Sometimes, when the students want to avoid work, they’ll ask me questions they know to be my catnip. Tell us a funny story about your cat? What is your new book about? What drives you crazy about Czech people?
I often take the bait and comply, knowing full well what I am doing. Though my loquaciousness sometimes gets on my own nerves, I enjoy breaking ranks and telling a story. Sometimes a funny story eases a tense mood in the room or relaxes stressed and nervous students before a late afternoon exam. There are times when a travel tale is a better plan than obsessive adherence to a lesson plan.
It’s when I tell a story in class that I remember some of my favorite old teachers who were great story tellers. Mr. Feighan used to regale us with hilarious tales of his “idiot son, Keith.” Mr. Scott knew hundreds of fascinating anecdotes, and a catalog of details about the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
In particular, though, there was Jerome J. Bennett. Mr. Bennett was a freshman English teacher at St. Joe’s Prep, known in anecdotes as “GI Jerry” but always referred to as Mr. Bennett whenever there was the slightest chance he was nearby. A former demolitions expert in the U.S. army, Mr. Bennett commanded a great deal of respect. He was a real man’s man, tough, straightforward, and took exactly no nonsense from the boys in his class. If you pissed him off, he let you know immediately, aggressively, and terrifyingly, which he’d been doing since the mid-1960s, when he’d taught my dad freshman English.
If you knew Mr. Bennett, you remember that he smoked at least two packs of cigarettes a day, and spoke in the deep throaty bass that follows thirty years of doing that. My dad told me that he was famous for smoking two cigarettes in the hallway before classes. You also knew that to get on his bad side meant taking your freshman life into your freshman hands. Once the whole school planned on partaking in the age-old school prank of a simultaneous pencil dropping at 12:08 pm. My class’s pencil dropping would commence during Mr. Bennett’s class. He came in and told us that if one pencil hit the ground, the next thing to get hit would be the guy who dropped it. Needless to say, no pencils met the floor in Mr. Bennett’s class that day.
You also knew that you could sidetrack Mr. Bennett by getting him to tell stories, of which he also had his catnip subjects. Anything involving his army experience, anything involving World War II, and anything involving the history of our school could pull him off topic.
Though it often worked, he was not aloof to the fact that this was our occasional strategy. One day one of our more wisecracking classmates outlined a plan to sabotage a scheduled quiz by throwing the lesson off topic. He proposed doing this by asking a question on one of Mr. Bennett’s hot topics: How did the old St. Joe’s Prep burn down?
We got in class and everyone watched Mr. Bennett with one eye and our classmate with the other. Finally, he piped up and asked: “Sir, how did the old St. Joe’s burn down?”
Without skipping a beat he answered “it caught fire,” and followed it up immediately with, “Everything off your desks, gentlemen, it’s quiz time.”
Anyone who had Mr. Bennett remembers one tale he told called Two by Two by You. This referred to a custom in his demolitions training in which a man who had made a mistake had to dig a hole that two feet deep, two feet wide, and the man’s height. This, of course, was the man’s hypothetical grave after setting off a hypothetical bomb in his hypothetical face. I can still hear him telling that story, the stale reek of Winston cigarettes and chalk filling the room.
Aside from telling stories because he obviously enjoyed it, many of his tales served to relieve tension in the room, to help a bunch of terrified freshmen smile and relax a bit. We would be stressing an afternoon Latin exam when Mr. Bennett would make us all laugh by telling us about one of his various run ins with Sister Mary Mongoose or gawk over some tidbit about army life. The more I’ve thought about him over the years, the more I’ve come to realize that, despite his rough exterior and macho gruffness, he was actually quite a caring guy. I suppose teachers teach by more than simply relating information.
So when I break into a story to make a bunch of nervous first year students smile, I like to think I’m not just being the Attention Prostitute I can be, but rather passing on one of those lessons too. And then I wonder if Mr. Bennett ever had to lie in that grave.