Dick Tracy: Wistful memories of a favorite teacher
Richard Woods was the best teacher I’ve ever had. Just plain luck put me in his English class when I was Junior at Reno High School in 1955, and right away he had my attention. He was different. We were treated as young adults by a man who vividly remembered the trauma of being a high schooler.
“There’s no amount of money,” he said, shaking his head back and forth, “that I’d take to relive my years in high school!”
He had a theatrical flair and a broad educational background. His Master’s degree from a school in Switzerland earned him the job as head of the English Department. He loved classical music and oftentimes in the waning minutes of class he’d play records from his own collection. Pieces like Ravel’s “Bolero” came to life as he explained the composer’s goals.
Through him I was introduced to the humor of Robert Benchley, Dorothy Parker and others, and made efforts to copy them in my own stab at literature in his “Creative Writing” class. Another of his classes was “Great Books” from (what I considered somewhat dreary) “Pride and Prejudice” and “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” to a much more readable, “Quo Vadis.”
Sometimes we’d go on short field trips to see things he felt might expand feeling for the times in which the novels were staged.
While most of my pals signed up for Spanish classes, I opted for German — simply because Mr. Woods taught it. That came in very handy during the two years I spent in Southern Germany while serving in the army. And I can still get by in basic conversations in Deutsch.
During a high school reunion several years ago, I spoke with a former classmate Sharon Mehdi (now a noted author of such books as, “The Great Silent Grandmother Gathering”) about being in Mr. Woods class.
“I was in love with him,” she said, staring into the distance, “and I think every girl in that class was, too.”
My last conversation with him took place when I was in my freshman year at the University of Nevada. I drove to the school and managed to buttonhole him for a few minutes between classes. He strongly encouraged me to, “keep writing, and keep your sense of humor.”
Then I met a girl who had been in his classes after I’d graduated.
“Oh, God, he was wonderful,” she began. “And when he had to miss a class he used a brilliant and funny teacher to take his place, and we all loved her, too. Every girl in class was asking why the two of them didn’t marry. And they did!”
I had a broad smile on my face at the news, but she was frowning and quietly shaking her head back and forth: “And in just a few days the marriage was annulled. He was homosexual.”
And she went on to explain: “It wasn’t long after that he resigned and disappeared. I think he went to live in Berkeley.”
Puzzled, I shared my long-held belief that a number of our teachers had “non-traditional” relationships away from the job. Why couldn’t he stay on?
“The man he was living with was black,” she said.
That just wouldn’t sail in 1950s Reno, where famed entertainers like Louis Armstrong filled the Mapes Hotel skyroom to capacity, but he wasn’t allowed to sleep in the hotel.
I have no idea what became of Mr. Woods, but still feel sorry for all the young people who might have been in one of his classes.
But flash forward 60-some years: We’ve had a black president for eight years; a black woman is a strong contender to be the Democrat standard-bearer in 2020 and another would-be candidate appeared on the cover of TIME magazine alongside his husband.
You’ve grown up, America. Congratulations.
Dick Tracy, who lives in Grass Valley, is a member of The Union Editorial Board. His views are his own and do not represent the views of The Union or its editorial board members. Contact him at EditBoard@TheUnion.com.
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