perm_identity A special high school English teacher

by Derek Alger

Published in Issue No. 134 ~ July, 2008

I’m probably about thirty years older now than Mr. Duffy was when he was my seventh grade English teacher and I still can’t call him Malcolm. It just doesn’t sound right. In my memory, he’s Mr. Duffy, strict grammarian and committed devotee of Eugene O’Neill, who taught at the Boys School right after graduating from Dartmouth, and then after it merged with the Girls School, until his recent retirement.

I received an unexpected e-mail from Mr. Duffy the other day about getting together at a local Italian restaurant because he wanted to tell me about big changes at the school’s alumni magazine, with which he has always been very much involved. He signed the e-mail MAD. The “A” standing for his middle name, which I believe was Allan, but could have been Aloysius, or Albert, or maybe Andrew, but I’m pretty sure it was Allan, thus giving me the option of writing back “Dear MAD,” which I did, thereby avoiding the issue of whether to address him as Malcolm or Mr. Duffy.

A few years ago was the first time I had contact with Mr. Duffy in over 20 years, and it was all due to a political campaign I ran for the Council of the Borough of Fort Lee, the home on the New Jersey side of the George Washington Bridge which runs across the Hudson River to Manhattan, or the Bronx, or upstate New York, depending on which lane you choose. I didn’t know at the time, but one of the two Council candidates, who was about ten years older than me, was a graduate of the Boys School and very much involved in alumni affairs and events.

That was the initial hook, Armand Pohan, the candidate, mentioned me to Mr. Duffy, who, in turn, contacted me about an article for the alumni magazine about Armand successfully being elected to the Borough Council. And then, as it turned out, another of the six Council members, whose campaign I had run in the past, was also a graduate of the Boys School; in fact, was only a year ahead of me, but he didn’t stand out because I had no recollection of him being at the same school as I was.

The woman who ran the alumni magazine became concerned, and confused, because there didn’t seem to be a record of any year in which I graduated. The answer is quite simple, I never graduated from the Boys School. I attended the Boys School for four and a half years, but I had grown my first beard as I was entering my senior year, and the school authorities sent me home the first day, telling me not to come back until I shaved it off.

I was defiant and rebellious, obviously not thinking of consequences, which led to a huge fight with my father, and the next thing I knew I was living with my aunt, my mother’s sister, attending a public high school in Toronto.

I never dreamed I would end up at the hated Englewood School for Boys, the harbinger in my mind of elitism, old school WASPS, and those listed in the social register, but the public school system in town was a mess, deteriorating more and more each year as different experiments were applied to create a harmonious integrated utopia of education. Suffice it to say, students of all backgrounds, races and ethnicity, basically imitated their parents and pandemonium and heightened tension prevailed, not the most optimal environment for learning.

Mr. Duffy and my mother both knew I could write, actually thought I would become a writer long before I had any inkling of it. I have no idea what they saw, or how they knew, but here I am writing this, so they must have known something. I can say this, however, it was only years later that I came to really appreciate what Mr. Duffy had done for me as a teacher.

My first clue that the Board of Education was a bureaucratic nightmare was when my family moved to Englewood, N.J. from Queens, N.Y. My parents bought a house which was five blocks away from Roosevelt elementary school, which was considered a big plus because my sister and I could walk there. The dividing line between Roosevelt School kids and Quarles School kids was the street where our new house was, kids living on our side of the street at the time went to Quarles, while the kids on the south side of the street went to Roosevelt. Apparently, the line was to be moved two blocks north in September, but since we moved in March, the realtors, or whomever, neglected to tell my parents about this small detail.

As a result, my sister and I were forced to take a bus to Quarles School until the summer, only to become the new kids again that fall when we attended Roosevelt. My parents didn’t have the time and resources, and I also had a younger brother and another sister to be cared for, to put up much of a fight, much less prevail against the faceless forces of the Board of Education. Rules are rules, and lines are lines, and what’s the big deal, school is school, and they — my sister and I — could take the bus to Quarles for three months or so and we’d be just fine.

