Tuesday, July 5, 2016

College, Culture and Mr. Cherry

During my Goldilocks year 1969, courting Amanda Leenon or playing touch (football) with Gina Colavito wasn't all I did.

I was a work-study student back when that socialistic program was in its infancy: Capable students of a certain income group worked for the college and, in return, the government paid their way. 

(I would like to thank all the generous taxpayers who contributed to my first two years, and apologize for simply enjoying them and not learning all that much.)

I had interesting tasks such as digging post holes, trying to fix a crippled ping-pong table with my friend Bill Brown who eventually lost his temper and destroyed it with a hammer, waxing the college's bus until it was in such awful shape they had to pay a professional to fix it, vacuuming classrooms, and using a shovel handle to murder huge rats trapped in gunk at the bottom of the cafeteria's slop barrel.

But I also attended classes. I will go along with tradition and call my community-college teachers "instructors," as opposed to "professors." For the most  part, the latter are not paid to teach, but to bring glory to their admissions department and board of trustees by writing books that only their colleagues will skim -- and skim only long enough to find an argument they can refute in their own work, and thus add to their institution's prestige.

If professors can tolerate doing this long enough, their college will give them tenure, which puts them in a similar position to popes and Supreme Court justices, meaning their jobs are secure for life unless they were to, say, perform an unnatural act on a duck on the library green. 

But my instructors were paid, not much, to teach and teach a lot, and for the most part they were very good at it, much better than most of my professors at the university level.

In addition to the traditional underclass curriculum, we had to take some sort of orientation class on "life skills,"in which we viewed 16mm films of auto accidents, first-aid treatment explicit enough to gag Dracula, and one called "If You Have to Deliver a Baby," or something to that effect. You could always count on at least one guy and a couple of girls passing out during the child's emergence from the Chute of Life.

It was rumored that at least one of those girls entered a convent just days after seeing the film.

My English Composition instructor, Miss Adams, was somewhat old, somewhat heavy, mostly kind and completely dedicated. Due to a neck injury from a car accident, it pained her to look straight ahead, so she taught us by sitting sideways and resting her jaw in her right hand.

She was also Christian enough to allow some dogma to creep into her lectures -- not all that much: just an "Our Lord" here and there, and a passing reference to what "we've learned from scripture."

This was a big help to me. Raised in the Bible Belt, I exploited my kinship with her, and turned my knowledge of the Good Book into a semester's worth of sermonesque essays, which Miss Adams always rewarded with a glowing red letter "A" that would've put Hester Prynne's to shame.

I think her class was for smart people. It must have been, because the brilliant and beautiful JoAnn Mixon was in it and because it was called ENG 102, not 101 or 100. Sensitive millennials may be shocked to know that ENG 100 was openly and unapologetically called "Bonehead English," and those poor kids got stuck with tedious handbooks whose pedagogical name escapes me, and embarrassingly basic instruction in "Reading: Gateway to Learning" and "Making Friends with Verbs."

Most of the excitement in that class came not from the radiant Miss Mixon, the warmth of her beauty and the scintillating fragrance of her body lotion (I guess) wafting over me like a testosterone-laced blanket, but from a guy named Jimmy who fired off so many senseless and annoying questions that even the stiff-necked anchoress Miss Adams eventually snapped at him like a rabid Doberman.

(People ridiculed Jimmy subtly in class and more openly out of it, but we were all impressed that he could do like a 1,000 sit-ups without stopping, and he would do it on demand -- and all you had to do was ask him.)

My Western Civ instructor, Mr. Hood, looked like a more athletic, short-haired Woody Allen, and he was fond of playing tennis on weekends and rubbing his forearm during lectures. He was all lecture, all the time, and we had to take notes, lots of them. Why? Because he took the damn things up and graded us and yelled at us in the margins if we misquoted him or if we left out key pieces of information. 

He would openly scold students who were late or sleepy or who weren't taking notes. He took zero crap from any of us. He believed his subject matter was important and he delivered it to us as directly and thoroughly as possible.

I admired and feared him, and was impressed with the stylish way he smoked his Winston cigarettes between classes. He joked around with those who were smart or brave enough to chat with him, rubbing his right forearm as he did so.

Mr. Cherry

My favorite of the bunch was the mellow Mr. Cherry, who paced in front of the room and jangled the change in his pocket while he taught us anthropology. He mostly lectured and, if we listened, we learned exactly what anthropology is and about the language and techniques used to study that subject. In short, exactly what a young person in an introductory class needs to know

Occasionally, he would surprise us by, out of nowhere, asking one of us a question in his soft southern drawl (not at all like the harsh, nasal, redneck bark of folks like me): "What is culcha, Mr. Brenna?" He would smile at his target, then look away long enough to give the rest of us a subtle conspiratorial grin that said "Caught him, didn't I?"

Mr. Cherry got me thinking about all kinds of things I'd never considered before. Just listening to him was both fun and enlightening, dulce et utile, as they say on the streets. Bottom line: He was adorable. Can't think of many other teachers I'd describe that way.
A scene from Birth of a Nation. Oddly, a remake is in the works.
I'm not the final judge of these things, but I think I'm a better human being today just from Mr. Cherry showing us excerpts from D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation, and then talking to us about it in his thoughtful, clear-headed, enlightened way. It was pretty hard to romanticize racism after seeing something like that, and it was easier to feel empathy for the oppressed and downtrodden.

I even looked forward to his exams. His questions were clear and direct, no stumpers, no tricks, no convoluted word order, no surprises. The exam said, essentially, "Here's the material we've gone over in class. Were you listening?"

Before my very low draft lottery number encouraged me to help my country slow the march of Communism in Southeast Asia, Mr. Cherry's class was about the only one in which I allowed some knowledge to seep into my undeveloped teenaged brain. 

Ultimately, pre-draft anxiety contributed to my eventually flunking out of this little college, but I'd be back some day, and I would be eager to ditch my long-held ignorance, earn a degree in journalism at the university of florida (sorry, I can't capitalize that), and become a sports writer, preferably for the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville. 

I wonder how that turned out?

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