Thursday, September 16, 2004

Teacher

He came slip sliding into my life with a dramatic Kramer-esque entry into the classroom one fine morning in September of 1978. The childish babble was briefly stilled as we appraised our new English teacher with preteen doubt and scorn. He straightened his tie in a nonchalant, "I meant to do that..." fashion and made his way the the front of the room. He removed his moderately garish sport coat and placed it on the back of his chair with a flourish. The noisy babble had resumed around me, but I only had eyes for this unusual man. He had an unruly shock of warm red hair on his head that he had somewhat tamed into submission. Standing in front of the room, he gingerly planted his butt cheeks on the edge of his desk and let his eyes rove slowly over the crowd. His eyes met mine briefly and he winked at my slack jawed stare.

The expression on his face was inscrutable, at first. The smile hit his eyes with a sparkle, followed by a huge boyish grin. He cleared his throat, pulled at his loud patterned neck tie and suddenly, in a smooth motion, flung the tie over his shoulder purposefully, stood gracefully and said, "Let's get down to business." The sudden silence was so profound, I swore I could hear people blinking.

That scene was played out, day after day, with comforting and amusing regularity (only the patterns on the ties and sport coats changed). Mr. Ben Maxwell was warm, friendly, and genuinely FUNNY! It didn't take long before the majority of the class adored him. Decades later I still grin as I think about Mr. Maxwell's mannerisms and teaching style. He really knew how to work a room and oh BROTHER could he teach.

How many people can say they LOVE Shakespeare. I do! Prior to Mr. Maxwell, I would dread reading the bard worse than a trip to the dentist. Who could make heads or tails of that ancient frou-frou English dialog? I have vivid memories of Mr. Maxwell reading Romeo and Juliet using different voices for the various characters. He read the lines with great drama and epic amounts of over-acting. He would pause and explain some of the more obscure passages and continue with his performance culminating in each of us being assigned a part to read. He would encourage us to read it with as much drama as we could muster. I give him much credit. Mustering much of ANYTHING out of jaded preteens was a real challenge.

Juliet: O Romeo, Romeo!
Wherefore art thou Romeo?
Deny thy father and refuse thy name;
Or, if thou wilt not, be but sworn my love,
And I'll no longer be a Capulet.

See...most folks think Juliet is wondering where Romeo is. I know better! She is wondering WHY is he Romeo...the family he came from was unfortunate, since they were her family's sworn enemies. If he can't give up his family ties, she would be willing to give up hers. Woo, the delicious conflict.


During our study of Romeo and Juliet, Mr. Maxwell announce one day that he had a surprise for us. The surprise turned out to be a film version of the great romantic tragedy for our viewing pleasure. Well...film strips, actually. Turns out it would have been prohibitively expensive for him to obtain an actual print of Franco Zeffirelli's Romeo & Juliet. He did a great job of making the film strips into a really memorable event! Whew, the drama...action...passion! It got my teen hormones in a bit of a dither. I've been secretly in love with Leonard Whiting (Romeo) ever since and the actual film is one of my all time favorites.

Ah, Mr. Maxwell. Leaving your class at the end of the year was an almost tragic event for me. I'm afraid Mr. Bouchard really suffered by comparison when I entered English class the following year. I remember walking past your classroom on one of my frequent bathroom breaks and smiling wistfully at the peals of laughter coming from your new batch of students. I hope they appreciated your keen fashion sense, flare for the dramatic, and that ever so graceful sweep of necktie over your shoulder, as much as I did.

Thanks Mr. Maxwell.


I recently searched for my old junior high school on the internet, on a whim. They had a webpage and a faculty listing that included email addresses. I contacted the librarian to see if I could find any information about Ben Maxwell. The only thing she could tell me was that he retired a few years ago to a small town in Maine. I hope he is enjoying his retirement. I still plan to dedicate my first novel to him one day.

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