So, that’s what happened. Come fall, my sister and I walked to our new school, Roosevelt, where we began the process of making friends with new classmates all over again. It was at Roosevelt where I began my pattern of performing poorly on standardized tests, the so-call Scholastic Aptitude Tests, or maybe I should say less well than expected.

The standardized tests were given each year, and based on their results, students were divided into four groups, with one being the highest and four, of course, the lowest. Without fail, I always ended up in the second group, but within weeks, I was invariably promoted to the first group, where I usually felt insecure and intimidated, though I never wanted anyone to know.

Fourth grade was a major year in which I first learned that indoctrination at school did not necessarily coincide with reality. There were five public elementary schools in Englewood and it was decided to close one of them, the school where the overwhelmingly number of students were black, and bus the students there to each of the other four schools, respectively.

What I didn’t understand at the time was why the kids who were bused from Lincoln School didn’t have to show up at school until three days after we did. Our teachers made a point of stressing that the students from Lincoln were no different than us, and that we should greet them warmly, with open arms, and so on and so forth. There were already a few black kids at Roosevelt, and I knew many of the Lincoln School guys from Little League, so I never understood what the big deal was. The only lesson I took from the experience was that I was angry the students from Lincoln got an extra three days of summer vacation and I didn’t.

The Lincoln bus plan didn’t work — in fact, a number of white kids in my class disappeared never to be seen again — so the next great idea was to create a central sixth grade school in the old high school building in the middle of town. And that’s what they did. When I was in sixth grade, I attended a school completely comprised of sixth graders, divided into three teams, with each team occupying a different one of the three floors of the school. How they decided on which team or floor an individual should be assigned, I have no idea, all I knew was that I was to report to Miss Steinberg in a classroom on the second floor.

Once we all completed sixth grade, which was the only graduation ceremony I ever attended, it was off to the junior high school. By then, I was a nervous wreck when it came to almost every class and subject, and the mayhem and overcrowding at the junior high school didn’t help. For the first time, I cut school, and as luck, or my ineptitude at breaking rules, would have it, I got snagged. My parents were concerned. I was performing badly in school, but perhaps worse, I was literally overwhelmed with panic each day waiting for the bus.

My parents tricked me into taking the entrance exam for the Boys School. I went up to the school, which was high on top of the hill overlooking the rest of Englewood, for an interview with a red-faced, completely bald man who resembled a fiery gnome, and then I was taken to an empty classroom to take a test. My mother encouraged me to take the test, and not to worry, that taking the entrance exam by no means meant that I was automatically going to attend the Boys School if I passed.

I’ve never known of my mother consciously lying to me, so it was probably still open for debate and consideration, or maybe my mother thought I would fail the entrance exam, but that’s highly doubtful because she always had much more confidence in me than I ever did. Anyway, I passed the exam, and the next thing I knew, I was hit with major anxiety because I didn’t know how to put on a tie and I was an official member of the seventh grade, or the first form, of the Englewood School for Boys.

That’s where I first met Mr. Duffy, an oval faced man with glasses and the demeanor of a scholar, one who loved theater, particularly Shakespeare in the Park, meaning Central Park in New York City, and philharmonic concerts at Lincoln Center. Most of us were scared of Mr. Duffy, but looking back, I think it was more a fear of disappointing him than actual terror, though he did have some unorthodox ways of getting your attention, antics which would probably get him in trouble today since originality and spontaneity are frowned upon.

One of Mr. Duffy’s favorite antics, definitely to get everyone’s attention, would be to interrupt a student who was reciting abysmally incorrect grammar by cracking a yardstick and breaking it over the corner of his desk. Suddenly, the monotone drone of the student was interrupted by a loud Whack and there was Mr. Duffy standing and pointing toward the offender with half a yardstick, the other half lying broken off on the floor.

