Ode to Mr. Elwell

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Doing algebra homework, circa 1978.

I’ve always been pretty sure that I was the last kid they let into the advanced math track. At the end of 7th grade, we took a test to see whether we’d be going into Algebra or some other kind of not-ready-for-algebra math. I don’t know what that was, but my ensuing struggle with math that was more about letters than numbers made it clear to me that I must have been the cut-off kid on the Algebra list, the last one that got into the advanced party.

I have few memories of that math class. I know I had Mr. Elwell, a kind, quiet man with the kind of dark, bushy mustache that lots of men had back in the late 70s. (The kind my second ex-husband, who probably came of facial-hair age at about the same time as Mr. Elwell, still has, although his is now white.) Despite learning very little algebra from him–and learning was generally a huge part of the criteria when determining whether or not I liked a teacher–I liked Mr. Elwell.

I had him not only for Algebra, but also for Driver’s Ed the fall of my sophomore year. That was the year our junior high was transformed into a middle school, and the 9th graders who should’ve been top dog at Sylvester Junior High were instead lowly freshmen when we all migrated to high school together. A handful of teachers came, too, one of whom was Mr. Elwell.

I’m sure one of the things I liked about Mr. Elwell was that it was impossible to rattle him, which made him different from so many of the men I’d known, starting with my dad. Any other teacher probably would have had some misgivings about my driving group the first day we all climbed into the Driver’s Ed car with him. There was Dorrit Norvell, who, I guessed from her skill, confidence, and obvious boredom, might have been driving since about the 3rd grade. She had eyes sharp as her Pat Benatar-esque attitude, and she made it clear that she did not suffer fools gladly. She scared the shit out of me because, when it came to driving, I was everybody’s fool. Unlike most parents, mine did not do one thing to prepare me for Driver’s Ed before it began. No practice drives, no sitting in the car introducing me to the controls, no nothing. I was a driving virgin that first day in the parking lot, and next to Dorrit, with moves as smoothly polished as her nails, it showed. The only saving grace for me was that the third person in our car was Cam Tu Nguyen. She was no fool–but she was a worse driver than me. Our first day Cam Tu tore up the parking lot at about 5 mph, and I thought Dorrit was going to get whiplash from the way her head snapped every time Cam Tu slammed on the brakes, but Mr. Elwell’s calm never faltered.

Eventually we all made it out onto the streets, even Cam Tu. Although I got better at it, driving was not something that came easily or intuitively to me–kind of like algebra, which is maybe why Mr. Elwell was kind to me, the way we are kind to those who are a little slow or a little fragile. Although I was considered to be a smart kid, driving challenged me. The only test I ever failed was the written driving test. I remember coming out of the DMV office and telling my mom I didn’t pass.

“What happened?” she asked.

“Oh, I don’t know…” my voice trailed off. “I think I got confused because of the colors of the cars,” I said.

“What?” She looked puzzled.

“Well, it seemed like the colors of the cars in the drawings had something to do with the colors of the stoplights in the scenario questions. I was sure it did on this one question, and I got the right answer, but then it didn’t on some others…”

What are you talking about?” she asked, not even attempting to sound sympathetic or like I was making any kind of sense.

“Well, like, if the car approaching the intersection was red, I thought that had something to do with the color of the light, and so if the car was yellow or green…but it didn’t work if the car was blue…” My voice trailed off for a third time. It had made so much sense when I was taking the test. But trying to explain it to my mom, I could hear that it made none.

Later, I would attribute some of my failure on that test to being upset over my break-up the night before with David Ravander, my senior boyfriend who treated me so poorly I finally felt forced to end things between us. That morning of the failed test I couldn’t connect the dots between my broken heart and my foggy, over-thinking brain, but later I saw the lines linking one to the other.

None of my test failure was Mr. Elwell’s fault. He had been a bastion of calm support in that Driver Ed car with Scary Dorrit and Whiplash Cam Tu. Driver Ed cars came equipped with a brake on the passenger side, so that the teacher could, if necessary, save us all in any kind of near-death situation, but I never saw him use it. He didn’t even do it the time I came to a red light, carefully looked both ways to make sure the intersection was clear, and proceeded to turn left.

