I lived for 50 years in Elmsford, NY, a small town in Westchester County, north of New York City. There are things I would ordinarily tell others when we meet. However, in this time of virus stress and isolation, I wanted to record these moments before I can’t tell them to anyone in person any more… and if you think this first story is odd, you just wait…
In the summer of 1963, when I was 14 years old, my teacher dropped dead in the classroom. He collapsed in a heap, doing a half-turn on the way down, his jacket flying open and his tie askew. He hit the back of his head on the industrial linoleum of the classroom floor, and his head bounced. It sounded just like when you go bowling and balls come out of that return tunnel and hit the other bowling bowls: a solid click of hard on hard.
I think that, when things wildly out of the ordinary happen, we don’t know how we will react to the situation, especially when we are young. So, we sort of watch what we do, just in case we ever find ourselves in that truly weird situation again. (No, I never have…)
I sat, as I usually did because of my poor vision, in the classroom’s front. Later, I did so because someone told me that smart kids always sat in the front row and the teachers usually called on the kids in the back who were trying to slide under the teacher’s radar. By the time I figured out that this advice was nonsense, I realized I was smart enough to sit anywhere I wanted.
Oh, yeah, the dead teacher. I was taking a course in summer school (an advanced course, I’ll have you know) at Woodlands High School about the History of the English Novel, taught by Dr. Thompson of Westlake High School. I knew of really intelligent people called “doctor” in fields other than medicine, but I had never heard of one of these distinguished people teaching high school.
But on this day, a Friday in late July, Doc Thompson, as we called him, did not appear. In his place came a substitute, an old man named Mr. Proulx. He wrote his name on the board and pronounced it like “Proolks.” That morning, he taught me and about twenty older students (I was the only freshman) about the contrasting themes novelists often employ. Mr. Proulx was tall and thin, an Ichabod Crane type, with wispy gray hair that barely covered his head. He wore a really nice suit and, unlike Doc, did not take off his jacket, loosen his tie, and roll up his sleeves when he taught. He seemed incredibly ancient to me.
I still remember a few of those themes (I think). For example, you could be like William Vanderbilt, the wealthy railroad guy, and say “The public be damned!” and scorn the masses, or you could be like John Steinbeck in The Grapes of Wrath and celebrate the grit and determination of the poor.
Mr. Proulx was an okay teacher, but he had none of the dynamism and youthful vigor (it was the Kennedy years) of our Doc. Right after telling us about Vanderbilt and Steinbeck. Mr. Proulx, standing at the front of the class and chewing on the end of his glasses, said “Let us continue” and turned toward the metal desk in front of the modern green blackboard.
That’s when he pirouetted and went down not three feet from me. I heard him say something like “help me” in a really slurred way, but that could have been in my imagination. His head started bleeding badly, sending a stream of dark liquid across the green-and-white-speckled linoleum tiles.
I watched it come closer and closer to my foot. I remember looking down at my left foot, at my well-worn black Converse sneakers and my new green socks, as the blood came closer and closer. I was so close I could hear it running in glug-glug-glug pulses like a sideways bottle emptying.
I moved my foot, so the blood flowed past me.
Everyone froze. A few of the girls gasped. A few of the boys in the back stood up at their desks and leaned forward to see what was going on. Finally, one boy ran to the door and flew down the hall to another classroom. And all I could think of was, “I could have done that.” But of course, I didn’t. Then I figured, “Well, he’s probably an Eagle Scout or something and knows what to do when stuff like that happens.”
About ten seconds had elapsed since the teacher went down, but it felt like a long time.
Two other teachers came in and shooed us out to a vacant classroom across the hall. Some of us cried. I didn’t. Then they took us to the library when the paramedics came (I guess they had paramedics back then — some guys in uniforms turned up).
They left us there in the library until they told us summer school was over for the day. No one said anything officially, but the word was that the teacher had died. I went to meet my neighbor in the parking lot, a football player who had failed geometry or whatever, and we piled into his old Chevy and drove home.
My mother asked me why I was home early. “The teacher dropped dead in class today,” I told her. She didn’t believe me until she saw the article in the Saturday White Plains Reporter Dispatch (the paperboys called it the “Distorter Repatch”). Massive stroke, it said. Dead before he hit the floor said my mother.
I don’t remember that weekend at all. I suppose I did my paper route and all…
But I remember Monday. After typing class on brand-new IBM Selectric typewriters, I climbed the stairs to the same classroom as Friday.
They had cleaned the floor. I’m not sure why I expected a pool of blood still to be there.
Doc came in late. He took off his shades (he always wore sunglasses) and said, “So, did I miss anything on Friday?”
A lot of the others all started talking at once. I couldn’t say a word, but I sat there with this strange smile frozen on my face.
Rest in peace, Mr. Proulx. You have gone before us where we all must follow. But I hope my time is far in the future…