Saved by the Newman and the Bell
Remembering teachers who inspire
By Billy Eye
“If everything seems under control, you’re not going fast enough.” — Mario Andretti
I feel lucky to have attended public school here in the 1960s and 1970s. We had some great teachers and amazing administrators.
While researching something totally unrelated, I wandered across a 1988 interview with longtime Page High principal Robert Clendenin, who passed away just last year. “Mr. C” transferred from Aycock to Page High in 1970 during a period he described as, “Total racial unrest. I call it DMZ sometimes. We had a 10-minute break in the morning between second and third period, which was total hell. As soon as I could, I eliminated that. We had open campus for lunch, which means all could leave campus if you wanted to. I added the 10 minutes on for lunch, which gave [students] 40, 45 minutes. And we had absolutely not any problems.”
I was attending Mendenhall at that time and can recall several instances where our campus was on lockdown between 1968 and 1970 because of riots at the nearby high-school. By the time I arrived at Page in 1971 those problems had been largely solved, although Clendenin recalled an incident that year: “I had a confrontation between blacks and whites out in front of the auditorium, and I found myself in the middle, the DMZ zone, along with one of my assistants. And interesting enough, nothing really happened but the bell rung to go to homeroom, and everybody left.” That was the unique thing, he remembered, “The bell said, ‘Go to homeroom,’ and they did. So nothing went wrong.”
Two career educators in particular at Page made a huge difference in my life.
Jean Davis Newman sparked my lifelong interest in Shakespeare and creative writing. In fact, she’s the only reason you’re reading this now. For that I’ll be eternally grateful. In her 50s in the early 1970s, back when that was considered old, she was a diminutive fireball energetically darting from one side of the classroom to the other. She was that excited about teaching. Sporting horn-rimmed glasses, smart suits and a wide smile, she had previously taught at Grimsley and was awarded Teacher of the Year honors both there and at Page. One afternoon in English class she veered from her lesson plan to regale us with stories about being a part-time stenographer while she was in college near Virginia Beach. She had worked for Edgar Cayce, who has been called the Sleeping Prophet. Cayce would enter a trance state to offer diagnoses and cures for people in far-away places. She witnessed this (what some folks call) miraculous process firsthand and became convinced this otherworldly phenomenon was genuine. Mrs. Newman joined Cayce in the afterworld in 1990.
Ms. Elizabeth Bell’s classroom was and is the only formal art training I’ve ever had. Yet, preposterously, her tutorage prepared me for a career in Hollywood as a movie poster designer, where I worked elbow-to-elbow with cutting-edge graduates from Pratt Institute, Parsons School of Design and CalArts on blockbuster films for Paramount, Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox and other major studios.
Ms. Bell (I always called her that because she dressed so hip) insisted that those of us who were serious about art be as adept in as many disciplines as possible — markers, painting, printing, rapidograph pens, collage, sculpting, etching, silk screening, enameling, photography. She also instilled in us a sense of art history so that when an art director years later would ask me to render something in the style of Georgia O’Keeffe or Cézanne, I knew what the heck they were talking about.
By far, I wasn’t the best artist in her class. Brian O’Kenka and Suzanne Hughes (whom I ran into last Christmas) were much better than I was, across the spectrum. Still, a decade after leaving Ms. Bell’s classroom, finding myself in that artistic pressure cooker, I retained a certain amount of confidence that I could operate in whatever medium was thrown at me. Before computers became practical for daily graphics, we’d spend all day air brushing, drawing, Xeroxing, rubbing down type, cutting out pretty pictures of movie stars and pasting them together — all the while dealing with a room full of petulant brats fighting over the glue and pictures. Come to think of it, working in that Hollywood bullpen was a lot like art class at Page. Thank you for that very rewarding career, Ms. Bell!
Perhaps you’re from out of town reading this magazine around the holidays, wondering where you can go to escape the hubbub and get liquored up on Christmas night. Besides booze, College Hill offers a great selection of craft beers, as will nearby New York Pizza. Westerwood has a comfortable vibe, Wahoo’s is pretty divey, both attract an interesting clientele. Boo Radley’s Tavern in the Lawndale Shopping Center is cozy cool, and a holiday tradition for many in the surrounding neighborhoods. Jake’s Billiards, with its early bird opening at 3:00 p.m. has 69 brews on tap and delish bar food if somehow you’re not already satiated. Your Uber driver will know where these places are. I don’t get paid by the word. OH
Billy Eye will be celebrating Christmas with a Kentucky Gentleman unless Colonel E.H. Taylor bivouacs under his tree.