Chapter 17: The Great Peter Washington

Peterson did take another step which did help though. In October of that year, Peterson named Peter Washington the Acting Dean of Students of the Latin School of Washington, D.C.

Peter Washington – he was by then in his late fifties. Unlike most of the other teachers RJ had imported – young, fresh Ivy League faces like Shen and Rita, Peter Washington was a career teacher from Long Island who’d taught Latin at a Catholic school on the Eastern Shore for the last fifteen years. Why he had left and come to a fledlging first-year charter school, he was open about: a new headmaster had taken over the school where he’d served and after two years Washington was only one small part of a mass teacher defection. Washington, who’d been chairman of the Classics Department, had left right alongside the chairmen of the English, History, and Math Departments. Washington had four children, as old as 20, as young as ten – the ten year-old was now just entering fifth grade and had transferred along with his father to The Latin School.

Washington the man was clean shaven and of high color, ruddy. Immediately his command of any hallway he chose to enter or any room he set foot in was clear. His deep-throated reprimands and sing-song admonitions rang down upon students in the halls like the voice of God.

“Mr. Widmeyer!”he sang out, “Get to class! To class, to class! Close up the shutters and throw up the sash!”

He called all students by their last names.

“Young Ms. Strothers! Take out your homework!” His oak barrel voice might have shouted across a garbage truck, or down a barracks. If a young man faltered with a word during class, Washington would instantly be on the move, limping with his bad hip into the back of the room, listing with his bellows:

“Oh, no! Oh, my golly!”

“Mr. Vereen!” he’d shout in his thick New York accent, “Get the dictionary!”

His energy, his pacing, his reprimands – offered little repose. He was among them.

“Is Catullus out to lunch? Is he crazy? Is that why he wrote this? Raise your hands! Not all at once! Don’t just sit there! Are you agreeing with me – Mr. Matthews – that Catullus was crazy? Speak up! Qui tacet consentit! Qui tacet consentit!” He stormed upon them.

Still, Washington’s gift was in his emphasis, not in his explication. He could not, at a basic level, take a difficult topic and make it easy to understand. That was not his strength, yet nor was it specifically his goal.

He loved to talk, and might spin endlessly digressions which wearied the listener and kept one on one’s feet in the awkward position of exuding all possible body language to the contrary, yet having to remain planted in place for courtesy. His classroom – upon which he’d lowered a heap of ancient Latin textbooks at the beginning of the year, straight from his previous Catholic school was the physical manifestation of a monomaniacal conversational style made real: endless stacks of papers that trailed over every coverable inch and missionlessly digressed into sub-piles: last week’s – last year’s – work.

As he could not discard a paper, he could not end a conversation. He had a tremendous, translatable energy, whose excess burned itself off in nervousness: rapid eye movements down the page, wicked digressions, conversations held at a reckless pace, interrogations with students stretched out across entire hallways as he limped alongside, his bad hip doing none to hinder his progress, and he himself scarcely taller than his students.

He hated email, refused to learn how to use a computer (“that infernal machine!”) but loved the telephone. Between classes he would phone his house on the pretext of waking up his older son, or of reminding him of some errand to run, and then drag the conversation on, always ending off by saying:

“Awl-right. I love you! When we hang up, cawl Mommie! Uh-kay! Uh-kay. Uh-okay – bye!” The receiver would be slammed down and ripped back up, and Washington would be striking at the digits and calling his wife up at work, beating his son to it. And his wife! She must have been even more of a talker than he was! She was the only person he ever seemed to want to end a conversation with:

“Ruth, I gotta go! Ruth! Ruth, I’ve got a class coming in . . . I gotta . . . Uh-kay, uh-kay, okay – I love you! I love you. Bye. Okay. Ruth – bye!”

He needed only walk into any room in the entire school and be himself, and there it was – “stage fire.” I cannot think of a better term for it than that one, a term once I heard to describe Charles Dickens’s theatrical power. He had stage fire, inimitable.

Even before he came in in the morning, teachers would hear him hailing them from outside the door: “Good mawnin’, good mawnin’! Ms. Merkin, how are you?” limping in the door at high speed, unable to wait to converse, a one-man style reminiscent of, for Saul Bellow, that ancient city:

Here in Jerusalem, when you shut your apartment door behind you, you fall into a gale of conversation—exposition, argument, harangue, analysis, theory, expostulation, threat, and prophecy.

At the end of every class period as the bell rang, he would send off students with his now famous words:

“Whoa! Nobody said anything about getting up!”

He’d pause, then break into it:

“Have a good day, have your way, don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, and if you do, tell me about it so I might try it! Byyyyyyye!”

The students would surge to the hallway.

He was by far the oldest faculty member, other than Peterson, having crossed with vigor into middle age, and it was clear from the beginning of the year that he harbored paternalistic feelings toward many of the young faculty members; he’d give away his sandwiches, loan out his keys, step into their classrooms to quell a rebellion with one tested, spirited look.

“Without Peter,” said Rita, “I don’t think we would have lasted two months.”

She paused.

“That was before R.J. pushed him out.”