I mentioned the other day the G-word from when I started teaching. I mean, Fernando was guilty of starting it with his comment, but it caught on fast. Before I knew what had hit me, every kid in Frank Newman Junior High School was calling me Gilligan. I was, in fact, thin and somewhat gangling as a twenty-five-year-old teacher, and I suppose I did have a goofy sort of smile, and a rather childish innocence (compared to the vato locos I was teaching at the time). You can see for yourself. This is a high school graduation picture of me, but I didn’t change much in the seven years of schooling that passed before they dubbed me Gilligan. Alright, the horn-rim glasses were mega-nerdy, I admit. I only wore that style until they didn’t make them any more.
The reason the name bothered me was because they were trying to use it to gain power over me. The more they irritated with it, the more they could make me mad, the more they could get away with calling me that and only making the principal laugh about it when I tried to report the misbehavior, then the more they could control whether we actually learned anything or not during class. (The principal, at only four foot eight in height was dubbed “Papa Smurf”, and the History teacher, Mr. Stackwell was known as “El Pato” (Spanish for the duck) because of the way he walked and the fact that his face reminded even me of Donald Duck.) But I did eventually observe that other teachers would ignore and even smile about it when they were called their own nicknames. (Thank you, Mr. Stackwell, for giving me that example.) I learned that I could accomplish more by owning it. My classroom became “the Island” or “Gilligan’s Island”. And we began feasting on cooked coconuts of learning. I regularly pointed out that on his show, Gilligan often got the attention of the movie star, Ginger, and the farm girl Mary Ann. There were benefits to being a single guy with two available girlfriends on a tropical island. (I even tried the two-girlfriends-at-once thing in real life, but that’s a horror story for another day.)
El Loco Gongie often accused me of speaking Martian to the class because I used a lot of words that were, to his small mind, too big to be real words. So I owned that too. I would put groups of five big words on the chalkboard (or, at least, words they thought were big) and spent time each week expanding their vocabulary with “Martian words”. I learned to fill dangerous down time when the class wasn’t doing anything else with “puzzlers”, trick questions or thinking games. I asked them to answer difficult questions like; “You are in a room with four southern exposures. Each wall has a window in the center of it. A bear walks by one of the windows. What color is the bear?” (I promise not to tell you the bear was white… oh, uh, well, anyway, you can still figure out for yourself why that is.) We began to have a lot of fun on Gilligan’s Island (Room 2 in the south hallway of Frank Newman Junior High in Cotulla, Texas). Diamantina even told Papa Smurf that I was “funny”. Of course, Papa Smurf had a long talk with me later about why teachers shouldn’t be funny, at least before May of their first year. But I learned that when she had told him that I was funny, she meant my class was enjoyable and she was happy to be there. Funny equals learning. That was the most important lesson Gilligan’s Island taught me.