Academic Excellence Begins with a ’51 Studebaker

Academic Excellence Begins with a ’51 Studebaker

From A 5th Portion of Chicken Soup for the Soul

Academic Excellence Begins with a ’51 Studebaker

What the teacher is, is more important than what he teaches.

Karl Menninger

David Ford,my best friend in September 1956, and I were playing kick-the-can on our way to our third-grade class. It was a typical September morning in Jal, New Mexico. The smell of crude oil and dust hung heavy in the desert morning air. Until that time, I had been an A student and liked school, but this year things were different. Although we didn’t do many difficult things, school was turning out to be a place I would rather not be. These long fall days were spent coloring, adding, subtracting and looking at a dead snake in a pickle jar. I was a towheaded boy with a cowlick that would not quit. My jeans were worn through at the knees before it was popular to wear them that way.

Our classroom was also known as Mrs. Writt’s dungeon of torture. Mrs. Writt was a stickler for proper appearance and pointed out daily the sins of untidiness. I seemed to be her favorite target and to my chagrin, she would inevitably find dirt under my fingernails and my Keds improperly laced.

Although I didn’t recognize its significance until much later, this one particular day was to be a defining time for me. This would forever be the moment at which I could look back and say, “That’s when it happened.”

We had all colored the same picture the day before: a curly-haired, dimple-faced girl sitting on a hobby horse. The same image was used, no doubt, for comparison purposes. Now, I never saw the purpose in coloring; it was something I had decided that girls did. David and I had discussed this at length and had decided that, indeed, boys couldn’t be good at this activity. Any boy who was adept at coloring a curly-haired, dimple-faced girl most certainly wasn’t capable of excelling at “boy things” like shooting rabbits or playing football.

When I took a seat, my classmates were giggling and pointing at the chalkboard. To my surprise, my rendering of color on the curly-haired girl was taped prominently on the left side of the chalkboard, and labeled with broad chalk lettering: “Terry’s picture.” On the right side of the board was another coloring of the same picture, labeled “Sherry’s picture.” Sherry’s picture had been done by “perfect” Sherry Peirson. Sherry was pretty, clean and always well dressed. Her coloring was always perfect, with the correct hues and of course, always within the lines.

As Mrs. Writt called roll, I got a knot in the pit of my stomach and I felt my face getting hot as I slid further down into my seat. Suddenly, I felt like my feet were grotesquely oversized and I didn’t know what to do with my large, dirty hands, so I put them in my pockets. I felt dizzy and my vision narrowed to where all I could see was my coloring taped to the chalkboard. There it was, the girl with curly purple hair and green lips sitting on a red hobby horse, crayon marks irregularly straying over the lines. Oh how I wished that I had done better, or had a chance to do it again. Maybe the principal would call a fire drill or even better, the school would catch fire and burn down. Maybe now the Soviets would drop the bomb on us and we could jump under our desks and watch the searing heat burn all the paper products in town. Before salvation could come in any form, Mrs. Writt called my name. “Terry, Terry Savoie, come and stand under your work. I want the class to see who is responsible for this.

“Sherry, please stand next to your work. Now class,which of these is acceptable, Terry’s work or Sherry’s work?”

“Sherry’s, teacher.”

“Class, please notice how the appearance of the person matches the appearance of the work. I want you to be like Sherry; she is a shining example of excellence. Don’t do what Terry has done; Terry is an example of failure. This is what failure looks like and this is what excellence looks like. Okay, children, you may take your seats.”

So this was my position, the class failure. Oddly, at the moment I sat down I felt comfortable with my new position. My parents had told me, “Do what you do well.” I could most certainly do this well. I could, in fact, be the best class failure Jal Elementary ever had. It was a liberating feeling. I would have this position unchallenged and indeed be a clown, or sleep, or work feverishly at failing and forever own the official title of Class Failure. I found that I was particularly good at my new-found talent. I took pride in my position and never again had to feel that knot in my stomach for poor performance.

David, being my best friend, was impressed with my new ability and began to compete with me for my position, but he was never any real competition because he had never gotten the recognition from the authority on this subject like I had. I was the best at failure and had the credentials to prove it.

I found that there was a price to pay for my position. I had to deal with my parents’ disappointment every six weeks. I spent many long hours being lectured to and also had to endure regular spankings. The most difficult price for me to pay were my mother’s tears. But a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. My parents continued to tell me that I wasn’t stupid. In fact, they went to great lengths to encourage me and tell me I was as smart as anyone else, even smarter than most. But they were my parents and they were supposed to say that. The “professionals” knew better and had spoken.

Life turned out to be relatively easy once I had calloused myself to my parents’ grief. The school moved me on with my friends and annotated on my records “chronological promotion,” which meant I was old enough to move to the next grade. They did hold me back when I failed the seventh grade and again in the ninth grade. This is when my problems began to catch up with me. My friends were leaving me, even David moved up, and I was left with the younger kids. After I failed the ninth grade, Mom suggested that I get a tutor in algebra and English. It was then decided that I would spend the summer of 1964 in summer school, and that until my grades came up I would spend every summer in school.

The high school principal, Mr. K. B. Walker, called a meeting with my parents and me. He got so close to me that I could smell the oil in his red hair, and he said some very scary words to me that went something like this: “Savoie, you need to understand that I don’t care how long it takes, you will stay in the ninth grade until you meet the same standards everyone else does before you move on.” Then he looked at my dad and said, “Herman, you’re backing me on this, aren’t you?”

