Said someone else.
And so, that’s how Mr. Bolex left us, in the only manner he knew how; behind a desk and in front of a class. Heather, who always took the initiative, went straight to the Principal’s office with the news like Paul Revere. Everyone else just filed out to wait in the hall. I was the last one there, staring at him, with his little bow tie and his ghastly plaid cardigan. I remember looking at his desk, the stack of test papers, the sheet with our grades; he had passed everyone. As for the blank test sheet, who knows? It still boggles my mind 30 years later.
The rest was a blur; the teachers rushing in, the paramedics arriving, our parents too. Quite a buzz, you might say. The rest of the week Mr. Reed sat in with us. We played games, read books. Then the year ended and school was out. We were like cons getting parole, truth be told.
I never knew what to make of Mr. Bolex. Still don’t. But when I got older I understood one thing, that he was just plain crazy. He was a man past his prime, who was uncomfortable with the modern world, and who lived to make people’s lives difficult. And yet, I cannot help but admire the man’s staunchness, his obtuse mind, and his rigidity regarding the educating of children. I have tried to gather up something of value, some divine reason why Mr. Bolex had existed and was dropped into our midst in that year of 1982, and I’ll be damned if I can think of one even now. Maybe he was a drill sergeant who missed the army. Maybe he just liked to lord it over little kids. Who knows? What I do know is, his insane work ethic rubbed off on me – I made it all the way through teachers college and started teaching, If only to erase the path of most resistance that he left behind. My classes love me; mostly because I do things Mr. Bolex wouldn’t do, like communicate. How’s that for a legacy? Old Mr. Bolex, what a piece of work.
And damn it all, even though I hated his guts then, wished him dead even, I sure as hell do admire him now. Maybe because I can finally laugh about it, years removed from the whole debacle. Because he taught me how not to be a teacher, I suppose, in a way.
What a world, huh? What a world.