Mr. Battaglia (and Others)
This is about being trapped in time—yet again. And it’s about regret, which tends to follow a statement like that. There are moments when they both pretty much slay you.
But before I go there, I thought I’d start here at the kitchen table, where more evenings than not, the seventeen-year-old, in the fall semester of her senior year of high school, bursts in from her busy day (school, dance, friends, friend dramas), drops her bags on the floor and herself into a chair, and talks, vibrates almost, with updates about which one of her three English teachers (two present, one past) had something notable—or surprising, or personal—to say, either in class, or in the hall, or by the drinking fountain. About why Old English matters. About the ordinary moments stitched into the scene depicting Levin’s brother Nikolai’s death, and how they make it feel so real. About whether Beloved is an actual ghost. About our pal, the young Danish prince: is he, or isn’t he, out of his mind…
As she reports in, I exult, because I’m so happy that she’s so lucky to be reading books (and plays, and poetry) like these in the company of teachers like these; people who awaken her, stimulate her, challenge her to think critically, write more originally, avoid cant and cliché, and who generally stretch her in ways she half sees and half cannot yet.
Questions along the lines of “Do you know how blessed you are?” have about as much weight as a dust mote. “Really, you should write down everything you’re feeling right now” receives a clipped “why?”
“So that you’ll remember.”
“But how could I ever forget?”
I’ll tell you how: because the years will accumulate, and these teachers will be supplanted by other teachers, then friends, colleagues, bosses, partners, maybe (not too much pressure) children; life, and a good deal of it, will come at you full force and will eventually obscure this moment that you are living so vividly. And yet there is a special feeling that adheres to the people who first helped wake you up, who, in the phrase of my French teacher Mme. Pusey, contribute that essential prise de conscience. When I met Mme. Pusey, I couldn’t fathom what was meant by that phrase in English, let alone French, but that was what was happening to me at the beginning of high school, just as it has happened a lifetime later to the seventeen year-old. We were becoming conscious, waking up: to subtext, innuendo, and the implicit; to metaphor, simile, allegory, allusion, symbolism, foreshadowing, psychology.
Naturally I was no different then. I didn’t know how good—how great—I had it in that place and in that time: Fairfax High School, Los Angeles, in the late 1970s, staffed with a group of teachers, many gifted; differently gifted. There was philosophical Mme. Pusey for French and sober Mr. Safier for the big persisting themes in US history (he also told us it was critical to include our tongues when we were brushing our teeth). In art, which I took at every opportunity, spirited Mrs. Little was a disciple of “Bucky” Fuller (“There’s nothing in a caterpillar that tells you it’s going to be a butterfly”), and Mr. Nastasia was a working artist whose exhibitions I visited without truly understanding what they were about. In class one day, when I tried to imitate Japanese minimalism in a drawing of a California poppy, he took one look at the result and said witheringly: “You’re faking it; you haven’t observed closely. You must observe closely first. You realize that, right?” It’s safe to say that I have never drawn—or written—since without hearing those words, without pausing to look first; really look.
The English department was anchored by two commanding figures who were stylistically very different: George (Schoenman) and Mr. (Richard) Battaglia. George (tenth-grade English), as maybe you can infer from the way I’ve introduced him, asked that we call him by his first name, although he was (seemed to be, who knows for sure) the older of the two. He bent or broke, but also set, rules: his groupies—and they were that—had lunch with him in his classroom, where over apples and cheese he discussed his beloved existentialism, chiefly as represented by Albert Camus; his choice of the lodestar of American clarity, cadence, and rhythm, meaning Hemingway of course; and his favorite novel, Of Human Bondage, of whose central character, the club-footed Philip Carey, he used to say, “Keep in mind, everyone has a club foot, including me.” Significant pause, then: “And no, I will not tell you what mine is.”
George had some indelible writing rules: nothing says less than the word “thing”; “to be” can often be substituted for a more revealing, precise verb; semicolons can work magic in a certain sort of sentence. But his greatest contribution to our developing compositional brains was his rigorous, unvarying lessons in expository writing: one thesis paragraph, three to support the big idea, and a conclusion. He took a military approach to the subject. If you didn’t do it his way, which was the way, you dropped to the ground, so to speak, for several sets of expiatory pushups. Which means you paid attention to the often acidic comments he injected into the margins of your essay and wrote another draft and another one after that until you got it right. All these years later, I still both follow and (at my peril) defy this dogmatic approach to making an essay sing; but it is deeply, intransigently there, hardwired into the gray matter.
