This past week while cleaning my room I came across my 8th grade yearbook. Wow. I hadn't seen the thing in six years. Blowing off the dust, I skimmed through the old memories
One signature stood out, and led me to recall a fond memory from those early turbulent teenage years....
These are two (somewhat related) tales about the human spirit
THE WONDER YEARS
I love this show. The narrative voice relaying Kevin Arnold's thoughts was ace. One of my favorite episodes was entitled
A VERY CUTLIP CHRISTMAS
When you were a kid, it's simple. Christmas IS magic
It's a time of miracles. When reindeer can fly and Frosty never melts
Then you get older. Somehow... things change. The magic begins to fade
Until something happens that reminds you... at Christmas time, miracles still can be found... sometimes in the most unexpected places
Ed Cutlip. Better known as Coach Cutlip to his students at RFK. He was a robotic man who rarely showed any kind of emotion, and had a relentless whistle. It was December of 1970. He was Scrooge in a baseball cap
"In my grasp, I have a message from Richard Millhouse Nixon. Our chief executive has entrusted me, as a physical educator, to see that you men are AT or ABOVE the national average. Over the next several days, we will be doing chin-ups, pushups, situps, shuttle runs and more. You men will be ready for the President's All-American National Athletic Test"
After a grueling workout, the guys were talking in the locker room
"Man, if only we had some dirt to take down Cutlip!" Tommy said
"The man's a monster!" A sweaty Doug croaked
One thing's for sure, Coach Cutlip was certainly lacking the holiday cheer
Later that day my mom took me to the Brightland Mall. All around me were blatant cheapening Christmas merchandise. What happened? Then, I heard it
"HO HO HO!"
I looked over my shoulder and saw the mall Santa. There, a long line full of little kids awaited their turn patiently. In its own tacky way, it reminded me of what I had been missing
But as I was sitting there, a funny feeling overcame me. Why did the mall Santa seem so familiar? And then it hit me...
It was CUTLIP!
Likewise, he spotted me. He jumped up, embarrassed, and ran to his shack for cover. It was horrible. It was BEYOND horrible. The 1st time I had seen a teacher outside school, he was stuffed with a pillow
The next day at school I tried to block out the disturbing images. Luck be my lady, who bumped into me in the hallway?
"Ah, mornin' Arnold"
I looked up at him, trying to read his expression. Had he really seen me at the mall, and did I really see him? I decided to engage in some small talk with the man
"So, how are we?"
He wasn't even looking at me. His eyes were trained on a clipboard as he jotted down some notes casually
"Any, uh, adventures since I last saw you, Arnold?"
"Um, no, not really. Well, I did go shopping at the Brightland Mall..."
Cutlip shot up like a jack in the box. "Oh?"
"Never been there myself. I don't get out that far"
"See you in gym, Arnold"
And with that, he walked away. Wow, maybe I imagined the whole thing at the mall. Was this just one big miscalculation? Feeling full of holiday cheer, I shouted "Merry Christmas sir!"
Then he turned around. And right then, it hit me
There were moments in my life which I regretted. I knew this was one of those moments
That day in gym, I knew it was D-Day. I KNEW TOO MUCH. He was going to lash out on me, make me his whipping boy
In his firm manner, he called me out all right
I walked toward him with trepidation, with all my classmates watching. "Yes sir?"
"Why don't you keep time?" He handed me his stop watch, smiled and placed his hand on my shoulder like a father figure
And then I realized... KNOWLEDGE IS POWER!
But my friends -- that was another matter. While I had it made, they were sweating and bleeding. After class, they called me a turncoat, a teacher's pet, even worse -- "Cutlip in training"
I knew they were right. There was only one thing to do
"I have to tell you something, Mr. Cutlip"
"Please, call me Ed"
But before I could go on, he offered me a piece of paper
"It's my personal permission slip, you don't have to take the National Athletic test"
"That's the thing. I don't want to be your time keeper. I don't want to sit out. I --"
"Say no more," He interrupted sternly. He came close to my face. "I see how it is, Arnold. I played a little ball in my life, too. I'll see you in GYM"
He ripped the note into pieces. And that was that
Later that week, over lunch with the guys I was going off on Cutlip
"He's making my life a mess, just because I saw him working at the Brightland Mall!"
