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  • Writer's pictureSam Payne

Mr. Bateman

Every grade at Alpine Elementary School prepared all year for a Spring program. On some April evening, all the kids in any given grade would file out onto the long steps in front of the stage, in front of the curtain. The lights would be down in the cafeteria, and parents sat in rows and rows of folding chairs. And under the bright lights, the students would recite some of the things they'd learned during the year, and sing songs about America. Those songs included classics like "God Bless America," and "This Land Was Made for You and Me," but also whatever top 40 songs about America happened to be popular. Later generations would sing Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the USA." My generation sang a John Denver medley that included "Take Me Home, Country Roads" and "Grandma's Feather Bed." By fourth grade, we were accompanying those songs on our own ukuleles. Performing under the lights, before a full house, we tried to stay calm -- tried to look cool. But we were, all of us, terrified of being in front of all those grownups. And not only grownups, but malicious siblings, waiting -- salivating, even -- over opportunities to make fun of us when we got home, or, even worse, there in the dark even as we were singing on stage. We were petrified.

"If only," we thought, "if only we could be like the faculty."

The faculty. Once a year, there was an evening program, under the lights in the cafeteria, given not by the students, but by the faculty. The show was called the Faculty Frolic, and our teachers -- our teachers -- told jokes and did magic tricks and recited Shakespeare. There was a barbershop quartet. Mr. Thompson, one of our fourth grade teachers, had a ventriloquist dummy named Elwood, and they had a schtick that I heard every year, but never got tired of. Mr. Thompson would say to Elwood, "Elwood, why don't you recite for us something you wrote." And Elwood would say, "all right, I'll recite something rotten by me." And Mr. Thompson would say, "Elwood, it's not 'rotten'." and Elwood would say, "Well, you haven't heard it yet." And then Elwood would recite, "I shot an arrow in the air. Where it went, I know not where. Then I heard the principal swear. Must have landed over there!"

We hooted. We guffawed. We laughed 'til we fell off our chairs.

After Mr. Thompson exited, a low spotlight came up on a campfire in the middle of the stage. It was made of logs nailed together, with a red light bulb down in the middle of it. And out onto stage trudged Mr. Bodell, my fourth grade teacher. He was dressed in ratty old overalls with colorful patches on the knees. He wore a stained white t-shirt. And joining him onstage was Miss Dokos, who taught third grade. She was dressed the same way. And around the campfire they passed an open can of beans back and forth. And they sang together, slowly and sadly at first, like a couple of hobos:

Oh, we ain't got a barrel of money

And then, louder, and happier

Maybe we're ragged and funny

And then each one had an arm around the other, and they sang

But we'll travel along, singing a song

No now they're kicking their legs together in a can-can step, right out toward the audience, and they sing:

Side by side!

And we went crazy. These people -- these good, kind teachers who put up with us day after day -- had given up potential careers as Broadway entertainers to teach us about math and science and social studies and good manners. We had loved them before. But now!

Watching the faculty frolic might have been the place the performing arts bug bit me. And for years, it was only longing. But then, when I was twelve, I got cast in a community production of The Sound of Music as the third Von Trapp kid from the left. And then, when I was fifteen, I read the cast list on the drama room door for the American Fork High School production of Camelot. And there I was. Lancelot du Lac. Lancelot. I'd get to swing a sword. I'd get to sing those great Lerner and Lowe songs. And I'd get to kiss Joyce Marden, who will play Guinevere. Oh my. It’s almost more than I can handle. And there we are, two weeks into rehearsal, and it's time to do the "If Ever I Would Leave You" scene on stage for the first time. Joyce is sitting on a chair downstage, and I'm standing behind her, and I, who am really, truly only in the first year or so of my tenor voice, have just stumbled through that beautiful song, and I kneel down next to where Joyce is sitting. She turns her enormous brown eyes to me, and her auburn hair cascades over her shoulders, and I close my eyes, and in I go.

It should be said in this moment that by this time I didn't have a lot of experience kissing girls. And I was incredibly nervous. And there were people watching. And there was blocking to remember. And it's easy to forget things when there's a lot of stuff going on. It's easy to forget, for example, that when two people kiss, they do things with their lips. They kind of move around, and they make, you know, suction, and there are gentle little sounds, and...well, I forgot all that, or never knew, or didn't know yet. And so I just sort of leaned my lips against hers, and left them there, motionless, for a few long seconds. And then we parted. And she said, in a flat voice, "Oh. That was lovely."

