Student Body: More Pencils, More Books, More Teachers’ Dirty Looks (and "Edible Foam," Scrotes McGoats, Among Other Things)
After my second grade teacher, Mrs. Luciano, made me sit behind a folding screen, I scrawled on the back of it in pink highlighter, “Evan K. has a big penis.” I probably had just learned what a penis was (for the most part) and I didn’t really understand what I was writing — I just knew that saying someone had a big one was funny somehow. And out of all the kids, Evan seemed the most likely, I guess, or like he would be in on the joke.
I was a good student, so I wonder what it could have been about me that made Mrs. Luciano put me behind that screen in the first place? Could it have been my already solidified disdain for authority? It didn’t matter how well I could read — at eight I already stank of insubordination.
Mrs. Luciano wasn’t a particularly nice teacher, and once jammed a stack of hardcover books into my wee arm when I came up to ask a question (that she didn’t answer). So while defacing the screen with profanity (or campaign slogans — depending on where you’re standing) wasn’t advisable, I can’t say I regret defying her either. It’s taken me a long time to relearn that skill of knowing when someone didn’t feel good to me and acting accordingly.
Even shitty teachers teach you something, too. At the very least they gave me some fire to prove something. “Learn the system, then fuck the system” is a pretty good rule of thumb to which I often return.
Conversely, I had a lot of favorite teachers as well. Even though he would yell at us sometimes I learned a lot from my grade school science teacher, Mr. Dunton, with legendary white ear and nose hair. We made what he called “edible foam” (pancakes) on Bunsen burners — I used too much sugar and burned mine. He also led the Wandell Weather Watchers, which I showed up early to school to be a part of several days a week to manually take the dew-point and send it into Accuweather on the then-state-of-the-art modem.
I also remember not long after taking sex ed being aware that Mr. Dunton must have a scrotum under those brown polyester slacks. I didn’t appear genitally-obsessed (and was truly quite innocent), but it sounds like I had a certain fascination. What can I say — I grew up Catholic (and I guess that taught me a few things, too)?
My friend Jen Gaily reminded me recently how our seventh and eighth grade English teacher, Mr. Cevoli, used to say, “Organization is the key to success.” He also had the bluest eyes of any teacher I’d seen, and he ran my first newspaper, the Wandell Wallaby, which seduced me into journalism early.
I’ll never forget Mr. Cevoli telling us about how he saved someone from drowning and as he was giving them CPR they vomited in his face. He had to shave his mustache because the odor wouldn’t dissipate. I have Mr. Cevoli to thank for introducing me to the value of carnality in writing (and Mary Karr for keeping it alive in The Art of Memoir). Thank you, Mr. Cevoli. And you, my friend, are welcome and I’m sorry.
And then of course there was the gym teacher that caused me to have a giant scar on the back of my thigh because she made me take gym even though I had fifty stitches in my leg and a note from the nurse. Someone’s gotta teach you that some people are assholes.
Teachers of the arts were always the biggest favorites (and once in a while big letdowns, because I expected a lot). I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for the scent of paint on smocks thanks to my grade school art teacher, Mrs. Holloway, whose art room always felt safe and open for curious exploration. Mrs. Anderson (née Haigh) set the bar so high for music teachers in grade school that my high school music teacher couldn’t quite reach it, to put it diplomatically.
My private voice teacher, however, Maria Farnworth, was a force to be reckoned with — once an opera singer, she was injured when her tour bus got in a accident and she was hit in the throat and no longer able to speak, let alone bellow La Traviata to the cheap seats. After her doctors were baffled, she researched vigilantly and nursed herself back to being able to use her voice. She then employed those same breathing and mind-body techniques to teach her students.
I had a great teacher in my father (still do), even though he was tough.
“I wanted to be a teacher,” he told me once. “But I wanted to make money more.” So he worked in other fields until he saved up enough money to buy a business school in the 60s that had only 19 students and built it from there and my sisters run it today. He never missed an opportunity to teach me something, by telling me to look up a word in the dictionary, or throwing math equations at me (at which I’m still terrible). But I’ve learned the most from my dad in the past few years watching him go with the flow as he declines from dementia. “Declines” isn’t even a fair word, because he’s simply being himself now and not trying to control the world so much with his mind, since he can’t. I don’t think anyone can teach you how to do that, but I’m trying to learn by his example.
Who were your favorite and not-so-favorite teachers? Did you find refuge in the art room? Who helped you find your voice? Ever draw a dick on school property?
A little Sunday uke'n around. This is one of my favorite songs from the 60s, "Laisse Tomber Les Filles," written by everyone's favorite French sex-turnip, Serge Gainsbourg, and recorded by France Gall in 1964. It's about leaving the girls alone, you sicko!
Below I'm reading my Full Frontal column from this week in the Newport Mercury, channeling my inner Roger Ebert (who's amazing, btw, and you should totally watch Life Itself from 2014, the documentary about him, may he rest in sweet, cinematic peace).
