Originally posted on Open Salon on May 31, 2011:
I do not allow myself as a teacher to play favorites. I may have a favorite novel to teach or a favorite unit; I even have favorite colleagues. But when it comes to the students, I make it a point to favor no one—not an individual, not even a particular class or grade. I am very disciplined on this point because when I was a student, I felt slighted and even hurt at times when I perceived that a teacher conferred privilege on select students in a class. I am deeply determined to hold all of my pupils in equal regard.
Still, for all this, every class and every student will stand out in my mind at one time or another, for some reason or other. This year, my sixth-grade language arts class has provided me an extra measure of entertainment. This results mainly from my telling of what my students over the years have considered a dubious story of my family history. For some reason, I only discussed it in any detail this year with my sixth graders. Perhaps having related the history only to this particular class, I found myself exploring the topic in greater depth than in past years.
What follows is a condensation of a discussion with my sixth-grade class that began on the first day of school and has continued on and off throughout the year. As the summer approaches, I feel it necessary to document the discourse for inclusion in what over my career has become a trove of treasured memories.
* * * *
“Now, class, it is essential that you remember not to approach me with questions before class. No offense, but few sixth graders truly understand how independent and resourceful they can be. It is my job to help you learn to be as self-sufficient as possible.”
A hand went up in the back corner. It was Anthony.
“Well, how will we know when class has started so we can ask you questions?”
“Class officially starts when I say, ‘Good afternoon, Illustrious Class.’”
Anthony and his neighbors looked at each other, puzzled. Then he followed up: “Then, after that, can we ask a question?”
“After you greet me back, yes, and after I tell you the agenda for the lesson.”
“How do we greet you?”
“Oh! I know! I know!” said Jan, waving her hand. “My sister had you last year.”
“Tell him, Jan,” I said.
“We say, ‘Good afternoon, Esteemed and Enlightened Teacher.’”
“We’re supposed to say that?” asked Anthony.
“Yes,” responded Jan. “That’s been a tradition in your class for many years, hasn’t it, Mr. Fornale?”
“Well, it goes all the way back to when I went to boarding school in Fredonia,” I responded.
That was Miles. I pegged him quickly as one whose mouth was running before he could get his hand up.
“Shhhh! You have to raise your hand, Miles!”
That was Maria. She could whisper and shout at the same time. I’m still trying to work out how she does it.
“Miles,” I began to answer, “we’ll talk about Fredonia later. And yes, Anthony, our formal greeting is a courtesy that we exchange. It sets a very respectful tone. After I make a few announcements and state the class objectives, I am always happy to take questions.”
“What if we forget by then?”
“Then it wasn’t important.”
“And if it is important, and it can’t wait?”
“If it’s medical or it involves the potential escape of any range of fluids the body should keep contained, you have my automatic permission to leave the room. Anything else can wait.”
“Is it true you hate pink?” Miles again.
“Shhh!” Maria again.
“I tolerate no cute things. Some colors try to be cute. That includes pink.”
“Bu—AWP!” Maria had rushed to Miles’s desk and put her hand over his mouth. She held his right hand up above his head.
“Thanks, Maria,” I said, “but let’s let him work it out on his own. Yes, Miles?”
Maria took her hand away from his maw, tacitly acknowledging his right to talk again.
“But you can’t ban cute things…and colors! Look at Wendy’s shirt. That’s pink.”
“No, it isn’t.”
“Yes, it is. Look at it. It’s bright pink,”
“What? It’s the same thing.”
“No, not the same.”
“All right, how about Raquel’s sneakers?”
Raquel hung her head in embarrassment. “Sorry, Mr. Fornale! I didn’t know.”
“No problem at all. They’re not pink. They’re light blue.”
“What?” Miles squawked, incredulous. “They’re as pink as anything I’ve seen all day!”
“Don’t contradict him, Miles!” Maria once again, in that scolding whisper.
“Sorry, Miles,” I said. “You’ll have to review your colors.”
Miles began rubbing his eyes, then he looked back to Wendy’s Converses. Anthony raised his hand again.
“Getting back to my original question, by the time you’ve made your announcements and announced the topics for class, you’ll probably already have answered our questions.”
“Thank you for getting the point.”
Another hand up. This time, Alice.
“What about this greeting you told us about?”
“Ah, yes. Let’s give it a try. Ready? Good afternoon, Illustrious Class!”
“Good afternoon, Esteemed and Enlightened teacher!” Perfect unison.
I took out a handkerchief, dabbed my eyes, and walked to the window.
Miles couldn’t get his hand up before saying, “What’s the matter?”
“Shhh! It reminds him of Fredonia, his homeland.”
“I’ve never heard of it before,” Alice said. “Where is it?”
By now, I appeared to have composed myself. “In central Europe,” I said.
“I didn’t see it on the list of European Union member states in my social studies book,” she countered.
“No. The EU won’t have them. Not with the brutal regime that currently rules that most unfortunate country.”
“What? And you’re from there?” asked Alice, skepticism dancing in her voice.
“Yes,” I said, putting my hands behind my back and walking again to the window. I stared into the courtyard and continued, not turning to face them: “For eight centuries, a noble and righteous family ruled justly, and prosperity prevailed throughout the land. Even the peasants went to school and could read and write. Art and philosophy were the pursuits of the masses. Then came industrialism. Then came greed. Then came the coup that overthrew the most benevolent ruler the land had known—my father.”
The class erupted into laughter—except for Maria and Alice.
“Shhh! It’s not funny!”
“Oh, come on!” called out Alice. “He’s totally putting us on!”
