Friday, May 18, 2012

"Really Smart" with a small tribute to Mr. Burger

As I talked to my oldest brother this past week on the telephone to wish him sweet returns for his 63rd birthday [he lives in Boulder], I asked him about what he remembers about the oratorical contests he entered about fifty years ago.

Note: He entered three different years [it was probably an age qualifier] -- and placed each time.

My mother, who had encouraged him -- better word -- made, was thrilled when he did so well.

My oldest brother Hunter has a lovely speaking [and singing] voice, which came in handy when he gave his valedictorian speech at his high school graduation in 1967, and handsomely paid off as he wrote a speech and presented it at this local speech contest for the Optimist Club. This learned skill gave him the poise and aplomb to later deliver that speech at graduation, or at least, that's my version of it.

He doesn’t remember how old he was exactly [he guessed 12 or 13] when he entered those Optimist oratorical contests, but he does remember that my mother relentlessly hounded him until he performed the speeches perfectly.{I have the best memory in the family -- thus, the writer that I think I am as I chronicle these childhood events.}

I’ve written about my mother's task-mastering spirit [see blog on weeding, kitchen chores, etc.],  and my single recollection of these competitions involved his being a pretty reluctant contestant.

My oldest brother Hunter had/has some serious brains. A natural linguist, mathematician, as well as avid reader, he grew up with  having academics come easy to him.  In elementary school, he had the reputation as a child prodigy. Students in our young era weren’t labeled as “gifted” or “talented” -- they were called “really smart."  By high school, as three primary schools converged into one school, everyone knew him as "smart. Really smart." My mother recognized his abilities and wished for him to capitalize on it. He, well, wasn't that keen on "capitalizing."

As a student he did little work outside the classroom as he could pretty much listen in class and be done with it. I wanted that. Didn’t have it.

By the time I got to high school in the fall of 1967, Hunter, graduated and headed to the University of Virginia, left behind at Sylvan HS his academic legacy. Not fun to follow.

Each teacher I had, who had taught Hunter, seemed amazed that we shared a common biology.

Math teacher: Are you sure you are Hunter’s sister?

History teacher:  You’re Hunter’s sister? Really? You're kidding?

Science teacher: I take it you are not related to Hunter.

Social studies teacher: You? No. Hunter’s sister?  *rolls eyes in disbelief*

The hardest academic area  in which to follow Hunter was Latin. Taught by the infamous Mr. Rufus Burger, a frightening Academician with high standards, I enrolled in Latin I as an eighth grader, and the struggle to master it began. I have no ear for language, and the toil I endured to conjugate verbs with the right inflection, learn vocabulary quickly -- as many as 100 words a week, much less translate those epic battles involving Julius Caesar in the Gallic wars, those long, boring stories of the travails of Romulus and Remus, or the daily life of Cato  --- still give me nightmares.

Bloody argh.

When he reigned over his Latin classroom in the late 1960s, Mr. Burger seemed elderly. He might have been in his 40s -- hard to know since under his tutelage, I stayed a nervous wreck -- he had a daunting presence and elicited respect.

Mr. Burger, in his horned rims, paraded his classroom by moving up and down each row with his hands behind his back, the waistband of his pants seemingly high on his short waist-ed physique, his tie and white shirt impeccably tucked, and his eagle eye trained on any student who might be out of line, and if one dared cross him, he'd quip, "I'll have your life's blood." Funny now. Then, not so much.

As he tapped the front of my desk with his forefinger and demanded in his deep voice, “Read, girl, read," I took a huge swallow and prayed that I could get through even some of my weak and less than fluid translations with some accuracy.

Mr. Burger’s classroom demands were legendary: not only translating the long Latin passages, he also crazily and randomly called on us to conjugate any Latin verb in any tense or demanded for us to recite the   declensions of any pronoun in the masculine or the feminine. Hic -- Haec -- Hoc....


I dared not show up un-prepared -- but I did show up average.

I mostly let Mr. Burger down, and he and I both sighed with relief when I stopped with the required two years of foreign language with Latin II. Hunter, of course, had taken up through Latin V, some of them independent studies, and made Mr. Burger proud. Very proud. Magnificus.

Mr. Burger adored my smart brother Hunter, who also picked Mr. Burger as his Star teacher, a recognition by the student with the highest SAT score in his class for the teacher who was most influential, and when I came after with my puny skills, needless to say, I was a disappointment. Hopefully, Mr. Burger found me amusing -- :-)

All of my siblings and I took Latin [my parents thought it a better language to study] and “following Hunter” not fun --- as I couldn’t measure up. Not even close. But I digress as usual.

One of the years that Hunter entered the Optimist Oratorical contest was 1962. With my mother’s relentless coaching and critiquing of his speech and always on his back to work on it or practice it or refine it or polish it, his total lack of enthusiasm had him half-heartedly writing his speech [the topic provided by the club] and then, go figure, winning.  So. Hunter.

My memory, of course, is of the constant struggle of wills between Hunter and my mother, both so alike in their trench digging and drawing of lines in the sand. An obedient son, perhaps not dutiful, and an accomplished procrastinator, he did as she asked, but he wasn’t happy or in a hurry.

He dragged his feet a lot on the writing of the speech and then on the practicing of it; we all suffered together. We were that kind of family. *snickers*

For many evenings and weekends, she sat by his side as he went through the speech over and over until every sentence, word, syllable had been analyzed for the maximum effect.  She did it out of love for wanting to showcase his talent; he did it because she expected it, but he wasn’t about to make it easy.


As I noted, Hunter doesn’t remember too much about it -- not the topics of the speeches, not how many other boys and girls entered, not even giving them, but he does remember how much he hated the preparation for it. We lived in a small house, I reminded him, and we hated it too.

He did tell me this: the year he won first place -- he thinks he might have been in seventh grade -- the prize for winning was a trip to St. Simons Island, Georgia, with the rest of the first place winners from the state. He said, “As we toured the area, I thought it was the neatest place. The history fascinated me.”

BTW: In the summer of 1962, my brother Hunter and I spent a week in Virginia with my aunts where we toured Appomattox Civil War historical park and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Those are the pictures I posted on this blog. There is a picture somewhere of Hunter and his trophy for winning the oratorical contest, but I couldn’t find it.

ETA: About ten years ago, Mr. Burger died. He outlived my parents who died in 1995. As a career educator spanning over forty years, he left the Atlanta Public School system in the late 1970s and went to the private sector. He lived into his late 80s. A terrific teacher, he deserves a place in my family's collective memory. 

Requiescat in pace


  1. Well, Harriet...if you passed Mr. Burgers class two years in a row (and I am sure you excelled) you fall into Hunter's "very smart" category as well. I have always wanted to be one of those who could just absorb knowledge but I had to study my head off...still do anytime I have to learn a new system at work! Great post...Lori

  2. Lovely feeling of walking through history...and being a part of it. What a meticulous and wonderful portrait of Mr. Burger. "I'll have your life's blood." "Read, girl, read." I LOVE it.