My history, as far as formal education goes, is pretty bent. In my adolescence I attended many different public and private schools, some that required blazers and bobby socks. I was pulled out of school for a year, to travel abroad with my family of six, and participated in a correspondence school that functioned out of Baltimore. My sister Chris, nine years my senior, acted as my teacher and her own, she lost her senior year to this trip. A gigantic brown leather briefcase carried our books, pencil sharpeners and envelopes for mailing tests. That was the best school year I ever had. Reading Robinson Crusoe sitting in grand hotels in Europe and learning about Greek mythology while touring every marble quarry in Italy as your dad shops for 16 tons of marble is a pretty stimulating way to learn. On that trip, I also learned things like asking “where is the bathroom?” would lead you to a room with a bath, not a toilet.
By the time I got to high school, I was dark and angst-filled. I was (am) a Wednesday’s child, watching River’s Edge and Heathers too many times. Nobody was paying attention to me by then. Nobody really had in the past in my pirate-like family but now that I was grown, I think my parents figured I could manage my education on my own.
I was enrolled in a Catholic high school, and rather quickly became a very poor student. If nobody was going to look at my report card, what then was the point in working towards a top-shelf slip of paper?
I had this Italian language teacher, Mr. Semptinfelter, and when I begged him to pass me for freshman year, trying my best to charm the life out of him to avoid summer school, he put his left hand on my right shoulder (I can feel that hand resting there now as I write) and he paused, tucked his chin in, looked deeply in my eyes and said so kindly that yes, he’d pass me but I had to start to take my own life seriously.
I drove my nails into my dewy palms and bit the tip of my tongue hard enough to bleed to stop my eyes that were glued to his from crying. My being, body and muscles made tense under his compassionate hand on my shoulder. The kindness of strangers, or in this case a teacher, is a tenderness that will bring me to my knees weak as a kitten, strip me of my fuck-it attitude that is my flippant coping mechanism. I came from a rough tribe of people who, clear to me, descended directly from savage Romans and Vikings. My people would cut your heart out in seven seconds flat to toughen you up, especially if all you needed was a hug. I’ve always thought this could’ve been a reflex of thousands of years of hereditary cruelty, one that I planned to unlearn.
Mr. Semptinfelter was gay with colorful v-neck sweaters that I want to remember being soft, pure Scottish cashmere but doubt that on his salary they were, and had a partial 80s new waveish mullet. He would try to engage me in class, asking me if I liked The Smiths in Italian. “Ti piace il Smiths?” “Si.” I identified how it was personalized and sweet of him trying to reach me but I had enough trouble with English, I wasn’t interested in learning another language. I simply lack a phonetic toolbox in my brain and often think this is why I lean so hard on what I see and feel. I found out too late, well into my twenties I was or am dyslexic, this accounting for some of my rotten school struggle I guess. I failed Spelling in the second grade, and remember wondering why nobody was helping me as much as I remember feeling shame. I very often pronounce words wrong but luckily I don’t give a shit and say them anyway, because the way I see, hear and store words in my vocab cabinet is elusive and messy and often I’m not sure how I end up stringing words together or how they even got in the cabinet in the first place. (art-ant-ica instead of Antarctica or arc-annie for anarchy are two common examples of how I turn words around. Oh, but how I wish that anarcho- primitivism could just roll off my tongue but it’s much too hard for me to say so I just read about it instead.)
I promised Mr. Semp I’d work super hard as his hand rested on my shoulder and catch up that summer so that in the Fall I’d be ready for Italian II. I was in Norway that August trying to work on my promise when my brother phoned and told my mom that Mr. Semptinfelter wasn’t coming back to school that September. Well fuck him, I kept my promise and he upped and abandoned me? Adults, you just can’t trust them! I stopped catching up and went back to poorly imitating the girls in Heathers, picking a different color to wear each week.
My next Italian teacher was Mr. Pisani. He was a sweetheart too, new to this country. He would look at us in such seriousness, with those huge ancient Italian eyes and tell us we needed to focus. But when he said it in his heavy accent, it came out “You need to fuc-kus!” We’d all giggle, me howling, almost rolling on the floor, him not getting why his words poured like diamond rain from heaven, to a room of 25 16-year-olds.
