My 7th grade history teacher was an aging hippie named Mr. Dix. Why someone with such an unfortunate last name would walk into a building full of 13-year-olds every day is beyond me – a name like that is the middle school equivalent of covering yourself in fish guts and jumping into a shark tank. Whatever his reason, it definitely wasn’t a passion for education, as he made clear in numerous rants about his plans to retire at the end of the year and move back to the Midwest, never to teach again. In class every day, though, it seemed as though he’d decided to start his retirement a little early.
The way I remember it, the class curriculum was mostly worksheets and several old videotaped episodes of Ken Burns’ The Civil War, which Mr. Dix had recorded off the TV years ago, judging by the age of some of the commercials. One time the Sears air conditioner ad that got burned into every kid’s collective conscious in the 90s came on, which generated far more interest from the class than the previous segment about the Battle of Shiloh.
At the time, Mr. Dix wasn’t there to quiet the class down, because he had the odd habit of getting up and just strolling out of the classroom while we watched a video or did Xeroxed word searches about slavery. Most days we could count on being left to our own devices for anywhere from five minutes to half an hour.
He never explained where he was going or why, which left us to fill in the blanks on our own. With our teacher gone for half the class period and busywork assignments that didn’t always seem to get graded, we had plenty of time to speculate. The class was pretty well divided between two schools of thought: There were those who believed Mr. Dix had some sort of amusing bowel condition, but most of the class had settled on the more plausible answer, which was that he and various other male staff members were off someplace having gay sex.
After all, the reasoning went, his last name is Dix.
But as the year went on, we began to spot Mr. Dix wandering around the campus during class time. We’d see him meandering through the halls while we were out on hall passes, and one kid in another period said that after one of Mr. Dix’s disappearing acts he noticed him through the window, walking across the athletic fields toward a wooded area at the edge of campus.
If he wasn’t having explosive diarrhea or in a utility closet with the security guard and the assistant principal, then what else could he be doing when he went out on walkabout? Most of the class united behind a new answer: Every day he was leaving his classes to go smoke pot.
To me, this seemed even less believable than the gay sex explanation. (I had always been a member of the diarrhea camp.) We debated it while left unattended in class one day, the TV volume turned down so we wouldn’t have to listen to David McCullough read excerpts from Abraham Lincoln’s war diary.
“It doesn’t make sense.” I said. “Why would he smoke pot at school?”
“Because he’s a pothead, dude!”
“But if they catch him smoking pot at school, he could lose his job and get arrested! Why wouldn’t he just wait to do it at home?”
“Because he loves the chronic too much! That’s why his eyes are always red when he comes back, and he’s all absent minded and stuff!”
The kid had a point – when he was actually teaching his class, Mr. Dix’s lessons had a tendency to meander. Stories about Robert E. Lee’s battlefield prowess would often blend into rants about the Bush Administration or the superiority of free-range salmon. He was usually munching on chips or pretzels at his desk. Students who sucked up often found their grades propped up by mysterious extra credit points that appeared in Mr. Dix’s gradebook – I know this because I sucked up. But even with all this evidence, Mr. Dix being a stoner just seemed like too easy an assumption to be true.
“No. He’s a teacher. Maybe he’s not a good teacher, but he’s not just going to cut his own class to do drugs on school property and then teach high. The other teachers would notice! Or the DARE cop! Mr. Dix isn’t that stupid.”
“Yeah, you would say that, Truman! I bet you’re gonna go meet him out there in the field and suck his Dix!”
This was how most conversations in middle school ended – one party accusing the other of being gay. It was a simpler time.
At a party awhile ago I wound up talking to one of my friends who teaches high school history. She was holding her beer and her cigarette with the same hand and seemed about as excited for the end of the school year as Mr. Dix was.
“The kids don’t have any work ethic any more, and neither do I. Last night I decided to have a beer while I was grading papers, and then that turned into beers, and then it turned into surfing Instagram drunk.”
“God. I hear stuff like this and it makes me wonder if some of my teachers were really weird, or just hungover all the time,” I said, looking back on the more lethargic educators I’d had and trying to match their habits with symptoms of substance abuse.
She nodded rapidly. “Oh, yeah. Most of them probably were.” She finished her beer and leaned closer, lowering her voice. “Every semester there’s at least a couple kids in my class where I don’t read one of their papers. I just put in a B+ in the gradebook and call it good.”
“Well, now I kind of feel like an idiot for ever trying hard in school.”
She shrugged as if to say, Yeah, maybe you were.
“Oh, hey,” I said. “This is unrelated, but I think a few of us are going to smoke a joint in the backyard in a couple minutes, if you want in on that.”
Her eyes lit up. “Oh, yeah! Let me know when you’re going out there.”
The more I think about it, and the more public school teachers I meet socially, I realize that Mr. Dix probably was dipping out on his own class to smoke weed during the school day. He certainly wouldn’t be the first person to sneak out of a job they didn’t care about to get high – I’d say probably two thirds of the Blockbuster Video employees I’ve spoken to in my life were stoned at the time. Just because Mr. Dix had a teaching certificate didn’t make him any less likely to mentally check out of his job once he knew he was quitting. All he had to do was not get too baked to run the VCR.
One day Mr. Dix started the video of The Civil War where we’d left off last period, informed us there’d be a quiz in the last 20 minutes of class after the video ended, and then departed the room. As soon as the door closed, a kid jumped up and rewound the video we were watching all the way to the beginning. When he returned, Mr. Dix didn’t notice, and seemed genuinely confused when the bell rang and the video was still running.
This kid ran the same play over the next two class periods, and we wound up watching the segment about Andersonville Prison Camp three times until Mr. Dix caught on and started writing detentions. After that, he quit leaving us alone so much. We must’ve really harshed his buzz.