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The Proper Walking Process

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Did I ever mention that three years of my elementary school education and all four years of my high school ordeal were spent in Japan? Oh. Sorry — I could’ve sworn I had said it somewhere.

And no, I don’t/can’t speak Japanese. In high school, my mother convinced me to take Spanish. She said I would have the opportunity to use it more. Of course upon leaving Japan, we moved to Hawaii. Spanish, anyone? Didn’t think so.

My fifth grade teacher at Sagamihara Elementary School was Mr. Watkins. He was probably the first gay man I’d ever met. Or at least knew I was meeting. I’m sure I’d met others, but they just weren’t so obvious.

The first day of school that year, he wore red polyester pants (all the rage in 1972), a pair of white leather, perfectly-polished shoes, a white leather belt (gold buckle), a red-white-and-blue vertically striped long-sleeved shirt (with gold cuff-links), and a thick blue tie with bright white stars on it. Quite the patriot that day.

And his hair… do you remember the movie Steel Magnolias? Remember when Sally Field’s character is describing her hair as a “brown helmet”? That was Mr. Watkin’s hair. It was a comb-over, though not yet at the point where it’s so painfully obvious that his part starts where his left ear ends. It appeared to be teased and very sprayed. It was long-ish, just touching the top of his shirt collar. Very coifed. Very Bobby Goldsboro.

He spoke very crisply. That’s the best way to describe it. No lisp… just a lot of crisp. His walk was the clincher. Very tight in the butt. Shoulders back, head up, cocked slightly to the side. Arms swing — don’t over swing! And the arms swing from the shoulder… not at the elbow. Hands are open, wrists just loose enough to allow the hands to look almost like wing-tips on a bird. He floated along the old, worn wooden floors of the school.

One day, I got the inspiration to create “shoe art”. This is where you take your Elmer’s Glue and squirt a large glob of it onto the bottom of your sneaker. You then take your right index finger (or left — whichever is appropriate) and smear said glob evenly across the surface, filling each crevice. Ideally, you sit and bide your time in class while this dries. Once dried, you pick one corner of the dried glue up with your fingernail, then slowly and carefully peel the finished product off. Voila! An impression of the bottom of your sneaker skillfully cast in Elmer’s Glue.

Unfortunately for the Art World, Mr. Watkins’ eagle-eye caught sight of my attempt at creation. I smelled his cologne before I saw his shadow and then the tips of his shoes as I worked on my shoe-glue.

“What do you think you’re doing, young lady?” He insisted on reminding me of my gender on a daily basis.

I just looked up at him, my mouth opening and closing, with no sound or apparent intelligence forthcoming.

“You just get up and go straight to the office, young lady.” Again, the reminder.

“Bu-” I stammered… I knew I needed to explain the inherent beauty in what I was doing, and also knew that there was something wrong with getting up at this particular moment.

“Right now!” He stomped his foot. Big sissy baby.

I got up and planted my freshly glue-smeared sneaker on the floor. I then walked out, squishing shoe-shaped glue impressions all the way to the door of the classroom. By the time I got to the office, whatever glue there was that hadn’t been left behind had dried. No one at the office knew why I was there, so I chose not to enlighten them. I just asked for extra chalk for Mr. Watkins’ classroom, got it, and left.

Then there was the time he decided that we — the class as a whole — walked like apes. We slumped, slogged and drug our feet about. He couldn’t have that! Not his class. We were to spend an afternoon getting walking lessons… from Mr. Watkins. See paragraph 5 above for a description of The Proper Walking Process.

He lined us up, boys in one line, girls in the other. He stood at the front, barking orders over his shoulder as he walked with us following.

“Heads up! Shoulders back! Like me — watch!” He snapped as he sashayed down the hall.

Twenty or so fifth graders in two lines — all attempting to walk as Mr. Watkins does. All eyes watching his every move. Amazingly enough, no snickers could be heard. We truly were trying to do as we were instructed. The Proper Walking Process.

Four other kids in my class and I had won a contest on memorizing the names of state capitols. Mr. Watkins sponsored a trip for the five of us to the Ueno Zoo in Tokyo. He paid for it himself — the train ride, the park fee, food, everything.

The best part was seeing the Llamas. Not because I’m some closet-freak llama fan — but because llamas have the propensity to spit. We all walked (Mr. Watkins glided) up to the llama pen. It was pretty open. Just a split-rail fence embedded in a cement berm divided us from the llamas. One of the animals came up to Mr. Watkins.

“How’s Dr. Doolittle?” Mr. Watkins quipped.

The llama proceeded to do something with its face that caused it to appear as if it were about to explode. Its tongue literally turned inside-out as it blorbed from between huge, yellow teeth. Some sort of yellowish goo then shot out, and landed neatly on Mr. Watkins’ face… and the hair.

I swear, I have never in my life heard another sound similar to that which emanated from Mr. Watkins. He screamed. And screamed. And waved his hands in the air. And screamed. And screamed some more.

A handkerchief suddenly appeared from his person, and he gingerly dabbed at the goo embedded in his hair, while screaming. As for myself and the rest of the kids… we didn’t know whether to run, shit or go blind.

Needless to say, our trip was slightly cut short.

Mr. Watkins was without a doubt, one of the best teachers I’ve had in my entire life. He taught me to love books, to find the adventure in social science and history and to accept people for the unique individuals they are.

Thanks, Mr. Watkins.

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About Chari

  • Frank Miller

    Hang on. I had him too … I think in 75. Fantastic teacher .. But an odd duck. Also the only teacher I can remember by name from sixth grade.

    Thanks for the memory!

  • Willis Davis

    WOW! I can’t believe I somehow stumbled on this, and I can’t believe that there’s a blog about Mr. Watkins! Mr. Watkins was my fifth grade English teacher at Sagamihara Elementary too, and you have described him perfectly. Pretty obviously gay, although I don’t think I realized it at the time.

    You’re right, he was a great teacher, the only one I remember by name from the fifth grade. I think I had him the year after you, in 73-74. I think I he started teaching sixth grade the next year.

    I’m sure I actually have a picture of him! Next time I’m at my mom’s house I’ll try to find it and send it to you. He may be wearing the very outfit you described.

    Thanks for the memories.

  • Eric Olsen

    Amazing how you tied all of that together Chari!