08 March 2015

Middle School Memories: Mr. Bill Beasy

When I was in middle school, each grade was divided into two teams: Team A and Team B. Some students believed that Team A was somehow superior or reflected a better standing of the students selected for it. I never really cared, to be honest. But each team had its own roster of teachers, and there was no question that there was one teacher every middle schooler wanted to have: Bill Beasy, who taught science for Team B in 8th grade.

Mr. Beasy was one of those teachers you heard about even as a sixth grader. All anyone ever said was that he was awesome and that you'd be lucky to have him as a teacher, but no one ever elaborated why that was. I'd been on Team A my first two years of middle school, so it seemed unlikely I'd be switched to Team B for 8th grade, but sure enough, I was. I was always a so-so science student; some parts came somewhat easily to me, while others either disinterested or outright frustrated me. I was wary, but any apprehension I had fell away within the first few minutes as his student.

The very first day of class, Mr. Beasy wrote his home phone number on the chalkboard. He told us that we were welcome to call him at home if we needed help. Not just wrapping our heads around whatever the current assignment was, but if we were ever in need of actual, serious help. He'd be there, however he could be. There was just one stipulation: there were to be no frivolous or crank calls, because his wife was a rape crisis counselor and he would not tolerate anyone tying up their phone line for a laugh at the expense of someone who needed to speak with his wife. I never called their home, but I did write down the number that day. Just having it in my binder the rest of that school year was comforting. It was a hell of a hole card to be able to play if needed, I felt.

Mr. Beasy lived up to every bit of hype I'd ever heard about him. He was encouraging, he was enthusiastic, he was patient, he was upbeat, and he wanted each and every single student to succeed - in his classroom, in other classrooms, in life in general.

I have two Mr. Beasy stories I want to tell.

My class period included lunch, and on one occasion, a classmate left her purse in the cafeteria before returning to his classroom. The office called his room over the PA system to summon her to retrieve it. Mr. Beasy excused her to go to the office and continued lecturing for a few moments. Then he popped his head out of the doorway to see that she'd turned the corner of the corridor and was no longer in sight. Instantly, he turned out the light in the room and instructed us all to follow him into a perpendicular hallway, where we would remain out of sight of our classmate. That's right: my science teacher used five or ten minutes to round up 30-ish 8th graders to hide from a single student just for the laugh of pranking her that she'd returned to an empty classroom.

It was like throwing a surprise party, but you yourself were surprised to even be part of it. I'll never forget the look of childlike anticipation on his face, all of us trying not to giggle at the absurdity of the moment. No other teacher I ever had would have even suggested such a thing; Mr. Beasy thought of it and did it all off the cuff. Why? Because it amused him to do it. Because he recognized the need for levity. Because he knew there was a world outside of his classroom. That episode was a complete lark, and I hope to never forget how much fun it was.

My second Mr. Beasy story isn't particularly fun for me. Playmates Toys at that time had the license to make Star Trek toys, and I owned most of them. One such toy was a role-playing toy based on the Star Trek: The Next Generation Tricorder. I periodically brought odd things to school to amuse myself and others, and one day, I brought the Tricorder. As I've already mentioned, our lunch period took place during Mr. Beasy's class. So there we were, going through the cafeteria lunch line. They were serving chili that day, and I vividly recall how it bubbled on the steam table.

I, of course, made a show of "scanning" it with the Tricorder and quipping about how findings were inconclusive or it wasn't sure what we were looking at, or some other such thing. It got a chuckle from a classmate or two, but Mr. Beasy - who was standing right next to me - was not amused.

"There are plenty of children in a lot of places around the world who wouldn't think it was funny to make fun of food," he said. He couldn't even bring himself to look me in the eye. It cut me to the quick, I can tell you.

Prior to becoming our most-sought-after science teacher, Mr. Beasy had been in the Army as I recall. He'd been around the world and seen a lot of different living circumstances. He never spoke another word to me about that moment, but I can recall now exactly how small I felt then. I've never been particularly prone to feeling shame, at least not for my sense of humor, and at that moment, the whole world seemed infinitely larger. I wondered if I would even live long enough to reach the cashier at the end of the steam table and be able to extricate myself from the disapproval of Mr. Beasy.

That was one of the most humbling moments of my life to this point. I had never been particularly "well off", but it was Mr. Beasy who first called me out on my privilege - though he never used that word, and I didn't even hear it in its social context for quite some time afterward.

We never addressed that moment ever again. I have no recollection of even feeling like it soured our relationship as teacher and student; he was just as kind to me and just as apt to laugh at my jokes after that moment as he was before. But I'm here to tell you, Dear Reader, for the rest of the time we walked through that lunch line, I felt more contemptible than at any other point in my life. I've never again made fun of the appearance of food, with the exception of my mother's homemade gravy - which even she laughs about being somewhere closer to wallpaper paste.

It takes a special kind of person to see both the humor in having an entire classroom hide from a single student, and to admonish the wayward humor of an upstart kid who needed to be taken down a peg. Mr. Bill Beasy was/is just that kind of special person, and I'll always be grateful that I was on Team B in 8th grade.