January, 2018

I learned today that my favorite teacher has died. He was my Art teacher. His name was Ed Girod (pronounced "jur-OH") and he taught Art, Art History, drawing, painting, sculpture, and was one of a group of teachers who also taught a class called "Humanities" at our high school, in Alexandria, VA.

Humanities was a multi-disciplinary curriculum, composed of Art, Drama, Music and Literature studies, and emphasized how these were interwoven and how they buttressed and enhanced one another. Unlike other, pretty narrow and linear courses, this class sprawled and wandered and dipped and soared all over the place. It served to broaden my thinking, and to open me to an adult manner of considering things from multiple angles. It was emotionally and mentally NOURISHING, and I couldn't get enough of it.

Mr. Girod was the first and only teacher I ever knew to allow his students to listen to music in class. We were allowed to bring in records from home and play them during Art class as we drew, painted, sketched, sculpted, etc., etc... We had a creaky little mono record player and a small stack of LPs we cycled thru regularly. Far out! His class was an oasis during a time when my life consisted of teenage angst, self-doubt, existential fear and crippling social awkwardness. The hour a day I spent there was a glorious refuge from all the crap that surrounded me elsewhere.

He was a kind, patient, enthusiastic and encouraging teacher. A true mentor, always trying to get you to realize the best you were capable of. "Don't say 'I can't do that' Say 'I can't do that YET' ", he'd counsel. His vast knowledge of his subject, his obvious love of and enthusiasm for it -- coupled with his energetic and magnetic ability to convey that to his students -- made him tower miles above any other teacher I ever had.

He was clever, witty, funny, amusing, brilliant, and-- rarest of all, during my teen years-- COOL. Really, a very cool guy. He had strange little mannerisms. Often when a student called out to him, instead of replying "Yes?" or "What?" he'd say "Who died?" Sometimes, when we were not paying complete attention to him, or he just wanted to get everyone to focus, he'd yell "ALL OVER THE FLOOR!" which stopped everything cold. He was a hoot.

An outstanding Girod memory: Art class, one afternoon... Barbara S., a very gabby, self-absorbed, snooty gal (think Alicia Silverstone in CLUELESS, but more vapid), is busily yammering away to someone at her work table, despite a few stern warnings from Mr. Girod to be quiet. He finally had enough of her idiotic blathering, and took a running start from across the room, jumped up on an empty chair near the table and LEAPT into the air, landing smack, flatfooted in the middle of the table with a huge BANG! Scared the living shit out of everyone. He crouches down, fixes his glare on her and says, "THERE'S TOO MUCH GODDAMMED TALKING GOING ON HERE!" She gasped and sputtered, goggle-eyed in horror. He said, "THAT'S AN ADJECTIVE, SWEETIE! NOW POP YOUR EYES BACK IN YOUR HEAD AND SHUT UP!" He hopped daintily off the table and began to make the rounds of the other tables, quietly inspecting everyone's work, and then turned the Procol Harum LP over so we could all enjoy side 2, sans Barbara's chatter. Greatest. Single. Day. Of. My. High. School. Life. This was 1968 or so. NOBODY had ever done that in any classroom I ever spent time in. Never. Ever. It was fucking brilliant theater. Barbara shut the hell up from then on, too.

I developed something of a reputation as a wise ass during high school. I know you'll be shocked and alarmed to learn this. It had a lot to do with being abused, fearful, nervous, picked on, and insecure. I became pretty cynical and sarcastic, dismissive of things that threatened or challenged me. A judgmental little bastard, with a smart-ass comment for any situation or person that fell short of my weird qualifications for approval. I made harsh jokes to keep a lot of the world at bay.

I didn't get on all that well with most of my teachers, but I absolutely idolized Ed Girod. He and a female English teacher were my two saviors during the four hellish years I spent at that school, basically trying to avoid being punched out by guys or laughed at and dismissed by girls. I kept my head down, never joined anything, appeared in no yearbook photos, avoided sports, team membership or extracurricular interests, and had very few friends-- apart from the handful of teenage wastrels I either made music with or in whose company I sprawled around in dimly lit, smoke-filled basements, surreptitiously self-medicating and growing ever more listless and sullen. (Hi, those of you still alive and not incarcerated!)

I slept through my senior English and Government classes, and had to re-take them in Summer school in order to graduate, and didn't even attend the graduation ceremony with my classmates. There was never a more bleak and disorienting time in my life than those days. It was like a nightmare I couldn't escape-- except for a couple of rare classes where I felt I could breathe and think clearly.

Several times over the years since then, I've had this recurring dream where I'm wandering the halls of that old high school. It's the last day of school, my final year, and everyone's leaving. Like Holden Caulfield in THE CATCHER IN THE RYE, I'm roaming around, killing time, "...trying to feel a goodbye from the place..." as I realize I'll never (have to) be here again. I stop outside a classroom and peer in, to see Mr. Girod emptying his desk and putting stuff in a cardboard box as he, too, prepares to leave for the Summer.

I want desperately to step in and tell him how much I've valued his class, how much his teaching has meant to me-- how much I appreciate and love him. But I am afraid that because I'm known as such a smartass, he'll think I'm putting him on, or trying to con him, somehow; he'll assume I'm just ladling on the bullshit. I've spent four years basically negating any chance I might have had to sincerely express my admiration and gratitude to this wonderful man, and I can't make myself walk through that doorway. I turn and leave, feeling miserable.

Today I learned that he has died at age 88. His life was long and filled with accomplishment, richly seasoned with a wide variety of interests. He was an artist, teacher, actor, world traveler, civil rights activist (who secretly invited several members of his senior art classes to accompany him on the Poor People's March to Resurrection City-- the tent encampment on the National Mall-- a few weeks before Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968) and a wonderful, giving, vibrant human being. I have, fortunately, been able to reminisce a bit with an old friend-- a fellow student of his from our school days, who also revered him. It helped soothe the pain I feel today.

I love you, Ed. Thanks for helping this scared kid see so much of the beauty and wonder the world had to offer. I will never, ever forget you, and the way you opened my eyes.

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