To Natalie (Subject) With Love (Predicate)
Though I spent many fruitful minutes in the fourth grade peering down the front of Miss Holmes’s dress as she stooped to assist the other students, I never came to regard her as a Whole Person. A rift had opened up early in the school year when she announced joyously to the class — this was in the days before prime-time baseball — that the Braves had taken the Yankees five to nothing in game seven of the World Series, assuming (quite mistakenly in my case) that the mere geographical proximity of Minneapolis to Milwaukee — this was likewise in the days before the Senators became the Twins — would guarantee the loyalty of her students to their nearest major-league neighbor. And then too Miss Holmes loved to sing, and so tended to stretch out our music lessons, and I hated it. Especially “My Hut It Has Drei Ecken.”
Yet that cavernous vista that could so enliven a stint with the multiplication tables or a session of penmanship practice remained my most eye-opening and eye-widening glimpse of the feminine, unchallenged by the various Misses and Missuses Sweeney, Trigstad, Rorschneider, Sanders, or even Krieger (whom I suspected of dating my extracurricular basketball coach across the hall), until the seventh grade. Until Mrs. Johansson.
This — at the newly inaugurated Hopkins North Junior High School, which instantly doubled the junior high capacity of the “Raspberry Capital of the World’’ — was the first time in my scholastic career that academic subjects got divided up among individual teachers. Mrs. Johansson’s subject was English. English was soon to become my subject also. Perhaps fortuitously, the epical seventh game of the World Series that year, in which the Yankees fell to the Pirates ten to nine, was not decided until after the bell had sounded on English and I had moved along to Math. And whatever I might feel about it now, Mrs. Johansson’s post-Election Day dither, her continued hoping against hope that Illinois would ultimately tilt into Nixon’s column and that victory could still be eked out, was not apt to offend the unquestioning son. of Republican parents (“Whistle while you work, Stevenson’s a jerk ... ”). In any event, there were overriding factors.
I fancied at the time that my English teacher looked a little like Natalie Wood, an actress who did more than her share to point me down the heterosexual path. (This connection unfortunately ensures that she looks more like Natalie Wood in memory than she ever could have in fact.) And her characteristic stance, one foot angled sideways, balanced on the high heel, toe in the air, was made to seem more remarkable than time and experience have proven it to be. More ineffaceably remarkable, however, was the quantity of personal revelation that seeped through the crevices in the daily chunks of English grammar.
There was the recounted incident, which in retrospect sounds so suitable for a Bobby Goldsboro song, of the would-be birthday dinner for her husband that exploded on the stove and sent her to the bedroom, sobbing. (Sobbing? My teacher?) There was the intimate detail of her husband requesting promptly after the wedding that she move over to her own side of the car — this was before bucket seats — and give him more elbow room. (Not good enough for her, I was pretty sure he was.) And there was the fascinating image formed by the aphorism that, however much you might argue, you can’t very well stay mad at someone you’re going to share the same bed with. Even today I marvel at the degree of confessional candor with which a full grown-up was willing to address a group of 12-year-olds.
No doubt the age I was currently at must have had a lot to do with the staying power of some of these vignettes. (Mr. Kidder’s tales of the Korean War, spicing up eighth-grade Geography, stay with me as well: the POW who wakes up to find a rat nibbling at his unbrushed teeth; the other POW thrown out into the snow by his comrades because his diarrhea was befouling the atmosphere.) But the age she was then at, 23 as I remember, must also have had something to do with it.
She was clearly — more clearly now than then — excited about her life. She was a new teacher. She was a newlywed. Her husband was at present enrolled in med school. And while he was yet attending classes and she was footing the bills, they were residing in a trailer park on a side of town I seldom passed through except on my way to the inexplicably named Shady Lake. I hated swimming almost as much as I hated singing, but the trip thereafter took on a new point of interest. (A trailer park? My teacher?) Never before had I known where, or whether, any of my teachers lived outside of school. Never before had so much of one’s private life overflowed into the classroom. Never before, to say it another way, had the lessons strayed so far outside the curriculum. For this was education too.
— Duncan Shepherd
Rebel Without the Nerve
In 16 years of schooling, I can identify only one moment when I actually learned a new fact. It was a bleak day in mid-December. I was in the eighth grade. Mr. Turek, 30-ish, toweringly tall, thumbtacked an old map to the bulletin board. It looked like some down-curved peninsula jutting into the Pacific. I can see his genial grin, the palms of his huge hands grinding together as he circled the classroom, wingtips pounding linoleum. He poked a finger at our noses as he stalked the aisles — “Can ya tell me what that is? Can ya?’’ We stared at our desktops to make ourselves invisible.
“It’s Cape Cod, Massachusetts! See?” He spun the map upside down. It was Cape Cod. “Lots of early maps of the United States are like this. Explorers landed in New England and then sailed south along the coast. The charts they made had south at the top.” At that moment, a wholly new fact slid into a fresh, unoccupied slot in my long-term memory.
I know the date because, within two weeks, Mr. Turek would be dead of a heart attack. I have no idea why I remember the incident so vividly. I’ve yet to encounter an occasion that requires my upside-down-map story.
All of school, before and since, is a dark blur. Teachers toiled at blackboards, I toiled at homework. They taught, I learned. Somehow. To me, now long out of class, school is memorable because of what I learned in the negative space between classroom hours — the cracks in the routine, the obedience, recitation, memorization.
In first grade I learned that power and influence can come from surprising sources. Jerry had a crush on me. At recess one day, he cornered me at my desk and thrust out his palm. In it was a thick disk of amber plastic enclosing a starfish, suspended from a yellow metal keychain. “Here. I got it on vacation in Florida. And look where I got bitten by a real octopus!” He had a tiny black dot on the tip of his index finger. Classmates crowded around, then stared, waiting for me to respond.
Suddenly I felt like a celebrity. I ran to the blacktopped playground, straight for the best hopscotch court — the one everybody wanted, the one where all the squares were square and of equal size and painted with fresh white numbers — bullied away the girl who’d already claimed it, and began playing hopscotch, using the starfish’s keychain. Something in that scary exercise of assumed (conferred?) power has never left me. I was so startled by my new, mean-spirited bravado that I promised myself I’d be a nice girl forever after. Though I couldn’t deny that would mean the bullies would get all the good hopscotch courts.
Once we started “real” school, too old for graham crackers and naps, I discovered the satisfaction of buying new school supplies. I found something irresistible in store shelves packed with fresh stocks of shiny, unscarred spiral notebooks, index cards, pristine #2 Ticonderogas, Pink Pearl erasers, important-looking mechanical pencils, mysterious protractors, fat packs of notebook filler with pale blue pinstripes. After September life wouldn’t be this pure or full of promise again until next year. September still marks the new year for me. Every new spiral notebook is a fresh start.
Two years of algebra are long forgotten, but not the lesson of the cheerleaders and the eggheads and how, no matter what anyone says, it’s better to be a cheerleader. Eggheads don’t sparkle. In high school, anyone could be an egghead if he tried hard enough. But only the blessed could be cheerleaders. The few pretty enough, who had naturally curly hair and just the right clothes. The principal knew each of them by name. One of our cheerleaders even had her own fan club. Everyone else was wallpaper, or so it seemed.
While the cheerleaders were excused from classes for practice and games and were elected prom queens, I was stuck in honors English and physics classes and endured a semester of lewd, whispered comments from the fat, perpetually sweaty science teacher who followed me into the supply room. Is it still better to be a cheerleader? Probably.
Though I recall nothing of four years of Spanish classes, I still can picture the St. Patrick’s Day that Becky Oldfield came to school with her hair dyed green. I envied her but realized that I might have the heart of a rebel, but I hadn’t the nerve.
