July 9th – of a Saint and of Berta

RHS2009One may think that the school district is screwed up today, but I’ll tell a tale here about a stroke of genius that was rendered in 1958. I was then a senior at Reno High, taking a class called “Civics” from a teacher who was principally a coach, but the district said that to be a coach one had to teach some creampuff subject as well. He was teaching Civics – the study of government, past and present, right here in the US of A.

A test of some consequence was coming ’round the bend soon, and sensing that we’d be asked to name the cabinet offices of the government, I composed in my mind a mnemonic to bring the answers to the forefront. I shared my mnemonic – “St. Dapical the Tenth” – with classmates, and we all aced that element of our test.

It came to light soon that the four-eyed geek with ears that looked like a NYC taxicab with both doors open in the back of the classroom had facilitated most in the room – boys and girls – to score high on that question. I was called on the carpet for this transgression. “What’s the difference how we remember, so long as we remember?” I asked in my defense. “We’re here to learn, Karl, not play word games with the government,” I was informed.

Oh. I offered a counter to his aberrated reasoning, for which I was dispatched to the vice-principal of discipline, another eight-ball in the system that no real employer would give houseroom to. I’d like to think that calling the Civics teacher a “fumducker” somewhere along the way had nothing to do with this decision.

My father, who spent more time than I did at Reno High in my senior year, was again summoned (he had his own parking place in the circle in front of Reno High).  I had to promise to never again screw up a test by sharing a mnemonic like “St. Dapical X” with my friends, and a few other things. And the Civics teacher, as proof of the book “Peter Principle,” postulating that all people rise to the level of their incompetence, would several years later be named the principal of a new high school.

God help the students and staff of that school, and I’ll elucidate “St. Dapical X” at the end of this piece. And I will share one of my father’s more propitious comments, uttered years later – he a man who would take the side of the Devil Incarnate over me in any situation: “Where did the district ever find those two…?”

Berta (2)OK, now let’s go for a more positive person in classroom teaching and management – her name was Roberta Kirchner and when they’re handing out school names, the “Berta Kirchner Elementary School” has a nice ring to it. At the 50-year reunion of the Class of 1959 ten years ago, Mrs. Kirchner was a leader in the informal appellation of our most-favored teachers (John Gonda won for the men teachers). Here’s an example of a class with Mrs. Kirchner:

At the inaugural day of our English class, September 1958 for our senior year 1959, she laid out the curriculum for the ensuing school year: heavy on the classics – “Tale of Two Cities,” “Silas Marner,” “Pride and Prejudice” – more of the same boring stuff we’d endured since junior high. Sensing the moaning and groaning from the assembled Sweathogs, she stopped. For some reason she looked square at me. “Mr. Breckenridge, what would you like to study this year? Mickey and Donald? Batman? Woody?” She left out The Roadrunner and Wile E.

The Sweathogs chuckled. Knowing that once your feet are off the ground it doesn’t matter how high they hang you, I said, “How ’bout some writers that are more modern? The best poet in the land died two weeks ago, why not him? Jack London lived in Glen Ellen and John Steinbeck still lives in Monterey – both two hundred miles from here – how ’bout them? Jane Austen could bore anybody. How ’bout Rudyard Kipling? Every kid in this class oughta have to recite ‘If’ to get out of here…”

“OK, Mr. Breckenridge, I’ll make you a deal: If you can come back in this room Monday (I think this was on a Friday) and recite one of the guy who just died’s poems, I’ll think about it!”

Rats – how did I get in this boat, I thought. For the next 72 hours, I ate, lived and slept with one poem going through my head. I holed up in my bedroom and read it over and over. At school Monday morning I was a Zombie – the poem going through my head endlessly

And Berta played me like a Stradavarius during class when it finally came. No mention of my poem was uttered – she just let me twist in the wind, waiting. With five minutes left in the hour-long class, she said, “Oh, Mr. Breckenridge, do you have a poem for us?”

I stood, looked at the floor, then the ceiling. I began to speak: “A bunch of the boys were whooping it up at the Malemute Saloon; the kid that handles the music bos was playing a jagtime tune…” – the words of the late poet Robert Service and his “Shooting of Dan McGrew” – six minutes of torture.

But it worked; Berta started the next class with the announcement that “We’re abandoning the ‘gasbags’ as Mr. Breckenridge called them last week, for some poets and writers a bit more contemporary ..”

“Gasbags”? I said that…? Well it must have worked. We had a wonderful year, then went our separate ways. Berta retired and took over the ladies golf program and newsletter at Hidden Valley, doing a Yeoman’s job with the administration and burning up the links. Even wrote a book: Twisted Pinon Golf Club – The Red Tees. She passed away in 2008 – a great lady, a friend and a teacher’s teacher.

Oh, almost forgot: St. Dapical the Tenth: ST = State, Treasury. DAP = Defense, Attorney General, Postmaster General. I = Interior. CAL =  Commerce, Agriculture, Labor. X = Health, Education and Welfare. If I ever take such a test again, I’ll have to account for Homeland Security!

Snapshot of Berta, courtesy Paul Kirchner