Now, Mr. Duffy was by no means a tyrant. No, we knew he wanted what was best for us, to learn about nouns and verbs and such, and dangling participles, and proper clauses, but he did seem like a drill sergeant of the English classroom, though we were never forced to do calisthenics as punishment, instead maybe being compelled to learn additional vocabulary words for any transgressions.

I was annoyed at the time, and I have no idea what prompted him, but Mr. Duffy took special time to tutor me at the end of the school day. Those extra hours really paid off, but of course I didn’t see it that way then. My mother certainly did, and she was forever grateful to Mr. Duffy. So, with Mr. Duffy’s help, I successfully passed all my final exams, something not heard of at the junior high school, meaning exams, and moved on to eighth grade, not having much to do with Mr. Duffy until eleventh grade, when he was my English teacher once again.

The two things I remember most about eleventh grade English is that I was introduced to the plays of Eugene O’Neill and we were also forced to write a composition on different themes every single week. As a project for the year, we were given a choice among three writers — Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, or Eugene O’Neill — to read a biography, as well as the selected writer’s major works, and then write a term paper on that writer at the end of the spring term.

My grandfather, a prominent educator in Canada, once said, “Study the teacher as well as the subject,” which most of my eleventh grade English class must have intuitively done. Everyone knew Mr. Duffy was the drama director who selected and staged the school’s plays, usually two a year, and he also loved Eugene O’Neill, so for our project, fourteen of us selected O’Neill and one very stuck up and unpopular kid chose Mark Twain, which by no means should reflect on Twain.

Another memory which stands out quite vividly is of us all sitting in a semi circle in chairs with a small mini desk on the right arm — lefties were in trouble — waiting for Mr. Duffy. I was sitting next to the window, with a kid named Hiller next to me, and Hiller was telling a story and ended up loudly saying “Fuck,” just as Mr. Duffy entered the room. The entire class froze, complete silence as we all waited and wondered what Mr. Duffy’s reaction would be, most thinking Hiller was doomed.

Mr. Duffy stood straight faced in front of his desk, allowing the tension to build, letting us all dwell in the eternity of the moment, waiting for what we thought would be a tremendous eruption or explosion. Then finally, after a few minutes, Mr. Duffy spoke.

“Mr. Hiller, I am not impressed,” he said. Here it comes, we thought. Instead, Mr. Duffy continued, “The word `fuck’ has been so overused that it has ceased to have any shock value. Let me give you a sentence. ‘Fucking fuckers fuck’.” Mr. Duffy paused. “There you have the word `fuck’ used as a noun, a verb, and an adjective, and I defy you, Mr. Hiller, to tell me what that sentence means.”

No answer was forthcoming. Hiller wisely didn’t say anything and class continued as usual.

My first indication of how valuable Mr. Duffy had been as an English teacher was my freshman year of college. You could tell I was a freshman because I took a course at 8:30 a.m. on Tuesday and Thursday, a course on Shakespeare’s history plays. The first play we read was Richard II, and I remember the second Tuesday of the course, the teacher asked us to write a four page paper on Bolingbroke’s motives for overthrowing and deposing Richard before the next class, which was Thursday. I found the paper easy to write, and though most would never know this, nor would I ever admit it, but I actually enjoyed writing it.

Late the night before the next class, I was amazed and astounded to discover many of the members of the class freaking out, their papers still not done, most of them having tremendous difficulty writing such a paper. I didn’t understand, everyone in the class was highly intelligent, a number self-proclaimed pseudo-intellectuals, and yet, despite most of them far more aware of culture than I was, at least in terms of art and music, and all of them world travelers, while I had never crossed the Mississippi River at the time, much less an ocean, they couldn’t write.

That’s when it hit me. Mr. Duffy, of course. High school English, weekly compositions, writing those God damn compositions had prepared me for college far more than I ever expected. So, as I grew older, just as I began to see and appreciate more and more the influence my mother had been, I also saw that I owed a major debt of gratitude to Mr. Duffy, which I hope to let him know when we finally meet at the local Italian restaurant.