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Ah, you’re back. Anyway, such remarks are yet another happy reminder that a lot of people read this journal but do not post comments, which is totally cool, of course. It’s also had me thinking of high school days rather more than usual lately.
There are moments I can replay in my mind from back then that make me wonder, “Who was that guy? How could I have thought that?” There are other moments, though, that still resonate much the same way now that they did at the time. Take Mr. Potchynok for example.
Yeah, I double-checked it; that was the name, Potchynok. It’s pronounced as a 2-syllable word; pretend the “y” isn’t there. Rhymes with “crotch rot,” by which term he was often called behind his back. He was a social studies teacher and was sometimes alleged to be a communist. I can recall one occasion on which Mr. Potchynok actually addressed that question during class. He was quite clear on the point that he considered communism to be a failed and unworkable system. He did, however, proudly describe himself as a socialist. Call him what you will, but one thing was clear – he relished a juicy classroom debate on political, moral, or ethical issues. Come to think of it, he was moderator of the debate team for many years at my school, so I think he was doing what he wanted to be doing there.
You might think that I would have long ago relegated all of my old high school conflicts and run-ins to either the annals or the dustbin of history, and while that’s mostly the case, there are still a few moments that rankle me a bit. A few concern Mr. Potchynok, and the fact that I still have any feelings about these moments tells me that I ought to enter them into this journal. See what you make of them.
It was senior year. While I’d had Mr. P. as my teacher for several courses in my four years there, this was the one time I had him for a non-social studies course. He was my religion teacher that year (this was, after all, De La Salle in Detroit; an all-boys Catholic school). One day, he took a little detour from overtly religious matters and began class by asking us what it meant to be an American. Of course, one of the first answers given was that we were free. This was the answer Mr. P. was looking for. “So you’re free?” he asked with a gleam in his eye, “Does this mean you’re free to walk on the freeway? Free to take your neighbor’s property?”
I immediately saw what he was doing. As luck would have it, I’d just had a lengthy discussion about a week earlier with my father and brother about the difference between freedom and license, so I immediately raised my hand and when Mr. P. called on me, I explained that this was the cause of any confusion on the point – that we have freedom in this country, which comes with social parameters, but not license, which by definition comes with no restrictions. Mr. P. frowned and said quietly, “I see you’ve been talking to the students from the other section.” He then ignored me for the rest of the period and steered the class into a heated debate on the meaning of freedom, until they finally came around to working out what I had tried to tell them at the outset.
You can probably see what bugged me about that – this teacher for whom I had more than an average amount of respect had leapt to an erroneous conclusion about me and my motivations. Moreover, he had invalidated me as an independent thinker and had cut me off from the process, all because it was messing up his plan for eating up a 45-minute class period.
Not long after that, I had an odd moment of – revenge? No, that’s too strong a word, but the moment somehow put the scales closer to even between us. Here’s what happened – Mr. P. approached me one day after class and asked if I’d ever considered joining the debate team. He even tried to butter me up with the observation that I seemed to have a knack for it and he thought it would be a good thing for me. I muttered something about not being interested and went on my way, and he never brought it up again. But here’s The Rest Of The Story: Three years earlier, at the beginning of freshman year, I’d seen a sign posted in the hallway one day. It read something like, “Wanted – Dead or Alive, debaters for Mr. Potchynok. Want to learn more about it? Meeting at 2:30 on Friday in Room 22.” At the time, I knew nothing about how a debate team worked. I mean Nothing. I knew what the word debate meant, and I knew that I liked a good debate, but that was it. So I’d shown up in Room 22 at 2:30 that day, ready to dig in and learn all about it. Mr. Potchynok had begun the meeting by telling all of us freshmen to move to the back of the classroom, and he’d spent the rest of the meeting talking to the returning debaters about strategies for the year. In a foreshadowing of my experience with Mr. P. as a senior, I was ignored and my feelings were invalidated. I left the meeting feeling as if I somehow knew even less about debate than I had before the meeting, and I never went back. So here we were, three years later, and Mr. P. didn’t even remember that I’d been at the first meeting freshman year!
I can honestly say that I have no regrets about not going out for debate – not if the price of doing so would have been more exposure to Mr. P’s shoddy interpersonal skills. At that point in my life, I needed to be nurtured and that was not Mr. P’s strong suit. I think I’m a substantially stronger, more independent person now than I was then, and I should hardly be surprised if my psyche sustained a wound or two back then, and if a few moments from the past still rankle me a bit, I will assume that, as with the acne from that same time of life, these are merely cosmetic scars of little consequence.