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The Taint Those Questions Leave: Remembering Sixth Grade

I loved my sixth grade teacher. Since he’s dead now and can’t speak for him­self, and since what I am about to write deals with events from more than forty years ago, I don’t want to use his real name, so I’m going to call him Mr. Aber­nathy. One of the rea­sons I liked Mr. Aber­nathy so much was that he encour­aged my inter­est in sci­ence. I was fas­ci­nat­ed by biol­o­gy, espe­cial­ly micro­scop­ic organ­isms. We didn’t have a micro­scope in the ele­men­tary school I attend­ed, but Mr. Aber­nathy taught us about para­me­ci­um and eugle­na using pic­tures. Once, I remem­ber, he pulled me aside as the class was get­ting ready to line up for dis­missal to show me an arti­cle he was read­ing in a sci­ence mag­a­zine. I have no rec­ol­lec­tion of what he said except for the com­ment, “Look at its lit­tle penis” as he point­ed to a dia­gram of one of the obvi­ous­ly-not-sin­gle-celled organ­isms the arti­cle was about.

I don’t remem­ber at all what I said or how I react­ed in response, though I can still see his fin­ger point­ing to the pic­ture and I can hear the mat­ter-of-fact tone of his voice, and I know I was stand­ing next to him at his desk and I have a vague sense of under­stand­ing that he was show­ing me some­thing he did not want the rest of the class to know he was show­ing me. I did not feel threat­ened or fright­ened or in any way uneasy. Indeed, for decades after­wards, when­ev­er I remem­bered this inci­dent, I thought of it as an indi­ca­tion of how mature Mr. Aber­nathy thought I was–and I was mature for my age. My moth­er tells the sto­ry of how I decid­ed to leave the repro­duc­tive sys­tem out of a fifth grade oral pre­sen­ta­tion I did on the human body because I didn’t think my class­mates would be able to “han­dle it.” Recent­ly, how­ev­er, it occured to me to won­der why Mr. Abernathy’s shar­ing with me that image of a micro­scop­ic penis is the only moment of extra atten­tion I can remem­ber.

I was lis­ten­ing to the radio, prob­a­bly NPR News, and some­thing some­one said–I have no rec­ol­lec­tion of what–brought back to me a moment from Mr. Abernathy’s class in which he was telling us a lit­tle bit about his fam­i­ly. As all stu­dents do when teach­ers talk about them­selves, I think, espe­cial­ly teach­ers that they like, I was lis­ten­ing very close­ly, enjoy­ing the chance he was giv­ing me to know a bit about who he was out­side of the class­room. He start­ed talk­ing about his daugh­ter, and I believe he said she was around our age, maybe old­er or younger by a year. I wish I could remem­ber more of what he said or the order in which he said it, but I do remem­ber very clear­ly that he was telling us that he would walk into the bath­room when she was tak­ing a show­er, or even when she was using the toi­let in order to do what­ev­er busi­ness he had to do there. He acknowl­edged that she was embar­rassed by this, but—at least this what I remem­ber him saying—he said he was try­ing to teach her that, with­in fam­i­lies, there did not need to be the kinds of bound­aries that exist­ed between strangers, that our bod­ies were noth­ing to be ashamed of, and that she cer­tain­ly had no rea­son to hide her body from him, her father.

The inap­pro­pri­ate­ness of this kind of rev­e­la­tion by a teacher in a sixth grade class, I hope, is obvi­ous, as are the ques­tions the rev­e­la­tion rais­es about what was going on in his house­hold, but since I have no facts on which to base any fur­ther dis­cus­sion of either of those issues, I am going to leave them there, as obvi­ous impli­ca­tions. I can, how­ev­er, dis­cuss the fact that these are the only two con­crete, con­scious mem­o­ries I have of the time I spent in Mr. Abernathy’s class. More­over, there is no way to escape the fur­ther fact that plac­ing the first mem­o­ry in the con­text of the sec­ond rais­es dis­turb­ing ques­tions about Mr. Aber­nathy him­self. I would, of course, pre­fer not to think about those ques­tions, not least because there is, now, no way to answer them; but I also can­not unask them, and I just think it’s sad. I will nev­er again be able to remem­ber sixth grade or the man who had been one of my favorite teach­ers with­out the taint those ques­tions leave.

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