The Many Nicknames of Mr. McNulty
I recently finished reading “The Greatest Show on Earth” by Richard Dawkins. If you know nothing about that book, or author Richard Dawkins, let me assure you that it is not about the circus, but it does have quite a bit to do with animals.
Anyway, once you’ve read a chapter or two of any of Dawkins’ books, it becomes clear that he loves to go off on tangents, as well as give far more background information on a topic than necessary.
During one of these tangential discussions, Dawkins dropped a name that bounced off the neurons in my brain in a way that convinced me I’d heard the name before. The name was Hermann von Helmholtz, and if that means nothing to you, it probably shouldn’t. Helmholtz was a German scientist who lived in the 19th century. That’s not to say Helmholtz wasn’t a big deal, because — as Dawkins makes sure to point out — he was. Helmholtz not only was a physician, but he also was a physicist — a truly rare combination, even today.
In physics, Helmholtz is one of three scientists credited with developing the concept of the conservation of energy, especially as it applied to living organisms — no small feat in itself, considering that for centuries it had been believed that living organisms received energy from a mysterious “vital” force.
This was just one notable piece of Helmholtz’s legacy in physics, but the mark he left on biology was arguably even greater, and this is why he makes an appearance in “The Greatest Show on Earth.” One of Helmholtz’s highlights (say that five times fast) in the field was the invention of the ophthalmoscope, a device that examines the retina. A modern version of the tool is still used today. Helmholtz also helped devise the theory of three-color vision, which says that the human eye uses three types of receptors sensitive to blue, green and red light.
All that aside, Hermann von Helmholtz is not a household name. So why did it strike a chord when I read it that night? I couldn’t decipher the connection. I continued on past the mention of Helmholtz.
When I woke the next morning, the name was still lingering in my brain.
What did it mean?
The next night I picked up the book and flipped backward a few pages, returning to the paragraphs on the German scientist. I reread them, hoping to spark the answer.
The following day, when I had stopped thinking about it again, the answer popped into my consciousness. I’m sure I wasn’t doing, or thinking about, anything important at the time, which I find is when the brain works its best.
Anyway, the answer to the Mystery of Hermann von Helmholtz took me back to my high school days and unlocked many memories — not just my own, but for countless other people, many of whom I’ve never met.
At the late, great St. James High School I had an English teacher, Mr. Donald McNulty. To say he was a legend would be an understatement of Homeric proportions. That’s the kind of literary reference that, if you were fortunate (and put the study time in), you might be able to make after taking McNulty’s class.
My tenure at St. James was just long enough ago that there is a scarcely a digital trace of my three years there. I didn’t have a smartphone (or even a cellphone of any kind, for that matter) or a digital camera. The Web was still a curiosity for most people.
My memories from my time at that school are preserved, for now at least, only in my mind. And because, for me, Mr. McNulty’s class was the focal point of the entire St. James universe, many of my memories from my two years in his classroom, taking British Literature and Analysis & Interpretation, still remain.
It is an impossible challenge to try to set the scene of what it was like to be a student in Mr. McNulty’s classroom, which was on the second floor when I attended the school. I have two older sisters who went through his classes before I did, so he was a name on my radar long before I walked up to his corner classroom for the first time on the opening day of sophomore year.
Above the door hung an inscription: “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.”
That quote, from Dante’s “Inferno,” was the first of many literary references in the dimly lit chamber lined with books, tchotchkes and dusty old college pennants. Mr. McNulty had a worn wooden lectern (also called a rostrum, but please don’t call it a podium) that he would push around the front of the room as he taught in his Socratic style. The front of the lectern was adorned with a medieval coat of armour and another inscription: “You have to be armed to have a battle of wits with this.”
From those two facts alone, it should be quite clear that Mr. McNulty set out to create a certain atmosphere in his classes. Another aspect of this, and the one that is the heart of this post, was that he rarely called students by their actual names. From day one, he had nicknames for the vast majority of us.
Now, his class wasn’t unique in this regard. We also had nicknames in Spanish class, but the difference there was that we got to pick our apodos. We had no say in our nicknames in Mr. McNulty’s class. He devised them, and like it or not, that’s what we’d be called. Some of us had more than one; some would be called by three or four different names during the same class, while an unlucky (or was it lucky?) few never received even one moniker.
These nicknames were assigned without explanation. Mr McNulty left it up to us to figure out the meaning or connection. I imagine he thought we’d never understand some of them.
I had a few nicknames, but I can remember only one with certainty: Foghorn. I remember that one especially because I despised it and Mr. McNulty knew that. There was no honor in being compared to a big, dumb, stuttering chicken.
