June 2, 2016 “Teachers” I’m feeling a little pensive today. On Sunday afternoon, I will be speaking at the dedication of my old high school theater, to be renamed the Cliff Davenport Theater. I’ve been working for hours to create a fitting tribute to that man, who I loved dearly. You’ll have to come to the ceremony to hear those words.
Cliff and George Heidbrink (my music teacher), were two of the greatest influences of my life. A few years back, taciturn George came to a short story reading of mine in Staunton. I didn’t know he was going to be there. I saw him in the audience just as I was about to read. I told the audience that a great man was in the room, and I told them why, and George began to cry, and I cried, and we hugged.
I recalled the last choral concert of 1966, where George turned to the audience and told them he was handing off his baton to a promising student. And he turned back to the choir, and he threw his baton at me. I had no idea this was coming. I stumbled down to the floor and whispered to the piano player, V.J. Dickson, how do you conduct 4/4 time? And I proceeded to conduct a spiritual.
Cliff did not know about my wretched home life. George did. He nearly came to blows with my father, telling him to stop abusing me. He and his wife Mary kept me on weekends at their lakeside house.
On Tuesday, I drove to Belleville, to Lindenwood University to fill out some forms. I met my pal Ramona Rodriguez for lunch, and she drove me around my hometown—the family moved to Alton when I was in the 8th grade—and we located some of the homes I lived in.
The house on Washington Street was gone to the wrecker’s ball. In its place is a new Lindenwood University dormitory. An old neighborhood friend, Rosemary, found me on Facebook three years ago. Rosie described standing in that house and watching my father and mother beat me as I lay on the kitchen floor. Rosie remembered my father raising a chair over his head and threatening to hit me with it.
The house on Cleveland Street still stands across from Roosevelt School, where the third great teacher of my life, Josie Halter, first told me (I have no idea why) that I was going to be a writer. She fought with my father toe to toe, as he told her to stop encouraging me to pursue artistic interests. She fed me a steady diet of books to read: “Moby Dick,” “The Leatherstocking Tales,” “The Brothers Grimm,” “Huckleberry Finn.”
Ramona and I walked into the school and met the current principal, Craig Hayes. He walked us around the school, past the boy’s room where I broke out the window in third grade and made my sister promise not to tell, and she held out until supper where she pronounced with some glee, my crime; past the auditorium where I uttered my first play line ever: “And a whistle that doesn’t blow very much.”
We entered what had been Miss Halter’s fourth grade class, where she had set up a card table in the back and wrapped a blanket around it and told me it was my fort, that I could go there and read when I needed time alone.
There is a bronze plaque in the front schoolyard, dedicated to Josie Halter. Her picture hangs in the front entrance way. The teachers among you know that this kind of respect is practically unheard of.
Josie in the fourth grade, Cliff and George in high school. Three teachers believed in me, three sides of a triangle which is the strongest form. I fear that I have let them down. Still: they saved my life. You don’t set out to save a life. You just do your thing with professionalism and empathy, and in the doing, the lost souls of hurt and psychologically wounded children are given heart and hope and skills.
And Bill Warma, Edgar Cook, Josephine Paisley, Mr. Young, Doris Rue, Morrie Fiddler, Rosemary Tomlovic (who read all my high school short stories and told me I was weird): Thanks for giving me a ride and for believing in me.