Friday, October 26, 2012

What doesn't kill you

A flow chart chronicling good times …
For the record, I didn't go to junior high with Kelly Mills. But really I did.

Because you did too. You went to junior high with me and I with you. We all went to the same junior high, the same special hell, the same goddamned gaping ulcerated hole that marks the major flaw in the U.S. public education system.

Why, in the name of holiness, would adults remove kids from elementary school and put them on a separate campus for two years, there to stew in their own pubescent juices, their id hanging out for all to see,  barely living hair triggers of rage and uncertainty and painful bone growth and sex and cruelty?

And I count myself one of the lucky survivors. I remember some wonderful people who just came apart during that time. Not that junior high caused it, but junior high didn't help.

(Turns out someone took credit for the junior high system. His name was William Alexander, an educator who thought middle graders' needs were being neglected, so the "father of American middle school" ushered in the separate campuses. Penal colonies, more like.)

Kelly Mills last week captured life in junior high perfectly in the San Francisco Chronicle blog "The Poop." I love the photo published with it, a still from the British movie version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, itself the ideal metaphor for every poorly supervised school recess everywhere in America.

Mills wrote the blog because she was sending her daughter off to middle school (the penal colonies' accepted name now); though Mills thought her sociable kid would adjust, she couldn't help but tumble backward in memory of her own junior high days.

Hers was a time of vicious and mercurial cliques, best friends who inexplicably and instantaneously ostracized her, and merciless mocking. A fitness trainer, Mills said all but one of her staff (and that one went to school overseas) harbored the same bitter memories; men remembered being bullied and beat up. All recalled body issues that were only magnified by ridiculous PE uniforms.

Though her daughter reports students are more tolerant and less openly homophobic than in my generation, the mockery via social media is more insidious: an especially heartless kind of target marketing.

I remember tense bus rides similar to this toon, in which bullies pestered and poked and hit until they got me to react, then turned the tables as if I had threatened them, which escalated usually into hollow threats to beat me down once I got off the bus. The bus drivers usually did nothing except drive the bus. Like Mills said, I felt largely on my own.

My PE teacher made me clean up my vomit after my first mile run, and for most of the seventh grade and half of the eighth, I tried to will myself sick on the days we ran, and couldn't eat scrambled eggs again for another 10 years. I made my parents heartsick begging them to let me stay home.

(He was the same teacher who ridiculed me for pointing out his accounting error that incorrectly gave me a presidential fitness award.) 

By eighth grade I slimmed down and had enough strength to run and eventually run fast — fast enough to delude myself into believing I could make the 1976 Olympic team. Proof alone we were unstable individuals who should not have been shunned.

I undermine the good stuff: Mrs. Coffin's drama class, especially the improv sessions … Mrs. Burch's choir class, even though her style of inspiration was to scream louder (now I wish I had taken drama and choir in high school) … Mr. Lynch's leadership history where we studied the legislative process and even took a week trip to San Francisco and Sacramento to present bills we had written (though it came at the cost of the U.S. history we would have been studying at the time) … Mr. Beebe's hiking club. So many other teachers and adults I'm leaving out; most of them had guts and heart.

Mills found similar to like, but I agree with her on this point:
You still couldn’t pay me enough to go back and repeat that time in my life.
In fact, when I was a substitute teacher I strenuously avoided middle schools. Nothing has changed. Much is worse.

On one assignment, another substitute teacher volunteered to guide me to my classroom. He spent the entire walk explaining what animals these kids were (he had subbed in the same class before) and how I need to establish my dominance right away if I wanted to survive the day.

Along our walk, I could hear teachers screaming — yes, screaming! — at students. Out of the open doors I could hear teachers cutting down individual students for the amusement, terror and relief of others unpicked on.

The school was named after a state lawmaker. I think maybe he died from the heartache of knowing his name graces a glorified juvenile detention facility in his beloved city.

My class turned about to be a dozen students who didn't speak English very well. Not an animal in the bunch. One spoke Vietnamese, the rest Spanish. In what little Spanish I know, I told the majority I don't speak Spanish very well but I'm here to help. Help me, please, I said. We spent the day working together, no trouble, no screaming, no frustration … and I learned some more Spanish.

Vice principals would walk into my classroom at this school, talking through megaphones, with some odd idea they were calming the students for me at 80 decibels.

On another time, same school, attempting to teach math where students had only enough textbooks for every three to share (and they couldn't take the books home), one kid sat in the middle of the rows, a man-child king, letting his court attend to him. He ruled; I was a seventh grader again, a big pimply scared knot of intestines.

I had to work around this kid, picking off his court one by one to attend instead to their work.

Something about the man-child seemed familiar, and I placed him later in the day when he returned to retrieve something. He was a little fireplug of a four-year-old nine years before, when I was coaching Junior Giants baseball in our neighborhood and his mom begged me to sign up her son even though he wasn't old enough. We let him play; he was overjoyed.

When I reminded the man-child, a big goofy smile took over his dull menacing face. "Oh, yeah! How you doing, Coach Turner?"

He might be a high school senior now, might have mellowed a bit, might have stopped being a big jerk. High school was a better time for me (though not for many), a time for settling down and caring less about what others thought of you.

A time for going your own way.

Yeah, you couldn't pay me to go back.

(It just occurred to me that maybe that was old Bill Alexander's intent. He wanted us to face all that social and biological anarchy away from society so we'd learn the hardest way how to toughen up and mellow out. It's the most pervasive kind of conspiracy involving teachers and administrators and parents, to give us something to have to live through. Good ol' teachers and administrators and parents …)


  1. Just so you know, my kids went to a school that is Pre K through 8th grade! It was great.

    1. ours did too, partly to "protect" them. upside: older students had designed opportunities to work with younger students to practice responsibility and compassion. downside: seventh and eighth graders still have their hair triggers and uncertainties, and antagonize one another using their vulnerabilities. bottom line, though, K-8 is a better system.