128,125. That’s a pretty accurate estimate of the number of students I’ve taught over a bunch of decades. Around this time each autumn, at the beginning of a new school year, I think about some of them — Where are they? What are they doing? Did I serve them well as their teacher? — but there’s one I think about most often. Stewart.
My hunch is every teacher has their “Stewart,” just as all of us have a dominant memory of one teacher tucked away in our hearts and minds forever.
Stewart must be 30 by now. He was just 14 back then …
He enters the classroom several minutes early as always — except for that one time. He stores his long, black umbrella underneath his front-row-center desk, unsnaps the metal clasps of his faux leather briefcase, and places a crisp, white legal pad and fountain pen in front of him. Soon, behind and next to him, other students take their seats, chattering away, ignoring Stewart’s presence and precise preparations for the start of class. He seems light years removed from them and oblivious to the friendly ruckus.
Only in a rare moment does Stewart chat with another classmate. He admits his disdain for the “riff-raff,” as he once described them to me in confidence during one of our weekly lunches.
Yet, sometimes, for just a moment, Stewart’s eyes hint that he might be another insecure, even lonesome 14-year-old when I catch him glancing at other students, then retreating into his notebook when he thinks they see him looking their way.
Stewart defines himself as an adult or, more precisely, a “scholar-entrepreneur.” But the kids see him as strange, contrived and oddly aloof. As one boy says, “He acts pretty dumb.”
Stewart’s persona is peculiar for sure, and I’m curious to know more about him. He eats alone in the cafeteria, and that’s heart-wrenching to observe, so I invite him to join me for a weekly lunch in my office. His acceptance is formal but gracious, and I include the caveat that if he wants we can discuss a shared reading that he might find intellectually stimulating. Stewart agrees.
I suggest John Steinbeck’s “The Moon is Down” because of the story’s reference to Socrates’ “Apology,” which I know he’s reading on his own. I’m impressed that Stewart makes connections between the two works, particularly regarding the imminent executions of Socrates and Orden, the mayor of the Nazi-occupied town in the novella. Stewart seems moved by these characters’ honor, courage and devotion to their ideals and the acceptance of their imminent demise because of them.
Stewart reminds me that the novella’s title comes from “Macbeth,” which we are reading in class, when Banquo asks his doomed son, “How goes the night, boy?” and Fleance replies, “The moon is down. I have not heard the clock.”
“I find that fascinating,” Stewart says between sips of his Perrier.
Stewart prepares for each lunch ritualistically, with the same precision he does for class: He always knocks lightly on my office door despite its being wide open. He selects the same chair at the round table and places his lunch box in front of him. He unfolds a crisp, clean white linen tablecloth, thoroughly flattening out any wrinkles. On it he sets a small crystal-like glass, his mini-bottle of Perrier and a small plate upon which he places his never-changing lunch: three isosceles-shaped white Cheddar cheese slices, a white-bread bologna sandwich, two slivers of green pepper and a hermetically sealed cookie. Then, he fills his glass, raises it and offers a toast to our “good health and fortune.” I imagine the student hordes one floor below gobbling their greasy pizza slices and leaving a trail of potato chip crumbs in the hallways. It’s hard to imagine Stewart eating among them, although I wish he would.
• • •
A while back I borrowed an idea from a colleague whereby any student tardy for class is subjected to an innocuous punishment as determined by a democratically elected student “Class Enforcer.” Mildly embarrassing, silly sentences are decreed, just enough to create a deterrent for future tardies but always meant in the spirit of fun. One student was sentenced to act like a walrus and flap around the classroom. Another was sentenced to laugh hysterically at a pencil for 15 seconds, and so on.
The only time Stewart is tardy to class I consider the possibility that I might need to intervene. Will the students demand that their Enforcer seize upon the chance to cross the line in this case? Stewart, after all, is easy pickings, and to some of his peers, he deserves a harsher sentence because of, well, who and what he is. And yet, if I did intervene, would that only widen the chasm between Stewart and his classmates?
“Sing a song,” commands Randall-the-Enforcer.
Stewart matches Randall-the-Enforcer’s gaze, ignoring the other students’ nervous laughter. They, like me, are unsure how this drama will unfold. Stewart closes his briefcase nonchalantly, placing it and his ubiquitous umbrella under his desk. “What song would you like me to sing, Randall?” Stewart asks with calm resignation. I’m surprised and pleased that Stewart knows Randall’s name. If there is a polar opposite of Stewart, it’s this crude ruffian, Randall.
“Uh, what songs do you know?” Randall-the-Enforcer asks uneasily. Clearly he hasn’t anticipated Stewart’s acquiescence and is caught off-guard.
“Randall, I know many songs.”
Now, had Randall not been so flummoxed by Stewart’s simple question, he might have recalled Stewart’s reputation and snooty manner and commanded he sing something completely contrary to Stewart’s lifestyle, as advised by two classmates: “Make ’im sing “Kiss Me Thru the Phone” advised Marshall. “No way,” argues Rebel. (Honestly, his name was “Rebel”.) “He should sing “Let’s All Sing Like the Birdies Sing!” Instead, Randall-the-Enforcer condemns Stewart to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The class groans in opposition to such an uninspired, banal choice.
Whereupon Stewart rises, faces the class, waits for silence, and executes his punishment for tardiness by singing the entire national anthem with operatic bravado and patriotic zeal:
Oh, say can you see by the dawn’s early light
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming …
The class responds with an odd mixture of eye-rolling, guffaws and confused delight. But Stewart silences them with a slightly raised arm, which they quickly obey, including Randall, and he proceeds thusly in an unwavering, forceful and melodic voice, singing the next four stanzas in their entirety and by heart:
… On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses …
… Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation …
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
• • •
Later that spring, Stewart informs me at lunch of his plan to attend a renowned East Coast prep school the next fall, where, he says, “I won’t have to contend with the riff-raff because there isn’t any.” However, later I learn via the faculty grapevine that he has been rejected. Instead, he has enrolled at another school near us.
When learning that Stewart has transferred, some students are surprised. A few seem amused. Others are confused and even insulted. But many are disappointed. Erin laments, “He was strange, but he was really smart and kind of cool. How come he left? Didn’t he like us?”
I never heard about Stewart after that, except recently when one of his classmates told me she thought she heard he had started a homemade cookie franchise out East. I just don’t know.
But I think of him often, as you can see, and mostly now at the beginning of a new school year.
Dick Schwartz, of Minneapolis, is a retired teacher.