Mr. Hamilton had a circa-1970 shit-brown colored shirt with a mustard-yellow reindeer pattern on it. They were tiny abstract reindeer, so we spent whole class periods trying to decipher if, in fact, they were reindeer at all. They could have been dogs, gazelles. I remember them as reindeer. The garment was one among the handful of outdated collared shirts in his weekly wardrobe rotation.
He began every sentence with the word “now.” Now, what we gonna do is… On the first day of tenth grade civics/free enterprise, he handed out a syllabus. A stack of ditto copies (I think we still called them that) – Now, take one, pass it back, traveled up and down our desk rows.
Picture fluorescent lights. Picture unruly kids. Sixteen. Middle class. Mostly white. Mostly suburban. Jansport backpacks collapsed at our feet. I remember never having had enough sleep, always feeling exhausted and bored. Listen - the sound of papers shuffling through our tired hands, passed indifferently like playing hot potato with a cold potato.
Picture Mr. Hamilton, hair just short of an Afro. Head-to-toe brown polyester, a too-wide mismatched tie. Big white grin. Smiling eyes. Halo of cologne. Throw in one gold tooth for good measure – maybe that’s a fabrication, but only maybe.
It was important to the man to look sharp. Presentable. You could just imagine him leaving the house each morning, kissing his wife’s cheek on the way out the door, and then: Baby, I look good, don’t I? A wink in her direction.
His accent was distinctly black-Baton Rouge. If you asked him, Where are you from? He would have answered, Baton Ru-jga. I don’t know the best way to spell that out. It rhymes with something in-between Peugeot and ‘Could-ja,’ as in, ‘Could-ja do me a favor?’ Radio announcers on AM blues stations take it to the next level: “Listen up, Ba-Rou! We playin’ all the good tunes ta-day.”
Once, he told a story about, When you see them ole people goin ta play that bango on Satta-day-
Play what? I asked.
Bango? Stifled giggles emerged around me.
Bango? Mr. Hamilton looked at me like he didn’t know what foreign country I’d just stepped off the boat from.
BINGO. A classmate piped up.
Yeah. Bango! Whatchu think I was sayin’? And the lesson continued.
Mr. Hamilton called us “young people.” Now, Young people. And he wrote exactly as he spoke. After the syllabus went around that first day, he had us read it aloud.
Alright, you, what’s yo’ name?
Okay, Capri. Take the first paragraph, and the person behind you take the next one.
I announced: Now, young people, this is your civics and free enterprise class. This is not a joke.
The person behind me took paragraph two. It began, Now, young people.
Hearing him commence every single lesson, thick with anecdotes, Now, young people; the absurdity of having a teacher write exactly as he spoke; the irony of our young-selves accurately addressing one another as “young people” – the humor did not escape us. But Mr Hamilton took himself seriously, this sit-com character teacher of ours.
I met my friend cm in that class, and we tried our best not to lock eyes when he spoke. We tried, along with everyone, to hold back our laughter as each of us recited from one of his hundreds of handouts: Now young people, listen here. This week we gonna learn to make a budget.
He interrupted the reader: You all think you wearin’ your clothes fa’ free? You think yo’ parents just pick those off a money tree? You think I got these fine clothes here without plannin’?
Looking back, I wish we’d done call and response. Here is a revision:
You all think you wearin’ your clothes fa’ free? NO SIR.
You think yo’ parents just pick those off a money tree? NO SIR.
You think I got these fine clothes here without plannin’? UH-UHNn.
The gospel according to Mr. Hamilton.
Later, still making his point about the importance of a budget, he asked: Tell me somethin’. What is the mark of a su-sessful man?
C’mon. You see a fine-lookin’ man ridin’ round in his Cadallac on Sunday afta-noon. What you think? You think, ‘There go a suc-sessful man.’
Mr. Hamilton, don’t you drive a Cadallac?
His eyes lit up. He straightened his back. Matter-a-fact, I do.
And we all busted out, no longer able to contain our laughter.
It wasn’t his intent to entertain, but we were entertained none-the-less. Maybe on some level he knew what he was doing. Maybe he knew he was semi-ridiculous. That if he walked in like he’d stepped off the set of Welcome Back, Cotter, we’d perk up. Maybe I’m grasping. I’ve thought forever that I never learned a thing in Mr. Hamilton's class. Seventeen years later, I like to think I must have picked up some lesson, if not about civics and free enterprise, about life. But civics and free enterprise is life for us Americans, isn’t it?
I’ll let you know when I figure out what I learned. I have faith there is something.