I was born in Brooklyn to first-generation, American-born children of immigrants. My grandparents had all come from Sicily. It should come as no shock that I was sent to Catholic school in first grade. Nuns for teachers. No talking allowed. A schoolyard entirely paved, with nary a swing nor slide in sight, wherein, lunchtimes, we could mill around a bit—absolutely no running—before lining up for our march back indoors. There was no phys ed. No music department. No art. In class we were not taught anything as secular as civics, but we did have to memorize the names of missionaries killed by the Iroquois. Names I can still, incredibly, recall. Not that I’m bitter. It was the early ’60s and those were the days.
It should come as no further shock, therefore, that when we moved to the suburbs of Nassau County, when I was ten years old, being sent to public school brought quite a shock. By then, I’d had four school-years of no talking, of understanding the word “strict,” of being intimidated by half the nuns, who were easily aroused into yelling and fond of punishing, and of wooden rulers that not only measured but hurt.
Four years of that had made me what we’d call painfully shy. I’d never faced a new situation or been the new kid. And the thing is, not being allowed to talk doesn’t mean that you can’t say anything. It means you become a person with nothing to say. It means that if someone addresses you, you have no reply. You don’t have the skills to interact with other humans your age. Of angels, yes; I knew what to do if I met them. Mortals—no clue.
So it should come as no further shock that the first day of fifth grade, in a nice suburban public school, was almost more than I could deal with. It started immediately. I got to the classroom. I was obviously new. And then it happened. A girl my age said, “Hi, I’m Wendy. What’s your name?” Her coming right up to me and talking to me struck me as—this is sad to say—aggressive. What did she want from me? What was I supposed to do? Flummoxed and intimidated, I answered. But conversing was way beyond me. That’s how shy I was. How deprived of normal socializing. For months, I pled with my parents to send me to the local suburban Catholic school, where I knew things would be under control. They politely refused. This was a very nice public school, and it was free. I’d get used to it, or so they insisted.
Weeks passed, and like a puppy rescued from the shelter, I started to adjust to my newly unruly, semi-chaotic freedoms, freedoms inherent in see-saws and monkey bars, ballgames and drum lessons and chorus, and kids who spoke to one another. I even made a couple of friends. (Defined as friends because I went to their house and they sometimes came to mine.) We played—and we talked.
After a few months it was starting to look like I might—I probably would—survive fifth grade. The problem now was: fifth grade doesn’t last forever.
Sixth grade was the highest grade in that elementary school, and the prospect of “going into sixth” did carry a tingle of senior prestige, not to mention the strange new tingle of hormones. After all, we were no longer just kids. On the cusp of turning twelve, we were: pre-teens.
Sixth grade was taught down the hall from fifth. You passed the doors on the way to the bathrooms. You could glance in as you went by. We knew the names of the teachers. And their reps. We cared only about one thing in a prospective teacher: were they nice? And after Catholic school and the social dent from which I would take a long time recovering, nice meant a lot to me.
One teacher’s reputation came directly from him. He was a very mean guy—early 30s perhaps—who yelled all the time. His voice boomed down the hall. He kicked desks—not even the nuns kicked desks. Passing the open door of his classroom just about scared the crap out of me.
I dreaded the possibility of getting him for sixth. But chances of being assigned to his class were fairly low, one in four.
Then the day for class assignments came. And catastrophe struck. I was informed that for sixth grade I would be taught by: Mr. Chumbres (CHUM-BRAYZ). Even his name was menacing. But no: I was not going to be in his class. No way. Absolutely not. Being assigned to him was arbitrary. My parents would explain that I needed to be assigned to any one of the other sixth-grade teachers. Easy enough.
Dutifully, my mother set up a meeting with the principal and we went and made the case: he yelled. Anyone else. Deaf ears. The principal, a woman, would not be moved. Not budged. I was incredulous. How could this be? How could a woman, likely someone’s mother, insist on arbitrarily sending a terrified pre-teen into the classroom of a monster? And terrified I was. But wasn’t that always the way it was with people in authority, making arbitrary decisions and insisting on sticking to them as though the world would break if they bent?
What a miserable summer. Swimming pools and bike rides and the beach and the increasingly pretty girl next door who remained taller than me were no consolation for the shadowing doom that hovered over July, then August. It was no joke at the time. Even a mild trauma is a trauma, and traumas come with triggers. And so it was that I trudged heavily into his classroom dreading the inevitable year of yelling. He closed the door.
