MR. FAGG AND ME
Mr. Fagg was my seventh-grade Utah Studies teacher and, in terms of last names, he made our art teachers, Mr. Willy and Ms. Dick, seem not all that remarkable. By the time I was in his class, in the fall of 1997, he had already been talking about Lake Bonneville, fur trappers, missionary explorers, Ute Indians and Mormon pioneers for more than thirty years.
One foot planted on a desk chair, thumbs stuck under the suspenders of his back support belt, Mr. Fagg was every inch the great-great grandson of pioneers as he reminisced about the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the irony of Salt Lake City getting light rail a hundred years after ripping out its trolley tracks. Every day he predicted how long and snowless the coming winter would be, his fingers disappearing into his scraggy gray beard to tend to an itch. He boasted what you’d call a Caesar cut, his bangs gelled to the luster of metal filings. His piercing blue eyes were so piercing they were hard to look at.
Mr. Fagg was my seventh-grade Utah Studies teacher and, in terms of last names, he made our art teachers, Mr. Willy and Ms. Dick, seem not all that remarkable.
For kids who were used to social studies being a soft science that consisted mostly of dancing the Macarena and singing vocal rounds of Brigham Young’s famous catchphrase “This is the place,” Mr. Fagg’s straightforward approach to the material, his homesteader sternness, felt distinctly male. He taught us to speed read and filled in dry passages from our legislature-approved textbook with grisly detail. The number-one cause of death among pioneer children wasn’t cholera or skirmishes with Indians, he told us one day, but being crushed by wagon wheels.
It could have been that Utah Studies was my seventh period, after PE and French and all the rest, when my skin was sticky with dry sweat and particles of peanut butter and jelly glued my retainer to the roof of my mouth, but room 211 gave off the rank stench of history. Did I know what a fag was—that that’s what you called them? Of course I did. It’s also fair to say I hadn’t yet reckoned with the word, hadn’t been called a fag, and was only dimly aware that I was one. Mr. Fagg made quite an introduction to the lifestyle.
Donning a yellow hardhat, he took us down into the Park City silver mines and to Brigham Young’s family cemetery, where we made etchings of his wives’ tombstones. You could drive by the graffiti of Suicide Rock a thousand times on the freeway, but only when Fagg was in the car did you learn it used to be a Native American lookout. At the Great Salt Lake, we dredged up what Mr. Fagg claimed were wild Sea Monkeys. Once we crossed the causeway onto Antelope Island, with its free-range bison and knee-high grass, Mr. Fagg slipped on a leather cowboy hat. It wasn’t long before my aging teacher reached around his boulder of a belly to take off his shoes and peel his jeans up his white ankles, parting swarms of brine flies with his stout stride. Dear God, he was frolicking.
My class was Gifted and Talented, hence the field trips. I don’t want to give us too much credit—we weren’t that gifted or talented—but I like to think we were protective of Mr. Fagg, letting him show off his essential fagginess like a coon-skin cap. We said his name without shame and acted interested, sitting up straight in our desks, when he wrote his wife’s “unique” first name, LaPriel, on the board for us to admire. His own middle name was LeRoy. Glen LeRoy Fagg. G. Fagg. “A fag, that’s what they call a cigarette across the pond, in old England,” he said. “Any of you ever been to England?” It was where the Faggs were from. “Do you know they call it the War of Rebellion over there?”
It seemed just possible he didn’t know the burden he was carrying around with him and we were happy to not be the ones to break the news.
It wasn’t that Mr. Fagg saw something in me. It’s that he saw nothing. Exactly nothing.
It wasn’t that Mr. Fagg saw something in me. It’s that he saw nothing. Exactly nothing. To him I was just like all the other children in Utah Studies. Children, that’s what I remember him calling us. That or “class.” The exception to my ordinariness was that he knew, like all my other teachers, that my mom had cancer. When I proposed that the women of the Donner Party survived at a higher rate than the men not because of body fat (the prevailing hypothesis in the room) but because of the will to live for their kids, he said he thought there was really something to that.
At the end of that class, just as the bell rang, Mr. Fagg told us to look to the person to our right and then to our left to determine who we might want to eat. “You may keep your decisions to yourselves, class.”
Utah Studies lasted one semester. Even Mr. Fagg, even James Michener, couldn’t have stretched the course to a full year: I switched from Utah Studies to art, from Fagg to Dick. I think that’s when I discovered it wasn’t all kumbaya out there in the halls. Mr. Fagg had a daughter named Gaylene, that was one rumor, and it wasn’t uncommon for colorful dicks to get drawn over his gray yearbook picture, turning him from a teacher into a human Suicide Rock.
