When I was in junior high school, I had an art teacher named Mr. Loften. I was thinking about him yesterday and marveling at just how cool this guy was.
What got me reminiscing was a writing exercise. I'm taking a class at Gotham Writer's Workshop, and yesterday our instructor asked us to "remember a place from your childhood that was special to you, and write a description of it."
My fellow students opened their notebooks and immediately began scribbling, but it took me a while to get started. A special place from childhood? We moved so frequently when I was a kid, all over the country. I learned early on not to get too attached to things, not to let places be "special", when you'd only have to leave them again. My attachment was to my books, and to the stories I created in my head. Those were my special places -- portable places.
Still, I wanted to challenge myself to meet the exercise. I groped backwards in my mind from one address to another, my memory flitting like a porous stone skimmed across the surface of a pond, barely touching down before bounding away again.
And then I remembered Mr. Loften's closet.
You know, sometimes I think back to gutsy things I did and I can't believe that was me with all that nerve. Like when I went to high school in Long Island, and I used to play hooky by renting a limousine to take me into Manhattan for the day. I earned the money working at Ponderosa Steakhouse. I did it over and over again. I never got caught. I'd have the driver wait for me while I disappeared into museums and Bloomingdale's. And as an adult, I tried finally to confess all to my mother. She didn't believe me.
I was fifteen years old. I was pulling off a Ferris Bueller before there was a Ferris Bueller.
Where did I get the nerve? Because I'll tell you something -- I was no Ferris Bueller.
And maybe more importantly -- how can I channel that nerve today? Every day?
But back to that typical junior high school in Tennessee, where I was no more self-confident or popular than I would later be in high school. However, I did cultivate a small circle of friends in junior high. My family stayed longer in Tennessee than in any other state -- twice as long. I was lulled me into a sense of relaxation and belonging, and I dared to become attached to people, and to the place.
My special place within that place was Mr. Loften's art room closet.
Mr. Loften was a tall man whose hair was disappearing from the top of his head, but continued to grow thick and black at the sides. Thinking back, he reminds me of a famous portrait of Edgar Alan Poe I've seen dozens of times since. He wore a long white lab coat for a smock, usually open at the front and largely defeating its purpose. He wore thick, gnarly fishermen's sweaters underneath.
I can't believe a shy kid like me had the guts to ask a grown man, and a teacher, no less:
"Can we hang out inside your closet at lunchtime?"
Who was "we"?
- my best buddy Simone Shanker, a strangely macabre child with long black hair, alabaster skin, a high rounded forehead, and what my little brother referred to as "upside-down eyes". "Noooo, they're Bette Davis eyes," my mother would kindly correct him. Simone looked just like Carolyn Jones in The Addams Family TV series, and the popular girls would snap their fingers when she walked by and sing "duh-duh-duh-duh (snap, snap), duh-duh-duh-DUH! (Snap, snap.)"
- Amelia Johnson, a tiny, lovely buttercup of a biracial girl who'd been cast out of top society for being difficult to define and wearing clothes from K-mart. She spoke softly, her skin was a soft shade of mocha, and her baby-fine afro framed her head like the softest halo.
- Dani Moore, a tough little trailer park Peppermint Patty with freckles galore, a crusty nose and a favorite pair of boy's overalls.
At lunchtime, there weren't too many places you were permitted to be, and I'm quite sure that was done of purpose. You were either in the cafeteria, in the adjacent teacher-monitored restrooms, or milling around in the small fenced pen of dead grass outside.
I guess none of those options appealed to my 12-year-old cosmopolitan sensibilities.
"Please?" I begged Mr. Loften. "We won't hurt anything. I promise. You know us. We're the good kids. Instead of going to the cafeteria at lunchtime, we'll just come here. To your closet."
"My closet?" repeated Loften. Not so much in disbelief -- more like seeking clarification.
Mr. Loften had a huge classroom, a long, open studio with rows of 1950s wooden work tables whose plain, battered legs bellowed in protest when pushed across the glossy speckled floor. One long wall was lined with a countertop with multiple sinks and cabinets above and below. Student artwork was displayed everywhere. A "diver down" flag hung high above the chalkboard. On one end of the room there was a single entrance from the hallway. On the opposite end, a storage closet.
