New Dhahran School - 1955
In retrospect, I’d have to say that Aramco’s school system was superb. The company was fully committed to education even though it was very costly. I admit that I didn’t always pay attention to my teachers, but a few of them made a big difference in my life.
In fifth grade, there was a 50-foot long rope that hung from the ceiling in the gym. The object was to climb it and slap a ribbon tied off half way up. With visions of pirates swarming through the riggings of an enemy frigate, I hit the rope like a wild monkey. Unfortunately, I was a weak monkey and only managed a few yards before I dropped back to the floor.
GT, the gym teacher, said, “Barger. Pronounce the last four letters in American.”
“Oh. ‘I can.’ ”
“That’s right, “Yes you can.” Now get back up that rope and slap the ribbon.”
I started up and peaked at ten feet. It’s gym class, so guys are hanging around staring at me and I’m starting to feel like an idiot. GT was sensitive enough that he motioned me over to a private conference under the basketball net. “Look, Tim, you can climb that easy. Do you want to do that?”
“Of course, yes I want to do that. But how?”
“OK. Every morning when you wake up, hit the floor and do ten push-ups. After a few days do 15 and work your way up to 20 – every day.”
I religiously followed his advice and a few weeks later I went up the rope like a crazed lemur to widespread approval. I did the push-ups for many years after.
Because an employee’s Long Leave every two years was three months long, school was based on a trimester system with three months of class and one month of vacation, so conscientious parents could minimize their children’s days out of school.
One school vacation about this time, they offered a judo class in the gym once a week. With visions of judo-chopping villains and flipping Sumo wrestlers like pancakes, Milt and I immediately signed up.
Wearing a white Judo suit with a black belt, the instructor Glenn was a wiry 30 something guy from the Air Base with a cheery attitude and a crew cut. He had discovered the discipline when he was stationed in Japan and had been at it ever since.
He began our lesson by saying, “Today we’re going to learn the most important skill in Judo. We’re going to learn how to fall. How to hit the ground and come flying up. How to land like a leaf. If you do Judo, half the time you’ll be taking a fall, so you need to know how to do it properly.”
And then he gave a terrific class in the art of falling. How to redirect your energy in the direction of the fall, how to absorb shock through your legs but maintain your balance, how to fall on your back, how to land on your toes like a cat. Milt and I were inspired and spent the next week doing pratfalls on the lawns around town.
The next week Glenn said. “Judo is all about using the opponent’s strength against himself. I’ll show you. Milt and Tim come over here.”
We’re surprised but delighted with Glenn’s recognition. “Okay, you guys grapple each other by the arms. Push each other back and forth. Neither of you has any advantage, but if Milt pushes and, when Tim pushes back, Milt doesn’t resist. Instead, Milt uses Tim’s momentum to pull him and falls backward. As Milt falls, still holding on, he puts a foot in Tim’s guts and flips him onto his back. Now practice that on the mat. Don’t ever forget that sometimes if you stop pushing and pull instead, your life will be much easier.”
Glenn was a natural teacher but when we came back for our third lesson he was gone. Maybe he was reassigned by the military, but there were rumors that he was fooling around with some housewife. We never knew why he disappeared. His wisdom remained.
In my early 20s, I was up on a 15-foot ladder on a sidewalk off Columbus Circle in San Francisco installing the custom wooden sign for the weekly guerilla video theater my partner and I produced. The ladder skidded out from under me. There were about a dozen people watching as I dropped to the cement, in Beatle boots no less. I landed on my toes and redirected my energy into a successful somersault that I pinned to great applause. Thanks, Glenn.
In school at the time, Penmanship was actually graded on report cards and I consistently flunked the subject. This wasn’t so bad except that almost every vacation until sixth grade I had to take tutoring in handwriting every day for the month. Talk about ruining your life. Of course, the logical solution would be to improve my cursive writing technique but it never occurred to me.
Seventh grade was going to be really great because there was no more penmanship tutoring, vacations were going to be unscheduled and carefree. Or so I thought until I met Martha F. The junior high French teacher, she was all business, very strict and demanding. Girls would be reduced to tears trying to decline a verb or pronounce some difficult word properly. Guys would sit silently in terror of being called on.
