I remember, back in 8th grade, the day Mr D sat on his desk and said, "Today we're going to talk about grammar. And speaking of my grandmother..." This launched him into a set of stories about growing up in North Jersey back when there were farms in parts of East Orange and Newark (Incredible, isn't it?), and about how a nice Catholic boy by the name of Louis D'Antonio ended up at Upsala College, which was a Lutheran school.
I can't recall if we diagrammed a single sentence that day, or even that year, but I do know that the 28 of us in his homeroom hung onto every word of his stories.
Yes, I had Mr D for homeroom, as well as 8th grade English, and that meant that my group was doubly blessed, because we got twice as much of him as the other 8th-graders, and more of his stories about just about everything. And as I said, he was a great storyteller.
I have never read Hamlet, and feel no need to, because Mr D told us the story one day in class. He did such a great job of telling it that when I first saw The Lion King, I recognized it for what it was, right down to Timon and Pumbaa playing the parts of Rosencranz and Guildenstern. And that story about the guy who turns into a cockroach - Mr D told us that one too, and had us sitting at the edge of our seats. Four years later when in a Spiderman story arc, Peter Parker sprouts four new arms and says that he feels like a character out of Kafka, I knew exactly what he was talking about.
The gavel. I almost forgot about the gavel. Mr D had a gavel on his desk that he used whenever he wanted us to be quiet and pay attention. One day he hit the gavel so hard that it broke. That got our attention.
He probably didn't know that he introduced a whole group of 8th graders to one of the rising stars of pop music. That was on the class trip he arranged into New York to see the off-Broadway play The Drunkard in Greenwich Village. The orchestra for this 19th century style melodrama was one guy, with curly blond hair, sitting at the piano, reading The Godfather between songs. Years later, I found out that this pianist, who we practically blew off his piano stool with an unscheduled "Oomph" during the sing-along of For Me and My Gal, was the same guy who eventually brought us Mandy, and who didn't write I Write the Songs. Yes, that was Barry Manilow.
It was Mr D who explained to us in class the next day what a gay bar was, when it turned out that one of the groups of students - all guys in this case - who had been set loose to find their own dinner in the Village on that trip, just happened to walk into one; and he even turned that explanation into a great story.
Did I mention the game of Stump Mr D? Once a week we'd get out our dictionaries and try to find a word he didn't know the definition of. We couldn't do it. He knew the definitions of even what we thought were the most obscure words - and then we learned them too.
Well, you probably knew from the start where this was going. I received word the other day that Mr D passed away last month, far too soon, at the age of 72.
I may not have learned how to diagram a sentence in his class, but I hope I learned how to tell a story at least half as well as he did.
And I'm thinking that maybe I should buy a gavel so I can get a little better control of my own classroom.