Later this summer I’ll be traveling to my hometown in Ohio to attend my 40th high school reunion. As the event draws nearer I find myself reminiscing more and more frequently about people and events from those late 60’s days. One heading in my nostalgia-fest is ‘Memorable Teachers’, and the hands-down champion of the category has got to be Mr.Varner.
Mr. Varner, Joseph P.Varner, we learned from the yearbook, showed up in freshman English class instead of our usual teacher one Monday morning about a month into the school year. Our usual teacher had apparently been sidelined due to his or her giving birth or doing time or something-- I suppose he/she earns the mantle of “Least Memorable Teacher”. At any rate, since Mr.Varner had us for most of the school year I don’t brand him with the asterisk of “substitute”.
The man made an immediate impression before he said a word. He walked into the room with a quick shuffle, like a speed freak in leg irons. As he closed the door behind him he glanced over his shoulder at the class, a Christian-entering-the-lion’s-den expression on his face. And what a face-- cadaver white skin with all the sags and wrinkles of a seventy–five-year-old gentleman, drenched in flopsweat. Looking head-on, Mr.Varner’s head was remarkably thin, vaguely fishlike, but from a side view it appeared quite large, like he might be kin to the Potatoheads.
Certainly, a significant part of his initial visual impression was his wardrobe. Mr. Varner was wearing his main suit that first day. We came to know the suit well, spelled only occasionally, perhaps to be de-flopsweated, by another, a brown tweed affair that would’ve looked at home in an early Alec Guinness movie. The main suit was a grey pinstriped deal probably from the late 30’s, early 40’s: lapels stretching clear across his 98lb. weakling chest, pants with enormous cuffs that when he turned sideways were about a foot and a half wide (perhaps keeping in scale with his head). Usually there was some Rohrshach remnant of a recent meal splotched here or there. Picture a Diane Arbus production of Guys & Dolls and you’re getting there.
Mr. Varner had thirty-four white suburban 15-yr. old brains to mold for fifty minutes a day, five days a week, and he did not take that responsibility lightly. He decided to introduce us to “the finest novel ever written”, the Dickens classic Great Expectations. His m.o. consisted of having class members take turns reading aloud. We’d go up & down the rows, each person reading a page or so until Mr. Varner would call out “aah, next student please”. Frequently, his pronouncements started with a broad “aah” and disturbingly often were accompanied by an apparent gas attack, his chin penduluming tightly across his chest for a second or two. I say ‘apparent’ because it might also have been a Tourette’s thing.
Any magic that Charles Dickens may have invested in his prose was unceremoniously snuffed by our less-than-stentorian readings. Take Carl Meehan, for example, whose most distinguishing feature was his follicle-perfect Rockabilly hairdo which, had it been 1955, would have stood a chance of being cool, but being 1967, instead marked him as a guy who’d probably barely graduate to a life of greasemonkeyhood. Carl read at about a third grade level, so it was always a slog when he was up. To his credit, he never seemed to run out of interesting ways to butcher Miss Havisham’s name, and he never tired of finding ways to bring Mr. Varner to full hyperventilation. He might, for example, react in mock horror to a picture of a spider he’d surreptitiously placed on the floor, then sit back and watch the show as a fired-up Mr. Varner flamenco’d the 2 dimensional arachnid into oblivion. Or, Carl might tumble into the aisle (as long as it didn’t muss his hair) faking an about-to-burst bladder causing Mr. Varner to come running over with the coveted hall pass to the boys room where a Marlboro moment was the carcinogenic reward.
Reading after Carl Meehan was likely to be Harold Lipscomb. Harold’s claim to fame was his ability to faithfully reproduce the agitty-agitty-agitty sound that Loony Toons characters would make when a hasty exit was called for.
“Hey Harold, do the Sound!”
“agitty-agitty-agitty” [hilarity ensues]
Unfortunately, Harold had the worst case of boyvoice-to-manvoice cracking I’ve ever heard, like he was being run through a yodelizer. Any Dickensian gravitas that survived Carl Meehan was soon smothered by Harold’s yelping.
Mr. Varner added his own inadvertent speedbumps, too. Frequently, he’d interject some comment about Pip (who had about nine P’s in his name the way Mr. V pronounced it) which for some inexplicable reason always involved someone named Don Joo-en. It took almost a week for it to dawn on me that he was talking about Don Juan, but I can’t say that I ever did grasp any link between Don Juan and Pip on any point he was trying to make.
Mr. Varner was such a cartoon that most of the guys in his classes had send-ups of him. There were “Varn-offs” in the cafeteria during lunch hour where guys could show off their best leg-iron shuffle, their best gas attack, their best don joo-en reference. The widely acknowledged king of the faux Varners was Tim Brahney. With no formal training, Tim was able to capture the hunted animal look in the eyes, the guppy-eating-fishflakes thing Varner did with his lips when he cracked a joke, the whiplash-inducing necksnap of a particularly violent gas attack, all of it. Given proximity to a drinking fountain, he’d even apply a liberal dose of “flopsweat” for added effect.
I pitied Mr. Varner. In the course of the school year we learned only a few facts about him: That his father was a preacher. That he lived alone in a single room at the downtown YMCA. That he’d taken a job helming a class of lilywhite 9th graders after a turbulent year at predominantly black South High where he was lucky to emerge still breathing. That he wouldn’t be asked to return next year…
I didn’t take part in the good-natured terrorizing (if that’s not an oxymoron) of Joseph P. Varner. Frankly, the novelty wore off pretty soon, and the easiness of the target contributed to a certain meanness. I also did not complain to parents or principal that my class time was being squandered by a buffoon. Hey, I was fifteen—I saw a few cheap laughs to start the day and an easy A at the end of the semester.
I’m sure old Mr. Varner is long gone, but certainly not forgotten, and if I see Tim Brahney at the reunion the first thing I’ll say is…”Dude, do Varner”!