The start of every school year is like a form of time travel for me. Although I haven’t sat in a college classroom since 1992, a high school classroom since 1986 and an elementary classroom since 1981, I still get that little twinge in my gut every time I see the Stow-Munroe Falls school buses going down our road for the first time since June.
Because, like most kids, I dreaded the start of school.
No more sleeping in, no more lazy summer days, no more family vacation.
No more fun.
It was back to the harsh reality of the real world. And the real world when you’re in school is … school. Especially in elementary school, when your world is the size of your neighborhood. There’s your street, maybe the next one over, your school, and that’s pretty much planet Earth as far as you’re concerned.
And nothing could affect your world quite like who you got as your teacher — and who you didn’t get as your teacher. For me, in the summer of 1979 between fifth and sixth grade at O.H. Somers Elementary in Mogadore, that teacher was Mr. Mazan.
If you attended Somers Elementary in the 1970s, you knew all about Mr. Mazan. You didn’t need to have him as your teacher to know who he was. The man had a presence about him that none of my teachers before or since had; he just dripped with authority. And he looked the part: dressed like he was headed to a meeting on Wall Street, perfectly trimmed black hair, steely eyes that could pierce your soul — the phrase “cold, dead eyes” applied very well in his case — a slow gait that exuded strength and confidence.
And an uncanny ability to strike fear in your heart just by walking into the room. The man could get a few hundred kids between the ages of 6 and 12 to go completely silent in the lunch room in under three seconds — without saying a word. I mean, a dropped ink pen would have echoed in there.
With that as the backdrop, I spent the entire summer of 1979 unable to enjoy any of the summer of 1979. Why? Because I was about to enter sixth grade, and Mr. Mazan taught sixth grade.
I enjoyed our vacation to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but that was only for a week. Then the dread slowly crept back in on our drive home and was going full throttle by the time we reached Mogadore.
Because the problem was this: 1. Your teacher in sixth grade was your teacher. Not a homeroom teacher and then you went from classroom to classroom depending on the subject being taught. You got one teacher in sixth grade at Somers back then. One. The same person all day, every day. Every week. Every month. All school year. There was no escape.
So if you got Mr. Mazan as your teacher, you would be with him more than you would your own family for the next nine months. I didn’t see that as anything other than unacceptable. I never had a bad experience with him, but I was well aware that he was, shall we say, a disciplinarian. The grapevine at a school as small as Somers is small indeed, and we had all heard Mr. Mazan stories that were positively bone-chilling. And from seeing how he could silence an entire auditorium-sized lunch room just by stepping foot inside it, I didn’t doubt any of them for a second.
Problem No. 2: I wouldn’t know if he was my teacher until shortly before the school year started. Which meant my misery would be summer-long.
There were three teachers who taught sixth grade at that time, so my chances of getting Mr. Mazan ran about 33% — entirely too high for my blood. Knowing my luck, it may as well have been 133%. Getting Mr. Mazan as my teacher seemed as guaranteed as the sun rising in the east every morning.
And there was only one way to find out: As the new school year approached, the class lists would be taped to the school doors adjacent to the parking lot. Each piece of paper taped to the door would have the teacher’s name at the top, then the class list in alphabetical order below. So when news broke that the class lists had finally been posted, I did what just about every other kid in Mogadore under the age of 12 was doing: headed straight for those doors.
We jumped on our bicycles and pedaled toward Somers like we had done in years past, but this time felt different — for me, at least. I was going as a mere formality to confirm that I would be in Mr. Mazan’s class. My summer of suffering was about to be over, replaced by my school year of suffering.
We reached the parking lot and, sure enough, there were sheets of paper on the double-doors. As we pedaled up to the building, I thought I might be sick. My legs felt like lead weights and I started to get a little woozy. It was all coming down to this moment. My quality of life for the next nine months was going to be determined within the next few seconds.
We got off our bikes and walked up to the doors. What should I do? Should I look at the other two teachers’ lists first and see if “Hardesty” miraculously showed up on one of them, or go straight to Mr. Mazan’s list and get it over with?
I decided to go straight to Mr. Mazan’s list. No sense dragging it out.
I started going down the names, my stomach doing full gainers as the names got closer to ‘H.’ I kept reading. And reading. And reading. Until I realized I had finished reading the list without seeing anyone named Hardesty on it.
I must have missed it.
So I read it again, slower this time. Still no Hardesty on there. Could it be?
I went to another teacher list and started reading. And right there in the H’s was “Tom Hardesty.”
I just stood there and stared, trying to absorb its meaning. Suddenly, the sky was bluer, the grass greener, the sun brighter. Birds chirped happily as they flitted about the trees, and I swear I could hear angels playing harps in the distance.
My long summer nightmare was over. Mr. Mazan would not be my teacher in sixth grade. I would live happily ever after, never worrying about Mr. Mazan again.
Or so I thought.
Fast-forward the film from August 1979 to October 1980. I had decided to play seventh grade basketball, so I signed up. I had played Mogadore Junior Pro in sixth grade — not very well, but I played it — so figured I would give seventh grade hoops a try.
After signing up, I asked another player who our coach was, figuring it would be a name I was familiar with from other sports.
It was a name I was familiar with, all right, but not from playing other sports.
“Oh, our coach is Mr. Mazan,” the kid said matter-of-factly.
I felt the air rush from my lungs.
“Mr. Mazan?!” I said. “You’re lying.”
“No I’m not,” he responded. “Mr. Mazan is our coach. You’ll see at the team meeting.”
I was in shock. I had spent an entire summer losing sleep over the possibility of getting Mr. Mazan as my teacher, somehow avoided what I thought was an inevitability, then, a year later, I volunteer to play on Mr. Mazan’s basketball team? What have I done?
But that’s exactly what I did — and I loved every second playing for the man. Mr. Mazan ended up being one of my favorite coaches: He was fair, really wanted us to learn the game (he taught me how to consistently make free throws, which I have right up there with feeding the multitudes with a loaf of bread), employed a fun style of basketball, and guided us all the way to the Portage County League championship game before Joe Fabry and the Windham Bombers ended our run.
I loved having Mr. Mazan as my coach, and I would have played for him again if I’d had the chance.
But I’ve often wondered: Knowing what I know now, if I was that 11-year-old boy on the bike again, would I want to see my name on Mr. Mazan’s 1979-80 Somers Elementary class list?