It wasn’t until after I had completed the maneuver that he said, “Uh, Rita, you might remember that we can’t make free left turns in Washington. You can get a ticket for that.” I felt my bowels begin to turn hot with shame, the way they always did when I’d made a public mistake, but his voice was quiet and calm, and that was all Mr. Elwell ever said about that.

Maybe it was because of that time that I asked him to be my escort for the Homecoming assembly that fall. Or maybe it was because I didn’t really know any of the other male teachers at the high school yet, other than the world history teacher who didn’t like me because I questioned why we spent a whole period watching a Laurel and Hardy movie, or Mr. Carmignani, whose creative writing class I had dropped because he made it clear on the first day that if we didn’t share our inner selves in our writing and our writing out loud with the class, we would not be earning A’s or B’s. I would no more reveal my inner self to my peers than frolic naked down the halls, and a C was unacceptable, so that was that. No creative writing for me.

I needed a teacher escort for the assembly because I was the homecoming princess for my class. This was an uncomfortable honor for me. I had no date for the dance and was facing the humiliating prospect of the Pep Club girls arranging to have some boy ask me if no one came forward. I didn’t want to ask my parents for the money to buy a formal dress, because I knew that we didn’t have much of that kind of money, but I was told that I would have to get one. And, I needed a teacher to escort me down the aisle and up the steps to the stage during the big assembly, and I didn’t really know anyone for that, either.

So I asked Mr. Elwell, who seemed both mildly surprised and quietly pleased. At the morning assembly for underclassmen, I hooked my arm into Mr. Elwell’s and we made our way down the auditorium aisle without incident. It was the stairs to the stage that proved to be our downfall. As I stepped up to the first step, I failed to properly lift the hem of my long, formal, faux-pioneer girl Gunne Sax gown, bringing my shoe down on the inside of its skirt. I realized my mistake immediately, but I didn’t know what to do about it, what with my arm hooked into Mr. Elwell’s and everyone watching and me needing to get up those steps. So I just kept going. When I stepped up to the second step, I also stepped further up the hem of my dress. And I did the same with the fourth and fifth and sixth step, even though I knew I was only making things worse. By the time we got to the stage, Mr. Elwell and I were both bent nearly double, as he’d never let go of my arm, and I fell onto it, ears filling with the laughter of my fellow sophomores and those lowly freshmen. Mr. Elwell didn’t say anything; he simply helped me up, re-hooked our arms, and walked me across the stage with as much dignity as he had given me all those times in the driver ed car and in algebra class when I didn’t know the answer.

Years later I would come to see this as a seminal moment, a metaphor for so many things that went wrong in my life. I have had a confounding need to just keep moving doggedly forward, even when it is quite clear that stopping would be the best thing to do–the only thing to do if I did not want my trajectory to end in tragedy. It is has not served me well, nor has my propensity for sticking with others who don’t treat me with the same kind of respect I got from Mr. Elwell.

He was not a very good math teacher for me. I began this essay with the intention of writing about Algebra II, the last math class I ever took because I could no longer fake my way through math without the fundamentals I’d missed in Algebra I with Mr. Elwell. And yet, in retrospect, I can see that he was teaching me something probably more important than how to determine the value of x. He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it.

I like to think he’d be both mildly surprised and quietly pleased.

The poor guy I manipulated into asking me to the dance.

The poor guy I pressured into taking me to the dance.

*******

This piece came out of the last session of my writing class with Kate Carroll De Gutes (the one on writing about serious topics with humor). I almost didn’t attend; I’d had a terrible week, and I was feeling so tired and broken on Thursday night that I didn’t think any good would come of it. But as Leonard Cohen told us, the cracks are where the light comes in. The prompt was simply to write about taking algebra. Although I missed 2 of the 5 sessions, getting this essay out of the class was worth the price of admission. Kate is a teacher in the same gentle vein as Mr. Elwell. (Suck it, Mr. Carmignani.) I highly recommend her classes, which Portland-area folks can take at Attic Institute.

18 thoughts on “Ode to Mr. Elwell

  1. Susan says:

    Oh Rita, you have such an amazing gift. Thank you for sharing this story. I laughed out loud at one pint and teared up as well. Much love to you❤️

  2. Kathy says:

    You and I must be about the same age . My first formal dress was Gunney Sax too – or I wanted it to be? Not sure now.

