|Album cover shoot for Alladin Sane, 1973. Photo by Brian Duffy. Copyright Duffy Archive*|
Mr. Bleck was my fifth grade language arts teacher. He dressed in rumpled suits that often made him look a bit heavier than he actually was. His wit was dry and caustic, and I did not understand his jokes at times. What I did notice were his long, elegant fingers stained with nicotine, and once when I passed the faculty room on some errand for another teacher, I heard his cackling laughter as the door swung open. I turned in the direction of the sound to catch a glimpse of the man, his head thrown back, and a cigarette between those fingers gracefully emitting a trail of smoke that collected in the small room. Then the door closed.
Because of his disheveled elegance, I sensed something off about him. He could sneer and be catty at times in the classroom, and often when I sought praise and affirmation, he responded with a sarcastic aside that made the whole enterprise ring hollow. I was the kid who never liked to be wrong and who always wanted everything to go my way. I tried to suck up praise from my teachers, and I demanded that they be people worthy of that sucking up. Mr. Bleck, with his biting wit and droll manner, did not fit the image of The Teacher and therefore, I did not find him worthy of my sycophancy. I had trouble figuring him out, or drawing a bead on who he was and what his asides meant when I approached him to report that I had completed yet another color category of SRA readings. He never seemed impressed with my achievements. I, on the other hand, was a jerk.
It wasn’t until close to mid-year that I finally thought I’d figured out Mr. Bleck. My parents were watching some show on television and Paul Lynde was the guest star. “He acts like Mr. Bleck!” I blurted out. My mother, who had met my teacher at Back-to-School Night, quickly agreed with me. My parents grew up with homophobia in a time when gays were hidden at the back of the proverbial closet. Being staunch Catholics also played into their ignorance. If I were to travel back in time to meet them as parents of a fifth grader in the 1970s, they would tell me they did not know any gay people, and they firmly believed this. They watched Paul Lynde and Liberace on television, even laughed at their humor and performances, but they were not comfortable with them because those performers were different. I remember clearly not being allowed to watch The Flip Wilson Show because my father found it offensive that Flip dressed in drag as Geraldine. With my father and mother, as with Geraldine, “What you see is what you get,” and with them you got homophobic ignorance. Mr. Bleck would be subjected to that ignorance.
I had no proof that Mr. Bleck was gay, but I had my parents’ collusion to treat him in a disrespectful manner. So I waited for my opportunity. It came soon enough.
Mr. Bleck loved David Bowie. He loved the man, and said as much in class. This was Bowie’s Diamond Dogs and Young Americans era when his sexuality was far from clear and steeped in androgyny. He was also on the big screen in The Man Who Fell To Earth. Just more fuel to the fire. Mr. Bleck announced that as a special treat, while we completed our spelling assignments, worksheets, and SRA work, he would play some of David Bowie’s seminal music. While other teachers might extol Mozart and Chopin, Mr. Bleck would round out our education with a little “Rebel, Rebel” and “Fame.”
Here was my perfect opportunity. I went home that evening and told my parents that Mr. Bleck was playing gay music. It was too loud for me to concentrate, and often Bowie screamed bad words. My mother called the school and complained about him to the principal, who promised to look into the situation. When nothing changed, we upped the ante. “Next time he plays that music,” my mother told me, “just get up and leave the room.” No problem, mom.
Sure enough, Mr. Bleck slapped down another piece of vinyl on the turntable the next afternoon. Without a word to anyone, I gathered my things and left the classroom. Mr. Bleck did not even see me because he was focused on the record player. I walked to the principal’s office and told the secretary I left my class because the teacher was playing bad music.
The requisite calls were made, my parents were summoned, and we all gathered for a confab in the principal’s office. After I told my story, I was excused to go wait on the playground. When my parents came to the car, they told me Mr. Bleck would not be playing that music anymore.
In class, he tried to speak with me about the situation. “It is not necessary for you to like the music,” he said, “but I just wanted you to hear it. Bowie is an artist who has something to offer the world.”
“He wears make-up like a girl.”
Mr. Bleck did not try to argue with me. He slumped at his desk and sent me on my way. He refrained from playing Bowie for a month or so, but as spring came on, he decided it was time for more artistic exposure. “I just want to play a little bit,” he said, looking nervously in my direction.
Before the music even started, I stood up and made for the door.
“Oh, dammit, Paul, sit down.”
I kept going. Behind me, I heard Mr. Bleck crank up the volume in defiance. We were at war, and I, in all my stupidity, knew I would win. And the principal and my parents were on my team. Bleck and Bowie would suffer the consequences.
After another round of phone calls, Mr. Bleck announced to the class that David Bowie would no longer sing for us during seatwork. He did not look at me while he talked, his voice full of bitter sadness. We finished the year in a silence echoing through my hollow victory. When June came, I am positive even now that Mr. Bleck was deeply pleased to see me go. Now I was the sixth grade teacher’s problem.
Mr. Bleck, however, was not done with the Martins. He went on to teach my younger siblings. He met with my mother many times in Parent-Teacher Conferences, and they developed a cordial relationship. As a teacher myself, I have always marveled at that. It is very difficult to continue to work with a parent who has caused nothing but grief. Mr. Bleck found a way to move beyond the Bowie conflagration and remain a dedicated professional. He was not a strong teacher, but in his own way, I consider him a good one, and in retrospect, I am sorry for my behavior and I am glad I was in his class for that long ago year.
And David Bowie is an artist; some lessons are learned only across the distance of years.
Mr. Bleck continued to teach at that Catholic elementary school for a long time after I was gone. I never spoke to him again, although as my brothers and sister moved through their time there, I would get updates and gossip about my former teachers from my mother. One day I came home from college to hear from my mother that Mr. Bleck had been teaching his class when he excused himself to step outside the classroom to drink from the fountain. He fell to the asphalt and died there of a massive heart attack.
When I think of Mr. Bleck now, I remember something David Bowie said: “The truth is, of course, that there is no journey. We are arriving and departing all at the same time.” Years ago when I was a snot-nosed kid, I kept walking out the door trying to escape my own ignorance. But we cannot escape the lessons we must learn in life, painful and stained with regret as they often are. David Bowie released a new album recently, his first in a decade. Gary Bleck is no longer here to listen, and I am truly sorry for that.
*This image is part of David Bowie is, an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, March 23rd-July 28th 2013. For information about the exhibit and Brian Duffy's photography, click here.