Terrible Tom, or Mr. Terranova as be was respectfully known by his awestricken students and their boggled parents, bestrode Sunland Elementary School like a colossus, fierce and terrible like a storm, a whirlwind, a crackling bolt of electricity, an irresistible, primal force. In the early 1960ies, a neighborhood school like Sunland generally had two teachers in two classrooms for each grade level, from kindergarten to the 6th grade. I do not remember now who the other 6th grade teacher was, and fear that person would have been a nonentity, a mere shadow, next to the awful majesty of Mr. Terranova.
His reputation proceeded him, of course, and there were parents who hysterically begged, pled and threatened in order to move their children into the other 6th grade classroom. Many more begged, pled and threatened in order to move their offspring in the opposite direction. Mom was content to let the matter stand when I was listed for his class, as JP and I had already been in his after-school recorder orchestra for a year or so and survived unscathed. But the recorder orchestra, an hour or so a week of rehearsal, tootling away mournfully on wooden flutes was one matter, full exposure to the Terranova experience entirely another.
In California, the school term begins early in September. The sycamore trees around Mr. Terranova’s stand-alone classroom building were already beginning to drop their leaves, and round seedpods onto the dry ground and asphalt. His classroom and five or six others had been added at the back of the permanent buildings, next to the playground. Having been in the 4th and 5th grades at Sunland— and in the recorder orchestra, this new classroom was already familiar. Rectangular frame buildings, painted pinkish-beige, with shallow peaked roofs, like Monopoly houses; on the long side, a pair of doors, up two or three wooden steps. Inside, the doors were on either side of a long black chalkboard. Rows of tables, with a metal slot for books under the plywood/Formica surface, and student chairs faced this blackboard. Windows covered with metal venetian blinds ran the length of the back of the classroom. To the left of the students, a long wooden-framed corkboard; on the right, a small cloakroom screened off from the classroom area with hooks for coats, and shelves over them for our lunchboxes. In the back corner of the classroom, there was a metal utility sink and cupboards for various supplies. It was all very prosaic, smelling of chalk dust and paper, and the sycamores outside the opened windows… until Mr. Terranova stood up in front of the chalkboard and launched thirty eleven and twelve-year-olds on the wildest academic ride of their lives.
To us at the time he seemed ageless, a “grown-up”, somewhere in that trackless interval beyond being a kid like us, but not quite to the ancient age of grandparents. I think now he would have been in his mid-thirties, short, compact and dynamic. He looked rather like the actor James McArthur, with very curly light brown hair, and snapping blue eyes: uncharacteristic for an Italian, we all thought, but it appeared his family was from the north of Italy. Curious even to think he had come from something as ordinary as a family, or been a child, rather than springing fully-formed from the head of Zeus, armed with a microscope, a pointer and a red pencil, perhaps. He was non-stop funny in a way that grade-schoolers appreciate, with a constant flow of one-liners, encouragement and criticism…And his academic standards were exactingly high.
I am sure all of our hearts sank as he outlined his academic requirements, and handed out lists of what he expected us to do, by the day and by the week and month. We would have a stanza of poetry to memorize every evening, and be expected to recite the whole poem eventually. Every month we would have to do a report, picking a subject from Mr. Terranova’s list of topics: ten handwritten pages long, having read three books for research, and incorporating footnotes and a bibliography. We would have science projects, art projects, we would paint murals and learn about Bach fugues, and Aztec pottery, he would expect us to read the newspapers, library books, his own mimeographed hand-outs and a drop of water under a microscope lens. We would read, recite, dance, sculpt, dissect, built, paint and read some more, and never realize until much later how extraordinary his classroom was, for Mr. Terranova had taken art and science to heart and combined them to an unparalleled degree in his classroom.
We studied biology—he begged, bought and borrowed microscopes enough for four or five groups of students to share, looking at paramecium and hydra squirming translucently on a glass slide. He scrounged an incubator and twenty-one fertilized chicken eggs, opening an egg every day to study the developing embryo. We dissected cows’ eyes and pig hearts, identifying the various important parts.
