After my father left we moved again, this time to a small rental home not too far from our old neighborhood. I didn’t have any interest in another round of fights just to make a new batch of friends, so I stayed inside for the most part and played with a super ball in the empty kitchen. My mother got a job – her first – as a cashier at a grocery store. She’d come home every afternoon and lie down on her bed and cry. My sisters completely drop out of my memory during this period. I assume that they found something to keep their minds occupied.
We started going to church so that we could pray for my father’s return. I knew my mother believed in God, but religion hadn’t factored too heavily into my life up to that point. The preacher was nice enough, but he was monotonous. If I’d known what a didgeridoo was at that age, that’s how I would have heard his sermons. He was one of the adults in the Charlie Brown universe, only not as engaging.
Besides, I was up to speed on the basics – God lived in the clouds and Satan lived down below. My interpretation of this was that I could never let my feet get near the foot of the bed, else the Dark Lord would grab my piggies and drag me into the abyss. Aside from that bit of personal dogma, my pre-church going brush with religion was limited to staring at the paintings in my Children’s Bible. Here’s what I took from those paintings: 1) God is a sunbeam who pokes through the clouds; 2) Jesus is a hippy; 3) Nobody likes hippies until they’re dead.
And so my social circle was a crying mother, a boring preacher, a bouncy ball, and a macabre picture of a half naked hippy peacefully nailed to a board.
The first day of the new school year arrived, and by some fortunate twist I landed in the same fourth grade class as my best buddy Curt. He of the Evel Knievel and the Hot Wheels and the dog named for a John Denver song. This was quite a windfall. I’d have a Robin for my recess game of Batman, a lunch buddy to borrow a spork from should I break mine on my mock chicken leg. Curt was a truly decent person. He was easily the best baseball player in my age group, yet he always insisted that he wasn’t as good as me. He could ride his bike with no hands and build a model of Big Daddy Don Garlit’s dragster without getting gluey fingerprints all over it. All those talents, and you could still depend on him to share his pudding cup.
As soon as we saw each other we ran to the back of the classroom and picked out seats side by side. We knew it was temporary, as the teacher would arrive any moment and move us to our assigned seats, but for a few minutes we could pretend that we were the bad seeds, the Sweathogs loafing in the back row.
Thirty-five nine year olds left unattended make a tremendous noise, so we didn’t notice the janitor enter and stand behind the teacher’s desk. He was smiling broadly through his long black beard, eyes bright and calm behind a pair of glasses just like John Lennon’s. His wavy black hair rested on the shoulders of his denim shirt, which matched his faded Levi’s. The janitor stood and smiled, loudly never said a word until all thirty-five nine year olds hushed and stared at him, and then he turned and wrote on the blackboard: “Mr. Rigoni.” He looked at his handiwork, looked at us, scratched it out and wrote “Gar.”
“Yeah, that’s better,” he said. “If I get to call you by your first name, why shouldn’t you call me by my first name? I’m Gar, and I’m going to be sharing the next year with you.” David Crosby once said that the Seventies were when the Sixties happened. I think he had Gar Rigoni, fourth grade teacher, in mind.
“Listen, I don’t want to come down on you with a bunch of rules. If you’re hungry, eat something! You’re not going to be thinking about school if you’re thinking about your tummy! If you’re tired, take a nap! We can catch up later. If you’re tired of sitting, stand up and walk around! Your ears still work when you’re standing up, right?” He walked to the back of the classroom and put his hand on a piece of blank butcher paper covering the entire wall. “If you want to write a poem or draw a picture or express yourself, come back here and write on the wall, not on your desk! But here’s my only rule. We have to respect each other. No writing things about other students.”
The first few days were the acid test. Kids would get up and walk around, take their new freedom for a test drive. Gar didn’t mind. Kenny, the only kid in the school who collected hockey cards, brought increasingly noisy food to eat, never earning more than a “that looks good!” in return. We were never moved to assigned seats, so Curt and I stayed in the back row, next to the butcher paper. This would be my hill to die on. This is where I chose to take on the man. While Kenny munched his way through another stack of Pringles and half the kids either pretended to sleep or wandered aimlessly, I turned around and wrote “Garfield Goose” on the back wall, underline and all. Garfield Goose was a local morning cartoon show, hosted by some old timer and his goose puppet.
Yes, yes. This would surely drive the crazy hippy over the edge. I couldn’t wait for him to drift toward the back of the room. The anticipation was killing me. About eleven and a half days later the recess bell rang, and Gar walked toward my seat. “I can’t wait to see what you wrote!” he said. Suddenly this was very real. I was going to prison, or at the very least would be expelled. I had insulted a teacher. There was no coming back from this.
