Here’s a story. You’ll have one just like it.
I was in sixth grade, at Howard Elementary School in Dearborn, Michigan.
My sixth grade teacher was Mr. Wilson, a no-nonsense, by-the-book teacher that helped you in your journey from the exploratory fun of elementary school to the rough-and-tumble, hormone-laced experience of junior high.
This was back then, of course. Today, I really have no idea how kids manage to be kids.
Back then, Mr. Wilson taught sixth grade to a 1967 class mostly involved in the basics of learning, and recess, and getting into small scrapes that seemed big at the time. Stuff might have been happening a long way away, like in Detroit where they were setting fires or other places like Vietnam, but we weren’t part of that, not yet.
Mr. Wilson had the kind of wavy hair guys spent their time trying to control, black, parted on one side. He had close-cropped facial features and the kind of chin that dimpled vertically in the middle. He wore white shirts with narrow ties. That was the dress code then. He was that rare creature, a male elementary school teacher.
We grew up in a culture that didn’t spend too much time worrying about the acceptability of spanking kids in class. We came from upbringings where when kids got out of line, they got spanked. “Spare the rod and spoil the child.” It might have been called corporal punishment back then. Today it certainly is.
Back then, if you did something really wrong in Mr. Wilson’s class, you were summoned to the front for a quick spanking.
One kid, Brian, used to wear sweaters. He was a pretty good kid, so when he got called to the front, it was a big deal. He’d walk up with this worried look on his face, and he pulled his sweater down to straighten it out. We thought that’s why he did it, until I (no better than the rest - I got my share of walks to the front) pointed out that Brian was probably pulling his sweater over his butt to protect him from the spanking. That got some laughs, but it probably didn’t help Brian.
And the spankings weren’t much, really - a couple of smacks to remind us that there were consequences to our behavior. Maybe a sting for a minute or two. It didn’t seem to us the stuff of lasting humiliation, or lawsuits.
Oh, and I don’t remember what the girls got when they misbehaved: it just wasn’t spanking.
Anyway, the point of this ramble is to set the stage. You got called up if you mouthed off in class, or horsed around, or carried on doing what a bunch of eleven- and twelve-year-olds do when they’re assigned to desks and — as Sir Ken Robinson has said — are forced to do clerical work for hours.
So mouthing off — or in today’s terms, stating your opinion - could have risks.
This brings me to Robbie Kessel.
I don’t know if Robbie’s still around, or if he is, what exactly he might be doing. Living, I suppose.
Robbie was a great kid. At least, I thought so. Maybe he’s running a company right now, who knows? He was the kind of kid that had energy, liveliness, curiosity and a quick wit. He probably got good grades. No, I’m sure he did.
So we’re in class, another day of fun, and Mr. Wilson is teaching something or other, and Robbie made a smart aleck remark. (If you don’t know what a smart aleck is, alas! You are in times too serious for your own good.)
So Robbie’s made this remark, and the class goes quiet. Here it comes. Mr. Wilson looks at Robbie and says sternly, “People in glass houses should not throw stones.”
Robbie doesn’t miss a beat, counters: “People in glass houses should not take baths.”
This is where time does that funny stretchy thing for about two seconds of absolute silence, before Mr. Wilson just loses it. This is a classic, I-don’t-care loss.
Mr. Wilson laughs as hard and as long as perhaps he ever laughed in a classroom.
Robbie was not called to the front.
I tell you all this because number one, it’s a great story and a lot of fun. Robbie, wherever you are, forgive me for using your real name — but you should be remembered for one of the best sixth grade one-liners ever. And Mr. Wilson — no doubt you have left this earth, but wherever you are, I hope you’re laughing, too.
Because, number two is the bigger thing here.
We are our memories.
