Goodbye, Mr. Cross

Dennis Cross yelled all the time. He threw Kleenex boxes at students. He constantly pounded a gavel against the chalkboard. He once smacked my friend in the back with a yardstick.
A tribute to the best damn high school teacher I ever had

Photo by Jeanne Rice"Our profession is not an easy one . . . it calls for something more than a university degree. Our business is to mold men. It demands character and courage. Above all, it demands the ability to exercise authority. Without that, I think any young man should ask himself seriously if he has not perhaps mistaken his vocation."

"I don't wanna hear it."

A couple of months ago, I received the following letter:

IteachhighschoolintheOC.Doesn'treallymatterwhere,doesit?Causeyacan'tswingadeadgato inmi clase withouthittingJosé,José,José,María,JoséorJosé.Theynormallysitandenjoytheiryesca buzzwhilestressingonhowtheyaregoingtopisscleanforprobationlaterthatsameday.Gotanypalabras foruswhiteteacherswhohaveafront-rowseattothistragedy,orshouldIkeepsuggestingthattheypullthoseG-ridesintooncomingtraffic?

I wrote back immediately, more reaction than thought:

Wieldayardstick.ThebestteacherIeverhadwasMr.Cross,acrustyformerMarinewhoisretiringfromAnaheimHighSchoolthissummerafterteachinghistoryfornearly40years.Mr.Crosswouldyell,throwerasersattalkativekids,swingayardstickatthedry-eraseboardtogetourattention(andonetimeatmyfriend'sback,butthat'sanotherstory),butmostimportantlyMr.Crosswouldteach.Mr.Crossgaveafuckaboutusandthuswhipped(bothfigurativelyandliterally)hisoverwhelminglyMexicanclassestowardacademicheights—aJaimeEscalantewithapotbellyandaSoutherndrawl.Almosteveryoneperformedwellbecausewewereinfearofhim—myfriendsandI,allsuccessfulyoungMexicans,stillreminisceabouttheprojectsweacedundertheglowering,caringeyeofMr.Cross.Heknewwhatourparentsknow:Mexicankidsrespondwellunderthethreatofaregaño (ascoldthat'spregnantwiththepossibilityofabeating).Sogetsomehuevos,gabacho,andsmackthatcholoacrosstheknuckles—thenerdswhositnexttohimwillbeevergrateful.

After typing the response, I marveled. I had stopped talking toMr. Cross after graduating from Anaheim in 1997, yet I never stopped talking aboutMr. Cross. How could I? The man was an artifact, a son of the South with an accent as thick as swamp water. He was a deliciously impossible caricature—part Foghorn Leghorn, part Jackie Gleason's voluble sheriff in Smokey and the Bandit, all jowls, red skin and stomach. A true Southern gentleman. He called women "sugar" and carried to school every day a burgundy suitcase with a United States Marine Corps sticker on it. He called television the "idiot box" and drove a truck. And, yeah, Mr. Cross once hit my friend square across the back with a yardstick for talking too much. Hector deserved it, frankly.

When I gathered with fellow Anaheim High Colonists to reminisce about our youth, the discussion inevitably returned to Mr. Cross. Everyone had a Mr. Cross tale. Like the time some kids ripped down the American flag and replaced it with the Mexican tricolor for International Day and Mr. Cross posed for a picture draped in the Confederate flag, hands raised high in triumph and gripping the corners like a boxer after a 12-round slugfest. Or when someone asked Mr. Cross if he'd ever said the word "nigger," and Mr. Cross took the opportunity to teach us some history, arguing that the past really was a different time. Our stories were different, but, really, who among us hadn't been at the receiving end of a Kleenex box fired 30 feet across the room by Mr. Cross? Unless it was a marker. Or a crumpled test. Or an empty speaker box.

We continue to rave about Mr. Cross not because of his bluster or his gut or the judge's gavel he crashed atop a student's desk if the kid dared sleep. We rave because he gave a damn. For every flying-Kleenex box story, there were three stories that guaranteed SeñorCruza nice spot in the afterlife. How Mr. Cross routinely stayed after school to help just one student even though that meant hopping on the 91 freeway east at rush hour. How he gave the student athletes an ultimatum—do well in school or fail in life—and they actually listened. How, without prompting, Mr. Cross knew a student was down and gave them a perky greeting card. Or a pep talk. Or his home phone number.

