Mr. Robert Higerd was my 7th and 8th grade history and geography teacher back in the 60s at East Amwell Township School in Ringoes, NJ. He was good. He must have been in the Army before he started to teach because his favorite saying was, ”At ease, disease – there’s a fungus among us.” I think it was an old military phrase.
At least once a week, we’d sit in his classroom watching old post-WWII black & white films on the noisy projector. Most of them were from the forties and fifties and the sound was always warped and gurgled. It was a lucky day when we got to see one of those newfangled color ones. A lot of them were old government films – you know, the duck and cover variety. The newer ones were usually about some South American country, but we were in the midst of a Cold War with Russia then. Civic duties and patriotism were etched into our minds. It was a time when we were proudly taught how great it was to be an American. Communism was evil and Red China did not exist. Nope, it was grayed out on all school maps. We knew it existed, but it just wasn’t there and I always questioned which countries had better propaganda, theirs or ours.
Gee, I miss those days.
Today, we live in a throwaway world and history changes as rapidly as we replace cell phones. In those days, history books were meant to last a decade. There was no such thing as politically correct and they weren’t rewritten with each change of administrations. When we got new ones, we knew they were going to be handed down for quite a few years to come and to keep them in good shape was part of our daily marching orders. One day, Mr. Higerd caught me doing something to one of his prized books in my personal possession and protection.
“DAVE!!! Did I just see you writing in that book?” Defacing books or anything that’s school property was punishable by death. It was a mandatory trip to the principal’s office and it meant big time trouble. Parents usually got involved. No, this was never a good thing.
“No, Sir. I was not writing in the book.”
“I saw you writing in the book.”
“No, Sir. I was not writing in this book! I was drawing.” Each day, I added a new addition to the following page and I’d been doing it for weeks. No one ever saw me commit this horrendous crime. Why did it have to be him, an Army vet, of all people? He was like a drill sergeant in those days, but much nicer.
He ordered me up to the front of the class with alleged evidence in hand and abruptly snatched the now closed book away. “Knechel! Sit back down now!”
Walking back to my seat, he rifled through the pages and saw what I had done. Somewhere in that thick book, I drew my character, a hardy stick figure standing motionless. I repeated the same thing for a few more pages, and as time and pages went on, I gradually lifted his legs up and down, moving him slowly and casually forward. At one point he stopped, turned to look at the noise coming from behind him, and with arms flailing, he darted as quickly as he could toward the other end of the page.
Down came a rumbling boulder, heavily bouncing and rolling toward him. He tried desperately to race away, but the giant rock was coming after him at a much higher rate of speed. Finally, it scrunched my poor little guy like a pancake and he was dead. Squoosh. Of course, the boulder kept rolling until it ran off the edge of the paper. The End.
As he flipped through those pages, watching my cartoon in action, Mr. Higerd started to chuckle. “You know, Dave, this is great.”
He opened the book for the class to see. “If you can’t see it from back there, come on up and gather around. This is how cartoons were originally drawn. They still are. Action figures that change with each drawing…” and on he went for a while, fanning the pages as he outwardly panned the class, in full education mode.
On the inside front cover of all school books, there was either a stamp or pasted label that all students had to sign, date and state their grade at the beginning of the school year. At the end of the year, everyone turned their books in for next year’s use. Like I said, they were new that year. Good old Mr. Higerd told me he was going to follow that book for as long as it remained in circulation and show it to every one of his classes – to explain the history of cartoons. I was honored. Of course, this was long before computers and software, Windows and Macs.
In the end, he didn’t reprimand me for vandalizing school property, although he readily could have. There was no trip to the principal’s office. Instead, he complimented my handiwork. These weren’t just ordinary stick figures, mind you. They were detailed ones that I brought to life in one of his classrooms, and one of the things I remember most about him was how he brought a lot of life to what he taught. After he saw my talent and appreciated what I had done, I became one of his favorite students. I was, that is, until I ruined one of those newfangled color films about Argentina, but that’s a history lesson for another day.