When I speak before educational groups, I tell my "war stories" - those tales that come out of my life as a schoolteacher. When teachers ask me how I feel about my current situation, I reply that I sometimes feel sorry for myself - when I've been traveling too long and spent too much time in the public fishbowl, and I'm tired and lonely and depressed. The self-pity doesn't last long - because a little voice in the back of my head always reminds me, "You could be in a faculty meeting."
Faculty meetings are black holes that suck intelligence out of nice people's minds. I hated them so much I always sat on the floor in the back of the room and concentrated on sleeping with my eyes open. Sometimes I survived by imagining what everybody in the room looked like sitting there in their underwear.
Once I almost died in a faculty meeting. I had taken a paring knife to school to sharpen in the school shop and had put the paring knife in the outside pocket of my book satchel, which was next to me on the floor when I fell over laughing at some absurd thing. I drove the knife through the fleshy part of the back side of my right arm and into my rib cage. It wasn't as serious a wound as it seems, but I passed out from shock and lay there on the floor. Nobody paid me any attention until blood stared seeping out onto the rug.
An ambulance was called, and I was hauled away to be stitched up.
The event entered the mythology of faculty life. "Fulghum hated faculty meetings so much he tried to kill himself during one."
It took a while for the chairman of the meeting, the young assistant headmaster, to believe I wasn't faking when I did my hari-kiri act and fell over. He believed I would do anything to get out of a faculty meeting, and here was proof. His suspicion was well founded. It was true.
He'd also remembered his previous experience with me and the ape and the naked lady. And that's a long story and a half - one that begins way out in left field and wanders all over the landscape. I like telling it because it's such a different story when seen from the viewpoint of each one of the participants. It has philosophical dimensions, as well. The story begins at a wedding.
A grand garden wedding in early summer. If a wedding inspector had stopped by, she would have found nothing amiss. Though she might have wondered why the bride and the groom and the minister grinned on the edge of laughther all through the ceremony. It was because the groom had threatened to beat his chest and grunt "Ooga-ooga" instead of saying "I do" at the proper moment. It wouldn't have seemed all that inappropriate if all the guests knew what I knew. For this was the wedding of the ape and the naked lady. I want you to know there is a happy ending to this story.
For twenty years, I taught a year-long course called "Graphics" in a private high school. The students called the course "Art for Turkeys" - because it was designed for those who thought they had no artistic talent but wished otherwise. The course was a mix of learning to draw, history of art, philosophy of art, and, as it turned out, sex education.
In the spring of the year, the Graphics class spent six weeks drawing the human figure. Nude. Naked. Both male and female. The students knew, from the art-history lectures and visits to museums, that artists had considered the human form a worthy subject for thousand of years. And they, in becoming artists, might as well do likewise. To open the door to the mystery and see it literally in the light of day.
Besides, adolescents already have a very serious interest in the human body. And at the same time, a discomforting fear. You may remember. Your own body was developing, and all your friends' bodies were developing. And you had no control over this - it happened to you. Bodies were connected to sex. Probably the single thing you thought most about for at least ten years of your life.
We drew the nude human form in the Graphics class as an exercise in growing up - to suspend prejudice and lust and fear. To see what was truly amazing about the human body - and to report that with the language of pencil and paint.
Despite what parents and faculty might think, this was no first unveiling of the secrets of secrets. The students were not ignorant or innocent. Every last one of them had at least seen Playboy or Playgirl magazines, and most of them had viewed R and X rated movies and videos. All had taken sex education and biology courses. If statistical surveys were accurate, many already were having sexual relations, and others would if they could.
These were late-twentieth-century teenagers. It was a mistake to underestimate what they knew. And an equal mistake not to ask them to go one more step and see the human body through the lense of art.
It wasn't so easy to convince parents and the school administration. But to make this long story short at this point, it is to the credit of the school that the matter was dealt with fairly and thoughtfully, and the drawing of the nude human figure became a integrated part of the Graphics course and the life of the school.