Despite his cartoonish violence—he once cracked a racial joke at the Museum of Tolerance—no one has uttered a bad word about Mr. Cross in the eight years since I graduated. Not me or my sisters or cousins or friends. Not his peers or superiors. Not Orange County Supervisor Lou Correa or Cleveland Browns running back Reuben Droughns—who, during halftime at Anaheim High's homecoming football game last fall, announced Mr. Cross was his favorite teacher to the roar of thousands—or former Anaheim Mayor Tom Daly or any of the countless success stories that first took shape under Mr. Cross' stony glare and ugly ties. No one. Anyone who met this M-80 of a man knew he had reached the pinnacle of teaching. And now, Mr. Cross is about to retire.

* * *

Sometime in the fall of 1999, my little sister Elsa did something she had never done before: she shut down. A couple of weeks earlier, she had been crowned Anaheim's homecoming queen; a tide of rumors spread by the losers rose up and seemed to engulf her. Elsa was juggling two jobs, a student government position, cheer, sports and various academic clubs. She was fighting with my parents over her 10 p.m. curfew. Once during that time I made her walk a mile to school just five minutes before first bell after she insulted the Beatles—kicked her out of my car when she said AbbeyRoadwas overrated; I dropped her off in a bad neighborhood. Life was miserable.

That dark period ended the day Elsa walked into her English class and found a red rose on her desk. Attached to it was a card: "To the Queen of Queens." And it was signed, "Mr. Cross."

"He must've heard people talking about me," Elsa says. She's now a Spanish teacher at Orange High School. "People wanted to bring me down, but he saw in me what others wanted to tear out of me, and he validated it."

Elsa had Mr. Cross the next period for economics. She gave him a hug and cried. Mr. Cross hugged back. "Hang in there, sugar," he whispered to my sister. And then he snapped, "I'll give you something to cry about" at a student who perhaps stared too long.

This wasn't what Elsa had expected. Before she had Mr. Cross, Elsa knew only about the projectiles he'd thrown for decades. "People would tell you, and you'd think, 'Oh, my gosh, you don't tell the principal?'" she says. "And they'd say, 'No, it's Mr. Cross!'"

The thrown objects: Kleenex boxes. Markers. Tennis balls. Erasers. A judge's gavel.

Mr. Cross' affinity for hitting students with stuff was the communal secret shared by generations of Anaheim High students. And no one snitched.

"He throws you off because he speaks with that twang," says Orange County Supervisor Lou Correa, who played for Mr. Cross on the JV football squad in 1974. "Talking to the guy in that Southern accent would drive you crazy. You remember that film, RemembertheTitans,with those coaches who don't let you drink water for three hours? He was like that. You want to kill these guys because they work you so hard. But you look back and you see they did the best for you.

"Mr. Cross is a man with a golden heart. He's one of these guys that you wish you could duplicate over and over."

Correa claims Mr. Cross never threw anything at him. Correa probably is a liar. Or forgetful. Or suppressing real trauma.

Mr. Cross did throw a Kleenex box at Gabriela González, publicist for Anaheim Latin music cathedral JC Fandango, and she remembers when: sophomore world history, 1994. Mr. Cross had spent the first part of the class drawing football plays on the board "like one of the boys," González remembers. She wasn't interested. She began talking to a friend. She narrowly ducked the Kleenex box that rocketed toward her forehead. "We turned to see where it came from and we just saw him smiling. He said, 'Hush up, sugars,' and we started laughing."

González had Mr. Cross for just one year. But whenever they crossed paths at Anaheim, he stopped and asked about life.

"Some teachers are just really nice and want to be your friend, and you remember them for that," says González, who is also a teacher's assistant at Hope Special Education Center in Anaheim and plans to earn a teaching credential. "With Cross, it was a class where you would actually go in to work but it would be with a teacher who cared about you as an individual. He demanded respect, and everyone gave it to him. You can lose your job for someone interpreting what you did in the wrong way. But he wasn't scared. He would throw stuff!"

"Mr. Cross' discipline style was an art," Elsa says. "Some teachers will accept a student sleeping in the back of the class. The fact that he would throw a Kleenex box—it was a sign of respect. You might not have had the respect and self-discipline to allow yourself to be taught, but Mr. Cross demanded that you respect yourself."

At this point Elsa begins to describe someone like a Zen guru, a man responsible for something more than education, something like enlightenment: "That Kleenex box represented what he saw in you," she says. "Literally and metaphorically, it woke you up. He was the perfect senior teacher. He was strict—as in order and respect—because he was preparing you for the world. Now that he's leaving, it's the loss of an opportunity to experience that.

"Now that I'm a teacher, I hope I have that kind of courage. I hope I develop such command of a class," she continues. "I don't wish to throw things."

Just then, our baby brother walks into my room. He's a freshman at Anaheim High next year.

"How sad!" Elsa sighs. "Gabriel is not going to have Mr. Cross."

Mr. Cross once threw an eraser at Elsa and her friends. A friend threw it back. Mr. Cross grinned.

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