IT was obvious from the first day of school that I would be competing with the internal combustion engine for the mind and soul of Paul Pringle. Paul swaggered into my first-period English class exuding a strong aroma of gasoline. His hands and forearms were smudged with grease, and a stained toothpick dangled carelessly from his lips. He was 20 minutes late, thus establishing a precedent for punctual tardiness he was to maintain for the balance of the year.
``You must be Paul Pringle,'' I said, surveying my roster. Paul nodded and slumped his angular frame into a seat by the window. He turned to acknowledge the greetings of his buddies in the room.
``Paul, you are 20 minutes late,'' I said. ``May I ask why?''
``Camshaft,'' said Paul.
``See that it doesn't happen again,'' I said, handing Paul a sheet of composition paper. ``Your first assignment is to write a brief autobiography. Get out your pen and begin.''
Paul rummaged through his pockets, from which he drew a tire gauge, a spark-plug gapper, and a rotor button. ``I don't got no pen,'' he shrugged.
``I don't got no pen,'' I flared; ``what kind of English is that? Make sure you come on time tomorrow - with pen and paper. Is that clear?''
Paul shifted his toothpick. ``OK, Ace, OK.''
``And get rid of that toothpick.'' He put the toothpick in his pocket. ``And don't call me Ace.''
At the risk of taxing the reader's credulity, I am compelled to report that the subject of Paul's autobiography was his car, a souped-up, fiery red Mustang, with ``Pringle's Pride'' stenciled on each door. My initial reaction was that Paul was playing word games, and I was tempted to lecture him on the sins of levity. As it turned out, Paul's affection for Pringle's Pride surpassed even Don Quixote's for Rocinante. The Mustang became the centerpiece of all subsequent compositions, playing the lead role in such diverse themes as, ``My Favorite Hobby,'' ``My Narrowest Escape,'' and ``My Most Unforgettable Character.''
Paul's chronic tardiness seldom grew out of anything as commonplace as a flat tire or a leaky gas tank. It ranged into the mystical areas of manifold gaskets, distributor caps, and universal joints. I am so mechanically inept that I need help when changing flashlight batteries, so Paul sensed quickly that he was negotiating from a position of strength.
One morning he breezed in at the usual 20 minutes past the bell, with his arms grease-smeared and with the customary toothpick in his mouth. I motioned him to my desk, made him remove the toothpick, and asked the routine question. ``Paul, why are you late?''
``Intake valve,'' he whispered. ``It was stuck.''
``Wasn't that the same trouble you had yesterday?''
Paul stared at me in disbelief. ``Yesterday it was the generator brushes. C'mon, Ace, you remember.'' He nudged me playfully.
I gave Paul his assignment, a brief summary of ``The Killers.'' He pleaded that it was too far along in the period to begin such an important assignment, and that he would be at a distinct disadvantage. Nevertheless, I insisted that he get started.
``Can I wash my hands? They're greasy.''
``C'mon, Ace, you want I should fail English?''
``No, I don't want you should - I don't want you to fail English. And stop calling me Ace.''
``I'll hand in a composition with grease marks on it. I'll fail English and not graduate. Then you'll be satisfied.''
I felt like a heel. ``All right, Paul, go wash your hands.''
By the time Paul returned to the classroom, three minutes remained until the bell. He held his hands high to show how clean they were; then, after borrowing a sheet of paper from Marion and a pen from Donna, he began concentrating on his assignment. At the bell, he turned in his paper and winked to reassure me of his good intentions. His paper was blank, except for the first two letters of his name, printed at the top.
Paul hated school with a passion. He would have quit long ago, if his father had not issued an ultimatum: Stay in school or give up Pringle's Pride. As a concession to his teachers, Paul kept all matters academic in his Mustang, but they were generally buried in the trunk, where they would not be seen by his drag strip buddies and possibly strain his rapport with them. Paul's willingness to traffic in educational enterprise was directly proportionate to the distance he parked the Mustang each day from school.
ONE morning I notified the first-period class that they were scheduled to take a test on the following day. I stressed the importance of being on time and told them to bring pencils, since the exam would be corrected by machine, and must, therefore, be done in pencil.
Next day I passed out the test papers, read the instructions, and signaled the class to begin. All fell immediately into a state of deep concentration. All, that is, except Paul, who stared at me, wagging his toothpick nervously. I waved him to my desk.
``What's wrong now?'' I asked.
``It's gotta be in pencil, Ace?'' he asked.
``It must be in pencil,'' I replied, angrily. ``And get rid of that toothpick. And don't call me Ace.''
He threw the toothpick in the wastebasket. ``Will you trade a pencil for a pen?''
Anyone but Paul would have felt my wrath for failure to bring proper equipment. I regarded Paul's possession of any writing implement as a moral victory, and reached into my desk for a pencil. I handed it to Paul, who immediately turned to the class. ``Who's gonna lend me a pen?'' he boomed.
The incident unnerved me considerably and forced me to schedule an after-school consultation with Paul. I reminded him that the end of the school year was approaching, and that he was in danger of failing English unless he revised his priorities and berthed the Mustang.
In the final weeks, Paul made a desperate attempt to improve. He kicked the toothpick habit and stopped calling me Ace. He brought pen and pencil to class every day, though the stigma of carrying a notebook was still too great. I had issued a stern edict against borrowing supplies from classmates, so Paul's substitutions for writing paper were ingenious. One day he wrote a character study of Albert Schweitzer on the back of a Dover drag-race program. On another occasion he paraphrased the poem ``Invictus'' along the margin of a bill for an exhaust pipe.
It was the final exam, though, that turned the tide for Paul. He scored miserably in spelling, vocabulary, and punctuation, but his mark in the free-choice, 500-word composition saved the day. Paul's contribution was titled, ``How Ace Brody Maid Me See the Lite.''
At the graduation ceremony, a toothpick dangled from Paul's lip as he received his diploma.