by Paul Saevig, ‘67
Mr. Elbert Latham taught at Sunny Hills High School from the first day they opened their doors, and he was the oldest teacher at the school. In one way or another, the students knew certain facts about him. He fought in World War One, and although some students believed he had been gassed in a battle, no one could be sure. He grew up on a small farm in Iowa, and they knew that because on Parent’s Night every school year, the subject came up when Iowa parents talked to him. Everybody knew he had a son who had died in World War Two and a U.S. Marine grandson who died two years ago in Vietnam. The grandson’s name was also Elbert. No one knew that Mr. Latham and his wife also had a daughter who was a bookkeeper at an animal hospital in Central California. It never came up in any of Mr. Latham’s classes, and he didn’t mention it to any parents.
He was five feet ten inches tall and lanky. He wore a black and white houndstooth sport jacket he’d bought at Roessen’s Haberdasher in Tabor, Iowa in 1947, right before he and his wife came out to Southern California, to Compton first and then Fullerton. The jacket fit him well enough then, but in the ensuing years, had sagged at the shoulders and lost its shape. He also wore white dress shirts from J.C. Penney, any of half a dozen muted blue or red ties, and any of four pairs of slacks, blue or gray and one khaki, and usually the simple black lace-up shoes a soldier might wear. He also owned a blue serge suit he wore to church and funerals.
There was evidence Mr. Latham had once been a handsome man. Every year some of the girls said he looked like Gary Cooper, or in a way a little. He had what could accurately be described as a Midwestern look, with a serious facial expression, a trace of reserve with it, and the cast of his eyes indicated he had seen suffering and had himself suffered. His eyes told he know life was not easy, nor earning a living either.
He was quiet. He smiled sometimes in class — the students thought his smile was sad — and sometimes he laughed, with a soft brief braying sound: a-hunh-a-hunh-a-hunh. Amusement measured frugally.
Fortunately, Mr. Latham’s smile was also warm, and everybody could see he loved kids. He spoke clearly and with patience, looked around at all his students, checked to see if they seemed to understand what he was teaching. He never minded backing up a few steps and to explain something in a different way, and then he’d check everyone again. He was a methodical teacher who stood at his wooden podium hour after hour, ready to turn and write with chalk on the black board at any time.
He could not be described as one of the popular teachers, no, but his students generally liked him. When the bell rang at the end of a class, he would stand next to his desk at the front of his classroom and watch the students walk out, and there was fondness in his eyes. If someone stayed behind to ask a question, Mr. Latham would sit in a student chair next to the student and talk quietly, using the student’s name. With a question asked and answered, maybe elaborated on, he would ask, “OK?” or “See what I mean?” or sometimes, “All right?” He wanted to be sure.
Lately he’d been stepping outside between classes to stand close to the parking spaces on the western edge of campus. With his back turned, he stared onto the Hughes property, over the field of brown dirt and green weeds to the eucalyptus wind break. He stood with his hands in his pockets, and he was still.
Some of his students noticed and watched. More often the teachers would sit at their desks during the breaks, or stand to stretch their legs, or hurry to the faculty restrooms and back. Sometimes they chatted with students, or led discussions of classroom subjects.
To these young students, the way Mr. Latham stood alone with his back turned seemed unusual, even odd, maybe.
They made excuses to watch him, several of them. They stood near a classroom across the way and looked back to watch. There was a freshman girl named Camille who considered Mr. Latham her favorite teacher.
One day she noticed his shoulders trembling as he stood gazing toward the windbreak. He bowed his head for a moment, too, and when he turned around, a boy she knew walked by him on his way to auto shop. Mr. Latham said something to the boy, something Camile couldn’t hear.
“He said, ‘Glare,’” the boy told Camille later. “But there were tears in his eyes.”
She told her mother, who only made a sad face.
Once Mr. Latham came to his first period class with a bit of tissue stuck to a shaving cut on his face. He’d applied a styptic pencil to the cut, which left a salty residue. A girl who knew Camille told her about this. When Mr. Latham knew the bleeding had stopped, he pulled the tissue off his face and dropped it the waste paper basket.
When her own class with Mr. Latham came, Camille searched his face from where she sat but could not see the cut. She wondered if it hurt him.
Another boy saw Mr. Latham eating lunch when the Faculty Lounge door opened for just a second. He had what looked like a sliced tomato sandwich and a banana, and drank a cup of coffee. When Camille heard that she told her mother, who said, “Yes, we always ate tomato sandwiches back in Iowa. Everybody did. They’re delicious.”
“If I made some cookies, could I give them to Mr, Latham for lunch, Mom?”
“Better not, honey,” Camille’s mother said.
Spring came gentle and bright to the new high school alone on her hill. There were hot days over 90 degrees and girls wore cotton dresses of pastel. Boys raced their hot rod engines in the parking lot, and the next week, Santa Ana winds raked across the quad. Camille had plans already to spend her summer riding horses at her grandmother’s ranch in Redlands. She would worry about Mr. Latham. The lines on his face grew deeper every week.
Soon an older girl who lived next door told Camille, “His wife has cancer.” A teacher said so.
Camille could not stop thinking about that. What would he do, she wondered. She asked her mother again if she could take Mr. Latham a ham or a chicken, already baked, with corn on the cob, green beans, hot rolls and butter, with a good pie, pumpkin or cherry or apple.
