For forty years, his passion was teaching Moby Dick. Mr. G was my high school English teacher and for six weeks each year, he would parse “The Great American Novel” with a obsession like that of one-legged Captain Ahab pursuing the Great White Whale. Our eyes glazed over as he attempted, vainly, to captivate us with Melville’s tedious digressions about Nantucket whaling villages. Undeterred, Mr. G forged on. In retrospect, his single-minded devotion was touching. At the time however, his fixation was the epitome of high school torture.
Ishmael, the story’s narrator, was drawn into Ahab’s obsessive pursuit with his doomed shipmates. I shared Mr. G’s voyage with classmates including my friend, Don. In a sense, Don was “doomed” because he was a “jock”, the star of the high school basketball team.
Sometimes there is an inclination for English teachers and jocks to become natural enemies, mongoose and cobra. However, Mr. G. did not hate jocks. To the contrary, he admired them and was PA announcer for our high school sporting events. He routinely announced games where Don starred against better teams from Evanston and New Trier.
However Mr. G was convinced all jocks, Don included, simply didn’t possess the intellectual necessities to comprehend Moby Dick. He subtly made it known that perhaps Don would be better suited to life in basketball rather than contemplating the voyage of the Pequod. This was particularly unfair and frustrating to Don, who was actually brilliant and later became one of the top specialty physicians in the Midwest. However, nothing he could do in class would change Mr. G’s mind about his intellectual prowess. His grades reflected it.
One day, out of a combination of boredom and petulance, Don came to class having memorized verbatim the entire first two pages of Moby Dick, “Call me Ishmael. Some years ago - never mind how long precisely - having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation…”
It demonstrated nothing other than memory. But the words became an act of perceived teenage mockery when Don showed off for bored classmates. When Mr. G heard it, he was displeased but said nothing. It did little to change his view of Don; if anything it reinforced his opinion. The dumb jock with an insolent parlor trick.
Years passed. Don became the respected head of a large clinic in another state. When he came to Chicago, we would reminisce. He never again saw Mr. G but bore him no animosity. For laughs, he occasionally recited “Call me Ishmael…”, whenever Mr. G’s name came up. The words came easily, no longer defiant, simply recalling that long-ago English class. Eventually Don stopped doing it and as time went on I figured he’d forgotten the words.
I also kept in touch with Mr. G. since he lived in my neighborhood. He had become a senior teacher and we occasionally went out for a beer, student and teacher both older, now on equal terms. He was always curious about what became of his old students. He was truly a gentle man and I was impressed how he, like Mr. Chips, remembered so many students from decades back.
However, he only vaguely remembered Don. He forgot Don was in his class but recalled him as a good basketball player. When I told him the story of “Call me Ishmael” he halted briefly and conceded perhaps he had underestimated Don all those years ago. With a sad, faraway gaze, he lamented that his current students no longer had the attention span to read Moby Dick, something he regretted. He feared Moby Dick would be removed from the curriculum altogether.
I saw less of him as he reached retirement after 37 years. One afternoon I saw him at the local library where he was preparing a lecture, now moonlighting as a substitute teacher. I told him we should plan a future date for coffee at Starbucks. He laughed and pointed out the unintended allusion; Starbucks is named after the first mate of the Pequod in Moby Dick. Weird coincidence.
It was the last time I ever saw Mr. G. When I heard he died recently, I sent Don an email. He promptly wrote back, “That’s really strange. Just yesterday one of my young assistant physicians asked me to call a Dr. Ishmael. I reflexively turned to her and began “’Call me Ishmael…’ I easily recited the whole passage for the first time in many years. She thought I was crazy, gave me a strange look and asked, ‘What is that? Is that from some fish book?’” Even with the sad news, he admitted he enjoyed reciting the words again.
I smiled when I read that. Another weird coincidence.
Of late, I think of Mr. G and Don. As for Call me Ishmael.., the words no longer represent an act of teenage petulance, or even a reminder of the distant past. They have become a tribute to a man who loved teaching Moby Dick.
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