My senior year was, put simply, awful. My mother was living five states away, my school had closed and we’d transferred to a new one (in which, somehow, every damn room had a specific smell, none of them good), and my undiagnosed mental illness was in full swing. I spent most of my time avoiding gym class, dying my hair different colors, and driving Kendra and Alex around to the three attractions within fifty miles of our town: McDonald’s, high school baseball games, and the beach.
A ray of light during this trying time was Mr. Sweet.
Mr. Sweet taught 12th grade government and economics. I haven’t changed his last name, because the irony of it is important to his character. His was the first class I went to at the new school.
He opened the class by telling us: “I am not a nurturer.”
I figured about ten minutes in that he’d be the easiest to fuck with.
First, there was the lecture on how to leave the classroom.
Step one was putting up your hand and asking. Then, if you were graced with permission, you went to the sign-out sheet, signed your name, where you were going, and when, and took either the bathroom or hall pass (and they were not interchangeable). This was for class. When you wanted to leave “Dee-ell-ell,” or “directed learning lab,” which was a fancy word for “study hall after lunch,” you had to go to Mr. Sweet’s desk, ask him for permission, then ask permission to use a pen from the cup on his desk, sign out, and take a hall pass. Failure to comply with any of these rules would result in severe consequences.
We digested this, and then a lesson on economics, none of which I remember. Mr. Sweet talked in a reedy voice that Kendra learned to imitate with frightening accuracy. He paced around the room, meaning you either had to crane around to see him or just not know where he was and hope for the best.
The very next, a friend of mine who I’ll call Ginger, because he was, didn’t have his homework. The very first homework assignment of the year. This was classic Ginger, but Mr. Sweet didn’t know that, and he was Displeased.
Mr. Sweet yelled at him to go out in the hall and do it. Ginger got up and loped toward the door.
“Gonna take a book?” asked Mr. Sweet, menacingly.
Ginger turned around, but before he could grab the beat-up, state-issue textbook, Mr. Sweet grabbed it, raised it on high, and slammed it into Ginger’s hands.
“WELCOME TO SWEET’S ROOM!” he shouted.
I began, in my head, to create a Mr. Sweet montage that began with “Welcome to Sweet’s room!” set “Eye of the Tiger.” I was given plenty of fodder for this montage as the year dragged on, mostly because I like to poke the buttons that Sweet had so helpfully pointed out.
I never showed up without homework. That was too simple. My preferred form of rebellion was to do really, really well and at the same time be an absolute little shit.
Examples of me being a little shit that not relevant to the story include the time I got kicked out of health class and took a sweeping bow on my way out and the time I made fun of the gym teacher’s grammar, and the time I told the health teacher “Wow, I never wanted to try drugs ‘til I learned about ‘em in your class.”
But back to Mr. Sweet.
When it came to following the elaborate “leaving the room” policy, I made a point of always using my own pen. For some reason, at 17, I thought digging around in my bag for five or so minutes so I didn’t have to ask permission to use one of the pens crammed in Sweet’s cup was a power move, and by god, that was what I did every time.
After a few minutes of scrambling, Mr. Sweet would offer me a pen. I would also shake my head and triumphantly procure mine, sign out with a flourish, and leave DLL without a backward glance for the sanctuary of the physics room.
During class time, Mr. Sweet lectured on politics with an extreme liberal bent. He wrote on the chalkboard with so much vigor he broke at least two pieces of chalk per day. He showered the front row (and most severely, me, as I was directly in front of his podium, which had a small divot in it from where he banged his hand repeatedly) in spit. When he got sick of us, he would put on Michael Moore movies and devote the class to watching the large activist drive an armored car down Wall Street and cover it with crime scene tape.
One time, he made the girl who sat next to me cry, and, looking utterly nonplussed, tried to console her by saying “Don’t…don’t get upset,” a few times.
This was in spring semester, and I figured if Not Upsetting Us was his goal, he should have made it clear a lot sooner.
The class was also a source of one-liners not to be matched. They included:
(When discussing the Amish, of which there is a large population in Western New York: “We’re through with your lack of education, and we’re through with your quilts!”
“Why. Do. I. Know. This?” (accompanied by banging his head on the wall, in reference to Snooki’s recent child.
“THE TMOBILE BANDITS GOT ANOTHER ONE!”
“I hate peeps. I saw a giant display of them in Walmart and was attracted, yet repelled.” (Kendra and Allison, for Easter, brought him two boxes of peeps with a bow on top).
“The economic gods were looking down on you today…”
Mr. Sweet often despaired of us, both as a class and as a generation. I rapidly became his favorite student.
Partially, this was because I had my eye on scholarships and knew that good grades would get me out of this godforsaken hellhole, never to return, and partially it was because there was something specific about my mouthiness he appreciated. This mouthiness, or, as it may be called, open insubordination and backtalk, was lost on others, such as the gym teacher, who I referred to as Chipmunk Face.
Once, I made him drop his head on the podium laughing when he asked “Where do Mormons get in trouble?” during a lesson in separation of church and state, by muttering “Somewhere around the third wife.”
One of my favorite interactions with him had to do with a pin I was wearing. My pin had a Mark Twain quote on it: “Go to heaven for the climate and hell for the company.”
“I like that pin,” he said, in his very specific voice.
“See ya there,” I said, as I headed back to my seat.
There was a time lag of maybe five full seconds, and then Mr. Sweet began guffawing.
“That was good,” he said. “I needed that today.”
I relayed this story to my AP English class. The teacher, a strong candidate for Most Difficult Person of All Time Thus Far, was scandalized.
“I’m surprised he didn’t write you up,” she said.
I shrugged. “It’s not like I’m scared of him,” I said.
“Eve,” the poisonous English teacher replied, “we all know you’re not afraid of anyone.”
This is not true. I am terrified of Bill Skaarsgaard because deep down, I really believe he is Pennywise. I also have a healthy respect (read as: awe and fear) for anyone who routinely wakes up before 10 am without an alarm. And motivational speakers tend to freak me out.
But she was right. I was not afraid of Mr. Sweet. Mr. Sweet had exactly two weapons: volume and sarcasm. After growing up in the Taft-Ulrich household, rather than intimidating me, those things set me at ease, being hallmarks of my childhood. I was well-versed in both and comfortable with either.
And at this point in the year, I had reached the end of my rope, tied a knot, and was clinging with the very tips of my fingers.
So no. I was not afraid of Mr. Sweet.
The last Mr. Sweet vignette I want to tell is the desk-flipping story. Rumors of “the lesson where Mr. Sweet throws a desk” abounded, but because seniors left shortly after it happened, actual info about it was scarce.
It happened like this, one week in spring: Mr. Sweet was (again) pretending that the row of desks was a street. He was explaining mortgages and he meandered between our desks. No one was paying much attention, when suddenly
“OH NO! FORECLOSURE!”
and a resounding crash (that woke up Madison who was sitting right in front of him), Mr. Sweet flipped an empty desk to the ground.
Shell-shocked, we all considered this. Mr. Sweet continued teaching the lesson.
Mr. Sweet insisted on having his final in the gym, during the state testing week, and because everyone in the building, including the principal, was terrified of him, he got his way.
I took the final, graduated, and moved to Minnesota. He signed my yearbook: “Eve-I have really enjoyed having you in class this year. You are a most unique individual. Best of luck in your future endeavors. Mr. Sweet.”
Mr. Sweet taught for one year after our class and then retired. I like to think we made him give up. Sometimes I wonder who he is yelling at these days. If I listen closely, when the wind is coming from the east, I can almost hear him.
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