By Charles Layton
This is Teacher Appreciation Week, and it puts me in mind of the teacher I most appreciated in high school.
John Pratt taught me junior English at a time in my life when I was a cut-up, a goof-off, an underachiever and a royal pain to most of my teachers.
In spite of all that, something about Mr. Pratt touched the serious side of me. He was the first authentic intellectual I had ever met. But although he took his subject matter far more seriously than most of the other teachers, he did so without a trace of the pedantic.
I recall him talking about Melville, or maybe it was Tennyson – one of those 19th-century authors with a full beard and a non-smiling visage. Mr. Pratt explained that during most of their active lives most of these writers were not at all the austere figures they appeared to be in the illustrations in our textbooks. In fact, he explained, when much of their best work was being done they were young and adventurous.
One day, for homework, he assigned us an excerpt from Thoreau. “I think you’ll like Thoreau,” he said. “He was a guy who got fed up with it all and went out and lived in the woods.” Of course, after hearing that, I couldn’t wait to read him, and when I did, I wasn’t disappointed. I became a life-long fan of the cranky Concord non-conformist.
I also have an image of Mr. Pratt standing in front of us reading Kipling’s poem Gunga Din with a British accent, or his best effort at one.
“…But if it comes to slaughter you will do your work on water
An’ you’ll lick the bloomin’ boots of ‘im that’s got it.
Now in Injia’s sunny clime, where I used to spend my time
A-servin’ of ‘Er Majesty the Queen,
Of all them black-faced crew the finest man I knew
Was our regimental Bhisti, Gunga Din.”
Such racial content was tricky in our small Southern town. This was 1957. Only later did I realize just how tricky it was, and that Mr. Pratt was probably going out on a limb by reciting such a poem.
My friend Mike and I used to drop by his house from time to time. We’d sit under the pecan trees in his backyard, drink iced tea and chat. It turned out he was a great jazz fan, and since Mike and I were too, we debated with him about things like who was better, Dizzy Gillespie or Louis Armstrong. He was a wonderful debater. He knew his stuff. He defended his position forcefully (he was an Armstrong man) but in a humorous and disarming way.
One day the talk turned to civil rights, which was not something I had ever really paid attention to. At that time, in that town, a school teacher could have been fired for advocating such a cause. But Mr. Pratt approached it in a most nimble way. Blacks in Little Rock had been trying to integrate Central High School that year. The governor of Arkansas, Orval Faubus, was resisting, and President Eisenhower had sent in the 101st Airborne to keep order. There were near-riots when the black students arrived at the school each morning. I was only vaguely aware of all that.
“What’s going on there is important,” Mr. Pratt told me. “You ought to have an opinion about it. When you see pictures in the paper of those students trying to go into that school, and the crowd of people shouting at them and trying to block their way – well, you ought to figure out which side you’re on in that situation.”
Then he let the subject drop. It was all he needed to say.
About the time I graduated from high school, Mr. Pratt joined the English faculty at a small college in Stephenville, Texas. In his later years, when I would return to Texas to visit my mother, I used to make a side trip to visit him, even though it was a two-hour drive. He was retired by then and pretty well house-bound, but he and his wife would always have a plate of terrific barbeque sandwiches ready for lunch, and ice cream for dessert. John and I would each have a couple of Bloody Marys, as well. After lunch, his wife would leave us to ourselves in John’s small den, where we’d sit and talk about trout fishing or politics or literature, whatever was on his mind. He was interested in my work as a journalist, so I told him stories about that.
By then, John and I were just comfortable old friends. I would sometimes remind him of something he had done or said back in high school that had impressed me, but invariably he would have no memory of it.
His health declined. One day, here in Ocean Grove, I received a call from his wife telling me that John had died. The news fell like a hammer. Then, as we talked, she told me that my visits, and my obvious respect for her husband, had meant a great deal to him, and also to her. It was the most comforting thing she could possibly have said.