Fig Newton, Angry Unger, and the Birth of Tyrone


As summer slips away to fall, and kids resume the routine of Readin', Writin' and Math That Makes Sense to No One Over 20, I'm reminded of my own days in the public school system. And throughout high school, much of that involved a substitute teacher we'll call Mrs. Unger.

Mrs. Unger was a gray woman. Gray hair, gray skin, gray bottle-lensed glasses and gray clothing. The reason for this was she'd already been substitute teaching through most of the heyday of ink engravings and black-and-white media. And when everything else made the switch to color, Mrs. Unger just didn't have the energy to make the leap, too.

It was we students who kept her from going Kodachrome in the 60s, I think. Decades and decades of students who drained the very the color from her day-to-day life.

We know Mrs. Unger had been teaching a long time because she told us so, every class. Whenever her authority would come into question-- even whenever a student would try to give her a helping hand-- Mrs. Unger would spit out the tally of her years in service to the school like a wad of well-used tobacco.

And for every year we encountered her, it seemed her years of teaching would increase by at least five.

"I know where the seating chart is by now, Jose Rosado!" she'd snap. "I've been substitute teaching in this school system for 27 years!"

Or...

"Don’t you tell me how to run a classroom, Marisol Nieves! After 32 years, I'd say I know very well what I'm doing without any help from the likes of you!"

Or...

"What’s that, Rodney Goldblum? No, I see it right in front of me. I haven’t been teaching for 489 years for nothing. Why, in fact, Richard III was a smart aleck just like you are. And I didn't take any lip from him, either!"

Yes, we drained her sense of time along with her color. Oh, not us specifically. But decades of students like us. We wore out her memory... her patience... her hearing...

Mrs. Unger wasn't born, she was made.

So that's why initially, many of us felt kinda sorry for her. This gray woman with features eroded into a hard, scowling mistrust.

I know initially a few of us girls thought we could soothe her with kindness. A cheerful greeting. A polite word. An olive branch, so to speak, extended from Kiddom to the adult world. Anything to see her turn from gray rock to something less cold, less impenetrable.

But it was too little, too late. Good kids, bad kids… She'd endured so much Post-Traumatic Student Syndrome over the years, we were all the same now. One hateful mass.

And that caused the birth of "Tyrone."

You see, one kid, Jerry "Fig" Newton, was kind of a joker. Fig was a pretty good guy really. A tall, broad, curly-haired kid who was as sharp on the football field as he was in the classroom. A bright kid with energy to burn off, Fig had an ornery sense of humor that couldn't quite be contained.

And this left him cracking jokes when the mood struck... offering loud tuneless serenades in the hallways... and developing the keen ability to imitate the precise sound of the bell.

It was seventh grade and all the planets had fallen into alignment. Fate brought Fig Newton to Mrs. Unger.

Mrs. Unger had subbed for our class maybe two times at this point, but whether she remembered us or not, it's hard to say. Individual faces and names seemed long ago unimportant to her. We were One. A giant seething hormonal mass, precisely the same as the kids in 1965, 1776 and in 1483, when her career had really just started taking off.

So she began each class by calling attendance. And one by one we shouted out our names.

"Orton?"

"Here!"

"Ortiz?"

"Here!"

"Newton?"

Silence.

"Newton….? Gerald Newton?"

Only Fig Newton just sat in his chair, still, patient.

"Gerald Newton?"

I don’t think anyone dared to look directly at Fig, but out of the corner of my eye, I could see his small, amused smile.

Behind her gray lenses, Mrs. Unger's gray eyes fixed on the class. "Is Gerald Newton not here?"

"He’s out sick, Miz Unger," offered Fig helpfully.

The answer pacified. Mrs. Unger made a note in the attendance book and then pressed on.

Timmons… Thorson… Varges… Weiman… West…

One by one we all responded when our names were called. Until process of elimination caused Mrs. Unger to finally turn her focus back on Jerry Newton.

Mrs. Unger frowned. "Didn't I call your name?"

"Nope," said Fig.

"Well, what is your name, then?"

"I’m Tyrone," Fig told her not missing a beat.

"Tyrone?" Mrs. Unger squinted at the list before her, trailing a finger down the chart, name after name checked and double-checked. We didn't breathe. We didn't move. A stillness had come over the class like the achingly-quiet yellow haze right before a tornado.

"I don’t see a Tyrone here," she said finally.

"I’m new," said Tyrone.

"Oh." Mrs. Unger blinked. Reread the list. And promptly penciled "Tyrone" at the bottom of the attendance list.

She went on with the class.

That's how it began, and that's how it continued.

Seventh grade… eighth grade… ninth grade… Tyrone persisted for Mrs. Unger.

