“The cemeteries are full of indispensable people.”
I started 8th grade at Madelia High School in the fall of 1968. I was nearly 14. A new teacher, Thomas Ackerson, had joined the English faculty and I was assigned to his class. The day I walked through the door of his classroom, my world was changed. In an instant. In the blinking of an eye. If memory serves, Tom was about 30. He had spent a few years in the Navy before attending college and then beginning his teaching career. I’m not sure the term “dangling participle” or any other grammatical phrase was uttered in the classroom that year. Instead, Tom introduced a new concept: Each of us had a brain and it was time to learn how to use it.
Tom was the guiding force in my life throughout the rest of my high school career, though it is difficult, for the most part, to remember what happened when. There is no doubt, however, that if one attended 8th grade at Madelia High School during Tom’s tenure, you either read, or he read to you, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings Trilogy by J.R.R. Tolkien. (I spent each spring break after that rereading it.) Tom kept telling us he was a Hobbit, but we all knew he was Gandalf. I identified with Legolas. The Trilogy was only the beginning.
In the ensuing years, I heard and memorized many poems, with an emphasis on Robert Frost and Edna St. Vincent Millay. At one point I could recite nearly all of Millay’s Sonnets. It was an eclectic mix: The Rubaiyat of Omar Khyam, Wordsworth, Edward G. Robinson (Mr. Flood’s Party), Bobby Burns, Archie and Mehitibel.
Drama also had its place. Camelot, Man of La Mancha, Sheridan’s The Rivals, and, especially, Cyrano de Bergerac and G.B. Shaw’s Man and Superman — in particular, the dream scene of Don Juan in Hell. [One of the highlights of my life was seeing Cyrano starring Christopher Plummer at the Guthrie: “And tonight when I, at last, God behold, my salute will sweep his blue threshold with something spotless. A diamond in the ash which I take in spite of you; and that is my panache.”]
At one point, D.H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature got a fair amount of airtime. As a result, I remember reading (on my own) Lady Chatterley’s Lover, The Rainbow (fabulous), and The Escaped Cock. [Given this early exposure, one may well indeed ask why, having lived in New Mexico for 30+ years, I have never visited Lawrence’s grave in Taos?] Tom was especially enamored with Lawrence’s views of the Holy Ghost and The Unforgiveable Sin – the natures of which have haunted me for a lifetime.
Rather than The Prophet, we read Gibran’s The Madmen. At the time, I was far too poor to buy a copy which was only available in hardcover, so I borrowed Tom’s and typed the entire book on my Mother’s trusty Smith-Corona. Then there was The Little Prince [“One only understands the things that one tames,” said the fox. “[People] have no more time to understand anything. They buy things all ready made at the shops. But there is no shop anywhere where one can buy friendship, and so [people] have no friends any more. If you want a friend, tame me . . .”]. And Alice in Wonderland. [“And Who,” said the Caterpillar to Alice, “are You?”] Two works Tom often mentioned, but would not provide copies to read, were Twain’s 1601 and Jules Feiffer’s Harry the Rat with Women (Carnal Knowledge, an amazing film). Not surprisingly, these books were also unavailable in either the school or county libraries.
Tom was a walking Bartlett’s Quotations. It seems he had a quote for every situation. Not only did he use quotation-speak, he would also type pages and pages of them and then mimeograph them for distribution. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in my papers there isn’t a cache of these sheets of paper containing blurry, purple ink sentences. On a related matter, Thomas is also responsible for what has remained a lifelong habit of highlighting passages in whatever book I am reading. For many years I used only lemon yellow (as opposed to egg yolk) colored highlighters. Rarely, if ever, did I annotate the margins. I still have my original highlighted volumes of Tolkien’s trilogy. Only recently have I disposed of a drawerful of dried out yellow markers. I’ve begun passing along the books I read to friends and family members, so these days I tag passages of interest with multi-colored flags to spare others the distraction of the highlights. When I finish a book, I go through and type or dictate reading notes based on the tagged selections.
