Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Mr. Roke

Long ago and far away, when I was just a waif of a Josephine, we ran our World History teacher out of school. Not physically- we just motivated her to find other employment. In South Carolina.

As "running a teacher out" is an old and time honored tradition held by schoolchildren from Laura Ingalls Wilder to my present school, I won't dwell on it. The class I had been in was divided, and Mr. Roke was given a new set of victims, at Mid Term.

The one good thing about older siblings was, you knew what was coming. Ear hustling at the dinner table gave you a good idea who to sidestep and where to sit for lunch in High School, even six to eight years on. Mr. Roke haunted a shadowy corner of my anxiety closet, where teachers gave T's and Z's and eight page research papers that kept my sister up over the typewriter, far into the night.

He inhabited a small, isolated portable on the extreme eastern corner of campus. Rather run up by weeds and run down (or over) by Proposition 13, it had the aura of snatching students to suck their dreams of college right from the marrow. Leilani, straight A 4.00 Leilani, perfect Leilani with her dreams of U.C. Berkeley, got a T from him.

The first day of the new term, they marched us over to his classroom. We found desks in this windowless, cluttered cave of a portable inhabited very much by an aging troll in a tweed sportcoat and (as I found later) surgically attached coffee cup. Styrofoam. A bust of Nefertiti glimmered on a dusty file cabinet under the pissy colored fluorescent lighting- the walls were choked with charts, graphs, timelines, and reproductions of obscure paintings. It was also about 20 deg. F in the classroom- rumor had it that the low temperature and the loose pills in his briefcase kept him from a second heart attack.

The rest of the students steadily ignored this short, graying, heavily spectacled prop for a coffee cup and went about getting organized. He opened his mouth...

and three minutes later I came to myself, pulling my back away from the chair sticky with cold sweat. He'd stopped to take a breath.

He continued much more softly, without changing expression or lowering the coffee cup. "I can't teach you unless you want to learn. So if you don't want to be here, get up and get the hell out."

No one moved.

Mr. Roke was my formal introduction to the Latin and Greek Alphabets, Art History, several Egyptian Dynasties, heraldry, architecture past and present, and exactitude. He was my introduction to note taking, James Burke, Thomas Campbell, critical thinking, and courage in the line of fire.

One day, as he continued to rant around the room he brought up a slide of a famous sculpture- Apollo in pursuit of Daphne, herself half changed to a Laurel Tree. He was stomping up and down the room, thundering about classical references to Renaissance paintings and artists, demanding to know what the subject of the sculpture was. I raised my hand.
"Apollo and Daphne."
"Apollo and Daphne!"
I remember he stopped at smiled before he moved on. "You know NOTHING if you don't know your Greek Mythology!"

Mr. Roke retired after that semester, and died less than a year later. When I heard, I cried, much to the concern of my fellow students. This was a man infamous for a Nails on Chalkboard sensation when he smiled, after all.

He's buried in the Holy Sepulcher Cemetery, in Hayward CA. I used to run on the ridges above it.

A few nights ago I was sitting in the car with The Sweetest Man Onna Planet, talking about a text message I'd sent after he teased me, "You run like a duck!"
I had told him that he should be so lucky-Artemis would have changed him to a stag for seeing her so undignified.

At Artemis, he was completely lost as to what I said.

After trying to explain (in so many words)
-Artemis is a Goddess; Greek, of hunting and small animals
("What about Medusa?" "Medusa was a Gorgon, she had two sisters")
-Goddesses don't like to be told they run like ducks

I sat back in the seat, feeling sad and kind of alone. "You know NOTHING if you don't know your Greek Myths!" boomed in my head. Wasn't any of this important to anyone else?

"I wish you knew your Greek Myths", I said kind of wistfully.

At which point, he turned to me in the seat and began to recount the tale of Perseus and Pegasus and Medusa.