Doug perked up. "Cutlip works at the Brightland Mall?"
Before I could answer, a girl passed me a note
I sat there at his mercy. I had no idea what kind of torture I was in store for. I saw him reaching in his desk. He was going to pull out a knife, a bat, or possibly a gun
"Here. Have some fruitcake"
"20 percentage employee discount. You know, Arnold, to a man who's devoted his entire life to public education, the opportunity to buy whole sale is nothing to laugh about. HAHAHAHA"
"May I go now?"
"Wait, that's not the only reason I'm working at the mall. My mother -- Esther Cutlip. If it weren't for my help there's no telling what kind of catatonic state the woman might fall into"
"... That's nice, sir"
I wanted the bell to ring, an earthquake to start, anything....
"Tell me Kevin... have you ever been inside a Santa outfit?"
OH MY GOD, this was reaching critical mass
"It's hot, and it's SWEATY"
I couldn't hold it any longer. "STOP! I don't want your fruitcake, or hear about your mother, it's none of my business! I'm not gonna tell anyone you work at the mall so let's just drop it, OK?"
I had enough. I was sick of this game. I headed for the door. And then:
"Arnold.... kids like me when I'm Santa"
And right then, for the first time, I saw the man as a human being. Not a great human being, maybe not even a good human being, but a very lonely human being
"Don't worry, your secret's safe with me Mr. Cutlip"
Going home on the bus that day, I was feeling pretty good. Til I saw Doug, Tommy and Randy anyhow. I had already spilled the beans
"C'mon Kevin, where does he work? Orange Julius?"
"Forget it, I'm not gonna say"
"That's cool... we'll just go look for him. How hard can it be?"
Were these guys serious or what! I knew what I had to do...
"What are you doing here, Arnold? You're not going to sit on my lap are you?"
"Good, coz you know you're too old right?"
"Look, I'm sorry"
"I kinda slipped and told some guys you work at the mall. They're coming to look for you any minute now. I think you better just hide out in your shack until this whole thing blows over"
In the distance I saw the wolf pack marching our way
"No can do, Arnold"
"Let them come if they must. I AM WHO I AM"
With that, he stood up tall and proud. I'll always remember that look on his face
He was at once heroic...
... and stupid
"Move along, Arnold"
I made my way to the guys, helpless, outnumbered
And then, it happened
First, Doug stared directly into the eyes of the man who had taught him gym for three long years
Cutlip proudly stared back
Then Randy and Tommy looked long and hard
Those three skeptics gazed straight into the eyes of Coach Cutlip NOT thirty feet away
But all they saw.... was Santa Claus
"C'mon guys, let's keep looking," Doug ordered
With that, they left
It was a miracle. He stood there like some patron saint. And for that brief moment of Christmas magic, Ed Cutlip got to be all that he ever wanted
Cutlip was one of my all-time favorite characters. Many years later, that same actor guest-starred in Home Improvement, much older but still possessing the same kind of spirit
It was Spring of '97. I was in the 8th grade. Our english/language arts teacher Mr. Simon was replaced by Ms. Haas mid-year. Family matters forced Mr. Simon to move out of state. Everyone loved him. In retrospect, I guess Ms. Haas never stood a shot
She was the strict, serious type while Mr. Simon was more of a big brother -- goofy, fun and graded pretty easy. Ms. Haas on the other hand was a tough grader. She was in her early 30's but already had a balding spot which my classmates often poked fun at (behind her back, of course)
So, pretty much everyone hated her guts. I kinda liked her, though. Though she was a hard grader, she was fair. And I respected that. I respected HER
One day during SSR (Silent Sustained Reading, which we had for 20 minutes) there was a note being passed around. I noticed each one of my classmates writing something down on that piece of paper. I was the last one to receive it
It was a petition
IF YOU WANT MS. HAAS TO BE REMOVED, SIGN HERE
And there were 25 plus signatures. The kid sitting closest to me -- Andre -- noticed my hesitation to sign the petition
"C'mon man. Sign it already"
I looked over at Ms. Haas sitting in the corner, reading a book. Had she noticed this piece of paper going around that demanded her immediate removal? She had a stoic look on her face, so I couldn't tell, yet... she ALWAYS had a stoic look on her face... as though someone sucked the life out of her many many years ago
I looked back at the petition. I skimmed through the signatures. According to my count, everyone had signed it. EVERYONE
Andre nudged me on the shoulder. "Yo man, you gonna sign it or what?"
