A Weekly Column
Joseph Walker


It wasnít that I didnít want to be junior class president or anything like that.I had campaigned for the office, for Peteís sake.And I was thrilled that I won.Euphoric, in fact.

But only for about 30 seconds.That's how long it took Dave, the outgoing junior class president, to find me and extend his hand in congratulations.

"Way to go!" he said.Then he added confidentially: "Watch out for Thunder Lizard."

End of euphoria.Welcome to reality.Forget the silver lining -- bring on the clouds.

Her real name was June Carnes, but everyone just called her Thunder Lizard.Rumor had it she was an army drill sergeant before she became the world's most feared English teacher and junior class adviser.Heaven knows she looked the part.She was tall, broad-shouldered and . . . well, let's just say that she wasn't exactly what you would call delicate.She had large facial features.She had a big voice.And she had a laugh that could probably be measured by seismologists hundreds of miles away.

Intimidating?You bet.At least, that was her reputation.And it affected how I responded to her in the creative writing class I took from her my sophomore year.

"Joseph," she said (she always called me "Joseph"), "would you please help me understand this tendency on your part toward incomplete sentence structure?"

"Me?Incomplete?I don't . . . I mean, I don't think . . . at least, I didn't . . . "

"Thank you," she said."I think I see the problem."Then she looked over the top of her glasses at me, and I thought I saw a shadow of a smile flit across her face.

"Take it easy, Joseph," she said, almost kindly."You're doing fine.Just relax."

I had no idea what she was talking about, so of course her counsel to me to "relax" just made me more tense than ever in her class.And now I would be working even more closely with her because I was the new junior class president, and she was our adviser.Suddenly I felt like President Nixon, with Mrs. Carnes as my Thunder Lizard-gate.

Then we had our first meeting, and I discovered something else about Mrs. Carnes that was big: her heart.She shined it all around the office as she spoke enthusiastically about the coming year."I just know this is going to be the best year ever," she said, "because your class is the most wonderful class and you officers are incredibly strong."

Now, let's be honest: Mrs. Carnes probably made the exact same pitch to every new group of officers.But while others were unable to get past the Thunder Lizard persona, for some reason that I still don't fully understand it was never a problem for us.We believed in her and in her belief in us.From that moment on we assumed that we would be successful because we were, after all, "the best," "the most wonderful" and "incredibly strong."

And we did have a great year.But as I look back on it, the thing I remember most -- more than any of the assemblies, dances or events -- is Mrs. Carnes.She was always there for us -- smiling, praising, encouraging and occasionally scolding.And whenever I started feeling stressed personally, she soothed me with words that I came to value: "Take it easy, Joseph," she'd say."You're doing fine.Just relax."

Mrs. Carnes loved all 394 of us during a time in our lives when we weren't always easy to love.And we loved her -- devotedly.By the time our junior year was over, "Thunder Lizard" had been replaced by "Mama Carnes" -- "Mom" for short.And when at last a new junior class president was elected, I sought him out quickly.

"Hey, way to go!" I said."You'll do great!"Then I added confidentially: "Please take good care of Mama Carnes."

Just before she died a few years ago, I visited Mama Carnes in her home.We talked about the good times we had together -- and yes, she said, our class was still "the best."

"But why?" I wanted to know."I mean, I don't think we were all that different from other classes.And you probably treated us all the same.So what made the difference?"

She thought for a moment, then she responded softly."The other classes wouldn't let me be anything else but Thunder Lizard," she said."Your class let me be Mom."

I remember June Carnes whenever I encounter the negative labels people sometimes put on others.Not that I'm unwilling to accept interpersonal reality when it presents itself.It's just that I've learned that my experience with a person may be different from someone else's.And the way I see it, you can always use another Mom in your life.

And a few less Thunder Lizards.

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ó © Joseph Walker

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