Part One – The Ill Fitting Suit
Monsieur Neumark is how I knew him – my freshman/sophomore year, high school French teacher.
A small, skinny man with a sparse goatee and dark, frizzy hair with a Bob Ross perm.
He really got into the whole “French” thing: from his starched, striped shirts with French cuffs, to his far-out, 1970s-wide, Toulouse Letrec ties; which he regularly swapped with an ascot for that truly continental vibe.
But that vibe didn’t jibe – at least not with me – because I found him an odd, little man who wore wool socks.
Around his neck.
To help his throat during frequent bouts with laryngitis, he once explained — francais — when I stared at it a little too long while standing at the side of his desk one day.
Determined, he seemed, to be somebody else.
Someone more interesting, more cosmopolitan.
E tres certainment, un les Francais.
And maybe he was all of these things.
But not to me.
Because all I saw was an odd, little man, struggling to try on someone else’s suit.
Someone else’s life.
But it wasn’t a match, as he squiggled and squirmed in the ill-fitting being in front of the classroom, annoyed when we didn’t grab French-made suits of our own.
And each day I watched him be someone he wasn’t, which made me not listen.
Which made me feel artless and awkward and restless and destined to fail because I just didn’t get it.
Monsieur Neumark was like the wool sock around his neck.
Out of place and out of step.
And I did not care to follow.
Part Two: Mrs. Alleman’s Magic
I once wrote a children’s fairytale in which a funny, little witch named Addie Mostsincere leads the two heroes on an exciting and daring adventure. In the years since, I’d never attributed the character to anyone in particular, until just recently, when I began writing about a beloved high school teacher, Enid Alleman, or Mrs. Alleman.
A teeny, tiny titan of the teaching profession, who I was lucky enough to have for Speech my junior year.
Like my fairytale character, she had a little magic.
Most kids liked Mrs. Alleman because Mrs. Alleman was not like most teachers.
She was not like most people.
Hovering somewhere near 5 feet tall, she wore Peter Pan blouses, pedal pushers and ballerina flats. Her dark hair had a pixie cut and you’d never see her without her red, cat-eye glasses, behind which lay a set of mischievous and wise, yet sorrowful eyes.
Her diminuitive size and spritly appearance gave her that Fairy Godmother-like quality, but her immense character, passion and compassion gave her wings.
Entering her classroom was not like entering other classrooms and it wasn’t all the personal knick-knacks she had filled it with over the years. It was Mrs. Alleman. Who filled it with her penpal-to-prisoners personality.
And evenmoreso, allowed her students to fill it with theirs.
Unabashed and unreservedly.
I never knew what to expect. No one did.
Mrs. Alleman liked the idea of finding one’s self and one’s inspiration in the unexpected moment.
One long overdue, spring day, with the two, immense sash windows of her classroom fully raised to invite in the sweet breezes, my brother stood at the podium, in front of Mrs. Alleman’s 4th period speech class when a sudden gust of wind snatched the paper from the platform and quickly swept it through the enormous windows, into the courtyard, one floor down.
Without hesitation, Jim dashed from the classroom (just ahead of some classmates trying to beat him to it), down the stairs and into the courtyard, where he found his wind swept speech and — with Mrs. Alleman and the remainder of the class leaning from the sills — finished his presentation.
Barely missing a beat.
Mrs. Alleman told students about the incident for years and I don’t think because of the random silliness of it.
Which she wouldn’t deny.
But because of what Jim did with it.
He followed the breezes, instead of fighting them.
And it was musical – even a little magical.
Just as Mrs. Alleman was.
Who, like Addie, urged us heroes to explore the worlds within and without.
To follow the breezes.