Thanking Mr. MBy AVERYELL KESSLER,
Bailey Junior High School, April 5, 1962.
I’d just settled into my desk when Mr. M announced that we were going to memorize the Gettysburg Address. I knew it was coming, of course, because he required it every year from the ninth-graders leaving his civics class and moving on to glory days at Murrah. I hoped it would go away, but it didn’t.
“Why can’t we just write it out?” someone asked.
“It’s not the same,” he answered. “You’ll see.”
Only 30 days remained until exams and graduation, and I had no patience for school. April’s warm air was barreling into Jackson, kissing the azaleas, urging daffodils to open and transforming the brown grass edging Riverside Drive into lush green. Now the Gettysburg Address had shown up uninvited and unwelcome. It was one last hurdle before the grey stone walls of Bailey faded into a distant, foggy memory.
I was an old hand at memorization, starting early at Power School (old and new) with the ABCs and Nick Nack Paddy Whack, then progressing to multiplication flash cards (ugh) and spelling words, such as historical and Nebraska. Later, there were Frere Jacque and Cielito Lindo. As always, the Presbyterians were ruthless, requiring multiple Bible verses and the Beatitudes, as well as The Westminster Catechism. The 53rd chapter of Isaiah was a toughie, but I can still recite it eyes closed. I was prepared but unenthusiastic. Lincoln’s historic 272 words hung over my head like the sword of Damocles.
“Do this, and get it over with,” I thought.
As the days drifted by, we muttered and complained, but Mr. M was steadfast. He taught us about the particulars of the speech, how and where it was given and why those brief words were riveted into the American consciousness. We examined the address line by line, as he explained its meaning and why it was such a wonder. One day, something clicked, and I realized I was in love with words. Not ordinary chit chat or meaningless blather, but skillfully crafted, poetic words that rang like silver bells and turned dull thoughts into diamonds. I decided to stop complaining, pay attention and try harder.
When recitation day arrived, I was nervous. We all were. We sat sweltering in the classroom, (no AC back then) sweating like sun burnt hound dogs, as each of us stood, faced our classmates and vaulted over the final hurdle. It took three days, three very long days. Mr. M was his usual calm self, prodding the forgetful, giving clues when needed, smiling when one of us did it perfectly. Then I noticed an oddity, his gradebook was missing. He wasn’t giving us a score. No one would fail, not even the boy who’d written critical prompts on his palms in bright blue ink. Mr. Lincoln’s brilliant words were the last thing Mr. M would teach us and he intended to make them count. We all passed with flying colors (or hurdling colors, maybe?), and marched out of Bailey’s cavernous auditorium with graduation certificates in hand.
I hope there’s a Mr. M or two out there now, people who teach for the love of the job and of the kids too. Good teachers open sleepy eyes and help fledgling adults emerge from the chrysalis of childhood. I hope a light snaps on somewhere and a ninth-grader learns to love words. Maybe she’ll begin to write. Who knows? I hope most of us can look back and remember the Mr. Ms of the world and their selfless contributions. Most of all, I hope that the government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth. Thanks, Mr. M.
Averyell A. Kessler is a native Jacksonian living in Fondren.