Saturday, May 29, 2010


[Prior to the events narrated in this segment, Beverly had entered the story. She was the same age as Johnny and I; she had endured rheumatoid arthritis but had not been deformed by it, only rendered forever under her mother's grip. She spent her days in a hospital bed in the family living room. )

It was a year before Johnny and Beverly and I found out that Jim Pinckney's full name was James Joseph Pinckney, Junior, and that his family called him "Jimmy Joe"-- always had, currently did, and ever would, worlds without end amen. At that point, the always-wispy line between teacher and students disappeared forever, gone with the windy snort of adolescent mockery.

We never called him Jimmy Joe to his face, of course, at least not until Johnny and Beverly officially graduated from their homebound classes and received diplomas. But he was "Mr. Pinckney" for only his first weeks as their teacher. After Beverly had stumbled shyly and repeatedly over his name, landing hopefully on "Mr. Pinky" and "Mr. Picky," and after I had referred to the totemic Eliot poem as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Pinkfrock," we were told,
"Call me Jim." The "or else" hung in the air like dangerous magnolias.

I don't know what the school systems of today call teachers who go to students' home for one-on-one instruction. Perhaps there is no such thing anymore. Perhaps the great cause of "mainstreaming" has resulted in sick children being wheeled into classrooms on gurnies, accompanied by oxygen tanks, personal aides and interpreters. But in the Fifties, school boards proudly offered "Homebound" instruction, presumably to any child who could qualify as homebound, whether by obvious physical limitations (like Johnny) or by parental fiat (like Beverly). In any case, into both their lives (and consequently mine) the Tucson Public School system sent James J. Pinckney. None of us was ever the same again, least of all, Jimmy Joe.

I wasn't there when the knock came on the door and Johnny's mother opened it to find the neatly dressed young man smiling at her with at least 42 teeth and a striped bow tie. But imagination supplies. Midwestern Lutheran niceness and Southern courtesy surely beamed at each other on that day. Verla had to be impressed with Jim, without being intimidated. The pluses: the suit, the well-tended haircut, the dancing school manners. On the negative hand, Jim had a slight build, something of a stammer, and chipmunk cheeks. He also had smiles the way some people have dandruff. His was an English mouth--small jaw, large teeth crowding each other out of line. Think Joyce Grenfell, Alastair Sim, Terry Thomas, Princess Anne. Perhaps the compulsive smiles came from those teeth yearning for freedom, or at least for more space.

Johnny, Beverly, and I were all innocents of the Fifties. Today's sophomores would readily pigeonhole, accurately or otherwise, this young man with his fastidious ways, his startling high giggles, and his pale freckled hands that could find no rest, neither in his pockets, behind his back, beneath his books, nor anywhere else. But we three had nothing much for comparison in those pre-sitcom days, and he became, for us, just Jim. Maybe he was an atypical window to the world for the two homebound kids, but the breeze he brought with him was delightful.

Of course, I didn't get to know Jim as a teacher. I had my own allotment of society's mavericks wielding the grade-books at my high school, and they didn't seem all that different from Jim. But for me, Jim was an adult who appeared more like us than like his thirty-something contemporaries. Actually, his silly streak was wider, and, I suspect, deeper than ours. Perhaps that was his greatest contribution to the homebound pair--he resurrected in them just enough of the silliness that is the healthy teen-ager's birthright. Best example? Their graduation night.

(To be continued.)

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