a sketch for the Farmland Elementary crowd.
Not only did he never give a straight answer, but Mr. Fredericks, my third-grade art teacher, could stun people to silence, send a shiver up listeners’ spines.
“Mr. Fredericks, are you married?” I only heard this question once.
“Her name is Captain Midnight. She is six feet tall and black as coal,” he ended with a whisper, eyes wide as when telling ghost stories.
The questioner was my bold friend Shelley, polar opposite of my shyness, but I witnessed the whole interchange. No one said, “So what do you mean by that? Are you really married? Is she African-American, is that what you mean? What is her real name?” No one said a word. Mr. Fredericks was perhaps five-foot-eight, but larger than life—or at least larger than life in my little town.
Up to that point I had not found anyone of the male half of the species to be even remotely interesting, with the possible exception of my dad, but that hardly counts, as dad was strong enough, handsome enough, and very smart, but very interior, so as a third-grader, it was hard to feel like I knew him. Dad’s a non-fiction kind of guy, an adult, and I thought all men were non-fiction kind of guys. Something about Mr. Fredericks spoke of a story, a mystery, an adventure. He would be a good pirate.
I will admit that it does not take much effort to “stand out” in Farmland, Indiana. No pirates there, under most circumstances. He embodied difference in a dozen visible ways— unkempt hair and a sense of style, beginnings of a beard—but on a deeper level, he was playful and funny, which added up to mystique, at least in the heart of a third-grader. My brothers admired him as much as I did, but I found Mr. Fredericks not charming, really, but rather fascinating like a well-written book. It was hard not to follow his every movement around the room when I was supposed to concentrate on my art projects.
Later, my brothers and I would try to fill in the back story of why such an unusual man chose to teach in a rural backwater—how did we get so lucky? One possible clue, better for a novelist than for a simple story-teller: Mr. Fredericks would kick the wooden benches in the art room with an imposing thunk when he felt he needed our respectful attention, and it sounded like the crack of a bat. He kept a psychedelic-painted wooden leg in the closet, a spare, with a funky dress shoe and sock. And he also had a temper, when provoked, and a bit of what we would call An Attitude Problem. On the other hand, if I was teaching creativity to the dusty children of farmers and factory workers in some poverty-stricken flatland town, I would develop an attitude problem on arrival. A missing leg, a temper, a country locale: I wonder if perhaps he was a veteran of the Vietnam conflict, an ex-soldier in the process of healing. The year was 1970.
When my mother, my brothers and I registered for classes and picked up our text books for the year, Mr. Fredericks was penciling lines on the huge art room walls, using an overhead projector with a stencil of a Mt. Rushmore for activists: Lincoln, the Kennedy brothers, and a face I found out later to be Martin Luther King. Note: he was drawing on the walls, as if people were allowed to draw on walls. Privileged sixth graders would assist in developing this Peter Max-style fantasy in vivid primary colors, beams of yellow light stretching over three walls. But I was in third grade, and I was in stunned awe.
Our art teacher could not actually draw, which is strange for an art teacher. He drew lollipop trees, a circle on a stick with no pretense of being tree-like. He was talented with graphics, block prints, large-scale projects. And he taught photography so creatively I still remember his crazy lessons, with characters opening doors and giving people black eyes to illustrate how film takes in light but actually turns black.
I do know Mr. Fredericks moonlighted as a freelance photographer, and that perhaps his real mission or real joy was to photograph children producing art. He offered my parents a candid Kodak slide of me, sprawling on a sidewalk on a warm spring day, tongue poking out of the side of my mouth in concentration, crayons strewn. The light was perfect that day, and we had started Art Class outside, Mr. Fredericks with a guitar singing, Ain’t a Gonna Study War No More. In the photo, strands of hair curled across my face, just as my mother would hate it, but just as it always did. There was a fierce look in my eyes, a force of will bending the page to some inner vision—I never noticed the sneaky photographer, never heard the click of the shutter.
One winter night as we viewed a slideshow in my family living room, the carousel stuck too long at that photo of me, and it bubbled and dissolved before our eyes. I was heartbroken, my last trace gone, along with the nicest photo of me ever taken. Somehow it seems fitting, though, a self-destructing trail, for the mysterious Mr. Fredericks. He would be in his mid-sixties now, and I wonder where he went next. Somehow I bet he never taught elementary art again, or at least not in a small town. I wonder where he ended up, if he is happy with Captain Midnight, if he still has a box of Kodak slides labeled 1970, Farmland Elementary, or if his copies, too self-destructed without a trace, leaving dust motes in the light of the projector beam, a little disappointment, and a little puzzle over what on earth really happened back there, anyway.