(another wordpress suggestion. after mulling it over for a week, I take it on).
The worst teacher I’ve ever had was a man named Mr. Pisanello. We called him Mr. Peas ‘n Jello, but this was far too kind. I wonder, before I list the ills he visited upon my young psyche, if this man is still alive. He was quite overweight when I knew him, some twenty years ago, prematurely gray and out of breath going up (or down) a flight of stairs; this makes me think he might not be with us anymore. However, a few years ago I seem to remember hearing he was walk/jogging before school, so perhaps he’s still on this side of the Bardo. In either case, I will not shrink from this story. Whether he realized it or not, Mr. Pisanello scarred me deep.
As both my music teacher twice a week and choral director after school, I spent a fair amount of time with this sanguine, middle-aged man; he was always slouched over the shoddy old public school piano, with flapping jowls. I’m pretty sure he was married with young children, whom I suspect grew up on a diet of Mozart and twinkies. I don’t remember much of his actual class, as this was in the sixth grade, a year in my life I have worked hard to block out. I think I sat towards the back of the classroom–with a last name starting with V, I usually did–but it was a small room, and I could see each individual sausage finger of Mr. Pisanello’s doughy hands limping across the ivories. A piano always slightly out of tune. If I had to guess what he “taught” us, it would be the history of western music beginning with The Magic Flute and ending around Gershwin. I’d already heard all of the records he brought in and preferred looking out the window at the empty soccer field to watching his sweaty face explain the difference between “adagio” and “allegro.” I had played piano for five years by this point, and was now listening to Iggy Pop, the Beatles and Bob Marley on my headphones; Mr. Peas ‘n Jello really had no new information to offer me, and I think he sensed this, as he started giving me the Uncomfortable Eye, which, unlike the Evil Eye, can be given back with interest.
It was in after school choir that his other self emerged. Where in our one o’clock music class he had been sluggish and bored, by three thirty’s choir practice Mr. Pisanello was keyed up, revived after a nap on the ratty couch in the teacher’s lounge. He kept a chipped mug of sweet black coffee on the piano, slugging it with his right hand while his left plucked at the G clef. There were maybe fifty kids, possibly even seventy, in our motley choir, I can’t remember exactly. Peas ‘n Jello played our warm-up chords with enthusiasm, throwing in a cheesy line about the principal here or there. Kids seemed to like him, then. Not me.
Although I loved (and love) to sing, I didn’t really know how to sing in a group, and, as kind of a weird kid, I remedied this by singing louder than everyone around me, thus negating their presence and any necessity of harmonizing with them. No one wanted to stand on the risers next to me; not only was I too loud and usually off-key, I had the habit, nay, neurotic tick, of playing with my hair. When I was eleven my hair went down to my thighs and messing around with it was a simultaneous comfort, girly fulfillment and source of entertainment. To the unlucky kids standing next to me, it must have been annoying as hell. Please, if you stood next to me in sixth grade choir, forgive me these character flaws: I was not what I seemed.
Anyway, my bad singing coupled with a slacker attitude in class put me on Peas ‘n Jello’s shit list, and after multiple public talkings-to, (I can’t remember what he said to me, nothing too ugly and I wasn’t the only kid getting yelled at), the situation came to a head. I wish I could remember what lame song we were singing (I think it was vaguely patriotic), but all I can picture now is my fragile eleven year old self belting it out, decibels upon decibels louder than everyone else, in a pair of dirty jeans. Mr. Pisanello held up both hands, brought us to a sudden stop. “Hey, you up there!” he yelled to my half of the risers, and everyone looked around, myself included. “No, you, Erin, I’m talking to you!” “Me?” I stuttured. “Yeah, you. You’re terrible, do you know that?! You’re ruining it for everyone! Why don’t you just leave, right now?” And I stared, uncomprehending. I think some kids cheered, may karma strike them down, and I’m pretty sure I picked up my backpack, marched off the stage and ran out of the auditorium before I started crying.
Later that night I told my mom I wanted to quit choir. She wouldn’t let me, and I didn’t have the strength to lie anyway, so I told her what had happened. Though it further humiliated me, my mother wrote Mr. Pisanello a damning letter and got me reinstated in choir. From then on I mostly stood there looking depressed, not singing a note, and soon after I quit for good. For a long time after that I never sang at all, not even when I was alone in my room.
Luckily I didn’t have too many other bad teachers; this guy stands out in my public school education as king of the jerk-offs. I had bitchy old ladies, I had sexist old guard gym teachers, I even had an alcoholic chemistry teacher who got arrested for indecent exposure. But he was a good guy at heart (and a really good chemistry teacher), and even the gym teacher who called girls “ding-dongs” didn’t set out to crush me personally; they were either too old or too individualistic to teach. Peas ‘n Jello was the only rotten egg.
And there is a post script to this sad story. Years later, when I was in college, I came back to my old junior high school to vote. A friend from high school (who’d also attended this dark WPA junior high) was volunteering at the polls and we took a walk around the halls together. It was a warm autumn evening and I was tempted to overlook all the ghosts that came streaming out of the lockers and girls’ rooms at me, wanted to examine my old school gently. And then, out of nowhere, Mr. Pisanello came stomping around the corner, baton in hand. He recognized my friend first (who’d also been in his after school choir, but the year after me), and smiled at her; then he saw me. As God and my old friend are my witnesses, Pisanello looked me up and down, cocked his head, and gave me a dirty look.