It doesn’t matter if you’re 14 or 34, the first day of school is filled with equal parts promise and loathing.
My first class with Mr Leonard was no exception. His reputation as a hard-ass and a hard marker had preceded him; he was to San Francisco Community College (SFCC) what John Houseman was to The Paper Chase.
Mr Leonard was teaching English-1A at James Lick Middle School, a deco institution built in the 30s for Grades 6-8. The middle-aged faces that stared back at me as I entered the room contrasted sharply with the squat plastic chairs and tables designed for bottoms half their size.
As in high school, I pulled up a chair next to the only black person in the class. He, like the other students, was silent, his attention focused on a small white book. He looked up, committing its contents to memory, smiled, and then continued studying.
This was in fact the second class; I had missed the inaugural session due to a trip to Vancouver. The shear intensity of an entire room of people studying was ostracizing, like I had failed a grade. Fifteen minutes before class was to begin, Mr Leonard entered the room.
He was in his late-40s, with a greying beard and glasses. His beer gut hung over his studded belt and his leather vest was pockmarked with pins and buttons from Pride days and leather festivals past; all that was missing were handcuffs and a leather cap.
I had experienced any number of instructors at SFCC — hippies, Gay Blades, and Black Panthers — but this guy took the cake. Mr Leonard was University Comprehension and Reading’s answer to Big Gay Al.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I muttered.
“It gets worse,” my neighbour mumbled back.
At 7 pm exactly, Mr Leonard rose from his desk and took attendance. My name was noticeably absent from the list. I double-checked my registration form, praying that I was in the wrong room. No such luck.
Without so much as a pause, Mr Leonard began to teach the lesson. I raised my hand like a kid who has asked to use the bathroom one too many times.
“Can I help you?” he said.
“Yeah, I’m supposed to be in this class but my name wasn’t on your attendance list.”
“Were you here last week?”
“No, I was on vacation.”
“Then I dropped you from the class.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“What part of my sentence did you not understand?”
“It was only one class.”
“The first class — and you’re already behind! Where do you think are? Sesame Street?”
My neighbour shot me a glance as if to say, “What did I tell you?”
“So should I go home?” I ventured.
Mr Leonard sighed like we had been through this a million times before.
“If you want to stay in the class you have to go downstairs and re-register, but don’t bother unless you have money enough to buy this book.” He held up a copy of The Bedford Handbook, the one my classmates were studying from.
As I got up to leave, the sound of my chair against the floor was deafening. I felt like I had just been sent to the principal’s office for something I didn’t do.
Descending the steps to registration, I considered leaving and never coming back. “I’m too old for this shit,” I bitched to myself. Having been a bartender in the Castro, I had had my fill of bitchy queens, thank you.
My decision to stay had less to do with proving something to Mr Leonard and everything to do with proving something to myself.
The last class I’d taken at the college was an autobiography class. Jack — the Gay Blade — was a Mr Rogers cardigan to Mr Leonard’s leather vest. Whereas Mr Leonard was all about cracking the whip, Jack was about having a good cry.
Jack taught me the most valuable lesson I have ever learned about writing: You don’t have to be famous to write about your life. Once I knew that, I knew I had a chance at a career as a writer.
Jack worshipped every word that I wrote. If his head went any farther up my ass he would have been wearing me for a suit.
Before handing back my final project, Jack hugged it to his chest like it was Gone With The Wind. “What can I say? I loved it!” Then he lowered his voice. “But you have the grammar of a hack. If you want to be taken seriously as a writer you should take English-1A.”
And that was how I got sent to the principal’s office.
A half-hour into his class it became obvious to me that Mr Leonard learned everything he knew about teaching from nuns. He liked to bang things for emphasis, like books and chairs, but mostly the Magic Marker on the white board.
“If you learn just one thing in my class, it should be this,” he said, holding the marker up like a crucifix. “Tell. Show. Share.” He wrote the words vertically on the white board pointing at each as he explained them.
“You Tell the reader your opinion; you Show an example to prove your point; and you Share your thoughts on why your example proves your point. Tell. Show. Share.” He pounded on the last word driving it home. “Share!”
My neighbour started laughing, causing me to snort through my nose, which made him laugh harder. Mr Leonard paused and waited for us to regain our composure. It wasn’t until the break that I got to ask him what was so funny.
“When he kept saying ‘Share’ I thought he meant ‘Cher’ as in the entertainer. And then I started hearing Cher singing, ‘Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.'”
“I love that song,” I told him.
“Me too,” he said.
“Now I’m going to have it stuck in my head.”
“At least you’re old enough to remember it,” he said. “I’m Randy.”
“What are you in for?”
“Poor grammar. You?”
“I need this to become a nurse.”
After the break we passed notes and made faces behind Mr Leonard’s back, attracting daggers from the eyes of some our classmates. I kept expecting someone to raise their hand and tell on us. It had taken me 20 years, but I was finally sitting at the cool table.
Considering it was one class, three hours a week, English-1A consumed every spare moment of my life that was not spent walking the dog or working; although it did have a tendency to creep into the latter.
Randy and I were constantly on the phone with each other bitching about our assignments and Mr Leonard.
For all our kvetching we were apt students. We took a cavalier approach to passing or failing, but the truth was that we secretly sought Mr Leonard’s approval.
“I think I’m going to fail,” I told Randy.
“No you’re not.”
“I haven’t got higher than a C on any of my quizzes or homework assignments.”
“Girl, you’ve got time aplenty,” he said.
“You don’t understand. This was supposed to be the thing I was good at,” I told him. “I should be getting straight As.”