And it wasn’t, in any way, lovely. I was blowing it, big time.

Two weeks later, and we’re rehearsing that scene again. Under the lights. In the auditorium. And I’m fifteen, but my voice sounds like it’s coming out of a twelve-year-old. I’m straining for the notes:

Or could I leave you running merrily through the snow

Or on a wintry evening, when you catch the fire’s glow

And I know that at the end of the song I’m going to have to kiss this girl again. And I’m searching inside me for something that can make this thing live, when…suddenly…in my mind’s eye, I’m in fourth grade, and I’m watching the Faculty Frolic. Under the lights. There’s a hush between numbers. And then, a spotlight hits the curtain, and across the long steps that run the length of the stage, in front of the curtain, walks Mr. Bateman. He’s the custodian at Alpine Elementary. His white hair is brushed back against his head, except on top, where he’s bald. He’s a little guy, but he’s standing straight, with his head held high. Usually, Mr. Bateman wears blue jeans over cowboy boots, and a white shirt with pointy pocket flaps and pearl buttons. But now, stepping into the spotlight, he’s wearing a dark blue suit. And he’s wearing a tie. His daughter, Jean, is sitting at the piano. And the audience goes quiet. She begins to play. And he begins to sing.

If ever I would leave you

It wouldn’t be in Summer

Seeing you in Summer, I never would go

Your hair streaked with sunlight

Your lips red as flame

Your face with a luster

That puts gold to shame

And there’s a hush on the school cafeteria as he sings. He’s looking out over us all, toward the back of the cafeteria. And we can’t help but turn around, all of us kids, to see where he’s looking. And way back there, sitting on a folding chair in the back row, is Mrs. Bateman. We all knew Mrs. Bateman. She was one of the lunch ladies at Alpine Elementary. But I think we had forgotten they were married. We usually saw her carrying enormous trays of tater tots from the oven to the big counter where they could be salted and scooped onto our lunch trays. And we usually saw him pushing a wide broom down the school’s long hallway.

And now, here he was. Mr. Bateman, in his blue suit, singing with almost unbearable sweetness to Mrs. Bateman, who came to the show in a dress, and who is the love of his life. And as he gazes at her back there, I hear his steady voice getting even stronger.

If ever I would leave you

It wouldn’t be in Springtime

And suddenly, watching in my mind’s eye as Mr. Bateman sings to Mrs. Bateman; as her head tilts to one side and she smiles, I begin to believe that love and great singing can conquer a kiss misfire. I begin to believe that I could do this thing – that I cold be Lancelot du Lac, the knight of such virtue that he raises his fallen comrade from the dead after jousting him right through the heart. And I, who had always been hopelessly awkward with girls, straighten up and sing along with Mr. Bateman:

Knowing how in Spring,

I’m bewitched by you so

Oh no, not in Springtime,

Summer, Winter, or Fall,

No never could I leave you at all

And the piano reaches its pulsing conclusion: duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh duh DUH!

And Joyce has turned to me by now, and her eyes are wide, and I’m moving in, and she must know it’s not going to be quite like last time because she’s backing up in something like terror. But I catch her. And I take her in my arms.

And I kiss her. And all the things I never knew or thought I knew or had forgotten come back, without me even thinking about it. This kiss finds its way. I think she may have lost consciousness for a moment. I think I may have lost consciousness for a moment. And we part after awhile. And the director says “okay, let’s take it one more time.”

I look back inside myself, to my memory, and Mr. Bateman is leaving the stage. Everyone is applauding like crazy. And in my mind’s eye, just as Mr. Bateman slips out of the spotlight and into the darkness, he turns toward me and gives me a thumbs up. At least it happens that way in my mind’s eye.

If not for the memory of Mr. Bateman singing to Mrs. Bateman under the spotlight in the Alpine Elementary School cafeteria, I might have quit singing long ago – when preparing to kiss the girl simply got too terrifying.

But that elementary school faculty is still teaching me things. Things they likely never set out to teach me at all.

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