All of our father’s smoked back then, mine too—L & Ms. I know because more than occasionally, I’d grab one or two myself because we were smoking too, on the sly. I mention that, however, because in fifth grade Mr. Van Dyk smoked—in the classroom. That happened in a Christian school, I swear it—he chain smoked until the board put a stop to it.
It was 1959, and Mr. Van Dyk was an immigrant from the Netherlands, where smoking in the classroom was simply what people did. To us his thick Dutch accent along made him exotic, not like us at all. He was very excitable and laughed, sometimes uproariously, in ways no teacher we knew ever had before, in a way we found almost cool. What I remember is that he wasn’t condescending and he certainly didn’t expect bowties. He was my, which is to say our first male teacher—that, in itself, was fascinating, more so, I think for us boys than for girls, in part because some of us became convinced—I certainly did--that he loved our girls. At times they’d sit on his lap, right there in the classroom. I had no way of knowing whether all male teachers did that, and all of us, I think—well, most of us had at one time or a other been the subject of one of our women teachers’ loving touches.
He had his favorites too—girls, I mean, and we knew it—or at least I did. I resented what I read, even then, as seeming advances I thought, somehow, in my child’s mind, inappropriate. I have no idea, today, if what he did with those girls was wrong in anyway, but it was with some of us boys. And it was enough to make us almost angry.
His emotions—all of them--came in spades. I remember him standing up front with a blackboard pointer, disciplining a kid most of us didn’t really like all that much, a kid who stood there with his hand out for Van Dyk to whap, which he quite gleefully did, with memorable relish, the kid crumbling like as if right there before us we were observing a martyr going down before the horrors of the Inquisition. This really happened—I swear it: Van Dyk whapped the kid’s hand, then looked at us as if we were a hungry crowd in a Roman coliseum. “More?” he’d say, and we’d yell for him to do it again. Very strange, but I remember joining in the fun. Besides, we really believed the kid wasn’t suffering half as bad as his agony portrayed. By today’s standards, it was abuse. But I also remember, not proudly, it was also great theater.
We lined up outside beneath the long corridor of windows on the south side of the building for an all-school picture that year, the boys sitting on folding chairs on the gravel, the girls standing behind us, an arrangement we felt somehow morally wrong. While the little kids were getting in place, we boys, me among ‘em, peppered the legs and feet of the girls behind us with stones, making them dance—pure flirtation, no injury intended. Picture this now—I’m looking down between my legs, under the folding chair, tossing stones, when I came up for air and just like that took a shot from Mr. Van Dyk across the chops that almost knocked me off that folding chair. He came up and nailed me and just walked away; but somehow I remember feeling equal mixtures of embarrassment and honor by his fulsome slap across the face. After all, I was now in the company of men.
Van Dyk had some immigration problems, I think, so we had, that year, a long-term sub, my mom. That was strange. I remember getting papers back from her with notes that started like this: “Jimmy, I think you should work on your penmanship.” She never called me Jimmy at home. I was dealing with someone who wanted to be different in school, and that confused me.
It was 1959, and the most powerful story of the Christian life was the death of five missionaries at the bloody hands of Auca Indians, somewhere in the rain forests of Ecuador. My mother read the book to us, Through Gates of Splendor, or parts of it, and I sent a letter to the writer, Elizabeth Eliot, who wrote back to me. I’m almost sure it was an assignment. I’ll never forget receiving a note with an exotic stamp from Ecuador, never forget hearing from the woman who wrote that book, who was, no longer, simply a fiction.
As all of them were really, it was a year of tremendous growth, of wondering and imagination, a strange new world in which teachers had begun to teach us, not as if we were children, but something else altogether, something not yet adult, but something somehow closer to being just plain human.