It was my first day of high school. I was going to Ygnacio Valley High, a school that had a reputation for academics and great football/basketball teams. That first day, I wore a white T-shirt, a stonewashed jean miniskirt, and Reeboks. Goodbye, middle school! I was done with purgatory! High school couldn’t be as bad as middle school. I was right about that (although high school did have its moments). Freshman year, I had fourth period English. Teacher Atkinson, A. Room 410. I headed towards the 400 building, where all the English classes were taught. While attending Ygnacio Valley High, this would be my favorite building in the school — along with the library. In the hallways, I heard people calling out to each other, some kids singing “Need You Tonight” by INXS and “I Just Can’t Stop Loving You” by Michael Jackson.
I walked in room 10. The room’s walls had pictures everywhere. It blew me away. Rita Hayworth, Gandhi, JFK, Elvis, Meryl Streep, Paul Newman. A man sat on the desk. He had brown hair and a beard — wore a white shirt and khakis. Brown Birkenstocks graced his feet. Obviously, he was the teacher. He was the grownup. But why wasn’t he busy doing something? He should be passing out dittos! Setting up a seating chart! Looking at the roster! No, he was just sitting.
I sat down. No one else spoke. My classmates and I looked at each other, wondering what was going on. The bell rang. He stood up. Looked around. Still quiet. Pointed at one student, and then pointed at an empty desk. The student moved to the empty desk. Tapped on a desk. The girl was putting on makeup. She gave him the makeup. He put it in a closet. “You’ll get it back,” he said. His voice was quiet, calm.
He looked at all of us. Went to the chalkboard. “My name is Mr. Atkinson. You can call me Mr. Atkinson, or you can call me Mr. A.” He pointed to his name on the chalkboard. “Welcome to high school,” he announced.
He finally did roll — made notes of what people wanted to be called. When he came to my name, he asked me what I wanted. “Jennifer is fine,” I said.
He smiled. “Miss Jennifer, I like your style.”
We started reading The Outsiders a week later. We discussed Ponyboy and Johnny, Socs and Greasers. Everyday I looked forward to that class. Four days a week we talked about our reading, then on Fridays we had our vocab test. One vocab word was gyrate. He took a pointer and pointed it to Elvis Presley. “Who is this?” he asked us.
“Elvis!” we called out.
“What was he?”
“The king of rock and roll!”
“And what did he do with those hips?”
After vocab tests, we watched movies. All the books we read, all the movies we saw, had common themes: Even when everyone thinks you’re crazy, you must do the right thing. Don’t try to prejudge someone. Try to be kind. Stand up to bullies. Don’t let the bastards get you down.
Here’s some of the movies we saw:
The Wild Bunch
In Cold Blood (1967)
High School Confidential!
Romeo and Juliet (1968)
The Kid (1921)
One time he forgot the movie, so he put on a rerun of WKRP. It was the one when Mr. Carlson’s wife gave birth. We all knew the dialogue by heart, then sang along to the theme song. Baby, if you ever wondered, wondered whatever happened to me. Why WKRP? Who knows? Maybe because it was a good episode.
Our third quarter we were going to be reading To Kill a Mockingbird. He told us about Harper Lee and how this was the only novel she ever published, how Dill was based on her friend Truman Capote. When Capote heard about a family being murdered in Kansas, he called his old friend Nelle to help him talk to the locals, resulting in the book In Cold Blood. We saw the movie the next quarter.
One day in March, Mr. Atkinson missed several days in a row. It wasn’t like him. I finally asked the substitute what was going on. “His mother died,” she told me. I told someone, who told someone. We all felt bad. When he returned, someone tore out a piece of notebook paper. Wrote: We’re thinking of you, Mr. A. The whole class signed it. One of us put it on his desk. He saw it. “Oh,” he said. He looked at us. “Thank you all.” He then put it on his wall. We knew we made it then.
The year eventually ended. One time my best friend Meranda came to meet me at his class. I was finishing something, so Meranda and Mr. Atkinson talked for a while. When we went outside, she said, “I want him as a teacher so much.” I think many kids felt that way. He was such a part of the school. Former students of his stopped by to say hi. He used to ride his bike back and forth to BART. People would yell, “Hey Mr. A!” or, “Mr. Atkinson, sure you don’t need a ride?” While I was there, he taught freshmen (he used to say he liked teaching freshmen because we were still excited about school) and sophomores. By the time I had him, he had been at YV for twenty years. I heard different things from his background: He was a Zen Buddhist. He was in the Green Berets. He was in Vietnam. What was true? What was false? I didn’t care. I don’t think anyone did. We just knew he was a great teacher.
I always wished I could have him again. I didn’t. I did have many more great teachers at YV, but I still heard stories about Mr. Atkinson. He had his students write their final exam on the meaning of “Like a Rolling Stone” by Bob Dylan. He put up mugshot pictures on his wall. I would see him in the hallway, wearing his Birkenstocks and mismatched socks.
My senior year, a teacher had to deliver a note to him. I volunteered to bring it. I remembered something he taught office assistants: If they had a note for him, wait by the door. He would tell you to come over. So that Friday morning, I opened the door and waited. He looked at me and smiled. “You remembered,” he said, then motioned to me to come.
The last time I saw him was in 1993. He was at the Nordstrom mall. “Mr. Atkinson, Mr. Atkinson!” I called to him. He smiled. “Miss Jennifer! How are you?” He shook my hand. Said he had to meet his daughter. I watched him go.
He had been on my mind lately; I found a copy of The Human Comedy, a book we read in his class. Of course, all the news about the sequel of TKAM, I wondered, “What would Mr. Atkinson think?” Then I was reading posts on a YV Facebook forum where a member shared awful news: Mr. Atkinson died in November. He was survived by his daughter, Deidre. That night in bed, I started weeping. Was I crying for him? Or the fact that more teachers like him are phased out? No way would he have so many pictures on his walls now. Or show movies that weren’t part of the curriculum. Doing a final on “Like a Rolling Stone”? Forget it.
My favorite memory of him was one time I was out of class. I can’t remember if it was to deliver a note or going to the bathroom. But I remember I was in such a good mood I started skipping down the hall. “A happy gal,” he called out. I looked at him and grinned, not feeling embarrassed at all. I was happy that freshman year. He added to my happiness.