When Mr. McCormack teaches about Paul Revere's Ride, I can swear there's a horse in the room. I make sure to check the bottoms of my shoes before going on to my next class.
It is the 1962-63 school year. I am in Mr. McCormack's seventh-grade American History class at Millburn (New Jersey) Junior High School. Sandy-haired, blue-eyed, twenty-three-year-old Mr. McCormack looms above me—ancient and wise. He says he is five-foot-nine. He seems very tall. All of him is gorgeous.
Mr. McCormack is the best teacher I've ever had. He is also the strictest and, at times, the most unreasonable.
One day, as he is letting us go, he suggests—quite casually—that we might find out something about the Tennessee Valley Authority. The next morning he asks for a volunteer to report on it. Not one hand is raised. McCormack is furious. He blows up. He bellows. "Now, you all have an assignment. A twelve-page paper on the TVA. Due Monday." (Today is Friday.)
All weekend I debate: Do I bow down to this injustice—his injustice—or resist? A strange mixture of fear and misery impels me to the public library. I open up the World Book Encyclopedia. I take notes. At home, I convert the notes into sentences and paragraphs. It's not nearly enough. I add details I remember from Wild River—that Montgomery Clift, Lee Remick movie about a woman who doesn't want to sell her home to the TVA. I come up with only nine pages, but my handwriting is small.
On Monday, I turn in the paper. On Tuesday, I get it back. A huge C- is written in red ink-clear across the first page. No one receives a higher grade. Our averages will be destroyed. We all agree: This is not fair. I say I'll speak to him.
At the end of the day, I knock timidly on Mr. McCormack's door. In silvery tones, he tells me to come in. "Can I talk with you about the TVA paper?" I ask. He says yes. "Everybody feels it was unfair of you. You never said we had to do anything. And we don't think you should count the grade."
"I appreciate your coming to see me, but from now on when I make a suggestion, you'll know to follow it. And," he wags a finger, "when you're told to write twelve pages, you should write twelve pages."
"But you said a paper should be like a bathing suit—brief enough to be interesting, long enough to cover the essentials."
"If your paper had been on the beach," he says, "it would have been arrested for indecent exposure." He falls silent for a moment. Gazes out the window. Then, locking his eyes to mine, he says, "I do respect you for your courage and straightforwardness." He unlocks. "See you tomorrow."
"See you tomorrow, too, Mr. McCormack!" I have failed in my mission, but I feel strangely elated.
Mr. McCormack sits at his desk adjusting the dial on the radio he has brought to class. We are listening to history in the making—the climax of the Cuban Missile Crisis. When the Russians turn their ships around, we cheer.
When Mr. McCormack teaches the differences between individualism and collectivism, he begins by asking us questions. "How would you feel," he says, "if you get an A on a very important test, but everyone else fails?" Everyone gets excited. Everyone talks. Then, he continues, with that gleam in his eye, "Imagine everyone gets an A."
Mr. McCormack explains it is wrong to ostracize someone for being a fairy, a homosexual. He tells us about Liberace—what a perfectly decent human being he is—and what hell he has been put through by some of the English press. When several students act out the limp wrist, he pounces. This is serious! It's all about individual liberty.
Mr. McCormack warns that anyone caught watching the clock or jumping up at the sound of the bell will be punished. We are to sit sit attentively until he dismisses us: If we're paying attention to the bell, we're not paying attention to him. Two of my classmates ignore the warning. They must each write a 250-word composition. Bobby is assigned "Life Inside a Ping-Pong Ball." Jimmy receives "Why Most Meatballs Do Not Bounce." When they hand the papers in, Mr. McCormack makes quite a production out of ripping them up and tossing them into the wastebasket. Boy, are they mad! They mutter they would give anything to get out of History! I would give anything to stay.
I long for The Day The Bell Never Rings. I want to sit forever—listening to and looking at dreamy Mr. McCormack. But the bell does me in. One morning, as I am lost in concentration, paying attention only to what he is saying, it rings—and startles me out of my socks. I jump. Mr. McCormack stops talking. He walks toward me, whistling. He seems almost gleeful as he stands over me and announces: "'The Similarities Between Me and Jack-in-the-Pulpit.' Two hundred and fifty words. Not one word less. For tomorrow." It is useless to protest.
Before I hand over my paper, I plead with Mr. McCormack to read it. "It's funny," I tell him. "You'll love it!" He gives me one of his evil grins, tears it cleanly down the middle, and tosses it. But I don't let this bother me. I am positive, as soon as he is alone, he'll tape it back together and read it. It will inspire him. For his M.A. thesis, he will write "The Fruits of Creative Discipline."
Mr. McCormack goes to graduate school. Part-time, now. At night. To keep his job he has to take "Toilet Training 101" and "Poster-Making 102." He even has to do homework! As hard as I try, I just can't picture my Mr. McCormack as a student. And I can't stop wondering: What would it be like to be his teacher?
Causes Peggy Landsman Supports
Green Peace, Pro Literacy Worldwide, International Planned Parenthood, Doctors without Borders, National Jewish Health