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The Taint Those Questions Leave Behind: 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 occurred 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 is still one of my favorite teachers without the taint those questions leave behind.

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