By Mike Lunsford
TERRE HAUTE —
It was with a cup of coffee and a newspaper in my hands a few Mondays ago that I discovered that Mr. Hapenny had died. I sat in the quiet of my classroom, for it was an hour before my students were to walk through the door, and I wished I had thanked him for being the teacher that he was.
Mr. Hapenny was 79 when he passed, and his obituary led me to believe that he’d led a good and full life, one in which nothing important was left out. My life, however, would have been considerably different had I never known him…
Charles Hapenny was my fifth-grade teacher at Otter Creek Elementary School. I thought he was an old man in those days, but if I have done my math correctly (it was he who told me not to add and subtract with my tongue sticking out of my mouth), he was only 35 or so then. To put it mildly, he was tough. I don’t just mean that he was a stickler for accuracy and attention — which he most certainly was — but that he clearly believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. In my case, he spared little, and I was the better for it.
Our classroom was at the end of a long, dim hallway at OC. A series of closets ran along the back of the room with doors made of green pegboard — more on those later. A huge heating unit sat along the south wall, its comforting blower warming our red cheeks and chilly hands after cold recesses. Mr. Hapenny’s desk sat near that heater; my desk was directly across from his.
My mother thought that Mr. Hapenny was the best thing to ever happen to me, and she may have been right. She saw to it that I was enrolled in his class, for it was obvious that I was not exactly preparing myself for an Ivy League school in those days. Oh, I liked to read, and I liked to learn new things, but I liked to read what I wanted to read, and I wanted to learn what I wanted to learn. Mr. Hapenny had a slightly different agenda.
I was stubborn. For most of the first half of the year, I thought that he’d crack before I would. I wasn’t mean; I wasn’t a bully or destructive. I daydreamed a lot and liked to draw World War II battle scenes in my notebooks. I thought it would be nice if Mr. Hapenny would let me sleep or read near that homey warm heater while everyone else went about their business in the early afternoons; they wouldn’t have disturbed me, really. I enjoyed history and geography, and I liked to cut and paste construction paper into destroyers and aircraft carriers and maps, but I had little use for math and handwriting and grammar.
It’s odd what I’ve recalled in these days, some 45 years or so later. I remember that Mr. Hapenny almost exclusively wore white shirts and narrow ties. He had a crew cut, and after he’d told our class that he’d been in the military, I just knew that if any of my teachers had been involved in secret missions and espionage and hostage rescues, he’d have been the one. I couldn’t imagine a North Korean soldier giving Mr. Hapenny any lip at all; I certainly wasn’t going to.
He must have used his boot camp training as inspiration for the various methods of punishment he used with me, and in today’s school culture, Mr. Hapenny probably would have been called onto the carpet, but my parents believed that he was acting in my best interest. He was doing what he had to do to get my attention; I can see that now. It worked, and although in those days I suspected he was on my mom’s payroll, receiving weekly installments toward what would be my final immolation, I began to understand something that I could have realized a whole lot earlier in fifth grade: He just wanted me to learn.
His punition came in numerous forms. For instance, when it became obvious to Mr. Hapenny that I wasn’t paying attention to his instruction one afternoon (I was probably sharing a drawing with Marilee Moore), he walked to my desk, asked me to stand, then dragged desk and chair (They were all in one piece then, remember?) into one of those walk-in closets. He told me very firmly that when I decided to act like a student, I could rejoin the class. And with that said, he slid the door closed, leaving me in pin-holed darkness among the coats and shoes and empty lunchboxes, his muffled voice still audible enough to hear that we were moving on to our science books.
More than a disciplinarian, however, the man knew how to teach, and despite the time I spent in the hall sitting in a chair with my head between my knees — another oldie, but a goodie — or awaiting the occasional paddling (yes, we are talking about the fear of God here), I knew that if he hadn’t cared about me, he’d have given up. Thankfully, he didn’t.
Eventually, Mr. Hapenny found the key. He knew I loved to read, and in those days, we had a book cart filled with multi-colored readers in our room; a student could move from one color of book to the next as he or she reached a new reading comprehension level. I remember that one day he called me to his desk (I went there swearing I hadn’t done anything), and he told me that not only was I reading at a high level, but also that he was sure I could read every book at every level before the year was out. I answered the challenge, and even though we still had an occasional rough spot in our relationship (there was a notorious incident involving a fight during a game of checkers involving Ronnie Archer and Mark Miller), I wanted to do my best for him from that moment on.
I can hardly claim I went on to be a Rhodes Scholar. I wandered and strayed, and still had a few adjustments and tweaks to make in junior high school academics, but I think Mr. Hapenny did as much to set me on the straight and narrow as anyone in my life. I wish now that I had run into him, that I had thanked him, that I had gone back to school before he retired from teaching to tell him that although I didn’t always appreciate his methods, I was beholden to him for the results. I wish I had done that for many of my other teachers, too.
I’ve had a lot of teachers in my lifetime, and I’ve known many, many more through 30-plus years in the profession, but when I think of those who made the most impact on my life, Mr. Hapenny stands with them.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com or by writing to him c/o The Tribune-Star, P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. Read more of Mike’s stories at http://tribstar.com/mike_lunsford, and visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com. He is currently working on his third collection of stories.