Mr. B

Geoffrey Brooks was one of my two favorite teachers growing up. My sixth-grade teacher, he was young and hip, and he first introduced me to the idea of computers and computing. He was also a Black man, which I noticed at the time but didn’t particularly think about—I was, after all, a sixth-grader. As I look back now, I realize his influence on me not only for the many things he taught me in the classroom but for who and what he was, particularly in the United States in the 1970s. I appreciate him all the more now understanding that historical social context.

Mr. Brooks, as I remember him, was leanly built with a moderate Afro, a goatee, and an easy smile that exuded charisma and confidence. He was smart and sharp and he knew it. At the same time, he wasn’t cocky. As a teacher, his best quality was that he encouraged respect from us, for him, and for everyone else. He was the first, and for a long time after, the only teacher who addressed me as Mister. I was Mr. Cheng, my friend Sean was Mr. Wolf, my other friends Darryl and Tony were Mr. Baylor and Mr. Hampton. Mr. Brooks himself was Mr. Brooks or Mr. B and his friend and fellow teacher, Mr. Oliveros, was Mr. O.

Mr. B was the first male teacher I had ever had; my sixth-grade math teacher, Mr. Hume, was also a man, but as my homeroom teacher, I met Mr. B first. Among other things, since he was also relatively young and athletic, this meant that Mr. B was the first teacher I directly competed against in sports. He and Mr. O, who was also young, but not quite as athletic, schooled us regularly on the basketball court, although some of my class and school-mates, who had started to grow and some talent and skill, gave them some competition. So too, did a girl a year behind us who also had height, talent, and skill; she later went on to star in the sport intercollegiately. Mr. Hume did not play basketball as far as I knew.

Mr. B also had a computer, or the closest thing to one at the time, in his class. In one corner of our classroom, up front to the side of Mr. B’s desk, sat a teletype. This device, which appeared to be a large typewriter with a built-in stand, fascinated me because when Mr. B “dialed in,” it sprang to life. By today’s standards, it would be immensely primitive. You dialed in using a rotary phone, and upon hearing a series of beeps and tones, plugged the phone’s handset into the cushioned receptacles of a bulky modem. This physical connection initiated the electronic handshake linked the teletype to a computer somewhere “out there” and opened a channel to interact with its waiting world. Those of us who excelled in the classroom were allowed to try our hand at buying and selling stocks in a simulated market and, on very rare occasions, to venture into the virtual space of appropriately-named Adventure.

These various things were all part of being in Mr. Brook’s class and having him be our homeroom teacher. I didn’t separate them into different categories of social experience.

At the same time, I was learning that people lived within different social circumstances. The sixth grade was when students from another elementary school, Irvington, which only taught kindergarten through fifth grade, entered my school, Fernwood, which was K through 8. Kids from another school, Hollyrood, which was K through fourth grade, had also come to Fernwood the year before. Hollyrood, however, was much closer to Fernwood and the new students, like everyone else, walked to school. The kids from Irvington, which was farther away, were bused to Fernwood. They were also predominantly black.

While this registered in the back of my mind, it didn’t determine how I thought about the kids I knew. Tony, short for Antonio, was one of the kids from Irvington, black, and a good athlete. Darryl, who I knew from fifth grade, was also black, but he wasn’t bused in because he lived across the street from Fernwood. He also wasn’t a good athlete, although he made up for it with enthusiasm and effort. He and I became friends because he liked to play football and I was a fast runner, so he’d always pick me to be on his team. When it was our turn to play offense, he’d grab the ball to QB, shout out: “go long, Johnny boy!” and heave the ball as far as he could hoping I’d catch it. In games that counted, however, Tony played QB. My other friend, Sean, was white and also played football with us. He was the fastest kid in our grade—I liked to think I was the second-fastest—but he was also extraordinarily quick; where he excelled in football was defense. Darryl would have me (and practically everyone else) rush the opposing QB from one side while Sean went in from the other, and more often than not, get a sack. Our class won the intramural championship when, in the final moments of the game and with the other team trying to score, we called that exact play. Everyone blitzed, Sean grabbed the QB’s flag and we celebrated the glorious victory.

After sixth grade, things changed. Puberty, and everything that it entailed, eventually entered all of our lives. Sean and Darryl moved away. My interests moved away from sports. The teletype in Mr. B’s room inspired me to learn program computers. I became more involved in music, auditioning for, and making, the Prep orchestra for the Portland Junior Symphony. Football wasn’t as fun, at least for me, because it was no longer flag football and running with pads and getting tackled didn’t appeal to me. Tony, who was good at several sports, focused more on basketball, and although we remained friendly, as our interests grew apart, we gradually stopped being friends.

I stayed in touch with Mr. B at first. Through elementary school, I occasionally visited his room to say hi and chat about school, computers and computing, but after graduating to high school, there was never time or an occasion for those visits and Mr. B himself moved onto teach at and join the administration of another rival high school. I would occasionally still run into Mr. O, who sold shoes at Nordstrom’s on the weekends as a second job, and ask how they both were.

I attended elementary school in the late 60s and early 70s. From a historian’s perspective, these few years were among the most tumultuous in American history, certainly in its recent history. The successful struggle of the civil rights movement had inspired other efforts for social progress that fractured fragile coalitions into separate movements: for ethnic-racial nationalism and self-determination, to combat urban housing conditions and poverty, for gender equity, radical and revolutionary reconsideration of the authority of and trust in government, for greater sexual freedom and expression, against imperialism and colonialism in global politics. “The times they are a-changin’,” Bob Dylan sang at the time, and they did: Congress, led by President Johnson, passed a landmark slate of social legislation: enacting Medicaid, Medicare, welfare and education programs to what, at the time, seemed little political avail; Johnson deciding not to run for re-election because of the unpopularity of the escalating war in Vietnam and the public perception that the government acted too slowly in enacting and achieving change.

It was difficult being an Asian kid at a time we were at war with an Asian enemy; arguments that I was Taiwanese and not that kind of Asian had negligible effect against behind-the-back whispers, in-your-face taunts, and other forms of schoolyard racism. I can only imagine what it was like to be a smart, educated, and proud young Black man. I’ve often wondered if Mr. B insisted on calling all of us Mr. because he knew from personal experience, the importance of respect—to ask it of yourself and from others—for boys who were soon to become men in a society that gave and measured respect too much according to race. I don’t know his reasons, but I know the result in my case.

I didn’t attend a particularly progressive or multi-cultural elementary school. Fernwood was predominantly white even after the students from Irvington joined us in the sixth grade. I believe Mr. B was the only Black teacher at the school; Mr. O was Filipino. It was an accident of selection and scheduling that I wound up in Mr. B’s homeroom, but an extremely fortunate accident for me.  Mr. B was one of my favorite teachers because he showed me, by his example, that people, not what race they happen to fall into, earn respect through their actions and that respect carries with it a responsibility to show the same to others. It is a lesson that any teacher in any historical era might teach their students; it was a lesson that Mr. B taught me in America in the 70s.

Postscript, August 15, 2012: At my high school reunion, my friend John Huckfeldt reminded me that he also played in those football games. I’m not sure why I didn’t remember that, but John thinks it was because he mostly played an unglamorous position blocking on the line.