I clearly recall to this day asking myself this question: "Does Ms. Haas deserve to be fired?"
To me, the answer was no, so... I put the pen down
"Yo man, what are you doing?"
"I ain't signing it"
"What? Are you crazy? You actually like her?"
I glanced over to see if she had noticed this commotion. "She's cool"
"Man, you're crazy," He said, taking the petition away from me
The rest of SSR I didn't read. I kinda sat there with my eyes transfixed on the same paragraph, thinking about what just went down. I stood up for what I believed in. I wondered if Ms. Haas was aware at all. I couldn't tell from my vantage point, so I crumpled up a piece of paper as an excuse to get near her desk
As I drew closer, I saw a sad look of expression on her face. Were those tears I saw?
After class (it was my last class of the day) my mom drove me home. I convinced her to drive me right back. I just had to pick up my boom box. At the time, Puff Daddy's "I'll Be Missing You" was a huge sensation, and I loved that song dearly
Armed with that boom box, I entered Ms. Haas' 8th grade english class circa 3:25 PM. Her face was red... she had been crying
"Oh, hey Steve, what are you doing here?"
I figured then and there I must have looked pretty mad, carrying a boom box in there and all
"I just wanted you to listen to this cool new song. I dunno, I thought you'd like it"
Plugging the cord into the socket, I pondered about whether this was a wise thing or not. Alas, there was no turning back -- I had gone too far
Seems like yesterday we used to rock the show I laced the track, you locked the flow So far from hangin' on the block for dough Notorious they got to know that Life ain't always what it seem to be Words can't express what you mean to me Even though you're gone we still a team Thru your family I'll fulfill your dreams In the future can't wait to see if you'll Open up the gates for me Reminisce sometime the night they took my friend Try to black it out, but it plays again When it's real feelings hard to conceal Can't imagine all the pain I feel Give anything to hear half your breath I know you still livin' your life after death
Ms. Haas had a funny expression on her face. The lyrics kept on rolling
Every step I take Every move I make Every single day Every time I pray I'll be missing you
After the song finished, her state of mind completely changed
"Oh my God"
"You liked it?"
"I do... but it's not that. It's just... this song was originally The Police's"
I didn't get it. "The police owns this song?" I imagined donut-eating cops
"The Police was a band, led by a guy named Sting. In 1983, they had a hit called EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE... the background is exactly the same!"
She went on to tell me about how The Police came to town, how she and her friend had bought tickets for, but during that week she found herself grounded. With the help of her friend, a rope and a window, she snuck out! It hit me right then that she too was once vibrant, and full of night, and life
Right before my very eyes, Ms. Haas became 18 again
"I know it's hard to believe, but trust me, in MY day I was quite the rascal"
And for that brief moment, I saw a side of her nobody else in the 8th grade did
By year's end, she told the class she was leaving. Of course, so were we. We had high school to move on to. But I remember looking at her that day, knowing what we had been through. She looked back. There wasn't a wink or gesture exchanged, but I knew we both told each other, silently..."Thank you"
And that brings me back to last week when I was cleaning my room. There on the backpage of my 8th grade yearbook:
I hope wherever Ms. Haas is these days, that she's in good health and spirits. Hopefully, she no longer has that bald spot as well