In my senior year, school finally taught me what I was good at and where I fit. That’s when I learned to play hooky — which day was best, how to forge a note from home, how to cover my tracks with my parents. I lived a one-dollar bus ride from New York City, and that dollar bought me a day of perfect freedom — slumming through Greenwich Village, wandering the echo-y Metropolitan, riding the subway to Coney Island in the spring. I learned I could take care of myself anywhere and that sometimes it’s best to see which way everyone else is heading, then strike out in the other direction. School taught me that, but I didn’t learn it in class.
— Linda Nevin
Dust Boogers in the Asphalt Jungle
If somebody had predicted 23 years ago that I’d ever be getting ready to teach school, I’d’ve prob’ly choked on a spontaneous laugh and spewed beer foam out my nostrils. Having a) graduated 120th in a high school class of 160 (majoring in football and remedial English), b) scored a predicted college GPA of point-something (by guessing at every question on a pre-entrance exam), and c) already enlisted in the Marine Corps during the height of the Vietnam War — there was no evidence that I possessed the minimal brains required to be a teacher.
Yet, in a bit, I will begin preparing for my 18th year of teaching (12 years of sixth grade, 6 years of high school). How I go about this preparation is, to me, far less interesting (and ironic) than how I ended up being a teacher in the first place. I got blown up.
(“Hey, teach — what we gonna do t’day?”)
Getting blown up wasn’t some miraculous rebirth wherein the horrors of war filled me with an altruistic desire to save the world and impart wisdom to innocent young minds. No way. I wanted to go home, get healed, get fucked. (I was 18.) I had matured. Enough to know I never wanted an outdoor job again. I wanted to go to college.
During six months of touring western hemisphere military hospitals, I learned of a thing called the vocational rehabilitation program; this program provided for five years of college education, all expenses paid, even a “salary” (just for going to school). To qualify, a veteran had to first be at least 30 percent permanently disabled. I was a “Lucky Sixty” (hadn’t lost limb or wanger). So, yeah! — I applied.
“Uh...” the interviewer began, “your high school transcript doesn’t reflect a very academically ambitious profile” (euphemistic bullshit for “evidence of a brain”). “We want to give some tests.” For two hours, I interpreted ink blots, lodged long pegs in appropriately shaped orifices, completed complex analogies (“black is to white as night is to___), and took an aptitude test (with no guessing).
“You’re intelligent enough,” he said, looking over the results, “but this ... ” (he lifted my old transcript) “ ... says you’re a risk.”
I got accepted —with a catch. I had to major in one of two areas where I tested “high aptitude”: forestry or English. Having recently, survived a life in the jungle, unbathed, and sometimes having to burn fuckin’ leeches off my dick, I’d already sworn never (ever!) to go back in a forest. But English? More I thought, you know ... like ... I could maybe even coach football and ... well... there are the Three Great Virtues of Education — June, July, and August. So....
I could’ve switched majors pretty easily after my first year. Something had happened. In four years of high school, I studied maybe seven hours total. College? I did seven hours a night. I made president’s list, honor roll — couldn’t get enough.
That I became a teacher (“the most accessible profession for the moderately mobile but not basically ambitious children of the working class”) I don’t regret at all. Much of teaching, however, has been hell — especially “getting ready to teach.” Long hours of preparing the stupidest stuff (bulletin boards, lesson plans with “behavioral objectives”), attending department meetings, and the ever-present knot o’ panic in the gut (no matter after how many years). What’m I gonna do on the first day? What’m I gonna do the next day? And the kids? I love ’em but — talk about periodic immaculate pain between the hip pockets. Today, some of my best adult friends are former pupils, who, back when, didn’t know how close they came — me in my long hair and combat boots. (How in the hell’d I ever get a job?)
Today (respected ’n’ all that), I’m long in the tooth; “gettin’ ready to teach” involves no more’n two hours of dust boogers with a rag and a can of Pledge. It’s old hat. I cover the bulletin boards with black butcher paper — nothing else. Above the bookcases I set a five-foot-by-six-foot cardboard promo for Full Metal Jacket, so when the subject gets on Julius Caesar or Lord of the Flies or Twain’s Damned Human Race or dead Iraqis or guys in Yamaha jackets at the top of school-assembly bleachers, I can highlight the eternal concept of the “duality of man.” That’s it.
And I clean out my desk.
— Ray Westberg
The Virgin Mother Countdown
Logan Heights in the early ’60s was already changing. Racial tensions rose as the working-class white and Mexican population gave way to black families seeking housing. Apartment owners became slumlords seemingly overnight, moving in “colored” tenants, then refusing those tenants any of the basic services they expected. The whites and Mexicans saw the tide coming up National Avenue from the east and barricaded themselves, both emotionally and physically.
My mother hit on the strange notion that it would be a great idea to put all her flower pots across the front steps to our apartment. She considered this a subtle suggestion that black people keep off our porch. One night, black parents — rightly, I thought — kicked all the pots to pieces, giving us a subtle message of their own. This, in turn, made the whites more convinced that all these newcomers were somehow less than human. (While, of course, utterly forgetting the initial provocation.) And so it went.
Street hassles became fairly common. I was thumped by black kids, singly and in groups, several times. Yet it wasn’t completely racial. They were going to the public school, but I was in my geeky uniform — brown cords, white shirt, shiny black shoes, probably a red sweater — dragging myself to St. Jude’s Academy. They saw my prim outfit and just couldn’t help themselves.
Every morning I tried to walk as slowly as possible on my way to the clutches of Sisters Martha-Ann and Paulana-Marie, girding myself for the daily observance of Mass in indecipherable Latin. Or there was the torment of Confession, when I’d have to kneel in the vestibule and tell Father Sheridan anything I could think of. Hey, I was a sinner, but I was in second grade. Any sin of real value was years away. I knew he’d be happy if I’d been bad, but I had to make up sins: Bless me Father, for I have sinned ... uh ... rude to Mom, and... uh ... wanted to steal a candy bar... uh ... rude to Mom?
We were colorblind at St. Jude’s. The black kids in there might have been as tough and bad-assed as the guys lying in wait for us on the street, but they all had to wear the same goofy outfit we did. The Chicano kids, just learning how bad-to-the-bone they could be, were also abashed by the outfits. How bad can you be in a bright red sweater? They had the double onus of being Catholic, something most of the black kids didn’t have to worry about. The Chicanos, in their hearts yearning to be vatos along the lines of the grizzled ex-zoot suiters in the neighborhood, were scared of the Sisters. The Sisters, after all, could ship ’em off to Hell.
We gathered before the church, being barked at, insulted, threatened, and hustled into raggedy lines by the Sisters. I had recently informed Sister Martha-Ann that she was quite cute, thinking she would warm to the compliment. She did not. Now they had their eyes on me.
Inside, the Mass was interminable. Everybody hated kneeling especially; a few of us actually offered our suffering on our knees up to Jesus as a sacrifice. I spent almost every Mass equally split between a religious reverie and bored fantasy. Fancying myself some sort of Boy-Bernadette, I spent many accumulated hours mentally cajoling the plaster Christ on the cross to open his bloody eyes and look at me. The rest of the time, I was imagining how cool the church would look if a tidal wave came along and turned it upside down and washed it out to sea.
After Mass we were herded to class. The girls in their uniforms — little white blouses, jumpers, knee socks — were insufferably holy. They sometimes agreed, probably telepathically, to hold up folded hands en masse, forming a smug line of prayerful saints. We boys couldn’t help but cut up then: fart noises, unseemly giggling, and untucked shirttails swept us like a surge of demonic possession. Invariably, one or more miscreants fell into Sister Paulana-Marie’s clutches. They were carted into the classroom and whupped with a yardstick. The truly evil girls would sit and watch the unfortunate boys dance in a galloping circle, one arm clasped in Paulana-Marie’s Terminator-like grip, kicking and yelping as the yardstick cracked across their backsides.
