Ode to a Teacher “It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” — Albert Einstein I was never a particularly good student. I started out alright, but around third grade I began...
Ode to a Teacher
“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” — Albert Einstein
I was never a particularly good student. I started out alright, but around third grade I began to go downhill. There were a few reasons for this. One was that my third grade math teacher was a horrible bitch. Not only was she mean and impatient, but she succeeded in instilling the belief in my head that I was math-stupid and would never understand it. Consequently, I had trouble with math classes all the rest of the way through school. The other reasons were more prosaic; the usual bullying (I was a weird, fat kid — easy target) and troubles at home (I grew up in a very conservative household — my dad was a preacher — and I was starting to be conflicted already in my worldview. My mom was crippled with depression and anxiety disorder and spent a lot of time in her darkened bedroom, crying or sleeping. If not that, she was subject to mood swings and was apt to smack me upside the head for any imagined offense. She’s been on meds for years now and I don’t hold any grudges because I also developed depression and anxiety disorder and can relate to what she was going through. But it was hard at the time.).
That set the stage for my school career. Through the rest of elementary school and junior high there were no teachers who stood out or who went out of their way to help me. Possibly other kids had a different experience with the same teachers — it is true that I was a chronic daydreamer and habitual Drawer of Things — my folders, books and even homework and test papers were constantly covered in elaborate scenes of space ship battles, robot wars, dinosaur attacks and space ships blowing up robots that were fighting dinosaurs. Oh — and KISS. I drew KISS a lot. My one claim to fame during those years was that I was “that kid that draws really good”. But my grades were abysmal and my interest in education waned. I hated it, really. Somehow, I managed to pass, though. I made it out of junior high.
By the time I encountered Mr. Ed Bergh, I was pretty much burned out on the whole thing. I had met my best friend and we had decided that we should buy guitars and become rock stars. I had lost weight and grown my hair long and was really into drawing upside-down crosses and pentagrams on pretty much everything I owned. The visage of Satan was hand-painted on my locker. I was really putting the “high” in high school, too. And we just plain skipped a lot. I just didn’t care. And it’s not that I was stupid. On the contrary — I was pretty smart and managed to get by usually by acing tests and charming my teachers. Humor and cynicism were my friends.
But then I became a part of Mr. Bergh’s class.
Through some administrative error, I was enrolled in the same class twice during the same trimester. I don’t remember the official title of the classes he taught, but it was social and political studies. The class I had in the morning was geared toward those kids who were, um…less than studiously inclined. I recognized a lot of my fellow stoners, headbangers and budding alcoholics. Plus the ubiquitous “kid who brings Chinese throwing stars to school”, “the kid who knows where to get European porn” and “the kid who hasn’t spoken out loud since second grade”. In the afternoon I had the same class but this one was populated with the really smart kids, some of who (whom? I'll never get that right) were my friends (I had a strange circle of friends in high school — a clique made of kids who didn’t fit with the other cliques or the ones who pretty much got along with everybody). Because of this error, I was in a unique position to watch Ed Bergh work his magic. See, he didn’t favor the smarter kids and he didn’t condescend or phone it in to the tougher crowd. True, he used different methods and styles to teach such different personalities, but at the core he just had a way about him that held your attention and made you want to make him proud…despite how many drugs you had ingested that morning. (As you can probably tell, I was more comfortable in that morning class...I still don't know how the hell I was mistakenly put in with the brainiacs — if memory serves, I passed, but barely, ha.)
Just a quick aside here — I’m writing this about Ed Bergh primarily for a special reason, but I want to take a few lines here to talk about two other teachers I had in high school that had an impact on me. One was Holly Breidenbach. I had Ms. Breidenbach for English Lit with my afore-mentioned best friend, who I’ve written about elsewhere. For these purposes, let me just say that he and I were ahead of the curve in that class. We would finish our assignments way before everyone else and then cut up for the rest of class, pissing off Ms. Breidenbach and distracting everyone else. We thought we were hilarious. And we were. But the thing is, whereas that sort of behavior brought punishment from other teachers (I once had a teacher take me outside and throw me up against a brick wall — this is a guy I would routinely see at teenage keggers up at Fossil Rock and knew people who were selling him coke. I believe they finally busted him for inappropriate touching of his female students), Holly actually came up with completely separate and more challenging assignments for Dan and me. So, the routine became her giving whatever the days lecture was, then handing out the assignment to the class. Then she would take us aside and hand us our assignments, which would keep us interested and busy until the end of class, making everybody happy. She didn’t have to go that extra mile for a couple of guys most everyone else just wrote off (well, me, mostly — Dan was wicked smart and graduated at the top of our class, but that’s another story and I’ve already gone way off topic) but she did. She also took time to talk to me personally about my desire to be a writer and even read and critiqued (honestly!) some of my nascent works. The other stand out teacher was Mr. Lester Krupp. Not surprisingly, Krupp and Bergh were fast friends. They carpooled to school together in Krupp’s VW van. Both of these guys carried on the spirit of the 60′s — believed in intellectual freedom, free speech, social justice and, most importantly to me at the time, the spirit of Rock ‘n’ Roll. Krupp had posters of Led Zeppelin and Pink Floyd in his room. He got flack from administration (and some parents) for installing an espresso machine in his room for 1st period Poetry class. He didn’t care. Krupp, like Breidenbach and Bergh, always had time to talk to you outside of class about anything you wanted to talk about. I had Krupp for poetry and American Lit. I took poetry because I thought it would be an easy “A”. Turns out he actually got me to care about something I didn’t give a fuck about previously. I learned to love Robert Frost because of Krupp. The one thing I’ll always remember about him was during American Lit when we were assigned one of five books (the titles escape me now) and I remember not being thrilled with any of them. Krupp took me aside, reached into his desk drawer and pulled out his personal copy of Kurt Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five″ and said, “Here, do your report on this one. Trust me.” I did, and he turned me into a Vonnegut fan for life. Just amazing, caring, empathetic teachers…
But back to Mr. Bergh.
