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."
—GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS


"I don't wanna hear it."
—MR. CROSS' SIGNATURE SAYING



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.

* * *

Like most high school students, we never bothered to ask about the man behind the performance, and Mr. Cross rarely volunteered information. But bits and pieces of the man's life emerged over the course of the school year. First name was Dennis. He was an orphan, raised by mean Methodist ladies in West Virginia who routinely rapped him on the knuckles and head with a ruler—that's why he threw stuff at us, Mr. Cross always claimed. Before coming to Anaheim, he served with the Marines—in my 1997 yearbook, there is a picture of Mr. Cross in his Marine uniform, smiling. And when his son went to see Tombstone,someone stole his car. That's about all we knew.

I remember only two anecdotes he ever shared about his career at Anaheim. One involved a famous Anaheim alum: according to Mr. Cross, the alum declined his invitation to speak at a student assembly during the 1980s because "too many Latino kids" were attending Anaheim by then. Whether the story was true or a misunderstanding or maybe a parable, the disgust etched on Mr. Cross' face every time he recounted it to us super-majority Latino sophomores and juniors was a sneer no one could fake.

Mr. Cross' other story was more palatable. Whenever my junior-year American history class was in danger of spinning out of control, Mr. Cross brought up Tom Daly. Daly is now the county's clerk-recorder, but he is a longtime presence in Anaheim politics, sitting on the Anaheim Union High School District board of trustees during the 1980s and also serving as mayor from 1990 through 2002. Mr. Cross used Daly as an example of a deviant who did well. Daly's sin? He and his fellow varsity baseball teammates wore white shoes on the diamond.

"I was on the varsity team, and we wanted to wear white shoes like the Oakland A's," Daly says, laughing at the memory. At the time, the Oakland A's were shocking the nation with their flamboyant style—long hair and mustaches, outsized personalities and the wearing of white shoes on the field.

"Mr. Cross wasn't even our coach anymore," Daly says. "He had been our coach the previous year in JV baseball and so knew almost everyone on the varsity squad. Someone must have told him about our plans, because one day he went up to some of us and groaned, 'Ah, come on. You're not going to wear white shoes!' When he'd see us on campus, he'd yell, 'Looking sharp, fellas,' and whistle. He thought we were a bunch of pansies."

That would have been Mr. Cross' second year at Anaheim High. It was a different time: the school was still overwhelmingly white and working-class; today it's more than 90 percent Latino. But student movements launched in the 1960s were still rolling through all aspects of Colonist life. Most affected was Anaheim's athletic department, a military-style institution run under the bespectacled visage of football coach Clare Van Horbeeke, the man who brought respectability to Orange County prep sports. In 1997's Anaheim Colonists Football: A Century of Tradition, author Dennis Bateman cited a 1970 interview Van Horbeeke gave to an AnaheimBulletinreporter lamenting that "fewer young men were willing to adhere to his regime. Long hair, drugs and disobedience were the product of this changing time, and Van hinted that because he would not change, that the time would come soon for him to go." Indeed, Van Hoorebeke would leave two years later after 22 years at Anaheim.

Mr. Cross was more resilient, and of course younger. He brought to sports a strict team policy, according to Daly. No cussing. Clean uniform. And shine those black cleats until you could see yourself in them.

At first, Daly had what he calls "an attitude" and didn't think much of Mr. Cross. No one did.

"The first week we had him as a coach, we weren't sure we liked him," says Daly. Cross, who had no previous baseball experience, was thrust into the JV baseball head coach position almost as soon as Anaheim High hired him. "Our first impression was that he was underqualified to coach us big shots. But as the weeks went by, we realized what a quality guy he was and how much he cared for us. He would put in reserves at the end of the game when the score was close. We would complain, 'Why are you putting so-and-so in when we don't want him?' And Mr. Cross would say he was doing it because he wanted to.

"By the end of the season, we realized his lessons were about something else," continued Daly. "It was about our demeanor, not so much the technicalities of baseball, but our conduct—the way we treated each other. Did he knock us out with strategies on the suicide squeeze? Not really. But winning wasn't everything to him."

Daly remembers one of his teammates who had just immigrated from Mexico and barely spoke English. "At first, the rest of the team wasn't sure what to do with him," Daly said. "But Mr. Cross treated him just like everyone else, and he encouraged us to treat him like a teammate. And it happened—we became a very close team.

"For Anaheim High at the time, it was all about winning," continues Daly. "It didn't matter how you got there; it was about winning. It wasn't about character development or other priorities—it was about winning. Mr. Cross was the opposite. He wanted us to grow into manhood."

Daly hasn't spoken much to Cross since graduating in 1971. "I only had Cross for five months, and that was during my junior year." he says. "I'd figured he'd already retired. But I've never heard a negative word about him in all my years since—only the description of respect."

* * *

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 González. "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.



GARELLANO@OCWEEKLY.COM

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