Characters who helped shape mine (#2 in a series) The Professor

It would be cliché to say that some of the greatest teachers I have had in my life never stood in front of a classroom; the best lessons rarely came framed by chalkboard proscenium. One of the most unique teachers I ever encountered, I had  the privilege of seeing in action holding class for his solitary student in a south Denver donut shop.

I matriculated, pushing maple bars.

Ray Rector was an anthropology professor at the Denver University; I was the seventeen year old nighttime clerk at the Donut House, a small, ma-and-pa shop in a dingy, half-block long strip mall at the busy intersection of Illiff Avenue and Colorado Boulevard.

No ivy-covered hall of academia, except maybe to me.

I began working at The Donut House in the summer of 1976, just before starting my senior year of high school. Ray was a regular at the shop, which was just a five-minute drive from the D.U. campus, and he could be found there many evenings grading papers or reading, and drinking copious amounts of coffee.

Morning was the busy time of day at the shop; evenings providing the chance to eat donuts and write, as my more sporadic nighttime clientele consisted mostly of some local beat cops (who always got free coffee) the guys from the Chicken Delight restaurant down the block, and friends of mine from school. We would also get the stray D.U. student or two who would hang out and study.

And there was Ray.

We met early in my Donut House tenure. My usual perch in the evening was on a bar stool situated in the doorway leading from the donut frying area to the back office. This elevated vantage point was centrally located, and high enough that I could easily see over the glass display cases, affording me an unobstructed view of the front of the shop and door.

Sitting on the stool also allowed me to brace my right foot on the door jamb, so I could use my propped-up thigh as an easel for my notebook: ‘The Thinker’ in apron and paper sanitary hat.

This is how Ray saw me one night as he came in for coffee and a cruller. I had chatted with him a few times before, but this particular night I was apparently a little too much in what I was writing, and was a little slower than usual to react to the jingling bell of the door opening.

He greeted me with a chuckle, commenting on how engrossed I was in what he assumed was homework, when in actuality I was actually me writing a poem. Our casual small talk that led to this discovery piqued his curiosity, and he asked if he could read some of my work sometime.

‘Sometime’ became a regular thing.

I worked three or four nights a week at the Donut House, and rare was the week Ray didn’t pop in at least one or two of those nights. He became an ongoing reader and editor of my stuff, offering up elaborate, eloquent critiques from a little round table in a neighborhood donut shop.

That is, when he wasn’t grading his real/classroom student’s papers from the same table by the wall, or when he wasn’t regaling me with anthropological insights on all things word and language related. Ray loved words, as did I. The volume of my writing amazed him, and the quality impressed him. Every night I went to work I brought at least one or two of my notebooks along, hoping for enough time between raised glazed sales to get some good stuff down on paper, and in hope that Ray would stop in – not just to share my latest work with him, but simply to engage in fascinating conversation.

Ray was middle-aged and divorced. He had grown up in rural Oklahoma, traveled a lot, seen and done a lot, and was more than happy to share his stories and expertise. And I was a willing listener, soaking it all in. As an anthropology professor, he had a curiosity and interest in all things human-oriented. This included my regaling him with tales of my yearly summer Greyhound bus jaunts from Denver to my ancestral homeland of Minnesota, and all my summers at the lake. Tales of the northwoods and young love got special attention.

As interested as Ray was in my writing, the process of my writing fascinated him; tales of writing while watching Nebraska roll endlessly by through SceniCruiser windows, my purchase and reading of small town newspapers from various, obscure stops. Overnight layover stays in depots in Omaha and Des Moines, all perfect locales and people-watching, behavioral fodder for my writings.

My perspectives of small-town middle America as a city kid fascinated him, and his interest only intensified after I graduated and moved on to a career in small-market radio, and we continued our friendship via the U.S.P.S.

But that year wasn’t just about my writing; Ray was expanding my horizons.

As often as he was in residence at one of our tables with a stack of papers to grade or a book, he would frequently find himself engaging other patrons (D.U. students, my favorite beat cops, fellow professors etc.) in various lengthy and in-depth conversation on politics, religion, philosophy, sports and more over coffee and raised glazed. I was always invited to participate, which I did when customer traffic (or lack thereof) allowed.

A Formica topped Algonquin Round Table, littered with cake crumbs and sprinkles.

Learning of my Minnesota background, Ray familiarized me with the work of proletarian and feminist writer (and fellow Minnesotan) Meridel Le Sueur, gave me off-beat books on vocabulary building. We discussed my literary hero Sinclair Lewis, and Ray also introduced me to the quirky history of E. Haldeman Julius’ ‘Little Blue Books.’

(Beginning in the early 1900’s Haldeman-Julius began printing 3.5″ x 5″ pocket books on cheap pulp paper. The Little Blue Books were consciously directed at “Mr. Average Man.” Through them, for a nickel, he could buy works by Thoreau, Shakespeare, Goethe, Tolstoy, Sophocles and many more classics, along with contemporary scientific journals and Socialist-leaning political tracts. Haldeman-Julius called his books ‘A University in Print.’)

Ray gifted me with two-dozen of these classic little books as a graduation gift, and I still treasure them.

