This is the dedication in my latest story, Rumble.
I thought that this dedication needed a bit more explanation.
So, sit back and listen to why she was the best teacher an eleven-year-old little weirdo could hope for.
I remember the first day of sixth grade. 1977. Mrs. Tarkington, a tall, strikingly beautiful woman with skin the color of mocha and large, dark eyes, said to her class, “I want to let you in on a little secret. Last night, you went to bed on the planet Earth but, this morning, you woke up on Mars.”
Now, this was a mind shattering revelation to 11-year-old Nik. You must understand that I put teachers, like books, on pedestals. They were ALWAYS true. Everything that came out of their mouths was gospel.
It didn’t help matters that that previous summer, I devoured UFO magazines. I spent that hot summer doing chores or just outright stealing money (I had a very lucrative side grift but that’s for another post) to fund this new obsession of mine. And those UFO magazines, pulpy pieces that Adult Nik sees as outright lies and complete conspiracy drivel, to Kid Nik were absolute truth.
So, when she said that we had been mysteriously whisked away from Earth to Mars, I thought, “Huh. Okay. Wow. Really? Wow. How?” And then my brain started concocting all sorts of scenarios ranging from Government conspiracies to Alien abduction.
So, the idea that we went to bed on Earth and woke up on Mars? All right. Cool. What’s next?
After much back and forth between the more skeptical of the class that turned into outright arguments between the Earthers and the Martians, Mrs. Tarkington clapped her hands and said, “GOOD! That’s what I want. My goal this year, class, is to teach you all how to think critically. NEVER accept anything that comes out of my mouth as truth. Always ask for proof. ALWAYS.”
This was life changing. While I was still very much a Mulder (my Sculley days were still years in the future), I loved her too much to be angry at being tricked for very long.
As the year went on, her classroom became a sanctuary for me. My homelife at that time was not good. I don’t want to go into it here but…it was the beginning of a very dark period of my childhood. So, having 8 hours in Mrs. Tarkington’s class was a bright point.
And, man, that year…Jesus….looking back, it really was the last year of my childhood.
I was eleven. Puberty had yet to take hold on me and most of the kids. There were a few girls that had boobs and we all looked at them with a mixture of envy and anger. Yeah, anger. I remember feeling betrayed by these girls. It’s crazy but that’s the truth.
As for me, ha! Puberty was still a year and change away. I had both of my feet fast in being a kid and, dammit, I wasn’t going until the hormone Gestapo came to get me, kicking and screaming.
I was a weird kid. I’ve said that a thousand times and I’ll say it a few times more. I’m thankful I was weird in the 70’s; two decades later and I would’ve been drugged up to my gills.
And I was blessed to have a teacher like Mrs. Tarkington that gloried in my weirdness.
She let me start up a Monster Hunter Club. She sponsored us for the school’s Science Fair when we entered a Cryptozoology display. We had a floating Giant Squid in an aquarium, a Bigfoot diorama with a homemade plaster foot, a papier-mache Himalayan mountain for the Yeti.
We won Honorable Mention. This was validation in my book.
Mrs. Tarkington gave me carte blanche to put on a play, Hunting Bigfoot. Trent Ridley wore a parka and three of us hunted him all over the classroom, following his footprints we had cut out of construction paper. Once captured, we pulled up a bedsheet and then performed an autopsy. We tossed construction paper guts and limbs out into the audience which was well received by the sixth graders.
And, best of all, she was the first person to light up the writing bug in Yours Truly. She published a poem I wrote about autumn (I remember it had something to do with squirrels and nuts) in a class journal. She also pushed me into public speaking by submitting an essay I did to a contest. I came in second place but it was my first experience at seeing my words actually make an impact.
My biggest regret is that at the end of the year, when we all lined up to say goodbye before leaving for summer break, I did not hug her. I’m not a hugger by nature; I’ve gotten better but, when I was a kid, it was absolutely out of the question. I can still feel how my stomach flipped at the idea of being pulled into someone else’s body. The suffocation of the hug. Their heat. Their smell. No…no…I couldn’t do it.
So, instead, I shook her hand and said, “Bye!”
And walked out.
But I never forgot her.