Wednesday, April 21, 2010

What's it all about, Mary?

The Wigs-A-G-Go thing got me thinking back to an incident in my Junior High School days in 1975-76 at Byron Junior High School. I was in section 7-6; the seven told you what you grade was and the “six” was the section or unit of students that you took classes with. In Seventh grade your section consisted of 20-25 students who all had the same teachers throughout the school, but you walked independently from room to room during the ten minute class change period. In eighth grade, the units began to only share half the classes and in ninth grade, you signed up for your classes independent of who was in class with you.

Anyway, 7-6 had Dr. Mary Riley for English. Riley was an unknown quantity at Byron as she was a new hire into Shaker, and Shaker just didn’t hire anyone. A job teaching in Shaker was a golden star in any public school teachers resume.  If they hired you, you were worthy of teaching in one of the best public systems in the United States.

Dr. Riley was nice and her classes were par for the course. Because she was also the adviser for the school newspaper, the Shaker Bee, many of her creative writing assignments were used in the paper, such as it was.

But because she was new, and because none of our older siblings or friends had had her, we knew nothing about "her" or what she was apt to in a given instance.  And we needed something definite to mark her as, because that what 13 years need.  Like other 13 year olds we were curious about her, but you couldn't go up to her and ask "Do you have any children of your own?" and "If not, why?"  So we started making stuff up based on observations.  Thats what 13 years old.  We thought that she smoked, which back then wasn’t a scarlet letter issue, it just was fact that we could smell.  But looking back, all the teachers were allowed to smoke in the lounge and it could have been that she had been in the teachers lounge right before our class. We were able to find out that her husband was involved in education on some level as well, we had no idea where or what he actually did. We also learned that she lived on the west side of Cleveland making her an official exotic in east side Shaker Heights.  Back then, Rudyard Kipling's axiom on east and west was in force in Cleveland and to those of us in Shaker, the West side of Cleveland was someplace that only went to when your family flew somewhere on a plane, or to pick someone up when they came to visit.

First semester was nothing out of the ordinary and her English was a class that you went to, but didn't dread, unlike some other teacher's and their classes.  Second semester started off promising until  one day in late winter when the normally averageDr. Riley showed up dressed as if she had had a rough night dancing in a cage on the Dean Martin Show. 

Her eyes looked as if she had a migrain that morning, but it was her clothing and hair that knock us for a loop. In addition to wearing a mini dress and knee boots, our 40 something mellow teacher also showed up wearing a large silver afro that would have put Angela Davis to shame. Normally her hair was a free-form head of salt and pepper hair with some curl and some not curled hair, and this was accompanied by the usual blouse and slacks, or the occassional skirt. So the leap to what looked like Very Mod Squad took all of us by surprise.  This wasn't her modus operandi.  Something serious was amiss.  This was not how a Shaker Teacher dressed and we were in shock.

She had a couple problems going on. First and foremost was that the outfit was a good ten years out of date, unless you were one of my father’s clients who worked on a street corner.  The second was the wig.  By 1975, women didn't wear wigs like this unless they starred in blaxpotation films.  But there she was, walking down the halls, leaving behind her a trail of students who were either slck jawed or whispering about what they weren't sure they were seeing.

Between homeroom and our class, the school buzzed.  Other seventh grade classes other than us had her. Did she explain it?  Mention it? Get home late from a costume party? Beuhler, Beuhler, Beuhler?

English for 7-6 was in the afternoon, so we had to wait.  Evidently she was perked up a bit by the time we entered the room. That day she was teaching some bizarre paperback called “Alvarado Street” that pitted under privileged white kids who smeared mashed potatoes in their hair and then used a pomade of gasoline to top it off, against a group of Hispanic “utes”. The book was suppossed to give us some sort of insight into a world that we didn't have in Shaker, but most of thought it was bullcrap.  The book was implausible to us, so taking it seriously was hard enough. However having it taught to us by someone imitating Rosalind Cash in the last half of Omega Man made it all the more like a Fellini movie than a day in our mundane lives.

But this was Shaker Heights, in the 1970s. We were a community of madras, Izods and Peck & Peck. Levi’s were in, go-go boots in flashy colors were not. We couldn’t look her in the face – we wern’t sure what the deal was.  While the youths in Alverado Street seemed cliché and unreal, Dr. Riley's attire for the day was unnerving and it left us feeling as if we didn't know what to do or say or look at.

"Can anyone tell me why they rub mashed potatoes in their hair and then rub in the gasoline?" she asked, looking around the room, her afro wig bobbing with every head motion.  "Well then, can anyone tell what they would be if you had to be one or the other?  A greaser...anyone?  A gasser? Veronica, which would you be if you had to be one or the other?"

Veronica Szereba just sat there, panic struck.  The lady with the silver afro was asking her to make a choice, and like the rest of us, she was afraid of saying something like "A greaser, I guess, Dr. Afro, I mean, Dr. Riley."

"Well, what about Pam?  Pam what about you? A greaser or a gasser?"

Pam Bashine who sat behind Vernorica and was kind twisted in her seat "I'd rather be neither, but if I had to choose one or the other, the greaser would be less afraid to be around open flames, I guess."

Dr. Riley's hand went up to her wig and scratched her head, moving the whole wig.

"I'm not sure what I would want in my hair," she said, as if it wasn't already obvious what she had her hand in her wig, scratching away at her head.  The only thing missing from that moment was a dwarf delivering a message from the office, because if this surreal moment had been a part of a Fellini movie, this is what would have happened.

Evidently the fashion of the moment changed the next day as the old Dr. Riley returned, exactly as we felt she should have looked. Tensions in the school diminished.  Acceptable clothing, no wig and completely normal as if the day before had never happened. And it makes me wonder – did she do it to try and elicit a reaction? Was this some type of personal rebellion? Was it connected with some type of educational research? Or was she trying to jerk our chains.

Whatever it was, it left us with more questions than we dared asked of her. And because she didn’t return to work at our school the following year, we could never go back and see if pulled the same wardrobe stunt again.  The whole episode remains known best by the "Silver Afro Incident" to my now 47 year old former  classmates.  I don't know if the students today would have been more assertive in demanding an answer to the attire, but we were raised to look the other way, even if it meant a certain trip to the Shrink to question that reality that day in that school.  Did we really see it?  Did we really not ask?  Did they talk about her in the Teachers Lounge.  And, "what was it all about, Mary?"

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