The above practice(s) were invaluable if I had to write a paper. To start, I would reference by page number and then type the highlighted passages thereby creating a set of reading notes. In this way, references to a particular subject or theme appearing throughout a book would be readily available for consideration. I still have my extensive notes for Don Quixote, many of Virginia Woolf’s novels, Ulysses, and Moby Dick. I sometimes think how if one were to gather up all the books I’ve read and collect all these singled-out words and passages, the end-product would be a sort of codex of my Weltanschauug.
Tom had a following. During his free hours and after school, we few, we happy few, would hang out in his classroom. Around the corner of his classroom was a door and a parking lot. Every morning he would park his sports car of the moment, and stand just outside the door to have one last cigarette before beginning the day. He smoked Camel straights unless he had a cold or other respiratory ailment, then it was Kool straights. We sometimes hung out with him during smoke breaks. (Though we, of course, wouldn’t smoke. If you were caught smoking back then, say goodbye to any extracurricular activities.)
Madelia was, and is, a small town with a population of roughly 2300. It was and still is, therefore, amazing to me the caliber of teachers at our small high school – approximatly 500 students from grades 7 to 12 when I was in attendance. The English faculty was outstanding. In addition to Tom, there was Karen Anderson. She was young, and “hip,” and the Queen of Diagramming Sentences. I took independent study classes from her, and absorbed Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Eugene O’Neill, and, Dostoyevsky, though there was some overlap as Thomas was fond of the Grand Inquisitor. She also taught journalism. I was one of the editors and the typesetter of the school newspaper. The “staff” would spend Saturdays listening to Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells a Story, Carly Simon’s You’re so Vain, and Johnny Rivers’ Realization, featuring Whiter Shade of Pale. I learned to justify print on a page utilizing a combination of the space and half-space keys. Talk about an outlet for my OCD.
Bill Brown was something of a free spirit. I don’t associate any particular books or authors with him, but he loved to hold (mostly one-sided) conversations about everything under the sun. He (and then wife Bonnie) would hold court on weekends at their home on the corner of First Street.
Rising head and shoulders above all, was the distinguished and elegant Frank Rommel. He taught Senior English (Dickens and Austin) and French (the only language offered), so everyone had him at some time or another. He was revered by all, especially and including those detailed above. Rumor had it that he was a classically trained pianist who in his younger years had spent time in Persia and knew the Shah. Front and center when one entered his home was a baby grand piano. How he ended up teaching high school in Madelia, Minnesota is still a mystery to me.
He conducted what is perhaps best described as salons most weekends where the chosen would gather and debate and recite and sing standards. I wish there was more to write, but I rarely got back to Madelia after graduation — the time when one, if found worthy, was traditionally admitted to that rarefied circle.
Some of you reading this share these memories and may have noticed I’ve left out a few things – well, maybe more than a few things. This is a post about educational legacy. The other things, I’ll keep, pondering them in my heart. Suffice that Peyton Place had nothing on Madelia.
Sadly, Frank died just a few years after the above events. Bill and I stayed in touch for the first few years, and then we lost track of each other. A few years back, he became a Facebook friend. We also spoke on the phone a few times. Well, he spoke, I listened. He too suffered from COPD, and a year or so ago, he went to the ER with a sore throat and that was that. Karen and I continued to see each other over the years. Eventually, she actually moved to Albuquerque. We’ve not spoken in awhile, but I presume she’s still here.
I reconnected with Tom a few years back, and for a while we kept up an email correspondence and had lunch every now and then when I visited the North Country. I’m not entirely sure, but I may have played my last round of golf with him. Somewhere in there, he sent me a package of several audio discs which included recordings of the Don Juan in Hell scene from Man and Superman and 1601. Two books accompanied the cds – Jules Feiffer’s Harry the Rat with Women and All Trivia by Logan Pearsall Smith embossed with the stamp “Library of TNA Thomas Ackerson.” I stopped by to see him last year on my way to my 40th reunion.
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