    You do not look like a young teen in that portrait of you and your date!
    My daughter looks at pictures of me and her dad at her age and even younger and thinks we look so much older than “kids today”. I used to think the same thing about pictures of my parents!

    I think Mr. Button was my Mr. Elwell. Looking back I can see that he understood how little I felt I fit in anywhere. But somehow, in his class, I was at ease.

    “He gave me lessons on how to determine the values of I and xy” – clever!!

    Thank you for sharing.

    • Rita says:

      Well, when I look at that picture of me then and look at myself now, I think I was pretty young then. I prefer that to thinking I look pretty old now. 🙂 I hope every kid gets a Mr. Elwell or two in their life. Glad you had a Mr. Button.

  3. Marian says:

    First off, I just wanted to say I’m sorry to hear you had such a terrible week. If you need a listening ear, please don’t hesitate. I do hope you’ve had a better weekend.

    I’m so glad you went to your writing course. This essay is beautiful and touching and completely nailed the humour — I laughed out loud in several places. And I have so much to comment on I scarcely know where to begin…

    Moustaches! What the hell was it with men in the 70s and 80s (and ahem, the early 90s as well) and their damn cheesy moustaches?? My husband had one too; in fact, he had it when I met him when he was 21 (in 1986). It took him two attempts to get rid of it. The first was around the year 2000 when he shaved it off only to have his two-year-old son burst out crying when he saw him, and his wife say, “Um, where the heck is the man I married and you’d better be quick about growing that back, Mister.” The second time was perhaps around 8 or 10 years ago, and this time it was, “It’s going and I don’t care what you say!” and then me saying, “Oh thank God that cheesy moustache is gone!”

    Homecoming Princesses… Oh my word, “Pep Club girls” … that phrase/image/idea terrifies me, to be completely honest. You should have been at high school with me, Rita, in laid-back yeah-we-don’t-do-anything-like-that-Edmonton. Seriously. No homecoming. No “prom” even; just “graduation” and yes, there’s a dance, but if you don’t have a date, no problem — and btw your parents are more than welcome to join you at the table. (Although you might resent them slightly afterwards if they didn’t pull their weight as parents and warn you that you were wearing too much blush.) It’s been interesting to me to see the cultural differences that exist even across the different regions of Canada. Here in Ontario there is Homecoming, but no royalty, and they do have prom, but again no royalty. It occurred to me this morning as I was thinking about all this that perhaps the reason Canadians are stereotypically “nicer” than Americans is simply because we give each other fewer opportunities to be mean. I feel like homecoming elections/celebrations (and other assorted hoopla that you partake in which we don’t) could produce a lot of fodder for teenage angst and less-than-kind behaviour. Like laughing at someone who trips on their dress coming up the stairs 🙁 . Oh dear.

    I absolutely loved reading about the kindness Mr. Elwell displayed. The driver’s training had me in stitches. And I could just picture his calm reaction to your left hand turn on a red light. Funnily enough, your Mr. Elwell has put me in mind of one of my own high school teachers: Mr. Steele. Also cheesily moustached, Mr. Steele might just be a nearly perfect foil to Mr. Elwell: he was my grade 11 English teacher and he managed to teach good-at-math me how to write a proper English essay (I can still recall with absolute clarity that aha moment in his class, when I finally understood what good writing was). Where Mr. Elwell was kind, though, Mr. Steele was decidedly not, and it was remembering a moment of heart-stopping cruelty in grade 11 which resulted in my hasty misreading of a word in his messily-scrawled grade 12 yearbook message to me — a misreading which so horrified me I stopped reading right there, mid-message, and shut the book — only to open the book 15 or so years later and to read it and to realize (with tears in my eyes) that not only had he not written the word I thought he wrote, but that he had also gone on to give me the smartest career advice I ever could have asked for. (The only dissenting opinion in what was a sea of pressure; of course never acted upon.) Bitter lesson learned: be careful not to misinterpret things, and make sure that what you’re thinking someone said is ACTUALLY what someone said.

