Friday, June 19, 2009


We just had one of those violent High School incidents in my part of the world. There was a big fight at a local high school. Knives were drawn and several kids and a teacher who tried to intervene ended up in hospital.

So now there's a big debate here about metal detectors, cops in schools, what teachers should do in such situations -- and probably whether Fencing and Kendo should be on the ciriculum.

It's been 40 years since I was in high school, so I won't offer an opinion on all that. But it reminded me of a teacher I had who faced a similar predicament and what I learned from him.

I had a lot of great teachers (And if any of them are reading this, my apologies if I'm mispelling names. It's been a while and who knows what happened to that yearbook).

There was Mr. Gowdie, a rugby built hydrant of a Scotsman, who taught Latin and so loved ancient History he could easily be distracted from declensions to spending a whole class discussing battle tactics of the Roman army.

There was Mr. McKague, a lapsed Jesuit with a love of life that made you want to learn everything there was about anything he taught.

There was elderly and cranky Mr. Muir, who snagged me by the collar one day, pulling me back into his classroom and said, "Why are you wasting your time with Science? You're a story teller. Let somebody else find a cure for Cancer. There are more important things to be accomplished."

And there was Mr. Ramendez.

Mr. Ramendez taught Math and Geometry. He was Venezulan or Columbian, maybe 5' 6" and slight, looking and sounding exactly like Edward James Olmos in "Stand and Deliver", the brilliant film biography of another Hispanic Math teacher.

He was easy going with a dry sense of humor, quiet and reserved. But distant and detached. I had him all four years of High School and I don't think I ever once heard him raise his voice or say a single word in anger or disgust.

He was one of those people you barely noticed and never gave a second thought about. He wasn't in our lives and we weren't in his.

Until trouble came to our school.

Gangs weren't an issue in Regina in 1967. I'd seen "Blackboard Jungle". I'd hummed along with the Sharks and the Jets. I'd smirked when Brando looked up from that diner Jukebox and said "Whaddaya got?". But that was stuff in faraway places and movies.

And then we got a gang.

They called themselves "The Apollos" and patterned themselves after the Hell's Angels, with motorcycles, sleeveless demin jackets emblazoned with their colors and the first tattoos I'd seen on somebody who hadn't been in the navy.

There were four members at my school. Big, tough, no nonsense guys who made it clear they'd as soon kick your ass as look at you and constantly looked for trouble.

We were all afraid of them, careful what we said in their presence, avoiding eye contact, doing all those things kids do to not attract attention.

Two of them were in my senior algebra class and I'll never forget the first day they walked in wearing their colors, daring anyone to confront them.

Mr. Ramendez sat on his desk, playing catch with a piece of chalk. They riveted their attention on him, almost begging him to say something.

So he did.

He walked to the back of the room, made a show of noticing the vests and stood between the two thugs, speaking very calmly.

"Apollos. Do you know what a-pollo is in Spanish?"

One of them eyed him.

"A chicken."

The kid glared. Mr. Ramendez smiled and nodded.

"It's true. So you're a bunch of Chickens?"

He went on like that for a good five minutes. Not backing down. Never showing one glimpse of fear. Just doing Chicken jokes as the two muscled goofs steamed.

And from then on, he found an excuse in every class to push their buttons. He'd ask an impossible math question, pointing to one of the gang members for an answer, greeting the puzzled look or silence with a soft (Puk-puk-puk)-- nobody here but us chickens.

Within a short time, the two came to class less frequently. Then they stopped coming all together. Mr. Ramendez never seemed to notice or even commented on their absence. If they were there he baited them. But out of sight out of mind.

On the last day of class, those of us who bothered to show were mostly hoping for a hint at what might be on the final exam.

But for the first time, a man, who had seemed little interested in us beyond our being an excuse for a paycheck, seemed to be looking right at us.

"I hope you learned more than Math this semester," he said as the class came to an end. "I hope you learned not to be afraid of people who want you to fear them. There are many things to be cautious of in life. But people who demand fear don't fall into that category."

"When you refuse to be afraid, to be silent, to be intimidated, you take away the only real power they have over you."

"Save your fears for more important things. Tomorrow's test for example..."

We all laughed. But the lesson stuck.

Every time I come up against someone demanding my unthinking obedience, my silence or respect for their skill at intimidation, I remember that small teacher facing an evil he wanted out of his classroom and away from his students and refusing to play its game.

You never know how strong you are until you simply refuse to be afraid any longer.


Anonymous said...

Great post. Growing up in Regina in the late 80s/early 90s, I lived right across the tracks from the Apollos' clubhouse (they were just off Dewdney, I was on Broder Street -- I don't know if they're still in the same location, but I do know they're Hell's Angels now). Anyway, the Apollos clubhouse was the stuff of movies -- barbed wire, concrete walls, barred windows, security cameras. As a teen, I used to sit on my roof at night and watch from afar (across the train tracks) as they partied virtually every summer night, with their fire pit parties, loud music and beer. By the time I was in high school all the members were older, so they're weren't any Apollo members at Balfour high -- except for two big burly brothers who looked like Nordic warriors, thick blonde hair and scraggly beards, dressed in leather biker gear... and who everyone said were 'connected'. I never had a problem with them --- in fact, I got to know a couple of Apollo bikers by virtue of proximity, as I was but a neighbourhood kid at the time -- one guy I remember was Tiny, and he seemed huge (but I was only 12), and he drove a beige hog. I found the Apollos a little scary but, as predictable, also captivating. The rough n' tumble fringes of society, just across the tracks.

Ana Lillian said...

very nice post. i came to your blog by accident or chance or fate....
what ever.
anyway i will keep on reading you.

Megan Edwards said...

Nice post. I came across your blog while doing some research and Googling the phrase "lapsed Jesuit." Glad I found you!