One day after school that Fall, I walked into my house to find my HS principal, sister Mary, sitting across from my dad in the kitchen (HQ) and to my eyebrow lifting surprise he told her that “Sure, I’ll make a sizable donation to your school, on one condition, my daughter needs to learn Italian and speak it fluently to get my money.” This was so important to my dad, for all of us part-Italian kids of his to speak this language, two of us already did by that point. She promised that Mr. Pisani would do as he wished. I smiled to myself and left the room. I had everyone under my thumb now, blackmail in my future.
I didn’t need to do shit. She wanted his money, which I knew he’d never give her. My dad hated nuns, and loved to walk right up to them and tell them three inches from their face how they’d wasted their lives, marrying Jesus, when they should have been making babies instead. I’ve never seen someone so actively advocate for a non-religious world. If he passed a car full of Hasidic Jews, he’d coast right next to them, honk and look at them and laugh hysterically pulling on his own imaginary earring curls.
My Italian class happened to be the last period which made this even better, I just stopped showing up, had my boyfriend pick me up before school ended and we’d go see movies and make-out in empty theaters at the now gone Pennsauken Mart movie theatre or go fishing in the Pine Barrens. I liked that he always hooked the worms on for me. When Mr. Pisani questioned my absence, I told him to go talk to sister Mary, knowing she’d tell him to pass me. I was given straight A’s that year, and never picked up a finger to earn it. Disgraceful, that woman nun.
The only steady interaction I had with Mr. Pisani was when I started to sell cigarettes that I stole from Wawas and 7-11s for a dollar a pack, he was one of the half a dozen teachers who became regular customers, selling them to him in his classroom’s closet with a closed-door. Talk about fundraising.
My friend, who was old enough to drive, and I would circle convenience stores from Pemberton to Cherry Hill and fill her Honda Accord’s trunk with stolen cigarettes. Cartons cost $24 back then and would be right out on the floor of the store. I’d quickly stash the cartons in my leather bottom navy L.L. Bean book bag that I used for six straight years, trying to grab favorites of our customers. I’d dash out of the store fueled on adrenaline to my very funny friend sitting in her running get-away car, smoking, laughing and blaring My Bloody Valentine. We never got caught.
Well, in the next school year, something terrible happened. Mr. Semptinfelter, whom I hadn’t seen in two years, a man who didn’t ignore me, or sell me out and bestowed a kindness that I can still feel, was murdered.
He went to one of those cheap sex shops out in Bordentown up Route 130 and met some 19-year-old male prostitute and took him back to his house. The whole story was not known for weeks, because the prostitute, on strangling him to his death during asphyxiation from behind, decided to stuff Mr. Semp’s naked dead body into a closet in his attic and push a desk in front of it. He stole his car and split. His defense had something about him being partially retarded and this caused him to not know what to do about his client dying.
As you can imagine this was a tragic scandal of the highest suburban proportion. This man taught children, he was a catholic. I went to his funeral with a band of friends all sitting in our wool pleated skirts, burgundy v-neck sweaters and grey knee socks. We were so sad, it didn’t matter how he died. He was dead. And to this day I can’t hear a Squeeze song and not feel choked up that I’m still breathing and my ears get to hear a song he loved but can no longer hear. “I bought a novel, some perfume, a fortune all for you…” sinks my heart every time. Rest in eternal peace Mr. Semptinfelter, you were a very kind man.
I hate that we live in a culture where sex is so puritanically misunderstood, laced with cheesy taboo and controlled by cultural shame. We don’t stop ourselves or others from pissing and breathing? Yet the very basis of being human, an animal who thinks (about sex), is crushed under the weight of this perverse denial, far more controlling then any government or religion.
Dude died during I’m guessing one hell of an orgasm. Or he was violently murdered. We will never know. Sure it’s a messy story but why is there so much shame in sex, desire? Maybe Mr. Semptinfelter would still be alive if he could’ve just been accepted in his Catholic Italian culture as an asphyxiation-loving gay guy?
At 17 I didn’t think what he did was wrong or gross, it just made me sad. I think my education being sold out by a nun (a confirmed lesbian that dated my chubby cat-loving senior year religion teacher for years) and being able to sell stolen cigarettes to my teachers in closets at 16 was way more disgraceful. And now looking back, maybe all that Heathers and River’s Edge watching was just a precursor to my own twisted end of adolescence. Art imitating life from behind?
I will always miss Mr. Semptinfelter. I think he taught me a couple of things in this life. One is that you can reach people through kindness and direct eye contact and the other is that I should never deny my own desire and sexuality so that it leads me to be stuffed naked and dead in a closet, metaphorically or literally. To never be the oppressed or repressed and to have sympathy and kindness for those who are.
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