Yellow Chalk Jonathan Byerly 7/4/12 email@example.com “What’s his name?” I ask Polly. “Mr. Hootoo…I think,” Polly’s not sure, so I ask Walter. “Walter what’s the new teacher’s name?” “Mr. Hooten,” Walter says calmly, without even taking his eyes off the new teacher, Mr. Hootenany, or whatever. “What’s your name again, sir?” I raised my hand. Even though I was a 2nd grader, I knew the rules; this was a strict private school. “Master Byerly, my name is, once again, Mr. Hooten. I will write it up here on my blackboard.” Mr. Hooten turned and wrote his name in large letters on the chalkboard. He then turned back to face us. Mr. Hooten was quite tall and thin. He had short brown hair, a long neck and a very prominent Adam’s apple. “Why doesn’t everyone say my name a couple of times, so we can move onto what we are going to do this glorious fall day as the Midget Squad.” Walter raised his hand. “Mr. Hooten, you wrote your name in yellow chalk.” We had never seen yellow chalk before. All we had ever seen from the very beginning of school was white, white, white chalk. Everywhere, white chalk on black slate boards. White and black. “Isn’t that against the rules?” Walter squeaked this out. That year he was quite timid. “What’s your name sir,” Mr. Hooten asked. “Who me?” Walter swallowed hard and looked like he was going to faint. “Yes, you,” Mr. Hooten was looking right into Walter’s eyes. Teachers never did that unless they were yelling at you. Mr. Hooten wasn’t yelling. “W-Walter. My name is Walter,” Walter said. “Well, Walter, I use yellow chalk. Is that okay?” Mr. Hooten asked this without hint of sarcasm. I couldn’t believe it. I was so used to sarcasm from teachers. Just like the yelling and the white chalk. I looked at Polly. She was staring right at Mr. Hooten in similar disbelief. “Yea, that’s okay,” Walter said less timidly. “So let’s all say my name: Mr. Hooten!” Mr. Hooten drew out the ‘hooooo’ part. Walter, Polly and I were first to chant the name, “Hooooooten,” Soon all twelve of us in the newly dubbed Midget Squad were howling his name. We sounded like a pack of wolves and we got into it as only 1st and 2nd graders can. We howled and I could see Mr. Hooten rolling his eyes. I looked at Polly and smiled; it was clear Mr. Hooten didn’t know what he was up against. After a minute we ran out of breath and there was a lull in the howling. Walter raised his hand. “Mr. Hooten, have you ever had first grade before?” Walter asked. He was always so logical. “Admittedly, no. Certainly not as an outdoor crew…” “Where did you attend college?” Walter asked again. “Attend?” I whispered, looking at Polly and rolled my eyes. Walter was showing off to the wrong teacher. This wasn’t class time. “I attended Yale Law School.” Mr. Hooten drew the words, ‘Yale Law School’ on the blackboard in his yellow chalk. “Then why aren’t you a lawyer?” It was Marcy, Walter’s sister. She would chase me around history class trying to kiss me. I do believe she had cooties. “My daddy says Yale is the best college. He went there and he’s a banker,” Marcy had put-down thick in her voice. I felt a little sorry for Mr. Hooten; so far he seemed like a nice teacher. He was smiling broadly. He had shiny, smooth teeth. “Good for your daddy, Mrs. Hoffman. Honestly, with the Vietnam War escalating, it is a good time to be a teacher.” He looked right at Marcy like she was a grown–up. Marcy blushed a bit, but looked back at Mr. Hooten and smiled. Maybe she would start chasing him around the classroom instead of me. “Do you students know about the Vietnam War?” Mr. Hooten asked the lot of us. We all nodded yes. We knew about it. We knew about Nixon and how he had just gotten elected President and that he promised to send more troops and bombs to Vietnam. Many of us knew about the draft and the lottery system based on your birthday. David, my oldest brother, had been gotten number 120. Young men with numbers less than 90 were already in Vietnam. My brother David, a Brown University graduate, had taken a teaching job in Colorado. Teaching was still a deferment in ’68. We might have been a small town in Northwestern, Connecticut, but everyone knew about politics, the war and the draft. “My daddy says the commies are taking over the world and we have to stop them,” It was Harry Keeshan. He was second grader like us, but he seemed to have trouble thinking for himself. He always started his sentences with the phrase, “My daddy says…” “Well, whatever your daddy’s beliefs are…War is a terrible thing. And this is a particularly horrible war…” Mr. Hooten let out a sigh, staring over our heads through the large windows toward the distant hills. We all fell silent. “So,” Mr. Hooten rallied enthusiasm, “What would you Midgets like to do on this beautiful September afternoon? A Nature Walk or Capture the Flag up in the Sandpit?” he flashed his