Thursday, June 26, 2008

Butterfly Nets and a Rowing Machine

Over the last 2 months, I have had several conversations with different people about Oregon. I have a lot of reasons to be fond of Oregon. But, I think it is the combination of my new hobby and the conversations about the beautiful state in the northwest that made me think of my 5th grade teacher, Mr. Van Cott.

Mr. Van Cott. I wished I would have realized at the time what a wonderfully eccentric man he was. I think I would have made more of an effort to hang out with him and just hear him talk. Mr. Van Cott was obsessed with the Oregon Coast. I have never heard someone talk so much about one geographical location in my entire life. Every lesson was somehow tied back to the Oregon Coast. “Today for math we are going to be learning how to draw a cube…you know, on the Oregon Coast you won't find any cube shapes…” A glint or spark would come to his eye and he drifted away from teaching for a moment to his heaven on earth in the Pacific Northwest. To further edify his passion for the Oregon Coast, he would watercolor during class various angles and views one might see if they were standing on the beach. It was amazing how he could come up with a depiction of this place while sitting in a 5th grade classroom. It was especially impressive to me since I needed tracing paper to draw accurately. If you fully understood how often Mr. Van Cott talked about the Oregon Coast, you would call that an eccentricity and stop there. But there is more.

My 5th grade teacher was tall and red. He didn’t have red hair. No, his skin was red. Actually, to be accurate, his face was red. Beet red. Always red. I imagined you could probably wake him up from a deep sleep and his face would look as red as he had just ran 48 miles. The hair on his head accentuated the redness. He had blonde – no, not blonde, transparent yellow hair. I say transparent because it was very brillo like. Sometimes when he was writing at the board, you could see through his hair to the board on the other side. The light, yellow tint made the crimson contrast odd. His calm face was red. But his angry face was a violent shade of volcano. As in any class, there were a handful of boys who misbehaved, sometimes more than once in ten minutes. When this happened, the volcanic eruption of scarlet fury and frustration would happen too.. As a 10-year-old 5th grader, I was honestly scared sometimes he would pop some kind of blood vessel somewhere in his head when he got angry.

The other time when I saw the redness amped up is when Mr. Van Cott was on his rowing machine. What? You’re 5th grade teacher didn’t have a rowing machine in the back of the classroom? We would get our math or writing or drawing (drawing was a regular part of the curriculum) and he would instruct us to work quietly. He then went to the back of the room and began rowing. At the beginning of the year he would explain to us several times that his blood pressure was too high and the doctor wanted him to exercise to get it down. So we would add, or subtract, or divide or multiply or write or draw a cube or a table and Mr. Van Cott would row. And row and row and row.

In the beginning, I’m sure a few of us looked at him puzzled and wondered why our teacher was rowing. But eventually it became part of our schedule. English, then he would row. History, then back to the rowing machine. Another know, I am having a hard time remembering what exactly it was that was so important I needed to learn in 5th grade according to the state of Utah. 3rd grade definitely involved multiplication tables. (I’ll never forget the kind senior citizen lady who sat in the hallway to help me – I was so embarrassed I needed extra help.) 4th grade was riddled with long division and Utah history. 6th grade was all about learning how to write a research paper and a business letter and a short story. A lot of writing in 6th grade. But 5th grade was something else
entirely. I’m sure I passed the state test that told the powers that be I was eligible to move on to the next grade. But making homemade butterfly nets and using them that afternoon in a field across the street from the school was definitely not on any test. I never had to recall details of water colored paintings to anyone to be able to advance to the next grade. But I will never forget the soft pinks and quiet orange sunset over gray, rocky crags of a coast that I still haven’t seen in person, but visited many times. I don’t know what I scored on the science unit, but I learned first hand how wide a snake can expand it’s jaw to eat the plump white mouse that was picked up at the pet store during lunch break. Sometimes, even 20 years later, I still have to pause to think of what the 8x9 is. But rowing machines, amateur water color and beet red complexions and four square tournaments to beat the teacher will always be with me. I’d much rather have those great images rolling around in my head than the product seventy-three any day. Or is it seventy-two?

1 comment:

Lorflor said...

Kara, what a perfect post. Mr. Vancott was my 5th grade teacher too!!! Loved him! And...I went to the Oregon coast for the first time this spring! Did you see my posts about it? It is amazing and I hope you get there soon!