Tuesday, January 20, 2009

To Sir, With Love


Today I remember Mr. McCatty, my middle school English teacher. His first name, I believe, was Ed. On a daily basis, he made himself memorable to us kids with his tweedy, uptight, grammarian ways; with his perfect enunciation; with his personal crusade against the interjection "like," which in Southern California in the 1980s was a quixotic endeavor (this was, after all, the time and place of the song "Valley Girl," by Moon Unit Zappa . . . like, gag me with a spoon, fer shure). Mr. McCatty had many other bĂȘtes noirs. When someone raised a hand and asked, "Can I go to the bathroom?" his response was always, "I don't know. Can you?" If you didn't rephrase your question with "May I . . . ?" you may as well have peed in your seat. Mr. McCatty further disapproved of using the pronoun "I" in any kind of an essay. One could not write "I think that . . . ," under any circumstances. It was an egregious redundancy, as (presumably) you were the one writing the paper, therefore all thoughts were automatically yours. I learned that lesson well, because the first time I forgot this rule, he gave me an F on what he himself admitted was an otherwise A effort. My father tried to go head-to-head with Mr. McCatty on that one; no dice. Mr. McCatty was immovable. This was a man of uncompromising principles of English grammar and composition. This was also, quite possibly, a man with a racial ax to grind, a man with things to prove. Mr. McCatty was a dapper black man of elegant elocution, perfectly qualified beyond any doubt for his job, and he was, to my recollection, the only black teacher in the middle school—perhaps in the entire school at that time (I no longer have access to my yearbooks, so cannot scan the faces of the faculty). This was a somewhat prestigious, private prep school in Los Angeles. And now that I think of it, Mr. McCatty was my first black teacher, anywhere. Odd (or maybe not), that I am only realizing it at this very moment. At the time, I did not think anything of this. My upbringing was color blind, and I was too innocent of race relations and the politics of academia to consider that his being black meant anything at all in terms of his teaching a bunch of privileged, mostly white kids in the posh neighborhood of Brentwood. However, today is a historic date in American history. Today we are seeing inaugurated the first (half) black president of the United States. Today, with such public acknowledgment of Barack Obama's intellect and eloquence, his charisma and obvious leadership qualities, I cannot help but consider all the other black men, equally smart and articulate, who struggled against prejudice and perhaps did not overcome it, or did but at great cost. The New York Times recently examined, in its Arts & Leisure section, the ways that the entertainment industry has evolved in terms of its acceptance of blacks and the kinds of characters and stories they have been allowed to portray, asserting that the inroads made in movies and television have contributed to America's readiness to elect a black leader. The article featured entertainers such as Bill Cosby, Morgan Freeman, and of course, above all, Sidney Poitier. (Imagine: "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner . . . at the White House"!) In fact, if you watch this film clip, you'll hear Sidney Poitier's character "predict" the presidency of Barack Obabma. Interestingly, I now remember Mr. McCatty as looking quite a lot like Sidney Poitier, though at the time I didn't know who the actor was. He was conservatively dressed, impeccably groomed, polished in appearance and manner. I wonder, though, what assumptions were still made about him. Did his colleagues assume that he shot hoops on the weekends, that maybe he visited relatives in the ghetto area of Compton, or that he came from there? When people noticed how well he spoke, did they think "for a black man"? And what did we look like to him? Were we spoiled, pampered white kids with all the advantages and a head full of ignorant, hateful ideas? What must it have seemed like to him, when my father argued on my behalf over the unfairness of the grade on my essay? Honestly, I have to say that when I was in middle school, I very much disliked Mr. McCatty. But it had nothing to do with the color of his skin. Now, however—especially at times when I catch myself correcting my son: "It's 'May I be excused,' not 'Can I' . . ."—I think of him with the fondness that I never felt at the time. I don't know where he is today, if he's watching the inauguration on television, and if he is, what he's thinking. I hope that he feels pride and some measure of gratification. And I hope that, if he ever thinks of us kids, he does so knowing that some of us (the majority of us, statistically), are feeling pride, too, and are thinking of him . . . not "like" a teacher, but as perhaps one of the best teachers we ever had.

No comments:

Post a Comment