It didn’t take long—a few days, a week or so—for me to realize he was going to be the best teacher I’d ever had. And the most formative in helping free me to an approach to the world I’d carry the rest of my life.
You see, here’s the thing: it was all an act. The yelling, his throwing things, kicking the desks—that was only half of what went on. The other half was, well—this will take just a little explaining or it will sound weird. He was the face of raging authority that made authority into a crumbling façade. Whatever he did to us—he gave us permission to do back. Because actually—he loved us. He respected us. When he yelled at you, he let you argue with him. He let us talk back. We never talked back in a disrespectful way because his respect for us made us respect him. And what I thought of as talking back—something you could be sent to hell for in Catholic school—was actually permission to debate. To disagree. To have and to hold ideas and to advance them in the face of sometimes-booming resistance. Up to then I’d never met an adult who encouraged debate; I mean, their arbitrary word was law, right?
And if you were doodling or whispering or fell asleep? You might get hit on the shoulder with an eraser or a piece of chalk—and you could throw the projectile right back. In his class turnabout was fair play. He taught us to stick up for ourselves.
Mr. Chumbres was letting us peek behind the curtain at the Wizards called adults. I don’t know if that was intentional. I don’t think so. I think he really just enjoyed his kids. Liked their spirit. Wasn’t afraid of us. Wanted to bring us out of our shells. And when you’re shell-shocked like I was, that one grade of elementary school with Mr. Chumbres was like years of therapy.
He showed us that people could, in fact, be reasonable. Homework? I was accustomed to hours of rote, repetitive math problems. Mr. Chumbres would assign three problems that represented what we were supposed to learn. Long division, say. He’d say, “If you get these three problems right, it means you know how to do it.” You didn’t need 20 problems. You needed to learn. And if you learned, well, that’s all you needed. And if you hadn’t learned, three problems would make it clear you needed help.
If you didn’t follow instructions because you had a different idea? Great. I don’t remember the assignment—something with crafts—but I remember that I decided to make clay skulls of extinct pre-human hominids. We hadn’t learned about them in class. I’d read about them somewhere, and seen them when my parents had taken me to the Museum of Natural History.
I hoped that he’d be ok with me doing what I did, but by then I was sure he would be.
On the day they were due, we put our craft projects around the room. Because mine was not the kind of thing he’d assigned, and not about anything he’d taught us, it drew a little extra attention from him. I remember him saying something like, “Quite good; I guess I never gave you a chance to express this interest in class.” He didn’t berate me for not following instructions. He thought about the fact that here was a kid who was interested in something but had had no opportunity to raise it in class. And he praised and encouraged me.
During that momentous year of my thriving, we went on a class trip to Washington, DC. In the evening several of us knocked on his hotel door. And when he opened it we attacked him with pillows. I can still see him making his stand on the bed, surrounded by giggling kids and swinging a pillow until feathers flew. Who does that? Even then, that was something only Mr. Chumbres could do. Only Mr. Chumbres could inspire a few twelve-year-olds with the confidence to instigate that kind of fun with him, knowing that it would be fun, that he’d take it in the spirit intended. Because that’s how he did everything.
That was in 1967.
I’d visit him from time to time, through college. Then I lost track of him. And so did the school district. And when the digital age kicked in, no dice. I could not locate him.
Although I’d have three other fine and consequential mentors in college and grad school, it should come as no shock that I still consider Mr. Chumbres to hold the title of: best teacher I ever had. He was nothing to be afraid of.
The night I finished writing this, I tried again to track down Mr. Chumbres on the internet. It had been a few years since my last attempt. This time I found his name associated with an address and phone number and two other names in Poughkeepsie. He had to be in his mid-80s, and maybe living with relatives? With trepidation, I dialed, and left a voice message saying I was trying to locate a Michael Chumbres who’d taught sixth grade on Long Island, to tell him he was the best teacher I ever had. A week later my cell phone lit up with a call from Poughkeepsie. His niece. She thanked me for my call and shared some sad news. Uncle Mike had died five years earlier. “Your message made me smile,” she said. “And then it made me cry. He would have loved to hear from you. And I’m sure he would have remembered you. He always talked a lot about his students and he did remember a lot of them. He really loved them.”
CARL SAFINA is the recipient of Orion, Lannan, and National Academies literary awards as well as John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His books include Song for the Blue Ocean, The Eye of the Albatross, Becoming Wild, and, most recently, Beyond Words. He’s been awarded MacArthur, Pew, and Guggenheim fellowships, and teaches at Stony Brook University.