Rhymes with eyes

My brothers and sisters and I were sent to private schools when my dad had a good income, and public schools when he didn’t, so I saw the failings and cruelty of both. Teachers taught me to read and write, and for that I’ll be grateful til cremation day. Other than that, though, the bulk of my 11½ years of education was a waste of time, and often a horror.

Most teachers were willing to teach any kid who was willing to learn, but it seemed to be just a job to them, same as a barista making a latte. There were many teachers who stood up and talked and said nothing. 

Today, though, I’m not complaining. I want to tell you about Mr Keyes, a teacher who taught. 

In a public high school, some classes are required, and some classes are ‘electives’, a fancy word for student’s choice. My choice was usually to skip school, but I had an elective slot to fill — either woodworking class, a second study hall, or cultural anthropology. I didn’t know what anthropology was, which might make it incrementally less likely to bore my nuts out of their sacks, I thought, so anthropology it was.

The first day of school was hell all around. School was always hell if you’re the odd kid, and that was me — quiet, introverted, friendless, and not looking to make friends, all of which is worse on the first day. I was extra awkward, and got slapped in the back of my head in PE, to announce that another year at Auburn High School was underway.

By the last class of the day I was even less interested in education than my usual “not at all.” I traipsed into this mysterious anthropology session, and slunk into a back row seat, as always hoping not to be noticed.

The teacher was already standing at the front of the room. He was a skinny mustachioed youngish white man, wearing an ill-fitted cheap suit. He had no expression on his face, and stood, unmoving like a mannequin, with his hands behind his back.

As the bell rang, he remained standing, frozen, like the Queen’s guard at Buckingham Palace. When the bell finished, and the echo after the bell finished, he finally thawed and said, “Hello, ya little demons, and welcome to room 238.”

A few kids giggled, but most were barely there. I was noncommittal, just watching the show and wishing it was over. The teacher turned around, and did that universal first-day thing of writing his name on the chalkboard. What he wrote was KEYES, with pictures of eyeballs on both sides.

Then he turned around to face the class again, and did a single jumping jack, clapping his hands over his head. You don't often see someone in a suit do a jumping jack, so it was supposed to get our attention, and it did. 

“My name is Ron Keyes,” he said. “Rhymes with eyes. The School Board says you’re supposed to call me Mr Keyes, and who am I to argue with the School Board? If you argue with the School Board too much, you don't get to be a teacher any more."

He took a deep breath, and asked slowly, “What, is, cultural, anthropology?" He stood there like he was expecting an answer, but of course nobody knew the answer. "It's the study of human nature and human societies," he said, "and I sort of know what that means, but I have lots of questions, and I hope you'll help me figure out some answers.” 

There were two boys in the class who’d beaten me up in the past, separately, but that day they were sitting together, and I saw them exchange a glance of confusion. No surprise there; they were both imbeciles. 

“Now,” said Mr Keyes, “let’s talk about class rules, because I hate ‘class rules’, so I want to get this over with.

"You are children. I am an adult who doesn’t like children, so I’m going to treat you like adults. Which means, really, no rules. If any of you insist on acting like a child, then — you win, I will treat you like a child. But you are invited to be adults.” 

All these kids would’ve been 14-17 years old, and I’d never heard a teacher threaten to treat us like adults. One of the girls put her hand up, and the teacher pointed at her. “If we’re adults,” she said, “can I go to the restroom without a note?”

“Good question,” said Mr Keyes. “The answer is — no — but only because that’s a school rule, and school rules overrule my rules. Do you need a hall pass?”

“No,” she said. “It was a hypothetical question.”

“I like a student who knows big words, and uses them correctly,” he said. “And also,” he said, now addressing the entire class, “if you have a question — any of you — don't bother raising your hand. Just interrupt and ask anything, any time. There are no stupid questions in this class, unless you’re trying to be stupid, and if you’re trying to be stupid, believe me, I’ll know."

Whether I’d give a hoot about anthropology I did not know, but I decided I liked Mr Keyes, rhymes with eyes.

“Any other questions?” There were mumbles, but no questions.

“All right, then. Are you ready for my riveting, award-winning first-day-of-class lecture?” Kids squirmed in their seats. “I am sorry to disappoint you, but my first-day-of-class lecture comes on the second day of class. That’s tomorrow, and it’ll be pretty good if I say so myself, so make sure you’re here, please.

