On September 8, 1958 (the first day I attended junior high school) I met Frank Mustappa. I didn’t know it at the time, but Frank would change my life. Despite the fact that he was a twelve-year-old boy, Frank was surprisingly mature. While the rest of us boys competed to see who could make the most explosive armpit noise, Frank practiced a more sophisticated and subtle brand of humor.
For instance, when the weather turned unseasonably warm one day, Frank played hooky and went swimming. The next morning, he brashly forged his own excuse letter, strutted into the principal’s office, and handed the bogus note to “The Man” himself. It read: “Dear Mr. Howard, please excuse Frank from school yesterday. It was a beautiful day, the bay was calling, and Frank went swimming.” The letter was signed, “My Mom.” The principal (as Frank had calculated) laughed at Frank’s moxie and sent him to class without so much as a minute’s detention—winning Frank the admiration of the entire student body.
Frank could afford to cut classes because he was smart as a whip. And while it’s true that he excelled in all subjects, English was his specialty. Frank’s weekly essays put the papers the rest of us nitwits wrote to shame. The truth is our writing was so pathetic that Mr. Lampley (our English teacher) would read aloud segments from our essays, hang his head in disgust, moan forlornly, catatonically rock back and forth, and then spout rude witticisms such as, “I’d say your work is moronic, but that would be an insult to morons everywhere.” He wasn’t particularly original, but you could tell he was sincere.
Eventually, Mr. Lampley would take a break from intellectually browbeating twelve-year-olds and turn his attention to his one ray of hope—Frank. “Listen up,” Lampley would gush as he clung to Frank’s latest essay—caressing it as if it were a priceless manuscript. “Mr. Mustappa uses the word ‘nuance’ in this piece. Pay close attention.” Then he’d read aloud an exquisite passage from Frank’s paper and I’d think to myself, “Frank didn’t write that. Some famous old coot wrote that. Surely no kid from the seedy side of Bellingham composed such an essay.”
In addition to writing beyond his years, Frank read and memorized a colossal amount of poetry. He exploited this hobby by working an occasional stanza or phrase into the class discussion or onto the football field (where Frank ruled as a first-rate linebacker). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until Mr. Lampley tired of Frank’s poetic preening. Teaching a precocious twelve-year-old who enjoys strutting his intellectual prowess can stick in your craw—and Lampley’s craw grew precariously full. Tension built between the two until one fateful day.
“Today,” Lampley bellowed, “we’re going to read and discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’.”
“I know that one,” Frank blandly stated.
Lampley took the bait. “Oh really? You KNOW that one—meaning you could recite it from memory?”
“I suppose so,” Frank responded with feigned indifference.
“Well class,” Lampley continued, “Please open your anthology to Mr. Poe’s masterpiece beginning on page 278. That is, everyone except for you, Mr. Mustappa. You can leave your book closed. I’ll start the poem, and then, from memory and memory alone, you’ll finish it.”
“Whatever,” Frank responded.
“Once upon a midnight dreary,” Lampley attacked.
“While I pondered, weak and weary,” Frank countered.
“Over many quaint . . . ” Lampley inserted.
“ . . . and curious volume of forgotten lore,” Frank regained control.
From that point on, Frank recited every word of the remaining 106 lines—pausing at every comma, and punching every key phrase. By the end of his exhilarating recitation, the other students were chanting, “Frank! Frank! Frank!” It had been a stunning victory for junior-high school students everywhere. So crushing was Lampley’s defeat, he would challenge Frank . . . nevermore.
Several months passed without a further public display of genius from Frank until one evening when he joined Jim, Tom, and me as we walked home from a night of shooting pool. Jim quickly tired of the uphill walk and asked Frank to recite something. Frank smiled broadly, took a deep breath, and launched into a Robert Service poem:
“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
In the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
Was hitting a jag-time tune . . . ”
I’ll never forget the feeling of the gentle breeze nudging us up Garden Street that evening. We listened to Frank recite all 116 lines of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—a work so filled with blaring music, beautiful women, and blazing guns, and so fitting to the taste of a teenage boy, I was in awe.
Listening to a friend recite poetry, as if doing so were a normal human activity, changed my world view. I had long decided that doing well in school was “uncool.” Reciting poetry wasn’t just uncool, it was for sissies and nerds. Definitely not something for the likes of the crowd I hung with. And yet, there was Frank, who did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. That included writing essays and reciting poetry with such utter confidence and eye-popping panache that he unwittingly performed a miracle. Frank made writing essays and reciting poems—and by extension, all things intellectual—absolutely wonderful. Frank made learning cool.
The actions of positive peer-models probably do as much or more to encourage youngsters to break from their immature ways than any adult preaching from a podium or educator pontificating in a classroom. Young people who unceremoniously forge a path that leads to a love of learning—while standing up to the corrosive ridicule of their peers—deserve special praise. Frank deserves special praise.
That’s not to say that at some point in our lives we haven’t recognized the impact gifted teachers and other adult role models have had on us—and rightfully so. We’ve probably even thanked these mentors for their inspiration—and rightfully so. But today I’m honoring a rarely identified source of inspiration—a peer. A hard-working, confident teenager whose example changed my life.
Thank you, Frank. You may recall the events I’ve just recounted. I suspect you do. But there’s no way you could know how much you helped me break from the forces that clawed at my heels and kept me from performing to my potential. You introduced me to the joy of learning and for that I shall be grateful . . . evermore.
If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com.