Otherwise, school days in second grade were composed mostly of smuggled monster trading cards and fat half-crayons that had one flat side to keep them from rolling off our desks. Aside from having my left-hand knuckles cracked with rulers to make me right handed and a bout of deep knee bends assigned when Paul Schnazzi and I were caught with plastic cars, things went pretty well. It was in third grade that I went bad.
It was their own damned fault.
In third grade, we were considered old enough to learn about the Rocky Path to Heaven and the Superhighway to Hell. Holy cow — the road to Heaven was gnarly in the extreme, a luridly painted narrow mountain road winding up steeply, and it was studded with boulders. Actually, it looked exactly like the street my grandmother lived on in Tijuana. In the meantime, the road to Hell was a four-lane, rush-hour boogie, populated with porkpie-hatted partiers speeding to their doom in convertible Buicks.
Things had taken a turn.
Plus, there was the slight problem of the Communists. Apparently, shoepounding Soviets and bearded Cubans were about to beswarm the nation. According to the good Sisters, their main goal in life was to force us to renounce Jesus. No way! we children protested. They will torture you! the nuns warned us. We were still somewhat firm in our faith but wanted to know what, exactly, was this torture deal?
The Communists were planning — this must have come through the immense Nun Intelligence Agency — to drag us behind trucks until we said we hated Jesus.
The vatos decided they could take it. So we all joined in again: We're with Jesus, Sister!
Ah, but the Communists weren’t just going to drag us down the street! Oh no! They were going to drag us over rough stones! Huge cobbles! (Wait — wasn’t that the road to Heaven?) And they were going to do it until our skin was ripped off! We would be raw, aching meat! And all we’d have to do is say we hated Jesus.
Some of us began to consider the doctrine of Divine Forgiveness. He was supposed to forgive all sins, and we didn’t like this bloody-meat idea at all. We figured Jesus would just have to get over it.
The nuns would sometimes surprise us with gifts. I still have some of them. We’d be graced with small Christmas ornaments, little plastic mangers with glitter snow, Advent calendars with really cool little red plastic windows, blue plastic rosaries with faux-ivory crucifixes on them, various religious pictures — one of them featuring Jesus offering us his apparently surgically excised heart ringed with thorns.
But on my worst day as a budding Catholic, it was hot and boring. I was in a snit because the knot of disinterested vatos and black boys in the back had discovered how to do pornographic drawings. They kept passing me a piece of paper with what appeared to be a bifurcated Y on it. “It’s her weener!” one bonehead whispered.
Righteously, I marched up to the front of the room and handed it over. The nun’s face went deep pink. She put the note away but strangely didn’t do anything. Returning to my seat, I was greeted with bloodthirsty stares. It's payback time, homeboy! After lunch, the Sister came up with one of her surprises. We each got a Shrine of the Virgin Mother. It was a small plastic Virgin in a tan construction that looked like three Cadillac fins.
Somehow, the more the Sister droned on about math that afternoon, the more the shrine began to look like Rocketship X-M. The little girl’s hair in front of me looked more and more like a giant alien man-eating blob. My imaginary crewmen scrambled across the desktop, swarming into their ship, and she launched off! I basically imagined the Holy Mother as the crew compartment, while the shrine itself was the stabilizers and wings. I was having a swell time.
“Sister! Sister!’’ I heard one of the pornographers shout. “Luis is using the Virgin for a spaceship!”
“Am not!” I lied, Spaceship Virgin Mother held above the desk. I was piling on sin after sin at an alarming rate.
Suddenly, the Sister rose like a black cloud from her desk. She didn’t even look down as she reached for her ruler. All the rage within her — rage at the Communists, at the dirty note, at my sacrilege, filled her face. And she came. And I offered up the suffering in my butt to Jesus, while everyone around me sat and looked holy.
— Luis Urrea
A confession. That eighth-grade essay of mine? It was plagiarized. I flat faked one of the most acclaimed pieces of writing ever attributed to me. But this is no cry for absolution or lifting of a dark burden from the chest. For that infamous day, that very morning when, at the age of 14, I read a purloined composition to the class, made me a writer.
I remember the teacher, who had nice knees. She clipped a magazine photograph into those sliding jigamabobs on the top edge of the chalkboard and told us our homework assignment was to complete a two-page story based on the photograph. We were to use the picture as a starting point for telling a tale, which we were to read in front of the class the next day.
Right away I could see that this was a trick question. The photo depicted a small child holding a long twig. The child, whose gender was undeterminable, wore shorts and was standing in about three inches of water. He (she?) was using the twig to poke at something near his feet, below the water’s surface. How was I to make anything of that? A kid, a stick, and some water. What a dumb assignment.
At home after dinner, I mentioned that I was supposed to write about something but couldn’t even start, much less finish the assignment. My parents and my older brother seemed interested, so I described the picture for them. Immediately after clearing the table, my mother and brother got out a piece of paper and a pencil and endeavored to help me with the job. As soon as we started throwing out ideas, it became one of those nights that crystallized, like the night we all got into a serious pie fight (I mean, we were very serious, like a family in therapy using pie instead of Nerf gloves to settle subconscious scores) and I rubbed cherry pie into my mother’s face. Or the time we watched a neighbor saw through the skull of an elk he had shot. The brain, about the size of a baseball, was sliced neatly in half, and its fit inside the skull was my first glimpse of perfection. I’ve never forgotten the hunter’s explanation that he had killed the elk while it was mounting a female. “I shot it right through the heart, but it just kept on with its business,” the hunter explained to the assembly of boys in his garage. “That must have really been his girlfriend.”
Anyway, it was one of those nights. Before I could even think to object, the writing project was commandeered from me, and my family was turning it into a script for a one-man show. My brother, who was three years older, did most of the actual writing, and everyone helped plot out my timing. I’ve often thought that it’s a good thing this wasn’t an assignment for drama class; I’d now be an out-of-work actor scraping congealed egg off chipped plates in the Big Kitchen.
“There he stood, waist deep in the frigid waters of the Pacific,” the piece began, “with a stick, a measly, rotten, tiny little stick.” We howled as I read these lines with breathless bravado. “Behind him a squadron of triangular fins cut silently through the water, a pack of man-eating sharks with dinner on their minds. But he had other plans.”
As I mouthed the script, I was coached to use arm gestures and inflections to heighten the drama. The gist of the story was, I spun around and counterattacked the marauding sharks and vanquished them with karate chops. After perfecting the soliloquy, I deviously copied it out in my own handwriting, went to bed, and pictured my English teacher’s knees. I felt not a scintilla of guilt or shame. I was new to the school and short on friends, and if it took a staged performance of stolen material to become accepted, so be it.
With a roiling heart and shaking hands, I stepped before the class the next day and killed them. The kids were convulsed by the antics, and I could tell by the teacher’s expression that she was impressed with my previously undiscovered writing talents. I immediately became the sage to whom candidates for class president came begging for slogans to paint on their election posters. Even though my sloganeering was atrocious, my reputation as a writer was set.
Still, it was easy to see the disappointment on the face of my teacher after the next writing assignment, which I undertook without editorial assistance. Whether she realized I had received considerable help the first time or figured I was like those novelists who have only one good book in them, I don’t know. Her disillusionment cut straight to the quick, and I began to work hard at trying to win'her back. At the end of the year, she had enough faith to recommend me for an honors English track, which set my course toward the page you are now reading.
