The Musings Of Dr. B

Gary Blankenburg, poetic Pied Piper of Catonsville High, bids a glad farewell to a storied career.

April 13, 2004|By Gary Dorsey | Gary Dorsey,SUN STAFF

Some day soon, the infamous Dr. B, the Zen Poet, the former litterateur Mr. Electric, will retire from Catonsville High School and become merely Gary Blankenburg again. Freed from the cult of his own personality, he will finger his stringy beard, pack up his pop art, take the stairs to the lobby downstairs and smoke his last cigar.

He, of the hernia, the deviated septum, arthritic ankles, high blood pressure, cataracts, acid reflux, depression and tumors of the esophagus, will think it's time to fish.

He will think the time has come, once again, to make good with his Maker.

He will consider his death, a favorite theme.

But when he goes home this time, it will be for good. After so many years as a teacher - 32 here, nine at other schools - Dr. B will be retired, free of the bonds he came to love.

"Forty-one years," he muttered one morning on the elevator to his first-period class.

"Congratulations, Dr. Blankenburg!" said the family studies teacher, pondering her own retirement.

"Fifty-one more days," he replied. "You'll know when your time comes."

He actually started to disappear a couple of years ago. After persuading the principal to hire a lovely young poet to replace him, he gave up the literary magazine and creative-writing classes. He gave up Room 316, his arena for the last 28 years. He quit smoking cigars in the faculty lounge.

"Is Dr. Blankenburg here?" the office secretary would ask, peering out the window for the teacher's big, bad, baby blue Cadillac DeVille. But Dr. B had traded it for a practical Volvo, a retired man's car that blends safely into traffic.

His overstuffed green chair, covered with duct tape, sometime home to a family of mice, had vanished, too. Into the Dumpster! Few are left who recall the day some boys picked it up with Dr. B casually anchored and hauled them outdoors for a one-act play. No one could remember how well the bemused poet, in mirrored sunglasses and a Hawaiian shirt, carried off his role as "God" - a non-speaking part he performed with supreme indifference.

No one was left who could remember so much. He had outlasted English department chairs and principals, football coaches and janitors.

And even now, as his own memory wavered, he, too, felt deserted by words, emptied of confessions, confused by the effort to match names and dates. He felt devoid of the once endless stream of intemperate tales of his wanton youth, wrecked marriages, beery failures and deeply atoning middle age.

The poet was a recovering alcoholic. A mentor who launched careers. A teacher whose passions infected a school. "Letting go is liberating," he'd say. "But letting go of this job is scary."

The Zen Poet was passing. Mr. Electric was dead. Gary Blankenburg sensed his storied career fading into the void.

He had arrived in Maryland from Illinois with a bachelor's degree in 1963 and taught high school in Sparrows Point. He hated it. He went back to Illinois for a master's degree, then returned to teach at what was then Towson State College.

But Blankenburg was an alcoholic by then. If he did not drink, he had seizures. He drank. Towson fired him.

He got a job grooming horses and began a master's program at Johns Hopkins. Eventually, he entered a Ph.D. program at the University of Delaware, expecting he'd become a professor, a novelist, a scholar in 17th-century British literature.

Instead, he left the stables, taught for a while at a private boys school, married and went into debt. He continued to drink. Dropped out of the Ph.D. program. Entered detox. In 1972, he came to Catonsville High School, where slowly, over time, the job forced him to face the demons that infested his life.

"My perceptions were all crazy," he said recently, reflecting on his career. "Maybe it was the combination of getting beaten up by my addiction and having to earn a living this way. But what little humility I had, I gained because I had to teach at the high school.

"I was very arrogant. I wanted to be a college professor - for all the wrong reasons. Ego. Pride. I needed to feel intellectually superior. I also thought I would be a novelist, although I knew nothing about writing novels. It was part of this persona I was pursuing. ... I resented teaching and felt like what I was doing was really beneath me. I was not nice to be around."

Blankenburg left his first wife and married a woman who would become a college English professor. They had a child, and she helped him earn his doctorate at Carnegie Mellon University while he continued to teach at Catonsville.

"I don't think I could have even finished the dissertation without her," Blankenburg said. "I liked the research. I loved the reading. But I had no idea how to organize the work. ... Thankfully, my wife was a lot smarter than me, and she could see how it all fit together."

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