Coach Parsons came to Boiling Springs High School directly from central casting. He bore the square jaw, blue eyes and humped nose of a Roman centurion, but now in his late forties his mesomorph physique was less suited for Jesus beating than pie eating. His soft belly lopped over those ridiculous mid-thigh, high waisted shorts that only coaches wore, a Copenhagen ring worn into their back pocket.
I don’t what he coached, if anything. The rumor that plagued him each school year was that he was a coach at his previous school, the one from which he was fired for knocking up a cheerleader. Everyone knew somebody who knew somebody who knew the cheerleader so obviously it was true, though none of these people had names (including the cheerleader).
Anyway, I’m sure he coached something because the administration did with him what they always do with coaches: they gave him a class to teach that wouldn’t skew the standardized testing results. And that is how I came to learn psychology from a jock asshole.
Coach Parson’s pedagogical modality — because he was the kind of arrogant windbag who would never call it a teaching style — was to walk the aisles while he lectured.
“Who can tell me who Pavlov was?” he’d ask, and then flex his flabby pecs and walk between the desks as if he was counting off sit-ups for the team. Eventually he would grab a student’s shoulder with one of the canned hams that he called hands and squeeze. “Mr. Turner, who was Pavlov?”
“You’re a dad-gummed genius, Mr. Turner,” and the stroll continued. “How about you, Miss Calhoun?” He always grabbed the girls’ shoulders with his sun-damaged fingers fully extended then gave them a little squeeze, his fingers just barely within the demilitarized zoned separating shoulder from breast. Some would blush, others tensed up, but nobody passionately surrendered to the hot embrace of the fat man in the funny shorts.
Psychology interested me. Every day the chasm between Lee G., me, and the rest of the school widened. On some level the whole thing was a social experiment: How badly can we irritate the rednecks?
And it is wasn’t just about them, it was about us. More and more I lived outside of my body, watching the whole thing unfold. From the eaves I could see my back straighten with every taunt, my lip curl into an even more cocky sneer with every skirmish.
Hey boy, you a faggot?
Why, you looking for one?
I was like a big-time wrestler who was wildly popular as an object of hatred, sort of a Courtney Love but more feminine. Why was all of this focused hatred making me less likely to join the herd? The more they taunted me the more reasons I gave them to taunt.
So on some level I saw myself as a psychology experiment, and thus I tried a little harder on the first big assignment Coach Parsons gave us. It didn’t hurt that it was art related.
“I want you to make a poster that shows why psychology interests you. Try to ask a question with your poster, and we’ll work this year to get you an answer. This is your class after all, ain’t that right, Miss Bellew?” Miss Bellew cringed while the canned ham fiddled in the DMZ.
This project was a layup. At that moment Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell was the midpoint between cool music and the asshattery of Corey Hart and Steve Perry. That night I got out the album, a bottle of ink and a brush and free handed Billy’s snarling mug onto a piece of poster board, then for good measure I stabbed a couple of real safety pins through his inky cheeks.
As if we were in third grade show and tell Coach Parsons made each of us bring our poster to the front of the class and talk about it. After a few Pavlovs and B.F. Skinners it was my turn. I propped my inky Billy up on the easel and stood beside him. I paused for a few beats so that my peers could take in the poster’s lettering: He’s new wave. Do you think he’s queer?
“So what is it? Why is it cool to be different if you’re a celebrity but gay if you aren’t?”
“Dang, you can draw,” someone said.
“That’s a fine picture of a something, Mr. Stafford, but it don’t have anything to do with psychology.”
“Yes it does.”
“No, sir, it does not.”
“It does. You don’t live it every day.”
“Nobody makes you dress like a craphead. I could care less if you wear a hula hoop through your head. You want to be different that’s up to you but don’t expect not to get laughed at.”
Some students giggled, others applauded. Some probably shot laser beams at the fat bastard with their eyes, but standing there in front of the class all I heard were hoots and jeers. In stereo. At 120 decibels. With echo.
“Do you really think that’s okay?”
“Do you really think its okay for a teacher to make fun of a student in front of a class?”
“Sit down, Mr. Stafford.”
“Not until you apologize.”
“I tell you what. I’m sorry I hurt your feelings, and now you can write me a three page essay on a real psychology topic since you’re such an expert. Now sit down.”
That night I worked hard on my punitive essay. I performed no research, but I worked hard to capture the style and tone of academic writing. I even fabricated footnotes and a bibliography. In retrospect I’m sure it was horrible, but in my version of reality that paper was brilliant. I never saw it again after I turned it in the following day, so I’ll never know.
A few days later during English class Coach Parsons knocked on the door. “Mr. Smith, I need to see Jim Stafford right now, please.” Mr. Smith looked at me, almost imperceptibly rolled his eyes, and motioned me out of the room.
The hallway was empty but for the two of us, a hollow cavern of locker doors, concrete, and cinder blocks.
“Jim, I got your paper.”
“And I read it just a few minutes ago.”
“And I just got to tell you, son, I think you’re full of shit.”
We stared at each other for what felt like minutes.
“I don’t believe you read any articles about how sexual deviants go into teaching because they get off dominating teenagers. Oh, you think that’s funny? You want some attention, boy, you found it.”
“Whatever, you just proved me right.”
“You’re the one who is full of shit. Look at you. You pulled me out of class for this little power trip.”
“You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about, smart ass.”
“Maybe not, but I’m not the one pretending that I do.”
“You better watch yourself, boy.”
“You aren’t going to do shit.”
“Just watch yourself.” We were yelling now.
“You aren’t going to kick my ass and you aren’t going to fail me, and if you do I don’t care. I don’t need your class to graduate, and I know you don’t need to get fired from another school.”
Coach Parsons didn’t say anything, just stared at me with the same murderous rage I’d seen on my father’s face dozens of times, and then he walked away.
When I opened the door to my English class every eye was on me. They weren’t looks of admiration, respect, or even curiosity. My peers stared at me as if I were some kind of freak plane crash survivor. Mr. Smith gave me a look that almost imperceptibly said “don’t worry about it” and continued teaching.
I sold two Billy Idol commissions — three if you count selling the original inky poster that started it all — and I had no direct problems with Coach Parsons for the rest of the year. Many years later I found that he had a habit of pulling people aside if he spotted them talking to me. “What are you doing with that craphead?” he’d ask them. “You have a good future ahead of you. He isn’t going to amount to nothing. Don’t waste your time with that craphead.”
I don’t know. Maybe I should have let him play with my tits.