Hard Candy: Gus

By Cathy Salustri

I had to get permission to take his class. I was that student. You all knew one – the one who chronically brought home report cards that read, “Cathy could do so well if only she would apply herself.”

I was a slacker. But I wanted to call him Gus.

You see, that was the deal. You took Mr. Haynes’ Advanced Placement American History class as a junior, and if you passed the national exam and received college credit, when you came back the next fall as a senior, you could call him Gus. As I mentioned, I was a slacker, but I keenly wanted not to be a slacker, although I suspected it took more energy than I was willing to exert. If I passed this one test (and really, I thought, how hard could that be?) I, like the academically elite, could call him Gus. I begged him to let me take that class. I pleaded. He finally acquiesced, but even my 15-year-old brain could tell he was skeptical.

I’m not sure where, exactly, we went wrong with Florida’s education system. Something happened: I’ve met more than one otherwise bright college student who can’t punctuate a sentence properly or tell me about the Berlin Wall if they had communists pointing guns at their head.

Whatever is wrong now was not wrong in that history class. Mr. Haynes made it crystal clear on the first day of school that he had no use for us, that we were collectively little more than lumps of hormones and giggles that ran a very real danger of not amounting to anything more, ever. We did not walk in to a warm and fuzzy classroom where a teacher told us we could all be whatever we wanted to be when we grew up. We walked into a classroom where this towering grizzly bear of a man demanded our mental presence and didn’t tolerate adolescent nonsense. We learned that we didn’t know much of anything, least of all how to think and defend our ideas. It didn’t matter if we were right in our assertions; if we couldn’t defend what we wrote, it was wrong.

As the test got closer, I got the sense that maybe I wasn’t as useless a person as I was when the school year started. Oh, don’t misunderstand – I still slacked in most areas of my life. I cared more about writing what I now recognize as not only exceptionally sappy poetry, but bad poetry at that, than I cared about learning algebra. In that history class, though, something changed – for that hour every day, I didn’t want to write poetry. I didn’t want to be a slacker. I wanted to hear more about Boss Tweed and Teapot Dome. Mr. Haynes taught us about that, but he also taught us how to think on paper. I had one other exceptionally hard-ass teacher, Mr. Black, who taught me how to write a thesis statement, and between these two men I was learning how to defend my ideas and, more importantly, think them through and decide which ones were worth defending.

No disrespect to any teachers, but your students need you to be more like Gus. You need to scare students into wanting your respect.

That’s right. I can call him Gus. I passed my AP exam that May. 20-plus years later, and that still feels pretty damn good.

Seems like a lot of teachers hate Rick Scott. I get that. The medicare fraud, the arrogance, the people who went to jail under his rule in the private sector – none of these things really recommend the man. I also think maybe our governor should have higher ethics than a common back alley drug dealer, or at least come close.

How would the governor’s idea of privatizing education and cutting funding have impacted me? Well, I don’t think my parents would have sent me to private school, even with a voucher, so I still would have had a slot at good ol’ Clearwater High. Would Gus have been there? I don’t know, but I do know this:

Every teacher should be a Gus, regardless of where or what they teach. I am the person I am today in no small part because of this man. I owe him the way I think about a lot of things, but especially politics and history.

He’s ill now, as I understand it. My high school friend Joe’s mom teaches with him, and through her we found out Gus has lymphoma and is undergoing chemotherapy. When Joe passed this information along to a group of Gus alums (through, of course, the magic of Facebook), we all started talking about how tough he was – and how great. We all echoed one sentiment: Gus Haynes changed our lives.

I think he knew we all dangled on the edge of a precariously balanced educational system and that every moment mattered. He took his hour a day and made it work. We worked hard in his class: some of my friends did so because they were good students; others, like me, did it because he didn’t really give us a choice. Plus, I wanted to prove that skeptical man wrong: I COULD pass that exam. I deserved a spot in his class.

So my advice to teachers today is this: screw the governor and what he does. Be like Gus and no matter what metric the state uses, you will pass with flying colors.

After all, every student deserves a Gus.

Contact Cathy Salustri at CathySalustri@theGabber.com.

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I write. I take pictures. I love my dog. I love Florida. My 2016 book, 'Backroads of Paradise' did really well for the publisher and now I feel a ridiculous amount of pressure to finish the second book.