I started hearing whispers about Mr. Gibbons while I was still in the eighth grade.
"I hear they got a queer teacher now". This was said by Brad Minton who, as it turns out, was gay himself but was still playing Hate The Queer in hopes that nobody would find out.
“Oh yeah?” I asked but didn’t allow myself to show much interest. “You mean here?”
“Nope, at the Old High School. He’s s’spose to be teaching drama or somethen’” He paused to pick up his gym bag “All them drama kids are queers that’s why I don’t do it” Then he left to change into a spandex unitard so he could practice wrestling on a mat with other boys.
While I knew in high school I would be offered classes for learning Spanish and how to drive properly, for some reason a class in dramatics was completely off my radar. A queer drama teacher, I thought. Well, I have to sign up for that.
Taking over the drama department in our rural Missouri town was Mr Gibbons' first teaching job out of college. I first saw him my last year in middle school. The high school kids were putting on the play You're A Good Man Charlie Brown and he brought the cast to do a scene for us during our lunch period. Like most high school productions it was loud, over acted and turned the stomach slightly less than school lunch chili. Mr. Gibbons beamed as though the middle school had just witnessed their first brief glance at Broadway.
Mr Gibbons was young, no more than twenty four, and looked even younger. A blond beard was grown to try to add some age to his face but it didn't quite work with his features. He also wore mirrored aviator sunglasses giving him the appearance of being in disguise. If Seventies porn star could be considered a disguise. If this didn't make him stand out enough he showed up to school that day wearing a sweat suit. A pale pink baggy oversized sweat suit. If there was any doubt before it was gone now. "Yep" I thought to myself "that's a queer".
I knew already that I had to be in drama class. I would be one of those bad skinned kids yelling lines at the top of my lungs butchering classic theater in front of the future farmers and factory workers of Middle America. I didn't crave the limelight since I'd had enough of that in my younger years and I wasn't particularly interested in live theater but I knew it was just something I had to do. Some type of instinct was drawing me there. I also wanted to be next to this new teacher. I wasn't sexually attracted to him but I wanted to be around him. I thought I could learn something important, something stylish, something gay. I wasn’t sure then what exactly what it was I was looking for and I still don’t know.
As it turned out, as a Freshman I wasn't eligible to take a real drama class. Instead I had to take the only option available to first year high school students which was Theater One. Calling this class "Theater" was false advertising. It was held in a classroom that was nowhere near a stage. We had to learn the history of theater which is a tale about the first time a caveman stood on a fallen tree log to get the attention of his cave audience all the way up to the modern opera house. Instead of learning to act, we learned terminology like “fly space”, “house lights” and “Upstage”. The only information I had any use for was that I finally knew what that pink cartoon tiger, Snagglepuss, was talking about when he said his famous catch phrase “Exit, stage left”.
Because I wasn’t very interested in the material I didn't pay much attention to the class. But, as it turns out, I didn't really have to. Much of the material on the tests was subjective and by some miracle, I finished the class with all E's. Which is the equivalent to getting all A’s in the rest of the world.
My plan to create some camaraderie with Mr. Gibbons never quite worked out. He would whisk into the classroom after the students were all seated, fling open his book with a flick of his wrist and start the lesson. With arms flailing and wild gesticulations he would give his disjointed lectures rapidly and in short bursts. Much like the monkey he was named after.
At the end of the semester we were finally allowed near an actual theater. Our class was to be the stage crew and do make-up for the play Up The Down Staircase. But this meant we took direction from a Senior student and not our teacher. During the production and rehearsal he was everywhere all the time like a nervous butterfly. He always spoke like he was out of breath and most importantly the older kids got to call him "Mark".
I ended my Freshman year knowing less about Mr Gibbons than I did about most of the other teachers and only slightly more about theater. My greatest accomplishment was that I was the only kid in my Theater One class to receive the final grade of E+. I've had high grades before but I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that I did not earn this high mark and this made me feel warm inside.
Sophomore year I signed up for the real drama class. This was the first class you could take and then be eligible to be in any of the school productions. I had also signed up for the Forensics team, an after school activity I originally looked into it because it sounded like something with crime scene investigation and corpse handling. I realized later it was an acting and speaking competition. I stuck with it anyway since the coach is always the drama teacher. I still wanted that connection to this flamboyant teacher and to be inducted into the inner circle that was allowed to call him "Mark".
Our first practice meeting of the Forensic Team was scheduled to meet before our actual classes started. This was when we found out that two years in Missouri was too much for Mark and he had quit during the Summer. He whisked out of town as secretly as fast as he had flitted in. I remembered what Brad said about “all them drama kids are queer” and kept my fingers crossed this held true for Marks replacement.
