(Courtesy of Joy Horowitz)
published in the Los Angeles Times
The older I get, the more I understand how my teachers have transformed my life. Every single one of them.
And believe me, I’ve had my share of doozies. There were the ones with bad breath and mean souls who taught me resilience. In sixth grade, there was the drunk who teetered on stiletto heels, requiring that we steady her as we descended the stairs to the playground. By high school, there was the phony, peace-and-love hippie who seemed to enjoy shaming me, calling me not gifted enough as she kicked me out of Advanced Placement English, forcing me to prove her wrong by becoming a writer.
But I’ve also been lucky enough to cross paths with the best of the best.
So when I heard that Mr. C — I still can’t bring myself to call Gerald “Carp” Carpenter by his first name, never mind that I’m a grandmother now — would be at Roxbury Park in Beverly Hills on a recent Sunday afternoon, I had no choice but to go see him.
At 93, perched atop a motorized scooter, he looked like a Buddha in a blue Hawaiian shirt. His legs don’t work like they used to but his joie de vivre is undimmed. He was in town to visit with some of his former students, many of whom were celebrating their delayed-by-COVID 50th Beverly Hills High School reunion. From 1964 to 1988, Mr. C taught ancient history, coached football and golf, and risked his life teaching driver’s training on Saturday mornings at Beverly Hills High. (There’s a spot north of Sunset Boulevard where he’d have us practice our uphill parking that locals nicknamed Carpenter Hill in his honor.)
One after another, his students, now gray and hobbled themselves, lined up to thank their favorite teacher. One called him a rock star. Another thanked him for knowing he needed help when he couldn’t say so. It was a beautiful tribute, especially in these times of catastrophic teacher shortages, plummeting funding for needed supplies and the injection of hysterical laws in dozens of states limiting how teachers can talk about race relations and inequality in our classrooms.
Spending that Sunday in the park with Carp was nothing short of magic. It was a reminder of all that is so promising and possible in public education, including a teacher whose rare emotional honesty could be appreciated and honored decades later.
Seeing Mr. C again brought to mind Maya Angelou’s suggestion that people will forget what you said and what you did but will never forget how you made them feel. For me and the others in the park, he made us feel seen and heard.
Plus, Carp was fun. Inside the park’s recreation center, someone had teed up old movies of him doing gainers off the Swim Gym high dive — somersaulting backward into the swimming pool beneath a retractable basketball floor made famous by Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
To say that Mr. C changed my life is an understatement. And by that, I mean he changed who I thought I could be. Instead of seeing myself as a loser cheerleader who couldn’t compete with the brainy kids, I realized how much I loved learning.
A farmer’s son from Iowa, Mr. C started teaching at Lake Park High School in the suburbs of Chicago. He was fresh off a Fulbright program in India when he arrived in Beverly Hills in the summer of 1964 — driving an old Chevy without air conditioning and trailing a U-Haul — with his wife, Dorothy, and their three children. He was never flashy, just intent on finding a way to reach every kind of kid. And that might be exactly the point of why we adored him: his old-school decency and unerring instinct for acceptance.
To walk into his history classroom was to enter a giddy state of wonky delirium. For earthquake drills, we could count on Mr. C to scream his head off in mock terror. In his classes about the Persians or Greeks or Romans, there was extra credit for creativity.
One of his students named Sammy handed in political cartoons that caused Mr. C to ask him to stay after class one day. He told Sammy he thought his drawings rivaled what he was seeing in local newspapers. Sammy was Sam Simon, who would go on to co-create “The Simpsons.” For so many alums, his encouragement was everything.
When we studied the Roman Empire, I discovered that many historical figures — Moses, Aesop, Virgil, to name a few — stuttered. For my class project (we all had projects), I sang a song I wrote about the Emperor Claudius to the tune of “K-K-K-Katy.” “Cl-Cl-Cl-Claudius, Idiot Claudius, that is the name that people have all nicknamed me. They-they-they tell me, that-that I stutter, this is how I will go down in history…” My classmates roared their approval and Mr. C sat in the back of the class wearing his Cheshire Cat grin. It was a silly but sweet moment of satisfaction I’ll never forget. When I walked out of his classroom, I might as well have been floating on air.
Plus, he taught me to drive. When he sat in the passenger seat, he’d calm my nerves by clicking on the Real Don Steele on KHJ radio and singing along to his favorite tune: “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).”
It should come as little surprise that I’d value the role of teachers in my life. Both of my parents taught; so did my siblings, aunts, uncle and cousins. My son was a teacher until his school district insisted on shooter training drills. I, too, have become a teacher and I try to follow in Mr. C’s footsteps.
Some days, I fantasize what it would be like to go on a teacher tour, reaching out to my mentors to express my deep gratitude for all they’ve given me. Seeing Mr. C sparked that fantasy again. When I finally worked up my courage to thank him, knowing a floodgate of tears would open, he said to me with his typical modesty: “You were doing me more good than I was doing you.”
So, this is my love letter to Carp — and to all the teachers going back to school this month. What I want to say to you is simple enough: What you do is vital to our future well-being. If most of us will be remembered by a handful of loved ones after we’re gone, you will be remembered by thousands, just like Carp. And you deserve it.
Joy Horowitz, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer, has taught writing at USC, Harvard and Yale. Her book “Parts per Million” investigated the toxic legacy of oil drilling at Beverly Hills High.
published in the Los Angeles Times