Among the nicknames for my 12 or so classmates were Adam-12 (for someone named Adam); Jukie (Julie, who signed her name in a way that made the L look like a K); Daisy (Tina … I can only guess that this one had a connection to “The Great Gatsby”); Brandle (Brandon); Billiam/Bon Bon/Bilbo (Bill, whose last name is Bonhage); Lima (Liam) and Sterling (Tom).
And there also was … Helmholtz. Helmholtz!
My recollection tells me it wasn’t a regular nickname, but I know one of other kids in the room was called Helmholtz a few times. Maybe it was Tom. He sat front and center, just to my left. It’s interesting how I can still remember exactly where I sat for most of my classes in that room — and I also remember that was not where I sat for my first class with Mr. McNulty; I decided to move up to the front row because that first class was like a slap in the face and I suspected early on that he branded anyone who sat in the back as a slacker.
I think it was Tom who was called Helmholtz on an occasion or two because I remember talking to him after class one day. The conversation went something like this:
Tom: Helmholtz? Who the hell is that?
Me: A scientist, maybe? Not sure.
Since my family probably didn’t have an Internet connection, or even a PC, at that time, looking up Helmholtz would’ve required a trip to the school library, so it was easy enough just to laugh it off as one of McNulty’s eccentric references. I imagine that was the end of it.
I forgot about that name soon enough, and then St. James was closed by the Camden Diocese after my junior year. Mr. McNulty gave away a lot of the books in his room, including a bag that still remains (I hope) in my old bedroom at my parents’ house.
Like those books, the nicknames that he gave us have been stored away in dusty corners of our minds and forgotten. It takes the resurfacing of one of them to bring back all those memories, of the Analytical Sentence Outline (the famous ASO method of writing essays) and nervously reading aloud in class and cramming for tests. The resurfacing of Helmholtz brought a lot of those back for me.
It’s ironic that a scientist — not a novelist or essayist, or Mr. McNulty’s beloved High Priest, T.S. Eliot — would bring back memories of this class. Mr. McNulty scoffed at the sciences during his classes and ridiculed how schools were pushing students into programs now commonly known as STEM. “Math-science,” “math-science,” “math-science” he would say in a mockingly mechanical chant with no pause, blending the two fields into one that he could scorn even more.
On the afternoon of Jan. 27, I reached out to my friends through text messages and to the St. James High School Facebook group (I’m sure McNulty would tsk tsk about texting and Facebook) to see what they remembered about their nicknames. The first response came on Facebook within 30 seconds, and the outpouring continues almost a week later. Here are some of the responses:
Almond Eyes – Theresa Forsyth
Annie – Andrea Patterson
Daisy – Tina Kemp
Billiam aka Bon Bon – Bill Bonhage
Boots – Fr. Connelly
Bubbles – Nikki Powell
Butchy – Mary Beth Gallagher
Buffy – Azuree Schnur
Calvin – Kevin Flanigan
Carrie Nation – Carrie Sterrs
Currie – Carrie Smith Boggs
Darryl – Larry Maurer
DiFlip – Jerry DiFlippantonio
Edward Edward – Ed Doughty
Evie – Christine Kleban
Harley – Arwen Raineiri
Jukie – Julie Allen
Jenny-Bob – Jennifer Tessmer
Jim Bob – Jim Tessemer
Jock – Bomber Bennett
Kelvin – Kevin Weatherill
Klaus – Kenneth Sheeky
Kwistian – Christian Jones
Lakers – Veronica Smith
Lorlie – Lori Gioia-Grether
Meegie aka Muskrat – Megan Facemyer
Mel Allen, Voice of the Yankees – Melanie Allen
Meredythe – Meredyth Fogg
Mersault aka Bon Bon – Joe Bonhage
Mongoose – Matt Lopes
Mrs. Honorata – Mary Maurer
Nelly Bly – Lisa Earnest
Neutron – Nathan Izzo
Nuke (after Nuke LaLoosh from “Bull Durham”) – Jack Smith
Pabs/Pablo – Ron Pushkar
Pepe – Frank Costello
Petey aka Little O – Vinson Powell
Purgatory – Jason Graham
Rachel – Jennifer Byrne
Right Hand – Ben Campanella Jr.
Robert (with French accent) – RC Cobin
Rocky aka Polly – Rachel Anglade
Rug – Tom Napoli
Sarita – Stephanie Maurer Hassler
Simi (after Simi’s Gym in Pennsville) – Tom Leisner
Speed aka Molasses – Paul Vincent
Tedward – Ted Morris
Tink – April Smith
Water Babies – Kevin and Joe Johnson
Woody aka Dr. Roadkill – Steve Schelder