People, when they discover this, very often ask the same two questions. It’s always a variation on, “Oh wow…wasn’t it weird going to a school with no girls? What did you do?”
The answers are simple. No, it wasn’t weird, it was awesome. What we did was learn stuff.
We had a good sized school chocked full of hormonal teenaged boys. There was almost no fighting. Amusingly, when fights did occur, they always took place off campus, specifically behind the KFC that was across the street. I’ve no idea why that was such a prime location for fisticuffs. I don’t remember any of them being particularly exciting and further don’t remember any of them occurring after the first few weeks of freshman year. There wasn’t any bullying. While everyone hung out with their own groups of friends, those groups were pretty diverse in terms of the jock/nerd mix, especially since very often the jocks were also nerds. For example, one of my good friends was an all-state (and later Division I) football player who also aspired to be a poet. So while there were groups of friends that ran around together, there weren’t really cliques in the John Hughes sense. Nobody disrupted classes or acted up to any real degree.
Because there were no girls. There was no one on campus to impress. Nobody to show off too. Very quickly upon matriculation everyone, for the most part, realized this and further realized there was no percentage in being a problem, settled down and learned. In retrospect it was pretty amazing.
It helped that the school worked hard to foster a feeling of brotherhood. It also helped that we had amazing teachers, devoted men and women who, once they arrived at Trinity, tended to stay there.
One of those teachers was Gene Eckert.
He had been a student at Trinity himself, gone to college, gotten his degree and then returned to teach at the school he loved. For 46 years, Mr. Eckert taught history at Trinity. World Civilization for freshmen and AP History for upper classmen.
He was amazing at it.
He wasn’t flashy, his wasn’t a Robin Williams in Dead Poet’s Society sort of classroom dramatics. He would stand leaning against his podium, a slight, wiry guy with a bushy head of hair and a mustache, a piece of chalk dangling from one hand and talk. Just talk. And in his talking he made a classroom of teenagers care about the Ottoman Empire or the French Revolution or the Hawley Smoot Tariff or whatever our lesson was for the day.
We learned. We absorbed what he was telling us and I know more than one of my classmates who previously hated the idea that anything happened before the day of their birth suddenly found themselves history buffs. He taught us history but, like any good teacher, he taught us things that went beyond his chosen field of study.
He was the first person I can remember who called me “Mr. Ayers.” That was how he addressed us, like the men we weren’t yet but who he was working hard to help us become. Amusingly, if he didn’t call us by mister and then our last names, he referred to us as “lad.”
“Come here lad, I want to show you something.”
“Slow down lad, the cafeteria isn’t going anywhere.”
It was his term of endearment for all of us. We were comforted by it.
He was funny too. Sarcastic.
“Don’t worry lad,” he said on more than one occasion to a stew-dant (He would sometimes spilt “student” into two separate words and mangle the second one. I just remembered that.) who had obviously shown up to class unprepared, “summer school is air-conditioned.”
One time a kid (I remember this person’s name but they will remain anonymous for our purposes) fell asleep in his class. Instead of rousing the kid and berating him, as you might expect, Mr. Eckert did the opposite. When the bell rang he made us all very quietly get up, collect our things and tip-toe out of the room. He met the stew-dants coming in for the next class at the door and had them be equally quiet finding their places. The poor sleeping kid apparently dozed for half of the next class before waking up, after which it took him a few extra minutes to realize all of his fellow freshmen had been replaced with juniors and seniors.
He once said the single funniest thing I have ever heard while at school.
I don’t remember specifically what the topic was but during a discussion generally about agriculture he said, “What you have to remember is that most of these guys were farmers, you know, men who are outstanding in their fields.”
It’s a total dad joke. He delivered it as such, mugging and seeing if anyone was paying attention. I know he used it every year at least once. It’s dumb. I know it’s dumb. Still, it broke me up. It breaks me up to this day every time I think about it. A few years ago I was talking about high school and I told Cass about the outstanding in their fields joke and I started laughing about it even then, twenty plus years later. I’m grinning right now thinking about it.
He had a weird thing he would say in place of the more prosaic “goodbye.” He would say, “see you on the boat.” He said it so often that it became like his catch phrase.
“Okay lads,” he would say after the bell rang and we were shuffling out, “be good. See you all on the boat!”
“Have a good break, Mr. Ayers. See you on the boat!”
I’ve no idea what this means. I mean, I know it was his way of saying farewell, but I have no idea its derivation. What boat? Why a boat? Why would we be there? I’ve never heard anyone else use this phrase so I have to believe he made it up.
Even when extolling the virtues of summer school or helping someone catch up on their sleep, you never got the feeling he was being mean. He was somehow sarcastic without being biting. Everything was delivered with a twinkle in his eye, you were in on the joke even if you were the focus on it. He taught us you could be funny and engaging and charming and intelligent without being an ass about it. He was a gentleman and a gentle man.
We loved him for it.
He won the teacher of the year award, voted on by the student body, more or less every year he was eligible for it. He inspired students to think outside of their little bubble. He put any number of kids on the road to being teachers themselves, my own brother included. I’ve been lucky and had a lot of very good teachers. He was the best.
He died on Sunday.
I had been in Kentucky having Thanksgiving with my family. We all had a wonderful time. My mom did her usual amazing job, dad was his usual fun self and it was good to see my brother and his brood. On Sunday morning Cass, the boys, Starbuck and I loaded up the family truckster and drove the nine hours back to Northern Virginia. When we got home I checked Facebook and saw the news. It hit me harder than I expected.
“What’s wrong?” Cass asked, seeing my face.
“Mr. Eckert died,” I said.
“The outstanding in his field guy?” she asked, “I’m sorry baby.”
“Yeah,” I said. “That was him. The outstanding in his field guy.”