My diary entry for the first day of sixth grade doesn’t include a word about Mr. G or any “torcher” from the day at all. I very clearly remember the last day of that school year, however, because I ended it by crying to Mr. G that I would miss him and that I didn’t want to go to junior high. In the "last will and testament" section of our sixth grade graduation booklet the PTA always produced, my own entry didn't bequest prized possessions to friends still at the school or to classmates with whom I would soon be starting middle school. I had instead left "lots of laughs and a big smile to Mr. G." He had, of course, become one of my favorite teachers.
Mr. G appeared much older than he was, and he was quite frail, but he didn’t sleep through his classes as had been rumored. He kept a bell on his desk and would ring it to get our attention, to announce the end of our test-taking time, to get us quiet, and to keep us on-task in general. He always seemed genuinely puzzled when he would try to ring it and find it stuffed with wadded-up paper towels. Despite our hijinks, Mr. G believed that we were all good kids, and he wanted us to believe it, too, and to live up to it. He valued good manners, good posture, and good penmanship. He lamented disorganized desks and deducted points for messy work. When we would draw maps in Geography, our grades suffered if the blue crayon-strokes that marked the lakes and oceans had obviously been applied in different directions. “Of course it matters!” he would say, astonished that we felt otherwise, when we argued with him. He taught us how to diagram sentences, although none of the other teachers at the school were doing that with their classes. When the visiting music teacher punished me for something by making me stand against the bulletin board with my arms in the air, it was Mr. G who, returning early to his class room to find me standing in front of the wall with aching arms above my head, instantly cried out to the music teacher, “Valerie would never do anything to deserve that!” and told me I could take my seat. When another teacher lined us up to paddle us because a couple of students had behaved badly for a substitute, Mr. G. stepped into the hallway and talked him out of it. In times of corporal punishment, Mr. G never paddled us, and he rarely rose his voice to us either, and still we all somehow knew that he was the strictest teacher in the building.
Old-school and demanding, Mr. G was not quite grandfatherly toward his eleven-year-old charges, but he was a kind and gentle man. He would begin each day by writing a quotation on the chalkboard. A cross-stitch sampler was tacked to the bulletin board beside his desk that read, “Live your life one day at a time and make it a masterpiece.” Next to it was a black and white photograph of a young man in a suit and tie writing a letter. I asked him once if it was him in the photograph and he only smiled. When a boy in class made an off-color remark to a girl who’d asked to go to the restroom, Mr. G was outraged and gave him a lecture about the acceptable way to speak to—and about—young ladies. I walked over to his desk once with my assignment in-hand and got as far as saying, “I know this is a stupid question, but—“ before he cut me off by responding, in the sharpest tone he would ever use with me, “Valerie, no question is stupid if you don’t know the answer.”
And he learned from us, as well. The other sixth grade class—and probably every other class in the whole school—was participating in the book order program, but because Mr. G refused to get involved, we could only look on enviously as our friends in Mr. S’s class selected books and posters and calendars from the colorful brochures every few weeks. Mr. G had been burned by the book order once years before, he told us: Something had gone wrong with the shipment and he hadn’t been pleased with the service, so he never bothered with it again. We grumbled about this for awhile before hitting upon the words that would change his mind. “You have to give them a second chance!” we told him indignantly. “You don’t give up just because something doesn’t work the first time!” He told us we were absolutely right, and soon we were all looking through the little catalogs. When a girl picked an almost-dead housefly off of the classroom windowsill to see if she could revive it, Mr. G launched into a tirade about germs and hygiene and only stopped when he saw that the girl was crying. “You didn’t need to YELL at me!” she choked out as he led her over to the sink beside the coat rack. “I was TRYING to be NICE!” We all watched and waited for Mr. G’s reaction. When it came, it was so quiet, we had to strain to hear it. “You’re right, Jennifer. There was no need for me to yell at you. I’m sorry.” The fly couldn’t be saved, but the moment could be—and was.
The last day of school, after hours of playing Bingo in the gym, laughing at each other’s responses to questions posed to us by the PTA for the “Class of ’89 Yearbook,” winning candy at the end-of-year carnival out on the blacktop, and trying to blend into the cafeteria walls during the dance, we were herded back to our homerooms for dismissal. Walking back to Mr. G’s room for the very last time, it all hit me and I began to cry. Mr. G didn’t know what to do with me. “Valerie, Valerie!” he kept saying, looking baffled and rather embarrassed. It was younger, hipper Mr. S who knew to hug me and tell me I’d love junior high and could visit anytime.
I sent Mr. G a long letter soon after I started the seventh grade. He called me on the phone to thank me. When I teasingly asked him if he’d found any grammatical errors in my letter, he laughed and explained that concerns about grammar were always outweighed by the joy of having been remembered by a friend. He also told me that he’d vote for me if I ever ran for President. We talked for quite awhile, but those two moments of laughter are all I remember now. He had a few heart surgeries in the months following our conversation, I learned, and he retired soon after. We, the neon spandex-clad “Class of ‘89” had been his last group of kids and his last full year of teaching.
My junior year of high school, my English teacher started class by asking, “Now, how many of you had Mr. G in the sixth grade? It helps me figure out who’s learned what, and how well.” Instead of simply raising our hands, we School of Mr. G alum spontaneously burst into cheers and applause.