— Neal Matthews
A quick pffft of Right Guard reminds me of my junior high gym, where after 29 minutes of exercise, I would spray my 12-year-old underarms. This was my first experience with deodorant. Barely out of training bras, just into pantyhose, learning lipstick, I was starting to smell bad.
It was the first time I’d dressed with other girls who were not the friends I went to slumber parties with, but strange girl-women, with full breasts and bushes of hair and funny moles and wide, white bellies:
The school had no showers, just utilitarian bathrooms with cold plaster and clay-colored paper towels. We dressed in a small room hung with hooks for “street” clothes and one large mirror in which to scrutinize ourselves. Regulation uniforms were white elasticized gym shorts, white (very stiff) sailor-like blouses. My shorts were always snug.
Activities rotated on a three-week schedule, each sport more difficult — for me — than the next: volleyball, basketball, baseball. As an unhappy member of the last-chosen, least-desired outer limits of the outfield group, I can only say that I still loathe team sports. But it was gymnastics that kept me up nights, fretting. My first anxiety attack made my heart pound at bedtime and first thing in the morning.
We had four events to master — balance beam, vaulting, tumbling, parallel bars — with level of difficulty determining the grade. To get even a C required flexibility I never had and grace I’d yet to develop. And lots of nerve.
Sooner or later, all 50 of us would have to “pass” each event. Plenty of time to watch others succeed and witness those who faltered. I lived in rotating terror : one week’s completion meant one more to go, and one step closer to the parallel bars.
The balance beam was scary but surmountable; I didn’t look down much and rushed through the steps. I almost liked sailing over the vault, even though a few falls left me face down on a stained mat. Tumbling was terrifying until I practiced tucking my chin and rolling on the living room rug. But I couldn’t get up on those parallel bars.
We were divided into groups of seven: one other chubbette like me and five shitty little girls. Two were practically gymnasts, two were strong and squat, one was a bully. I hung back, stalled, tried to wander away. When it came time to mount the bars, my arms buckled under me. I hit my chin on the bar, snapping my jaw against my upper teeth and sending my glasses into the air. “Maybe if she can’t see she’ll finally do it,” the bully snickered. Others laughed. “She couldn’t climb the ropes either.” On the second try I was shaky, weakened, red-faced with shame. The bell rang. Reprieved — until that night, when the thought of having to do it again tomorrow seized me.
When it came time for testing, I paled, mouth dry. I mounted the lower bar, tried to pull myself up, face twisted in effort. My arms shook. I panicked, dismounted. After three attempts, tears dripping into my ears, the teacher told me to stop. She gave me a C anyway.
Later that year, they announced the P.E. department’s new elective, modern dance. We would wear black leotards and be allowed “individual expression” and “free movement.” While the rest of the class giggled, I was already up on my toes, twirling.
— Sue Greenberg
When white Tinned White
The plump, pale-skinned girl asked, “Is your name Martha or Marsha?” “Ma-tha,” I replied. And my brother, walking a few paces ahead, howled with laughter.
That night at the dinner table, his mouth full of mashed potatoes, he said, “And when the white girl asked her... ” He swallowed his potatoes. “ ‘Is your name Martha or Marsha?’ she said, ‘Ma-tha.’ ”
Lesson: Whites and blacks don’t talk the same. My brother, who possessed secret knowledge of everything, was the first to point that out to me, dramatically exaggerating the crisp enunciation of the white girl compared to my own fuzzy one. Four hours after meeting the first white child I had ever known, I learned there was more than just the difference in skin color. I had thought because we were using the same words that we were speaking the same language, but how different the words emerged.
The first day at an integrated school in 1962: White People. They were sitting near me in the stuffy classroom. They were my teachers standing up in front of the room not looking at me. They were, in this transitional, newly integrated neighborhood, staring from their porches as we black kids passed by on our way to and from the more-whites-again school. White People.
I was 11 years old and feeling nauseated when my father walked with my brother and me to register us at the new school, where in the school office, I first saw nothing but white people. I concentrated on my father signing stacks of papers — yellow, pale green, white, several different colors and sizes. White. The white woman at the desk efficiently pulled the copies apart and distributed them. One to my father, one to a file, one over here, one over there. I watched her long and skinny white hands, the nails covered with pink polish. I listened to the silence. The absence of human voices and only a sporadic tap, tap of a typewriter.
White, white. Lesson: There was a way to name the new distinctions. White girls. Black girls. White boys. Black boys. White people. Black people. It had never been a point before. It had never, until now, made such an impact in my mind upon saying it. Although I had seen and known white for years from books and from television, this was the moment for me when white became a reality that I could not immediately comprehend. This was the moment when white became WHITE.
My father smiled and said yes to the frozen grimace of the woman behind the counter. “Good day then, ma’am.” Good day. I reported to Room 134 while my brother went to another classroom in the opposite direction. I walked into the class and surrendered my forms to the white teacher who introduced me — no, who merely called out my name and directed me towards a seat in the back. I saw black children there. Out of the corner of my eye and along the front few rows were the white children. A few of the black kids smiled. A few curled their lips.
The plump, pale-skinned girl dressed in a checkered dress of red shades and black T-strap patent leathers came out of nowhere as my brother and I were on our way home from our first day. I became frightened as she leaped into my face and spoke. “Ma-tha.” Head down, my legs shook. There she was, this white girl in my face, asking, “Is your name Martha or Marsha?” There she was with eyes so blue they appalled because I could see no end to them. They were the color of the swimming pool water at the Y except even the pool had a bottom to it. Where was the bottom to her eyes? And she smelled of a scent unrecognizable.
It was December when we moved into the new neighborhood, the month of gray Midwestern days before the first heavy snow when autumn’s now-damp leaves were scattered limply all over the sidewalks and no longer crunched when I stepped on them. Every new step is terrifying. Bad enough being a newcomer. Worse to be suddenly so close to these white people that I had never been close to before. I wanted to push her away ... push ... get back. I was not used to anyone leaping into my face.
In the office and then in the classroom, the smell was not quite right. I sniffed. An odor of what? The paper and pages they had emerged from? A white odor that smelled just as it sounded — white. Wet flour, molded papers, a basement full of mildew, the white mildew and moldlike substance that grew covering the walls, of dried mayonnaise, old salad oil. A wet smell. Like faucet water. It was a smell I automatically reacted to in disgust. I noticed how the school reeked of this odor mixed in with the usual chalk dust and the old wood of the floors and of the wooden, scratched, and scarred desks.
I saw the shades of their skin as being all the same and unrecognizable in any difference. I knew black folks came in a variety of shades, but the white people were all one color, all over their bodies too, their knees, their elbows. I did not think touching them would feel the same as touching black people because there was something ghostly about this skin. A powderiness difficult to define. Not only did they look ghostly, they acted ghostly too. There was something insubstantial about the white kids, something un-tough. It seemed as if the black kids were perpetually on the edge, as if wired, as if life could not possibly be settled into, while the white kids drifted through a comfort zone unknown, unheard of. It was as if they belonged and took it for granted that this life was theirs and that all they wanted was well within their reach.
On that first day of school I saw how, in the classroom, whites lined the first few rows and blacks were settled towards the rear. Black kids. White kids. You had to know where you stood, which group was yours, whether you felt like belonging or not. The white teacher kept her distance from the rear of the class and favored the front. Later it was this same teacher, from Palatine Hills, a wealthy suburb of Chicago, who would describe in great detail her home and how beautiful it looked to see the low hills covered in snow while children in their sleds gently glided down, laughing and having fun. “Can we come out to visit you there?” asked one of the black kids. “Oh ...” And the teacher who could not say merely that students do not often visit the homes of their teachers, found herself thinking, “Black kids? In my neighborhood?” and so could not say anything.
