When I was in 10th grade I had American literature for 6th period and it just about killed me.
Whoever decided on what students to put in that class must have worked at the College Park jail because the moment I walked into sixth period on the first day of school I knew we were going to get into enormous quantities of trouble instead of learning enormous quantities about American literature. I was really excited.
All the 10th grade misfits had been perfectly assembled—plus some new girl I didn’t know who already looked terrified. One kid in the class, a kid named Jerry, had always given me the impression he was a caged animal but looked like a human tenth grader. Then there was our class nerd, Jim, who was short and stubby, over in the front corner with his goofy briefcase we always stole from him between classes and put on the top of a brick wall so he couldn’t get it—but he always tried real hard to get it and he was always late for class. Every day.
I had no idea how you learned about literature. I figured you borrowed the Cliffs Notes from an eleventh grader. And from looking at this teacher with his mismatched shirt and tie and baggie pants and clod hoppers that looked like they saw action at Gettysburg … that’s when I knew I could get some good sleep before football practice.
Our teacher, Old Burrell Brownlow, passed out the book we were going to study. It was a book about two street urchins who float down the Mississippi River on a log raft. Oh, boy ... we were going to learn the deeper literary meaning of why two street urchins would want to float down the Mississippi River on a log raft written by a guy who was using a fake name. I wondered how much money my parents were paying for me to go to this nice school.
Old Burrell taught the book by standing in front of the class while he read from the book word for word for word. He never wrote anything on the chalkboard. He had three posters on the cinderblock walls. That was it. It was old school.
While he was reading, every once in a while he’d stop and lift his head and pontificate about the literary significance of something in the story like a cow. Then, every once in a while, Old Burrell would stop and ask us what we thought of what he just read. We’d wake up and look at each other and giggle. You could tell Old Burrell thought the school wasn’t paying him enough money to teach at this nice school.
After about two days we got to the point where we had had enough of the deeper literary meaning of some dumb book written four hundred years ago and we needed some real excitement in Old Burrell’s sixth period literature class. So I enthusiastically concocted a plan where Jerry, who was a fearless running back on the junior varsity football team, was to run across the room and jump up in the air and fly in the air for a good while and then dive on Jim and they would go tumbling onto the floor. Several of us agreed that was a wonderful plan to liven sixth period literature class up. We really loved the plan's elegant simplicity.
I remember Jerry asked me if I wanted him to do it while Old Burrell was reading from the book. Jerry was serious. I told Jerry, very slowly, with mild hand gestures so I wouldn't spook him, that we wanted him to jump on Jim the next time Old Burrell left the room. No one thought to volunteer for the role of locking the door behind Old Burrell while we partied.
So the day came where Old Burrell was doing his usual—reading from the dumb book, word for word for dang word—and all of a sudden he says he’ll be right back. It was almost as if Old Burrell was in on it. He didn’t say why he was leaving the classroom. He just walked out the door ... with the book in his hand. I figured Old Burrell had to go to the toilet. I know I did.
Without thinking, because Jerry was an action man and not a thinking man, Jerry instantly leaped out of his desk and started running across the front of the classroom toward the nerd Jim. On that day, however, Jim had brought with him a huge bottle of cough syrup and he had it standing up on his desk. Jerry grabbed the desk, with Jim in it, and flipped it over and then jumped on Jim as if Jim was on fire and Jerry was saving him. That glass bottle containing a whole lot of cherry-colored cough syrup broke and a whole lot of syrup and broken glass got on the desk and on Jerry and Jim and into Old Burrell's groovy shag carpet.
I jumped up into the aisle by my desk and started juking my arms around like an uncaged baboon. I felt wonderful. That new girl lowered her head and scrunched her shoulders up and seemed to be wanting to evaporate. The rest of us, in nice grey slacks and black Weejuns and button-down shirts and nice rep ties and navy blue blazers with the crest of one of the finest college preparatory schools in the United States of America on the left breast pocket, went nuts. Our mascot is the War Eagle.
Old Burrell walked back in, accurately analyzed the scene in one millionth of a second, and then headed down the aisle … toward me. I noticed his face was very red and he was baring his teeth and his eyebrows were way up on his forehead and his eyes were real big and Old Burrell was saying some awful things about me personally while spit was flying out of his churning sandwich hole.
Everybody else was screaming, too, but with a sense of fun and joy. Jerry and Jim were still squirming around on the carpet in the cough syrup in their blue school blazers. I convinced Old Burrell to not pull off my arms and legs and head. I also ended up committing unexpectedly to Old Burrell that Adventures of Huckleberry Finn was the greatest book ever written in the world and that Mark Twain knew things. This seemed to calm him.
In 12th grade I had Old Burrell again for literature. I think it was second period. He read Flannery O’Connor stories to us, word for word, which was fine with me, because Jerry finally got kicked out of school and now I was the class president and a member of the honor council and I was finally flying straight and wanted to get into a decent college. Old Burrell said one story of hers was really going to affect you. He read it.
At the moment of grace in A Good Man is Hard to Find, I discovered what I thought might be my calling—good typing. I had no idea when I’d be called, but I kept my ears open for a long time after that. Thirty-one years later my first novel got published. I dedicated it to Old Burrell Brownlow. Now I'm a teacher, too, a reunited one, right across the hall from Old Burrell, but at a different school way across town, where all day long I can hear him ... still reading good stories.