Not only did I watch Mr. Bergh instill a bunch of burnouts with some amount of political and social awareness, I watched him engage in active, intelligent and interesting debate with the higher-level class. He tolerated, baited and encouraged the resident Republican Youth to speak out even though he, himself, was a staunch Democrat. He had a real love for political debate. He lit a spark in his classroom that didn’t exist elsewhere in the school. He also tolerated my aberrant behavior. Many was the time I came to class stoned out of my mind. Once I got it into my head that I couldn’t sit at my desk and so just found a comfortable place in the corner of the room and planted myself there. He walked by, looked at my eyes, gave a little knowing half-smile that I’d come to recognize and left me alone for the day. Another time, I was supposed to be taking a test but was instead reading the back liner notes on a Ramones album. He walked by and said, “Put Joey and and Dee Dee away for a while, alright?” Later, when class was over he wanted to know if he could borrow the record in trade. The next day he brought me a bootleg Jimi Hendrix album and spent a long time after class telling me about the first time he saw Black Sabbath in 1972 with Mountain opening. He then went into an amazing air guitar rendition of “Mississippi Queen”. Mostly during my school career I got away with misbehaving, but one time I got caught and punishment was rendered: the dreaded DETENTION. Detention at that time was held in Bergh’s classroom after school. So I showed up, began to put in my time with a couple of other miscreants and about half an hour into it, Bergh started gathering his things and said, “I trust you guys will stay for the whole time, but I’m going home.” Of course, we did stay the whole the time because…well, because Bergh. After he left, I used his entire blackboard to draw a highly detailed landscape of Hell, including a demonic Angus Young of AC/DC rockin’ his way through the flames. The next day when I came to class I was surprised to find that Bergh had not erased my drawing, nor did he for the entire day!
Anyway, Mr. Bergh was a huge influence in so many ways and I know he touched the lives of most of his students. After we graduated and went on to form our first real band, we took a copy of our first recordings to give to him. He was enthusiastic and encouraging. A few years later, we were out at a bar and just randomly ran into him and his wife and we all ended up sitting together and drinking pitchers of beer and talking about life, literature and music. We have kept in touch sporadically over the years. A couple of years ago I was at work in the library and I saw Mr. Bergh come striding through the doors with a manilla envelope in his hand. He spotted me, came right up and handed me the envelope and said, “This is a project I’ve been working on and I thought you’d really enjoy reading it.” It turned out that he had been collecting cast-aside and forgotten, or confiscated, notes passed back and forth between kids in his classes over all the years he’s taught at YHS. He changed the names, obviously, but put together an amazing narrative to go along with notes that began sometime in the mid-1970s and carried through to present-day. What a sociological study it turned out to be — and hugely entertaining! What a prescient mind to even conceive of creating such a project. I was blown away and honored that I was the person he would think of to be his First Reader.
I’m leaving out a ton of stuff about how cool Mr. Bergh is. I could mention his unswerving devotion to teaching at a podunk high school in a shitty little redneck town when he could be somewhere bigger and more prestigious. I could mention his booming laugh that kids of many generations now have come to recognize. I could mention his tolerance and good humor. I could mention the ONE TIME I saw him lose his shit and trash his desk leaving a roomful of stunned, wide-eyes students who definitely learned their lesson. I could mention his kindness and compassion. I could mention his good taste in rock music. But I guess I’ll finally get to the point…
The last few years have been rough for Mr. Bergh. He's had a number of health problems and has had to be in the hospital more times than I can remember right now. He’s suffered many setbacks. And yet, I keep seeing him soldiering on. His commitment to life and teaching is unswerving. I ran into him a few months ago at the gym…I was coming out and he was going in, slightly unsteady, needing a cane to help him along. But when he saw me he still let out with that booming laugh that doesn’t seem to have diminished at all. We stood and talked for a while and he caught me up on all his medical problems. We made tentative plans to go get a beer and catch up even further.
Then my life became complicated and I was beset by problems left and right. Having a beer with Bergh became a low priority and as I tried to untangle myself from all the shit happening to me, I lost track of him and how he was doing, just assuming that he was steadily getting better and stronger.
Recently, I saw a post on his Facebook page that in fact the opposite had happened and he was once again fighting those health problems. The outpouring of love on his page was amazing. Kids from his most current classes all the way to former students from even before my tenure at YHS, all expressing their love and best wishes for Mr. Bergh’s good health and continued mission to bring knowledge and awareness to the kids of a town that is still really just a stain on the map.
I guess the reason I felt compelled to write this is that I can’t emphasize enough the enormous influence a teacher can have on a student. Certainly, I was influenced by Ms. Higgins in third grade to believe that I would never grasp mathematical concepts (yep, I named names!) but just as certainly I was influenced in so many positive ways by teachers like Holly Breidenbach, Lester Krupp and, especially, Ed Bergh. I hope for Bergh’s recovery and continued teaching odyssey — I think he’s passed the 30-year mark! — because we need him and teachers like him. Always and forever. Stay strong, Ed. Get well and keep those halls ringing with that laugh — and your air-guitar renditions of classic rock songs.
And then we’ll go get that beer and talk about Black Sabbath and Ronald Reagan and John Steinbeck.