I walk with a limp because of mild cerebral palsy and was not always amused when kids made fun of Mr. Fagg as he teeter-tottered to the vending machines. Observing Fagg’s loping gait one day, a kid in my gym class with the guaranteed-to-make-you-popular-in-junior-high last name of Bier told me, “He’s just an old dude with a bum hip.” Bier got quiet after he said this, as if suddenly remembering that I also jounced around on a bum hip, that I was also a fag.
Besides nodding to him in the halls, I didn’t see much of Mr. Fagg until I had surgery on my hamstrings in the tenth grade and ended up, through pure chance, on the physical therapy table next to him at a local orthopedic hospital. Two ripe purple scars ran down the center of his kneecaps, the result of a double knee replacement. His eyes were almost translucent, drained of pigment. He had one heel cradled in a towel and was working on very slowly bending his knee. I knew this excruciating exercise from my own recovery, though it must have been worse for him, having to look at his scars as he did it. I thought he might not recognize me. It had been three years, after all. I was a different person now. I had a driver’s license. Through sharp intakes of breath, Mr. Fagg said, “Now tell me, Greg, what sort of mess have your gotten yourself into? And how’s your mom doing?”
I thought he might not recognize me. It had been three years, after all. I was a different person now. I had a driver’s license.
The women’s varsity soccer team from my high school worked out at the orthopedic hospital that spring as part of a sports training program. Dressed as they would be for games, numbers painted on their cheeks, blue and yellow balloon string crimped in their hair, they ran wind sprints and lifted weights. The team captain happened to be my next-door neighbor and came over to the physical therapy tables most days to say hello. It was really something, seeing Mr. Fagg introduce himself to her that first time. “Glenn L. Fagg,” he said, holding out what must have been a clammy hand. “The L stands for LeRoy.” You had to hand it to the guy. Mr. Fagg spent his days in a nursing home, learning to walk again, no doubt babbling about pioneers, and yet he could still roll out that middle initial like it meant something.
I was a sophomore in college during what turned out to be Mr. Fagg’s final year of teaching. Coincidentally, my younger sister Chelsea was taking Utah Studies at the time and would call to relay the same rumors that had circulated when I was in junior high. “He named his daughter Gaylene,” she’d tell me. “Get it? Gay Fagg.”
Frankly, I was surprised Mr. Fagg was still teaching, that he hadn’t snapped.
Being a fag, I’d learned, wasn’t easy. Even after coming out of the closet my freshman year of college, I took great pains to hide my limp. I was self-conscious when I had to so much as put on my pea coat in front of another person, let alone take off my socks and expose my spastic right foot, which is usually clutched in terror, angled up like a nine iron. I was the only guy in my dorm to go to the shower in a bathrobe. Even if I didn’t think it at the time, Mr. Fagg’s casual confidence taught me to make the best of things, such as they were. If we had to be fags, we may as well put on leather cowboy hats and frolic in a smelly lake.
Even if I didn’t think it at the time, Mr. Fagg’s casual confidence taught me to make the best of things, such as they were.
With only a few weeks remaining in the school year, Chelsea called to tell me Mr. Fagg had thrown a kid against a locker. He was put on some kind of administrative leave for the remainder of the year and forced to quietly retire. The word “fired” comes to mind only because my former junior high burnt to the ground in mid-July. A computer server in a classroom went up in flames, a small blaze that spread through air vents and into the attic and turned into what the newspaper described as an “inferno” that engulfed the north side of the building.
Mr. Fagg was on the local TV news the next day, mourning the loss of thousands of slides, maps, lesson plans and yearbooks that had been boxed up in room 211. “I lost a good share of my life right there,” he told the reporter. “It’s hard to walk away without shedding a few tears. I love that school. I came in 1963 with nothing, and apparently I’m leaving with nothing but a lot of great memories I will always hold in my heart.”
It isn’t a bad thing that we never really get to know our junior high teachers. If we knew them, we wouldn’t get to turn them into whoever we need them to be at the time. Mr. Fagg belongs to me, just like he belongs to his eight-thousand other former students. When I was home for Christmas a couple years ago, I Googled his name and came across his obituary on a mortuary website. It was set to the fiddle song from Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary and noted the man’s love of American history, his many callings for the LDS church, his famous Monterey salsa and his four daughters, none of them named Gaylene.
