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Of Track Stars, Teachers and Time

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I never intended to go back to high school, not in any nostalgic, searching sense, anyway. After all, I didn’t attend Thousand Oaks High long enough--just the ninth grade and half the 10th--to be very nostalgic about it. After that, I became a confirmed Venice High Gondolier.

But I did something important at T.O. High, something more important, possibly, than finishing seven different versions of my flawed novel. I earned a varsity letter in cross-country while I was still a sophomore. I ran a two-mile course in 10 minutes and one second.

The problem was, I moved away before I could buy my letterman’s jacket to impress the girls. My only mementos of this brief, shining era are the letter and the stale remains of my old running shoes.

It has always nagged me that I never got that jacket and that I never bought the yearbooks from the three semesters I attended T.O. High. Well, the jacket has long been a lost cause, rather like my waist, but I’ve never given up on the yearbooks.

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Over the decades, I have occasionally thought about going back to photocopy a few key pages that display evidence of my prowess as a “harrier” and mug shots of a lot of nice kids I grew up with.

A few weeks ago, I finally did it.

Thousand Oaks never looked greener. Even the famous oaks, normally laden with dusty, olive-drab leaves, had sprouted new growth that was almost indecently bright, like baby lettuce.

At T.O. High, a nice girl in the office wrote me a pass to the library, where a nice guy gave me the coveted yearbooks and aimed me at a copying machine.

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I was instantly lost in dozens of quick little memories that came back with the snapshots of lost friends and lost days. It was thrilling to look at people I hadn’t seen in 23 or 24 years--and haunting. It was like a visit from a friendly ghost: He was a hell of a nice guy, but you were spooked anyway.

Then I found it. A full page of photos and the headline, “Harriers Post 1-8 Season.” There were all my old teammates.

Yup, we stunk. How we managed to win even one cross-country meet was beyond me . . . but no, I remembered. Out of desperation, our coach designed a new course, with the “sprint” (final stretch) located on an 80-degree incline known as Summit Hill. This way, the last 150 yards or so of each race ended on a slope steep enough to make a tired runner want to throw up. And many did. The strategy was that our team would practice running up the hill. On the day of a race, the enemy would stagger at the mere sight of it, while we would sashay up to the finish line.

It worked exactly once--the time I actually finished first and won my letter.

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I smiled at the mugging faces of my teammates, who were posed as if poised at the starting line. One guy was pretending to hold me back with his arm in order to get a head start. I was snarling in return, rather like Igor in an old Frankenstein movie. Evidently, we weren’t too concerned about our won-loss record.

Someone stood behind me, waiting for the copy machine.

“Oh, I’ll just be a second,” I said to a distinguished looking, middle-aged fellow with hair and a mustache that were liberally laced with gray. I turned to the machine, paused, then abruptly swiveled my head back around. My eyebrows leaped. It was a double-take straight out of Bugs Bunny. I blurted something awkward.

“Oh . . . my. . . . Uh . . . oh my. . . . Do I look, uh, familiar to you?”

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I had expected to meet someone I knew at T.O. High about as much as I expected to run two miles in 10:01 again. But here it was--this gentleman was scrutinizing me and saying that, yes, I did look familiar. I figured he was being polite. I also figured he was my ninth-grade English teacher, Gary Coffman, whom I had last seen, with dark hair and no mustache, back around AD 1968.

I told him my name. He squinted a bit, apparently amused, and allowed that, yes, he did remember my name. That might have been true; it was unlikely he had taught many Rips.

So we shook hands. And a couple of memories from his class heroically groped their way out of my Random Access Memory.

I recalled the time he asked us to write a comparison of John Lennon’s “In My Life"--which he contended was poetic--with “I Am the Walrus,” which he contended was nonsense. I told him that I had begged to differ with his contention about “Walrus” way back when and that, well, I still do.

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“I used to be more obstinate,” Coffman said, and we laughed. I told him he was the first teacher ever to assign me a paper that had to be typed. Mine was about the composer, Richard Wagner. I couldn’t type, though.

“My dad did--grudgingly,” I said. “To save paper, he set the thing on single space and typed right down into the margin. You downgraded me for that and wrote ‘Little things count.’ Not only that, but I didn’t know how to do library research, so my old man invented a quote from a fictitious German music critic, ‘Heinrich Hauptmann.’ I’m confessing this to you now.”

I figured that the statute of limitations had run out, that my diploma was secure. I guess I was right, because we both laughed again. So did the nice kid who had aimed me at the copying machine. Then Coffman asked me what I did for a living. I told him that I had become a writer and assured him I never quoted Heinrich Hauptmann anymore. He asked what kind of writing I did. I recited my resume, then hastily mentioned my flawed, oft-rewritten novel and said it was at home “sitting in a drawer, like most other great American novels.”

With that, Gary Coffman cocked his head slightly and spoke with a quiet tone that was somehow inflected with both irritation and inspiration:

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“Well, get it out of the drawer.”

And it all came back. The voice, the inflection, the cocked head. It was familiar, and it triggered all those motivation synapses that had been triggered back in his ninth-grade class so many years ago. I suddenly realized that this gentleman had been more of an inspiration than I’d realized.

We shook hands again, and I told him that it was good to know he’d hung in there all those years at Thousand Oaks High.

I drove the Ventura Freeway home in the early evening, the photocopied images of my old cross-country teammates and childhood friends on the seat beside me. Coffman’s words about the novel echoed in my head.

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And the oak trees turned dusky in my rear-view mirror.


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