(This post was inspired in part by Elise Patkotak, whose blog, Scribblings, is always worth a read.)
To understand this story, WC has to try to explain his 7th Grade History teacher, Tulsa Ross.
She looked to be about 90 years old. She was maybe a little over five feet tall and about two feet wide, but she walked and moved like she was seven feet tall and could face down Superman. She ran her classroom like a Marine boot camp. We opened every class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, the American’s Creed and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. We closed every class with the Freedom Pledge. We were force-fed patriotism until it oozed out our ears.1
In Tulsa Ross’s world, the United States never, ever made a mistake. A U.S. President taking the oath of office became infallible for the duration of his term of office and it was unpatriotic, even criminal, to question his decisions. People who opposed the President or disagreed with him were communists and traitors. Anyone who disagreed with Tulsa Ross got a quick trip to the Vice Principal Don Wheat’s office for three swats with his wooden paddle for insubordination.
WC and Tulsa Ross got along like a house on fire. She wrote on WC’s first report card that WC had “dangerous ideas.” WC has lost track of the number of times he was sent to the Vice Principal’s office. Only Greg Baker, whose dad was a judge, likely made more trips. In the manner of junior high school students everywhere, outside the classroom we called her a “battle ax” and worse, but we learned not to mess with her. You didn’t argue with her. There were jokes that we’d match her against a wolverine, with long odds on Mrs. Ross.
And then November 22, 1963 happened. We learned of President Kennedy’s assassination when Vice Principal Wheat announced it, without warning or preamble, over the public address system. “President Kennedy has been assassinated in Dallas, Texas.”
WC happened to be looking at Mrs. Ross during the announcement. All of the blood drained from her face. The rouge and powder she wore stood out against face in ugly blotches. And then, very quietly, the tough-as-nails teacher began to cry. She sat down – maybe a better word would be “collapsed” – at her desk, put her hands over her face and cried. Tulsa Ross, the toughest, meanest teacher in Fairbanks, maybe in Alaska, wept in front of her students.
It was nearly as big a shock as the assassination itself, and it was a lot closer to where we lived. WC came late to empathy, but even as a smart ass 7th grader WC understood then that Mrs. Ross’s world has fallen apart. School closed for the day. Mrs. Ross dismissed us to our lockers to bundle up and then wait for the school buses. Before she dismissed us, Mrs. Ross asked us, with tears still on her face, to pray for the President’s widow and children, and to pray for Lyndon Johnson, who would now be President.
Fast foward to the New Year. Mrs. Ross announced we would have a student teacher the rest of the year. His name was Jim Growden, “Mr. Growden,” of course, and he was everything Tulsa Ross was not. Warm, welcoming, enthusiastic, young and energetic. About half the girls in the class had crushes on him. Amazingly, Mr. Growden reserved Friday classes for current events: the integration struggles in the South, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the then-recent Korean War, the United Nations. And very effectively teased out how those things all had roots in history. Mr. Growden made the class fun. He made history fun and interesting. You could argue with him, although if you had the facts wrong or had a bad argument, he’d call you out. So you can imagine the class’s disappointment when Tulsa Ross was back at the helm the third week of March. A classmate had the temerity to raise her hand ask, “Where’s Mr. Growden?”
“He’s getting a few days spend with his family in Valdez. He’ll be back on Monday.”
We had Friday off, Good Friday. And the 1964 Great Alaskan Earthquake happened. On Monday, back in class, Mrs. Ross was there but Mr. Growden was not. Mr. Growden was believed to have been on the dock in Valdez, along with some 30 or so other folks, many of them children, to meet the steamship Chena, bringing in freight. No trace of those folks was ever found. In the underwater landslides, tsunami and seiche waves much of Valdez, now called Old Valdez, was destroyed.
For a few days there was confusion about who had been on the dock and whether there might be suvivors. But by Wednesday, it was clear that Mr. Growden had died. His two children, who were with him on the dock, vanished as well. Mrs. Ross cried as she told us; a lot of us cried, too. She told us, “He was such a good teacher. He had so much to offer. Such a shame.” And then sat down at her desk, covered her face in her hands, and cried some more. She rallied, after a while, and told us Mr. Growden would have wanted us to carry on. But her heart wasn’t in it. Mrs. Ross seemed to shrink in on herself for the rest of the year. WC believes that Mrs. Ross retired at the end of the year.
Growden Memorial Field, the sadly rundown baseball park in Fairbanks, Alaska, is named after Jim Growden.
So why is this an epic fail? Because no one, let alone WC, offered any consolation or sympathy to Mrs. Ross either time. WC knew he should, but didn’t. It’s true that Ms. Ross didn’t show much empathy to her students, but she showed that under the tough lady façade, she was human. Do you know, it bothers WC still.