Mr. Fleming

When I was a sophomore in High school, I had the privilege of taking English class with Mr. Fleming. His reputation had preceded him as my sister had taken a creative writing class with him. “He tells the most amazing stories,” she would say. She always came home with another tale from Mr. Fleming’s class. I could not imagine quite a fellow. A very intriguing teacher who told elaborate stories? How did any learning happen? How did English get passed down to the unsuspecting students?

In earlier years, I had been taught the mechanics of sentences. I had learned about diagramming sentences. Verbs are actions. Nouns are things. Direct Objects are the items that receive the actions and so on. (Of course, I didn’t learn what a gerund was until my junior year. In that year, talking out of turn was not allowed.) It wasn’t until Mr. Fleming’s class where I learned that you can create diagrammatically correct sentences that in essence could go on forever. Why this would be necessary, I have no idea, but he proved one could do it.

Mr. Fleming wasn’t about the grammar. He was about the writing. He was about the creativity. He was about inspiring students like me to write, write well, and write creatively.

He insisted that we each keep a “Commonplace Book” –which is a scrapbook of thoughts and writings. He wanted us to write in it every night. I still have my commonplace book. Every time I read it, I smile.

Mr. Fleming was, at heart, a story teller. Every couple of weeks, he would step up to the front of the class and surprise us by not continuing the lesson which was planned, but he rather told a story from his past. Whether it was made up or true, they were fascinating. They almost always lasted the entire class period. They usually involved his brothers (of which, one was an identical twin). He was never afraid to deviate from his story for an impromptu joke. My most ready example of this was his unfailing need to comment on the tone that signaled the end of class. Of course I had Mr. Fleming’s class fourth period. Fourth period was divided up into three equal segments which allowed all of the students at Seguin High to eat lunch for one of the segments while attending class in the other two segments. Mr. Fleming’s class was held in the later two segments of lunch, so there were always three bells (tones) that went off in the middle of class. The first bell would go off to signal people to move on either to lunch or from lunch. Five minutes later, a warning bell would sound informing those on the move that they had exactly one minute to be where they were supposed to be. Of course there was one more bell that sounded exactly one minute later to inform those that should be somewhere that they were indeed tardy if they weren’t there. He would be right in the middle of a sentence and he would announce a fire drill in a more quite subdued voice. This would be performed in such a way that had it been written down, “fire drill” would be a footnote.

“That house, haunted as it may be, gave us a sense that night {fire drill} that we were about to become men and no longer boys.”

Those subtexted words that Mr. Fleming would always say in the middle of a sentence were always expected, always funny. They made me laugh.

“I was a skinny kid with big ears. “ Fleming would say. He would usually caricaturized himself my exaggerating his perceived conditions. He would say things like he was so skinny that back then that if he turned sideways, he could hide from his brothers for a while but eventually his position would be given up by his big ears and nose. On one occasion, his ears were so big that when the brakes went out on his mother’s car all he had to do was stick his head out of the window and the car would slow to a complete stop. Let’s not forget the time that he had no umbrella during one of the classic downpours in southern Texas. All that he had to do was turn sideways and slide in between the raindrops that were falling from the sky.

That was classic Fleming.

Fleming knew just when to exaggerate, how much to exaggerate, and how far out an exaggeration could go. Even if the exaggeration seemed too unbelievable, somehow, it was believable. He could paint a picture with a pencil, or scribble a photo with a toothbrush.

Mr. Fleming was a storyteller.

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Are you Threatening Me?

When I was a kid in sixth grade, my best friend lived across town. It wasn’t a big town. In fact, it was barely a town by many respects. Nevertheless, across town could have been on another planet. We rarely had a chance to see one another except at school in English class.

English class was taught by Ms. Gerth. This, of course, has no bearing on the story what-so-ever except that she had made the serendipitous decision to have all of the students in a seating chart which was alphabetical by last name. -Fortunately for me (and James–although he might not have agreed to this at the time), Harris and Hernandez are close in the alphabet. Sure there are other last names that could have managed to surface in the class. Names like Harowitz, Henderson, or even Hathaway (Which just happens to be the last name of a friend which we will have to leave for another blog) could have spoiled this chance meeting and quite possibly the friendship between the two of us. Lucky for us, I was stuck in front of James in Ms. Gerth’s class.

James found me annoying, and I was jealous of him. Apparently I was annoying because I was always talking (in a "Happy-Go-Lucky way," he told me one day) I was jealous of him because he could draw better than me. In fact, he could draw way better than me. He had drawn some graphics on a poster advertisement that we had to do for English class. His ad was about the movie "Back to the Future". His graphics were amazing.

As with most friendships, we used to make idle threats to one another. I'm sure it must have started something like, "You better do THIS… or I'll do THAT" — You know… Trivial stuff. Things that we do all of the time throughout our life. One day he decided to up the ante. He did something that day that could not be done in this day and age or it would get you in a whole lot of trouble. He wrote me a threat letter. It was really pretty clever. It was written as if it were from a terrorist in some foreign country.

The terrorists were Libyans. Not that James had anything against them personally. Apropos, this was the organization that was in Back to the Future. So it was clear that there hadn't been a thorough search to find an even better terrorist organization.

The threat letter read as follows:

No need to worry,
No need to hurry.
This is only a threat,
So don't be upset.
The contents of this note
Only means you'll be broke.
We have an army of grand,
That'll blow you off your land.
So, hurry up and finish reading this letter,
And hope your financial problems turn out better.

At the bottom of the letter, which had been written on an eight and a half by eleven sheet of low grade typing paper, was a perforated line. It wasn't real perforation. It was drawn in a unique way in which a penciled-in perforated line could be made to look like it was real.

It looked real.

Below this unbelievable line, there was a payment stub. In the payment box, there was a amount of one million dollars. The amount had been filled in a different font. It was a meticulous bank font that had been overlaid in the meticulously pristine payment stub graphic art.

The damn thing looked like art.

"This looks like Art," I remember mumbling as I was trying to comprehend the artistry of the threat itself.

Below were the payment options of cash, check or credit card. Beside the credit cards there were the infamous logos for both MasterCard and VISA. Astounding. I felt threatened by the graphite laid out before me on the low-grade typing paper. However, it wasn't the actual treat that threatened me.

In subsequent days, we exchanged more threat letters between us. Each one became even more outlandish than the one before. James' threat letters were always much better than mine.

One of his threat letters was even carefully interrupted in the middle with another threat letter. The letter, as with all of the threat letters, started with the most sincere apologies on the finding of this particular note. It went on to describe the poor financial condition of the terrorist organization of which you, the finder of this note, were now obligated to. The interruption was from some new terrorist within the organization that had tried a hostile takeover of the note itself. Apparently, he was unaware of the threat "Already in Progress". Its believability was enhanced due to the specific generalities within the ambiance of the note. These include items such as a "Failure to Pay" and "Past Due" stamps that were carefully drawn on the threat letter's envelope. Punishments for the failure to pay usually were drastic measures to which no soul would wished to be subjected to, and it said so in the unmistakable neat lettering found on the bottom of the payment stub.

One day the notes ceased after fake balances on fake credit cards were maxed out. Fake lives were ruined and shambled. Hundreds of millions of fake dollars of fake expenditures had been racked up without the fulfillment of any of the threats. Fake stamps had been endorsed, yet the postal service had never been paid.

Life continued. Neither James nor I ever heard from any terrorist organizations again.

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