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Yearbook photo of Algebra teacher, with and without ape head

Algebra Ape {format} {format} 4:45 Mark Allen

A high-scholl math teacher goes ape.

Broadcast: Oct 1 2002 on NPR All Things Considered Subjects: Youth, Education

Commentary: Remembering a past Halloween experience involving an algebra teacher and a gorilla mask

October 31, 2002 from All Things Considered

JOHN YDSTIE, host: Whether it was at college or high school, or even kindergarten, many of us have a memory of a favorite teacher. Around this time of year, commentator Mark Allen is reminded of his.


I was standing by my locker in the General Sciences building of Plano Senior High School on the morning of October 31st, 1985, when I noticed a disruption rippling through the crowd. It was coming from the far end of the hall and the source was our new algebra teacher, Rhonda Maloney(ph). She was dressed in a nice pastel blouse and skirt combination, pink pearls, sheer pantyhose, sensible low-heeled shoes, puffed-up brunette hair styled in wide, blow-dried wings and long big curls in the back; the kind of big hairstyle that framed many women's faces back in the '80s. Except in this case, on this particular day, the hair was framing the head of an ape, a full-out, probably-took-hours-to-create, would-put-the-makeup-artists-from-"Planet of the Apes"-to-shame, elaborate latex and spirit gum, and individual hair applique ape face mask, complete with moving parts. It was so real it was scary; not a fun kind of Halloween kind of scary, but a disturbing, unsettling kind of scary.

Ms. Maloney kept walking quickly down the center of the crowded hallway; her elaborate gorilla face darting back and forth from one group of students to another as the catcalls and guffaws and pointing fingers came from all directions.

The ape face looked oddly female and kind of sad, like a wounded animal you might see on the side of the road. As she got closer, you saw the eyes. Oh, God, her eyes. You could see her real eyes amongst all the makeup and goo and paint and their attachment to the mask was seamless. They were painted black around the edges and then attached to the rubber parts around the hideous nose and protruding hairy brow that formed the primate face. And when you saw her eyes, you instantly could see what she was thinking. `Oh, my God, no one is in costume. I'm the only one. Everyone is staring.' Within seconds, she was the talk of the school.

Ms. Maloney was the only person who had showed up that Halloween day in costume. There was a rumor the principal was going to send her home because her outfit was inappropriate. A teacher, how cruel was that? All I knew is that I could not wait for third-period algebra.

Everyone filed into class and sat down. People talked in hushed heavy whispers. Rhonda Maloney just sat behind her desk quietly grading papers in her gorilla mask. When the bell rang, the questions poured fourth. `Why? Why?' we wanted to know. `I thought everyone was going to dress up today, but I guess I was wrong,' Ms. Maloney said through her mask, her voice muffled but still audible. `How will you eat?' someone asked. `I haven't figured that out yet.' `How long did it take to put it all on?' `Oh, about three hours,' she said. `My husband and I got up at 4 AM this morning.'

I think we as students weren't really looking for answers to our questions; we were hunting for cracks in her confidence, hoping to find a weak spot so we could categorize her as a nut and a loser. We were like animals circling their prey; all bound together in our desire to see this new gorilla-faced Ms. Maloney slip up so we could move in for the kill. But she didn't crack. She carried on with the class and maintained as much dignity as anyone can in a blouse, skirt, heels, pearls, great hair and a hideous, hairy, sad-eyed gorilla face. `Now get out your books and open to Page 112,' she said, as she walked toward the chalkboard to write out math problems.'

Outside, after school, I watched a group of students call out to Ms. Maloney and shout, `You look stupid.' She stopped, raised a clenched fist high in the air and stood there like a frozen superhero; her pastel-colored skirt blowing gently in the breeze, the sun glistening on her plastic latex gorilla forehead. I could see the rims of her mask were starting to peel off and wrinkle. I saw weird little gooey clumps of spirit gum residue beginning to collect around her neck. She looked exhausted, haggardly majestic, brilliant. She stood there for about two seconds, but it seemed like a zillion years. Everyone was silent. Then she just turned and walked away.

I learned a lot about life that day. I also learned a lot about algebra. No, seriously. There's something about a teacher in a latex gorilla mask--everyone straining to hear what she's saying as they all take notes--that makes you really retain what is taught in a very solid way. Someone should look into this.

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YDSTIE: Mark Allen is a writer and artist in New York City.

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Unidentified Man: The polka!

ROBERT SIEGEL (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.