Schools in Crisis
Due to budgetary constraints, my high school Geography teacher was Frank George, the affable, short, round, balding and bespectacled man we had only seen previously loitering around the school track. He was always out there alone, twisting and adjusting his loose-fitting polyblend slacks, a clipboard in one hand and a Diet Pepsi in the other.
“Who the hell is that guy?” someone would say. “He’s always out there, fucking around with his pants.”
“He doesn’t work here. My friend Brian said he wanders in from the neighborhood and hangs out in the stadium all day.”
“I heard he’s got that thing that makes you yell swear words and racist comments. Parrot’s Syndrome.”
“You mean Tourette’s.”
On the first day of World Geography class he introduced himself as the school’s golf instructor, though no one could recall “Introduction to Golf” being an educational option available to us. While he was in fact employed by our school and did not in fact have Tourette’s, his qualifications to teach World Geography were beyond dubious. In the first month, he made it clear that he had never before traveled outside of the country, did not know the less-than-fine political distinction between North and South Korea and couldn’t convincingly explain the difference between a fjord and an inlet. As distracted children, only one of us was actually discouraged by these revelations – a smarmy kid who would eventually be named valedictorian of the graduating class ahead of me. I think his name was Charles Andrews.
Charles Andrews decided early that he would take down Frank George by embarrassing him at every available opportunity. His weapon of choice was a loud tongue-cluck or a “tsk,” followed by the correction of every gaffe and mispronunciation in every lecture. Charles decided that he’d been cheated by the Tampa public school system and unlike the rest of us, he took no pleasure in the consecutive days spent watching movies pirated from Mr. George’s satellite television subscription – Red Dawn, The Poseidon Adventure, Terminator 2. While the rest of us bit hard on Jolly Ranchers and wondered if Ernie Borgnine would make it out of that upside down cruise ship alive, Charles fumed quietly over SAT study guides. Charles Andrews decided early that he would ruin this golf instructor’s year and I decided early that I really hated Charles Andrews.
Now, I’ll readily concede that he was pretty good about catching most of Frank George’s mistakes. And sometimes his correction was actually more entertaining than the original mistake. For some reason though, Charles missed a repeated mispronunciation of the African nation of Tanzania as Tanzanzia. Look at those closely, then say them both out loud. I always favored this mispronunciation, the extra “z” giving one of the poorest countries in the world a mystical, almost science fiction-like quality. Our spacecraft settled gently into the fine orange crater-dust of Tanzanzia, the most treacherous planet known in the Tourette Galaxy. It should be no surprise that, using nothing more than a set of encyclopedias and some old National Geographic magazines, I would write that year’s term paper on Tanzania. The title would be simple, misspelled and entirely inappropriate for a factual research paper. It would be Tanzanzia: Land of Mystery?
Tanzanzia: Land of Mystery? became my sophomore magnum opus for three reasons: It clenched my “A” for the year, it made Frank George feel proud to have taught this class and it angered Charles Andrews enough to lose his smug cool and call me terrible things in a fit of hallway rage, on his very last day of high school. To earn all of this, I spent an honest month working on the paper, meticulously developing “facts” about the fictional exports and favored snacks of these Tanzanzian people. Did you know that the popular get-together game Jenga is actually derived from a traditional Tanzanzian game that involves carefully stacking and unstacking a small pile of smoked crickets? Neither did I, until I made it up.
My Tanzanzia became bulletproof when coupled with photos that had been obviously cut directly from the faded and worn pages of 1970s encyclopedias and travel magazines. In reality, not a single picture in this report was actually related to Tanzania, not the picture of Mt. Everest that I labeled, “THE FRIGHTENING MT. KILIMANJARO HAS CLAIMED THE LIVES OF MANY WOULD-BE MOUNTAINEERS” and certainly not the picture of California’s Half Moon Bay, inappropriately captioned, “THE BRITISH GREATLY ENJOY A HOLIDAY IN ZANZIBAR.” On the very last day of class, Charles Andrews sat stunned and speechless before a smitten Frank George, who held my report high in front of the class for the resolution of this story.
“All you people should take note of this, this is a marvelous report. Look at these pitchers. These are marvelous pitchers. Mr. Schang, please tell us where you got such marvelous pitchers.”
“Most of them were taken by my father. He lived in Tanzanzia for the PeaceCorps,” and I really said Tanzanzia, the way Mr. George always said it.
“Well it’s breathtaking. What a great report.”
“Thank you. It was easy to write, you know, such an interesting place,” but he wasn’t listening to me. He was cradling my report and cooing at it like a loving mother with her newborn, something I imagined that Charles Andrews had never experienced.
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