shiny, smooth-tooth smile as he drew the words, ‘Sandpit ‘ and ‘Nature Walk,’ up on the board in his yellow chalk. “Capture the Flag up in the Sandpit!!!” We all chimed in on this; it was an easy decision. The Sandpit and the woods around them were legendary, filled with mystery myth and excitement. If you ran away from school, you went to the Sandpit. As a seventh or eighth grader, you went there to smoke cigarettes or ‘make-out’ with your girlfriend. Some kids even set off firecrackers up there. Rumor had it that there were all sorts of lean-to’s and shelters up there where older students did fun, bad things. And we were going up there! As fall paraded its garish colors through our small valley along the Shepaug River, we Midgets regularly went up to the Sandpit for Capture the Flag, Hide and Go seek, Jumping Contests and even Nature Walks. A bunch of seven through ten-year-olds running around in the woods for two hours every day with only one teacher- it was heaven. No one got seriously hurt, no one go lost, bullied or disrespected. We were all having too much fun, even Mr. Hooten. He joined in every game and we got quite used to his unabashedly loud laugh and his shiny, smooth-tooth smile. Even as winter blew in with record-breaking snows, Mr. Hooten continued to lead us up to the Sandpit for sledding, sliding, tobogganing, snowball fights and winter Capture the Flags. The following year, Polly, Walter, Marcy, Harry and I were no longer Midgets with Mr. Hooten; we were third graders, spending our fall afternoons in organized junior sports: soccer, football, and field hockey. Walter, Harry and I played soccer for Mr. Weddell, a highly intellectual, stick figure of a man with absolutely no athletic ability. Oddly, we were having an undefeated season. Polly and Marcy played field hockey for Mrs. Ward, a thick, pioneering-type woman. They were undefeated also. The Vietnam War escalated, and the climate in the United Sates was turning quite sour. There were riots in Chicago, L.A, New York. Young people were getting shot and killed all over the place. It was hazard to be young and freethinking. Assassinations of Malcolm X, Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King, students at Kent State shocked the nation. The blurry-yet-vivid black and white footage of shot and maimed marines being hastily loaded onto blustery helicopters every night on the news raised the level of fear and paranoia that became the backdrop for the late ‘60’s in America. Polly, Walter and I began showing up with our parents at weekly anti-War vigils in downtown Washington, CT. We often saw Mr. Hooten and Mr. Weddell along with a handful of other young male and female teachers at these candle-lit gatherings. It was clear to everyone that there were some real problems in the world. Even though our candle-lit vigils were peaceful, the violence that was so prevalent in the US spilled over into our bucolic private elementary school. There were daily fights behind the red clay tennis court between students whose parents believed in the war and those students whose parents did not. Even I got into it with Harry Keeshan one day during recess. “If we don’t stop them in Vietnam, they will take over all of Southeast Asia. Then they will ally with China, which is already run by Mao and the Reds and they will invade Japan.” Harry folded his arms as he made his speech to me. “They’d never defeat Japan…” I wasn’t sure why I said this. I just hated the ‘Red-Menace-Domino Theory.’ “You don’t know anything, Byerly. They will defeat Japan in a second. Japan hasn’t had an army since WWII. They are not allowed to have one.” Harry smirked as he said this. I couldn’t stand it. I ran at him full force and head-butted him to the ground. Take that logic and reason! Unfortunately, Harry Keeshan had a metal plate in his fore arm. He smashed it repeatedly on the top of my head. I stayed on top of Harry and tried to get that metal arm under my knee. I didn’t want to hurt Harry as much as I wanted to win the argument. The metal plate in his arm banging on my head was beginning to soften my position on both matters, though. “Mr. Byerly, Mr. Keeshan!!” A teacherly voice yelled. We stopped, thank goodness; the top of my head ached. There was a growing lump up there. Harry and I stood up and wiped the dust and grass from our school blazers. We looked up shamefully. It was Mr. Hooten. “Whatever disagreements you might have, you must strive to solve them with words, not with fists…Agreed?” Mr. Hooten looked at me first. “Yes sir, agreed,” I said looking down at my feet. “Mr. Keeshan?” Mr. Hooten turned his gaze to Harry. “Agreed, sir,” Harry said. “You boys are classmates and on the same junior soccer team, that is undefeated if I am correct?” I could see Mr. Hooten’s shiny, smooth-tooth smile from beneath his words. “Yes, you are correct Mr. Hooten,” I