It’s my opinion that everyone has crossed paths with a teacher that they felt obligated—socially or otherwise—to hate. I met mine the first day I was led with the rest of my kindergarten brood up the clickety-clomp ramp to my first elementary school music class, taught by an old, curmudgeonly man named Mr. Pickett. By the time I was in fifth grade, I was half-convinced that he, like a mythical beast, must sleep in the cave-like music portable he made his domain. Scratch that: Mr. Pickett was much more than a man, especially to the kid who deemed it necessary to duck into the nearest adjacent hallway corridor whenever he walked by. To a dramatic preadolescent who always read fantasy novels at recess, the merest flash of his signature blue ensemble hat descending the ramp reverberated with the thunderous footfalls of a giant climbing down his beanstalk, an avenging colossus who came to Earth to hold Jack accountable for his childish mischief. Of course, I was the foolish hero of the tale, which naturally meant that Mr. Pickett was coming to grind my bones to make his coffee. Unknowingly, he was featured as the villain in many of my childhood heroic fantasies, and I hated him with a passion. Since he was evil, he obviously terrified the wits out of me.
Under the brim of his regal hat of office, Mr. Pickett bore a weary gait, steely smirk, and vague aura of dissatisfaction with his boisterous, largely disinterested charges—vestments of his position I suspect are common among the underpaid, undervalued, and overcaffeinated, in a word, teachers. Saddled with the Herculean task of extracting sounds reasonably pleasing to the ear from a boisterous din of bored children, Mr. Pickett was locked in a perpetual battle of wills against a horde of hopelessly untruly gremlins with fear as the only viable weapon in his toolbox. As with all of the other disciplines of his job, he was a prodigiously quick study and had grown to master the art of subtle intimidation: wielding his heavy gaze with the air of a shepherd dog corralling a herd of wayward sheep. With a single snide remark, he could shatter a disobedient junior’s confidence, and with a grudging nod, he could sculpt it. With him, there was always an “us” and a “them,” and I always tried to remain in the camp of the good ones, with varying degrees of success. I felt sure he must hate those who crossed him, and I didn’t want to be unfairly labeled as a bad kid.
Every spring, without fail, the class huddled around his dated television to watch a stage production of “Peter and the Wolf” on a battered VHS tape, and each time, when the fearsome wolf began his dramatic prance towards Peter’s door, I couldn’t help but see Mr. Pickett’s smug mask replicated across its furry face. I always wondered why he wouldn’t just leave Peter alone; my eyes were glued to the wolf’s razor-sharp teeth, glazing over the beauty of his graceful dance.
I remember the first rehearsal for my fifth-grade spring musical, a production of Mary Poppins Jr. A mass of stir-crazy, chatty children, scripts in hand, trying to get comfortable while sitting put long past their tolerance on the cold floor of the MPR, and parents (mostly moms) socialized in pockets and cliques not dissimilar from their children’s. Of course, the grand architect himself was pacing back and forth on the raised stage, routinely attempting to reel our attention back in as he painstakingly attempted to explain our five-month rehearsal schedule, expectations concerning line memorization, and ensemble groups for group numbers with an unsettling, uncharacteristic intensity. I remember thinking that he was angry; I had never seen him so animated before. It took months of intimate proximity to Director Pickett to realize he might have just been excited.
I remember our closing night. I remember taking our final bow as a cast, the adrenaline rush of communal triumph and pride. I remember scanning the jubilant audience for my parents and friends, my eyes eventually registering Mr. Pickett, standing next to his operating chair behind the spotlight, applauding. As I accepted a bouquet from my parents and discussed what I felt sure I had messed up, I saw him mingle through the teeming crowd of parents and families. Although he seemed possessed by the same characteristic vehemence that I had always felt was a sign of danger, of a coming outburst or criticism, he surprisingly congratulated each family and complimented their assuredly broadway-bound actor. Later, he told me he had enjoyed my accent, my terrible amalgamation of pseudo-German pseudo-Russian stereotypes from which I had shaped my character, the evil banker Von Hussler. I’m still embarrassed I performed with that accent in front of my whole school–I thought it was so cool.
Later, my parents said that Mr. Pickett had misty eyes as the show came to a close, his ice-blue eyes melted into tears of joy. Sitting presently in a sixteen-year-old body, I don’t think I knew Mr. Pickett as well as I thought I did, though I laugh at the realization that five-year-old me also wrote stories. I see now that directing the musical was his dance, and that yes, although he may have been weirder than I thought he was, he was also more complicated, passionate, (drolly) humorous, and kind. He bared his fangs an awful lot, but I wonder if it’s possible that when the wolf came knocking on Peter’s door, he just wanted to share a morning coffee–not eat him alive. Maybe I should have let him in.
About the Author:
Haven Beckman (she/her) is a queer high school student based in the San Francisco Bay Area. An aspiring writer and editor, she writes poetry, creative nonfiction, and works of journalism. Her work has previously been published in the Apprentice Writer Magazine. Her favorite word is “shenanigans.”