Larry Locke was one of my favorite teachers.
Even in sixth grade, I think we “got” each other. I was the queer young boy who liked writing and gymnastics and had a peculiar interest in the Soviet Union. I even had a subscription to the magazine “Soviet Life.” He was the dyspeptic, often irascible, but refined queer language arts teacher who endured more abuse and ridicule from students than one should have to in ten lifetimes. My classmates smirked about him and made unkind comments about his frequent dosing of Rolaids and prodigious application of Chapstick. They said he lived with his mother and heehawed about it in that way that rural Iowans do when they assume that everyone is in on the joke.
No wonder he suffered from indigestion. It’s hard to digest homophobia when you have a steady diet of it. I knew it myself. I just wasn’t as exposed as Mr. Locke was. I didn’t know yet what he knew.
On the way to school that morning, we sang a rude song on the bus. It was a hand-me-down song from someone’s older brother or cousin about Molly Brown. According to the lyrics, there was a girl named Molly Brown, she swore no man could lay her down. Up the hill came Piss-Ball Pete. Ninety pounds of swingin’ meat…
We sang that song first, belting out those rollicking and salacious lyrics with unearned bar-room bravado. Most of us had never even tasted a beer nor had our first wet kiss. We knew only the culture whence we came, and all of the lusty woman-hating ethos we’d absorbed through our pre-pubescent pores. We took it a step further. Why hate only women when we can hate the gays, too? Whoever came up with the malicious poetry that included Larry Locke by name deserves points for creativity, despite the cruelty and derision that infused the spirit of the song. We sang that song, too. The bus driver, himself a rather salty character, was so appalled by our singing that he invited the elementary school principal on board before we were allowed to get off the bus and go to class. Woodward, Iowa was not known to be a cradle of tolerance and civility nor for its genteel nature. Still, we had crossed a line.
“Sing it!” Mr. Fleishman, the principal, demanded. “Sing it!” We were stone-cold silent. Perhaps we were embarrassed by our misbehavior — or we were, for once, aware that the words we sang with unbridled glee were also hurtful and ugly. We were thugs, and we knew it.
News travels fast in small places. Word got back to Mr. Locke that he was the subject of the song. Before language arts class began in second period, Mr. Locke called me out to the hallway.
With an imperious demeanor that was his custom, Mr. Locke implored me:
“I know there’s a song. Sing it for me.”
I stammered and stuttered for a moment.
“I can’t….I….I — -um…I just can’t.”
I looked into Mr. Locke’s eyes, behind his aviator-style glasses. The imperiousness gave way to softness, to trust, to pleading.
“Please sing it,” he said. “I want to know.”
“Um, I — I.” I found it hard to speak as a hard lump of contrition, sadness, and shame formed in my throat. I had sung the song, too. I wasn’t innocent. “I don’t think you want to know.”
“You’re not in trouble,” he said gently. “I won’t be angry if you sing it.”
I began to cry.
“It’s just not very nice,” I managed through tears in an 11-year-old voice that was, by turns, croaky and squeaky.
Mr. Locke sighed, tilted his head, and gave me a rueful smile. Then, he hugged me.
“It’s all right,” he said as he held me. “We’re going to be all right.”
We know what people are singing about us. We don’t need to dignify the lyrics. What I didn’t realize at the time was that he trusted me. To tell the truth.
I wasn’t in Mr. Locke’s class past sixth grade. Still, he taught me a lot.
We kept in touch, sporadically. I invited him to my high school graduation party.
He wasn’t able to attend, but he sent me a lovely gift. A copy of Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet.”
On May 22, 1987, Larry Locke wrote:
A friend of mine gave me a copy of this book in 1954.
Inside she inscribed “Nil Desperandum”
which means never despair. I’ve looked at it
often during the years. I hope you find it useful, too.
Nil Desperandum. Never Despair.
I have found it useful.
There were times when I did feel near despair. When I was coming to terms with being a survivor of sexual abuse. When I came out. When relationships I cherished ended. When I lost loved ones — to AIDS, to suicide, to substance abuse. When I was near despair, I wrote about it. Mr. Locke encouraged me to write. And sing. Even when the words were hard.
With some friends, I drove to Des Moines from Grinnell my senior year of college in 1991. Club 508 was a gay club, one of the few in Des Moines. I was newly out, drunk on Jack Daniels and Coke and the exuberance of being around gay people. No one but gay people.
There he was at the bar. Mr. Locke. I hadn’t seen him in a few years. My sixth grade language arts teacher. Sitting there nursing a cocktail, stirring the ice cubes nonchalantly while lost in his thoughts.
I tapped him on the shoulder. He whirled around on his bar stool. At first, his expression was blank and then quizzical. He paused and squinted.
“It’s me. Tony Weeks. Remember me?”
He sized me up, threw his head back, and gave a throaty, deep laugh. Quintessential Larry Locke. For a thin man, his laugh was robust and hearty.
“Remember you??? Of course I remember you!”
He hugged me and invited me to sit on the empty bar stool next to him.
I bought my teacher a drink.
“I feel kind of funny,” he said sheepishly. “I mean, would your dad approve?”
My dad, the superintendent of schools, was Mr. Locke’s “boss.”
With a flourishing gesture, I wiped away his concern.
“We’ll be all right,” I proclaimed with the wisdom and insouciance of a newly-out young gay man, feeling giddy in the illusion that the whole world was the reality of gayness inside this bar.
“Never despair!” I toasted, clinking his glass with mine.
“Never despair,” he replied, with a glint in his eye underneath those marvelous aviator-style glasses.
There’s a place for us. All of us. We don’t need to sing those old songs that hurt us and demean us. We need only to sing songs of joy and truth. I’m singing one right now.
Rest well, my teacher. And friend.