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Three score and ten or more

Monday, June 07, 2010


My post about the school bus was a lead in to this.  When I was about to graduate, I had assistantship offers from four schools to go work on my Masters.  When I applied for these assistantships I hadn’t been aware that my recent marriage had born fruit, and Janet was pregnant, with a baby due in September or October.  It, therefore seemed like a bad time of year to try to pack up and move to Indiana, or even Utah.  I decided to look for work.  After some letter writing, phone calls, etc., I was offered a teaching position at Twin Falls High School, in a town about a two hour drive away.  The complication was that I had often stated during my training in theatre that I would never be a teacher.  I had thus avoided taking any of the courses in Education save one, a course in Methods and Materials for Teaching High School Speech and Drama.  I had taken this, primarily because Janet (who was a Speech and Drama Education major) was taking it (My grades were always higher when we took courses together, my wife is SO much smarter than I) and it was being taught by a teacher that I knew and admired.  It was a darn good thing I had taken it, because the job offer wouldn’t have been made otherwise.  The conditions were that I would take enough Education courses in summer school to qualify for a Provisional Certificate.

I did that, and that was an adventure all its own, but I will hold it for a while and write here about my first year of teaching High School.  After we moved to Twin Falls, I discovered that I was moving into a program that had a bad reputation.  The previous teacher had been a sluff off.  Students told me that he had spent a lot of time playing “Hang” , on the chalkboard with his students.  Many of his students had been put in his classes as a “GUT” course because they had flunked a number of other courses and needed to pass “something” in order to graduate or stay in school.  Most, or all of his students got good grades.  When I was hired, the assistant superintendent took me aside and pointed out that it was necessary for school morale that Speech and Drama students needed to stay in the classroom just like everybody else.

I perceived that it was going to be an interesting time, so I started out, making my courses as demanding as they could be, with lots of homework, so the first week or two of classes was a bit awkward with about fifty percent of my students dropping the class.  I have already told the story of the student who, when I had my back turned shouted out “Hey Johnson, go F*** yourself.”  I turned around and shouted “Who Said that”?

The young man in black leather jacket with bleached blond bangs on his forehead smiled and waved his hand.  I marched to his side, grabbed his black leather jacket in both hands and jerked him out of his seat (which would have gotten me fired immediately in these days of political correctness).  When he was up, I took a good look and realized that he was six feet four or five (I’m about five-ten) and weighed a good two hundred forty or fifty pounds, all muscle.  Saying a quick prayer, I shoved him up to and out of the door of the class (which fortunately opened out) and shouted “Don’t come back till you have a note from the Dean (they had Deans in High schools back then). 

He didn’t, and turned out to be a pretty good student for me until he was expelled from school and sent to reform school or prison for breaking a whisky bottle over the head of a basketball player from an opposing team as the player was leaving the court for halftime.

My second play at Twin Falls High School was Rebel Without a Cause, the movie of which featured James Dean and Dennis Hopper (whose recent demise brought about this whole line of thought).  We had open auditions, and I felt like I had a pretty good cast.  As  I met with the cast for the first time, being a little concerned about availability and expense of props, I asked the boys in the cast if any of them had switch blades.  All but one reached instantly into pockets and pulled out a switch blade. two or three of them snapping open.  (Can you imagine the reaction if that happened nowadays?  I’d probably be fired and the whole group of boys (one of which turned out to be the Salutatorian at graduation) would have been expelled, if not jailed.   To make a long story short, every one of the guys had a black motor cycle jacket, most of them had Chuk Boots (Wellington type short boots which had received their name from a Mexican Motor Cycle gang from California-  possible mythological- I never met any such, called Pachuko)

I needed a couple of pistols for the play but chose not to find out if any of the cast was “carrying” at the time.

A couple of side elements:  We did have a “gang” at the school, led by the student who ended up playing the James Dean role in the play.  (And who was also an entrepreneur owning one of the local Dairy
Queen type stores and his own               course.)  He was very handsome, an excellent student, but still the leader of the gang.  When the school outlawed motor-cycle jackets  this young man, and all his followers showed up the next day in sport-coats, dress shirts and ties.  The rumor was that any other student who wore a tie to school that term (and yes, in that period kids wore ties to school occasionally) was likely to get the tie cut in half and have the opportunity- possibly the necessity- of eating the remainder of the tie.

The play was excellent if I do say so myself, and I do.  It drew large enthusiastic crowds, many of whom had seen the movie and wanted to see it live.  It was not without problems.  I mentioned that I needed guns on stage.  One of the characters shoots another on stage.  This of course is done with blanks.  It takes some training to shoot blanks on stage because the blank cartridges (at least, possible no longer) contained small wads of cardboard where the bullet should be, and that wad of cardboard can do serious damage if it hits anyone, so the shooter has to learn to aim at a place that is safe but which looks like it is pointed at the victim.   Being a pessimist, I also had someone backstage with another blank pistol in case the one on stage mis-fired or jammed etc.  We went through dress rehearsals with the onstage gun shooting properly and even rehearse it a couple of times with no bullets on stage, but the offstage gun doing the shooting, and the timing worked beautifully.

During one performance the actor brought up the gun and pulled the trigger to “click click click” a total misfire, I waited for the offstage shots, and nothing happened.  Finally the “victim” grabbed his chest and shouted “Oh,  MY HEART” and collapsed on the stage and the play went on.  I discovered after the play that the revolver used on stage had two cartridges ( I never put more than one extra in a weapon because there is always a chance of accident) but the cylinder hadn’t been turned so that those cartridges  were where they should have been, and the assistant stage manager who was supposed to make the backup shots had just been distracted and missed the cue.  By the time she got her pistol up, the victim had already died on stage of  a heart attack.  I was grateful that she didn’t shoot anyway, I can imagine the laughter if the audience had heard two gunshots after the victim was down.

Times are different.  I know communities which require an officer of the law to be present backstage when  weapons are fired onstage.  I am not sure what I would have done for switchblades, but I am sure no one would have been allowed to bring one from home.   


At 3:10 PM, Blogger Barry the Barbarian said...

I don't know if you remember that young actor about ten years ago who accidentally killed himself when he held the prop gun to his temple and pulled the trigger thinking it was only a blank. It was but the wad penetrated his temple and killed him.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

I don't remember that specific one, but I have seen about four or five serious accidents with blanks and know of more. It is something most people don't even think about.

At 9:34 AM, Blogger Three Score and Ten or more said...

I don't remember that specific one, but I have seen about four or five serious accidents with blanks and know of more. It is something most people don't even think about.

At 3:12 PM, Blogger Darlene said...

Wow! I didn't know that you taught at Twin Falls High School. I went to that school for the first part of my soph year. That school really did change from the time I went there until you taught there. It was a really neat school and the kids were so friendly. They even had fraternities and sororities at that school. I was rushed by all three sororities but I pledged MET. I abolutely loved Twin and was quite sorry that we had to go back to Pocatello because my sisters and their families moved to Richmond California so that their husbands could work in the shipyards. I guess that would have been in 1942. In fact, I finished the last half of my soph year at Pokey before we too went to Richmond to live with Helen and Fred. Mom and I lived with you guys for that short period.

It was really interesting for me to read this post and it did bring back memories. What year did you teach in Twin? I'll bet you were a great teacher and it sounds as if the plays you put on were first class.

At 1:27 AM, Blogger M. Rigmaiden said...

Richard you are too much. What an interesting set of experiences! I think about how you handled that disrespectful punk and chuckle. Indeed they'd sue you for doing that nowadays lol!

Seems like all the things that keep communities intact, like disciplining kids is illegal now.


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