Mentors are like artists or writers, sometimes their impact is not fully appreciated for decades. Then, at times, it is passed on and lives for generations. This could be the story of Mr. Ron Jones, a very normal looking young high school English teacher in 1965, with a fresh credential, trying to enlighten a class of 4th-year English Seniors, some looking for inspiration and others waiting for it all to end. Though I found him an interesting teacher, it took years to fully understand the profound effect our time together had in developing some of my lifelong passions and, in many ways, guiding the way I look at things.
Mr. Jones had a typical mid-1960s high school teacher image, short hair, gray slacks with cuffs, a button-down dress shirt and tie and tweed jacket. His look was preppy, but intellectual, one that would drastically change for teachers in the next few years. Jones had chosen, as one of his extracurricular requirements, to help with the football team and I would often see him at practice. He was athletic and knowledgeable about the game, but his classroom persona revealed much more than just a jock teaching English. The fall of 1965 was at the cusp of massive cultural and social changes in this country and, I believe, as a young man, he sensed and embraced them early.
During a week-long segment on poetry, Mr. Jones veered from the classics to discuss some new contemporary poets. “Ya’know, he said, “many of the writers and poets today are singers and songwriters.” Then, poetically, he recited lyrics by Buffy Saint Marie and Leonard Cohen, prose of a new day. Half the class continued to be bored with both the new and the old, but Mr.Jones had my full attention. In this moment, a teacher was about to inspire a student. Months earlier, with no expectations, I had gone with a friend to a Bob Dylan concert. The profound effect of his music had led me to other songwriters of the emerging folk rock movement and Mr. Jones just legitimized them all.
For the next few weeks, students were allowed to bring in music on Fridays. We listened seriously to songwriters, discussing and interpreting their poetry the best we could. Some students never understood or cared about it at all, foreshadowing future oblivion or a difficult adjustment through the next decade. At times, I thought Mr. Jones and I were having a conversation and others in the class were just listening. A typical classroom discussion was best summed up by one of my Friday submittals, Bob Dylan’s song, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” from his new album, “Highway 61 Revisited”:
“You raise up your head
And you ask, “Is this where it is?”
And somebody points to you and says
And you say, “What’s mine?”
And somebody else says, “Where what is?”
And you say, “Oh my God
Am I here all alone.”
But something is happening here
And you don’t know what it is
Do you, Mister Jones?
Passion for music of all kinds has continuously enveloped my adult life, always leaving time to explore the lyrics of great contemporary song writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and others who have chronicled our time so eloquently. Amid many musical influences, Mr. Jones steered me in their direction and gave me permission to be open and accepting of something new.
Weeks later, this engaging teacher offered an intriguing extra-credit opportunity, one that got the attention of my friend Steve and I. “There is a film playing at the Towne Theater, it’s called, ‘The Pawnbroker,’” Mr. Jones announced, “it’s not required but if any students are able to watch it and write a brief description of your impressions, I’ll give you fifty extra credit points toward your grade.” With SAT scores lower than expected, we were both focused on our GPA’s and justifying a week-night movie as the road to an A was appealing. “If you wanna do it, I can pick you up at 6:30,” Steve said as I nodded affirmatively. Steve’s dad had recently given him a brand new, burgundy-colored 1966 Pontiac GTO as an early graduation present, vastly increasing my transportation opportunities. The car was a beast that delivered less than eight miles to the gallon and even with fuel priced at twenty-nine cents per gallon, lack of gas money often restricted our travel. Luckily, tonight was about extra credit and Steve’s mom pitched in a few dollars.
I loved the movies, especially when Paul Newman overcame adversity and prevailed over the latest antagonist or Jerry Lewis would portray a character among his breadth of idiots. I loved movies, but had no concept of film as an art form until that rainy January night, my first time inside the Towne Theater, at the time San Jose’s only art and foreign film venue. The featured film was director Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” a dark portrait of a soulless man, the survivor of the Nazi concentration camp where his wife and children were killed. The main character, Sol Nazerman, played by young actor Rod Steiger, operated a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem that also fronted for a pimp. His experiences had left him totally detached from others or the world around him. I was expecting a more dramatic Hollywood ending where we watch significant changes to Sol’s life unfold into happily ever after. In this film, real change came slowly or not at all, with a small glimmer of hope left to the interpretation of the viewer. The “Pawnbroker” was stark reality, but, at seventeen, the most poignant film I had ever seen, a film that heightened my understanding and awareness of the Holocaust.
Eager to write a brief review of the film to secure the extra credit, I described the use of visual flashbacks to horrifically reveal Nazerman’s past, they helped me to better understand his behavior. Unlike today, information and reviews were not available to the masses. Viewers had to rely on their own perceptions. In a later discussion, Mr. Jones, admittedly a fan of Sidney Lumet, described how the director used various techniques to create a more powerful message. It was the first time I understood the role or appreciated the contribution of the film director.
Remaining somewhat interested over the ensuing years, my curiosity re-emerged after I met my wife, Karen, an undergraduate student who also had an interest in film. Hers was influenced by her parents, who would go to the Towne Theater to watch art films and mine from Mr. Jones. Karen and I have remained avid film buffs for 47 years, beginning in 1969 with watching art films on campus or at the old Saratoga Theater, a metal quonset hut nestled against the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the village of the same name.
I never communicated with Mr. Jones after graduation but like to remember thanking him and telling him how much I enjoyed his class. Moving on with my life, I remained unaware that he had touched and opened a side of me that could have remained dormant forever. Questions will always remain of what became of Mr. Jones. Did he continue teaching in the public school system or drop out and live in a commune for the next ten years? He may have written the screenplay of a film that I enjoyed, not that credits for someone named Ron Jones would raise a red flag.
Whatever became of him, Mr. Jones will always be remembered as a wonderfully effective teacher, one that opened a young mind to appreciate artistic expression of all kinds.