Freshman English at Pikeville High School meant two things: William Shakespeare and Layne Tackett. The former, you would study. The latter would study you.
Mr. Tackett was intimidating for such a small man. He was wiry, but in a mountain man, don’t-mess-with-me kind of way. His graying, dark beard hid either a smirk or a smile and there wasn’t much between the two.
As one student read a passage, Mr. Tackett would wide-eye over his reading glasses, watching for any stare or snicker. God forbid you nodded off in his class. It meant you came within an inch of needing medical attention for a cardiac episode. That’s what happens when a Houghton Mifflin literature text book slams on your desk, inches from your sleeping head.
Pop-quizzes and timed writing assignments for Mr. Tackett always came in minutes-and-a-half. The ring finger on his right hand was gone past the second knuckle after a rat bit him as a child. He would hold up a fully extended hand, high-five style, and say, “You have four-and-a-half minutes to finish.”
Your time for restroom visits was also presented in minutes-and-a-half format. He assumed the joke never got old.
I suppose it wouldn’t have, had he gone into more detail about the rat.
The only instances in which he did not assign minutes-and-a-half timing was when someone would ask “how long” rather than “how much time.” Always teaching respect for the nuances of language, his reply was, “‘bout as long as a good-sized string.”
He also answered questions that beckoned “how much” or “how far” with, “‘Purt near, but not plumb.”
The first title of the new year’s reading was Romeo and Juliet. As he introduced the text, he gave an exacerbated explanation of the word “doth” and its pronunciation.
“We will be reading aloud in class,” his syrupy slow drawl would roll. “You will be tempted to say ‘doth,’ which is how it looks and rhymes with ‘moth.’ But the word is ‘doth,’ which rhymes with cuss, if you had a lisp.”
No one laughed. You either were too smart to think it was funny or too dumb to get it before he gave up and moved on. So he would offer the compromise strategy of imagining the word was spelled “duth.”
I raised my hand.
“Yes, Mr. Falls?”
“Mr. Tackett, sir. If you want us to say duth instead of doth when we see doth, why not trust that we can tell the difference between doth and duth even when duth is spelled doth. Because none of us would want to duth something that was dothed, nor doth something that was duthed. Come to think of it, my mother gets mad when I don’t duthed the bookshelves and she can put fingerprints right by my books containing doth and duth. I can assure you that we doth duth what duth we doth and if not, then what, prey tell, doth a freshman do? Or is it duth?”
Mr. Tackett walked to the chalk board and banged his head upon it.
— — — — —
He came to know I may come across as a smart-alek, class clown, but was generally paying attention. He tolerated the occasional wisecrack and often cracked back, reminding me it was forever his classroom.
Still, I was 14, then 15 during that school year. I wasn’t old or wise enough to know my limits, or even that other people’s might be different. One day in freshman English, it bit me in the rear.
In the spring of that year, we were covering a unit on grammar. Adjectives and adverbs are fun, but for just-post-adolescent boys, all things “dangling” are hilarious.
Mr. Tackett was not new to teaching, nor to freshmen boys. He combined the lessons on dangling participles and dangling modifiers for the sole intent and purpose of limiting our fun to one day. So, I had to make the most of it.
“Can anyone give me an example of a dangling participle?” Mr. Tackett asked, as if putting the ball on the tee. I raised my hand, eyes like saucers at the anticipation.
Erik Johnson sat right in front of me. He even ducked down a bit knowing I’d have an answer.
I couldn’t believe he didn’t caution me to keep it clean?!
“I may not be right, but I’ll give it a shot, sir,” I said, half grin emerging. “How about this … ‘Walking through the locker room, Erik’s johnson was hanging out.”
Mr. Tackett closed his eyes and shook his head. The room half-erupted with laughter, then quieted to a low hum of stifled giggles. We were all waiting for him to explode.
“Is everything inappropriate to you, Mr. Falls?”
“Not everything, no.”
“And what, might I ask, is your definition of a dangling modifier?”
If I’d had a moment to think, or the wherewithal to take it, I might have prevented the resulting punishment. But, I’ve always been the speak first, think later kind of guy.
“A dangling modifier? I guess that would be when a little tissue sticks out of a stuffed bra.”
We continued the conversation about dangling things an hour later. In the principal’s office. With my mother.
— — — — —
Part of the mystique of Layne Tackett was the result of small towns being up in everyone else’s business. There was a rumor or story that followed everyone in town around at one time or another.
Why, that very year at the state football championship, I was given far too much alcohol, and proceeded to drink it all. It was the first time I’d actually been drunk. Apparently, my drunk self is 10 times more obnoxious than the sober version, so upon my return home, I was suspended from school for three days.
Years later having dinner at a friend’s house, her mother asked how “my drinking” was going. As it happens, she worked in the lunchroom at the high school where the hair net crew all knew, for certain, I was an alcoholic who had been in and out of rehab.
I wasn’t then. Nor was I ever. On both counts.
Mr. Tackett’s tall tale had a seed of provable truth to it, though. And that little bit of proof went a long way.
Mr. Tackett was once shot. With a gun.
As redneck as many of my classmates were, we could count on one hand the number of people we knew of who survived a gunshot. It’s not normal for hillbillies to miss.
Legend has it the rivalry between two bar owners in town once got so heated that one marched into the other’s tavern and shot him in the stomach. As soon as he recovered, he paid the first a visit and shot him back. I think in the butt. But, then again the whole thing may have been the product of the local rumor mill. As of this writing, both are dead. By natural causes.
As the nosy Nancies would have it, Mr. Tackett was awakened one evening by noises from his downstairs. Thinking it might be a burglar, he retrieved his pistol and snuck down to investigate. At the third step from the bottom, he tripped over a vacuum cleaner, fell forward on his own gun, and shot himself.
To this day, I’m convinced Mr. Tackett’s gunshot story would have a bit more bite if he had a better publicist.
None of the lunch ladies, bridge clubs, or Jerry’s counter coffee crew managed to relay what the cause of the noise was. Though I did hear Mr. Tackett utter, “Goddamn possums” under his breath once.
Mr. Tackett did acknowledge he, indeed, was once shot. But the details of the incident were left to others to recount. Or make up. I have no factual proof or testimony directly from him that verifies anything other than a bullet once pierced his skin. For all I know, the rat did it.
I resisted the urge to point out that Pikeville, Kentucky was a town of 7,000 people two hours from anything that even resembled a city. If he was being burgled, it would the first such crime there since train robberies were a thing.
Still, we were in awe of him. And it wasn’t only because he’d lived to not tell us about it.
We were also in awe of him because he taught us Shakespere. And Milton. And Chaucer. And Stephen Crane.
I doubt he refused to teach Hawthorne, Austin and Dickinson. But Mr. Tackett will forever be associated with literature’s more daring tales for me. He opened my eyes to adventure and language until then I had not known.
He inspired many students to want to read and write more, to explore the greater world beyond the hometown and the holler. And he did so as a tough guy. Perhaps in reputation more so than action, but the effect was profound.
Thank you, Mr. Tackett. And please know that if I’d stuck around town long enough to know you as an adult, I would have certainly called you “Trigger.”
Author’s Note: Layne Tackett passed away in 2014 at age 77. He spent his entire career educating the students of Pikeville College (now the University of Pikeville), Pikeville High School, and as an administrator in the Kentucky Department of Education.