To Her, With Love
"Miss? Hey, Miss! She wants to--"
"Miss who?" Miss Holder asks, fixing the two girls with her gunfighter look.
"Miss, uh, you know..."
"Nope. I don't. You tell me."
"Miss...Holder! Miss Holder, she wants to talk to you, Miss."
"Aha! And you're her interpreter?"
"That's right, and she--"
"And how much English do you speak?" Miss Holder asks the other girl, the one with the heavy gold crucifix around her neck and the schoolbooks clasped to her chest.
"Casi nada," the girl whispers.
"But you understood the question, didn't you? Hmm. That's a good sign."
With these auspicious omens, negotiations begin. Like at least one-third of the students on Miss Holder's physical-education roll, the quiet girl has missed a whole lot of classes. Miss Holder being her teacher, the quiet girl will not pass unless she makes up the missing hours. The penance never varies, and no slack will be cut.
First, they talk.
"So," Miss Holder asks. "Where have you been?"
Mexico, for Holy Week and to visit Grandma. Add in several days' travel time, and you have eighteen unexcused absences--not unusual at North High School at Easter time, or any other time. Miss Holder's classes routinely start out with forty students, but by April, fewer than half remain. Some drop out, but some, she says, just go.
In order not to become one of those statistics, here's what the quiet girl must do. Come to school at 6:30 a.m. Engage in "vigorous aerobic activity." Repeat after school, at 3 p.m. In addition, for every class period missed, turn in a written report on the health- or sports-related subject of her choice. Repeat the above steps eighteen times. Receive a passing grade--but not a puffy one, unless she happens to deserve it.
"It's a lot easier to just show up at my class than to make it up later," Miss Holder says, in the understatement of the year. "Make sure she understands," she tells the interpreter. "Tell her to follow me after class, and I'll give her a contract to sign. And then I'll need her right arm and three inches of her lovely black hair."
There is a pause, followed by a flurry of Spanish.
"Kidding," Miss Holder says gently. "Only kidding. I'll see you in my office after class. All right, now what? The bell will ring in thirty seconds."
Twenty-nine seconds later, the bell rings. Miss Holder looks expectantly at the door.
After over three decades of teaching, Miss Holder still does not understand why the sound of the bell fails to produce a payload of prompt, motivated, properly dressed PE students. Instead, the students trickle in, as they always have. Change comes elsewhere.
For example, the upcoming class, which once might have consisted of calisthenics and jogging in place and have a title like PE 101, now features two TVs and a Reebok step-aerobics video. Its name, thought up by Miss Holder herself, is Bodyworks. It has the potential to be co-ed, just like the weightlifting class across the hall, but it is nearly all-girl, just as weightlifting is almost entirely boy. This does not influence Miss Holder's approach. During Bodyworks, she is likely to lead the class to complete exhaustion, stepping up and down from the highest platform available and smiling tolerantly at the thong-clad Reebok models on the TV monitor. During weightlifting, which she teaches on alternate days, she will sometimes toss off thirty or forty pushups--but only to prove a point.
"That I'm not some little gray-haired lady barking orders," she elaborates. "That I can break a sweat and no one has to call 911. Ladies, I'm pleased you took the time to change for class," she tells two girls who are dragging their Reebok steps into place, "but the rules clearly state: yellow T-shirts and tennis shoes are to be worn to class."
Black T-shirts and hiking boots don't cut it. The two girls will not be allowed to participate. "I've been accused of being eccentric because I'm structured," she says. "We have guidelines in this department and I follow them, and I follow them to the letter. I don't waver. People tell me it's not always black and white. I tell them it is, too. I may be old enough to be their grandma, but I will kick their butt all the same. They say I'm eccentric. For instance," she says, alluding to the man who is teaching weightlifting across the hall, "I do not play the radio loud during class. I do not sit on the table. I do not let my students lean on the machines and talk to each other. I've been called eccentric. I've been called a bitch. 'She's a bitch. Don't take her class. She's too hard.' Yeah. It's all true."