I remembered my second-grade teacher. Miss Martin. Some of her students, including me, had doubts about her color. Was she white? Was she “like us”? And my music teacher, Miss Price. My brother and I had wondered about her color too. We’d decided that she could not be white since she was with us. Whites were the ones not with us, not touching us, not near to us but always at a distance away and always in the background, not foreground, of our lives. I would look at Miss Price’s hands as she illustrated a particular passage for me on the piano. I often got lost in the hands themselves, calloused on the ends, white, stubby. She could not be white because she loved us. Lesson: And the difference between those two women who may or may not have been white and the white people that surrounded me now was that I saw how these white people immediately made it clear that they were not with us, that they were part of the group called WHITE, and they would never, ever love us. It was this immediate clarification of their role that made me notice their whiteness.
I am sitting on a bench in the playground. Concrete under my feet. A sack lunch in my lap. I am staring at the white kids and noticing how they walk in a straight, stiff line. I see how the black kids saunter and dip as they walk, as if passing through some barrier that might be suddenly erected across their path. They slide and bounce rhythmically. I saw too how the confidence of the white kids seems so amazingly strong when in class, but out on the playground, with no teachers around, their confidence withers.
I thought about how the white teachers, the white kids, the white principal, the white people on television, and the white people in the books were all on the same side, and I could not describe how this made me feel. Something small and vulnerable because I figured there were so many on that side and so few of us who were on the other side. As I sat on the playground chewing on liverwurst, I suddenly felt heavy and realized what a chore it would be to walk into that school again, having to stay there until 3 o’clock. A chore. I knew I did not like these newly discovered white people, and yet I did not like all the black kids either. I had never liked all black kids. Only some. Except now that they were my group, I was supposed to like them all. Black kids. Black people. My group.
From my first contact with white people, I sensed something was wrong. Something was being sucked out of me. What? I noticed right away the eagerness of the white kids in class and the way the teachers smiled at them, which seemed somehow different from the way they smiled at the black kids. White laughter. White smiles. They giggled and tee-heed and when, on that first day, a few of them did smile at me, their teeth did not show. Their thin lips stretched across their faces. Their flesh burned with splotches of red as if smiling was an embarrassment to them. The teacher left the classroom that day, and all of a sudden the white kids started “cutting up,” and I heard the sound of bees humming, an indistinct murmuring coming from their group anchored in the first few rows of the classroom. After a hesitant pause, the black kids began to “cut up” too but were loud and raucous and laughed giant-sized laughs, completely drowning out the humming bees. The teacher glared at the back of the room when she returned. “You can’t be trusted to behave when I leave the room?” Lesson: They would always interpret our exuberance and the way we expressed ourselves as being bad and unacceptable.
It happened so fast. I began to feel colored. To look at my skin and no longer feel that it was a natural part of me but that there was something tainted about it. It was in their eyes. It was in the looks they gave and the looks they refused to give. It was in the way I felt untouchable and how I felt guilty even though I could not think what I had done wrong. We went on a field trip. On the bus a white girl named Patsy sat next to the teacher. The black kids sat in the back and some of the black kids who had crossed over the line between being rowdy to bad sat the farthest in the back. What was happening to them? They were the boys I found out who were always being sent to the principal’s office. They talked like “that white bitch” or “that hunky asshole.” I had discovered that there were two groups of blacks, and some of the blacks were being allowed to move up closer to the whites.
I told my mother, “I don’t like that school. I don’t like that school. I don’t like white people.”
“You mustn’t hate,” she said.
“But they get on my nerves. They think they’re better.”
“You have to know who you are yourself.”
“They get on my nerves.” I repeated.
“They’re just like you and me.”
“No, they ain’t. They’re stuck up and so is the teacher stuck up.”
“You don’t have to look at them that way.”
“I don’t like that school.”
“You’re going anyway so you better learn to like it.”
The plump, pale white girl had been in my class and not heard correctly when the teacher said my name. That the white girl wanted to know or cared to know my name was unusual, I suppose. But her question and our two-second exchange obsessed me for years. “Martha or Marsha?” “Ma-tha.” I was neither of the either/or she supposed but something else entirely. “Ma-tha.” Later I would see the symbolism here. “Martha or Marsha?” “Ma-tha.” There began our history of seeing the differences and the recognition that even the questions would be wrong in some way and the black response out of a place beyond their comprehension. They could not know the depth of the separation because they did not know how wrong even the questions were.
The very first time I saw WHITE, and from that saw then BLACK, I felt there was trouble here, and I felt unaccountably, deeply disturbed. Just how much trouble and how disturbed I was to become was waiting in a disastrous scene just around the comer from 11 years old.
— M. Corinne Mackey
Mr. Brown’s Book
Central Elementary School, on Polk Avenue in East San Diego, was the first urban school I attended. It is still there, just north of University Avenue, behind what was then a mortuary. The school buildings were cracked and worn; dated by deco lettering, sash windows, doors painted many times over. The classrooms were crowded. The playground was dirt, with heavily padlocked gates.
When I entered the school, midway through fourth grade, I had my first close contact with black kids and Mexican kids. They seemed exotic, frightening. Standing in line to enter the classroom, I smelled new soaps, saw ribbon-festooned braids and multiple ponytails and twists and cornrows and weaves, the tiny gold pierced earrings on the girls in front of me. (Tallest, I was usually in the back of the line.) The kids had strange accents and used words I didn’t know, forcing me to ask them to repeat things to the point where some thought I was deaf. Newly poor myself, the clean, shabby clothing my classmates wore aroused in me disgust and apprehension.
Mr. Brown’s fourth-grade class had about 35 students in a pink wooden bungalow reached by walking across the dirt playing field. I am not sure Mr. Brown is his name. I don’t remember any of my classmates’ names. I don’t have a class picture to check. I do have two Citizen of the Month certificates. My pale face and bland, close-mouthed smile above the large-typed comments of my fellow students: We like Mary because she is pretty and nice. She does good work all the time. Even then, it was obvious to me Mr. Brown was responsible for those sentiments.
I didn’t talk much and kept aloof. This went over well with adults but didn’t inspire confidence in other children. I had little interest in knowing them, although loneliness gnawed at me. My only real interaction with kids came at recess. At Central they did not allow books on the playground.
In class we sat at wide yellow tables arranged in a U-shape. My place was the one empty seat in the back — the foot of the table, the hostess’s position, as it were — directly facing Mr. Brown’s desk up front. Whenever I’d look up from my work, his face was the first thing I saw.
My good behavior was ambrosia to Mr. Brown. He was a conservative, harassed-looking man losing his hair, who always wore short-sleeved polyester shirts (no tie). For some reason I seem to remember that he had lost a son in Vietnam. Mr. Brown was, more than a stem disciplinarian, a very angry person. Our wandering eyes, dawdling hands, slyly moving lips were brought back to attention with a sharp rap of a yardstick on the corner of his desk. He thought nothing of discarding a math lesson in favor of an extended harangue of some faulty student.
Mr. Brown kept a worn, blue cloth-covered binder known as The Book. In it was a page for each student. At the top, the student’s name and seat number. Underneath were a dozen horizontal lines labeled with various infractions. Gum Chewing, Playing, Hitting, Yelling, Name Calling, Inattention, Work Not Done, Passing Notes, Talking, Sloppiness, Wearing Makeup, Drawing on Desk. I don’t remember them all. I’m approximating.