    I confess I was confused at one small point in your essay, though: when you say, “He gave me lessons on how to determine the value of I and xy, and although I have been a very slow learner, indeed, now, more than 35 years later, I’ve finally gotten it” , what are you referring to? Am I correct in thinking it’s a capital I (not lowercase “el”, as I was initially assuming) and thus I (as in, you yourself). And “xy” meaning men (XY chromosomes)? Sorry — I see Kathy’s got it, and I feel just a bit pathetic asking if I’ve got it right. Clearly, I’m just very very slow today… (But still as verbose as ever. Sorry!)
    Marian recently posted…Nature as TherapyMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Not slow at all. 🙂 (And yeah, you got it.)

      I think it would be great if all American high schools did away with royalty. They really are just popularity contests, and I don’t think they do much good at all, for anyone. I hear too many stories now of kids being nominated and then elected as jokes by their peers. That’s just cruel. I think it’s an outdated tradition from a different time, but it’s so ingrained in many of our schools it would be hard to get rid of it.

      I don’t know about the mustaches….I tried to get my ex-husband to shave his off, but he would never do it. When he was in high school there were rules about no facial hair, so he started growing the day after he graduated and he’s had it ever since. I’m sure it would feel really strange to him to shave it now. I think it was just fashionable in the 70s. There are things from every decade. Mullets from our youth. I keep telling my son that 10 years from now he’s going to want to rip up any picture of him sporting a man bun, but I don’t think he believes me. 🙂

    • Rita says:

      I had a good teacher. Really, I learned a lot about how to be funny, in my way. I’m gonna hold you to that coffee. Once you get past your deadline.

  4. Katherine says:

    This took me back to my own Driver’s Ed days. I was also in a car with someone who had never sat in the driver’s seat before and it was TERRIFYING. I remember her asking which was the gas and which was the brake and I just knew this was a bad idea. It was summer, so we drove with the windows down- until she drove us on the shoulder of the road and clipped tree branches and we were dodging foliage inside the car. Within two days she was hitting 70 mph on Highway 81, alongside all of the tractor trailers.

    You could not pay me enough to be a Driver’s Ed instructor. No freaking way.
    Katherine recently posted…Brain DumpMy Profile

    • Rita says:

      Cane used to teach driver’s ed. He once had a kid hit the guard rail on a bridge. He just told me it’s hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. Couldn’t pay me to do it, either!

  5. Kate says:

    I also never had parents who took me out to drive before drivers Ed and I won’t tell you how many times it took before I passed my actual driving test. I will say I was 18 before I got my license after not getting behind the wheel for a good long time and only then because I was moving immediately after graduation and wanted to be able to drive back and see my boyfriend in the summer before we went our separate ways for college.

    I love your description of Mr. Elwell and I agree with everyone before when it was both touching and laugh out loud funny.

    And I too was one of those kids who got bumped into smarter people math and had no business being there.

    • Rita says:

      I failed the written test just that one time. When my mom dropped me off for the road test, she said, “Don’t feel bad when you don’t pass.” Not “if.” “When.” I was so insulted–and so triumphant when I emerged with a license. I will say, I probably had no business driving a car all by myself. I did belong in that math class (and I bet you did, too), but I needed a different kind of teacher. Or math in general needed to be taught differently. I loved geometry. Made total sense to me. So, it wasn’t my brain. It was something about the instruction.

  6. Laura Millsaps says:

    A few years ago I wrote a column for a newspaper thanking the teacher who I most frustrated and who most frustrated me, Mrs. Campbell, who taught Honors American Literature my junior year of high school. She was a passionate teacher, and I was quiet, sullen, skeptical, and too distracted by the wrong kind of boy to really pay attention like I should have. She was insistent. And while we waged war over Thoreau (He lived in Emerson’s back yard! What a fraud!), she finally had me sucked in by the time we got around to N. Scott Momaday’s House Made of Dawn and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. Unbeknown to me, the column published on her birthday, friends of hers mailed her the clipping, and weeks later I got a wonderful card from her, telling me how much she missed the classroom, that the column was a great validation of all her years in the classroom, and that she didn’t remember me as nearly so difficult as I do myself.

    • Rita says:

      What a great story! In another blog/life, I wrote about a different teacher. Her grand-daughter saw it, and because of it created a facebook page for students of her grandmother. All kinds of people who had had this teacher wrote short posts about what she did for them. It meant a lot to her family. We teachers usually don’t ever get to know how we most impacted students. I’m glad yours got to.

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