Tuesday, May 12, 2009
A Tribute to Mr. J. L. Spain
"Mmmmmmm !!!!!!!!!" he grumbled with his shiny head and jet black hair from behind the wooden podium. "To-DAY," he began, jutting out his jaw like Thurston Howell III, "we will be discussing plant re-pro-duction." His voice, although gravely, had a thick southern accent. He wore an old-fashioned dark suit and tie, and had a bulky 12 inch Motorola walkie talkie attached to his hip which connected him directly to the school office. If you caught him before or after school, he sometimes sported a fedora, made popular later by Indiana Jones.
He walked about the class, thumping the back of his head with a black rubber stopper attached to a 2 1/2 foot long wooden dowel. The teacher was Mr. Spain, one of the wonderfully eccentric, colorful, and patiently talented teachers who served at Ridgeview High School.
"MMMMmmmm !!!!" he grumbled again as a penny rolled forward towards the front of the classroom. "PENNY!" he grinned with satisfaction as he pinned it to the floor with the stopper end of his pointing stick, scooping it up. They were just pennies to us, a reason to distract the class, but to him, they held value. He had grown up in a time when a dozen pennies could buy a loaf of bread or a hamburger. He supposedly kept a count of the pennies he had acquired in class- over a thousand at one point. No one knew if he was just making up the number up or if he really did keep count.
Mr. Spain continued his lesson only to be interrupted by a young girl who was babbling with her friend. "BETH MINOR! That will be a .... Note-A-Shun...." he corrected, jutting out his chin pronouncing the word as he began to get out his book of class offenses.
"Oh, PLEASE, Mr. Spain! Don't give me a Notation. I did not know class had started. Really! I deserve a second chance."
"A second chance eh? Allright. I'll give you a second chance.... I-DEN-TIF-Y... Oogonium." (he would throw out some impossibly difficult vocab word that only the most astute would remember.)
"OOoooonnneee..." he drew the word out, as Beth, in this case, stuttered and stumbled making up some kind of purely nonsensical baloney. It was hilarious.
"Oh, it's um, it's this thing, this plant thing, yeah, and it's got this planty kind of stuff...."
"THREE! THREE STRIKES AND YOU'RE OUT!" He would grumble to himself some more as he made the notation in his book. "Mmmmmmm...."
At one point a student began a comic strip there at the school called "The Adventures of Bubblehead," which was quite popular as I recall. It featured the Mr. Spain (Bubblehead) with the muscular body of Superman zooming into the sky to write notations, capture pennies, and destroy the Japs.
When we got bored, we would ask him to tell us stories about World War Two (also to use up class time.) I'm certain he knew our motivations, but many times he relented and regaled us with tales of his exploits. "Mr. Spain, tell us about the war!" someone would raise their hand, asking eagerly.
"I remember when I was in Burma..." his voice would grate through the silent class. "The time was twenty three hundred and forty five hours..." (military time, which made little sense to us high schoolers- HEY! The clock only goes up to TWELVE!!! But no one interrupted him, even hearing the story for the second or third time.)
"There were two girls there... MIMI and FIFI (he did not go into specifics, only telling us their names) We were in our tents that night, but the JAPS had us surrounded...." Then he would go into this speil about the fighting that occurred that night.
Such wonderful times. We did not really understand it, but we were in the presence of a war hero.
Before tests, he would have what was called the "Maaaad Minute," where anyone could ask him anything that might be covered on the test. Usually, it was filled with wise guys asking completely inane questions that had nothing to do with the class! Afterwards, he would line up our tests on his podium and grade them in just a few minutes with a thick red marker after we had taken them. This was in a time before scantrons were used.
At the end of the school year when asked to sign our yearbooks instead of writing a personalized message, he would get out a big stamp that had his signature engraved in rubber, which he would then stamp underneath his picture! How odd but truly endearing.
In retrospect, I am still very thankful to have been in his class. Yes, I have since then forgotten much of the high school biology he taught us, but he was a wonderful teacher and a wonderful person. Sadly, he has now passed on as many of our WWII vets have, but Mr. Spain, wherever you are, thank you. And here is a penny for you =).