In my elementary school, kids feared Mr. Lessig. He was the authority figure. No matter how loud the cafeteria was, as soon as kids spotted him walking into the room, the whole place went quiet. If you were oblivious to the silence around you and continued to talk or goof off, you would soon hear yourself being addressed by this white-haired, gray-suit wearing man, whose most visible physical characteristic was little skin growths that dangled near his eyes. And heaven help you if you left something on your plate. Then, you’d hear one of the most recognizable catch-phrases in the school fall from his lips:
“Try it! You’ll like it. And so will I.”
In all my years of schooling, no one commanded respect like Mr. Lessig. No one, not even school principals, possessed his authority. Part of it could have been how young we were–you tend to fear and respect your elders more before you hit adolescence. But part of it was that aura that he cultivated–that of a strict disciplinarian, who wouldn’t take crap from anybody. And if you gave him any crap, you’d find yourself spending recess in his classroom, copying out several pages from the dictionary.
In fifth grade, I had Mr. Lessig for math. My ability in math has always hinged on who is teaching it. Fifth grade was the first year that I did really well in that subject, and the first year that I really enjoyed math, yet I don’t remember much of what I learned that year. What I do remember reveals a different Mr. Lessig from the one that could silence a cafeteria full of rowdy kids.
Each classroom at my elementary school had two doors: one led from the hallway to the room, one led from the room to the outside. On warm days, the outside door was left open, which often let in wasps (they also came in through open windows, since none of the windows had screens in them). In the springtime, when the weather was nice, gym classes had to walk past Mr. Lessig’s windows in order to get from the gym to the softball field. One time, some of the kids walking by were a little too boisterous, so Mr. Lessig stood in the doorway, yelling at those students who were either talking too loudly, or running. As the group continued by, he saw a kid trying to play a blade of grass by cupping it in his hands. After the kid had tried unsuccessfully to make the blade vibrate with noise, Mr. Lessig yelled at him, “Hey! Kid! Come here!” He then picked up a strand of grass and showed the kid how to play it, though he also had trouble making a noise. That’s right: this disciplinarian was holding up math class so that he could teach a kid, who wasn’t one of his students, how to play a blade of grass properly.
Another time, I had a cold. In the strict world of elementary school, we not only had to ask the teacher if we had to go to the bathroom, we had to ask him or her if we wanted to get up for any reason, including grabbing a tissue from his or her desk. I was quite shy as a child and so feared asking Mr. Lessig if I could get up and blow my nose, despite having to sniff a lot to prevent snot from dripping onto my math book. As Mr. Lessig walked by my desk, he stopped. In his hand was a tissue.
If Mr. Lessig’s math class was the first time I did well in math, it was also the first class in which I failed a quiz (or it might have been a class assignment). Our punishment was that we had to copy a word and its definition out of the dictionary. In fact, copying pages out of the dictionary was Mr. Lessig’s unique brand of punishment. I forget what the word was, but I remember that it was something related to our failure (like, if we had failed to listen, the word would have been “listen.”) So, that night, I picked up a dictionary and wrote out the definition at home. I found out during recess on Thursday of the following week that we were supposed to be in Mr. Lessig’s room at that moment, copying out the dictionary definition several times. I was horrified to think what would happen to me, but I wasn’t about to go in and cut my recess short, just because I had misunderstood the specifics of my punishment.
Well, nothing happened to me. Either he forgot that I was supposed to be writing those definitions on that day, or he let it go. To this day, I’m not sure which scenario is correct.
The last story I have of Mr. Lessig involves my two best friends in elementary school. One of them was being a jerk to me on the playground, so the other one fought him right before the whistle sounded, signaling the end of recess. I left, not wanting to get involved in a fight. Of course, the first class after recess was math. As the students came in, details about what had happened on the playground emerged, especially after Mr. Lessig noticed that Matt, my friend who had fought on my behalf, was absent. The students knew general details about the fight and its aftermath (such as Matt being in the principal’s office at that moment), but not the underlying cause. For my part, I remained silent. Several minutes later, when Matt came into the room, Mr. Lessig got the whole story (in increments) from him, including the fact that he had fought on my behalf (not that I had asked him to).
I should mention that I was a tall and skinny kid, and while Matt was tougher than me, he was several inches shorter. At the time, too, Matt wore glasses, while I did not.
Anyway, the class laughed when they heard he had been fighting for me, while Mr. Lessig wondered aloud why I needed Matt’s protection, since I was bigger than he was (which I think was accentuated by one of his perfectly-timed stares and deadpan delivery). I remember my face got red, but I also remember that Mr. Lessig didn’t dwell on the story once it was out in the open, though I could tell it amused him. We went from the story to our math lesson for the day, and he never mentioned it again.
Mr. Lessig died during my junior year in high school. He wasn’t that old when he died, but he had been a heavy smoker (I’m pretty sure the paper listed him dying at 57, but that can’t be right, unless smoking really had aged him–67 seems more likely, though I haven’t been able to track down his obituary to confirm this detail).
Many of the students who went to my elementary school have a Mr. Lessig story. What’s interesting is how affectionate these stories are. Even the kids he made eat their vegetables, even the kids he made copy whole pages out of the dictionary, don’t have anything bad to say about him. And although I was fortunate enough to be taught by many good teachers, from elementary school through college, I never had one that was so iconic. Everyone knew who Mr. Lessig was, even if they never have him as a teacher. Ironic, then, that his reputation rested on the least of his qualities. And that, of all the things he taught me, math was the least important.