Thursday, February 2, 2017

To Err is Human


Mrs. Miller passed me to Mr. Latour's seventh grade on condition that I not make any failing grades. It was a tall order because I was not exactly a good student. I only cared about two things: writing and mischief. After a few weeks in his class, Mr. Latour took me aside and told me that I was not doing so well. He cautioned me that if I made any failing grade, he would be compelled to send me back to the sixth grade
I had no answer, so I gave him a lame joke about me doing well in PE. PE was the only class that I was not taking with Mr. Latour. He flushed, and the bump on his head stood out more than usual. Mr. Latour was an emaciated old man with liver spots and a rather large bump in the center of his forehead. Stories about the bump included: it was the devil's horn; his wife abused him; it was a malignant tumor slowly eating away at his brain.
I was not doing so well in Mr. Latour’s class because I was writing a book about a Sad Sack character fighting in the Korean War. The character was a bungling soldier, who accidentally became a hero. The theme was that all things were possible if you believed in miracles. As Mr. Latour rambled through the French irregular verbs and the square roots of rational and irrational numbers, I quickly filled two Big Chief tablets. About halfway through the third tablet, I gave up on the book. I was finished. My character had just completed the big climatic scene, and all I had to do was tie the knots, but I had lost the interest. I boxed up my manuscript and slid it under my bed.
Without a book to work on, I turned to mischief.
Mr. Latour handed out demerits and after ten demerits, you had to stay in during lunch recess and suffer his punishment, which usually meant a session of writing on the board. I became the class clown: made rude noises while Mr. Latour lectured, told crude jokes in French during study period, threw paper wads across the classroom. Before I knew it, I had ten demerits, and Mr. Latour told me to show up during my lunch recess the next day for my punishment.
I did not show, but Mr. Latour found me in the gymnasium and escorted me back to the classroom. He sat at his desk and ordered me to write To err is human; to forgive divine three hundred times on the blackboard. About halfway through the lunch recess Mr. Latour left me alone in the classroom and disappeared down the hallway. In a moment of daring, I followed him. At the end of the hall, I slowly opened the double doors a crack and peered around them. Mr. Latour quickly capped the bottle from which he had been drinking.
He called it medicine, but it smelled suspiciously like alcohol to me.
He told me to forget the punishment—to finish my book instead. I was surprised he knew about that, and I guess my face showed it. He reached out to me with shaky, age-splotched hands and in a kind, soft voice told me that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn as much as I could.
"Writers don't write in a vacuum, Mr. Roy. If writers want to make their stories real, they must know what real is."
I nodded, returned to the classroom, and filled in a page of my third Big Chief. Mr. Latour glanced over my handiwork and nodded.
He told me that every day was a blank slate, and it was up to us to fill it up with as much information as possible.
I made a conscious effort for the rest of the school year to keep the demerits off my record. Although Mr. Latour never said it, I sensed that he trusted in my ability to succeed, and I tried hard not to let him down. I passed the seventh grade with several D's on my report card, but no F's.
I never did finish that book. I dug it out in the eighth grade—I was going to work on the ending while Mrs. Hazelton droned on about American history—but a family of mice had used my manuscript as a home and had completely destroyed it.
My grades improved dramatically after the seventh grade, but I believe I learned something from Mr. Latour that an A or an F cannot measure.
I never told anyone about what I saw that day in detention, until now. At the time, I was sure the bottle he drank from held whiskey, but today, I am not so sure. It could have been medicine. However, if it was whiskey, then all I can say is "To err is human; to forgive divine."
***
I was twelve or thirteen in the seventh grade, and anyone over thirty seemed ancient. Mr. Latour may not have been as old as my memory suggests, but that is how I remember him. Also, I may not have been as mischievous as I made myself out to be in this little story. I seem to remember Walter, Michael, and Fred earning quite a few more demerits than I did.  

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