One of the worst teachers I ever had was my eighth grade history teacher. There were a few others in my Mount Vernon K-12 days — and certainly in my times at Pitt and Carnegie Mellon — who were worse. But the absolute worst history teacher or professor I ever had between ’74 and ’96 was in a classroom in the corner of the new wing at A.B. Davis Middle School from September ’82 through June ’83.
His name was Mr. Demontravel, our American history teacher. Or as he preferred in the last three months of eighth grade, Dr. Demontravel (he had finished his doctoral thesis on the Civil War, on what beyond that, I wasn’t sure, and, given the way he was to me and us, I didn’t care either). Or as I liked to call him throughout that year, “Demon Travel.” His was a class that sucked the life out of history for most of us. Like most teachers of K-12 social studies or history, it was a dates, names, and places class. Unlike most social studies teachers, his teaching methodology was the epitome of lazy. Every class, five days a week, Demontravel would put up five questions on the blackboard for us to copy down and answer using our textbook. At the end of every two-week period, we’d get a fifty-question multiple choice exam, helping Scan-Tron stay in business.
Demontravel rarely stood up to lecture or do anything else. Lectures for him might as well have been appearances by Halley’s Comet, only the lectures were far less memorable. This process went on unabated for forty-weeks, four marking periods, an entire school year. Calling this boring would only get you into the door of the intellectual famine Demontravel subjected us to in eighth grade.
He wasn’t particularly helpful on the rare occasions when someone did have a question. When a classmate did ask him something, the portly Demontravel would stand up from his desk, which was to our right as we faced the chalkboard, slowly walk toward it, point to a question on the board, tell us in his best Teddy Roosevelt voice what page to turn to in looking for the answer, and then, just as slowly, return to his seat at his desk. Of course, the page numbers he gave us were usually wrong. Demontravel was truly an unremarkable man, virtually bald in all of his pink salmon-headedness, skinny and potbellied beyond belief. His shiny bald head had a Gorbachev-like spot on it. In his early fifties, Demontravel was so boring that it was a wonder that I noticed him at all.
But there was the fact that there was a prize on the line for us nerdy middle-schoolers—the eighth-grade History Award. “Something I could actually win,” I thought. And Demontravel was the sole arbiter over the award. My favorite and easiest subject was in the hands of this hack of a teacher. That made me downright angry whenever I thought about it.
What made it worse was that I was in competition with a classmate who cared for history in the same way that a semi-suburban boy like me cared for milking cows. For most of the year, we were separated by less than a point in our overall grades as we fought for the award. I guess I should’ve known that I wasn’t going to get it, regardless of my grades in Demon Travel’s course. My competitor, female and White as she was, was doted on by Demontravel for most of the year. I guess my near-exact same grade just meant that I was slumming in the A+ zone.
Then there was Demontravel’s demand for a typewritten three- to five-page essay on a World War II topic of our choosing, at the beginning of April ’83. It wasn’t something I could just write at my leisure and in my own handwriting. My father Jimme had to go buy a typewriter for me, one of those where you have to punch the keys to leave lettered ink on a page. I didn’t know how to type, and I knew no one else at home did either. So I used the two-index finger method, gradually figuring out how to type in double-space, to add footnotes and references, to write without using a pen. I chose to look at the Battle of the Philippines and the almost comical errors of both the Japanese and the U.S. there in 1942 and again in 1944-45. Demontravel gave me a 95 or 96 on it, helping me pull away of my friendly competitor at the beginning of May.
This was when we had our little incident, me and “Demon Travel,” in which I showed up the newly-minted PhD in his classroom. Ours was a discussion of World War I, one of the few times he actually attempted to lecture. He somehow managed to get wrong a key treaty on the Eastern Front that declared Germany a victor, gave them parts of Belarus and the Ukraine, and took Russia out of the war. Demontravel managed to get the parties involved in the treaty incorrect as well. I raised my hand, and when called upon I politely pointed out his error. He immediately became angry and told me that he couldn’t be wrong. Since I also could never be wrong, especially about an historical fact, I quoted the book directly, pointed out the name and date of the treaty, the parties involved, and the significance of the treaty to boot.
At that point he told me that if I ever corrected him like that again I would go Assistant Principal Gentile’s office. Gentile, a hard ass, would’ve been better off as a correction’s officer in Shawshank Redemption or in the HBO series Oz than as an administrator at Davis. I still didn’t want to see him, so I got quiet, quiet but fuming. Demontravel looked like a redneck after a day of labor in the hot Mississippi sun. All he needed was a shotgun in one hand and a bottle of beer in the other. My classmates were cracking up, excited even because they saw me as having put Demontravel in his place. I kind of knew then that it wouldn’t matter if I did finish ahead of my competitor. I wasn’t going to get my much-deserved award.
The lesson that it would take me until my thirties to learn was that life and learning isn’t just about how much you know and how well you exhibit such knowledge and wisdom. It’s much more about politics and being able to read people and situations before speaking and acting in such situations. I knew, but pretty much didn’t care, that Demontravel didn’t like me. He probably knew, but didn’t need to care, that I thought that his class was a joke, a cheap version of the short-lived contest show on NBC, Sale of the Century. Bottom line — especially in having gone through the experience of earning my own doctorate in history — you don’t mess with a boring yet overworked teacher who just finished earning a Ph.D. Even if his reach has exceeded his grasp of it.