Mark McKissick, junior high English teacher, passed away earlier this week.
To say that I had a difficult time in school vastly understates the issue. The worst of it was junior high for a variety of reasons. Mainly? It was junior high, that purgatory of all school tiers. You have a lot of kids from a bunch of different schools, some who know each other, some who don't, all pushed together for the first time after spending 6-7 years with the same bunch of faces year after year. Throw into that cauldron that most, but not all of these kids are just starting puberty and their bodies are in turmoil, their brains overtaken by hormones. As the natural narcissism of children slips away and leaves behind only questions and self-doubt, social groups from grade school get broken, refactored, and reformed as belligerent cliques of adolescents trying to belong to something just a bit bigger than themselves. They're just self-conscious enough to know that they need to put up walls and define boundaries, but not self-aware enough to know that it's because they're terrified -- of not knowing who they are, what to do, where to go, why any of it matters.
And in this never-ending flood of hormones, fear and pain, there are those who must try to teach.
Most of them hold back the waters just long enough to get from one bell to the next. You can't honestly expect much more of them, poor bastards.
One in particular, however, tried to teach us how to swim.
Mr. McKissick taught English at Washington Junior High in Rock Island, IL. He started as the 7th Grade English teacher and moved up to the 8th Grade with my class, a bit of good luck which I am eternally grateful for. He helped make me the human being I am today.
He had his work cut out for him. I was awkward. Everyone is in junior high, but I felt like I was the most awkward. I was completely lacking in self-awareness and basically did everything wrong that you can do in junior high, socially. I frequently kept my hands above waist-level. When I spoke, my voice would get extremely high when I was excited, and I always said what I was thinking and feeling. I wore whatever I owned that didn't smell. I would speed walk from class to class, taking pleasure in getting seated before anyone else even entered the room. I loved being called on and knowing the answer. I was convinced I was the smartest and the funniest, but I almost never did homework and I couldn't take a joke, good-natured or mean-spirited.
Basically, on the junior high totem pole, I was below the dirt.*
My parents didn't understand. They were unhappy about my grades. They didn't understand how I wasn't making friends. They suggested things like "Pay attention to what the other kids are doing and wearing." They pushed books on body language so that I could present myself better and maybe the other kids would stop calling me gay.** Like most of my teachers, they were holding back the waters*** and again, that's about as much as anyone can expect. Junior high kids don't know what they're going through or why they're going through it. How the hell are parents supposed to know?
Mr. McKissick knew. I suspect he'd been where I am, the lonely scared kid different from everybody else but not really sure why. Or maybe not. He seemed too cool to have ever been scared or lonely.
He gave a crap. I mean, most everyone did, but they were so overwhelmed. He had a way of talking to you like your concerns were the only ones on his mind at the time. He wanted to know how you were doing, what was going on. He kept me back after class a couple times because he saw I was hurt about something and he wanted to make sure I was all right. I always brushed it off and said it was nothing, but it meant a lot that he noticed. I, king of the unsporty, ended up joining the tennis team because he coached it and I managed the girl's tennis team in 8th Grade as well.
I was a voracious reader and he would occasionally let me borrow books from him, books normally not allowed outside the classroom. His class was the first time I ever really wrote at any great length about literature critically, which I think eventually segued into me writing about film critically. When it came to homework, I didn't want to disappoint him (even though I did, repeatedly, because I had ADHD and didn't know it).
He didn't let me get away with my usual crap, either. My ever-present litany of excuses were always met with alternatives -- not pushy, but just snarky enough to say, "I know what you're doing, I understand, but you have to stop."
I can still hear his voice in my head, measured but with the kind of twinkle you usually ascribe to eyes.
I'm not the only one with stories like this. He inspired other classmates in other ways. I stopped by to visit him at Washington right before I graduated high school and saw him work with another kid who was like me at that same age -- lonely and scared.
He was a good man and a great teacher. At a time when I felt like I was drowning, he reached his hand out to pull me above water. I didn't always take it, but it was always appreciated.
* Yes, I just went from a water metaphor to a totem pole metaphor. Deal with it.
** I want to emphasize that it was because being called "gay" was said to hurt me. I know that if I was gay, my parents would have been amazing about it.
*** Back to water again.