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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