MY HIGH SCHOOL YEARS – 3

Posted: February 5, 2012 in Belen High School

 

Sir Thomas More:  Why not be a teacher? You’d be a fine teacher; perhaps a great one.
Richard Rich:          If I was, who would know it?
Sir Thomas More: You; your pupils; your friends; God. Not a bad public, that.

Robert Bolt, “A Man For All Seasons

There are few careers that are as noble, and as underpaid, as that of a teacher. It says a lot in the character of a person who chooses the underappreciated role of an educator to teenagers who are filled with energy, impatience and youthful arrogance.  I’m sure that, at first, an individual chooses the academic path out of a sincere desire to make a dent in society and point a direction for young lives to follow. But I’m also sure that after a few years, maybe after just one semester, that same teacher begins to wonder if it’s truly worth going through the frustration, the paperwork, the ridicule and the ultimate disappointment when they feel that they’re lecturing to a collective wall. So those that stick to this mostly thankless profession must certainly be pleased when they hear from an ex-student years later, when the student’s aspirations have been replaced by responsibility, to hear that their particular class, their words, were listened to and taken to heart throughout the student’s adult lives, and have indeed helped form them into becoming the people they are today.

My high school teachers were all dedicated individuals, and it’s fun to remember the stunts that we pulled on them. In fact, it makes for better reading to write about the times we weren’t learning than to recall the endless lectures about topics we felt we were never going to revisit ever again. But almost every individual has one educator, maybe more than one if they’re lucky, that they can say influenced them to follow a successful path in their life..

MR. COLLINS

Mr. Patrick Collins started teaching U.S. History at Belen pretty much at the same time I entered high school. Today, he is one of only two professors who remain in the school. I remember him as this young, hip guy in his twenties with crystal clear blue eyes, a walrus mustache and a full head of reddish brown, trimmed hair. He presented himself neatly in a long sleeved shirt, color coordinated tie, slacks and loafers. He was very approachable; you weren’t afraid to go up to say hi to him whenever you saw him calmly walking down the hallway, books tucked under his arm. He always responded to you in a friendly manner, was one of the few teachers who called you by your first name, and still has an uncanny memory for remembering every student he ever taught.  His diction was always deliberate and perfectly clear. There was a quick smile about him, a friendly attitude that made you feel comfortable in his presence.

At the same time, no one ever dared cross him. He never asked for your respect, he just inspired it.  When he walked into a classroom, there was nothing about him that you could make fun of. He had no quirks, no hot temper and he knew his United States history as if he had sat in on drafting the Declaration of Independence with Thomas Jefferson himself.  As soon as he passed through the door, the classroom fell silent. The few times he ever had to reprimand the class felt like an actual disappointment to us. We wanted to be his friend, particularly because he made history so interesting. His descriptions, his explanations of America’s turning points and the impact it caused on the country’s future were so full of anecdotal information that you actually looked forward to learning more. One of the requirements of his class was to subscribe to TIME magazine, and to this day I still receive my subscription. He made you want to know about current events and most importantly, he made you appreciate and love the country you lived in.

Recently, Mr. Collins joined the Golden Knights in Fort Bragg, North Carolina to parachute out of a plane. In an interview before the jump, he explained that he was doing it to honor not just America’s fighting men but also his namesake as well as his son and his nephew, all former and current members of our military, to show them that he too has what it takes. Dressed in his jumping outfit, parachute securely on his back, he spoke calmly and with a smile on his face, as if he was simply going to take a stroll down a park. His hair is gray now and he no longer wears that walrus mustache, but his blue eyes still sparkled with the same kindness, exuberance, and appreciation towards life that he’s always had.

As the plane climbed, he proudly spoke to the camera about the school he had been teaching in for four decades now, seemingly not giving the fact that he was about to jump 30,000 feet much thought. I considered this a very brave thing to do until I realized that, after teaching high school students for as long as he has, jumping out of a plane would probably be a cinch in comparison.

There are no funny stories to tell about Mr. Patrick Collins. But there is a lot of respect and gratitude in the way he instilled the appreciation of living and growing up in our great country. Thanks to him, I know my American history very well, am still fascinated by it, and am concerned and optimistic about its future. Yes, I’m one of those graying ex-students who remember  a great teacher and gratefully acknowledges his contribution to my learning.

***

Other teachers come to mind. Our P.E. teacher, Mr. Barquin, is the only other teacher who’s still in Belen. He was a short, muscular fellow who was our eighth grade homeroom teacher and tolerated no nonsense. We tried to get him to react to our hi-jinks, but to no avail. One morning, word spread around among us that we should give him “the silent treatment”,  apparently as a protest to some sort of discipline he had laid on us for something we did. We thought that would teach him. Much to our dismay, we realized too late that he reveled in our complete silence during the entire thirty-minute period, probably thinking that the prior punishment had worked.  Maybe it had.

