A hero for these times: Mr. Gray

Posted on: March 31, 2017

In eighth grade, we had to do a research project on World War I. The project was a joint assignment between our History and English teachers, and included a presentation in History class in addition to the paper we turned in, also to the History teacher; I don’t remember what role the English teacher played beyond the initial instruction session on how taking notes on index cards would help us keep track of our different source. I also don’t remember the school librarian playing any role whatsoever in the project, even though I very clearly recall that instruction session being held in the school library.

In fact, I remember very few details about that project at all. Of my own paper, I remember not the topic but a typo: instead of underlining one word on a page, I underlined every word on the page except that one. That word was underlined in red pen when the paper was returned to me, with a -1 written over it. This was the first paper I’d ever written using a computer – remember, this was 1986; Taylor Swift hadn’t even been born yet – and though not as dramatically as it did at the time, it does still bother me that I was penalized for what was very clearly a difficulty using MacWrite and not a lack of understanding the importance of proper underlining.

Of course, I should have done a better job proofreading, which, in this case, would have been, you know, proofreading the paper. But, if you’ll recall how long it actually took to print out a 7-page paper back in 1986, you’ll understand why the relief of having it finished would preclude any interest in potentially finding reasons to have to go through all of that again. Even if it had been an option, given the difficulty I had with the underline function I can’t imagine I would have figured out how to print only a single page of a longer document.

The other thing I remember about that assignment is that, during the question and answer period following one student’s presentation, another of my classmates – Dale – said the word “fucker.”

The presentation had been on air warfare, and the German air fleet included a number of planes made by Fokker manufacturing. Over and over the presenting student said the name Fokker, carefully, seriously, with no hint that there might be something about that name that might make bunch of 12 year-olds titter.

Listening to the presentation, it was startling to hear the first time. “Did he just say…?” confusion rippled across the class, because it definitely sounded like he did just say… It was an unavoidable comparison to draw; Fokker, no matter how carefully pronounced, sounds a lot like Fucker, and that is not going to go unnoticed by a class of 8th graders.

It could have gone unacknowledged, though. The student carried on through his presentation, and the rest of the class could have supported his heroic efforts by asking pertinent questions on the subject of his presentation, or, as we likely did with all the other presentations, offered tepid applause and then showed that we didn’t really care about anyone else’s topic by not asking any questions at all. Unless there was some class-participation grade component? I don’t remember that either. What I do remember is that, instead of allowing this student to gratefully take his seat at the conclusion of presentation, Dale raised his hand and proceeded to ask a series of questions about the Fokker planes that served no purpose other than to give him a reason to, carefully and seriously, say Fucker over and over again in class.

Until, that is, Mr. Gray stepped in. Mr. Gray was the 8th grade history teacher; he would occasionally lean against the chalk board while teaching and end up with his own writing all over the back of his shirt, and when the phone in his classroom rang he would answer it “Mi-IS-Ter Gray,” but without the stuttering dashes – just a smooth arc of emphasis that never varied throughout the school year. In other things, too, Mr. Gray never wavered. He had taken issue with the qualifying test for the Spelling Bee that year; “a lot,” being two words, was an invalid measure of spelling acumen and Mr. Gray said as much, pausing the test to tell everyone that it should be written as two different words. Mr. Gray did not stand for administrative chicanery.

And he did not stand for swearing in his classroom. He cut Dale off when he tried to ask yet another question, to which Dale, a mealy-mouthed little prick, protested innocently that he was just curious about the planes. Mr. Gray cut him off there, too, stating he’d never heard a pronunciation so blatant; as clearly as I remember Dale saying Fucker, I remember the hint of anger with which Mr. Gray said Blatant. Mr. Gray made it clear he knew what Dale was up to, and made it equally clear that he, who ended every day with his clothes covered in his own chalky handwriting, was not impressed.

I’ve thought about that interaction a lot over the past few months. As details have leaked out about the proposed Congressional budget that cut funding from Meals on Wheels, from school lunch programs, from the Environmental Protection Agency; in the last-minute scramble to secure the passage of the now-or–at-least-temporarily-dead AHCA, as Republicans dropped requirements that health insurance cover care received at an emergency room, or pre-natal exams, or new baby care, but added a requirement that new mothers would lose their Medicaid if they hadn’t gotten a job within eight weeks of delivery.

I thought of it earlier this week as Paul Ryan, undoubtedly nursing his wounds from his incredible failure to repeal and replace Obamacare, proudly announced a repeal of another Obama’s rule which had protected hibernating and baby animals from hunters.

I’ve thought of it so often over these past few months as I’ve tried, very seriously, to understand what the fuck is wrong with these people?

Because their proposals, as astoundingly cruel as they are, are also utterly artless. Not only are they as blatant as a shitty little eighth-grader seizing an opportunity to say Fucker in History class, they are just as pointless. There is no goal in the plans they have revealed; you can not look at any of their recent actions and say “Oh, yes, now I understand what these people want.” Instead, it seems as though the only guiding principle at the moment is identifying an opportunity to act like an asshole, and then rushing in to do just that.

More than anything, though, in this moment, I admire the authority of Mr. Gray. Suddenly, as the country has been over-run by inimical eighth-graders, who believe themselves clever even while being too self-satisfied to see that no one is impressed by them, Mr. Gray has become the hero we need. Not letting bullshit pass, when it would be easy to do so, particularly after years of the same bullshit being flung your way. Recognizing your moral duty to be a leader, and stepping in to support those with the difficult job of sharing information that, due to its nature, might be easily dismissed or mocked by morons. Curtailing xenophobia and providing a lesson in recognizing that similar sounding words can mean different things in different languages (false cognates, these words are called, if you’re interested.) Persisting, yes, in the face of an unchanging tide of ill-informed students rolling into his class every year. Most importantly of all, understanding the importance of history, the details that matter, and how they continue to impact us today.

And so, among the many people who have risen to the challenge of inspiring others to act – for decency, for equality, and, yes, for freedom – for me, Mr. Gray stands tall and deserves to be recognized for his sterling efforts. Inanity is exhausting, but, even when the stakes were low, he never let the bastards grind him down. I hope, in the months ahead, I will do him proud.


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