Mr. Antonier’s Skeleton

Mr. Antonier was my ninth grade science teacher. He was a good teacher and displayed a calm demeanor. I can picture him clearly in my mind, even now, so many decades later: horn-rimmed glasses, tall, slightly balding at middle age, and somewhat heavy-set. I remember him describing (during the course of a biology curriculum) that he felt better physically when he was a bit overweight. Athletic and hyper as I was during adolescence, I interpreted what he said as a self-justification that he used to reassure himself about his appearance and perhaps rationalize his blemished self-discipline.

What really stood out about Mr. Antonier, then and now, was the peculiar way he handled a disruptive classroom. He never yelled; I don’t recall him even raising his voice. Instead, when the class was unruly, he would quietly approach the rolled up biology visual that hung above his blackboard. He would methodically unfurl the display, revealing the life-sized picture of a skeleton marked with labels and arrows designed for biology instruction. Mr. Antonier would then mime a conversation with the skeleton, gesticulating silently with his hands and lips, turning sporadically to motion toward the class, then back to the skeleton with whom he was privately interacting. It was so weird—spooky and eerily emphatic.

Slowly, the students would notice the teacher’s antics, and silence would descend upon the classroom. It was too bizarre. As the class fell to stillness, Mr. Antonier would open his palm toward the last of the disruptive troublemakers, coaxing the attention of the stoic skeleton toward the straggling miscreants. The effect was shocking and thorough, subduing the erstwhile rabble-rousers into stunned submission. Though we had seen this charade before, it always worked. Mr. Antonier knew how to restore order effectively without aggression or confrontation. Any embarrassment he created was between himself and the picture of the deceased’s skeletal remains, shifting the energy from adolescent chaos to rapt and orderly observation of his passive eccentricity and frustration.

Future Lessons

I learned biology from Mr. Antonier, but it was his masterful instruction in behavior by example that taught and guided me for decades long after much of the specifics of his science education had quietly slipped into the ether. Mr. Antonier demonstrated the power of subtlety and passive resistance instead of the typical heavy-handedness and aggressiveness that most traditionally minded teachers would have employed in the same circumstances. He was a kind of Ghandi in a sport jacket who ate too much.

A quick analysis might conclude that this teacher had found a quirky way to capture his students’ attention by acting offbeat. I believe that Mr. Antonier’s methods were far more profound and significant. For one thing, he developed a way of enlisting cooperation without directly embarrassing or offending those who were out of line. He “saved face” for other people by besmirching his own (at least at first glance). For another, he openly surrendered his own helplessness and frustration for all to see, including the dummy surrogate at which he directed his ostensible appeal. And, most significantly, he relied upon a power greater than forcefulness and authority to modify his students’ behavior (e.g., to correct disruptive classroom deportment) by employing a highly creative and unorthodox alternative tactic to accomplish the results he desired.

These wise lessons I learned from Mr. Antonier have grown manifold over time and have multiplied in their implications. Among the many life science principles I’ve learned, the most salient is that the universe will not usually give me what I want and when I want it. Life is full of frustrations and obstacles at every turn. The competence I’ve acquired and skills I’ve honed—while necessary for survival—are often no match for the complexities I face and especially for the lack of cooperation from others.

My Skeletons

I have “skeletons in my closet,” of course, but they too often represent shame and fear, rather than serving as tools for surrender and submission. I’ve spent half a century revisiting Mr. Antonier’s intuitive wisdom, as I search for ways to manifest my intentions in workable ways and let go of forcing my desire to control and make things happen only my way.

I suppose that talking to skeletons is a good metaphor for humility (though in some contexts, it may represent psychosis). Addressing a skeleton may be better than hiding it. I’m trying to talk about truth, nibbling at concepts with figures of speech. I believe that truth is constant, unwavering, enlightening, secure, and reassuring when I am aligned with it. But the problem is that I can only see glimpses of truth and interpret it partially and selectively. Life reveals its truth in consequences, and the timing is variable. So, like the scientist I’ve learned to become from people like Mr. Antonier, I focus my efforts toward becoming an ever keener and more astute observer, filtering my needs and emotions through the lenses of objectivity and results. Along the way, my experiments are inescapably written in humility. Like all humans, I am, after all, fallible.

I’m not required to discipline groups of rowdy adolescents, nor to instill a set curriculum or assign homework. My teaching takes a different form, spanning generations, and healing souls and symptoms of various sorts. On this path, I, too, am still a student, learning from mistakes, false starts, untoward consequences, and the needs, ambivalences, and ambiguities of people important to me, but whom I don’t always understand.

I’ve come to believe that my intentions are honest, benevolent, and respectful of the needs and feelings of others. I blunder on occasion, and sometimes am blindsided by my own selfishness, running roughly over people without knowing at the time how hurt they are feeling. Though it happens infrequently, I am quick to apologize and seek forgiveness when I find out about these errors.

Even with increasing vigilance and sensitivity, what remains is my desire to control outcomes that I cannot always manage, my frustration at being personally insufficient, and my prideful ambition to create good for others by having them cooperate, capitulate, and see things my way, which from my extensive clinical and personal experience, I am certain is the right way.

As you can imagine, it doesn’t quite work that way much of the time. I find myself turning toward the “blackboard,” imagining what Mr. Antonier must have felt when the class got out of control, and wanting to have a skeleton with whom to convey my helplessness and frustration—someone who would understand, accept, and not complain or answer back contrarily.

Bones to Pick

I look to my “inner skeleton” mostly for frustrations about other people’s personalities and behaviors. I suppose that’s not new or unusual—most people get frustrated by the actions and attitudes of others. What concerns me continually, however, is a frequent sense of futility in trying to arrange good for people who often resist, don’t follow through, or don’t appreciate the wisdom of my foresight and the persistence and sacrifice of my efforts. It seems as though I want the benefits for others more than they do. I don’t mean to sound altruistic or condescending. Think of your experience with family members, loved ones, and people who are important to you. Thus, you probably can relate. If only they would see and try things my way!

Making, Faking, and Shaking Bones

Mr. Antonier’s carnal skeleton is almost certainly desiccated by now. I don’t know what’s become of his bones and his soul. But I do know that part of him remains with me in the form of an enhanced existential peacefulness and acceptance of the reality that I cannot control or have all that I want—I must yield and adapt to alternative and creative ways to accommodate life’s obstacles and complexities.

Carrying the skeletal metaphor a bit further, we all strive in our various ways to “make our bones”—meaning to establish achievement, status, or respect (short for bona fides). In organized crime usage, the phrase refers to establishing one's credibility by killing someone. In a manner of speaking, I have killed my old self, the one who relied on pride, ego, personal confidence, and ultimate self-sufficiency. I’ve learned that I can only do things with God’s help.

My old basketball coach used to drill us in defense by repeating, “Watch the opponent’s hips. He can’t go anywhere without his hips. Keep your eyes on his pelvis, so you won’t get faked out.” Good advice in sports defense and life as well. Mr. Antonier’s classroom skeletal chart was a reminder of the scaffold that characterizes all humans: we carry around this frame, adorned with commodities, which we steer here and there, challenging the world around us. I keep in mind that my skeleton hides inside, arisen from dust and destined to return there. Like Mr. Antonier, I find it wise to consult the proxy that reminds me of my limitations.