I have almost always been surrounded by people who encouraged and supported my efforts at writing, but Ray took it to a whole other level; he was my first serious editor – and a damn good, brutally honest one at that. Ray Rector didn’t teach me how to write, but he made me a better writer. And, I’d like to think, a better person.

That’s what the best teachers do, isn’t it?

My senior year of high school had a lot of high points, and one of those was a part-time job working nights at small donut shop. Off all the classrooms I’ve spent time in, The Donut House was one of the sweetest.

Ray and I communicated via mail and phone for a number of years before losing track of each other in the late 80’s. I’ve tried to track him down a number of times since using everything from the D.U. alumni association to a website for anthropological studies and the SSI Death Index, all to no avail. I’m betting he would see the Internet as the ultimate anthropological petri dish.

I’d love to reconnect and get his take on contemporary society – over donuts and coffee, of course.

I’d also like to show him my blogs; this one, and of course, my poetry blog, Ponderable polemics, poetic

And I’d like to tell him, after thirty-five years, I’m still taking his nightly parting words to heart: “Be well. And keep writing.”

Thanks for everything, Ray.  As we said in our donut days, “It’s in the bag.”


Bliss of the Spider Mentor

(* Indicate pseudonyms)

At our school, as well as most others, the last day of a week of state testing makes for some rather punch-drunk (test-drunk?) students, teachers and staff. I had been asked to help contain the older kids, who, having completed their testing and lunch, were simply hanging out on the field at the far end of campus awaiting early dismissal and the busses.

As I approached that end of the compound, Mr. Stevens* our youthful (24), middle and high school science teacher waved me over. As I approached I saw that he was directing kids away from a stray chair-desk that had had inexplicably found its way outside. A couple of seventh grade kids were squatting on the sidewalk, trying to peer underneath the desk portion of the thing, while Mr. Stevens held out his hand to ostensibly hold them back. Oddly, they were complying without complaint.

“Hey Mr. Stevens.”

“Hey, Mr. Lucker. We have a black-widow spider under this desk and I was wondering if you could stay here a minute while I go get some bug spray from Michael.*” Michael is one of our custodians, always willing to cheerfully help.

“You guys sure it’s a black widow?” (I know, dumb question – especially to a science teacher.)

“Oh yeah; it’s got the red hourglass on its back, and it spun a web under the desk and has a nice egg sack it’s protecting. Take a look.”

I did take a look, and yep – there it was; a black widow spider. Not a big one (about the diameter of the eraser on the end of a pencil) but a black widow to be sure. It was rolling its egg sack back and forth along one of the stainless steel support bars of the desktop.

“Cool” said I, still squatting on the sidewalk, observing the spider and adding what I thought was helpful, “Why don’t you go get a couple of cups from the lunchroom and we’ll catch it.”

Mr. Stevens, laughing, replied “Why would we do that?”

“Hey, you’re the science guy. Get a jar or something from your room and you can show it off in class.”

“Uhhhhh…” he was really chuckling now, “I don’t have anything in my room like that.”

Silly me; I forgot for a moment that I was in a New Orleans school that is woefully short on a lot of basics, and has no test tubes in its chemistry class. Hell, they don’t even have the chemicals! But I digress.

“Well then” I continued, suddenly aware that I could have some fun with Mr. Stevens, “get two cups and we’ll snatch it with one cup, put the other cup on top of the other while somebody finds a jar or a Ziploc bag or something to keep it in.”

“I don’t think…” said Mr. Stevens, laughing, “I don’t know what I would do with a black widow spider…”

“Hey, you’re the science guy. I just thought…”

Mr. Stevens was laughing and shaking his head, trying to decide if I was serious or not, still chuckling. (Hey, he’s young!) “I think we should just get some bug spray and kill it. I mean, what if we catch it and then it gets lose?”

“Well,” I responded in my most mentor-like tone, “It’s already lose. I just figured, you’re a science guy, we could make this a science-guy moment.” By now he knew I was just jerking his chain and was shaking his head at me as more seventh graders gathered around. “Besides, you know that that bug spray is nasty stuff, and can be pretty dangerous.” (Teachable moment for the kids, though considering I have had students here in the past who have had their hair washed with Raid when mom discovered lice, I’m not sure that was a lesson well thought out.)

“I have a better idea” I announced, standing up, “just get a stick and poke it out of there, and we’ll step on it!”

“Ohhhhhhh, nooooo Mr. Lucker” interjected Eddie, a thinks-he-is-way-tougher-than-he-is seventh grader, “You poke it with a stick, that thing’ll climb up that stick andit’ll  bite you and you’ll die!” His classmates nodded vigorous agreement, a few mumbling affirmations.

“Yeah, I don’t think so…” I said, in my best skeptic’s voice.

“It’s true, Mr. Lucker!” screeched Eddie (who, for the record, doesn’t much care for me when I work with the seventh grade) “those things will climb a stick fast!”

“Not that fast.” I retorted dryly. “Get me a lonnnnng stick. I can shake it off before it can climb anywhere. We poke it, stomp it, we’re done.”