After a while, nobody thought much about it anymore. The event came and went without controversy for quite a few years. Samples of student work were placed on view or taken home, and were received with murmurs of appropriate critical appreciation. No problem.
(The ape and the naked lady are coming now.)
It was a friday. For a week we had been drawing the human figure by working from prints of famous paintings. Now it was time to consider the real thing. Our model was herself a artist and came to us from the nearby university, where she also posed for classes. She was young, attractive, auburn-haired, and shapely. Rebens would have approved.
An important part of what happened next involves the assistant headmaster of the school. Remember him? -- back there at the faculty meeting knifing. Tall, handsome, serious, ambitious, bright and eager to succeed at his job. He had come to us in the fall from a very traditional boy's school in Los Angeles, and had been left alone in charge of the school for the first time, while our headmaster was away at meetings.
He did not know that three floors directly above his head there was a naked woman. He would not have believed it. It never would have occurred to him. And I neglected to mention the model to him, because the fact of her existence in spring term had blended into the life of the school several years before he came.
Imagine him sitting at his desk, facing the door to his office, which opens onto the main hallway of the school. It is almost three o'clock and the end of the school day.
Just one more piece of information before the action really begins: the model had a boyfriend. Both the model and the boyfriend occasionally attended my church. I knew them socially. The boyfriend was coming to pick up the model at the end of the school day, and as long as he was there, he thought he might as well play a joke on me. He would rent an ape costume and kidnap the model.
There is quiet in the studio.
Model is posing.
Students are drawing.
Mozart is on the stereo.
All is well.
I leave the room for a little while to give the students a chance to work without my looking over their shoulders and to get some more supplies from a storeroom. While I am there, I hear cheering from the studio, then quiet again. I return to the studio. The class is gone. And so is the model. A prank I suppose - they're just hiding somewhere. I'm cool. They will be back soon, of course.
What I don't know is that the boyfriend has charged into the room in his ape suit, beat his chest, hollered "OOGA-OOGA," picked up the naked lady in his arms, and charged off down the stairs.
The class thought it was me in the costume.
Cheering, the jumped up and chased down the stairs behind the ape. Three floors down to the main hall and then all the way down the hall from one end to the other and out the door at the other end, passing, you may remember, the open door of the assistant headmaster, who has bolted up out of his chair and stumbled to his doorway as the ape, naked lady, and the students stormed down the hall and out the door. OOGA-OOGA!
Calmly, I walk down the stairs, looking for my class.
I know nothing about what's happened. Nothing. I swear.
And headed my way is the assistant headmaster, who is nonplussed and inarticulate. He thinks I have set him up. He also thinks it was me in the ape costume. But that can't be - here I am. He shouts, "What the HELL, Fulghum - what's with the APE and the NAKED LADY?"
The ape and the naked lady, in the meantime, have jumped into the ape's pickup truck and have driven away. The students have returned to the studio by another stairway.
The assistant headmaster pulls me by the arm out the front door.
But there's nothing out there but a driveway, some trees and a lawn.
Years later. The assistant headmaster still thinks I did a number on him. The students still think it was me in the costume. And the ape married the naked lady, and they have a couple of little apes of their own now. "Ooga-ooga."
Is this story true? That's my version. The ape and the naked lady and the assistant headmaster, of course, have theirs. The varying truth perceived by many witnesses is a fact of life.
For example, let me add one final view of this ridiculous event, contained in a letter I received this past year from an alumna of the school - a student in that very Graphics class.
She confessed that she had been afraid to be in the same room with a mixed crowd and a nude model, and even more, she was afraid to be afraid. She didn't eat all day. She was a doubting Catholic, but she seriously prayed to God that some miracle would happen if she went to class. She arrived late - just as the ape carried the naked lady away. Her prayer had been answered. A miracle. God had provided an almost unbelievable solution.
She said it kept her going to church for a long time.