Though, if pressed, I doubt she would have remembered the name of any other kid in the entire school, Mrs. Unger surely remembered Tyrone.

Tyrone once got our entire class dismissed five minutes early with his expert bell imitation, and too late did Mrs. Unger discover the truth. Armed with this knowledge going forward then, just as Tyrone made it his quest to unnerve Mrs. Unger, Mrs. Unger had pinpointed a troublemaker. And she made it her solemn mission to quash Tyrone.

So class after class, year after year, Mrs. Unger scolded Tyrone... gave Tyrone detention... sent Tyrone to the Principal’s office and wrote him up for our regular teacher.

Tyrone never felt compelled to show up for these punishments, of course-- owing to him not actually existing. But Fig Newton would enjoy a nice afternoon in the boy’s bathroom. Or the gym. Or dawdle over an early lunch. Or just go home for a pleasant freebie day.

Tyrone may have eventually gotten suspended for all I know. But Fig Newton, well, he had an impeccable school record-- if a lot of absenteeism.

Somewhere in tenth grade, Mrs. Unger did eventually find out that Jerry Newton and Tyrone were, in fact, one and the same. To this day none of my classmates remembers precisely how, and Fig, as far as I know, hasn't come clean about it.

I'd like to think it was something dramatic, like taking the mask off Spiderman only to find Peter Parker underneath it all... Like seeing beyond Clark Kent's glasses in one moment of epiphany to the Superman who was there all along...

But I imagine it was just some innocent conversation in the teacher's room over cardboard pizza and three-bean-salad, how this mysterious student, Tyrone was penciled in every time the teacher had a day off. Notes got compared. Things were mulled over. And two and two were finally put together to make four.

Even the New Math told us that.

But year after year, I remember waiting for it. That's what said "school" to me. The anticipation of gray Mrs. Unger, squinting over attendance...

And that melodic sound, as Tyrone's name echoed out over the classroom.

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26 comments:

Da Old Man said...

This was a painful post to read. As a former and possibly future substitute teacher (they let anybody do that) it reminded me of the never ending war between kids and quasi-authority figures.
BTW, Tyrone's last name wasn't Shoelaces, was it? I may have known him.
In 7th grade, our substitute asked us to write our names on a sign in sheet. What are the odds that 26 out of 30 students were named Dick Hertz?

Jenn Thorson said...

DaOldMan- Interestingly, I don't believe Tyrone ever had a last name. And I'm really not so sure how he got away without making one up.

Fig would have really approved of "Shoelaces," though. :)

wordtapestry said...

Meanwhile, I'm wondering whether or not your teacher was a sub at my school too. We had two sub teachers in our school who were identical twins: one wore grey all the time and had a grey hair rinse, the other wore purple and lavender shirts all the time and had a purple hair rinse. No one messed with them, because sometimes they'd both come in and tag team us... amazing what two women in orthotic pumps can accomplish.

Jay said...

I recognise Mrs Unger. I'm sure she subbed at our school too!

That was a great post. Very evocative of school days and the ongoing battle between staff and kids. Oh, the nostalgia! ;)

Jenn Thorson said...

WordTapestry- I suspect there are a few Mrs. Ungers lurking out there-- though very few with identical twins. :)

Jay- I understand from my friend Josette she actually got to speak to Mrs. Unger only a few years ago, when the woman called Josette's work regarding a service. Josette introduced herself saying she was a former student, and tried to be friendly-- and Mrs. Unger was brusk and nasty then, too.

That's what happens when you get into a field you're not well-suited for, I suppose. :)

Tiggy said...

Great post! We had our very own 'Tyrone' class joker in my class. It wouldn't surprise me if it was the same guy...

Boy, I had a crush on him!

Jenn Thorson said...

Tiggy- Heh, I think the world holds a number of Tyrones. They're necessary in the general order of life.

Greg said...

Does anyone actually choose Substitute Teaching as a vocation?

I've done it myself -art teacher - altho, except for the kindergarten class that left me with Elmer's glue dripping from the ceiling, it went pretty well.

Did Mrs. Unger just fail to plan for work and got herself stuck? That would explain her bitter grayness as much as Fig's antics.

Jenn Thorson said...

Greg- I really don't know. Was she ever really a full-fledged teacher? We did wonder. I also wondered about Mr. Unger. Was he still alive at the time? Was she as bitter with him as she was with us?

Mrs. Unger was a bit of a cypher. Her challenges had certainly gone way beyond what Fig threw at her, that we knew.

unfinishedrambling said...

