When I was in middle school I took French from one Monsieur Dreyer. I had already been studying (the verb is used loosely) French for a couple of years, and had some of the basics. In Mr. Dreyer’s class I learned a little more, and could actually kind of hack it in French there for a bit. But any actual language learning that took place in Mr. Dreyer’s class was seriously secondary to the excellent action that took place around his class.
I wasn’t first introduced to Mr. Dreyer in middle school, however. In fact, I first met him when I was in elementary school around the time he began teaching at the school where my father taught, and I attended, in the early 1980s. I remember going to the apartment he shared with his wife, who is Japanese, when they had an exchange student called Atsushi from Japan staying with them. Atsushi was my age, and he showed us how to make onigiri (rice balls). Making rice balls is not all that tough, just rice, water, and salt. Still, I thought onigiri were pretty exotic and Atsushi pretty cool. Some time later Mr. Dreyer and his wife must have come up a bit short of ready cash, because they lived in a tent in my family’s front yard for a while. This seems a little strange looking back, but it wasn’t then. I have no idea what the bathroom or shower situation looked like, but something must have happened.
(My brother Mike also lived out in a tent in the front yard during the summer for a number of years. Maybe it was the same tent. Mike would run an extension cord out to the tent and play his boombox. This was a few years after the Dreyer clan was tenting it, and Mike was deep into the singer Richard Marx. I thought Richard Marx was alright, but he didn’t seem to have a lot of songs. This mattered not at all to Mike who played the same Richard Marx tunes over and over again.
Today Richard Marx is, strangely enough, bigger than ever. But not as a musician. He runs a popular Twitter account where he is a big liberal and also pretty funny. Marx is like Rex Chapman but less problematic. Rex Chapman is super-problematic. I’m not sure exactly how, I just know he is.)
Mr. Dreyer also played a little chess with my father, although my impression is that both of them were pretty bad. Certainly they were not pulling out a lot of “hard-to-find” moves. At that time, I knew Mr. Dreyer was a French teacher, but didn’t know if he was in fact French. Today I believe it to be the case that he is not French, is in fact from California, and just somehow became proficient in the language. Good for him.
Even before I took his class, I was aware that Mr. Dreyer was, let’s say, a different sort of fellow. He liked to tell a story about his brother who lived on a massive contour map of the San Francisco Bay area. The map was located in an enclosed structure that hung under a bridge in Oakland or something. And his brother just chilled there full time, so the story went. So Mr. Dreyer, apparently, was the normal one in his family.
(I remember Mr. Dreyer talking to me about John Lennon one day as well. This was maybe when I was taking his class, but I think it might have been before that. “John Lennon’s assassination was really sad,” he said, “he was just starting to put his life back together.” I had heard of John Lennon but at that time knew nothing of the circumstances of his death. And I certainly didn’t know about his ups and downs in the 1970s. Mr. Dreyer must have been a Lennon fan though, and wanted to tell me about it.)
In any case, when I got to middle school I was assigned Mr. Dreyer, as mentioned. Mr. Dreyer wore a mustache that looked pretty Frenchy to me—maybe that’s why I kind of thought he was a French native. There were also a number of the Tintin books in French on a shelf in the back of the room. I had read most of the Tintin books in English by then, so it was fun to browse the French versions and take in some of the action from a new lens.
In Mr. Dreyer’s class everyone got a “French name,” and I was called “Philippe.” I don’t really care for all these fake names in language class, although I recognize that some people do adopt them as a kind of alter ego. I mean, if a Japanese gal called “Sari” wants to go by “Sally” in English class that’s great. Makes sense. But my actual name sounds nothing like Philippe, so it just seemed kind of random. In any case, little Phillippe was not a bad French student, but he was a restless one. Mr. Dreyer’s classroom opened from the back door onto a kind of grassy area, and for reasons passing understating Philippe would leave class in the middle of the lesson and then try to crawl back in through the back door and up through the room, hoping to escape Mr. Dreyer’s attention. Mr. Dreyer did notice, of course, but he was pretty cool about it.
