Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Mr. C, Mr. O'B, and Sacco and Vanzetti

While poring over miscellaneous scraps of paper from my past recently, I encountered an eighth-grade history test, replete with both a matching column and "True or False" section. Mr. C, I’ll call him, hand wrote the test and had it mimeographed. That was the technology of the mid-1970s. One of the questions on it was: “In 1924 the first pizza parlor in America was opened by Sacco and Vanzetti?” I’m proud to report that I got the answer right as well as the previous question: “The 1920’s was a time of great hardship and depression?” As for the former test query, Mr. C, I suspect, would have to think twice today about associating an Italian surname with pizza pie. I'm certain somebody would turn him in for the offense—and toot sweet. Then again, everything is so standardized nowadays that a Mr. C history test—we called it "Social Studies" back then—wouldn't even reach the modern-day equivalent of the mimeograph machine.

Another snippet of paper in my archives was a handwritten summary of the "Best of Mr. O’B," my geometry teacher in high school. While I didn’t care much for the subject matter, Mr. O’B was a true original—both a good teacher and a performance artist extraordinaire. When the school year ended, and he reported that he wouldn’t be returning in the fall for another go-round—he got a better offer—I recall being profoundly saddened to think that I would never, ever see him again. His lectures were entertainingly frenetic and he loved nothing more than having fun with people’s names—both their first and their last. He was an Irishman who, above all else, enjoyed calling on kids with multi-syllabic Italian surnames. We had an awful lot of them in our high school. Somebody named Vanzetti in his class, for instance, would have had his name pronounced in a melodious sing-song:“VAN-zet-TI.” He liked one-syllable first and last names, too. A kid named “Bell,” I remember, rang well in the classroom.

From where I—and just about everybody else—sat, Mr. O'B's class is where entertainment met education, and his antics didn’t offend anybody. In fact, we wanted to be included in the show. "Oh, Nick...oh, Nick," are in my notes, so I was indeed, although I don't recall the context. More than three decades have passed since the Mr. O'B show and—so it seems—virtually everybody is conditioned to be offended for one reason or another. Mr. O’B very likely had to clean up his act at some point in his teaching career, if that is where he pitched his tent. (He probably was in his mid-twenties when I had him.) If this is what in fact happened, the irony is that his students from the 1970s—who adored him—did him in as the humorless, uptight adults they became.

(Photo from the personal collection of Nicholas Nigro)

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