Music— he brought in a portable record player and mapped out the structure of a Bach fugue on the chalkboard as we listened to the Swingle Singers, a-capella. Britton’s Young Persons’ Guide to the Orchestra, Peter And the Wolf were played for us. The LA School district still funded a student concerts and opera performances at this time; students from across the city packed the Shrine Auditorium to see The Magic Flute matinee.
It was mandated that the 6th grade studied Mexican history, so we had exerpts from Prescott’s Conquest of Mexico and Peru. For two days, he chucked the regular daily curriculum so we could mix plaster of Paris, vermiculite and powdered poster paint and cast slabs and pillars in cardboard boxes and milk cartons. On the second day, we peeled away the cardboard and began carving Aztec statues and friezes. We had books with picture of Moche pottery, which provided another art project—mine came out looking irresistibly like Grandpa Al, to Mom’s vast amusement. A great mural on poster paper, which stretched across the entire end wall, was painted with costumed skeletons in the style of Diego Riviera; this afforded an anatomy lesson, as well as art, and social history, especially since I brought a book from Dad’s collection with a detailed drawing of a horse skeleton, which earned me the honor of painting a mounted skeletal revolutionary fighter on an equally skeletal horse.
We memorized and recited “Flanders Fields”, “The Cremation of Sam MacGee” (which fulfilled the gruesome giggle quotient for the boys), something about stars in the sky by Sarah Teasdale, Walt Whitman on the assassination of Lincoln, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and others of which I still retain lines, couplets and phrases, Mr. Terranova conducting our group recital like an orchestra, every morning.
We had a field trip to a grocery store, learning about transportation, and how all the different things were shipped in different ways. For another day, the regular curriculum was set aside and we built trucks and vans and other rolling stock out of wood blocks, squares and dowels, painting them with tempera paint, using saws and hammers, rulers, squares, and c-clamps, strewing the classroom with sawdust and scraps, and splashes of paint.
The small corkboard by the door was reserved for newspaper clippings that Mr. Terranova thought interesting and relevant. A picture of a heavy, ugly machine gun stayed up for weeks; it seemed that that old bugbear, international Communists were smuggling weapons into some little country called Vietnam. Even the kids whose parents let them watch television were a little unclear on where it was, or why Mr. Terranova thought it something that mattered. Almost as baffling for me was when my friend Robin reported being called “a dirty Jew” by a boy in another class, and Mr. Terranova, his face most particularly stern, bounced that boy into the principals’ office so fast I am sure his head spun. Robin wasn’t dirty anyway, and why did the sort of church she attended be an occasion for name calling, or our teacher to be so angry?
We read and wrote, and read some more, library books, and textbooks, and Mr. Terranova’s mimeographed handouts, and books borrowed, brought from home and shared. We did an exercise in alphabetizing a list, where he had used our last names, giving every one of us a hilariously appropriate business or service. “Hayes’ Books and Magazines” was mine. One day, I got so absorbed in reading ahead, I didn’t notice until much later that everyone was doing their science assignments, while I had been heart and mind, deep in another world. I am sure Mr. Terranova noticed— he who saw everything! But he let me continue in that other world, and never said a word when I replaced the book on the shelf and tiptoed back to my desk. To wander in another place through the pages of a book, completely oblivious to the real world is a rare and precious occurrence, which he respected.
I think this was for most of us, our first exposure to all the vast, wonderful pool of knowledge there was in the world, science and art and literature, our first dim grasp of how things would work, and how things fitted together like a Bach fugue, how all the world’s knowledge was in a book somewhere, we only had to reach out and grasp it, and it would be ours, whatever we wanted of it, but we would have to work for it with our whole heart and mind. I did not get a sense of that again until college… and I have always been grateful to Mr. “Terrible Tom” Terranova.
Besides, he was the very first person in the world to say that I had a talent for writing…. Even if my spelling and handwriting was awful and I should practice cursive script a lot more.