At the beginning of every term, Mr. Brown chose a student helper to keep The Book and mark down a single vertical stroke — check marks were anathema; he must’ve found them frivolous — for each of the infractions Mr. Brown would call out with regularity in his thunderous voice. Within a couple of weeks after I started, Mr. Brown gave The Book to me.
If he had to run to the office, Mr. Brown put me in charge of the class. I helped him grade spelling tests. He elected me class president (bullying the students, with reasonable arguments, into voting for me). To go to the bathroom, a student had to obtain one of the two rectangular wooden bathroom passes — GIRLS, BOYS — from me.
The power was gratifying. The humiliation of being thus branded Mr. Brown’s capo didn’t bother me much at the time. I’d already made my mark, being taller, whiter, quieter, more studious than the rest of the class. Mr. Brown asked a question, my hand shot up. Sometimes he’d sigh heavily and complain, “Doesn’t anybody have the answer except Mary Lang?”
“Mary Lang seems to have understood the assignment. What’s wrong with the rest of you?”
At those moments when Mr. Brown made an example of me, I’d try to look as sombre and humble as possible. I wanted the others to feel it was a burden to me, being so Good.
This was utter bullshit and probably convinced no one. I exulted, I felt special, I was proud. I didn’t realize at the time that I was being used.
There was a boy I never once spoke to but for whom I felt a mingled fondness and fear. He was in a way my complement, my counterpart. When I was first given The Book, the kid’s page was already filled with the angry marks of Mr. Brown’s pencil. The boy was fattish, with long brown hair. Mr. Brown disliked the hair but was forced to tolerate it by administrative policy. This didn’t prevent him from ridiculing the boy as a sissy, nor from once standing behind him with a pair of scissors in his hand, grinning as he pretended to snip a long hank of it.
The kid left early every Thesday afternoon for what Mr. Brown said right out loud in front of everyone was an appointment with a psychiatrist. One day the kid wore a T-shirt to school, pink with a cartoon graphic on the front of a bright blue, longhaired cat stuffed inside a jug. Underneath the picture it said, “Happiness Is a Tight Pussy.” Few of us understood what it meant. Mr. Brown cast it piercing glances for a while, then exploded with indignation. After enduring a thorough tongue-lashing, the kid was sent to the office in tears.
“Well, Mary,” Mr. Brown heaved, “we’ll have to think of a new category for that.”
My page in the record book remained pure, pristine, unmarked. Sometimes after the recess bell rang, I’d flip through The Book and compare pages. I felt a tentative kinship with those few girls who had only a smattering of Gum Chewings and Inattentions. This never blossomed into anything. Seated next to me was a small, slight Mexican girl — Sylvia? — who wore her shiny hair in two long braids. At recess, she would ask me to pick her up and carry her around. She wanted to play house. She would be the baby and I would be her mother. Shyly, when no one else could hear, she called me Mommy.
There was eventually a time when I was bored in class. Mr. Brown stood at the chalkboard droning on about geography or history or math. I had my face resting in my hands, my elbows were on the desk. The inside of my head was quiet and empty. I studied the pattern of the wood grain in the table surface, seeing caves and witches and fires. Then a triumphal, “Mary Lang! Inattention!” I jerked upright to a stormy brow and pointing finger.
As one, the others made a long, wondering WWWOOOOO noise, like a banshee. My face went hot. There was The Book at the upper right corner of my desk. Surely I wouldn’t be trusted with writing my own mark. I raised my hand. “Mr. Brown, do you want me to write it down?” I do not recall whether I forgot to emphasize the “me” or whether Mr. Brown did not hear it. He stared. Everyone stared. “You bet you’ll write it down! Who do you think you are?”
I opened the book to my page and made my mark, as faintly as I could. A mere wisp of graphite.
Nothing changed as a result of this initiation. Having become Mr. Brown’s target, I didn’t cease to be different. No camaraderie with my fellow victims was engendered by that moment; they didn’t feel I was finally one of them. I received three or four marks for Inattention that year, all written in my own hand.
— Mary Lang
Random Access Memories
Third grade, it was very hard to fight Chris Richards because he was so bulky and the wood chips covering the playground got in your underpants and it was very demoralizing. Also having to think about it all week ahead of time because an appointment had been made for the fight, for Friday after school, and your mother would be there to pick you up. She would end up being the only spectator at the fight. She stood and watched, because it was a formal event, a scheduled performance. He was too heavy and you couldn’t do much. He mostly wrestled you down and sat on you. Walking to the car, you discussed it with your mother. You were satisfied and relieved and going home. It was a lazy hot day.
This is a good report, Mani, but I have graded you down because you didn’t finish (poor use of time), and I can’t find your bibliography.
Before I was prescribed the drugs, I would have persistent dreams about school. Variations on a theme, every night.
Minutes from Student Advisory Council Meeting
1/29/76, 12:45-1:40 p.m.
Mr. Van Winkle asked the Student Council Reps, to take his views back to the classes and indicate to the classes that if they can convince him through sound logical arguments that they should ride skateboards to school that he will reconsider his position.
In these dreams, there is no “going home from school.” There is no home.
Rhode Island’s main economy is manufacturing of textiles and jewelry-silverware. Its fastest growing industry is electronic and electric equipment.
Rhode Island is the most densely populated state in the union with 812 people per square mile. In 1960 the population reached 859,488.
I was in fourth grade when Danny Speediacci came to our school. We never had the same homeroom but always played on the same side in touch football during recess. He told me later we couldn’t remain friends if I didn’t like Elvis.
to do my best/to do my duty
to God and my country
to be square and to obey the law of the pack
When I got through with the doctors the first time, I found that my memory was erased. I don’t have a functional memory now, because I’m sure that’s what they did to me. The specifics of my school years are just gone. And back there is probably where all my problems started, so it’s like in a way they don’t want me to go back and figure out exactly what went wrong with me, like something will happen if I really find this out.
Hot dog day was then briefly discussed and Barbara Fraser gave an idea that Mr. Van Winkle indicated that he would have the representative to the Exec. Board look into at the next Exec. Board meeting, and that was to have individual mustard and catsup packets available for the children rather than the squeeze bottle so that they wouldn’t have to wait their turn for a squeeze bottle.
I was happy because I had read about cancer that day in the school library and it wasn’t a germ that invaded your body. I had to cut through a large tomato slice resting on my plate of salad that was for dinner at the Speediaccis before we went bowling, which was their primary hobby, because I knew I couldn’t get it in my mouth the way it was. It somehow started to get very hard to cut and the knife was making noise on the plate. Mrs. Speediacci was really eyeing me then, because why was I suddenly using a knife to deal with the salad? Even though Danny once made me try to impress Mrs. Speediacci by faking the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on their garage piano. Then Danny said out loud, “He’s cuttin’ his tomato.” He said that. “He’s cuttin’ his tomato.” He explained it. He made everything okay, for a while.
I think the Solar System was formed when a giant meteor (or some huge mass) Colided with the Sun and pieces of sun were tom out and formed the planets and moons.
Do you know that feeling of being an animal, that nothing you can do will change your destiny, that from the very beginning you never had a chance?
A. Never write on the first line, start on the second.
B. Never use two different colors of ink.
C. Never write on the back-side of a page.
D. Never write “The End”
— Mani Mir
My Second Grade Teacher: The Evil, Social-Climbing Hysteric
I was the first member of my family to attend what is now commonly understood as “public” school — my grandparents and parents having known education that was, by design or default, segregated along class, racial, or religious lines. However, this isn’t to say that the “public” to which I was introduced as a high-strung and illiterate Southern Californian six-year-old was necessarily larger, more cosmopolitan than was my grandfather’s or mother’s; it was simply a public that had been baptized with greater hopes.