I am also thoroughly impressed with the Duffer Brothers’ new Netflix throwback (to 1983) series, Strangers Things. Check it out if you haven't seen it.. Also get out there and ride some bikes, for the love of Stephen King.
What awesome or crappy movies did you see this summer?
I woke up yesterday with this idea in mind, of all my fellow writer and creator friends with strong voices and hearts that want others to feel strong, too: We are the counter-voice.
Whenever we feel unworthy to put our work in the world, or think it’s not important, or that no one needs it, or that we are simply adding to the noise — we need to remember that no — we are the counter-voice. The voice counter to the cultural noise.
What our voice is counter to is the cultural noise that, for example, talks shit about Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas. The cultural noise that is pro-rape. The cultural noise that has kept women and races separate and hating one another and ourselves.
These noisy, shitty, violent voices don’t question whether they are worthy of being in the world. They just are. They just spew. They blanket everything. All while we question whether our lovingly-crafted work and words and art and music deserve to be out there. It couldn’t be any clearer that ours doesn’t just deserve to be out there — the timbre of our very world depends on it.
So when you’re not feeling worthy, you have to remember that to which we are counter. No — I know being “against” is not a popular new-age huggy-lovey touchy-feely place. I am not suggesting our main purpose is to be against. Our main purpose is to be for what we’re for, of course. But a good place to start when we’re feeling low or too scared to put our work in the world is “We are the counter-voice.”
Our counter-voice may feel like a drop in the asshole bucket, but I suspect it’s a lot stronger than we might ever know. What we have on our side is love and thoughtfulness. Let’s just try not to thoughtfulness ourselves into non-existence, not sharing, believing the cultural noise.
Make sense? Trying to help over here. I’ll try to keep the lily-gilding and dead-horse-beating to a minimum.
My brilliant friend Casey Erin Wood says “Your brilliance is more important than your bullshit.” It’s one of my favorite things anyone has ever said. And I think your brilliance can burn through a lot of cultural noise. We just have to get over our own bullshit long enough to put it out there.
Anything rile you up enough lately to burn through some bullshit?
“I’m not opening that,” the Sears washer/dryer delivery man said of a piece of wood covering a hole in the wall. “I’ve seen that movie. It’s called ‘Arachnophobia.’”
Funny he should invoke “Arachnophobia.” When we arrived at our house in Idaho we found many spiders living there. Not everywhere, but enough to make your heebies go jeebie. The spiders weren’t bringing us our morning coffee or anything (but they could have, because there were enough of them, and our mattress is on the floor). Our friends had placed sticky traps in the basement and they were nearly full of eight legged freaks. There were even a few huge, pointy ones this east coast gal had never before seen.
“That one would look great gilded on a fascinator,” my more goth alter-ego exclaimed.
I caught one upstairs later in a glass and threw it outside. The exterminator thought that was adorable and we laughed (“I’m a hippy, too,” he said, through the guffaws). I stopped laughing when he told me about hobo spiders — the larger ones I considered wearing on my head. And my blood turned cold.
“Hobos will chase you across the garage. They’ll put you in the hospital. You can Google it,” he said.
“I won’t be doing that,” I told him. “Googling has nearly driven me insane on several occasions. I’ve learned to trust my doctors and my exterminators. And I’m really glad you’re here, and I’m relieved I didn’t know that about hobos until today.”
Then my husband and I chatted with the exterminator about Christopher Hitchens and Mormonism and an interesting time was had by most. I think half the spiders may have left due to the irritating thrust of our continued philosophizing.
“If I hear one more atheist book recommendation, bang-zoom, straight to the moon!” I might have heard a Jackie Gleason spider say as he slammed the front door behind him.
I like to look up animal meanings and since the spider motif has been following me, not just in my Idaho house, but in Newport and Massachusetts, I figure it can’t hurt to indulge my spidey sense. Especially after a spider literally dropped from the ceiling into my underpants when I was doing my bathroom business back on the east coast.
Some spider meanings: Spider is the keeper of letters, related to the number eight and, as such, infinity. It represents weaving your life, and making sure you’re building a web that will support, not entrap you (like buying a house with predatory spiders?). Also, according to “Medicine Cards: The Discovery of Power Through the Ways of Animals,” “Spider gets your attention so that you notice that something you have woven has borne fruit.”
According to University of Bristol: “It has been suggested that a Boeing 747 could be stopped in flight by a single pencil-width strand and spider silk is almost as strong as Kevlar, the toughest man-made polymer.”
Cheers to the spider! Don’t eat your mate. And whatever you shoot from your abdomen, make sure it’s strong enough to stop a plane.
Jenn Sutkowski believes not all webs need be tangled, and other things that could go on gluts of memes clogging the internet. Find her weaving tales at jennsutkowski.com.
This Full Frontal column appeared originally in the Newport Mercury. I've been really crappy about keeping up with putting my columns on my website. Read a backlog of some of them by clicking here.
It's me, Jennifer Bernice (rhymes with "Furnace": it was my Granny's name) Sutkowski
• More details about my writing here.