And here's how I described that closet for yesterday's writing class exercise:
It was a tall box, a small footprint with a soaring height. An unstained scaffold of shelving lined two cinderblock walls, crowded with jumbo plastic jars of paint, sweet and sour; stacks of colored construction paper, flannel-like against the palm; spattered coffee cans rattling with brushes of every width. There was a window in the closet, licking yellow sunlight down the center of the space. It was warm and close in spring, and cool and close in winter. Its door was heavy and trustworthy -- the room kept our secrets. Ever utterance tucked itself between pads of newsprint, every dream or confession or pop song sung off-key found its place to curl up between tins of turpentine and hand soap. Little slipped under the slender gap between the floor and the door. Only a prim lip of fluorescent light from the outside in.
We must've walked into the closet during art class one day, stayed a while, and decided we liked it. That's all I can figure. And I don't remember, but I can imagine being the ringleader who said, "Hey you guys! Wouldn't this make a great clubhouse?"
And it became one. Because Loften took a moment to consider my request, rapidly stroking his giant palm with a sudsy paintbrush, painting his hand grayish-purple with its excess, and said:
He said yes to our plan.
He said yes.
That's right, all you Lacoste-wearing zombies with your bland country club agendas and upturned noses! You melamine-tray-carrying hillbilly bully suckers with your faces turned lamely towards the light of an open door to a grassless nowhere! We've got a place of our own now, and it's hipper than a Lower East Side junior studio -- and twice. as. big.
Loften said yes. He said yes to three pre-teen girls disappearing behind a smooth blond door with gap-toothed grins and cans of Hi-C. He said yes to muffled giggles and guffaws, and AM radio sing-alongs.
One day during a particularly lustful rendition of the theme from The Greatest American Hero, the door swung open and a thirty-foot-tall eighth grader stood peering down on us.
"Mr. Loften!" she shouted. "There are seventh graders in your closet!"
Beyond her, an eighth grade art class was in full, messy swing. We'd always known they were out there -- we just never cared.
"I heard them!" she said. Other eighth graders began to look lazily over their shoulders. "I heard singing in here. There are kids singing in your closet, Mr. Loften!"
Another big kid, then an even bigger kid fell in behind her and squinted into the closet.
A girl with an intimidating head of white-blond, shampoo-commercial hair demanded of us, in a voice thick with the disgust of a well-tanned housewife encountering a stink bug in her kitchen, "Why are you guys singing, in a closet?"
Mr. Loften and his billowy white smock hustled up behind the growing crowd of glinting orthodontic sneers and stretched out his arms as though conducting an orchestra, or gathering wayward chickens. "Back to work everybody, back to work. Come on."
"But Mr. Loften, these seventh graders are..."
"I know, I know," he said quickly, herding the polo shirts back to their places. "Never mind them. This is class time and you all have a project due."
He leaned into the door and shut us back in again.
How cool was Mr. Loften?
Yeah, we sang sometimes. But never that loudly again.
Mostly, we talked about the lives we wanted to live when we were grown-up. Writer's lives, in New York City. Well, that was Simone and me, anyway -- Dani lived for the day and any opportunity to go barefoot, and Amelia had some lavender crepe-de-chine, Disney-princess vision of getting married someday, and nothing more beyond that. I did not relate.
And Simone made up scary stories that held our unblinking attention. And sometimes we acted out spontaneous skits based on the Tom Hanks and Peter Scolari sitcom Bosom Buddies. We cast ourselves as Kip and Henry's neighbors. The closet was our hip New York apartment. Sometimes we argued over who would date Kip and who would date Henry. I was predictable. I always wanted Henry.
That closet was a special place, and Mr. Loften was a special guy. He took a chance. He let us be. He gave our creativity room. I wonder if he ever snuck over and leaned in close to eavesdrop. I wonder if he ever chuckled at what he heard. I'll bet he smiled at least. Smiled before spinning back around and announcing, "Just fifteen more minutes of magic, people! Fifteen minutes of magic!"
Kim Brittingham is the author of a memoir, Read My Hips (Random House, May 2011)