Most of us wanted our school years to just fly by. Every day of school was just another day closer to the weekend and doing whatever we wanted to do. At the time, most of us never really thought about the real impact school and teachers would have on our lives.
Bring out the way back machine Sherman and set it to the years 1984-1987……
I’m in high school again. You know, those crazy years we all went through. Like walking down the halls in Jordache jeans while Spandau Ballet blared over the loud speakers, carrying books covered by paper grocery bags (a requirement back then and before plastic bags became ALL the rage). Ok, its “True”, I made up the part about Spandau Ballet.
In all of my schooling I can’t remember much about what was learned or very much about my teachers. Although my friend Michele has the uncanny ability to recall exactly WHERE I was sitting in history class in proportion to her location. We’ll have to talk about this at the next reunion. I have a lot of questions that need answering.
Anyway, although I can’t recall much I do remember three teachers during my tenure there that really impacted me the most: Mr. Siddons, Mr. Fox and Mr. Milisits. I won’t even bother to give their first names because to me, respectively, that’s who they will forever be known as.
Mr. Siddons was my tenth grade history teacher. His father was one of the last of the old school door to door sales people who had sold insurance to my grandparents. He was also my brother’s history teacher two years earlier. So there’s sort of a familial relationship there too.
Mr. Siddons was probably the most benign person you’d ever meet. He had a soft tone and rarely yelled. But the one trait he had that I’ll never forget was the ability to tell the lamest jokes. You know the ones I mean, something like: “Why did the chicken cross the road? Because He had to go the bathroom”. And he’d always give out a “Mr. Siddons” laugh. Nothing outrageous or anything. He would just kind of chuckle to himself. You could tell he must have been up all night thinking about it. How he’d deliver it and the kids would go crazy.
At first his shtick didn’t go over too well with me. But by the end of the first month of class I actually looked forward to the little gems he’d throw out. Even though most all were met with crickets (and he must have felt like the size of an ant in a room full of elephants) he never let it get to him. He’d always chuckle, wipe his mouth and seque with “Ok, let’s take a look at the Gulf of Tonkin”….
Strangely enough, every day after having learned about Tonkin, the Volstead Act or some war to end all wars I remember giggling to myself reciting a joke over and over in my head as I walked out of the room. Surely, a joke I would never utter to anyone else. Maybe that was really his shtick. To get me to try to remember them.
During my junior and senior years I rarely got down to the part of the school where Mr. Siddons and others of his “ilk” resided. But on the occasion that I did or saw him in the hall he would always say “Hi” to me and call me by name. He always remembered me. And I’d never forget him.
Let’s transfer over to Mr. Fox in the Art department. A short, grey bearded man with a limp. Mr. Fox had suffered from polio as a child and as a result he walked a bit strangely. Sadly, I’m sure he was the butt of many jokes from cruel students but I think by this point in his life he was immune to all.
Art class was a means of escape for me. I loved to draw and became an affection ado for Bob Ross. I could watch that dude for hours paint a happy little tree. And while we never painted those trees in Mr. Fox’s class it was still a way for me to forget about all the problems of the day.
We all knew Mr. Fox must have been an artist himself. And one day we found out what he loved to do. We came into class to see these miniature models of a circus that he had constructed himself. Everything he painstakingly made from scratch with his own two hands. You could see the pride in his eyes. This guy was GOOD.
But the one day that really stands out for me was when we were drawing the human figure. We’d have students go up and just stand there while the rest of us drew. I could always draw the body (even cool detail on their Converse sneakers with rainbow shoe laces) but never the face. It never came out right. I spent a long time on it and it just wasn’t happening. He must have seen my frustration because at one point he came over and sat across from me. It was just me and him…face to face.
He looked at my piece and was impressed. Then he asked me why I was so frustrated. I told him it was because as hard as I tried I could never get the face to be anywhere close to being right. So he took a piece of paper and started doodling…all the while looking at me and just saying things like “You know, if you really want something and try hard enough, you can make it happen”.
For those thirty seconds or so I was more doubtful than ever…”Yeah, right” I thought to myself. Then he stood up and told me “Keep up the good work Jim”, and passed me the paper he was doodling on.
As he walked away I picked up the paper and looked at it. The old guy with the limp had just drawn a picture of my face. One where even the subject (in this case, yours truly) would say “That looks just like ME”….he did that in thirty seconds of just scribble.
Finally, we move on to the music department, my personal favorite. I could write a novel on my exploits here (including the day I officially became a ROCK STAR opening for Clay Aiken) but we’ll save that for another time. Suffice to say, I credit most of my music “success” to the days of high school music theory and choir.
Mr. Milisits (or “M” as he is known) would conduct the huge high school choir. One that won many awards over the years. I’m sure for many; choir was like art class was for me. Just a way to get out of taking another boring subject. But that soon changed. Somehow, he would take a group of kids and make them WANT to sing.
He would always tell us inspirational things to keep pushing us. Quotes like “You can do this”, “A new mistake shows progress” and “Talk to me” resonated with everyone. He just had “something” that made you want to work hard.
During my senior year, it was his teaching that made me want to play guitar in jazz band and the school play. Now, to get a metal head that wanted nothing to do with ANY after school activity and would spend most of his free time jamming to Bon Jovi and Def Leppard to perform “Leader of the Pack” is really saying something. That M’s got some strong kung-fu.
When it came time to perform, be it at school or somewhere in Canada, it was really like “rock star” night for the choir. And well, I even got to play that black heavy metal guitar during our spring concert. One that hangs on the wall in my office right to this day that I still play.
I could bore you for hours on how M’s classes changed me but let me just end by saying those classes are the best memories I have from high school.
A few years ago I had the opportunity to rejoin “M” and a few other alumni as he is now the director of the Lehigh Saengerbund Chorus.We’re preparing to perform at Allentown Symphony Hall in early June, twenty-five years after I last sat with him in high school concert choir.
As I sit in rehearsals now there’s no wayback back machine required. It’s like re-living a part of all the best days of being in school again. That old feeling of “you can do it” and “new mistakes show progress” are back.
And it’s all good.