I wrote this story a few years ago about a teacher I greatly admired in junior high school - the only bright spot in the hell hole of Knob Noster, Missouri.
1968: The year we pulled Mr. Spear down
The story of an honest teacher and his immature students
We all have teachers that stand out in our memory, teachers that take the daily humdrum memorization of facts and figures that make up school life and make them come alive.
For me, the first teacher that fits into that category was Mr. Treble, our fourth grade teacher at Croughton Air Force Base in England, who taught us about the Renaissance. I don’t remember much about that experience, but I do remember that we looked at lots of paintings - and some of those paintings included - oh, boy! - naked women. Along the way, he also taught us much of the history and politics of Europe of the time.
Mr. Treble had our complete, undivided attention during these lessons. He probably also taught us subjects like arithmetic and reading, but I don’t really remember any of that stuff.
The truth is, though, that most of our teachers, as hard-working as they may be, don’t stand out in our memories. And it is the rare teacher who can break through to the shallow mind of a teenager. Sometimes we just don’t how to respond to such a teacher.
No one really stands out in my mind after fourth grade, until my eighth grade social studies teacher, Mr. Spear.
Actually, I need to clarify that. He was my second eighth grade social studies teacher, since I had failed eighth grade the year before. I have all kinds of excuses, but who cares after 40 years?
At the time I encountered Mr. Spear my father was stationed at Whiteman Air Force base in Missouri, and so I spent my junior high school years in Knob Noster, just outside the base. In 1968, the year our story takes place, the United States was an exciting place, to say the least.
Civil rights marches, the space program, assassinations, riots, and a little thing called Vietnam occupied the headlines.
I’m not sure if it was the proximity of the Air Force base, or just the tenor of the times, but Knob Noster Junior High School was a very conservative place to find one’s self. I recall the basketball coach reprimanding the team - not because they had lost the game night before, because they hadn’t - but because the opposing team had better haircuts than they did.
It was the sort of place where they measured skirts - on students and teachers alike - and would send you home if your skirt was too short.
And the assemblies! Every few weeks we’d have an assembly designed to remind us of our patriotic duties. I recall one body builder who came, hoisting barbells and doing jumping jacks, while issuing calls to action between gasps for breath. The one I most clearly recall after all these years is the one who proclaimed:
“Some people oppose the war. They call themselves conscientious objectors. I call ‘em cowards.”
There may be a belief on the part of civilians that military dependents (brats) will automatically be conservative, and follow the government line. This is not nearly as true as you might think it is. But in 1968, it was true for me.
But my youthful conservatism aside, coming into Mr. Spear’s Social Studies class was a revelation. World events didn’t have to be boring, and neither did our teachers. We could have engaged conversations in class.
Mr. Spear was great at using analogies in teaching about American history, though only this one has stayed with me over the decades.
We had reached the chapter on the war of 1812, and the events leading up to it.
Discussing the general ineffectiveness of the American response the British navy impressing American seamen, Mr. Spear explained it this way:
Black Bart has come upon your ranch and killed your parents, shot your dog and kidnapped your sister. You follow the outlaw all across the West and finally find him in a saloon.
You say, “Black Bart, did you kill my parents, burn down our ranch, shoot my dog sand kidnapped my sister?”
Black Bart looks you over and snarls, “Yes, I did.”
At this point you look sternly at him and say, “Well, you’d just better stop that, Black Bart.”
Mr. Spear had a way of making history come alive for bored eight graders. But one day, Mr. Spear went a little too far; he thought he could trust us.
We were discussing religion in class. Who can even say how the subject came up? Someone asked the teacher what religion he was, and he answered, “I’m an agnostic.”
Well, nothing dramatic happened; the world didn’t stop turning on its axis. But what came later was an embarrassment to almost everyone involved.
The idea that in 1968 a teacher might be an agnostic was fascinating to enough of us that we went home and shared the news with our parents, who promptly called the school principal and complained about it.
A few days later, Mr. Spear had to apologize to the entire class for his remark. I’m sure that it was as difficult for him as it was for us. We saw no need for an apology; it was our parents who went ballistic.
He seemed a lot more careful about off-the-cuff remarks for the rest of the school year. Of course, the rest of the school year wasn’t that long for him. In the spring he left to honor his ROTC commitment, and joined the Air Force. I later heard that he had gone to Vietnam and may have been shot down.
Social Studies just wasn’t as much fun after he left.
I think that part of the problem was that we encountered Mr. Spear at the wrong time in our lives. The next year my father was transferred to Germany, and I spent most of my high school years in Europe. Not only my political and social viewpoints changed, but also my relationship with teachers.
Not that we were that much more mature, but I think that most of us understood that we didn’t need to go home and rat on teachers when they said something out of the ordinary.
Schools on military bases aren’t “military schools,” as one sees in movies, but schools for military dependents, run by civilians. I don’t know what things are like now, but given the times, it was an exciting time to be in high school. Few subjects seemed to be off-limits.
Ah, my 10th grade English teacher - I remember the short story you read to the class, with the clumsy young boy kissing the young girl, and whispering in her ear, “This is how you fuck.”
And our Social Studies teacher playing us the great satirist Tom Lehrer in class? And our journalism teacher, occasionally giving military vehicles the finger whenever he’d see them outside our classroom window?
And assigned reading in Junior English? A choice between “Islands in the Stream,” “The Greening of America” and Eldridge Cleaver’s “Soul on Ice.”
Long before those cheesy ads for Las Vegas, we knew that what happened in school stayed in school. I met Mr. Spear way too early, and though I appreciated him and his method of teaching, I was too young to understand that you didn’t need to go running home to Mommy and Daddy at the drop of a hat.
I’d like to think that Mr. Spear would have been a lot more comfortable at Zweibrucken, where I spent three years of high school.
But we’ll never know now.
Last month I finally checked the names of the Vietnam war dead, and found Mr. Spear’s name. So it’s not much, but this one’s for you, Mr. Spear.
Richard S. Drake is the author of a science fiction novel, “Freedom Run,” and “Ozark Mosaic: Adventures in Arkansas Alternative Journalism, 1990-2002.”
Little Rock Free Press - January, 2008