“Garfield Goose,” he said, and then he started laughing. “Right on! You’re a very smart guy! You figured out my real name is Garfield and you made the connection! Right on!” I didn’t want to be Batman or a magician or a baseball player or an anything anymore. I wanted to be Gar.
Once the newness of being treated like a little adult wore off, our classroom normalized. Only sleepy kids slept, only hungry kids ate. The only reason any of us stood was to pick up something we dropped. Gar was electric. He was what the preacher should’ve been: full of love and enthusiasm and encouragement. Never mind times tables, let me show you what algebra is. What’s this story? Let’s read a novel instead. He was the Pied Piper, and we would’ve followed him anywhere.
One morning after we’d finished our math, Gar told us that we were going to have a schedule change. Once a week at this time Mrs. Hemmings, the music teacher was going to come to our classroom. Right on schedule, a 287 year old woman shuffled through the door. Her back sported a mighty hump. She wore a sensible wool dress, a string of pearls, and old lady shoes. Red lipstick was drawn where her lips used to be.
“Helloooooo, children,” she said. She continued her epic shuffle toward Gar’s desk. “Helloooooo, children,” she repeated.
“Good morning, Mrs. Hemmings,” someone said.
“Oh, lovely! We have one gentleman in the class. You shall all follow this young boy’s example.”
“Good morning, Mrs. Hemmings,” we repeated.
“Lovely! Mr. Rigoni will leave us now so that you can open your beautiful velveteen ears to the wonderful world of music.” Gar set a record player up on his desk, smiled and waved goodbye.
Mrs. Hemmings started the record. It was the kind of music I’d only heard in museums. Strings and things. It was the musical equivalent of the boring preacher. Kenny pulled out a sandwich. Mrs. Hemmings turned off the record.
“What are you doing young man?”
“We don’t eat in class.”
“Gar lets us.”
“Gar. Our teacher.”
“Young man, we do not eat in class and we do not call our teachers by their first names.”
“Gar lets us.”
“You will go to the principal’s office right now. You are causing a distraction, and these boys and girls cannot open their velveteen ears to Vivaldi.” After Kenny left we sat quietly and listened to her scratchy record.
When Gar returned and Mrs. Hemmings’s velvet ears were well down the hall, we told Gar everything.
“No, man, she just wants you guys to love music as much as she does.”
“She made Kenny go to the office just because he was eating.”
“Well she’s got her own thing going on, and we need to respect that during her time.”
“It’s boring, Gar. I don’t want to listen to her cruddy music.”
Later that day the principal came in and asked to see Gar in the hallway. We knew Kenny was doomed.
This pattern repeated for weeks, with Mrs. Hemmings growing more and more frustrated with us and the principal visiting Gar more and more often. He took a shot at turning the hostile tide Mrs. Hemmings created by bringing in a Lovin’ Spoonful record. After he played it for us he explained that the guy singing was the same guy who wrote and performed the Welcome Back Kotter theme. We were duly impressed, but Mrs. Hemmings was even more annoyed when we told her that Gar had brought in that horrible hippy music that was bound to ruin our beautiful velveteen ears.
One afternoon I arrived home from school and found my mother smiling rather than crying. “Your father wants us back,” she said. “We’re moving to Texas.” He had been gone almost a year. I was excited to be moving again and I was happy that my family would be back together, but I knew I was losing something special. Sure enough, my small town Texas school teacher was a beehive and cat’s eyes kind of gal who didn’t cotton to any shenanigans.
Many years later I tracked down my childhood pal Curt. After we caught up on our own lives, I asked him whatever happened to Gar.
“It’s funny that you asked me that, because I just asked my mom if she knew what happened. Not too long after you moved I got to school one morning and we had a new teacher. They never explained, so I just figured he quit. But my mom just told me that there were a lot of complaints about him, so he got fired. I guess not too long after that he hung himself.”
I have told this story three times now: Once to a therapist; once to my daughter; and now to you. Each time I have bawled my eyes out. My adult logic fully understands that there is nothing that I could do, but inside me is a little boy who truly believes that if he would’ve just told Gar once how much he mattered then thousands of little guys like me would’ve had the joy of knowing that beautiful man. And every time I hear John Sebastian, that little boy pops his head out. Gar Rigoni was that sunbeam peeking through the clouds. He didn’t deserve to be nailed to a board.