Mr. Franklin and His Class of Assholes
Sophomore year of high school, my English teacher’s name was Mr. Franklin. I believe it still is. Walked in the first day of class and he was playing De La Soul’s “The Magic Number” on a boom box, reading a Ken Kesey book, Converse-covered feet kicked up on his desk while everybody settled in and settled down.
“I always thought their next few albums were better,” I said, folding my arms as I walked up to his desk. “Stakes is High, mostly. That album, man.”
Mr. Franklin shut the book without marking his spot and looked up at me. Wiry black beard wrapped around a smile both infectious and genuine, he said, “You know I think I agree with you, but I was around your age when I was listening to this. So I’m gonna say 3 Feet High and Rising wins.”
“But you can’t pick one. Right?”
“Right,” smiled Mr. Franklin.
It was at that precise point I decided we were to be best friends and nothing less than.
Owing to some scheduling anomaly and a gross lack of administrative concern re: diversity in the classroom, my second period English lacked a female contingent. It was just us guys, roughhousing and smelling like scrotum sweat and smoke from gym class and the cigarettes after it. Loud, obnoxious, barely functional teenaged boys corralled into a bunch of beige desks, hormones all vice gripped together, forced against their will to read Shakespeare, Steinbeck, Thomas Swift. The words “hot mess” come to mind but this class of tamed beasts was closer to climate change. Hotter, messier, hard to ignore.
Among this special collective of savages, Mr. Franklin could loosen his tie and his tongue. We‘d get out of line, he would let it slide. We’d forgo the societal norms required for being referred to as “civil” and/or maybe violate the terms of the Geneva Convention, that’s when he’d draw the line. We were allowed to get rowdy and we did, within reason.
One overcast day, us young and restless were doubly so for whatever reason we’d convinced ourselves of and Mr. Franklin could barely get a word out, let alone discuss the latest chapter of Cannery Row or the allegorical implications therein. My classmates were busy talking shop about last weekend’s parties, pills, and pussy.
Now, Mr. Franklin was an honest man. His edits on essays were harsh but meaningful, masterfully phrased. He’d divulge his salary and laugh afterward. He once told us that the reason any conspiracy needs the word “theory” tacked onto the end is because as a general rule, people are too dumb to pull off conspiracies. But at that moment Mr. Michael Franklin reached peak honesty, and in the loudest voice I’d ever hear out of him, shouted,
He picked up a yardstick and clapped it against the whiteboard, sending the red and green markers to the ground. We all shut the fuck up with immediacy and looked up at him.
“You are all being assholes right now.” Stifled giggles from the class. “See? I don’t feel like dealing with it. This is good stuff and you don’t care,” he lifted a tattered copy of Cannery Row from his podium. “Steinbeck’s one of the greats and all of you know next to nothing.”
You could hear us all slink into our seat, cheeks red, embarrassed. We were getting yelled at by coach, only with more 25 cent words. Mr. Franklin took a deep breath to reset, and pivoted to inspiring:
“There’s life in these books, guys. I’m trying to teach you about the future by using the smartest people from the past. So just shut up and try and learn something today, okay?”
After the (entirely deserved) outburst, there grew a bit of silent understanding between us all. Some of us found our inspiration in the wise words he’d sandwiched between swears, some found it in the implied threats of corporal punishment. And if my memory serves me correctly, hazy as the era was, I remember the class gaining more respect for the man than we already had. He was speaking our language. Our very own Teach The Youth, Reach These Kids, ’90s era fish-out-of-water-with-patches-on-the-elbows-of-its-corduroy-jacket story. Although, it would have felt more heartwarming sans the still fresh wound of an authority figure deeming us a bunch of assholes.
Paul, a blonde kid with a slow drawl and no sense of shame, piped up from the back of the class.
“Damn, Mr. Franklin. I thought you were cool.”
Here’s the thing: he was cool. He liked De La Soul. He pointed out when Shakespeare was making a dick joke. He wore Chuck Taylors every day. I think I saw him smoking pot with my friend Charlie’s mom once. He called us assholes!
Mr. Franklin never had to call us assholes again, though chances were astronomic that he’d had frequent urge to do so. Mr. Franklin helped us become better students, we helped Mike become a better teacher, and everybody helped each other become better people. And without noticing, each of us had grown up, or at least understood what growing up meant.
The rest of the year strolled by without incident. We wrote about Walt Whitman and his self-contained multitudes. We threw out possible metaphors in Moby Dick and lamented how much of a bummer Melville’s life was. We wondered why Jay Gatsby was so fucking morose when massive wealth and beautiful women surrounded him. On the last day of class, Mr. Franklin yanked me into the hallway and pulled something from his back pocket: a paperback copy of Peter Pan.
“You were one of my favorites,” he said, offering me the book. “This is for you.”
I took it and held it in my hands, turning it over to read the back cover while my eyes welled up. I managed to lift my head to say thanks, but he’d slipped back into the classroom without me noticing. The bell rang as I opened the door to go back in and thank Mr. Franklin, but a flood of boys squeezing out the door carried me in their current off toward the lockers and a lunch line to stand in, waiting for square cheeseburgers or rectangular slices of pizza.
I didn’t see Mr. Franklin for the rest of the day. Nor once during the summer, even in our minuscule town of 3,000. Same thing next year: I took the certifiably fancy Junior AP English, a writing-intensive course taught by the school’s other English instructor. Whatever time spent not writing during that class was wasted daydreaming about being called an asshole by my new teacher. I knew it’d never happen; the class was for college credit. But sometimes it’s nice to pretend, isn’t it?
My first short story (about an underwear-clad bum dancing in the snow to cheer up the heartbroken protagonist) was written in that class. The first piece of music journalism I ever wrote, I typed on the keyboards in that class. Without Mr. Franklin’s aggressive nudge toward the idea of pursuing writing, I would have never bothered with an AP, probably happy to stay snoozing through analyses of the classics and responding to rote prompts about a story’s usage of colors with paragraphs of half-assed conjecture and SAT words. Create > critique, I say.
It wasn’t until I stood at my locker minutes before the last bell, throwing away the pile of ephemera accumulated throughout year, that I bothered to crack open the copy of Peter Pan. Inside the jacket, with marigold ink, Mr. Franklin had written my name. Under it, he wrote this:
‘Growing up’ is a choice. Never lose sight of Neverland.
It is out there… and that is where we must meet again.
He’s right. You can choose different ways to grow up, or choose to fly at the same height forever.
At the end of the school year, Mr. Franklin moved away to teach Native American kids in the middle of Nowhere, Alaska. I don’t know where he is now or what he’s doing, but I hope he’s that much closer to finding Neverland. I’d like to imagine he’ll find it before me — and he’ll have De La’s whole discography on shuffle when I get there.