I should point out, then, that despite these greater hopes — namely, integration and social harmony, despite Brown vs. the Board of Education, I, in 1967, was enrolled into Benjamin Franklin Elementary on Copeland Avenue in East San Diego — a school that was almost exclusively white, almost exclusively middle class. In short, the first public I came to know was exactly that of a very small Midwestern town, the kind often vilified in socially conscious novels written earlier this century. As such, class distinction was an essential aspect of this particular public’s education. But when I say class distinction, I don’t mean the clumsy Marxist divisions of haves and have-nots. I’m referring specifically to the subtle, refined, apolitical distinctions made by the middle class, as meted out by the mean and puny wills of its educators and children. It is at this school that I learned what I would later call shame.
At the time I was enrolled, Benjamin Franklin served primarily two neighborhoods, Kensington and Talmadge — place names chosen, no doubt, by a fey, tidy-minded developer of the 1930s to suggest a certain distinctiveness. But in the case of Talmadge, it was a distinctiveness underscored by something more than an architectural weakness for stucco, terra cotta tile, and broad front lawns. Talmadge was probably the first gated community in San Diego. Its boundaries were described, at certain precise locations, by eccentric pairs of street lamps, a pair of which stood at the end of the street where I lived. They are gray wrought iron and roughly resemble giraffes. Their boxy metal legs straddle the sidewalk to create a kind of arch, their long necks stretch out and above the street, and lights hang from where their heads might have been. I used to play on them, climb on them, dream of dropping from their spindly necks onto the hoods of unsuspecting cars. It wasn’t until I was in first grade at Benjamin Franklin Elementary that I understood what they meant.
I was walking home with a new friend from school. He asked me where I lived. I really didn’t know. Since our walk was short, and since we both seemed to be going in the same direction, he decided that I, as he, lived in Talmadge. In innocence, I agreed. But when we came to my street, and when my friend saw that I had to pass beneath the significant giraffe to reach my house, he stopped, said, “I thought you lived in Talmadge.”
It was a nasty sort of standoff, I sensed, a kind of condemnation, so I insisted, “I do."
“Oh, no you don’t.” He grinned, walked over, and patted the giraffe’s leg — his best evidence. “You live on the other side of these lights. This here,” he stamped his foot, twice, on the sidewalk, “is Talmadge. The other side is East San Diego.”
There was no denying it. Although the sidewalk looked the same on either side of the giraffe, it clearly was not. And the differences, after all, between my family and my classmates’ were infinitely more obvious than a sidewalk divided by zoomorphous streetlights. The children of Kensington and Talmadge were generally the sons and daughters of professionals — doctors, lawyers, teachers, parents who, after a stint in the Peace Corps, became junior architects. My father was a union man. A blue-collar Democrat by way of the Depression. Giraffes or not, when it came my turn to share a newspaper article in front of class — a first-grade version of show and tell — I read from a clip about an ongoing NASSCO labor dispute. My “new word for the day” was WILDCAT STRIKE, and I scrawled the phrase in big gritty chalk letters across the blackboard. We had a “visitor parent” that morning, the wife of a research scientist, and while I rattled through a speech my father had given me about strikes and the rights of the working man, I remember her smiling at me, weakly, from her tiny chair at the back of the classroom.
My teacher, Madame X, let’s call her, was not amused; she was amused by very little I did. She cleared her throat, thanked me dismissively, and told me to sit down. She was a lanky, pale woman of a certain age, with a helmet of blood-red curls. She had thin legs and long, narrow index fingers that she forever wagged in our faces. She was a Marine sergeant in a trapeze dress. The political climate of her classroom is best illustrated with a certain post-recess afternoon. We were all seated at our desks, red-faced, stinking of playground dirt and sour milk, when she darted into the room.
“NEWS FLASH!” she cried, eyes wide, waving her arms over her head, white palms signaling distress over her red curls. “PRESIDENT EISENHOWER IS DEAD!”
She stared at us, let the news sink in — as far as it might sink into our shallow six-year-old minds.
“A moment of silence is to be observed in all our city’s schools.” Hands still high, she made a priestly gesture suggesting solemnity. “Let us bow our heads.”
And so the former president was inducted into oblivion by Madame X’s first-grade class.
Republican piety aside, she was an odious woman. A shrew who, a few generations earlier, would have probably been diagnosed as some rare variety of hysteric or, generations even earlier, would have been burned at the stake. But these were not the least of her charms. She was also a believer in social mobility, particularly her own. I don’t know which side of the giraffes she lived on, but there must have been a couple near her house because she was an avid climber, of the social kind. Her obsession with notions of “station” and “society” was grotesque. There was something of Madame Bovary’s passion in it but none of the tragic figure’s fatal charm.
Madame X focused her aspirations with dentist’s drill-like intensity on one of my classmates, a judge’s son. He was a sweet boy, something of a musical prodigy, and completely innocent of his teacher’s evil designs. Nonetheless, day after day, we, his fellow students, were forced to watch Madame X parade her naked desire for his station before our class. It was something from another profoundly undemocratic century. It was crazed.
One afternoon during reading circle, after the boy in question, Bill, let’s call him, had read aloud, Madame X closed her eyes, clutched her teacher’s copy of the text to her chest, and rhapsodized, “Bill, you read soooo well. Your mother said you have many books at your house. I have many at mine. Do you remember them?”
She opened her eyes, smiled, gazed at us all. “I had Bill and his mother to my house for tea. Didn’t I, Bill?” He nodded, fidgeted.
She continued, “Do you remember when I closed the sliding doors in the library, Bill? You didn’t know how to get out. You got a little frightened, didn’t you?” She tittered, lost in delicious intimacy with the judge’s son. “You have a very nice mother,” she said. “You must come to my house again.”
Libraries! With sliding doors! Tea! What could have possessed the woman? While the irrationality of her behavior was, at the time, entirely lost on me — she was, you must remember, a teacher — her favoritism, her pretensions to superiority were not. That afternoon after her tête-à-tête with Bill, I went back to my home, to my mother whose hands were always in the kitchen sink, who never drank tea but always coffee, black, by the pot, to speed her through the endless mundanities of housewife life. I went back to my home and pulled the two bookcases that stood in our living room into one comer. I closed myself off in them. I sat down on the floor, pulled a book from a shelf, and read.
“What are you doing?” I heard my mother ask from behind the bookcases.
I peered at her from between them. I could see her apron cinched tightly around her waist, the veins in her ankles blue and bulging from hours of standing, her slippers, pink and flat.
“I’m sitting in our library,” I said. “Reading.”
“Our library?” She laughed. “Well, don’t break anything when you put the furniture back where it belongs. And I don’t want to have to tell you twice.” So Madame X’s pathetic longings were, you see, contagious. I could come fairly close to forgiving her if, if she had not otherwise been so generously cruel.
It was a hot autumn morning and, sitting next to me in white knee socks, shy Judy B. has had her hand raised for quite some time — so long, in fact, that she has to use one arm to support the other. Madame X ignores her and instead babbles, freely associates about, God only knows, some social Darwinist fairy tale or some personal fantasy about buttering J. Edgar Hoover’s scones.
“Please, Madame X.” Judy B. jiggles in her seat. “Please!”
“What is it?” Madame X snaps. She doesn’t like being interrupted. “May I go to the bathroom?” “No. You can wait.”
“But I can’t.”
“You can wait, Judy.” And Madame X says it with exaggerated MGM-movie-queen menace.
Judy B. pales. Madame X continues her tirade, chatters, spews out consonants, vowels, makes quiet asides to herself at which she alone chuckles.
Time passes. Judy B. is head down at her desk, crying.
“What is it now?” Through rows of desks, Madame X barges toward Judy B. “What is it?”
