Sunday, March 14, 2010

Charlie Baker

Eighth grade, West Barrington Junior High School, and I can’t concentrate.  The Turtles’ “You Baby” is in my head, and I love the beat that drummer Johnny Barbatos is playing.   It’s the first week of school, and the weather is intoxicating; I’m looking out the window onto a green meadow. 

But I’d better wake up and start listening, because my English teacher, Charlie Baker doesn’t tolerate a daydreamer.  Mr Baker wants all the attention for himself, and damn it, he will have it.  His bulbous eyes stare threateningly and steadily as I hear him say “Madeira?”, the tone lifting so as to present a question, far worse than a scolding, which asks nothing, demands only silence and attention.

I have no idea what Charlie is asking of me.  I’ve gotten off the page for a moment.  He moves on to someone else, but I am ashamed and agitated.  This won’t happen again.   Charlie, as we call him behind his back, suffers no fools, and for the first time in my life, I’ve walked into a situation in which there is no loafing, no floating, no easy way of making the grade. 

The announcement that we will be graded on how well we keep notes is shocking.  Isn’t it bad enough that we have to sit there and learn all this meaningless stuff, and be tested on things we can’t imagine using?  As if any of us will one day grow up and write a book?  The nerve of Charlie Baker to grade us on our notebooks!


I was following in the footsteps of two high achievers, my siblings Annie and Dave.  Being the baby of the family had its advantages in some ways.  I escaped many responsibilities which Annie, the oldest child, was laden with, and which, to some degree, Dave, the oldest son shared.  But the other side of that shiny penny was about to get flattened on the railway track of junior high school, and Mr Baker was my first encounter with a teacher who wasn’t about to let anyone escape success.

The First Day of School for at least the first 7 years of my life contained a familiar welcome by each new teacher:  “Are you Ann-Elise Madeira’s brother?”  Or, “Are you David Madeira’s brother?”  Following my nod, he or she would say, “I’m going to enjoy having you in my class.”  

Alas, this prediction rarely came true, unless of course, they had a good sense of humor.  In that case, they might have enjoyed the 9 month task of ferrying me across the wide expanse of whatever grade I was in.  I was witty and sharp and essentially turned in my work, but without much dedication to truly learning what was being taught, unless I were interested in the subject. 

I had a unique vision, and  as far back as third and fourth grade, I wanted to design my own way.  This of course, didn’t work well in grade school.  Take, for example, the spinster Putnam’s fourth grade class, in which we were given the assignment to make Christmas cards, however, without any reference to the iconic Santa.  (Ironically, there was no moratorium on the figures of Mary, Joesph and Jesus; how the times have changed.)

Perhaps it was the fact that Santa didn’t exist in my family’s celebration of Christmas, or perhaps it was the mere suggestion of censorship, but I took the challenge and made a card which pictured a fireplace, with bricks coming loose, and dust falling to the floor, with the caption, “Don’t worry, he’ll get through”.  

Being The Funny Guy was my job, both in my family, as the last born, and in school as, well, The Funny Guy.  Humor served as a great defense, a lively distraction, something to keep mundane things interesting.  If I had the entrance, believe me, I would take it, and I must have exasperated any of my teachers who allowed for a split second of anarchy.  Somehow, I never made the connection that a quick wit might have to a sound mind, and I learned to see myself as an average achiever, with little interest in producing a body of excellence.

That all changed with Charlie Baker.  Charlie wasn’t interested in coming down to our level, in being liked, in being relevant.  His insistence was far more lofty in scope; Charlie demanded his students to rise to his level.  So emphasized was our need to remember every word he uttered that my notebook included the most banal of facts, having nothing to do with literature.  

Again, the Santa connection (and how strange and telling that I remember all things related to the Saint banned from my childhood home).

Right before Christmas, Charlie Baker was lecturing, about what I can’t recall.  He tossed out a remark having to do with the color of Santa Claus’ mittens.  I dutifully wrote this down.  You never know, I reasoned.

I’m not sure about the exact literature we covered in Mr Baker’s 8th grade English class, although a few works come to mind, one being the devastaing “Ethan Frome”, a dark and cold novelette of New England.  But so steely was Mr Baker’s stare, that it was easier to become a scholar than to default to my natural habitat of being The Funny Guy and shoulder the iron beam his gaze would encumber a fool with.

Somewhere in that eighth grade year, I realized something.  I liked  Mr Baker.  He became my favorite teacher, and remains thus to this day.  The fact was, Mr Baker respected each and every person in his class enough to demand greatness from them.   Born out of that respect, I became excited about pleasing my teacher, and wanted to reward his respect with something I hadn’t experienced as a student before- self-respect.

And so, Charlie Baker remains a hero to me.  But there’s another hero in the story.  My mother.  Mom was the one who smelled the fear that I brought home in those first few weeks of Eighth grade, Mom whose encouragement was needed, and for once, not aggravating. 

At the end of the year, we were told that we would be turning our notebooks in for a large part of our final grade.  I had taken many notes, but my style was messy and haphazard, perhaps worth a C+.  Late on the evening before the notebook was due, my mother and I sat together as she typed the entire notebook out.  When Mr Baker returned it with an A+ and the word “Beautifull!!”, it was Mom who deserved the praise.  I kept it for many years, one of the few pieces of evidence that there was more going on in my mind than the groovy drumbeat of “You Baby”.

On the last week of 8th grade, I sweated through my English Final Exam and when I reached the end, the bonus question was “What color are Santa Claus’ mittens?” 

After all these years, despite my certainty that they are quite red, I will always give the answer Mr Baker was looking for:  Green.



  1. Somewhat later on in my academic 'career', I finally figured out that the teachers that I thought seemed "cool" on the first day of the new school year ended up being the 'duds'. But the teachers that appeared intimidating or seemed threatening were the ones I ended up not only liking, but also learning something from. (like how we shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition).

  2. I'm tempted to send your sentence to my mother for correction, MC, but then she'd edit your entire blog.


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