© Copyright 2023 by Angela Townsend
Photo by Laura Ohlman on Unsplash
This would have been instantly apparent to wiser eyes, but I was, what — eleven? And when you are eleven, you are warned early and often about Mr. van Auken.
It was sturdy advice, as hard as the massive ordnance gleaming from every wall. As the middle school technology teacher since at least the Spanish Civil War, Mr. van Auken had access to powerful, deadly items found nowhere else in an eleven-year-old’s world.
He never tired of repeating this.
From the hour he opened his mouth — an abyss, we were warned, of vapors so terrifying, eighth-graders left furtive blocks of Dentyne on his desk — he spoke of beheading by miter saw, dismemberment by mortiser. No doubt he looked wearier than his eighty or so years because all he thought about was the gruesome and likely deaths of middle schoolers.
Such deaths would not happen on his watch, which meant such deaths would not be shut up about, ever.
Apparently the most fragile begonia in Mr. van Auken’s classroom was a long-haired girl, and he waxed long and anguished about the power of the ponytail to save lives. Bobbed like a late-born Gidget, my hair was too short to pull back, too short to pull me to my demise. But that wasn’t why Mr. van Auken trusted me.
Properly terrified by his talk and reports of his putrid wickedness, I did not trust Mr. van Auken. But I trusted the second greatest power I’d ever known to pull me through: my own earnestness.
I knew I would be useless at those merciless machines (an accurate prophecy), but I knew I could ace the exams. I expected my projects would insult the trees who died to give us birdhouses, but I was confident I could write finest-grit prose about the Industrial Revolution.
I studied diligently. I kept my tools clean. I kept my eyes open. I kept my tiny bangs behind a headband, just in case.
I couldn’t keep from shaking the day Mr. van Auken summoned me in there, under the MEASURE ONCE, CUT TWICE sign.
There, behind the shop, no doubt where all the putrid wickedness was hatched and hammered, was Mr. van Auken’s office. It was as clean as one would expect from a man who has had over eighty years to hone his neuroticism. There was no Dentyne (no surprise he had rejected such sincere offerings). There were no altars to Satan.
There was just Mr. van Auken, all sparrow-grey eyes and Daddy Warbucks head.
And then, there was a wooden box in my hand, as stunning as anything at Sotheby’s.
It was filled with pencils, each one covered in happy faces.
“Pick one. Pick a few.”
“What?” I was waiting for the vapors.
He smiled. He was apparently capable of that. “You keep acing my tests. You take this all so seriously. I wanted to celebrate that.”
Putrid wickedness, I knew even at eleven, cannot celebrate. I took a pencil. I laughed against my better judgment. Mr. van Auken laughed. Then he gave me an eraser shaped like Bugs Bunny.
“Stick that on the top. Look. That’s cool.”
It was the coolest thing in the entire middle school.
And so began my bond with an eighty-year-old paradox, the meanest man in Middleburg whose breath was not terrible and whose friendship was not difficult.
I started coming in before class to ask questions. (Questions, I knew even at eleven, are friendship’s favorite food.) I admitted I was scared of all the artillery, scared enough that I couldn’t make any progress on my Tic-Tac-Toe board.
“I don’t want you scared. I just want you respectful.”
His grey eyes chuckled more often than his mouth, which had learned to be solemn, maybe from all those years of unsolicited Dentyne. When he said “respectful,” we eye-laughed at each other, because everyone knew that no one was as respectful as me. Now I just needed to respect the vicious, violent, death-dealing machines.
My Tic-Tac-Toe board, meant to look like a cat, looked like putrid wickedness. So Mr. van Auken did the only thing he could do.
He finished it for me overnight.
He would never admit this, and I would never ask, but how else to account for the fact that it was entirely adorable, as soul-crafted as his pencil box?
We did not speak of this.
We did speak of many things, television and springtime and the importance of family. The day I came in with peace signs and inky yin-yangs sketched on my hand, he treated it as a death in the family, shuttling me to the back of his office to scrub them off. “Don’t do that. Don’t ever do that. Don’t mark yourself.”
I never did it again.
I was never his student again. Tech was only required of sixth graders, and not even Mr. van Auken’s trust could convince me to take electives like “Advanced Saw Skills” or “Drilling at Home.”
But I knew the truth behind the gears, and I scrubbed the rust everywhere I heard it. “Mr. van Auken is wonderful,” I sternly told sixth-graders. “Mr. van Auken cares about every student. Mr. van Auken will help you. Mr. van Auken will be your friend.”
I hope Mr. van Auken found many friends and many fewer bricks of Dentyne.
I found a new friend in September, a leggy tenth-grader stationed as my Biology lab partner. High school, contrary to all the warnings, had been kinder than the middle school machine. Jake was an early indication that even respectful, bobbed-hair girls can feel intermittently cool.
He looked just like Bob Dylan’s son, the Wallflower, and he turned into a stringy smiley face when I arrived.
“She’s prettier than all three of the girls on Friends,” he informed Mr. Tinsley, our warm walrus of a Bio teacher.
“That’s accurate,” Mr. Tinsley solemnly agreed. (I had seen him at ecumenical three-church Christmas Eve services for years. Mr. Tinsley would be my friend.)
“She’s a bodacious lady,” Jake told Jason, the Puerto Rican behemoth who would be the first of several boys to come out to me.
And when Jake finally “asked me out,” the mid-90s euphenism for “let us tell everyone we are boyfriend and girlfriend, but not go on anything so dangerous as a date,” I had been rehearsing my “yes” for weeks.
My parents never met Jake — this would have required more than “going out with him” — but they loved him easily. He wrote them letters about my intellect and our shared enjoyment of “quality programming like Friends,” accompanied by a Polaroid of himself smiling.
And his father, oh his father, his father, was just going to love this, Jake assured me. He was so excited, he couldn’t even believe it.
Somehow I had overlooked the smiley sawteeth of Jake’s last name.
Jake. van Auken.
If Mr. van Auken was eighty, how could he have a son in high school Biology who looked like Bob Dylan’s son? How…?
Technically, Mr. van Auken was probably all of forty-eight. But when you are eleven, you see the elderly everywhere.
And when you are going out with Mr. van Auken’s son, you drop all your pencils on the floor, repeatedly.
Jake and I fizzled by Christmas, but in the friendly, shrugging way of “boyfriends and girlfriends” who were just trying on the costumes. He had never even held my hand, but at fourteen I wasn’t ready to work that machine anyway.
At the holiday concert, Jake exulted to reunite old friends, and Mr. van Auken laughed with his eyes and his mouth and his whole plaid person.
Jake and I would go on to be friends and co-defenders against deadly items for years. We still yell Facebook “happy birthdays!” to each other on his (Christmas) and mine (St. Patrick’s Day).
Mr. van Auken is doing just fine, and still not eighty. But then, eleven year olds don’t know everything about life.
Mr. van Auken knew what I’m still learning. Life is mysterious, a matter of many tools and measured caution. Life is a question, but questions are friendship’s food. Life is a chance to make a million marks, some of which last.
Don’t mark yourself.
Do pick your pencil. Pick a few.