“And this,” I continued, “is the most profound bitterness of the cup I bear: your disbelief!”
“Our common sense!” rejoined Alice. “You are such a liar.”
“Shhh! Don’t call a teacher a liar.”
“My sister had Mr. Fornale last year,” interjected Jan. “She said he would never lie, but he will kid us from time to time. Isn’t that right, Mr. Fornale?”
“Very true,” I said. “There is a big difference between lying and kidding.”
“Well, are you kidding us now?” continued Alice. “And don’t shush me, Maria!”
I cast a glance around the room and then landed again on Alice.
“Do you think I would kid about something like this?”
“That’s not an answer!”
“But it’s not a lie…” put in Anthony.
“No, but he’s equivocating!”
“What does that mean?” Miles blurted out.
“It means, ‘misleading,’” answered Alice, impatient at anything that would disrupt the momentum of the exchange. “You’re equivocating, Mr. Fornale, aren’t you?”
“I resemble that!” I responded, indignantly.
“Respectfully, Mr. Fornale,” said Alice, “I’m starting to wonder if you’re crazy.”
“That’s such a harsh word,” I said. “I prefer eccentric.”
“My father says that’ s a word for crazy that applies only to rich people.”
“He is rich,” Miles interrupted. “He’s a prince!”
“No, he isn’t!” Alice cried.
“I believe in Fredonia, Mr. Fornale!”
That was Maria. Even she wasn’t raising her hand now.
“Quiet, Maria,” snapped Alice. Then she resumed, “OK, then, what are you doing in this country?”
I took out my handkerchief again. “You really want to know?”
“Yes! I’ve got to hear this.”
“Well, then, ever since an evil general took control of the army and carried out a military coup on the 15th of May, 1983, my family has been living in exile.”
“In New Jersey?”
“Listen to him!” Alice’s voice had been ascending through the octaves. “He is such a liar!”
“Kidder,” corrected Jan.
“Equivocator,” amended Miles. “Whatever that is.”
“There is no Fredonia!” cried Alice.
“Sure there is. We have a national anthem and everything.”
In less than a minute, I had Youtube up on the Smartboard, and the anthem was playing.
“You’ve got to be joking!” said Alice. “That’s an old Marx Brothers movie!”
“If you were a prince in exile, you’d live in a mansion in Monaco or some place like that.”
“I live in a mansion in Monmouth Junction.”
“Yeah, right! And I’ll bet you have a butler, too.”
“Yes, his name is Wainwright.”
Again, the class burst into guffaws. I dabbed my eyes.
“There is no Fredonia,” Alice projected over the din, “and there is no Wainwright. Who ever heard of a butler named Wainwright?”
“Actually,” I countered, “he wasn’t always a butler. He was my father’s chamberlain, but after we were all airlifted out of the palace, he blamed himself for the coup, saying he had not kept the king fully informed of risks. He took on the penance of being our household servant until whatever day that we should be restored to power.”
The class was silent, and students looked around at each other.
“Don’t you dare buy this, everyone! A king’s chamberlain does not polish silver teapots in Middlesex County, New Jersey!”
“Oh, the footmen do that,” I continued. “A butler is the head servant in a household. Wainwright has much more important things to do than polish teapots.”
“Come on! Then who does your teapots? The secretary of war?”
“Actually, the former prime minister…”
“That’s it!” Alice’s eyes were red, and she was on her feet, gesticulating. “This is all a fantasy! Fredonia does not exist. Wainwright does not exist!”
“Calm down, Alice,” Maria pleaded.
I approached Alice’s desk and continued in a soothing voice, “You’re absolutely right, Alice. It’s all a fantasy. Isn’t it, class?”
“Oh, my God! You’re humoring me! You’re only saying that to humor me, aren’t you? You’re trying to make me look like a lunatic!”
“Now would I do that?”
“Can we meet Wainwright?” interrupted Maria.
“I’m sorry, Maria,” I replied. “He has burden enough to bear without being made an item for Show-and-Tell.”
“There’s no Wainwright!” Several octaves lower; Alice, now sitting, had her head buried in her arms.
“Well,” asked Miles, “should we call you ‘Prince’ or ‘Your Highness’ or something.”
I put my handkerchief into my back pocket. “Only from Fredonian subjects do I receive that courtesy, and they call me ‘Royal Highness’ upon first addressing me, then afterwards, ‘Milord.’”
“Oh, pu-leeze!” Alice’s head was up again.
“Of course, with Wainwright, it’s more informal. He just calls me ‘Highness.’ But all of this is far removed from our business in language arts class, isn’t it?”
I changed the subject and moved on to the business of distributing textbooks and starting students on their first essay.
Several minutes into the assignment, I noticed that Alice had her hand up, and she rubbed a temple with the fingers of her opposite hand.
“Yes, Alice? You seem much calmer now. Are you feeling better?”
“Mr. Fornale, or Your Royal Highness, or Prince, or whatever you think you are—I have a raging headache, and I would like to go to the nurse and get a Tylenol. I promise to come right back.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said, sounding genuinely sympathetic. “This has surely been a long day for you. Of course, you must do something for me before you go.”
“Anything! Please! My head is pounding. All this talk about Fredonia and military takeovers and silver teapots has done me in. I’ll do anything you ask if you’ll let me go to the nurse!”
I couldn’t help myself.
I smiled facetiously, leaned down, and said softly, “Very well then. Just say, ‘Hail Fredonia!’”
Alice’s mouth hung agape for a moment, then she glared at me, sneered, and hissed, “Never!”
Then she buried her head in her arms again.
For me, just another day in exile.