The throwers’ coach at our rival school looked squarely at Coach Kirby then down at the shot puts then back at Coach Kirby in disgust.
“Fran, what the hell are you trying to pull here? All your shot puts are a pound light. Come on, Kirby. You can’t pull this shit.”
Coach Kirby promptly picked up one of the underweight shot puts and, like the mercurial, wildly rash performer he is, heaved it across the throwing field. He turned his back on the throwing area and started walking away before the shot put even landed—like a bad villain from an ‘80s crime movie walking away from an explosion.
There was a loud thud when the shot put hit (and broke crushed) a neighbor’s wooden fence beyond the track—a throw that would have easily won Coach Kirby the meet. Kirby turned around.
“Feels like regulation size to me.”
Kirby (or CK as I call him, as in Coach Kirby) was understandably pissed. He had weighed and re-weighed each throwing implement—shot puts, discuses, javelins. He checked and double-checked. He made sure each was the right weight. Then he made sure again. Then he helped our team’s throwers load the equipment onto the bus for the hour-long drive, helped unload the equipment, and reweighed everything once we got to the meet. Everything was ready to go. Everything was the legal weight.
The thing is, we’ll never know whether those shot puts were really 12 pounds or 11 pounds. But for the sake of storytelling —for the sake of Coach Kirby storytelling—it really doesn’t matter. It was just so violently, classically, painfully Coach Kirby. He was an unreasonably young and fiery 63 then. He’s an even younger 73 now. At 67 and 6’3’’, he dunked a basketball. At 68, he spat a watermelon seed 30 yards. At 70, he outsprinted the running back on the football team. Kirby’s a legend in the word’s most literal sense: everyone has a Kirby story or 10, and the stories get bigger and more absurd each time they’re told.
What’s most stuck with me, though, since that defiant, cave man shot put throw 10 years ago isn’t his physical prowess —not the barefoot sprints through the parking lot; not the dancing around the weight room, taunting football players to bench-press battles; not the Triple A baseball career for the St. Louis Cardinals. What’s stuck with me is his comedy—a pure, unadulterated comedy that stems from his love of sharing laughs.
Coach Kirby was my ninth grade English teacher. He taught vocab with a textbook but also by taping boys’ photos next to befitting words in his dictionary (Mr. Canniff, there’s a goodie for you under the word, sycophant.). During the week, we wrote about what we were reading. Over the weekend, we wrote about whatever we wanted to write about. As a 14-year-old schmuck, that creative freedom was a game-changer for me. I’m still immensely grateful for that. (And so are a few kids who occasionally claimed they emailed Kirby their papers on the OTHER internet, a tactic that worked for the lazy student and the lazy teacher not wanting to grade and usually resulted in a B-).
Kirby was a real life Colbert Report: a faux, right-wing lunatic whose in-class parodies of Fox News made us conscious of how we received news. They also made us LOL. (Well, as is common knowledge, it has snowed a WHOPPING 8 centimeters more in Anchorage, Alaska this winter compared to last winter. So, to all those small- minded, obedient ne’er-do-wells who have the audacity to believe in such a myth like Global Warming –I say, how do you like me NOW?) Two of my classmates once went to the bathroom and called Kirby’s classroom phone, claiming to be the Hilary Clinton campaign asking for money. In true Kirby fashion, he ripped the phone out of the wall and threw it out the window from the second story.
“The word of the day is DEFENESTRATE,” he said.
I’ve never had a teacher who’s inspired such playfulness. He imitated fellow faculty members but never with a mean spirit; he was just really damn attentive to people’s quirks. If he had an impulsive itch, he scratched it (eg. Going through opposing schools’ athletic facilities in search of their preppiest sounding name. Farnsworth Biddlesham Cabbotford, how do you DO?!) If there was a bad pun to be made, he made it (Is the meet tomorrow there or Thayer?). He saw the soulful humor in everything. He saw the huge, vaguely philosophical words on the walls outside his classroom (WHO AM I? IF NOT NOW, WHEN? IF I AM NOT FOR MYSELF, WHO AM I?) and referred to the space as the What’s Happening, Baby wall.
I don’t know how to end a piece on Coach Kirby because there’s always another story. Once you get going, you can’t stop.
But I will stop—with this one:
The beginning of my sophomore year, we hopped in the Kirby Bus to go for a run around a pond about 10 minutes away (The soundtrack to the Kirby Bus was always The Doors, The Stones, and Jimi Hendrix and always 11 notches too loud.). It was a little drizzly when we got to the pond, and Kirby told us to “keep the water on your right” to avoid confusion. It was a big pond, and we didn’t know the area. Within probably nine minutes, it started pouring. Cats and dogs. Total downpour. We couldn’t see anything more than a foot in front of us. Some guys had the water on their right. Some had it on their left. And most couldn’t even see where the water was.
What would have been a forty-minute run took most guys an hour and a half and some two hours. Kirby followed the last straggler to the bus. He took a deep breath, wrang out his soaking shorts, and spoke with a brilliantly deadpan, Bill Murray-ian tone:
“Like I said, keep the water on your right.”
Man has always been half-monster, half-dreamer.—Ray Bradbury
All I can do is be me—whoever that is.—Bob Dylan