Never Again Missouri

Sometime around 1970 I was offered the job as the art teacher for the Clarkton, Mo., public school. Notice there’s no s on the end of school. There was one school for grades kindergarten through 12. I mostly taught high school with a few hours each week in the lower grades. Clarkton is in the Bootheel section of the state not far from Memphis, Tenn. There were a smidgen fewer than 2,000 people in Clarkton. The principal told me I might prefer living in the larger town of Malden, population around 4,000, ten minutes north on state highway 25.

I took his advice, packed my wife and year-old daughter and all of our meagre belongings in our VW van and drove to Malden and rented one side of a duplex apartment. Coincidentally, the first-grade teacher in the same school I was hired to teach in lived in the other half of the duplex and had a daughter the same age as our daughter. Not so coincidentally, she came from the same town in Mississippi I came from, as did the principal who hired us (he routinely recruited teachers from our hometown).

Halfway between Clarkton and Malden was a drive-in theater situated where people could and did pull over and park on the highway’s shoulder and watch the movies without a ticket but without sound.

Our first day in Malden we ate lunch in a little café and told the proprietor we were new in town and asked, “What’s there to do around here for entertainment?”

“Oh,” he said with obvious pride, “You can go down to the Pepsi plant and watch the bottles on the conveyor belt.”

Before my first class, the principal said, “I saw on your application that you listed Sock ‘N’ Buskin for club participation. What is that?”

“The theater club.”

“Ah, that’s what I thought. How would you like to direct the school play? We’ll pay you an extra $200.”

I gladly agreed, even though I had never acted or directed but had joined the club because all students were encouraged to join something, and the faculty advisor to Sock ‘N’ Buskin was a beautiful woman, a former Miss Mississippi in fact. And $200 was $200.

The principal also warned me that being a teacher in such a tiny town was like living in a fishbowl, meaning everybody would know everything about me. He told me that if I wanted to drink beer or whiskey I should buy it in a package store in Malden and not drink in bars. “Better yet,” he said, “Get someone else to buy it for you.”

Very soon I learned to despise everything about living there, but I liked teaching the kids. The kids in kindergarten and elementary school were fun. I didn’t expect to teach them anything, but just let them play with art supplies. They loved it, and I at least hoped that it would build self-confidence and spurr creativity.

The high school kids, many of them, seemed to take art classes seriously and, I believed, learned a lot. I tried to make the classes fun and interesting.

As for the school play, the script was already chosen. It was a badly written comedy about a bunch of boys who sneak into a girls’ spend-the-night party by dressing as girls. It was terrible. Even the kids thought it was terrible. During rehearsals, they started adlibbing, and their adlibs were better than the best dialogue in the script. So I told them to keep the adlibs in. It turned out to be a hilarious play thanks to the actors’ made-up dialogue. Parents cornered me after the show and told me it was the best play they had ever seen at the school.

Our neighbor the first-grade teacher was divorced. So was the school counselor. The two of them started dating—of course they did; there was certainly no one else in Clarkton or Malden for either of them. The four of us got together almost every night to play cards or board games and drank alcoholic beverages while the girls played their own games with each other. That was the extent of our social life. The counselor and the first-grade teacher were our only friends.

Teachers were all performance reviewed by the principal halfway through the school year. The principal wrote in my review, “Mister Clayton is knowledgeable in his subject matter and his teaching methods are innovative, but he lacks discipline. The noise from his class, especially the laughter, is disturbing to other classes. Not recommended for rehire.”

Along about the same time, my wife asked for a divorce. She never explained why, at least not to my comprehension. The thought of losing my daughter was heartbreaking. The thought of losing my wife was not. So I packed the old VW bus again and drove my wife and daughter the 423 miles back home to her mother’s house, unloaded the van, kissed my daughter goodbye, and drove back to Malden where our neighbor told me that since I was getting divorced it wouldn’t be right for me to continue living in the other half of the duplex. People would assume there was some hanky-panky going on.

I moved out and rented a room in the Malden Hotel and lived there alone until the school year ended. I saw the guidance counselor and the first-grade teacher in the halls almost every day. We were as friendly, but never again got together socially.

School was out. I was back home in Mississippi living with my parents until I could figure out what to do next. I went back to Missouri once again that summer. I drove to St. Louis to meet a man in a motel next to the airport for a job interview with an experimental college called University Without Walls. I arrived in St. Louis early in the morning and had hours to kill before the interview. I went to the St. Louis Art Museum. In one of the main galleries in the museum were two huge Frank Stella paintings from his early works with stripes and ellipses and triangles painted flat on oddly shaped canvases. Stella was one of my favorite painters, but to understand what that meant to me at the time you have to understand that I’m a small-town boy. I had never before been to a big city art museum. The only Stellas I had ever seen were in books and magazines. These were huge paintings that filled entire walls. They faced one another across the gallery, and on the floor between them stood one of Donald Judd’s massive metal boxes—hollow and open on both ends. Both of the Stella paintings were reflected on the interior walls of the big box. Never in my life had I seen anything like that. I realized that until I got to see original Pollocks and de Koonings and Warhols, not to mention Michelangelo and Monet and Picasso up close and in the flesh, I could never really say I had seen art at all. I thought I had loved art up until that moment, but no, I became an art lover in that moment.

After leaving the museum and wandering around downtown, I came upon a movie theater that was showing a concert film called Mad Dogs and Englishmen starring Joe Cocker with Leon Russell on piano. Believe it or not, I had never heard of that film or the concert or Leon Russell. I had at least heard of Joe Cocker and thought he was weird but good. So I went in and watched the film and decided on the spot that Russell was the greatest rock pianist in the history of rock piano playing.

As for the job interview, I did get hired to teach at University Without Walls, but the school never got launched. Oh well, Leon and Joe and Frank and Donald made the trip worth driving all the way there and back.

That fall I went to Nashville, where I started a brand new life, and then to New York City.

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