Once, when he was overseeing our SAT exams, he attempted to read out the instructions while we all dithered around in our desks .  Our antics caused him to reprimand us more than once. Evidently, our behavior confused him to the point of getting the instructions mixed up.

“Do not pick up your pencil to begin the test until I tell you to do so.” He read out loud in a clear, commanding voice.

“Do not begin the test until I tell you to do so,” he continued. Mumbled conversation could be heard under him as he spoke.

“Morales!” he yelled. “Keep quiet unless you don’t want to take this exam and visit Father Izquierdo!” Morales quieted down. Barquin resumed.

“Do not look at anyone’s paper until I tell you to do so,” he declared. Our sudden burst of laughter made him realize what he had said.

***

The origin of some of the nicknames we gave our teachers fit them perfectly. Our Spanish teacher, Maria Suarez, a nice, short old lady with a helmet-like hairdo who held a very informal class where we were free to stand up, mill about and do whatever we liked as long as it was in Spanish, was christened “La Viejita Cavali”, a nickname derived from a character in a story she made us read to the point of nausea.

Then there was El Bicho.

El Bicho is a nickname that is now legend in our school. He taught Latin American and World History in Belen during the thirty-five years he was there, and year after year, that nickname has been proudly handed down to the incoming group of freshmen that were to have him as a teacher. El Bicho started in Belen during our freshman year and we were his first homeroom class (the first period of the day was thirty minutes long and was called “homeroom”,  when the designated “homeroom” teacher would oversee the class, have them study for any upcoming exams that day or discuss any scholastic events that needed to be addressed).

El Bicho walked briskly into our lives and into class on the first day of our freshman year, also the first day of his teaching career. He hasn’t changed much since then; a short, serious looking man with a shock of black hair parted to the side and sporting a well-trimmed black mustache.  He always wore a suit. Not just a tie and shirt, but an entire, well-tailored suit. He rarely wore the same one in the same week.

One of our classmates, Negrin, was the fellow who gave him that name. The word “Bicho” in Spanish has two meanings. The real meaning is that of the generic bug. But it’s also used to describe the male organ. I sincerely think to this day that Negrin meant the former definition of the word, because as soon as he had walked into our class, Negrin loudly wondered what kind of creature had just crawled in:

“Quien es ese bicho que ha entrado por ahi?” he loudly inquired. Evidently, we were the only ones who heard it because there was no reaction to the comment from the newly baptized Bicho.

El Bicho would tolerate only so much nonsense. He didn’t mind talking to us “entre hombres” about topics that didn’t have to do with Latin American History, but it was his mannerisms that made us laugh. He had a habit of talking with his right arm bent at the elbow and gesticulating with his hand formed like a fist, his thumb tucked inside his closed fingers. Apparently, it saved him the time of having to close his hand to cover his mouth whenever he cleared his throat, which was every other sentence.

His accent back then was pretty thick, and he insisted on conducting his class in English, which was fine with us because, even though we could not always understand him, we enjoyed his bizarre pronunciations.

“Eeehhh, Parets…” he would call on a student in his low, distinctive accented voice. “Ken joo pleess tell da class about Kin Nebuhkanassuhrm?”

“About what?” Parets inquired quizzically.

“Eeeehh, Kin Nebuhkanassuhrm.”

In order to decipher El Bicho’s accent, you always had to drop the ‘m’ from the last word of each sentence he uttered, as he would always insist on starting his statements with ‘Eeeehh” and ending it by adding an ‘m’ to the last word of each phrase. From there, we would look down at our books to frantically search for what the hell he was talking about. Ah, there it was… King Nebuchadnezzar!

“Eeehh, bery gud Mr. Paretsm.”

We couldn’t laugh at El Bicho’s accent because he would not stand for it. We could only laugh whenever he attempted to joke with us, and then we would laugh not at the joke but at his attempt at one. It was a good release, because when he did get mad at us for disturbing his class, he would stretch his neck out like a turtle coming out of his shell, turn beet red, gesticulate his fist briskly and speak to us in rapid-fire Spanish about how any further interruptions would be received by either extra homework, a pop quiz or both.

We all liked El Bicho though. Despite his easily imitated mannerisms, he was a good guy and cared about his homeroom class. To this day, he joins us in our annual reunions, confessing to us that we are his favorite group of alumni because we were his first homeroom class. After the above description of him however, this may change.

***

No recollection of our high school teachers can be complete without an honorable mention to our Science teacher, Mr. Labra. If El Bicho was easy to imitate, an impersonation of Mr. Labra was the Jimmy Durante of impersonations. That is, anyone could imitate him.

First, was his walk. He didn’t just walk, he glided, by stretching his right foot outward towards the right, then his left foot towards the left, like a skater maintaining his balance. When he spoke, his hands were always clasped together in front of him. He had a large torso, broad shoulders and a belly, but then his body  tapered down to small hips, a complete lack of a posterior, and a pair of very thin bow legs that seemed too fragile to hold the rest of his body. Sitting comfortably on top of his torso was his head, because he had no neck. It was a rectangular, full head with a receding hairline, one eyebrow that crossed both dark brown eyes, a ski-slope shaped nose and a small lipped mouth that seemed to always be stifling a chuckle. Add to that a reedy, high pitched, accented voice and you get an accurate picture of the very unique Mr. Labra.