She wasn’t popular with her students but she wasn’t popular with a lot of adults either; because she was so different. Though an American, she was thoroughly European in attitude. No perky makeup, starched blouses or latest hairdo for Martha. She was Left Bank casual. Her hair might be held with a pin, a scarf around her neck, wearing a sweater and a light tweed skirt. She scandalized some dimwits because she didn’t shave her legs and didn’t wear stockings. But she really didn’t care and went on trying to hammer some knowledge into our stony little minds.
I didn’t take French, but Miss F. also taught one class of seventh grade English and I was snagged. She taught like a Marine drill instructor and was as tough as one too. No one dared to not turn in homework, no guy made pig noises at the back of the room. She wasn’t mean, just firm and had a good blend of teaching and questioning us too. She also returned our homework marked in red pencil and unfortunately, mine seemed entirely scribbled in crimson.
One day she was briskly writing some diagram on the chalkboard when I looked over at Milt. We’re sitting in those chairs with a desk built into the right arm. Milt has his arm on the desk, his head cradled in his hand. He’s quietly sobbing, I see his teardrops splash on the linoleum. I look to Miss F. but she’s still writing. I turn to Milt and he’s starting to quiver.
Out of nowhere, I hear, “Milt. Milt are you feeling poorly? Oh, Milt.” Martha has appeared and puts her arms around him. “Milt, it’ll be okay.” She was so gentle and tender as she walked him out of the room. Years later I learned that Milt’s abusive father had terrorized his whole family. The things we don’t know when they are happening.
But in the next class, she was back at teaching. Throwing questions at Milt as if nothing had ever happened, making us identify the object of the preposition and other complex challenges. Everything seemed to be going swimmingly for me until the trimester ended and I got tagged for tutoring in English. What a disaster.
In retrospect, it is hard to comprehend that there once was a school system that cared enough to support tutoring a half dozen or fewer students at a time during vacation. It was actually a privilege, though it didn’t seem to be that at the time. I arrived for tutoring to find that it was just me and Miss F. Like a Prussian dueling master with syntax her weapon, she had me calling out adjectives and adverbs and diagramming sentences like a madman. Somehow I never got the full concept but once in a while made some marginal improvement in grammatical structure. I dreaded these encounters. It wasn’t really for a lack of trying – I just didn’t understand why you would want to diagram a sentence in the first place.
I almost hated her but she was the only one who liked my stories and essays on what I did on vacation, so I did my best to listen to her. In her early 30s, she kept to herself. We’d heard that Martha was an American who’d been raised in Paris and fought as a teenager in the Resistance in occupied France. I don’t know if it was true or not, but that was her legend. Every once in a while I would see her walking down the street, maybe coming from the commissary with a bag of groceries. She’d have one of her stylish scarves around her neck, sauntering down King’s Road as if it were the Champs de Elysee but still watchful of Nazi snipers.
She tutored me for three vacations in a row. Apparently, she saw something that I certainly didn’t know was there. Never thought about sentence structure and the like for years until I was in college. The teacher invited one of us to diagram a complicated sentence and I aced it. I had to smile one for Martha.
In 1975, more than 15 years later, I got on the company bus in Khobar back to Dhahran and there was Martha, now in her fifties but as Bohemian and as Parisian as ever. We were both happy to see each other. She had just returned from a month vacation in Corsica and was glad that I was married and happily working in television in Riyadh. As we passed the Air Base road, she told me, “Well Tim, television always tells a story. And every story starts with a sentence. Diagram it for me.”
And then she laughed. I was an adult now and we had a wonderful bus ride back to camp. It ended too soon. We said goodbye and then she vanished in a Dhahran taxi.
Over the many years since then, in my work, I’ve written and produced countless videos and films, written screenplays, books and dozens of stories. They all start with a sentence. I’ll always owe Martha for teaching me how to write one.
CHRISTMAS in KHOBAR
More Stories – Tim Barger
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