After class, Peggie Holder returns to her desk in the girl's gym office. It is:
* The same desk she was assigned 36 year ago, after she graduated with a physical education degree from North Texas University. On a summer break from teaching in the small town of Snyder, Texas, she took a few courses at the University of Colorado. She scheduled an interview with Denver Public Schools "just for practice," was offered a job on the spot and took it.
* The near-holy place where she displays pictures of her daddy, a Waxahatchie, Texas, farmer who relied on her to help out around the farm, "pulling and picking cotton, and there is a difference," she says. "My older sister was in the house with Mother, baking cakes and sewing cup towels. I was always the outdoor, athletic one." In the best picture, Daddy is holding a gun and a dead rattlesnake.
* Stuffed with tributes from students past and present. Most are wallet-sized studio photographs, with messages written on the back. "Thank you for being my friend." "Thank you for being my coach." "Over the years I have heard bad things about you and they are wrong." Some are handmade paper plaques featuring sayings from Kahlil Gibran. One, dated 1969, quotes Benjamin Franklin: "Don't hide your talents... they for use were made. What's a sundial in the shade?"
* The evil laboratory where Miss Holder constructed a mobile made from pink construction paper and a dead mouse in order to scare the wits out of Marcia Small, the dance teacher. "At first, she didn't even see it," she recalls. "She kept walking right past it. Finally, I had to say, 'Marcia, Minnie says hello.' Then she screamed."
Although Miss Holder's desk is a command center, you rarely find her there. Try Bodyworks or weightlifting. Check the track or the basketball court. In 1963, her first year at North, you could have found her in an apartment right across the street.
"I was young and vibrant and energetic," she recalls. "I did intramural sports, a club called the Spartans of Sports. I did cultural outings to see plays. We went camping in the mountains. We were a poor school. White T-shirts and cutoff shorts were our uniform. We went everywhere, and the kids never stopped coming over to see me at my apartment. Finally, I moved."
In 1969, you could have found her at the epicenter of a gang fight on the front stairs of North, with all of Speer Boulevard watching. "It was the Gomez gang versus someone, I forget who. The kids were stomping each other and I'm standing there feeling tough, until I see a hundred more kids coming, and I got out of Dodge."
Once in a while, over the years, you might have found her visiting any of a number of good colleges that offered her jobs. "I looked at those campuses and thought: These people can make it on their own. Nobody needs me here," she remembers. "I got very attached to the kids right here. Here, they need someone to care, because sometimes they don't care about themselves. They've been told they're not worth much. I always think: I will do what I can for you to make things better, not that it will feel easy. It might mean I force you to come to class. I want you to graduate."
And so Miss Holder is at North for the long haul. When Marcia Small came along several years ago, as a student teacher, Miss Holder was "it where team sports were concerned," Small remembers. "And I did not want to teach team sports or have anything to do with them, but I had to, in order to teach dance. So I did my student teaching under Miss Holder, and she made me cry I don't know how many times. Finally I said, 'Look, if you're going to fail me, fail me.' But it turned out she wanted me at North. And the minute I became her peer, she never said another critical word to me."
What Miss Holder will say is that Miss Small is, in her opinion, the best dance teacher in Denver. That she has built a dance program out of nothing. That her performing group and dance clubs meet for hours at rigorously extracurricular times, and that punctuality and pride are much in evidence. Tonight, when parents have been invited to pick up report cards in person and meet their kids' teachers, there will be a dance recital that is not to be missed. Well, Miss Holder amends, it will be missed, by the kind of parents who never come to North in the first place. "Which is not to say I don't eventually meet these parents," she says. "What do I say to them? I just tell them how good their kids really are."
Backstage later that evening, Miss Small's students are breathless with anticipation, running over and over the steps of the dances they have choreographed for each other. On the dimly lit stage, it is hard to see more than a blur of long, black hair swinging in rhythm to the cocky poetry of Salt-N-Pepa. The dressing room is alive with flashes of Lycra--most of it borrowed by Miss Small or paid for with her ubiquitous candy sales. "You can't charge more than a couple of bucks at the door," she explains. "Everyone's family is so big, and they all want to come."
"Miss Small, go chew some gum," one of the girls says, with a bat of her false eyelashes. Everyone giggles.
"That means they know I'm nervous," Miss Small says. "I'm just going to get out of here."