“What you doing there Philippe? Sneaking back into the room again? Welcome to French class si vous plait.” Something like that. I wasn’t trying to aggravate Mr. Dreyer or anything because I really liked him as a teacher, I was just doing what 12 year old boys do. However, Mr. Dreyer did not view every student as leniently as myself. One of my classmates was a guy we’ll call “E.P.” E.P. was a trouble-maker, and was known to pull the fire alarm in the middle school there on a regular basis. His parents were called, repeatedly, but he didn’t care. He loved pulling that fire alarm. E.P. would also prank call mothers of other students for whom he somehow had phone numbers from the school phone and talk dirty to them in a fake voice. So, yeah.
One week, E.P. and some other students had started throwing wadded up pieces of paper toward a metal garbage can located at the front right corner of Mr. Dreyer’s classroom. Mr. Dreyer let this roll for a few days, however one day before lunch he decided to crack down. “Mr. E.P.,” he said, “I’ll make you a deal.” “You can have one more throw of a paper at that trash can. If you make it, you can go to lunch. If you miss, you have lunch detention.”
Now this struck me as a pretty fair deal, because E.P. didn’t have to accept the challenge. He could have just passed and gone about his day. That, of course, is not what happened. Instead, E.P. wadded up yet another piece of paper and lobbed it at the trash can. He missed. This was the last straw for Mr. Dreyer who, instead of keeping him in detention as promised, took matters a step further. He grabbed the trash can (which was about three and a half feet high) and carried it over to where E.P. was sitting.
“You like garbage!” he shouted. “I’ll show you garbage.” And sure enough Mr. Dreyer, onigiri expert, former tent dweller, and French teacher extraordinaire, emptied the whole thing right on top of E.P.’s dome. Now you might think this was some bad action, and from today’s perspective sure, it probably was. But for us middle schoolers it was hysterical.
“Did you hear what Mr. Dreyer did?” we whispered for the rest of the week. “He dumped a full garbage can on E.P.’s head.” This was the biggest thing to happen all month, and we milked it, obviously. Again, if this happened today, Mr. Dreyer might have faced some kind of sanction, but the 1980’s were not like that. E.P. had been dumped on, and life moved on.
Mr. Dreyer eventually left that school and moved to Kyoto where he taught for a while at Kyoto International School before ultimately moving back to California where his brother lived on a map. Years later I reconnected with Mr. Dreyer on Facebook, where he regularly posts groaningly bad, yet still somehow funny, visual puns. “Cyrano wins by a nose” with a drawing of Cyrano crossing the finish line in a foot race, that sort of thing. Anyway, I wanted to get his perspective on the whole the garbage can situation so I sent him a message. What did he recall of the incident?
He didn’t remember it at first, but then he said “oh yes, that was with a student called “J.”
“No,” I replied, “it was with E.P.”
“No, no, no,” he replied, it was “J. JFK.”
Now I knew that Mr. Dreyer is prone to making some strange jokes, and at first I thought he was making some kind of oblique assassination reference. Was he suggesting that there must have been a second shooter?
“This was not JFK related,” I said. “It was some E.P. action. I‘m sure of it.”
Mr. Dreyer was not sold though, and it occurred to me that there may have been more than one dumping. This may, in fact, have been Dreyer’s go-to-move. After all, his treatment of E.P. was, in truth, pretty unfair—the deal was advertised as sink the shot or detention. Dumping was never mentioned. Was Dreyer moving about the globe and dumping full garbage cans on students left and right? It was a possibility. Maybe I was smart to stay low to the ground after all.
These days, Mr. Dreyer is living in California where he enjoys the warm climate. And he reads this blog. Hey there Mr. Dreyer baby, you’re a cool guy but that garbage can move could maybe use a little reflection. E.P. was a troublemaker, sure, but dumping just wasn’t part of the deal.