My favorite TV show growing up was The Wonder Years. One of my favorite episodes from that show was “A Very Cutlip Christmas.” As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve 2016. I’m reminded of this excellent episode which I’m replicating below.
Following the episode recap, I’ll share a story of my former 8th grade language arts teacher, Ms. Haas. In a lot of ways, Ms. Haas and Coach Cutlip reminded me of each other. These are stories about peer pressure, standing up for what you believe in, and the indomitable human spirit.
I hope you enjoy.
A VERY CUTLIP CHRISTMAS
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 worked 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.
A sweaty Doug croaked, “The man’s a monster!”
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 I saw blatant cheap Christmas consumerism. 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 first 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, morning 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 typical firm manner, Coach Cutlip called me out during gym class.
I cautiously walked toward him, 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 suffering. 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, I was going off on Cutlip during lunch time with the guys.
“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 say anything, 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.
“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, the fire alarm, an earthquake, anything…
“Tell me Kevin… have you ever been inside a Santa outfit?”
This was reaching critical mass!
“It’s hot, and it’s SWEATY.”
I couldn’t take 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…
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. Until 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, because 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.”
“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…
“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.
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.
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.
STANDING UP FOR MS. HAAS
It was Spring of ’97. I was in the 8th grade. Our 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 mid 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. A petition to fire Ms. Haas.
IF YOU WANT MS. HAAS REMOVED, SIGN HERE
There were 25 plus signatures. The kid sitting closest to me — Andre — noticed my hesitation to sign.
“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 grimaced, snatching the petition away from me.
The rest of SSR I didn’t read. I kind of 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 that 97% of her students wanted her fired. 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 approached the wastebasket, I caught a glimpse of her face peeking right below her book. And what I saw that day I would never forget. Her eyes were red and watery. Ms. Haas was crying. She looked up to see me approaching and quickly wiped her eyes. I immediately looked away and hustled back to my seat, my crumpled paper still in hand.
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 had the crazy notion that maybe, just maybe, it might cheer up Ms. Haas.
The campus was eerily quiet as I made a beeline toward Ms. Haas’ classroom around 3:30. As I entered, I saw her sitting at her desk in the corner. Her eyes were still red, and crumpled tissue paper could be seen strewn about her desk.
“Oh, hey Steve, what are you doing here?” she stammered. Ms. Haas was completely caught off guard.
And suddenly, so was I.
For a second there I didn’t know what to say! What was I doing back here? I figured then and there that I must have been a sight for sore eyes, boombox and all!
“I just wanted you to listen to this cool new song. I don’t know… I thought maybe you might like hearing it.” Wow, that came out smooth, Steve. Way to go.
By the way, looking back, I had no idea about the 1989 film Say Anything or the scene where John Cusack holds the boombox over his head to woo his crush. I guess from Ms. Haas’ perspective, she might have had an awkward flashback there… totally not my intent!
Ms. Haas gave me what could only be described as a perplexed half smile, completely unsure what to make of the situation. Plugging the cord into the socket, I pondered briefly about whether this whole thing was wise or not. Alas, there was simply no turning back now. I hit PLAY and stepped back, waiting for the track to begin. Needless to say, those 2-3 seconds felt like an eternity. I stared at the boombox on the ground, too shy to look up at Ms. Haas. She was probably doing the same. I’ll never know for sure, as I kept my eyes on that boombox for all dear life. At last the lyrics began filling Ms. Haas’ 8th grade classroom, wall to wall.
- 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
At some point during the song I managed to muster the courage to look up and see Ms. Haas’ expression. She had a funny look on her face as the song continued on. The lyrics reverberated throughout the classroom.
- Every step I take
Every move I make
Every single day
Every time I pray
I’ll be missing you
By the time the song ended, you would never guess that Ms. Haas had been crying earlier that day at all.
“Oh my God,” she started. “This song… it was originally the Police’s…”
I didn’t get it. “The police owns this song?” I imagined donut-eating cops.
Ms. Haas chuckled.
“Steve, I’m going to date myself here but the Police was a band a good number of years ago led by a guy named Sting. In 1983 they had a smash hit called EVERY BREATH YOU TAKE. The background music from that song, well, it’s exactly the same background as this new song!”
Ms. Haas went on tell me a story about how she grew up a HUGE fan of the Police. One time they came to her town and she and her best friend got tickets to the show. But a day before Ms. Haas got herself grounded. However, with the help of her best friend, a trusty rope and a two-story window, she managed to sneak out and make the show. It hit me right then and there that Ms. Haas was once vibrant, and full of life.
Ms. Haas was human, too. Very human, in fact. More than we knew.
And right before my very eyes, Ms. Haas became full of life again. Her eyes sparkled as she regaled me with the greatest tale from her youth. And for those few couple minutes, I saw a side of Ms. Haas that no other 8th grader had ever seen before. Ms. Haas was not only smiling, the woman was practically beaming.
“I know it’s hard to believe, Steve, but trust me, in MY day I was quite the little rascal.”
We both shared a good chuckle. I left school that day with a completely brand new perspective of my 8th grade language arts teacher. Ms. Haas was more than Mr. Simon’s fill-in replacement. Ms. Haas was more than a strict educator in her mid 30’s, victimized by a premature balding spot. Ms. Haas was a woman who had seen the ups and downs of life. And for that, I respected her all the more.
The following week, Ms. Haas announced to the class that she was leaving. In a weird way, the 8th grade students got their wish after all, but I knew that Ms. Haas went out swinging on her own. It was her call, and hers alone. At least, that’s the way I like to think of it, and I’m sticking to my story, no pun intended. Of course, we were all leaving as well. We had four years of high school to look forward to. Everyone was moving on to the next chapter in their lives. It only seemed fitting. I remember looking at Ms. Haas that day as she made her announcement. She looked right back at me. There was no cliché Hollywood wink or gesture exchanged, but I know in my heart of hearts that Ms. Haas was finally at peace. And I know that we both said to each other, in our own unique and silent way, “Thank you. Thank you for everything.”
I still think about Ms. Haas from time to time and that fateful day I re-entered her classroom armed with a boombox and Puff Daddy’s “I’ll Be Missing You.” Sometimes I wonder where Ms. Haas is today. I like to think she’s off somewhere, in her own little corner of the world, at peace. Perhaps she and her best friend are living next door, with their Sting posters proudly draped over their bedroom walls. Perhaps Ms. Haas is married now with a family to call her very own. Wherever she may be, I just hope she’s happy.
Teachers come and go. But a select few you never forget. Life lessons can come in a wide variety of forms. Ms. Haas taught me indirectly the importance of standing up for what you believe in. Even when everyone else is going in the other direction. The popular choice isn’t always the right choice.
Thank you, Ms. Haas.