NOTES FROM ADULT ED (Vancouver, 1980)

At any one time, I have eight to twelve students in my community college upgrading class. Some are real characters, so I take notes for that glorious day when I become a writer. Here’s a student I’ll never forget.

At 19, Richard fancies himself a punk-rocker. Handsome but stocky, he’s forever leaving class early to set up for a gig with his small, wannabe band. Or so he says. He attends punk concerts regularly and extols the virtues of The Boomtown Rats and Debbie and the Dishrags. I find this endearing.

“First time in Canada!” he exclaims about The Rats, triumphantly displaying his ticket to Vancouver’s Commodore Ballroom. Other students look up from their work, mildly interested. They’d rather finish their work. Richard is mostly a fly buzzing around them.

It’s abundantly clear that Richard likes to talk. His face lights up when he does, darting sidelong glances at the others. Catching someone’s eye, he breaks into a delighted grin or chuckle, pleased by his own wit. Joking is the way he connects.

One day, he catches me beaming quietly over something he’s said.

“You think that’s funny, eh?” he says amiably, “I tell my grandmother stuff like that and she says I’m crazy!”

I can see why she might think so. Richard is intense and uninhibited, with perpetual high spirits and quirky behaviours. For example, he walks across the classroom stiff as a robot just to get a laugh. Sometimes he makes bunny ears behind my head while I’m helping another student and he’s awaiting his turn. His openness makes him eminently likeable. When he shaves his head, he’s baffled by people’s shocked reactions. Or he puzzles over decimals in class, punctuating his efforts with small, soulful cries that measure his distress, “Oh, wow!” he intones. Or “Holy crap!”

One Tuesday, he’s in the hallway, entertaining classmates at coffee time. Several hold paper coffee cups as they lean against walls or sit on the floor. Walking by, I can’t help but overhear.

“My friend’s got this really neat fish, a Kuney Loach,” Richard says.

“Whaaat?” The others stare at the strange words. Is Richard making it up? I wonder too, so I check later and find “Kuhlii Loach”. That he’s got it wrong doesn’t surprise me. The name is so odd that few could ever get it right.

“It’s true!” he continues.”He’s got two other fish also. Their names are Boogie Boy and Yob Gibbob.”

“WHAAT??” Another chorus of disbelief.

“Yeah. That’s what he calls them. Boogie Boy and Yob Gibbob.”

Everybody laughs and tries to say the second name. It later transpires that “Yob Gibbob” is meant to be Boogie Boy backwards, but something is lost in the translation. Nobody cares. Richard’s version is funnier.

In class, later on, Richard tells us all about a friend who stayed under a sun lamp too long and “fried her face.”

“She couldn’t use it any more,” he says earnestly. I explode laughing. Then, seeing Richard’s blank look, I reign it in, realizing he means “couldn’t use the sun lamp any more”, not “couldn’t use her face”. A good teaching moment for pronoun reference, had I thought of it.

One Friday, Richard strides into class after coffee break, totally outraged.

“Some broad just asked me if I’m gay!” he fulminates. I’m immediately on guard. Will this become a homophobic rant? I also note the word “broad” but let it go in light of the greater threat.

A scrappy gay student immediately challenges, chin jutting. “What did you tell her?”

“What d’ya think?” Richard’s tone is sardonic, a tad dismissive. He’d rather tell the backstory. Apparently the woman in question was a complete stranger to Richard, so her nosiness annoyed him. My guess is that she’d taken one look at his pig-shaved head, his studded vest, his military boots, his single earring, and had assumed he must be gay.

Richard can’t let it go. “What a weird woman! Jeez!” Despite myself, I’m impressed. There’s no homophobic rant; he’s not anti-gay, merely sharing an invasion of privacy. Fair enough, I figure. The militant gay student also backs off. This MYOB attitude is one of the great joys in teaching adults. Most have tough lives, so they know how to negotiate touchy situations.

There are other “Richard stories”, but they all come down to one thing: Richard is irresistible. He’s a delightful mix of teenaged sophistication and childish innocence. He is never unkind, and pettiness from others simply rolls off his back. Sociable and good-natured, his sunny smile breaks through no matter what. He may be a little crazy, alright, but it’s a kind of crazy this world can use.