In Praise of Meph
When I was in high school, there was a teacher named Larry Minné. For some reason I never fully understood, everyone called him “Meph,” short for “Mephistopheles.” Perhaps it was because he wore three-piece suits to school every day. Perhaps it was because he was a tiny, wizened little man, well-spoken and with great intelligence. It was rumored that he spoke Old English, the language of Shakespeare, fluently. All I know for certain is that he was the most intelligent person I ever met. He loved Blondie (this was the 80s, after all), and he had a cat named White Trash. He didn’t look cool, but he was. All the kids respected the hell out of him.
I first met Meph because of my brother. The school had a very active Academic Decathlon team, and my brother was something of a mathematical genius, so of course they wanted him on the team. “OCAD,” as we called the Orange County Academic Decathlon, was a one-day event where students competed in seven objective multiple choice tests, two subjective performance events, and an essay. The final event, called the “Super Quiz,” was a live round game in front of an audience where contestants had to answer questions on any of a number of topics. (If my math doesn’t add up, it’s because the Super Quiz was one of the performance events.) If you’ve ever seen the film Mean Girls, and you recall the “Mathletes” scene, you have some idea of what the Super Quiz was like…only it wasn’t just math questions. It was questions about everything.
Believe me when I say the pressure to perform well in OCAD was intense. Students practiced for months to get ready. My brother used to go to school at 6:00 in the morning to prepare and study. And of course, Meph was the team’s coach.
I think I was a freshman when my brother competed for the first time. I remember watching him compete in the Super Quiz and just being blown away by how well he did. I thought he was the smartest kid in the world.
So, of course, one morning when we dropped my brother off at practice, we went in with him and I met Meph. He scared the crap out of me, but I knew he had a reputation for being one of the toughest but coolest teachers on campus. He asked me what grade I was in, and when I said, “freshman,” he said, “Make sure you take my English Comp class next year.” I did.
So, Meph knew in my sophomore year that he had something special. He quickly asked me to join the OCAD team that year, and of course I was so honored to say yes. My brother was also on the team, and that made history, because we were (to my knowledge) the first brother/sister team to ever compete on the same Academic Decathlon team.
I studied my behind off for that competition. I wanted to do Meph proud. At the same time, I was taking his English Comp class, but the truth is, I was really struggling. Our family was being torn apart by divorce, which made it difficult to focus in school. Plus, I’ve always been a bit lazy and headstrong, so every time we’d practice, I disappointed Meph with how little I knew. He worried my scores would drag the rest of the team down in the cumulative. I did pretty well in language and literature, but I sucked eggs in math, science, economics, and history. The history part hurts the most all these years later, because I’m such a huge history buff now.
Meanwhile, in Meph’s English Comp class, I was busy sucking eggs as well. The assigned reading I found terribly boring. I was already reading far above my peers, and having to read stuff I’d already read like Beowulf, Julius Caesar, and The Grapes of Wrath was a yawn fest to me. I wanted to read Hemingway, Faulkner, and Nabokov, not All Quiet on the Western Front.
That was the book that did me in, finally. We were assigned to read it, and I got about halfway through before I just timed out on it. I couldn’t read another sentence of it. So I dropped it and picked up For Whom the Bell Tolls instead.
When the essay on AQOTWF was due, I turned in a paper on FWTBT instead. Mr. Minné called me up to his desk in class. He explained that while my essay was well-written, it was on the wrong book. I complained that I was bored to death by the assigned book, so couldn’t I just read something better and write about that? He looked at me sternly and said he couldn’t grade me on external assignments, but he’d be happy to give me extra credit for my work if I wanted.
I couldn’t do it. Every time I opened that miserable story, I got about two sentences in and fled for another, more interesting book. And in class, Meph began to read my name at roll call with the appendix “you owe me an essay.” This went on for months.
One day, as we were nearing the end of the school year, I was sitting at Meph’s desk. He’d already informed my parents that I was in danger of failing his class over that damned essay, which I stubbornly refused to write. He said to me, “You have to read the assigned book and write the essay or I can’t pass you. I know it’s a terrible book. I don’t set the curriculum myself; the district does. My hands are tied. Jennifer, you have the ability to be a great writer someday. Don’t mess up your chances by failing my class.”
I don’t need to tell you that I never wrote the essay. I failed his class. I’d fail others, too, and graduate high school by the skin of my teeth. I did eventually read the book, though, and though it was as poorly written as I thought, it wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever read. (E.L. James, I’m looking at you) In the end, I read it for Meph.
I transferred schools in my junior year, and my new high school also had an OCAD team, but their coach just wasn’t at Meph’s caliber. Since I’d competed in OCAD, they asked me if I’d be willing to be an assistant coach. And that’s how I probably became the first and possibly only high school student ever to both compete in and coach the Academic Decathlon. I’m not saying that’s a fact, but I’d guess it’s probably true.
A few years after I graduated high school, I heard that Meph had died of cancer. In his honor and memory, I named my black cat White Trash.
I wish I’d written that essay for him. Maybe someday I will. But even though I may have disappointed Meph when I was young, I’d like to think he’d be proud of me now.