Mr. Battaglia (eleventh and twelfth grade) belonged to a different species entirely. George was unabashedly bald and favored what we would now describe as dad jeans; Mr. Battaglia, with his long hair and Burt Reynolds mustache, his aviator glasses, low-riding bell bottoms, and colorful shirt open to a V-shaped thatch, had a panther-like way of moving around the classroom. He played equally to us and to the blonde, dreamy-eyed waif of a student teacher who sat stage left and drank in his every word as if it were ambrosia, even as she had competition from most of the girls and some of the boys in the room.
Mr. Battaglia was less rigid on the writing front than George—but then he was the recipient, each fall, of these newly indoctrinated, primed, and calibrated minds. What he had to offer, what mattered to me and riveted me, was his love of literature, which came off his skin like a fever. Mr. Battaglia had his lodestars, and he inspired us—this was far more than a mere assignment—to read, discuss, and develop similar passions for the Brontës, the Romantics, John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot. None of that grim mid-century existentialism for him but lush Keats (“Thou, silent form, dost tease us out of thought / As doth eternity”) and cryptic Prufrock—he dared us, more like ordered us, to disturb the universe. Only we had to understand it first. How? Through literature: how else? By talking and thinking about character, plot, story, subtext, biography, interiority, language—language above all.
Every summer, Mr. Battaglia traveled to England to visit the Sacred Sites—the parsonage at Haworth, the Lake District, Carlyle’s House in Cheyne Row—and he brought back postcards, pamphlets, and photographs, which once installed on his bulletin boards glowed like holy relics fitting out the temple of his classroom. His enthusiasm for place—the places—stuck to me like a contagion, and ever since, I too have gone to see the rooms, the desks, the gardens of the great. And his greats seeded my greats, seeded the learning and reading appetites and habits that are still with me to this day.
I can still see myself dropping my papers into his hands as he circled the room. This was part of a ritual that concluded several days spent writing and revising and laboriously typing, Liquid Paper at the ready (that scent—a 1970s madeleine!), as I strained for perfection of logic, phrasing, intent, and appearance. Mr. Battaglia was a teacher you—I—wanted to please. As I write this, I can also see him handing me the paper back, again in a circle, often preceded by a “Thank you, Mr. Frank” and upon occasion, “Another excellent one, thank you, Mr. Frank,” which brought on in me a feeling of pure unmitigated bliss.
I never said thank you to him, not once; not then, not ever.
I was not happy in high school, meaning: I was not secure in myself. I fled and did not look back. I pushed, I plowed ahead into long years of coming to understand who I was and what I had, what I might have, to say on the page. I was able to thank other teachers, most often in my imagination, once in person (Mrs. Little: I ran into her in a restaurant in Pasadena, and nearly melted with a combination of anxiety and joy). Who was this selfish, ungrateful, awkward, fearful me who could not find a way to express gratitude for such a splendid, mind-opening invitation to read, think, and write as well as I could, better than I could?
A few years ago, after I published a memoir, a high school friend reached out, and I realized that there were still traces, links; possible breadcrumbs to help me find my way back. It was time; I was ready to write, or call, maybe go see Mr. Battaglia if he would agree to see me. All I knew about him was that soon after my year, he left to work as an administrator for the magnet school program downtown. Google had turned up nothing more.
The friend reached out to a friend who reached out to a friend, who reported back that, sadly, Mr. Battaglia had died a few years before.
It hit me hard. My stupidity hit me hard.
At the bottom of the forwarded email was an image: the young panther as an old lion in a cardigan—though with still luxuriant, if grayed, hair. Photographed at, in fact, a high-school reunion held not long before he died, he sat delicately in a chair, the way no longer young people will, flanked by middle-aged students, the ones who’d understood in time.
Sweet seventeen-year-old: tell them what they mean to you while you still can. Do it for them. Do it because I never did. Do it for you.
Copyright © 2023 by Michael Frank
Cover Art Copyright © 2023 by Michael Frank
MICHAEL FRANK is the author, most recently, of One Hundred Saturdays, which was selected as one of the ten best books of 2022 by The Wall Street Journal. His other books include What Is Missing, a novel, and The Mighty Franks, a memoir, which was awarded the 2018 JQ Wingate Prize and named one of the best books of the year by The Telegraph and The New Statesman.