In the eleventh grade I moved to a new town; I didn’t know anyone, but I started at a new high school, and I was still fit enough to cycle around the neighborhood. I decided to cycle in the direction I’d seen a cute girl in my class walk home, as a way of choosing a direction more than in the hopes of running into her. (In the eleventh grade, I wouldn’t have known what to say to her anyway.)
[I should note here that my definition of cute girl is idiosyncratic. Rachele Akerman was not every guy’s idea of cute. I liked her because she was smart, a little sarcastic, sincere, and had the guts to have short dark hair instead of growing it long like all the other girls. Not that I wasn’t flattered when her friend Christine, who had long curly hair, showed me directly that she had a crush on me during the band trip, a few months later… that was very flattering, and I have no idea why I never followed through on that…
… I seem to have lost the thread of my story… ah, there it is:]
So on this fine afternoon, I cycled through the Eastern suburbs of Saskatoon, and who did I come upon, mowing his lawn? Why, my Algebra teacher, Mr. Rambally. The man had a PhD in mathematics, had lived in Trinidad and come to Canada long before, was very smart, and had a family of his own.
And what I did I see when I looked at him? A ridiculous man who mowed his lawn in a dress shirt and dress pants. A man whose vehicle’s name (he drove a Ford Rambler) opened up all kinds of avenues for ridicule. He wasn’t the first Indian I’d ever met, but he was the first I’d ever seen repeatedly. I wish I could say that didn’t mean much to me, but hearing my parents’ stories of the Indian shopkeepers in Africa (comparable to the stories people in Europe told about Jewish shopkeepers, maybe seventy years ago), I am sure some of that discomfort resonated, unfairly, through my consciousness.
And yet, by the end of the term, though I’d learned very little algebra, I have to admit I respected Mr. Rambally. I didn’t understand him when he spoke, sometimes; he often taught too quickly for me, and I am not gifted in math to begin with; I didn’t think that it was cool to mow your lawn in formal wear; but I did think the man knew what he was talking about, and that he generally was very interested in getting his students to learn about the subject at hand. I was weirded out by his hair and whatever kind of cream he put into it to achieve that 1950s style that he had down pat every day. But the man knew what the hell he was talking about. He knew his math.
I wonder what old Mr. Rambally is doing these days. And Rachele Ackerman and Christine Helfrich, for that matter. It’s strange to imagine a time when one would live in the same city with people one had known ten years before. Will I ever have that experience? I suppose I shall, some day. I wonder what it will be like, whether it will be as alien to have sustained neighborliness as it is to have changes in scenery every year or two.
I hope when I’m Rambally’s age, kids will look at me with the respect I learned to have for him… regardless of how weird I dress, how odd my hairstyle is… I hope that when I am old and ridiculous, I am also unquestionably competent.