I had a very strange dream last night involving my sixth grade teacher and basketball coach, Mr. Phelan. He passed away quite a few years ago sometime after I left the private junior high where he taught, but his influence on me as a teacher has never really gone away. In my dream I discovered he was still alive, running a taxicab service in Chicago. He and I (and my wife) had the chance to sit down and I got to thank him for how much he’d done for me over the years. And what he’d done for me over the years was actually quite a lot.
Phelan, a heavy-set history teacher who mostly wore ties and sweater vests with white short-sleeved dress shirts, had a really fun way of handling his classroom. Most interesting to me was his unique style of disciplining students. There was one instance when my friend Blake did something purposefully immature, like use the word “orgasm” instead of the word “organism” in a classroom discussion or something like that. We were eleven years old. It happens.
For punishment, instead of writing a “demerit,” which was the sixth grade equivalent of a death sentence, Mr. P. had this young man write a five-page essay about the importance of choosing his words carefully.
It didn’t end there, though. The next day Blake, ever the smartass, turned in five pieces of paper with one or two words on each sheet: “This. Is my. Five. Page. Essay.”
An amused Mr. Phelan gave an understanding grin and told the young man, “This is really impressive. I’m giving you five points extra credit for creativity.” The kid laughed, incredulous. “But,” Phelan continued, “I’m also giving you a ten page essay about the importance of choosing your words correctly. And I want more than one word per page this time.”
There were multitudes of stupid things we did at that age, and as a high school teacher dealing with young people who are, at the very least, mature-ish, I can’t imagine working with the middle school kids. They’re overly-rambunctious, hormonal, and constantly smell like unwashed hair that just came in from outside. We would do things in his history class like throw erasers at each other, draw crude sketches in our notebooks and giggle about them overtly, and one time a classmate of mine kept sneaking pure red Kool-Ade sugar from a plastic bag into his gullet, the results of which were a crimson-stained mouth and a seriously confused teacher.
Each offense was dealt with relative patience and good humor. Well, I shouldn’t say each offense. Once in a while he would lose it, and he was the type of yeller that barked like a 100-pound dog, little flecks of spittle spraying from his mouth and leaving residual droplets on his bottom lip. Fear of one of these outbursts was enough to keep us in check for the most part. We knew we could have fun in Phelan’s class, but not at the expense of order.
The other thing about Mr. Phelan I found so enjoyable—and this is something I’ve incorporated into my own teaching style—was that he’d share his life with us. Seemingly every story in American history could be explained by comparing it something that happened to Mr. P. as a kid. He grew up on the south side of Chicago and grew up a big White Sox fan (another bonus), so hilarious stories about him and his brother sprinkled our history lessons on a daily basis. Those little urban fables helped us remember what we were studying, and now I do the same thing.
But perhaps my fondest memories of Mr. Phelan are as my basketball coach. Since all of our parents were paying good money for us to attend this private school, none of the sports teams had tryouts. Everyone had a chance to make the team, which meant that my sixth grade basketball experience included me and 20 other kids vying for playing time. To put this into perspective, NBA teams can only have 12 active players in uniform on any given night. We, a ragtag batch of sixth and seventh graders weighing a combined total 700 pounds, had 21 players in uniform on any given night.
Here’s the amazing thing: Phelan vowed to get every player in the game every single time. If you were tiny and horrible at basketball, as I was, you may only see 90 seconds of floor time, but that was cool with me. I had a sinking sensation that in any other situation I’d be in street clothes clapping and cheering, and nobody would be able to tell the difference between me and the water boy.
I scored two points that season. It came off a quick steal at St. George; I swiped an inbounds pass after one of my team’s baskets and immediately launched the ball in the general direction of the rim, more out of sheer terror of dribbling it and having them steal it back than anything else. I had a clear lane for a lay-up, but my fifteen foot jumpshot banked in anyway and I had my moment of glory.
Phelan made sure to make a big deal about it in the locker room after the game, and he got all the other players to clap and pat me on the back. He genuinely looked proud of me, so I was able to feel especially proud of myself.
Every Saturday at 10:00 in the morning he’d host an open gym for all of us kids so we could get better. I loved basketball—I still love basketball—so I was there every week to hoop with kids who were way better than me and usually way older than me. Mr. Phelan, despite not being in particularly good shape, would lace up his New Balance shoes (years before they actually became popular) would hoist up threes in a motion not unlike a trebuchet catapulting a stone into an enemy fortress.
Whenever there was a foul he’d raise his hand and say, “I got ‘im,” even if he wasn’t even in the same zip code as where the foul was committed. It was quirky, but it was a Phelan thing. Truth be told, I’ve assumed that in my own pick-up games of basketball to this day, just to sort of keep the dream alive. My teammates don’t get the joke any more than we did when Mr. P. would do it. I wonder if he picked that up from somebody else, and I’m continuing a streak of calling other people’s fouls dating back to James Naismith and peach baskets. Probably. I’m really traditional like that.
In that dream last night I told the guy thank you for influencing me so much. There are three or four people I sort of base myself off of as a teacher, and he’s one of them. I told him that. I also told him how much he fostered my love for basketball by playing me even though I sucked so badly. I told him about how I’m writing for HOOPSWORLD and covering Bulls games and all that, and he seemed legitimately impressed. Proud in an unwavering, authentic sort of way. It’s not as good as sitting down at a pizza place in real life and having the actual discussion, but I’ll take it.
Is this essay ten pages yet?