Although I’m pretty sure my preference stems from evolution, he may have been the first guy who planted the seed in my head that I liked tall guys. While my subconscious desire to dilute the gene pool that conspires to keep my offspring firmly positioned in the “Hobbit” category is a more likely the reason, Mr. Jakes brought the favored inclination to my attention. Whatever the case, Mr. Jakes was young, tall, kind and intelligent and I loved being in his 5th grade class.
First of all, let’s be clear, I hate inspirational teacher stories. Jaime Escalante can kiss my ass. Perhaps as a teacher I’m a little jealous that NO ONE will ever stand on a chair in my classroom and proclaim, “Oh Captain, my Captain!” Who knows? But this is not one of those stories. This is the story of Mr. Jakes, a cool, average guy who liked kids, liked his job and was really good at creating a safe, imaginative space for me to escape daily.
Deer Lodge Montana slumbers at the foot of Mount Powell, the county high point of the Flint Ridge Range. The sleepy old gold town was small and lonely and had one elementary school that housed one classroom for each grade. Walking into Mr. Jakes’ 5th grade class was a breath of fresh air after having endured a 4th grade year under the tutelage of Miss Boyce, the same crotchety 4th grade teacher of my mother. His classroom was warm and welcoming and was lined in shelves of books. On the day we met, Mr. Jakes started the daily tradition of reading a chapter from the Chronicles of Narnia after our lunch recess as we all laid our heads on our desks and took in a well deserved rest. The ritual soon became my favorite part of the day and by the end of the year we had finished the entire series. The practice of setting aside quiet time each day to participate in a world much richer than my own became habit forming and I quickly fell in love with the escapism that school and books provided. Mr. Jakes quietly gave me this gift and wrapped it with a sweet smile and fond memories.
One day, after our traditional reading time, Mr. Jakes announced that we would be spending the afternoon doing an amazing science experiment. He motioned to the large covered mound on the table in the back of the room and cautioned that, “anyone who did not feel comfortable doing the experiment would readily be excused.” Before he uncovered the mound he warned that it was a dead pig. The crowd gasped and few of the girls involuntarily squealed. I was intrigued. I had never seen a dead animal up close, other than a pet that had died, and I couldn’t decide if I was sad, disgusted or fascinated. I landed on all three at the same time, but my fascination certainly lead. Once again, Mr. Jakes gave a warning to those who might feel queasy to leave the room if they felt they would be sick, before he slowly removed the tarp from the lifeless pig. Again, a small group of girls squealed.
I remember the clouded over black eyes of the pig as she gazed blankly at the ceiling. I stared intently trying to connect to the soul of the beast, but it became very clear that the soul had past and the body was empty. I was immediately released from the guilt and sadness associated with the death of the animal and although the notion that I should feel some sense of accountability resurfaced as we probed the beast, the idea dissolved when I again looked into those empty eyes. I had learned from my uncle to thank a beast for her life after a fruitful hunt and I felt the need today. Quietly I thanked the gilt for her life and returned to the bustling of the class as we examined and prodded.
We started with an exterior examination before Mr. Jakes opened the pig to show us the tinkerings of the inside. One by one the students fell to the wayside but a small handful of us stayed close, wanting to see every detail. Following the pathway through the esophagus, to the stomach, to the intestines and eventually to the tiny pinched anus (of which we all had to check out) was beyond fascinating. We opened each organ as Mr. Jakes described their function, we emptied the stomach of the half digested morning meal and I stuck my finger down the throat to feel the slimy cilia that Mr. Jakes had described. He encouraged our questions and spent the entire afternoon nurturing our curiosity.
As we began to clean up the experiment and the class began to wander around the room, Mr. Jakes took a quiet moment to point out that I was the only girl remaining at the table by the end of the experiment. He said that he had noticed my fascination with science and hoped that I might consider it as a career. I had never thought of it but was so happy that he had taken such interest in me and noticed something in myself that I didn’t even recognize. From that day on there was no question; I was scientist. Had he not taken the time to mention it, I’m not sure how long it would have taken me to figure it out and consider that I could pursue such a direction. Certainly, there was no role model in my life to demonstrate such an option, but Mr. Jakes confirmed that it was a possibility. Again, he was no Jaime Escalante, but he was better. Mr. Jakes was a cool, average guy who was really good at creating a safe, imaginative space for me to escape daily. And, he was tall.