piped up. I looked at Harry and he looked at me. Suddenly, I felt really bad. “I’m sorry, Harry,” I held out my hand. Harry took it immediately and we shook. “I’m sorry too, Jon,” he said looking at me. We smiled. The school bell rang, signaling the end of recess and the end of our fighting. We began walking back to history class. “I got you good with my metal plate, didn’t I?” Harry smirked. “You sure did,” I chuckled and rubbed the top of my head. We actually became good friends after that, at least for a couple of months until winter when Harry played ice hockey and I joined the ski team. The routine of morning meeting, classes, study halls, recess, lunch and athletics gave us all a sense of peace and order in a world that seemed to be flying apart at the seams into craziness and nightmare horror. Hippies were running around dressing up and doing wild things. Neil Armstrong walked around on the moon, which certainly looked like fun. Woodstock became our cultural zenith. On the other hand, the horror at Altamont became our cultural nadir. Chuckie Manson’s nightmare reminded us that even hippies could do horrible things. Worst of all, Vietnam and the draft took more and more of our best young. The fall of ’69, Polly, Walter, Marcy, Harry and I had Mr. Hooten for Latin. The choice had been between Spanish and Latin. We chose Latin because it was taught by Mr. Hooten. Mr. Hooten made the class lots of fun, telling us filling in all sorts of background information about Rome and Greece, both fascinating civilizations. He drew detailed pictures of the Roman Coliseum and the Amphitheater on the blackboard in his yellow chalk. He was liberal with his loud jocular laugh and shiny, smooth-tooth smile. On Fridays, he would write a short quiz on the blackboard in yellow chalk. We would finish the quiz quickly and spend the rest of the period discussing modern politics. Mr. Hooten would moderate the heated debates among the students, rarely inflecting his own opinion. He would however, often give us topics to discuss. One topic that came up quite often was the War and the Draft. They both seemed to be on everyone’s mind. The draft Lottery was creeping closer and closer to my brother David’s birthday number: 120. By November all young men with lottery numbers up to 110 had been inducted. Rumor had it that teacher deferments no longer got you exempt. The only exemptions were physical ailments and ‘extenuating circumstances,’ which were, of course, being the son of a senator or a congressman. One foggy Friday afternoon, as Walter and I were walking up from lunch, we noticed a commotion at the pond at the bottom of the hill from the study hall. We turned and walked down to join the gathering crowd of students and teachers. A tow truck was slowly winching something out of the pond. I could see the rusty metal cable straining and stretching; it was under great tension. Slowly, the shiny, smooth rear windshield of a small car became visible. As more of the car appeared it showed itself as a red and white Saab. “That’s Mr. Hooten’s Saab,” Walter said out loud. A couple of teachers around us nodded silently. Sure enough, I could see a bereft-looking Mr. Hooten standing knee-deep in the shallow pond water. I was surprised to see his shoulders shake like he was sobbing. He must have been shivering in the cold water. “What happened?” I just said this out loud; we were crowded together tightly. “He parked it on the hill and the brake gave out during lunch. Apparently Mr. Magnoli saw it rolling down the hill from the head master’s office. He ran out, but couldn’t stop it. It went right into the pond,” Mr. Weddell answered. The crowd was absolutely silent. A strange sound could be heard echoing off the side of the study hall. It was almost like a rhythmic moan. Walter and I looked at each other. “That must be the car making those weird noises,” I said to Walter reassuringly. “I don’t think that’s the car,” Walter said in a hollow voice. Mr. Magnoli went over to Mr. Hooten and put his arm over his shoulders, leading him away. “It’s just an old car.” I said rather callously. I’d seen enough. The whole event made me feel strangely uneasy. I turned to go. “It’s not just the car,” Mr. Weddell said this with emphasis as I walked away. The following Monday, when I walked into Mr. Hooten’s Latin class, I saw Polly, Walter, Harry and Marcy staring at a message on the blackboard. Polly and Marcy sat down and cried loud whimpers that quickly became sobs. Other students filed in and stared in disbelief. Walter turned to me with tears in his eyes. “He’s gone…” was all he said. I read the message: “Hello, my beloved students, I have been called into the service of our country. I leave for Saigon in one month. Teaching you was the highlight of my life. Good luck in your endeavors, Mr. Hooten.” It was written in yellow chalk.