How Mr. Borilla Helped me Find my Voice
my most-often told Borilla story
He got stuck with me twice.
I was a manipulative little kid when I entered his fourth grade classroom, one who thought I could twist the trust of adults in my life around my sticky fingers. Mike Borilla was the first teacher I had who didn't put up with it, and I fought him for quite some time. He won...of course...but those fights taught me quite a bit about myself.
I needed a person like Mr. Borilla in my life right about the time we ended up together. He could have certainly survived without me as his student, I'm sure, but fate put us together for two straight years.
In fourth grade, I was a devourer of Mad Magazine. I was also a budding class clown. I am sure the two had something to do with each other. Right from the start, Mr. Borilla let me know that he would not be putting up with any of my attempts to be funny on his time. The jokes I recited and the cracks he heard me make were quickly stifled. Mr. Borilla had learned to stifle class clowns long before I had been born.
Many years after I had left fourth grade, my older brother Bret--who had also been a student of Mr. Borilla--asked me, "Did Mr. Borilla ever give you a shaking?" Unsure of what that meant, I asked for clarification. "You know," Bret said, "where he'd grab your shoulders when he was mad at you and just shake you like crazy." Apparently, when my brother had been his student, this had been a common practice in some classrooms at Bullard Elementary.
Apparently, sometime between my brother's year as his student and my year, there had been some sort of teacher inservice, and shakings became a thing of the past.
When I knew Mr. Borilla, he was famous for his shoutings, not shakings. To show he was angry with one of your--let's say--practical jokes or sarcastic comments, Mr. Borilla would place his face just inches from yours and then he'd let the decibels fly. Loud questions, he'd always just shout a string of loud questions. What were you thinking? Do you think that was funny? Would your mother like it if I called her and told her you acted like this? There was no time to answer between his interrogative explosions. You had to just sit there and endure the volume, knowing everyone else was watching the classroom spectacle.
I got shouted at a lot during the first few weeks of fourth grade, which squelched my desire to become the clown in Mr. Borilla's class. I did learn that I could tolerate a shouting longer by tuning him out, by distracting myself with the features of his face. To not hear him, I would start by counting his deep nose pores as soon as he started barking out questions. I would then move to his ears, which had an alarming amount of steel-wool hair growing from them. His salt-and-pepper hair was always perfectly parted on the left side, and despite his head's erratic movements while shouting at me, he never lost that part. Mr. Borilla was a huge, towering man, and to shout at me properly while sitting at my desk, he had to lean over and take a position that must have hurt his back. That back pain probably fueled his fire.
Other than the shoutings, what I remember most about fourth grade was how Mr. Borilla had us do a lot of creative writing. He had a book of clever writing prompts that he mimeographed and passed out weekly. Each prompt was written in a rectangle at the top of the page, and below it were plenty of purple lines on which to write our response. From my seat in the back of the room, I observed my fellow fourth graders often struggling to fill their lines with writing, but I never had much trouble. Mad Magazine, I am almost ashamed to say, gave me the skill to never shy away from creative approaches. Apparently others in my class did not glean the same benefits from the magazines they read, and I started to feel that they resented the fact that creative writing came to me with little effort.
Although it would have been easy for me to spice up my writing with a few jokes, making my stories even better, I didn't. Mr. Borilla's shoutings, all that first September with him, had convinced me that humor had no place in this classroom. It was too bad. Some of those mimeographed prompts would have resulted in such better writing if I had been given permission to be funny. I had to be satisfied being the fastest writer in class, not the fastest and the funniest.
Then in October--in honor of Columbus Day--Mr. Borilla passed out a prompt that begged me to use my sense of humor to respond to it. Pretend you are a ship rat on one of Columbus's ships and tell the story of the explorer's journey. From my seat in the back, I watched my fellow classmates groan as they took this in. Are you kidding me? This had the potential to be one of the funniest ideas ever. Darn you, Mr. Borilla, and your humor-silencing shouts!
I don't know what possessed me that morning. Perhaps humor--too long silenced--just forces its way out eventually. Whatever the reason, I took the risk with that Columbus Day prompt. I started writing, and I let the jokes fly from my pencil. In a ship rat's voice, I made jokes about the food, the living conditions, the sea-sickness, and the lack of flush toilets. The Mad Magazine lover in me found an outlet, and my writing filled the page recklessly.
I giggled as I wrote, and I didn't realize I was doing it. Other students stopped writing, trying to figure out what was amusing me so much over there in my corner of the classroom. I made eye contact with them quickly, then returned to my flow. Take that! Another joke! And here's a pun for good measure. I was on fire with my ship rat story.
Then I noticed his shadow over my paper. He had crept up behind me. I was so ensconced in the work that I had forgotten to keep an eye out for him. My pencil slowed to a crawl as I realized Mr. Borilla was reading what I had been writing, what I had been giggling about. I almost stopped, convinced I could turn around and explain it all as a momentary lapse of judgment, but I never got the chance.
Suddenly my paper was in Mr. Borilla's huge hands, and he was moving towards the front of the classroom with it. He had grabbed it so suddenly that my pencil, still in mid-word, left a huge graphite streak across the page where he'd yanked it away. Mr. Borilla walked slowly to his desk, reading my paper to himself. His huge leather shoes smacked the green linoleum floor with each slow stride he took. The other students smirked at me, at my boldness. We all knew I was about to be humiliated, and we all knew I was about to get the grand-daddy of shoutings.
But it never happened. Mr. Borilla got to the front of the room, he spun around with a gleam in his eye, and I'll never forget what he said. "You have to hear this," he announced to everyone but me. "This is so funny." And he read it aloud to the class, doing something magical while he acted out my words. He paused in all the same places I would have paused if I had been reading it. And he stressed all the words I would have stressed. A few sentences in, several classmates started snickering. Then everyone laughed, including him and me. By the time he was done reading, tears stained Mr. Borilla's cheeks, and I'll never forget how that looked. He was the first teacher I ever made cry.
I learned that day that humor on paper can be better received than dumb jokes said aloud. Learning to write became something I suddenly wanted to do. Mr. Borilla had celebrated my words when they found their way to paper. That day, Mr. Borilla made me feel like a writer for the first time. He made me realize that I had a voice that could be heard on paper, and that is a gift I have carried with me ever since.
Mr. Borilla was stuck with me twice . That's right, I had him as a teacher again the next year, when he decided to change grades. Fifth grade was heaven for me, because I had learned to write my jokes onto paper.
I doubt Mr. Borilla had any idea that his simple gesture of sharing my writing aloud changed me as a human being.
Lately, I have been hoping to someday be stuck with Mr. Borilla for a third time--maybe on a plane, or in line at a movie, or in a waiting room somewhere. I'd like to tell him how he changed my life by allowing me to be myself while in school. And how I tried to give that gift to my own students many years later.