Mr. Labra’s Science class was one of our favorite classes, not because we got to dissect a frog once, not because he was engaging in his explanation of the world of science, but because he rarely spoke about science to us at all, preferring instead to regale us with his years as a young man living in Cuba.

Mr. Labra would glide into our classroom, slam his books down on the desk, pick up a piece of chalk and write page and chapter numbers on the blackboard. Then, he would shake the chalk dust off his hands, clasp them, skate away from the blackboard and give us an option.

“Today we haf to deescoss dee evoluchon of dee ampheebean!” he would declare while gliding from one side of the classroom to the other and gesticulating with his index finger pointed outwards and twirling from one direction to another on the beat of each syllable, like a conductor leading an orchestra.

We knew then that it was our cue to groan about this, as it was a daily ritual. Labra would stop in his tracks in reaction to our groans and slam his palm on the desk loudly.

“Stop dat thin!” he would command us to keep quiet, then he looked at us sideways through one eye, smile and say in a hushed tone:

“Onless ju prefer I spick to ju about my days een Cuba…” he said like a confidant letting us in on a delightful secret.

“Yes… oh, yes… we’d love that!” a murmur of approval rose from us, not because we wanted to know about his days in Cuba, but because we had no interest in the evolution of the “ampheebean”. Labra resumed his glide from one side of the classroom to the other.

“Ho-kay den” he said, waving his index finger. “I weel tell ju about dee time I caught somebadi  while hee was steel in meed-air!”

A murmur of approval and wonder mixed with stifled laughter swept through the class, in anticipation of his latest tall tale.

“Oh, and by dee way… “ he said pointing at the chapter numbers he wrote on the blackboard. “Ju haf a test on dees chapters nex Frye-they.”

The groans rose from our ranks. Slam! Down went the palm of his hand against the desk.

“I said stop… dat…. thin! Then Labra’s rubbery face looked at us in surprise.

“Onless ju want to deescuss dees chapters now, I weel be glad to do it…”

We all answered in unison, a cacophony of ‘no’s that urged him to tell us his stories, much to his delight.

So he would proceed to relate to us about some kind of superhuman feat he was able to achieve back in Cuba, because evidently the United States to him was sort of like what Planet Kyrpton was to Superman since back in Cuba he was evidently able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.

“and den I took two steps and I caught heem!” he would end his story about catching the guy in mid-air, then he’d clasp his hands in front of him and laugh mightily at his herculean feat, his shoulders shaking up and down and snorting his laughter out  his nose.

He didn’t always tell us about his days in Cuba. Many times he would give us the opportunity to pick a topic, as long as it was of general interest, current events and nothing vulgar.

In all fairness to Mr. Labra, he did make a brave attempt to teach us Science at the beginning of every semester. But by Christmas time his interest in the subject waned and by January of the following year, we were discussing anything but what was in the textbook.

He lasted around two or three years in Belen, until the Jesuits caught on to his teaching tactics and let him go. Rumor has it that he became a pharmacist, no doubt regaling his customers with tales of his daredevil feats while filling out prescriptions. Dear old Mr. Labra left this life not long after that, and has undoubtedly been assigned the task of catching fallen angels in Heaven.

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Comments
  1. Luis Camacho says:

    Robert – I could not agree with you more about Mr. Collins. He instilled in me a deep respect for our founding fathers. To this day, I’ll not forgot one particular essay exam. It was one question: “what was the Declaration of Independence?” I amazed myself at how much I had actually learned. I wrote and wrote, and by the time the bell rang at the end of class, I was still writing.

    I look forward to your blog on Gabino – our own Bela Lugosi. As for Labra, he did work as a pharmacist at the Eckerds close to my house. At this particular one, the pharmacist’s working area was an elevated section of the store. The last time I saw him, he was addressing a crowd below as if performing a one man show from a stage. He was smiling ear to ear.

    Like

  2. Tomas Franklin "Frank" Castillo says:

    Robert, I enjoyed your remarkable recollection our teachers of Belen. Mr. Labra, Mr. Collins and he priests were all impactful, especially for our young, impressionable minds! I was discussing with someone the other day another “Bicho” anecdote that made both of us smile, since the nickname had not been uttered from my lips for years! thanks for reviving these old brain cells. My years in Belen were the best, especially, as I was able to continue with the Jesuits over in Spring Hill College, had a Jesuit chaplain at Parris Island, SC during my training there as a recruit and attend a Jesuit run parish here in Raleigh, NC….talk about a “hand of God intervention”! Keep up the blog! AD Majorem Dei Gloriam, Frater!

    Like

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