Friday, August 13, 2010
I heard today that Bill “Great One” Gould died this week of cancer at age 66. I told my wife, and she asked, “Who is that again?” That made me realize I’ve been remiss in spreading the good word.
“You may call me Sir, or Your Highness, or Great One,” he stated on the first day of class. “I will call you maggot.”
I used to say that if you went to Willard schools and never had one of Gould’s classes, you pretty much missed the Willard experience. You missed out, probably on getting your ass kicked by the champ. “Great One?” would be answered, “Yes, maggot?” with lightning speed and just the right touch of imperiousness.
Surfing the pimply tide of smartass teenagers with golf club in hand, playing Whack-A-Mole with any heads that poked up too high, the Great One jabbed us with Rickles-esque mockery and made sure he scheduled his conference hour in period 7 so he could scram an hour early—to the Brown Derby down the road in his greenish El Camino.
If you had fortitude, Gould was one of your first shots at having an anti-hero. He proudly revealed his closet full of the same history tests he’d been giving for 20 years. “There are no tricks here,” he’d say. “I’ll write the questions on the board Monday through Thursday. Every Friday there’ll be a test. There’s no reason everyone can’t get ‘A’s. But most of you will blow it.” You knew it was all true, because the tests were all in purple mimeo ink even though the school had switched to photocopiers a decade earlier. Amazingly, some people managed to flunk those tests.
He practiced his golf swing at the front of the room. If you fell asleep, he’d hit your desk with it. God help you if you woke up drooling. He knew no fear or mercy. He skewered the kids of the School Board members, the Superintendent, anyone. He once signed a petition that called for the firing of… Bill Gould. He saved chalk dust and erasers long after blackboards were replaced with dry erase whiteboards, just so he could dust the cheerleaders’ black outfits on game days.
He thumped his liquor gut like a melon and said it was almost ripe.
Great One had funny nicknames for many students. Some were recycled year after year— “Zulu,” for instance, was used on my sister, and later on another tan blonde girl. Was it about the tan? Some were appropriated from the student lexicon, like Eric “The Juice” Poland, which Great One probably assumed was some ironic play on Eric’s being a pale antithesis of OJ Simpson. No, it was because Jimmy Barnes and I decided once that Eric’s big boxy noggin resembled a juice box. Maybe he’d call you J.J. or Bubba or Stairmaster. He didn’t have to explain.
If he lacked a nickname for you, he just said your name in a snide tone to tarnish it a bit. Great One knew that one’s own name could be the most cutting and original smear.
In Gould’s World History, I learned about Willardites. In Contemporary Issues, I learned about Rocks. In the end, Great One used the academic situation as a trojan horse to deliver his true curriculum: horrors of the social mirror. He tried to force our heads up through the low ceiling of our small-town youthful ignorance so we could see our own foolishness, and maybe see past it. He was also teaching us to wake up, to watch out, to be ready when it came time “to thin the herd.” Long after the facts about ancient Pharoahs faded, Great One’s core lessons remained relevant. I have never been more honored to be called maggot.
Maybe I liked Great One because I came off pretty well in his hierarchy of rhetorical beatings. Because I was academically mighty, he joked that I was “sitting back there in [my] ivory tower looking down on all you peasants” and that someday the others in the class would be working for me. Well, he blew that prediction. He kept a sharp lookout: he noticed when I’d written a letter to the Willard paper saying how stupid it was that some locals were hostile to Wiccans opening a church there. He read my letter and said he should give me an ‘A’ for the course because of it, but he wasn’t going to bother because I’d get an ‘A’ anyway. Well, he nailed that one.
A year after high school I was helping my dad at some land in Willard that he rented for his cattle. I had two big rocks in my hands when I looked up at the road, and who should I see, but Bill Gould in his El Camino. “Having fun, Mr. Woody?” he said jeeringly. Busted! Rocks were people caught hanging around in Willard—whatever hometown—after they should have achieved escape velocity. I think that was the last time I saw the Great One.
Now there’s really no one left qualified to judge us all so harshly.