Friday, March 26, 2010

A Story of Mr. Gray, the Water Balloon Incident, and Retrospect

Thirty years ago I was in 9th grade and Mr. Gray was my English teacher. He had a passion for the written word and imparted that to his students. Thus began my love affair with writing. The fact that I was also in love with the young and handsome Mr. Gray had nothing to do with it.


It didn't.

I swear.

Ok. Don't believe me, but it didn't.

Seriously. How could it? I still love all things grammatical but I'm SO done with Mr. Gray.

Fine. Obviously I can't convince you, so let's move on.

He assigned an essay, the requirements of which have long since escaped me, but I clearly remember the essay itself and the events that inspired it. I wrote a radical and scathing satire defaming one of the administrators of the school. I'm not sure I would have such boldness today, but life has a way of taming the wild beast within. I like to think that these thirty years have taught me something about compassion and concern for others. I like to think that I have learned that the circumstances of life mold and form personalities, my own included, but at fourteen years old I hadn't had much in the way of life lessons.
My essay detailed a series of events that began one Friday toward the end of the school year. We had a half day and that afternoon had been set aside for some sort of carnival on the school campus. The staff and students were in a partying mood. Several of my friends and I managed to engage some of the teachers in a spirited water balloon fight.

Alas, the dashing Mr. Gray was not involved.

Some of those balloons may or may not have been thrown inside the halls instead of outside on the grass (I'll never tell!) but we paid no attention to where, exactly, we were aiming and we were having a grand old time drenching each other.
School spirit, don't ya know!

Suddenly the sky turned dark and the air grew cold and we kids realized that we were alone, sans our teacher-accomplices. They had fled the scene and left us, holding the evidence, to face the dark and menacing presence of the sinister Mr. Haugh. Mr. Haugh was someone with authority over everyone, liked by no one. He was a large man, as wide as he was tall. Suffice to say he was not short. He had fleshy hands, droopy jowls, was mostly bald, and extremely out of shape. The poor man probably hated his job and was at high risk of cardiac arrest but we didn't think about those things at fourteen years old. We were just scared of him.
He was always scowling except now,when he looked down at us past his ample, pore-enlarged nose through his coke-bottle glasses with a grim self satisfied smirk as he turned the key in the detention hall lock.

We were incarcerated. Not innocent until proven guilty. Never mind that we had been caught red-handed. Never mind that the school janitor was probably, at that very moment, mopping up bucketfuls of water from the math wing. No trial by a jury of our peers. No nothing. Just instant incarceration.

"There will be, not today, nor ever, as long as I am assistant principal, a water balloon upon these hallowed premises." Mr. Haugh had spoken, and his word was law.

I was humiliated and mortified that I had to serve detention. Me! I was an "A" student! I was a good kid! I didn't associate with the usual riff raff that populated the detention hall on a regular basis. And the real kicker: we had been playing with the teachers, for crying out loud, and they all got off scot free and didn't come to our rescue! I was highly indignant at the injustice of it all. I duly served my time but I was incensed.

When Mr. Gray assigned that essay I went to town. I needed an outlet for my indignation. I told the story of that fateful day: the innocent joy and fun times had by all until the squelching of said fun times by the heavy and unreasonable hand of Mr. Haw. I thought about referring to him as Mr. Hee-haw but I decided that just might be stepping too far across the line and I didn't want to be hustled into a covered truck in the middle of the night and never heard from again, my outrage not withstanding. I was already nervous about Mr. Gray's response so I decided I could only push the envelope so far and no farther. I knew I could write well and that my essay was grammatically correct, but I was concerned with the content itself. My love for Mr. Gray was unrequited and didn't extend to actually KNOWING him as a person (and rightly so! Ewww!) so I had no idea how he would respond to my slanderous editorial.  I couldn't help it though. My story was crying out to be written and I had no choice but to obey the muse and take the risk.

I like to imagine Mr. Gray grading our essays in the evenings in his bachelor pad (of course he had a pad; this was the 70's and he was a bachelor. They all had pads) over a bowl of Top Ramen. I imagine him laughing over mine. I imagine him laughing so hard that he had to stop and clean up the Top Ramen that he inadvertently snorted though his nose. 

All right. So I flatter myself, but I really do think he must have enjoyed it.

Thirty years brings a great deal of retrospect. It brings a softening of the edges and a greater understanding of human nature. I hope Mr. Haugh was able to gain some measure of health and happiness in his life. I don't think he was really Mr. Haw. He was just Mr. Haugh, doing a job that no one else wanted to do. Maybe he was a little stiff, a little strict, a little too "by the book." Perhaps he was tired of high schoolers and their antics. He wasn't a young man at the time, after all. Maybe he was dealing with personal issues and our wild abandon of protocol was the last straw, as it were, for him that particular day. Or perhaps, unthinkable as it may be, we deserved to serve every moment of that detention. Whatever the case, I sincerely hope that Mr. Haugh was able to find joy and happiness during his lifetime, and if he is still alive today I want to thank him for some great essay fodder then and blog fodder now. The indignation and rage have long since faded and I want to thank Mr. Haugh for giving me a memory that still makes me smile thirty years hence.

I sincerely wish you all the best, Mr. Haugh, wherever you are. You had a job to do and you did it, and I offer you all due respect. Tardily, but respect and good wishes nonetheless.

By the way, I got an A+.

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