On her way out the stage door, she collides with someone's boyfriend, who has returned for his fifth amorous pre-performance embrace. "Man, you can't be doing that," says an exasperated stagehand. "Either you stay in or you stay out, but don't be going back and forth."
Outside the auditorium doors, the crowd begins to assemble. At least two hundred people have paid for a seat. Miss Holder, who has traded her usual purple sweats for a black velvet sweater and pants, is having trouble moving down the aisle. There are many of the other type of parents--the ones who agree with Miss Holder that their children are wonderful and so will thrive on extra doses of discipline, consequence and vigorous aerobic exercise. There is Rose Solano, '71, who has come back for a visit and is only halfway through the story of her life since North.
"It's always like old-home week," Miss Holder admits. "I've been here so long I've taught whole families."
And she's heard all their stories. One guy says she has always been like a mother to him, but not as mushy; he appreciates that. Another guy brings in his fiancee, hoping for Miss Holder's approval. "Which I don't give," she says. "I had a very bad feeling about that girl. They're divorced now." More sad stories. "He worked for a security company and met up with a thief and they arranged to steal about $50,000 in furs and jewelry and of course they were caught almost instantly," Miss Holder sighs. Or: "She called me from Guam, asking for $5,000. It's a terrible drug haven, you know." Or: "He didn't graduate because he missed too many of my classes." But this story, like many others, has a happy ending: "He got his GED and became a sheriff's deputy!" "He's on the SWAT team!" "She still plays recreational volleyball!" "He was so bad when he was here--he stole the principal's car one time. But now he has his own martial arts academy!"
And then there's the guy who goes into the military, ends up in Desert Storm dodging bullets, thinks of Miss Holder and how pissed she would be if he didn't dodge efficiently enough--and so he lives to come home and thank her.
The lights go down. The audience begins screaming and whistling. Music for the first dance number cranks up and the girls appear on stage with their megawatt smiles and perfectly synchronized moves. "Oh, oh," Miss Small cries in distress, "there's so much shake-butt. I tell them, can't you do one dance without that--oh, there it is again, the butt to the audience. Oh, but they do look good tonight. I'm actually very pleased."
And so is the audience, especially during the cumbia at the end of the first act, which features an actual boy. (In fact, there should be two boys, but one of them has to work late at his after-school job and can't make it.) Tonight's lone boy, in his cowboy hat and crisp white shirt, flings his female partner around with wild abandon and a shy smile to the kind of music that blares from every car window in north Denver on any sunny day. No one can resist it.
The next morning, Miss Holder is still buzzing with the triumph of it all. "I mean, do you have any idea how many hours they practiced? Every day after school. Most lunch hours. Hours." Of course, she has known other athletes who were that dedicated. A particular boys' volleyball team. A girls' track squad, one of the early ones, which featured a red-haired runner she liked to call "The Flame."
There is a photograph of The Flame somewhere--oh, here. She's posing with a man, of whom Miss Holder may or may not have approved. To her surprise, she can't remember. It happens from time to time--"like this boy, he writes 'I'm glad we were friends,' and it's dated 1971, but who was he? Who was this guy I was friends with?" But other details surface with no trouble at all. "Oh yeah, look at him," Miss Holder says, pointing to a snapshot trapped beneath the glass that covers her desk.
He's very big in a Schwarzenegger way, all done up in a cap and gown, his big arm nearly crushing Miss Holder. Surely he went on to the SWAT team, or maybe Hollywood? "No, he was a Navy SEAL, but he got kicked out. I could have warned them...I know he only signed on to ruin our side of things, and after that he, oh, what did he do, something silly..."
So why is he here, and why is his arm around you?
Miss Holder thinks it over. "I don't know," she finally says. "I don't know what it was about him. That is not a question I can answer. Not today."
Besides, it's time for Bodyworks, and the brisk walk down the hallway that will guarantee she arrives in time to see practically no one else do the same. The students flow against her in a tide. Among them Juan Fernandez, who danced the cumbia.
"Juan!" she says. "Nice job last night."
"What? What'd I do? Huh?"
"Your dance," she reminds him.
"Oh," he replies, going from scowl to blush in less than a second. "Thank you, Miss.