I spent some considerable time working on the Naked Hearts trilogy in my blog, writing about nothing but girl students who fell in love with me. That was a sort of Narcissistic writing experience that convinced me that I was somehow worthy of the love those young ladies felt in their little pink hearts. I was not. At least, not more deeply than the teacher-student level… the appreciation level. Because there is love and then there is LOVE. I have never really felt any sort of desire for a student. Dread, yes, desire, no. It is not only something illegal, but it is really downright icky. The students that fill your classroom are all incomplete works of art. The paint is not dry and can easily be smeared. I am never the artist involved, so it is not my place to ever touch the oil paint of their lives, not even with skilled touches of the paintbrush. But the one time I really regretted not having the ability to do touch-ups and help others to see what I can clearly see in a brilliant work of monkey-house art, it was with an incomplete little oil painting known as Wally.
Wally Nardling was a bright, talented, and gloriously goofy young boy with a zest for life that nothing, it seemed, could kill. My Paffooney portrait above not only looks like him, it looks exactly like him. And that is not because I am a gifted portrait artist. I am not. I am a cartoonist. But Wally was a living, breathing cartoon character with a cartoon personality to go with it. It was a golly-gee personality like he was the boy Sherman from Jay Ward’s Mr. Peabody and Sherman time-travelling cartoons. He was always ready to try any new thing and experience any creative idea, without ever for a moment stopping to consider consequences, or thinking about how others might see him or think about him. He was good at drawing Japanese manga-style cartoon people. He drew in colored pencil just like me, cartooning all over his notebook and folder and, sometimes, even the margins of his homework. He was very creative, and had numerous off-the-wall ideas that made other students cringe as he explained them to the class. He was very proud of his accomplishments as a reader, and bragged about the books he had read, including every book of the Harry Potter series (which actually was three books shy of being finished at the time). Other students, especially some of the non-reading Hispanic students, hated everything about him. After all, his father, Dr. Nardling was the absent-minded professor type of teacher who taught them in fifth grade, and he could be downright mean to kids who tried to get away with monkey-nonsense in his classroom. And his mother was a medical doctor from Mexico, but Wally had not learned any Spanish at all in his brief time on Earth. He was the butt of every poo-poo joke the vatos could pool their limited monkey brains to think up. Other boys, especially the vatos, were cruel to him at every opportunity. (Vatos, if you are not aware, are the semi-criminal cool guys of Latino culture who lurk in the boys’ bathrooms with gold chains around their necks and the faint smell of mota, which they may have recently been smoking on their clothes.)
Well, his seventh grade year, in my Gifted and Talented Class, we got involved in the Odyssey of the Mind creativity contests. I intended to put a link here, but WordPress is giving me trouble, so here is the web address; http://www.odysseyofthemind.com/
Wally was a natural. We put together teams to handle different problems that the contest offered. Wally always got chosen last for teams in real life, but nerd class was different. The other two boys, H. G. Ruff and Jack Penny immediately recruited Wally for their team. They chose the project where you had to design and build a balsa-wood structure to hold up as much weight as possible while you present a creative narration of the unfolding event. H.G. and Jack cooked up the two-headed narrator idea, sewed the costume where they could both get into the same shirt and pair of pants to provide the two wise-cracking heads. They left it entirely up to Wally to design the structure. This he did brilliantly, a cone of balsa bits with numerous cross beams to hold up weight, and super-glue to hold it all together.
We went all the way to Del Rio for the regional contest. The performance was supposed to build suspense as the team (basically meaning Wally) piled up increasingly heavy weights on the structure, trying not to crush it. The other competing teams went ahead of us, the first one crushing their rig almost immediately, and having to hope their song-and-dance routine would fill out the rest of the time limit. The team that had the best reputation managed to pile on only two pounds ten ounces before their structure collapsed. That was a full eight pounds less than they supposedly had piled on in practice. We started our performance with H.G. and Jack already gloating over the win.
The two headed narrator cracked some of the best jokes H.G. had ever written. (I had nixed all of the jokes Jack contributed. He was a master of scatological humor, and we knew ahead of time that event judges were all female.) Wally had two pounds already balanced on the structure. And then, his enthusiasm failed him. Instead of adding the five-ounce weights the way the other team had, he tried to put on a whole pound more with one weight. Over-confidence killed it. The balsa wood cracked and gave out. H.G. forgot two thirds of his remaining lines, and we ended up short of the minimum time limit, too. We lost by ten ounces, which when translated into the complex scoring system, meant we narrowly lost over all. Second place and no trip to the State tournament.
The other boys blamed Wally for the loss, though they hadn’t really pulled off their part either. The worst part was that Wally blamed himself.
“It’s my darn fault, Mr. B,” he told me with tears in his eyes.
“You got us this far, Wally. You did a good job. You built the actual structure.”
“Jack and H.G. are gonna keep on calling me Wally Weasley and making fun of me in front of the girls.”
“In many ways, you are more like Harry Potter,” I said. “You have more magical ability in you than they will ever have. You just have to keep believing in yourself.”
He grinned at me with that goofy grin of his. “I know. One day I will be able to turn H.G. into a frog.”
If I ever did anything to teach that boy something he didn’t already know, I don’t know what it could be. One day he will create a cure for cancer, or explore the surface of Mars, and I will have not had any sort of hand in it in any way. He was a diamond in the rough, and I simply wasn’t capable of polishing a diamond like that.