The new drama teacher's name had been printed in the local news starved paper a week before we met her. So even before we showed up at school we were all sadly aware of Cruella Oddley (I'm not one hundred percent sure I remember that name correctly but I can assure you it's very close). The name conjured up all types of movie star types in my head so I decided to stay in forensics even though the reason I joined the team in the first place was now gone.
As it turned out Cruella didn't look like some sexy and sultry Disney villainess. Instead she was rather rough looking with cheeks so pock marked she looked like a large dogs favorite chew toy. She wore denim overalls like a farmer and her chemically burned hair looked like a sick and dehydrated poodle. I have to give her credit for knowing how to make a first impression. Not a good first impression but a lasting one.
If she was gay or not I couldn’t tell. All I knew for certain was that she didn’t have any gay friends. Not with that hair. So self respecting gay man would allow her to walk around looking like that. I realized she wasn’t going to get burned out by the school system. Life had burned her out already and she wasn’t going anywhere.
I decided to step up to the plate and made a conscious effort to be nice to the new teacher. Since, even if I quit the Forensics Team, I was already signed up for drama class she was all I had. So at our first meeting I took the initiative and stood up after a moment and said "Hi Cruella!".
I thought I was being friendly and making her feel at home in her new job by using her first name. Mark would have appreciated it. Miss Oddley thought otherwise. The look she shot me was one that wasn't hard to figure out. It said "don't use my first name, I hate men, I hate you and this is going to be a long and painful class for you". All of that from one look. The lady had some talent after all.
That next semester was miserable for me and the few other boys in class. Cruella seemed to have the philosophy that drama class is for no talent chubby girls that were probably just going to get knocked up before prom anyway. I had a feeling she was getting back at all the men that had dumped her over the years. All of the men that had ignored her. Or maybe she wanted to get even with the man did that to her hair.
I thought I had her all figured out as a jilted man hater when I noticed her having lunch with a male teacher that also started that year. His name was Mr. Watkins and he was short, dumpy and had skin as bad as Cruella's, though, without the benefit of stage make up she applied heavy enough it could have repaired a crack in a dam.
Cruella and Watkins would huddle down over their food when they ate, their eyes darting around the huge cafeteria. They looked like they were plotting against the students and possibly the other teachers. Whatever they were talking about I was convinced at least half of it was about me.
The next semester I had Yearbook class and School Newspaper classes back to back. This was my opportunity to meet Mr. Watkins face to face. He saw me come into class and shot me a glance I read as dislike but with a bit of fear. I knew it. That poodle haired bitch had been talking about me. I instantly disliked him for taking Cruella's side and automatically disliking me without even meeting me. The little weasel.
Watkins was a brand new teacher and didn't have a lot of self confidence and that was something I knew I could exploit. I decided I'd get back at Cruella through her only friend and it started today. "Hi Johnny" I bubbled from the back of the room . Johnny was already on the defensive and mumbled something about respect. Maybe his face turned red it was hard to tell through the shiny film of oil. I had him now and he didn't have a chance.
As bad as Drama class was for me my yearbook and newspaper classes were great. I maneuvered myself to be in charge of advertising for both publications. This came with the responsibility of assigning which of my other classmates had what advertising accounts among the local businesses. Of course, I took the companies like the funeral homes and car dealerships that took out full page ads every year for myself thus insuring that I had almost no work to do the for both periods.
The school had an open campus policy which meant I could show up for class and then jump in my car and disappear for two hours to supposedly sell ads. Before Mr. Watkins got mad enough or suspicious enough to say anything in protest I’d shut him down by bringing him donuts. You can never go wrong bringing a fat teacher donuts.
Many years later I found out that the our Newspaper/Yearbook teacher Mr. Watkins was having an affair with one of the male students from my grade. I walked into the classroom unexpectedly one afternoon and interrupted an argument between teacher and student. Both parties assumed I knew I had witnessed their lovers spat.
I only found out over a decade later when the boy that was the student at the time asked me why I never told anyone about the affair. It sure wasn’t because I was such a nice and understanding guy. I would have loved to have lorded that information over a teacher’s head. The truth was, even though the argument looked a little odd to me, I didn’t put two and two together. Mostly because I didn’t think this shiny whiney teacher was gay and partially because I didn’t want the though to him in any sexual situation to be embedded in my brain.
To Kill a Mockingbird was our first school play of my Sophomore year. Because of the lack of students in drama class Cruella was too desperate for bodies to deny me a part. She didn’t give me the male lead of Atticus, she wouldn’t allow that, but she did relent enough to give me a speaking part. I was cast as Horace, the prosecuting attorney.