Judy B. sobs.
Madame X gapes at the floor beneath the girl’s chair. “What in God’s name have you done?”
I look down. Judy B.’s white socks are wet and yellow. A pool of urine creeps across the floor. I am frozen with embarrassment for Judy. Such an event would have been a worst-case scenario for any six-year-old. For Judy, I am sure, it was a child-size apocalypse.
Madame X seizes the moment with her characteristic flair. “Everybody out!” she yells. She evacuates the classroom fire-drill style. We stand outside on the playground’s hot black asphalt while a janitor mops the floor.
Judy B. is sent home.
The year rolls on. The day before Christmas vacation Madame X presents Bill, and Bill alone, with a present: a wallet with a photo of Lassie stitched to its surface. (“You are the best student I’ve ever had, the finest reader.”) He is both thrilled and embarrassed. Madame X wiggles with pleasure. And with the severity that only jealous children can muster, we hate her. But in June we are free.
I have made it a point never to forget Madame X. Some would accuse me of holding a grudge; I prefer to think that I have a very long attention span. Her tutelage was not, you see, altogether without merit. I have always remembered her library, in my mind fortress-like, its sliding doors cunningly closed. A place where I would never be invited. Books were, for Madame X, points of leverage where worldly advantage could be tipped to one’s favor, powerful talismans. And so they have become for me. Her particular library may forever remain off limits, but I have found others. Every time I open a book, I am reminded that reading is a way of foiling the Madame Xs of this world, of going above and beyond them, of thwarting their hopes only to realize more fully my own.
— Abe Opincar
Breasts and Zzzzzz’s
Basically, it was just killing time. All of high school.
I passed through during America’s dead zone, graduating from La Mesa’s Grossmont High School in Nineteen and Sixty-two.
Beatniks never got this far south, hippies wouldn’t appear for three more years, nobody had heard of Vietnam. It was the overhang of the ’50s, when somebody like Dean Martin could turn out hit records. Unemployment was three percent, inflation less, gasoline a paltry 17 cents a gallon, my peers endlessly considered the question of who was and was not “going all the way,” and citizens believed what the United States government told them.
I knew it intuitively then, knew it like I knew the sun would rise, that 1962 was a drag. I loathed its popular music, clothes, hairdos, movies, television, Nixon, and Kennedy.
What little I remember about Grossmont High School centers around the breasts of Frances Shaw. My entire high school educational experience, was, beginning to end, a longing for sex. I was shy, and the production of talking to a girl, getting yourself alone with her, getting all her clothes off, getting all your clothes off, then performing the act seemed so utterly complex, requiring so many things to go right for such an appallingly long run of time, that the endeavor was certainly, inevitably doomed.
For me, high school was something one endured, like asthma. I had my own car, a Hillman Minx. My senior year I had my own apartment. These two facts led to the next: I slept through my last two years of high school. I mean that literally.
I had taken to staying up every night until four or five in the morning. It was during the period when I discovered pool halls, poker, bars, and coffee shops. My favorite part of the day was between three and five a.m. when all those busy, busy day-people finally tucked themselves in, leaving the planet empty, quiet, serene.
Home was chicken pot pies and Brown ’n’ Serve rolls served with Ten High bourbon in my $65-a-month studio apartment off of 30th and El Cajon Blvd. I learned that everything got a lot better late at night. The radio was better, the grocery stores less crowded, parks and beaches more mysterious, the people more friendly, more willing to be real. It felt like a conspiracy and a fraternity combined. But most of all, it was a magnificent backdrop against which to read. To read a decent book through the night is one of life’s great nutrients.
So I was tired when I went to school, and in my school locker was a small, tan pillow that, in jest, Jan Williams had given me one winter’s day. And every morning I would begin my school day by walking to my locker, then into social studies — claim the same seat in the far, far, back, back row — place my pillow on the desk, and within moments, be deep asleep. Second period was English, across the quad. I’d zombie-walk over carrying my pillow under right arm next to textbooks, notebooks, enter cold room, find identical back seat, place pillow on desk, and again, within moments, sleep. Next was political science, held in a classroom above the library, a particularly restful location. Fourth period was P.E. By then I was usually refreshed enough to dress, trot out, say hi to the guys, trot in, take my day’s shower, then gobble lunch, then an hour’s nap in study hall, then, for some godawful, guilt-ridden, puritanical reason, I had voluntarily taken algebra, where sleeping was not allowed.
There were allegations and comments made by other students when I first started to sleep. It began, after all, during my junior year. But I was not a stupid boy. I was underage and my options were brutally limited. I had no wish to live on the road (that would come in a few years). I had no intention of dropping out and, choke, getting a job. I had appropriate dread — still do — of being a box boy at Vons and so, for the time being, school was an acceptable holding tank, the best deal, given the circumstances, that I could cut at the time. I also knew that teachers wanted respect, compliance, above all control, and that actual instruction was rather a long way down the list of what they wanted to get done that day. And I understood the value of routine.
So I was polite and consistent. I didn’t make a production of sleeping; no laughing, sniggering, no jokes, no ‘Hey, look at me.’ I treated it for what it was; my daily sleep cycle. When test days occurred, I stayed awake, took tests. Otherwise I arrived at class on time, with all appropriate materials, and went to sleep.
And so there were no proms or football games or school dances or any school activities whatsoever. The idea was to pass though and get on to something that interested me, which was always something happening later on that night.
Recently, I returned to Grossmont High School for the first time since I graduated. Parked next to the gray stone school district offices. Walked 20 yards over to two low-slung classroom wings, still painted sandy brown. I peeked inside, recognized my old algebra classroom, confronted again those dotted acoustic tiles stuck to the ceiling. Everything; buildings, rooms, grounds — much smaller. Walked up to the courtyard, there’s the cafeteria at one end of the quad, opposite is the administrative building. On my left, a two-story flying wing of a classroom, home to political science.
Jesus, it looked precisely the same; down to the last detail, even the palm trees, even the small shrub trees that line the quad. Here’s Old Main Building. I always liked Old Main because my English class was on the second floor, the ceilings were high, and I could look out to the leaves of an oak tree and dream about being anywhere in the world.
Down an asphalt walkway is the old study hall building, was a temporary building then, still is, now used for independent studies. Just beyond is a deep gully that served as exit when one wanted to cut school. On my left, the library, and further on, the language wing where I failed French, Latin, and Spanish.
Strolling out to the tennis courts, circling back past the P.E. buildings, passing the Associated Student Building, I was captured by a printed notice taped to cafeteria window:
“We believe that all students have the right to learn.
“All teachers have the right to teach.
“All students will show courtesy and respect for everyone. Respect property, be on time with proper materials, prepared to work until dismissed by the teacher,” blah, blah, blah.
Yup, same old shit.
It wasn’t a bad holding pen. At 16, 17, 18 most people are way too stupid to be let loose on the streets, and school is not an unsatisfactory cultural device for keeping exploding hormones occupied and out of everybody’s way.
As I patrolled campus, I was struck by how few memories I’d retained. I remember the books I read at home, the tactile feel of a pool cue, the all-night coffee shops, and my apartment; I remember all of this in Technicolor detail, but almost nothing from school. Just random micro bits come back: inside a muddy hallway, talking to Jack DeTate during a rainy day, a teacher leaning on a lectern in a classroom, playing softball at RE., smoking cigarettes in the boys’ room, and that’s about it save for one.
That glorious spring day, the world exploding with life, feeling a breeze come alive with warmth, feeling my indestructible, young, strong body from the inside out, and seeing possibilities dance everywhere. It was the last day of high school, the day I was officially told to be on my way.
It was never the same after that.
— Pat Daugherty