The first thing you noticed about my junior-high Spanish teacher, Mr. Jonath, was the huge circumference of his waist. Next, you noticed that his legs, by contrast, were long and spindly. And then there was his face: Groucho Marx moustache and eyebrows, and a big nose which held up dark-framed eyeglasses.
Your first impulse was to laugh, and Senor Jonath was not against laughter. His lessons were spiced with one-liners, gentle namecalling, and comic gestures. As we stragggled into class, Senor Jonath would growl, Groucho-like, "Take a chair and park your carcass." A student who fooled around became "el gran gufbol," or "el gran banana." Every student was given a Spanish name, which was pronounced in a gleeful, sing-song voice; mine was Juan Jose. When Mr. Jonath posed a question, he would scan the room with his eyes, focus on a student at one side of the room, and then, with a grand sweep of his arm behind his back, point to an unsuspecting student at the other end of the room.
Despite the frequent laughter generated by his antics, Mr. Jonath had extraordinary control over his class. He could stare down a group of twenty-five giggling seventh-graders and bring about silence in a few seconds. To this day, I'm not sure how he did it.
Perhaps, in part, it was because we respected his wonderful teaching ability. He was a model of clarity when it came to the vagaries of the Spanish verb. He got everyone involved in practicing new words and constructs, both verbally and in writing. I'll always remember how, after introducing a new expression, Senor Jonath would first call on two or three of his star students to recite, and then move on to give everyone a chance.
In warm weather, Senor Jonath would head to the schoolyard to challenge us in handball. No-one ever beat him, and no-one will ever forget the sight of that huge buffoon whacking that little ball. He couldn't move his big frame very quickly, but he used his size to advantage. Senor Jonath would slap the ball so that it would rebound off the wall and head just to the side of his body--the side opposite of where his opponent was standing. By the time the opponent had circumnavigated Senor's circumference, the point had been won.
This was a bit devious; yet my overwhelming memory of Senor Jonath is of a man of great kindness and intelligence. These were the qualities that radiated from behind that very pleasant facade of a curmudgeon and clown.