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Kerrying On

The Importance of Being Frank

On September 8, 1958 (the first day I attended junior high school) I met Frank Mustappa. I didn’t know it at the time, but Frank would change my life. Despite the fact that he was a twelve-year-old boy, Frank was surprisingly mature. While the rest of us boys competed to see who could make the most explosive armpit noise, Frank practiced a more sophisticated and subtle brand of humor.

For instance, when the weather turned unseasonably warm one day, Frank played hooky and went swimming. The next morning, he brashly forged his own excuse letter, strutted into the principal’s office, and handed the bogus note to “The Man” himself. It read: “Dear Mr. Howard, please excuse Frank from school yesterday. It was a beautiful day, the bay was calling, and Frank went swimming.” The letter was signed, “My Mom.” The principal (as Frank had calculated) laughed at Frank’s moxie and sent him to class without so much as a minute’s detention—winning Frank the admiration of the entire student body.

Frank could afford to cut classes because he was smart as a whip. And while it’s true that he excelled in all subjects, English was his specialty. Frank’s weekly essays put the papers the rest of us nitwits wrote to shame. The truth is our writing was so pathetic that Mr. Lampley (our English teacher) would read aloud segments from our essays, hang his head in disgust, moan forlornly, catatonically rock back and forth, and then spout rude witticisms such as, “I’d say your work is moronic, but that would be an insult to morons everywhere.” He wasn’t particularly original, but you could tell he was sincere.

Eventually, Mr. Lampley would take a break from intellectually browbeating twelve-year-olds and turn his attention to his one ray of hope—Frank. “Listen up,” Lampley would gush as he clung to Frank’s latest essay—caressing it as if it were a priceless manuscript. “Mr. Mustappa uses the word ‘nuance’ in this piece. Pay close attention.” Then he’d read aloud an exquisite passage from Frank’s paper and I’d think to myself, “Frank didn’t write that. Some famous old coot wrote that. Surely no kid from the seedy side of Bellingham composed such an essay.”

In addition to writing beyond his years, Frank read and memorized a colossal amount of poetry. He exploited this hobby by working an occasional stanza or phrase into the class discussion or onto the football field (where Frank ruled as a first-rate linebacker). Unfortunately, it wasn’t long until Mr. Lampley tired of Frank’s poetic preening. Teaching a precocious twelve-year-old who enjoys strutting his intellectual prowess can stick in your craw—and Lampley’s craw grew precariously full. Tension built between the two until one fateful day.

“Today,” Lampley bellowed, “we’re going to read and discuss Edgar Allan Poe’s poem, ‘The Raven’.”

“I know that one,” Frank blandly stated.

Lampley took the bait. “Oh really? You KNOW that one—meaning you could recite it from memory?”

“I suppose so,” Frank responded with feigned indifference.

“Well class,” Lampley continued, “Please open your anthology to Mr. Poe’s masterpiece beginning on page 278. That is, everyone except for you, Mr. Mustappa. You can leave your book closed. I’ll start the poem, and then, from memory and memory alone, you’ll finish it.”

“Whatever,” Frank responded.

“Once upon a midnight dreary,” Lampley attacked.

“While I pondered, weak and weary,” Frank countered.

“Over many quaint . . . ” Lampley inserted.

“ . . . and curious volume of forgotten lore,” Frank regained control.

From that point on, Frank recited every word of the remaining 106 lines—pausing at every comma, and punching every key phrase. By the end of his exhilarating recitation, the other students were chanting, “Frank! Frank! Frank!” It had been a stunning victory for junior-high school students everywhere. So crushing was Lampley’s defeat, he would challenge Frank . . . nevermore.

Several months passed without a further public display of genius from Frank until one evening when he joined Jim, Tom, and me as we walked home from a night of shooting pool. Jim quickly tired of the uphill walk and asked Frank to recite something. Frank smiled broadly, took a deep breath, and launched into a Robert Service poem:

“A bunch of the boys were whooping it up
In the Malamute saloon;
The kid that handles the music-box
Was hitting a jag-time tune . . . ”

I’ll never forget the feeling of the gentle breeze nudging us up Garden Street that evening. We listened to Frank recite all 116 lines of “The Shooting of Dan McGrew”—a work so filled with blaring music, beautiful women, and blazing guns, and so fitting to the taste of a teenage boy, I was in awe.

Listening to a friend recite poetry, as if doing so were a normal human activity, changed my world view. I had long decided that doing well in school was “uncool.” Reciting poetry wasn’t just uncool, it was for sissies and nerds. Definitely not something for the likes of the crowd I hung with. And yet, there was Frank, who did whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. That included writing essays and reciting poetry with such utter confidence and eye-popping panache that he unwittingly performed a miracle. Frank made writing essays and reciting poems—and by extension, all things intellectual—absolutely wonderful. Frank made learning cool.

