While in Whole Foods recently, I chuckled at the checkout lane sign for “Fewer Than 12 Items” rather than “less than.”
How that would have pleased my dad.
He is on my mind as the school year approaches, for he was my first and best teacher, as his mother was his. Though not a teacher herself, she revered education, believing teaching to be the highest profession because it is mother to all of the others.
Dad became a teacher of high school English (never call him an English teacher, for that would imply he was British-born). I grew up hearing him read to us aloud. My favorite was his Halloween rendition of “The Tell-tale Heart,” by Edgar Allan Poe. A chill went up our backs at the first line: “True! — nervous — very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am, but why will you say that I am mad?”
Dad’s grammar standards were so stratospheric that when my sister or I answered the phone and the caller asked for one of us, we were instructed to say, “This is she.” (We protested that this sounded too feather up the butt, so Dad compromised on having us answer, “Speaking,” instead.)
He insisted on decorum in his classroom, too.
One year he was annoyed by a large, bored athletic boy who nearly every day raised his hand and asked to go to the bathroom.
Dad permitted him to go but always corrected him, “You mean restroom.”
“Why do I have to call it restroom?” the student asked one day.
“Because you don’t take a bath in there,” Dad answered.
The student answered with a crafty grin, “Ya don’t rest in there either.”
Dad laughed and conceded the point.
Despite the fact that he was as bookish and as unathletic as you could get, coaching football was part of the deal when he took his first teaching job in a wee Kansas town. He studied football plays from diagrams in a book, and during the first practice asked the team’s best player to tackle him. The student was horrified when he broke Dad’s nose, but even on his way to the doctor, Dad assured him that he had done right thing by following the coach’s instructions.
Wanting to provide more for his family than his salary permitted, Dad took on weekend jobs (grocery clerk and night security guard among others) along with freelance journalism. I learned about proofreading, creating an attractive layout and, most importantly, gunning down deadlines at the master’s elbow.
On Sunday nights, we cleared the dining room table and laid out proofs and rubber cement for pasteup. There we created neighborhood shoppers, educational aids for teachers (like Ten Steps For Good Themes) and Dad’s most dreaded task, the monthly Alpha Iota (secretarial sorority) newsletter.
It exasperated Dad that in the interest of fairness, it was requested that every member written about had to be allocated the same number of words. Thus, each edit required a new word count of all articles. He sighed gustily, but reminded me, “The customer is always right.”
When Dad retired after 44 years of classroom teaching, mostly as a teacher of English in charge of the newspaper and yearbook, he substituted in high schools. Once he was called in when a teacher fell ill in the high school classroom in which my son Nick was a student. When Nick said, “Hi, Grandpa.” to the silver-haired sub, he was scolded by the staff member who had been holding down the fort. “It’s OK.” Dad assured him. “I really am his grandpa.”
While subbing at that same school, I later heard (but not from him), that a female student attempted to fluster the geezer by presenting him with a condom as she exited the classroom. He discreetly tucked it into his sport coat pocket. This took the wind out of the HMS Mean Girl’s sails.
What Dad most loved in those retirement years was teaching community college students who were highly motivated to learn to read and write well in order to better themselves. When I went with him on errands to the grocery store, bank or post office, he was greeted warmly by former students all over town.
I was visiting him at the hospital during his final illness — lung cancer — when a nurse came in, bearing a syringe and asking, “Mr. Christian, do you remember that C you gave me?” He laughed hard inside his oxygen mask, nearing the exit with that kindly twinkle in his eyes.
Rebecca Christian is a freelance writer from Ames, Iowa.