“Yes sir.”

At this time my interests were in cars and trucks. I was fascinated with all sorts of mechanical things. My dad had helped me buy a 1951 Studebaker and we spent many weekends together working on it. When we pulled it into the garage, it was rusty red and nothing worked, but to me its sleek rocket shape was the most exciting thing I had ever seen. We removed the hood and began our project by first removing all the dirt daubers’ nests from around the carburetor. We cleaned and scraped and I worked part time at Alexander’s grocery store, putting every dime I made into parts.

Eventually the car came back to life. We rebuilt the old flathead six and put in a new six-volt battery. I remember clearly the Friday evening in July waiting on the porch for my dad to get home so we could connect the battery and start the engine. Dad came straight in and we told Mom to skip supper—we had important things to do. I brushed the cables gently with a wire brush. Then I reverently tightened the seven-sixteenth-inch post clamps. Dad decided to check to see if the six volts were now coursing life through the old rocket. He pulled the headlight switch and the right headlight burned brightly. The light reflected my white T-shirt and Dad spit some Beech-Nut tobacco out the driver’s side window and raised his eyebrows. He stuck his head out and said, “Son, pour about two tablespoons of gas in that carburetor and let’s see if she cranks.”

He pumped the accelerator pedal twice and pulled the choke half closed, turned the key on and pushed the chrome-plated start button. The starter rotated the engine once, then twice, the rotations quickened. A bright orange flame shot from the open exhaust pipe, the engine spun to life with a cloud of black smoke and then the air cleared. The engine settled to a smooth, even idle. I whooped, Dad grinned and Mom came into the garage. She put her arm around my shoulder and said, “It’s running, you made it run, you’re good at this, aren’t you?”

I said, “Yeah, with Dad’s help, I guess I am.”We went on to paint the car and with the help of wet concrete mortar for rubbing compound, we got all of the tarnish off the chrome bright work. It was truly a work of art.

I tell you about the Studebaker because the work I did on this car became a recurring topic of conversation during my algebra summer school. To understand the metamorphosis that was to take place the summer of 1964, I must introduce you to Montrella Ruffner. My parents never gave up on me and they weren’t afraid to try anything. Montrella was a member of our church and was also a teacher. My parents talked her into helping me. She didn’t tell me anything my parents hadn’t told me but since she was a teacher, she was the expert on success and failure. Montrella was a robust and enthusiastic woman. She was rather large and usually the first thing she did when I arrived for tutoring was to give me a hug. When Montrella hugged you, you didn’t come unhugged for a week. We would start each session by talking about my favorite subject, my Studebaker. Montrella was as mechanically inclined as most thirty-five-year-old algebra teachers but she seemed to really enjoy hearing me talk about connecting rods, piston rings and carburetors. She sat enthralled as I spoke eloquently about firing order and ignition timing.

Then she would ask, “Is this what you really love to do? Would you like to be a mechanic when you grow up?” Well, to me, being a mechanic wasn’t anything special. Most of my friends were mechanics on their own cars. I allowed, though, that it might be what I would do. After all what else could an academic failure like me do?

This robust authority on success began to paint pictures in my mind. She talked about how it was almost magical how automobiles worked and how people who could fix them were like powerful doctors. She asked me to imagine what a world without mechanics would be like. “Why, surely we would still have to hitch up a wagon and bail our drinking water out of an open well,” she said authoritatively. She talked about the mechanical magicians that had fixed her car over at the Kermit Chevy House. How they wore the professional blue coveralls with their names and “Chevy Mechanic” embroidered on them.

She told me, “Son, you are going to be one of those guys, not only that, I think I see you being a Master Technician one of these days. Can you see yourself in those clothes doing that with a reputation for being the best?Why, look at Jimmy Lewallen. He is one of the smartest, most respected men in Jal.” Jimmy was our small town’s resident mechanic and a man of excellent reputation.

It was at this point she caught me, she gently nudged me into algebra by saying, “You’re gonna be the best, aren’t you?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“Son, do you know there are steps you have to take to get there?”

“Yes ma’am,” nodding enthusiastically.

“Son, you know what you’ve got to do first to be top of the line?”

“What’s that, ma’am?”

“You gotta do this algebra and anyone that can do the kind of magic you do with a broken down old car can do this algebra and do it well, do you understand that son? Do you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Then she said, “Let’s tear this algebra down and breathe some life into it, okay?”

I went on that fall to get a B in algebra—the first B that I had gotten since the second grade. It turns out that I was a solid B student with occasional abilities for receiving As. I joined the Air Force in 1969. They didn’t know that I had been stupid once and I didn’t tell them. In basic training, I was overjoyed when I was told I had a high aptitude for mechanics and that they were going to send me to jet school at Chanute AFB I11. To me this was like getting drafted to play linebacker for the Dallas Cowboys.

The victories, though, didn’t end in mechanics. I had many different and interesting jobs in my twenty-five-year career and in 1987, I was selected as the USAF First Sergeant of the Year, “Top of the Line.” I earned two college degrees going to night school and now that I’m out of the Air Force, I’m a teacher of aerospace science at Central High School in San Angelo, Texas. Academic excellence sometimes begins in strange and unorthodox places. To me, academic excellence began with a 1951 Studebaker.

Terry A. Savoie

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