The discount freak show that passes for public education in South Carolina delivers an impressive lineup of unmedicated psychotics and brain-dead babysitters calling themselves teachers. Before I had even graduated elementary school, I had spent a full year taught by a narcoleptic grandma who nodded off mid-sentence several times a day and another schizophrenic woman who invented scientific “facts” off the top of her head (the human heart, she informed us, will continue to beat long after death – even if you’re cremated!).
But I just received news from my brother that the weirdest, most noxious, most pathetic and thoroughly infuriating “teacher” in this historic rouge’s gallery has just passed away, which, I must confess, leaves me feeling a smidgen of remorse. Darling Billy (real name withheld out of respect for his kinfolk, who have surely suffered enough all these years without me pouring salt into the herpes) was far from beloved. But those of us who survived his classroom share an unmistakable bond, much like that of POWs in ‘Nam.
Describing Darling Billy is difficult, but I have a recipe that might help create a mental impression. Start with a Rip Taylor/ Tennessee Williams base. Add generous helpings of Foghorn Leghorn and a touch of Mae West. Get them all really drunk and have them recite Dustin Hoffman’s dialogue from Rain Man through a bullhorn. You’re somewhere in the neighborhood.
Swish? Certainly. But Bill’s offense wasn’t being a Southern dandy, it was wasting our time – and doing so in such a way that he was impossible to ignore. The closest Darling Billy ever came to actual art instruction was passing out Xeroxes which showed, in four easy stages, how to draw Donald Duck’s head. We drew Donald’s head repeatedly, filling page after page of four-step Disney riffs. After several days of Donald, we were given the challenge of Minnie. Did I mention this was a high school art class?
Teaching wasn’t Billy’s strong suit. What he preferred was a good roll call. A painfully tedious, 45-minute roll call, interspersed with his trademark catch phrases, which he bellowed like an angry Ethel Merman.
“Where’s Laurie RAM BO!!!
“Is she cutting?
“Is Laurie RAM BO cutting my class?!
“Well, where is she?
“WHERE’S LAURIE RAMBO?!?”
This would go on for several minutes until Bill would suggest that Laurie (who, much to our jealousy, probably really was cutting) deserved a referral slip to the principal’s office.
“HAND ME A REFERRAL!” he would demand to no one in particular. “HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!”
That demonic, Charles Nelson Reilly laughter indicated that he found his theatrical time-wasting humorous, even if no one else did. Then he’d move on to the next name on the roll. Many class periods were filled entirely with this roll call routine. I still hear the laugh in the darkest recesses of my nightmares.
In truth, there was a small group of redneck girls who, in the hopes of passing the class without having to draw Disney doodles like the rest of us, encouraged his boisterous shtick and, when demanded, handed him referral slips. I was gratified to discover that, at the end of the year, he flunked the shit out of all of them.
A particularly grueling (and, in retrospect, hilarious) period was when Bill was selling the inevitable World’s Finest chocolate bars to raise money for some school fund or other. They seemed to stroke his bawdy lust for the double entendre. He would begin each “class” with a twisted pitch for the candy bars that coined his most haunting catch phrases.
“Who wants candy?!
“WHO wants CANdy?!
“It’s SO creamy good!!
“WHO wants CANDY?!
“They’ve got the BIG NUTS in them!!
“HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!!!”
Billy was clearly unhinged. His classroom was basically a study hall with a floor show by a lobotomized Buddy Hackett. His wasting of my oxygen inspired a war of wills whereby I was punished for my open rebellion (I politely suggested that he put an actual art class together) with undeserved bad grades and loud insults, which, in turn, motivated a series of prank calls to his place of business (he was a florist, of course), not-so-subtle symbolism in my drawings of Minnie Mouse and much mimicry of his ridiculously flamboyant behavior. Bill made things personal by telling other students that my brother, who had been in his class years earlier, had wasted a promising art career by ignoring the Darling One’s sage advice and was now pumping gas for a living. (For the record, my brother has always made way too much money selling heroin to preschoolers to waste time filling anyone’s gas tank.)
This feud culminated in my final project. Utilizing a naked GI Joe and some modeling clay, I hung Darling Billy in effigy, hog-tied and festooned with penny nails. It was crass and unimaginative, as pranks go, but even Bill had to admit the likeness was superb (I’m a born caricaturist, what can I say?). Bill had the last HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH, however. He called the cops, told them my “voodoo doll” was a threat on his life and had me barred from his classroom, flunking me for the year. That was embarrassing. I actually flunked “Who Wants Candy”.
Ultimately, it was a no-win situation. Darling Billy died too young, having no idea of the lasting impression he’d made on us (I ask my wife where Laurie Rambo is almost daily), and here I am, still unable to draw Donald Duck’s head for shit.
Not long after being booted from his class, a friend of mine said he was going to pick up a bouquet from Bill’s flower shop. I decided to send along a little greeting. My friend snapped a Polaroid of me with a noose around my neck, “hanging in effigy”, if you will, with a note taped to my shirt that said “Hi, Bill”.
Reportedly, Bill took a look at the photo and responded, “HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH HAH!
Where have you gone, Darling Billy? Are you cutting? Hah?
HAND ME A REFERRAL!!!
(My apologies to Laurie Rambo, wherever she may be, for using her real name in this account. I could find no substitute to match the delight Bill took in barking “RAM-BO” over and over. Forgive me, Laurie, but your name lives in imfamy.)