NOT A HIPPIE CHICK
When I was a senior in high school, my Calculus teacher, Mr. A., used to tell me nearly every day that I was a "Flower Child.”
To this I retorted, “I’m not a Hippie,” offended that he could even suggest I would do drugs (smoke weed) and have sex before marriage (free love, with possibly more than one person at a time). That was my impression of what being a Hippie meant, and it terrified me to no end to be lumped in with such a clearly immoral crowd.
Despite the fact that the art teacher, Mr. W., was the most well-liked by the girls, so much so that he was always dating one of the school's most recent graduates, Mr. A. was, to me, the coolest, most laid back teacher at our school, because he respected us for just being kids.
He was like Alice’s Cheshire Kitty and Caterpillar all rolled into one. I still remember those dark brown cigarettes he smoked, although how I would have seen them, I don’t know, since he clearly couldn’t smoke in the classroom or school building. I must have seen him somewhere outside doing this. I do know that he always smelled like cigarette smoke, a smell familiar to me from home, growing up with both parents as smokers, my mom quite heavily then, which I couldn’t wrap my head around since we had just been to her stepfather’s funeral. Lung cancer. The same disease that would kill Mr. A. later on, at the age of 52.
“You are a Flower Child,” Mr. A. would repeat firmly. “You were just born 20 years too late.”
As strongly as I resisted this, I also knew that there was no one and nothing about my own generation that spoke to me, nothing I really connected with, besides New Wave and the Second British Invasion. (To my mind, we should never have broken away from English rule, if music was any kind of stick to gauge things by. I’d take The Blow Monkeys over Beastie Boys, Howard Jones over Huey Lewis, and George Michael over Michael Jackson any day. )
Whether or not he knew it at the time, music was my mother tongue. And that’s how he weaseled his way in. That is when everything started to shatter--when Mr. A. gave me that cassette.
“Do you know the Beatles?” he asked me one day when I wandered into his lunchtime backgammon club. Even though I had no intention of playing the game, I had no one else to hang out with at lunch, so it was either intrude on Mme. S., my French teacher, yet again, or go into his room and pretend to watch the school’s biggest nerds slide black and white checkers around on a board.
“The Beatles?” I said, thrilled to have an actual conversation with someone, a real back-and-forth exchange of words and ideas that made it feel like I had a purpose for being somewhere.
“Sure,” I continued. “They were like The Monkees, only British.”
“The… the… Monkees?!?” Mr. A. sputtered, his face turning the same shade of red as his bushy mustache and the wavy hair that brushed his shoulders.
I could tell I had given him an incredibly wrong answer, something he was not used to getting from me in Calculus class.
“The Beatles were light years ahead of The Monkees, in terms of songwriting. The Monkees were actors,” he practically spat, “two of whom barely even knew how to play their instruments when the show began--”
“Okay, okay,” I said, almost laughing at the order of outrage this had sparked, this passionate proof he was offering to convince me. Out of deference, I tried to force the corners of my mouth to stay down. I wanted him to think I was taking this as seriously as he was. “The Beatles," I continued. "They did that cartoon about the Yellow Submarine.”
This I knew because it was one of the few films the local library owned. They trotted it out every year to serve as entertainment at the end-of-the-summer-reading-program celebration. Most of what I remembered about it was that it was full of colors and energetic songs, but, if it had any real storyline, it was not one that my younger self could follow.
“Yellow Submarine,” Mr. A. repeated. I could tell that he was trying to size up my seriousness, to consider whether it measured up to being worthy enough to receive what he wanted to impart.
But his flush was slowly fading. His neck began to blend in once again with the puka beads that hung around it which were always visible in the v-opening of his Hawaiian shirt (on this day it was the orange one with white hibiscus flowers). “Alright,” he finally said. “But do you know about John Lennon’s solo work?”
“John Lennon,” I said, ever the dutiful student. “He was the one who married that Japanese lady and sang about peace. Sometimes naked. And was shot.” I recited all the facts I knew, hoping this would put me back into his good graces.
“Yes,” he said, but the extra nasally tone in his voice told me he still wasn’t totally happy with my answer. “I’m going to make you a tape,” he said. “I’ll have it for you tomorrow.”
And, sure enough, he did. The minute I got home from school the next day, I popped the tape into the player and sat under my headphones on the living room loveseat. A gong, or church chime, rang in my ears and then right into... the pain.
Who knew that John Lennon’s primal shrieking about his parental abandonment would hit me so hard? The rawness of his voice called up all the things I had locked down deep inside Davy Jones’s Locker, a place that, previously, only Kate Bush could take me to, with her Hounds of Love and The Ninth Wave.
That was where the dark things lived. Incomprehensible things like fathers wanting to leave mothers, mothers who were going crazy from perimenopause. Mothers who yelled at or ignored their daughters completely for finding out they had been named after their father’s ex-girlfriends, fathers who weren’t there any more, except on the weekends, because they worked nights.
Hold on, how did Mr. A. know that my grandmother was losing her identity to Alzheimer’s, that all of my best friends had moved away in the previous two years? Was this isolation written on my face? Woven into my body language?
Could he possibly have known about all of my school counselor’s prodding, his constant pleading with me to apply to a university? Had they spoken with each other about my reluctance to pick a career that would pay for an adult life I wasn’t even sure I wanted to have?
How could Mr. A. have known that I was on the brink of giving up on love, because the boy I loved, the one I used to be able to talk to about everything, who I thought loved me back, had started to disappear?
Had he compared notes with my government teacher, found out about the poem I had written in that class about the likelihood of war? The one that revealed that almost every moment of my existence was plagued by the fact that we lived in a time in which countries were always on the verge of destroying each other, and possibly, the world.
And there was definitely no way Mr. A. could have been aware that I had stopped going to church in the last year--that, in fact, I had quit volunteering as Sunday school teacher to the younger kids. I had done this under the pretense of having too much homework to do for my AP classes, one of them being his, but really, the truth was I just didn’t know who I was or what I believed in anymore.
Like John, I didn’t believe in anything. The dream was over.
And yet, as Mr. A. also appeared to know, there was always another side to the tape. I flipped over the cassette and finally managed to stop my crying. As John continued to play in my headphones, I remembered that I could choose to imagine a world where this wasn’t happening. A world where everyone was safe and we all still loved each other. Where there was no reason to fear or to hate. Where love was the answer and I knew it, for sure.
Holy guacamole, maybe Mr. A. was right. Maybe I was a Flower Child. Maybe I had been born in the wrong generation. But, if that was the case, what was I supposed to do about it?
Just keep on keeping on, I suppose. Which I was a little more ready to do now that I knew I had Mr. A. in my corner.
Thank you, Mr. A., wherever you are now. You are one of my Reasons Why Not.
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So, how about you? Have you ever had a teacher with this uncanny ability to see into your soul and know exactly what you needed at just the right moment? An interaction with a teacher that changed your life? When was a time that a song, album, or musical artist changed your life? How did you first hear about them? Where were you (mentally and physically) when you first heard the music? In what ways did it change you?