Mr. Stevens was laughing, shaking his head, chin in hand. Eddie was nonplussed, and grabbed my arm, shaking it for emphasis; “That black widow will climb up any stick you got real fast and it will go right up your arm and IT WILL BITE YOU MR. LUCKER!!!! YOU COULD DIE!”

Eddie had a tone that oozed concern, and he was standing in front of me, hands on hips, glaring at me like I was some sort of misbehaving child. Glancing around, I realized that the ‘long stick’ idea was impractical; the only trees we have on campus are small and green, and if we ever do finds any long sticks, we dispose of them so no kid can use it as a weapon.

“Allright, Mr. Stevens. I’ll stay here while you go get the bug spray, but I’m still thinkin’ a couple of cups or a jar would be better.” He laughed and we agreed to move the chairdesk off to the side of the P.E. building, out of the main traffic flow, and flipped it on its side, giving us easier access to spray our little arachnid.  A couple of kids watched us, followed us over.

“I’ll be right back, Mr. Lucker” said Mr. Stevens, as he turned and walked away, laughing and shaking his head.

I leaned over the chairdesk, observing with fascination as the spider continued to roll its egg sack back and forth behind its web. It seemed as though it was trying to make the egg sack bigger, as one would rounds chunks of snow for a snowman.

A minute or two later, Mr. Stevens returned with Michael, the custodian. Michael is Hispanic with limited skills in English, and we all tend to communicate with him using hand gestures and a lot of pointing. “It appears we don’t have any bug spray” said Mr. Stevens. “Michael and I checked the supplies, and there was nothing. This…” he said sheepishly, pointing to a blue plastic bottle that Michael was holding out toward me, “was all we could find.”

It was a bottle of Resolve carpet cleaner.

I looked at Mr. Stevens, who blushed, trying not to laugh, and looked at Michael who smiled, holding the bottle at arms length in my direction. Michael had looked at the overturned chairdesk and apparently and wisely wanted nothing to do with our great spider safari.

“Carpet cleaner?” I said to Mr. Stevens, trying not to laugh. “Ohhhhhhh-kay…” I took the bottle from Michael and, shaking it, quickly realized that it was about empty. I looked at the two of them, trying to be serious, as I shook the bottle.

We were going to end this fiasco, doggone it! We had the Resolve, you know.

“Well, I guess we can drown the spider, or at least choke it to death with cleaner fumes.” I said, rolling my eyes. I had to hit the trigger spray a dozen times to prime it, and even when I got it working it was more a dribble than anything that could be categorized as a ‘spray.’

Still shaking my head incredulously to gentle chortling from Mr. Stevens, I leaned down, took aim, and…doused the little sucker with a tsunami of colorfast bubbles. Almost instantly, the soaked egg sack plopped onto the sidewalk, where excess carpet cleaner continued to drip onto it.

But the black widow itself was nowhere to be seen.

We looked under the chairdesk; no spider. We looked all over the hot concrete sidewalk. No spider. The bubbles were evaporating rapidly in the Louisiana heat, and we had a clear view of the labyrinth of stainless steel supports running from the chair legs to support the desk top. Looked in every crevice – no spider.

“Where do you think it is?” asked Mr. Stevens, “Do you think we got it?”

“Ohhh, we got it.” I affirmed, glancing everywhere.

The few kids remaining jumped back, then took off running as they realized we couldn’t find the spider.

Much to my relief, the staff by the front gate had started blowing whistles to summon kids to the busses, and they dutifully took off. I handed the bottle of resolve back to Michael, who smiled and walked quickly away. Mr. Stevens was laughing, I was again shaking my head as we both started walking toward the front gate and the far less stressful chore of bus duty.

“Carpet cleaner” I said softly. “Next time, we do this my way; stick, coat hanger…something. We poke, we stomp, we’re DONE!’

“Okay, Mr. Lucker” he said with an embarassed chuckle, “but hopefully there won’t be a next time!”

# # #

The next morning was a regular class day, and I was patrolling the sidewalk outside of my building, modular number eight. I saw Mr. Stevens coming out of building six, and we exchanged shouted greetings. As he reached the sidewalk, I summoned him over with a wave.

Discovery Channel called” I told him earnestly as he approached, blushed, and started to laugh. “They want you for a guest spot on ‘Billy the Exterminator’.”

“Oh.” He replied with knowing laugh, “I thought you were going to tell me they wanted me to fill in for Jeff Corwin on Animal Planet.”

“Nope. Strictly a guest shot with Billy.” I motioned for him to follow me. “There is one slight problem from yesterday’s escapade” I said earnestly, pointing up as we walked at the corrugated aluminum breezeway that lines the campus. “Look up in the corners, by those support beams…

He was looking up, puzzled, and glancing at me, waiting for the punchline.

“I don’t think we killed it. I think the thing mutated and went all ‘Spider Man’ on us. Look…all the way down the line, every corner…. I stopped walking, paused. “Little, tightly-spun webs of shag carpeting.”

Mr. Stevens laughed heartily.

“Next time, we do it my way” I said, turning to head back to return to my regular beat, throwing the rejoinder back over my shoulder, “We poke, we stomp….we’re…DONE!”

Mr. Stevens laughter faded into the din of arriving students.