“Today, though, we’re going to get to know each other. I’m going to ask each of you to talk for one minute, about yourself. It doesn’t have to be brilliant, doesn’t have to be funny, or painful. It doesn't even have to be true, and you are not being graded on this. One minute, please, about yourself. I’ll go first.”

“My name is Ron Keyes. I am 33 years old, and happily married, so all you girls are out of luck. We have two children, and if you were taking notes earlier, you might remember that I don’t like children, but I’ve made an exception for mine. I grew up in Montana, big sky country. I was not a good student in high school, got C's and a few B's, but I got into Montana State University. I was expecting to be a biologist or a botanist, but got sidetracked and here I am, teaching social studies and civics, and this one class in anthropology. It's the only class I honestly like teaching, so maybe you're in luck. I’ve been standing in front of students at this high school for ten years, and as a teacher, my philosophy is that I do not have all the answers, but I welcome all the questions.”

Then he sat down behind his desk, and said, “Front row, left,” pointing at a girl in that unlucky seat. “You’re on.”

She said ‘uh’ a lot, and so did everyone else, as one by one all the kids he was going to pretend were adults introduced themselves. Most of the boys tried to be raunchy or clever, and all of the girls smiled as they spoke. After each student’s impromptu speech, the teacher either nodded and gestured to the next student, or asked a question to draw out a little more information.

Predictably, one of the boys said something like, “You said we’re not being graded on this?"

"That's right."

"Then I’ll just say my name is Jim.” There were some giggles, and everyone looked at the teacher.

“Nothing else you want to say about Jim, Jim? Where you’re from, what you’ve done, what you want to do, what makes you different from the other students — what makes you 'Jim'?”

“Nah, I’m just Jim. Everybody knows me.”

Mr Keyes just grinned, and nodded to the next kid.

Other than that, nobody said anything particularly poignant, embarrassing, revealing, or memorable. All of us were probably nervous, even the kids pretending they weren’t. I certainly was, and congratulated myself on the brilliance of taking a back-row seat, since it gave me more time to figure out what to say. I don’t remember a word of it beyond my name, though. Mr Keyes didn’t ask a follow-up question, so I must've done OK.

When the last student had said her piece, Mr Keyes rose from his chair, stood behind his desk, and glanced at the clock. “Thank you all, for letting me have 45 minutes off from teaching. Any questions?”

There were no questions, so he said, “It was nice meeting each of you, and I’ll see you tomorrow for the second-day first-day-of-class lecture. You’re dismissed.”

By the clock, it was 45 seconds until the bell, so some of the kids hesitated. Letting us out before the bell was a violation of normal protocol, maybe against the rules, but by the time I’d summoned that thought, kids were already stomping through the door. I was the last to leave.

♦ ♦ ♦ 

When we walked into class the next day, Mr Keyes was standing in front of the blackboard, same as the day before. Every day, unless some kid was talking to him before class, he’d stand there like a statue, hands behind his back, and wait until the bell had finished ringing. Then he’d say, “Good afternoon, ya little demons,” or some variation on that theme. It was one of his many quirks.

His strangest habit, though, was treating students with respect. He heard every question, and tried to answer. He enjoyed students' skepticism, and had plenty of his own. He appreciated jokes, but never let them derail the whole class session. He took extra time with the dumb students, asked more of the smart ones, and quipped with the insolent kids. 

"I promised you a lecture today," he said on that second afternoon, "and I can do it. I can stand here and talk all day every day if you like, but I prefer the Socratic Method. That’s when I say a few things, and you say a few things, and it’s a conversation, and we all learn something.”

By the end of that second day, every student except one was paying attention. The one who wasn’t — coincidentally, he was one of the kids who’d beaten me up a few years earlier — was cocky and occasionally disruptive, because that’s who he was. Over the first few days, he made several intentionally obnoxious comments, and then for a week he said nothing. That in itself was astounding, but then one day he raised his hand to ask a question.

“We don’t raise hands, here, Mike. What’s the question?”

Mike asked his question, and I don’t remember what it was, but it wasn’t stupid, and it wasn’t a joke. An unprecedented moment, for that boy.