I loved To Kill a Mockingbird and thought the book was brilliant. I had read it at least a dozen times so learning my six lines took all of two minutes. This meant for the rest of the rehearsals I had a lot of sitting around time to deal with and Cruella hated this.
Even though this was to be my live acting premier and I had a speaking roll I couldn’t look at rehearsal and just be happy to be on the team. The boy cast to play the judge said every line like he was Paul Lynn and so all I could think was how she was turning this play into a Southern version of Bewitched. Which in retrospect would probably have gone over much better.
Not much exciting happened until a week before we were to perform. Sets were built and painted by the freshmen while we ran lines and Cruella was going over where were all supposed to be during each scene. I was in one scene. I was supposed to be sitting the entire time. Off to the side of the stage a gaggle of girls took turns painting black face on our otherwise white Tom Robinson.
I was lounging on stage in my prosecuting attorneys chair and making a show of doing nothing when, out of the blue Cruella had a visitor. Walking toward the stage between the seats was a boy I had never seen. He looked about high school age and was wearing overalls and hiking boots. In his left rear pocket was a wallet with a chunky silver chain running to the denim loop normally used for carrying a hammer or a paint brush. In a town where most people knew each other it was odd to see someone your own age you didn't know. Especially if he's kind of cute.
Cruella was expecting him. As this boy walked toward the stage, Cruella jumped down and pulled out her own wallet, this one without a chain, and offered it to her guest. As the boy reached forward to trade his own wallet for hers I saw through the sleeve in his tee shirt the side of his bra.
Wait a minute.
This wasn't a boy. This one of those girls that looks like boys. Well, well, well. I guess Cruella and I had something in common after all.
Part of our drama training was learning how to project our voices to the back of a theater and Cruella soon regretted teaching us that skill. One of the girls bellowed "Who was that?”. But it wasn't the polite "who was that" as in.."my it would be wonderful to make that persons acquaintance" it was "Who was, THAT!" as in "how could you bring something like that into our school?".
Cruella wasn't ruffled she simply replied "That was my roommate, I accidently grabbed her wallet this morning" Everyone exchanged odd looks. Whether it was because her roommate looked like a boy or because she admitted she carried a wallet I'm not sure. I was sure that Cruella didn’t like boys but it was starting to look like she liked girls who look like boys.
She looked around the theater with one of her practiced looks. It said "this is me and it's a non-issue" it said "I will not let anyone look down on me for what I am" with an undertone of "If I keep going on as though nothing has happened nobody will say anything". She was convinced it was working when rest of the students were going back to whatever it was they were doing.
Then her eyes met mine.
I had been staring at her and so she stared back tightening up her facial expression like it was some magic spell she had to try harder at for it to work. I was also a student of facial expression and conveying messages through my eyes so I showed her my best smirk that said "I know your secret and I'm just letting you know that I know" She should have given me a passing grade just from that one look.
Though I was brilliant the play was a terrible flop. Cruella had no problems telling everyone that either. She blamed us for not knowing our lines and for not following the direction and for over acting. It was a lot like a coach yelling at a football team in the locker room after a particularly bad loss.
She didn't say anything specifically to me about my performance but she did make some of her former pets cry. Emboldened by my own lack of criticism and seeing a chance to be a hero I sailed to their rescue. "Cruella, this is an award winning script from a brilliant author and you still couldn't seem to pull it off, I really think this is more about you than it is about us.” to make it sting a little more I threw in “Mr. Gibbons always had great plays". I wasn’t lying, I told myself, I was acting.
Her face turned so hot and red some of the heavy make ups she used to cover her pock marks started to slide off her face in large sheets leaving deep cracks that looked like a dried up lake bed. "Mr Gibbons also ran off with three thousand dollars from the theater account" she said through gritted teeth, the split ends of her dried out perm quivering around the edges.
Well that ended the mystery of why Mr Gibbons left so quickly. After that I gave up on all things theater. I knew that as long as Cruella was drama dictator I didn't stand a chance on stage. I never bought her excuse that she was under funded, instead, I thought she was under talented and would bring it up whenever the chance showed itself. I coasted through the rest of the year with a barely passing grade and no real confirmation or or denial that she was indeed a lesbian.
At my ten year class reunion I found out Mr Gray had retired and moved out of town. Cruella and Mr. Watkins still worked at the same school but had more or less segregated themselves from the teaching staff, a few of whom had been my classmates . It is my sincere hope that she's mellowed some, picked up some teaching tips and gotten better information on hair care. I also hope she's no longer crushing the dreams and talents of the other small town gay boys coming through her class.