I'm not sure where you went to school, but where I went to school, almost all of my teachers wore grey and looked like you wrote about Mrs. Unger. We had this one teacher who was like that and she'd erase the blackboard (those were the days, huh? now, everything's been whitewashed with whiteboards...personally, I think either way, it's racist isn't it?) with her entire body!

As for the jokesters in school, we had a few in our school, but there were less subtle: more with the tacks on the chairs, that kind of thing, as I remember.

Jenn Thorson said...

Unfinished- At the time our blackboards were green. Which for some reason never made them "greenboards"...

I think Fig was a successful jokester because he had creativity going for him. Also because he really wasn't ever cruel, which made him a real fan favorite among his classmates.

Jonny's Mommy said...

This is hilarious and awesome. This kid reminds me of some kids in my class.

What a trip! And the way you told it just totally pulled me in. I had to go right down to the bottom in one sitting instead of two as I have to for some blogs when I should be working instead of blogging...not that I would ever do that.

:-)

Jenn Thorson said...

Jonny's Mommy- Hey, thank you. :) It's why I like to tell these school stories-- because I think there's a sort of shared experience in these little things. And at the time we, perhaps, didn't know how similar our lives all were as kids.

PS- Don't want ya to get in trouble with the boss-person! :) Good luck.

chyna said...

My Mrs Unger was actually a teacher that kept working thru her retirement age. Took one year of my class and she quit. I suspect they made all the teachers they wanted to get rid of be one of our teachers. Especially the English teachers, we couldn't keep one of them for more than a year for anything. hehehehehe

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- Heh, so you guys chased out all the teachers for administration, eh? We sorta did that for our French class.

We had a new teacher each year.

One was a bit psychotic, another actually had a nervous breakdown (related to a divorce, I think), one moved, and our senior year teacher actually survived us intact. :)

Nanny Goats In Panties said...

"I haven’t been teaching for 489 years for nothing." HAHAHAHA!!!!!
This was a funny and engaging post.
This is also the 2nd in as many days that I've read somebody talk about junior high. Must be that back-top-schoolness in the air...

Meg said...

Nice post. No wonder Unfinished Dude raves about you!

Chat Blanc said...

fabulous story!! I always had a twisted respect for kids who had the balls to pull stuff over on the teachers. I never would have dared. My mom was a teacher in a nearby district and my dad was on the school board of my school, so I had to live vicariously through peeps like Fig/Tyrone. :)

Jenn Thorson said...

Nanny Goats- I think there's definitely that Back-to-Schoolness in the air... There's the vague scent of new crayons, erasure marks and fresh pencil shavings on the breeze... Can you smell it?

Meg- The Unfinished Dude is really kind. You are, too, for visiting, Meg. :)

Sandy- I hear you. The kids who could pull those things off with really humor and style... Now that's doing something. :)

B said...

Brilliant!, Lotsa kids pretend to have a different name for one day with a sub, but to go for that length with the false name requires dedication... please tell me he really existed!

Jenn Thorson said...

B- He did, indeed. His name has been changed, but he was real. Moreover, we all REFERRED to him as "Tyrone" in Mrs. Unger's presence.

Good times. :)

chyna said...

We got rid of the P.E. teachers too. I'm not sure why but all the other districts seemed to send us their rejects. We had the guy who talked like Elmer Fudd and would get mad at you and throw his keys at your head, the one who had horrible aim and would throw a dodge ball at the kid next to you and instead hit you... um the guy suspected of abusing his girls and the girls coming to him for therapy. Oh yeah, there sure were alot of winners at my school.

I had to be a good girl too, my dad was also on the school board. Though during our 8th grade year I did turn into a bit of a smart ass. Hey if the old lady couldn't keep the class going why should I pay attention or skip ahead? We painted our fingernails alot in that class. She was so over her head in that class.

Jenn Thorson said...

Chyna- Wow, you guys were really working overtime... And plus, it sounds like a lot of those teachers were self-destructing all on their own. :)

Alice said...

Jenn - this post did nothing to placate my nerves. Thank you.

(But it is a great story!)

Jenn Thorson said...

Alice- But, Alice, see, you're COOL. You KNOW kids. You even LIKE kids. That goes a long way toward better Kid-Adult relations. Mrs. Unger disliked us all. Every one of us. She might not even like other adults, we're not sure.

That's the sort of person who needs to reconsider being in the teaching field. Not YOU, my friend!

chyna said...

Well you can't expect the very finest teachers in the state to come out to the boonies. Even though we did have the best math teacher in two states teaching. Then the school chased him off, priorities aren't the best in that district.

Once we hit high school we weren't scaring them off as much as before. They must have had a meeting among the instructors and decided that they will not budge no matter what we said or did. I really did have some nasty kids in my class, I keep expecting to see their names in the paper for armed robbery or something. ;)