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

* * *

There will never be another Mr. Cross, and not for lack of talent or candidates. According to a report by the California Teacher's Association, the number of newly credentialed teachers in California increased year-over-year by 16 percent during the 2003-04 school year—at a time when the number of people who take the California Basic Educational Skills Test—the standardized teachers' test—is dropping dramatically. Nevertheless, the authors of the report conclude from those numbers, "this may also suggest that the future classroom teacher may be more qualified."

Morequalified.When Mr. Cross began teaching in the early 1970s, all someone needed to become a teacher was a bachelor's degree, a couple of college courses and a passing CBEST score. It was a profession where action preceded thought and teachers could allow their individual quirks and philosophies to flourish. Nowadays, teaching is awash in courses and regulations—a bachelor's degree followed by a master's program spent mostly taking courses on Paolo Freire and pedagogy followed by a credential program followed by multiple tests followed by modern-day teaching's ultimate oppressor: a presidential administration that demands constant testing and a strict curriculum on each subject planned out to the color codes. Building character? No more time. The classroom has become a factory, subject to rigorous oversight and time-motion studies.

"An era is leaving with Mr. Cross," says Elsa, who knows too well the demands of modern-day teaching—I see it in her overslept Saturdays. "What's being asked of teachers doesn't allow you the energy and time to be as personal as Mr. Cross was even though you want to. It's depressing that teachers aren't trusted enough to provide their students with what they need."

"As a teacher, you just have to be very careful with what you say and what you do, or you'll get in trouble," says GonzŠlez. "Nowadays, everyone is so scared of lawsuits. You can lose your job for someone interpreting what you did in the wrong way. But students want that discipline. Regardless of how the discipline is executed, discipline is needed in life. It's a fine line between abuse and efficiency, and Mr. Cross definitely, definitely knew it. Mr. Cross was never scared—he was himself."

* * *

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking the aisles of Anaheim High again, looking at the homecoming queen picture of my secret crush. I was waiting for the sixth-period bell to ring out liberation. I wanted to see Mr. Cross one more time before he retires.

A large man sauntered into the attendance office. It was him. "Mr. Cross!" I yelled from about 100 feet away. He squinted to recognize me as I ran closer. I began blurting out my name and graduating year—"Yeah, I remember you. I remember you," he said in a low, seemingly unaffected rumble.

Mr. Cross hadn't changed much since my senior year. He still had that thickly lacquered head of hair with long licks parted from his left side. Wore the immaculately pressed short-sleeved shirt with military-issue tie, slacks and dress shoes. Skin still ruddy. Sturdy jowls. Sky-blue eyes. Lips in a fearsome crunch—you didn't know if he was going to curse you, smack you or praise you. Still-magnificent gut. A stare worthy of a prison warden.

"Everyone still talks about you, Mr. Cross," I said. "You're everyone's favorite—"

Suddenly, he flashed it—a sly grin so wide his silver molars sparkled almost as much as his eyes.

"Oh, you know why everyone remembers me, right?" Mr. Cross said, his smile stretching wider, his voice swimming in sarcasm. "Because I would throw things."

No, I protested, it wasn't just that. It was so much more. I stammered, like the time during my sophomore year when I was supposed to give a presentation on violence in boxing but forgot my notes, and Mr. Cross let me deliver it the next day, but docked me a grade and never let me forget it.

He stood there quietly. The smile was now a smirk as Mr. Cross waited to hear how he was more than a mere caricature. He wanted proof. I could only spit out one anecdote—about Mr. Cross giving my sister Elsa a rose.

The smirk disappeared. "I remember that," Mr. Cross said softly. His eyes glistened. "She was having a bad day."

He agreed to talk with me but didn't want it to interfere with his teaching. "I've been out a couple of days, so my voice isn't all it can be," he said. "And we're behind. School year's nearly over—need to catch those kids up."

But mostly, Mr. Cross was visibly affected. He was quiet for a bit, then said something that conveyed real emotion, it seemed, but I couldn't quite make it out.

"What did you say?" I asked.

"I said, 'Wow!'" he roared.

And then he asked how I was doing. Nope, he hadn't changed at all.

And, no, he never threw a Kleenex box at me. I never had the honor.


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