“No one gets As in Mr Leonard’s class. He’s said so himself.”
But an A was what I needed. It was do or die.
Our first paper was on Merle Woo’s essay “Letter to Ma” about her relationship with her mother. In it, Woo shows how racism, sexism and homophobia are used to keep minorities in menial jobs. Since I was basically living the essay, it was merely a matter of Tell, Show, Share.
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” Mr Leonard said, dropping my paper onto the table. Randy and I stared slack-jawed at my grade: a B+. “You would have gotten an A if there weren’t the grammar and spelling mistakes.”
Errors aside, Mr Leonard was Jack all over again; he practically fanned his eyes with my essay to keep back the tears. Not only did he hold it up as a shining example but he asked me if he could use sections of it in his other classes.
“Click,” Randy said. “You know what that is?”
“That’s the sound of the light being turned on at the end of the tunnel.”
Mr Leonard’s tutelage was a form of sadomasochism.
He gave the song “To Sir With Love” a whole new meaning. The more time I spent with him, the more I felt like I was in an abusive relationship; every time I expected praise he would rip me to shreds.
On Halloween, Randy drove us to our mid-term meeting with Mr Leonard at the college campus in South San Francisco. It was foggy as hell and the roads were a blur of headlights. Randy was a tailgater. Every exit was a near-death experience.
“I saw Mr Leonard at Daddy’s on the weekend,” Randy said. “He was pissed that you called and said you weren’t going to come to class because it was raining.”
“But I showed up!” I said through gritted teeth.
“I know. But he was still all, ‘Who does she think she is? I don’t get a night off for rain!'”
“The only reason I showed up was so he wouldn’t be disappointed in me! And he still got pissed off! This is exactly the same shit I went through with my mother.”
“Honey, don’t go there,” Randy said. “Look at this way: a lot of teachers wouldn’t have cared.”
The meeting went as I expected. I was getting a C.
“You have to start doing better on your quizzes,” Mr Leonard said. “The prose is there, you just need to study a little harder.
Study harder? All I did was study! And I still got all the questions wrong. We might as well have been learning algebra.
Just when I thought I was free to go, Mr Leonard said, “It’s important that you do well, Tony; we need you.”
Arcane as he may have sounded, I understood him perfectly. When he said “we” he meant the community and by “you” he wasn’t speaking in the messianic sense of the word, but people like me who can write.
It was the only time I saw Mr Leonard the person — as opposed to his Mother Superior façade.
Here was a man who had probably fought the Briggs Initiative preventing homosexuals from teaching in California schools; a man whose career had hinged on a community’s ability to articulate its realities. He gave me a new appreciation for the power of words.
The class had shrunk to 12 from 25 by the end of the semester — the attendance list was a veritable slasher movie.
Those who survived looked like they had walked through wind, fire and rain to get here. “The Horror,” their faces said. “The Horror.”
All that was left were our in-class presentations and the marks on our final essays. Mine was on sanctions against Iran and how they haven’t worked. Randy’s was on women in Afghanistan.
I was very proud of my final essay until I saw Randy’s presentation. Once in front of the class, Randy turned into Nelson Mandela using big terms like “gender apartheid.” He was genuinely outraged at how women were treated in Afghanistan and disgusted the US had let it go on for so long.
His thesis had something mine was sorely lacking: a sense of morality. Next to Randy, I looked like Moon Unit Zappa singing “Valley Girl.”
Randy got his essay back first. “I loved your use of the expression gender apartheid,” Mr Leonard told him. He gave Randy a B+.
I got my essay back last. “I was surprised,” Mr Leonard said, as he handed it to me.
What was that supposed to mean?
“What did you get?” Randy asked.
“I can’t look.”
“Seriously.” I shoved the essay into my backpack. “I need a minute.”
After he finished handing back our essays, Mr Leonard stood at the front of the class. “It’s been a privilege and an honour to teach you,” he said. “You’re free to go.”
The class got up en masse, creating a logjam at the door from too many people trying to leave at once. “Shouldn’t we say something to him?” I asked Randy. “Thank him?”
“Hmmm…” Randy said, thinking about it for a second. “No.”
The class congregated at a neighbourhood pub that was decorated for Christmas, our party wedged into a corner beneath some red and green blinking lights. Randy and I had smoked a joint on the way over, and between the lights and the claustrophobia, I felt like I was at a circuit party.
“Now that you’re lit, it’s time to look at your mark.”
I opened my bag and looked at the cover page of my essay. “Oh my God,” I gasped. “I got an A!” The table went silent.
“Let me see that!” Randy said. He poked his head inside my bag. “I don’t believe it! Congratulations!” Then he downed his drink and said, “That was lovely. Now let’s see if Mr Leonard is at Daddy’s!”
At Daddy’s we pulled out our essays to read Mr Leonard’s notes. It wasn’t until I had my paper in front of my face that I saw that the triangular shape I had taken for an A was in fact a D. I showed the mark to Randy.
“I wish he would come in here. I would love to give him a piece of my mind,” I said. “Oh God, and all those people I think I got an A. I feel like such a phony.”
“It was an honest mistake. I thought I saw it too. That’s why they call it dope.”
“Randy, that was my best effort.”
“Tony, we all get bad grades at one time or another; it doesn’t mean we didn’t learn anything.”
And I had. I had learned a lot.
To this day, whenever I get stuck trying to find the next word or come up with the next sentence, I can hear Mr Leonard’s voice saying, “Tell. Show. Share.” Followed by “Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves.”