Of course, he still ended up a ward of the state (I googled him, and yup), but that moment in Mr Keyes’ class was one of the few when he had a chance at a change. That nothing changed doesn’t diminish the chance. Even if someone drowns, you have to respect the effort of tossing a life-jacket.

Mr Keyes' class was sometimes raucous, and other times, when the teacher had asked a particularly tough question, the whole room was quiet for a very long time. Remarkable. This was a public high school, yet there was thinking going on.

Oh, you want to know what we learned in Cultural Anthropology 101? Not much, I suppose. The recurring theme was that whatever behaviors we imagine define us as a species — "human nature" — almost always don’t.

War? There are societies that don't know war.

Murder? There are societies where it's OK to kill your father-in-law, and people say 'congratulations' instead of arresting the killer.

There are societies where married couples never live together, where infants are tossed from towers (and caught below), and where grief is commonly expressed by cutting off one's fingers.

Humans are strange, and 'strangeness' is the dominant factor of human nature. That was the point, I guess. It wasn't life-altering stuff, nobody's mind was blown, and I've forgotten all of it, beyond those brief basics. Maybe I've even mangled the basics.

Expertise in anthropology isn't how to measure that class, though. Same as tossing a life-jacket to someone who's flailing in the water, Mr Keyes teaching that class was a good thing, whether anyone made it to shore or not.

I made it to shore, you could say. I got a B, when I was a D-average kid. It was the only time I spent inside that high school that I look back on without disgust.

It was also the only class I never skipped. I played hooky a lot, but still showed up for Mr Keyes in last period. Toward the end of the semester, I was suspended for three days for habitual truancy — and I loved the time off — but I still went in for Mr Keyes’ class at the end of every day.

What I remember isn't what we learned, but that we learned. I remember rhymes-with-eyes, and him standing there before the bell, with his hands behind his back. And wide-open discussions where even the quiet kid — me — had something to say, sometimes. And thinking, maybe this is what it's like to be an adult? And I remember the last thing Mr Keyes said to the class, on the last day of school: “So long, ya little demons.” 



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  1. My mental math says that this was about 1973-74. So Keyes would be around 80. Have you looked him up at all?

    1. Yeah, I looked him up a month ago. Dude is dead. This is me saying thanks.

  2. I've only been here a month or so, lurking and commenting, so I'm working from a small sample size, but I observe that, generally, when you are writing about something or someone you admire or enjoy, your writing gets better, and that the converse is true, although you've been writing a long time and you never write crappy prose.

    This piece could, and probably should, be used in a class on expository prose (or its ugly cousin creative writing) as an example of how the expansion of a narrow topic can bring a little intelligence and joy to the world, and offer more interesting questions than boring answers.

    Well written, well edited, lucid and fun. Thanks.


    1. Appreciated truly, sir.

      Dunno about you or anyone else, but after spending too much time trying to get something like this right, I can no longer tell whether it's any good or not. Wouldn't argue if you told me it was crap, so I won't argue if you say it's not.

    2. My brother, I know exactly what you're talking about. The 4th or 5th time through a 3- or 4-paragraph piece I can't for the life of me remember what I was trying to do when I started. It starts reading like nonsense syllables, so I stop and read it from the top and say, "Who wrote this shit? This is not my beautiful house, this is not my beautiful prose. It is ugly and smells of dead animals, or at least really sick ones."

      I think the people who purport to teach writing tell their students to always keep the reader in mind. OK, I'll keep him and her in mind, but Ricky Nelson and all the ancient Greeks remind us that you can't please everyone, so you gotta please yourself. My magic number for the last several years has been three. If I've been through a "completed" piece twice, the next time I'm going to edit and launch. It's a fucking comment, not the instructions for the evacuation of the International Space Station.

      But sometimes I forget my resolution and get tangled up in prose.


      We all want to do our best work all the time, but I decided that if I couldn't have fun writing then I should do something else

    3. Love that last line, yessir.

      When I reach the "Who wrote this shit?" point, I walk away, and look at it again the next day. If it still sucks after reworking it the next day, there's a 50/50 chance I'll say screw it. If it has nothing going on I'll delete it, and if there's something there, anything, I'll hit 'print'. Either way it's out of its misery, and if I only wrote things I thought were really good, I wouldn't be writing much.


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