Author's Commentary: In this dark new era of American life, the era of Trump, it feels almost quaint to talk about the importance of reclaiming a word like “fag.” I need only scroll through my Twitter feed to find a whole new vernacular of put-downs that until recently were unfamiliar to me—and I’m saying this not as some kind of so-called “coastal elite” but as a gay, disabled person who grew up in Utah and now lives in Central Texas. And here I thought I’d heard them all.
One of my first encounters with our new lexicon of hate came in the giddy moments leading up to Michelle Obama’s remarks to the Democratic National Committee in July, when I naively tweeted that I still watched the First Lady’s speech from four years earlier when I needed a good inspirational cry. #DNCinPHL #I’mWithHer #LoveTrumpsHate. A troll replied almost instantly by asking, somewhat incoherently, “I can’t tell if faggot or (((Jew))), What kind of White-presenting ‘man’ cucks for #CrookedHillary.”
The tweet left me discombobulated on more than the obvious level of having my feelings hurt. Sadly, the hatred and ignorance I had expected. The word choice I did not. It had been a long time since I understood so few characters in a sentence, on Twitter or anywhere else.
My husband Lucas, who is much savvier than I am when it comes to navigating the internal mazes of our iPhones, walked me through what each phrase meant: the triple-parentheses around “Jew” were an anti-Semitic dog whistle used to encourage other white supremacists to send me hateful messages (thankfully, none did); “White-presenting” meant that I was a racial imposter. The scare quotes around man were a no brainer and, using what my junior high French teacher would call “context clues,” I was able to guess that “cuck” meant “cuckold,” as in a man whose wife is being unfaithful. More generally, according to a thread on Reddit, it’s a vile insult that refers to a man who is too weak to stand up for his principles—those principles being that women are objects, immigrants are rapists and criminals, the disabled do not deserve respect and dignity and, oh yeah, Barack Obama is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States.
Like it or not, hate speech is now once again our national pastime. During the brutal presidential campaign that elected Trump, we saw both the power and limitations of attempts to reclaim insensitive language used by the opposition: shirts that read “Nasty Woman” and “Pussy Grabs Back” became common among us Hillary supporters. Trump fans proudly flaunted their status as “Deplorables” on one-hundred percent cotton. When the votes were counted, we arrived at a split decision. Hillary won the popular vote by three million; Trump secured a narrow victory in the electoral college and made his way to Washington, D.C., to assume rule.
Like this election, “Mr. Fagg and Me” asks whether or not is it possible to defang hate speech to make it, if not less poisonous, then at least less easy to deliver to the blood stream. My Utah Studies teacher endured more than forty years of middle school students calling him a fag every day even though, by all but the literal definition, he wasn’t one. And by the way, who is? Certainly not the heroic gay men who fought for our rights and, in many cases, were beaten, chemically castrated, institutionalized and even killed.
Mr. Fagg’s was a smaller, more intrinsic form of activism. He was advocating that he be seen first and foremost as a human being. The wild part is that he almost got away with it. At the same time, to forget about the toll that word must have taken on him day in, day out, would be a simplification almost as violent as the initial slur. For forty-two years, Mr. Fagg did right by his students and then one morning, the words or behavior of a recalcitrant student struck him the wrong way, and the fiction of harmony he’d labored under crumbled.
When I was thirteen and in Mr. Fagg’s class, my favorite song was Leslie Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me,” a version of which appears in First Wives Club and features Bette Midler, Goldie Hawn and Diane Keaton dancing down the streets of New York in pearls and white pumps. In spite of lacking the proper attire, I did my best Bette-Goldie-Diane imitation as I flung open the exit to Carmike Cinemas and serenaded around the parking lot. I’ll keep singing that song for the rest of my life. To me, it’s not just about women’s lib, like my mom claimed. It’s about coming out. To live my life the way that I want / To say and do whatever I please. The message that selfhood comes with no caveats, qualifiers or exceptions is one upon which my mom and I can happily agree. At the dawning of a terrifying new presidency, it’s once again time to do some reclaiming.
Greg Marshall is a graduate of the Michener Center for Writers. His work has appeared in Tampa Review, Barely South, Electric Literature and elsewhere and his essay "Suck Ray Blue" was recently selected as Notable in Best American Essays 2016. Follow him on twitter @gregrmarshall.