The actions of positive peer-models probably do as much or more to encourage youngsters to break from their immature ways than any adult preaching from a podium or educator pontificating in a classroom. Young people who unceremoniously forge a path that leads to a love of learning—while standing up to the corrosive ridicule of their peers—deserve special praise. Frank deserves special praise.

That’s not to say that at some point in our lives we haven’t recognized the impact gifted teachers and other adult role models have had on us—and rightfully so. We’ve probably even thanked these mentors for their inspiration—and rightfully so. But today I’m honoring a rarely identified source of inspiration—a peer. A hard-working, confident teenager whose example changed my life.

Thank you, Frank. You may recall the events I’ve just recounted. I suspect you do. But there’s no way you could know how much you helped me break from the forces that clawed at my heels and kept me from performing to my potential. You introduced me to the joy of learning and for that I shall be grateful . . . evermore.

If you enjoyed this story, you’ll love Kerry’s new book, The Gray Fedora—a collection of stories from Kerrying On. The book is now available for pre-order on Amazon.com.

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Kerry Patterson

Cofounder of VitalSmarts, Kerry has coauthored four New York Times bestselling books as well as co-designed the company’s line of award-winning training programs. As author of our most popular column, Kerrying On, Kerry shares his vision, experience, and advice through fun and insightful stories from his past. read more

18 thoughts on “The Importance of Being Frank”

  1. Love the story! Curious though, what path did Frank take regarding career and life? I would love to know! Thank you.

  2. I’m very curious about what Mr. Mustappa did with his talents! English teacher, writer, attorney? He certainly did give you a tremendous gift!

  3. Hello!

    I hope you don’t mind, but I just thought you might appreciate a small (yet constructive) criticism.

    The name of Robert Service’s poem is “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” (spelled with an “e”). My late husband (who was stationed in Alaska during part of his fighter pilot career with the US Air Force) was obsessed with Service’s works, especially this piece. He used to recite it to me, entirely by memory.

    Steve (and Frank) were fine examples of “cool” men with brains who didn’t just stop at the level of which was expected from them, they surpassed them by a long shot. Role models like that are very rare and should be recognized their positive influence on others.

    Thank you for sharing your experiences Mr. Patterson!

    All the best,

    Jennifer

  4. Kerry’s pieces are meaningful, easy to relate to, and works of art – with words carefully placed as brushstrokes on a canvas. The result is an interaction that inspires and raises one’s day. Just like the poetry Frank committed to memory.

  5. Mr. Patterson, you did a mean and awful thing 🙂 You left us dangling over a dark precipice wondering what became of Frank. My imagination went wild. Could you indulge us? Thank you.

  6. I too would love to know what happened to Frank. He sounds like an extraordinary person. I so wish I could have had that confidence of self so early in life. Looking back I had too many missed opportunities when I was young because I wasn’t confident in my abilities.

  7. Thank you, Kerry, for your timely, excellent, & relevant article. Once again, you shared a truth in a receivable, “crucial conversation” way.

    The greatest gift that Frank gave was far more valuable than his giftedness. He was openly himself, comfortable in his own skin. Since he actually walked it out, it would be great if Frank could communicate to VitalSmarts readers what enabled him to be himself in the midst of herd pressure to be otherwise.

    In an effort to “fit in”, some young people (including young adults) suppress (even reject & sacrifice) who they really are in order to fit into whatever they perceive that their peer culture views as “acceptable & cool.” Immaturity is often (inherently?) blind.

  8. Kerry, You are a gifted writer and I enjoy your columns tremendously! I often feel like I am watching ‘Stand by me’ in my brain, while I am reading them. What is candy crush compared to memorizing Poe or Service, or Longfellow’s Village Blacksmith? BTW are those buddy’s of yours real? Most of mine were clueless clods like me stumbling from one misguided adventure to another until we got tall enough to ride the good rides, get jobs, or get arrested.

  9. I chose to honor Frank by not changing his name (as I often do to protect the privacy of the people I write about). I wanted him to know what he had done for me–so I named him. I chose not to include what happened in the over 50 years that followed, but now that I’ve thought about it, I guess it’s okay. If you’ve ever watched that TV show that follows crab fishermen and the perils they face, then you have a good view into Frank’s adult life. He captained a crab boat (no easy task) and was an influential member of the fishing community. Plus, and I’m guessing here, he did so while drawing on and reciting poetry.

  10. I loved this story…and really have loved all your stories. I ordered your book and I anxiously await its arrival. Thank you for your perspective, your candor, your thoughtfulness and thank you for sharing it. I am sure you have heard it all before but it bears repeating, you are an amazing man with a heartful talent that is beautiful, meaningful and appreciated.

  11. Mr. Patterson, thank you for these wonderful stories from your past. I always smile when I see a “Kerrying On” email pop up. I’m amazed at your memory of detail – I wish I had that. And we’re all thankful that Frank influenced your love for academics and writing in particular!

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