“I know,” her mother said. “That wouldn’t be right, though.” She looked sad as she said it.
Now it was hard for Camille to sit in Mr. Latham’s class and pay attention. He taught with the same voice and wore the same tired old clothes that were all could afford.
When the wind blew a scrap of newspaper into his classroom one day, he hurried over to pick it up and gave his soft laugh, a-hunh-a-hunh-a-hunh laugh, as if a team of mules hauled it out of him. He wadded the paper in his hand and dropped it in the waste paper basket. Then he rubbed his hands with the handkerchief he always kept in his coat pocket and resumed his teaching.
When the bell rang that day, Camille reached under her desk for her books and notebook. As the other students filed out, Mr. Latham came to stand next to her and said, “Please don’t worry, Camille. You’re a very kind young lady.”
He smiled at her then, and walked out to stand by the edge of the school to gaze across the field toward the windbreak. As he stood in his shirtsleeves, his shoulder bones pressed against the fabric, and his clothes hung from his frame.
Camille’s classmates nominated her to run for sophomore class secretary and she won the election. When a nice junior boy from a good family asked her to the prom, she said yes. Her mom helped her shop for a beautiful gown and her grandmother would loan her a striking jade bracelet, deeper than midnight blue. Camille also bought new western clothes for summer, and a new pair of boots with her initials embossed in a cactus, spurs, a ten gallon hat and corral design, in shades of gold, blue and pink. Her grandfather promised he’d teach her to drive in his black Lincoln Continental, out on a country road where it wouldn’t make any difference when she’d grind the gears and step too hard on the brakes, as all beginners do at first. She’d looked forward to that for ages.
Every night at bed time, cool air floated in her bedroom window and coyotes up in the hills got ready to howl. She fluffed up her pillow and lay on her bed with the Sunny Hills pennant on the wall above her. With scents of sage and horses in her nose, she prayed for Mr. and Mrs. Latham. Sleep would not come for a while.
In the mornings her girlfriends came for breakfast, or she went to their family kitchens. The young ladies ate pancakes or waffles, bacon or sausage, drank a glass of orange juice, sipped cups of coffee, laughed with hilarity the whole way through, chatted about people and events at school and opened their clear eyes wide at the gossip. Camille alone held back, pretended to feel merry, and rode with them up the steep driveway to the school parking lot, and all the while carried apprehension in her heart.
She would get an A in Mr. Latham’s class, where she’d worked so hard. He would write something complimentary on her student evaluation and her mother and dad would see. As Iowa people themselves, they’d be proud of their sweet daughter with the laughing brown eyes.
She sat in class with a catch in her throat. These wonderful days in Sunny Hills, these golden times of laughter and friendship would not last always.
Finally, a day came, a Monday, when Mr Latham was absent, and a substitute would teach his class. No one needed to explain to Camille, who ate her lunch alone that day while she sat at the western edge of the campus, gazing across the brown earth field to the eucalyptus wind break.
At 3 PM that afternoon, Camille’s mother waited in her car in front of the school. They rode in silence to Model Market where they knew exactly what to choose for their shopping cart. At home they tied on their aprons and cooked. There just wasn’t much to say.
At dusk they carried a picnic hamper with meals sealed in waxed paper and packed with care inside. They drove down North Richman to Malvern, turned left, and continued south on North Harbor to make their way east on Commonwealth. Camille held the hamper in her arms, the hamper that included fresh peanut butter cookies and half a dozen avocados too, gently and tenderly packed, along with all the rest. She wondered what she could say.
Camille and her mother parked in front of a small house built in the 1920s, a house with green shades on the front windows, oleander bushes in front, white paint faded and flat green trim. Clara walked along a cement way painted green and shiny, dull now with dust and age. She listened for a sound, a dog, a television set, and in silence she pressed the doorbell. Her hamper weighed warm in her arms.
On came the porch lights, all of a sudden, and as the door opened, a light switch inside banished the darkness. Mr. Latham loomed in the doorframe, lighted from behind, gaunt but clean-shaven but with a cut on the point of his chin, and he dressed in a threadbare white T-shirt that failed to contain his white chest hair, with a pair of green slacks, recently pressed.
He looked at her, and across his lawn at her mother, and remembered to smile.
In a hoarse soft voice he said, “Camille! Thank you, honey.”
He accepted the hamper, and with his free hand, reached to touch the girl’s cheek, once lightly, and no more.
“It’s good of you to come. Please thank your mother for me,” he added.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Latham,” Clara said.
Mr. Latham nodded, nodded slightly, and started to say something but changed his mind. He gave Camille a smile and waved to her mother.
The girl knew it was time to leave, and when she reached her mother’s car, they looked and saw the porch light on, with no lights inside they could see.
That fall, Mr. Latham no longer taught at Sunny Hills High School. The principal said he’d gone back to live in Iowa where he had a niece.
Three years later, when Camille rehearsed her graduation march with her classmates, one of the teachers mentioned Mr. Latham had died. He had been buried next to his wife in their little home town graveyard.
Clara’s mother and father said it would be all right if she used some of her graduation money to have a small wreath sent.
She chose lilies in a small earthen urn.
(October 24, 2019)