I suppose there is a physical explanation for how I called this story out of the five or six inches of stuff between my ears, or the three or four inches from the top of my head to the roof of my mouth. Somewhere, in that mess of sugar and fat and folded stuff and liquid, is my memory of Robbie and Mr. Wilson. Of Brian, too, and his sweater. And of other memories — the stuff we all carry around: our stern fourth-grade teacher (mine was Mrs. Kovach, born old, who nonetheless put me in my place with some surprise lower grades as well as an action, a still-fresh memory, when I had scratched my wooden desktop with a ball-point pen to see if it would write, and she came over, so tall, so tall, and with one long nail just scratched and scratched at the wound I had made in that desk, no words needed, humiliation the retaliation for my senseless act, that scratching something I will always remember); or, perhaps, a favorite coach (or, in my case, a coach I dreaded, too big and too loud, Mr. Pampu, junior high, a noisy self-assured guy who’d etch into me the kind of person I both dreaded and wanted to be); and so on and others.
You could say they’re all gone, now, these folks who peopled my upbringing. Mom and Dad are; as well, recently, my older brother. Some of those elementary school kids are gone; all the teachers are, I suppose. Even Mr. Pampu, that big bold man’s man, is likely no longer with us.
What we have instead are memories.
When I call forth Robbie, as well as Olive Gest (a high-school biology teacher chock-full of sayings: “The ship of life does not come to you; you must swim out to meet it.” — back when you could name your girl “Olive”); or others — when I call them forth from this tiny spot in the darkness behind my eyes (which themselves admit the terrifying photonic mystery of light and create my windows on this world) — when I do this, I summon them back to the here and now.
So they live.
We are our stories, after all. Each of us. Telling and retelling things in our own ways.
We revitalize our Robbies and Brians and Olives and Mr. Wilsons. We bring them back. By telling you of Robbie, I invite you into a story that only I can really relive, but that you can laugh over and relate to a memory of your own.
Thus, from college - “Henrietta Wormbine.” The name of a blind date my psychology professor had had the misfortune to endure. (Or, perhaps, she endured him — after all, the name “Henrietta Wormbine” may suggest for us a life so far removed from that which she lived; or perhaps, aspired to live. And who would know, really, whether it was better that Henrietta abandoned our psychology-professor-to-be, or he her? To go on and live different lives, the better for that abandonment?)
Some memories are mere names. Some are stories. Sometimes — too often, some would say — we dwell on the uncomfortable, the painful, the memories that conspire to tear us down, even as we insist that it’s good to remember and learn from these painful lessons.
Yes, learning is good — up to a point.
You can get lost in memories. You can live in the past and recall those failings that, once endured, you can do nothing to alter. You can remember the bullies, the nasties, the encounters that left you shamed, less of yourself, wishing you’d said something; or those encounters, the faux pas, the rubbings the wrong way against our or others’ definition of civility; or those failings, when it wasn’t enough, when you let your nerves get the best of you. These are the memories which, unchecked, can stop you from growing into who you are always in the process of becoming, can keep you from moving forward into a future that’s yours to define even as you acknowledge that that future will have more of the same, as well as more of the things we’d all do better to remember - the triumphs, those moments of completion, of confidence, of when all of it somehow came together, somehow worked. When, as John Muir once said about his childhood, “the sky fit the earth.”
We are all these things and more.
And from this stew — of memories, the characters in our past, our recollections of failures and triumphs and joys and sorrows and embarrassments and moments when we were stars — from this stew we continue to reassert ourselves, and move forward into tomorrows as full of the same things as what we remember.
As for those characters — the Robbies, the Olives, the Brians and all the rest, our teachers, the adults, our parents and grandparents and whoever else it was that burned into our minds these times, these memories — call them forth. Celebrate them.
Even now, fifty years later, I laugh at Robbie’s joke — laugh because, like Charlie Brown or Calvin or Christopher Robin or any other child, real or imagined, Robbie gives me joy. It’s the joy of knowing that, when we live in the minds of others, we are alive today.
And even after all is said and done, when those whose lives have been lived and whose memories have been recalled through others who, younger, have lived and died as well — we are the collective memory of all these things. I like to think that memories float through a world we cannot with all our science yet apprehend; that we are aswirl in these things, wisps that occasionally reveal themselves to us through suggestion, premonition, dream.
The practical will deny this. Let them.
For me, I’ll take memories, and wonder, and joy, and the fulfillment this all brings, any day.
May you all live in times full of memories and become the memories of all around you whom you love.