On the threshold between the sacred and the stupid

A New Low for Junior High Part 1

Maybe it is because I feel like a relatively normal person that I forget that vast chunks of my life were spent in a world gone mad.  It is not until I begin comparing notes with someone who grew up in more normal chaos that I realize just how wacky my life has been.  This happened again when recently a good friend of mine, Molly, and I were exchanging stories of life in junior high school.

My experience of middle school started off fairly normal; in seventh grade I attended Worthingway Middle school.  It was located in a wealthy suburb of Columbus, OH.  At the end of that year a series of drastic changes happened.  My mom,who was a single parent, began her first serious relationship with a man since the time that she and my dad parted ways when I was three. Her boyfriend was a stupid hillbilly named Gary; I hated his guts.  I hope that you don’t think that I am bigoted against stupid hillbillies; I have known more than a few who were decent folk.  Gary was a stupid hillbilly who thought he was a genius and that made him intolerable.    He claimed to be a member of Mensa, and although I did not know anything about the organization, I could muster no respect for a group that would accept him into their ranks.

Around the same time we moved from the cozy suburb of Worthington to a very urban part of Columbus. It was just my luck that Gary moved in with us, so that I could  bask in the glow of his insufferable brand of brilliance on a daily basis.  Little did I know, as the new school year approached, that the worst of it was yet to come.

To put things into their proper context, I think about how, today, society is quite focused on children. Parents run frantically shuttling their youngsters from one activity to the next. Some have even taken on the full-time responsibility of providing for their children’s education.  Businesses cater to the offspring of their clientele, from McDonald’s Play Places to museums for children.  Our elected leaders make much noise about giving our children every opportunity to succeed, sponsoring bills such as The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

I mention this not to take issue with the emphasis we put on our kids, but to contrast it with what things were like when I was a youth.  When I was in school, it was not yet fashionable for people to pretend that they gave a shit about children.  No place was this more apparent than the Junior High School I was newly enrolled in: Linmoor Middle School.

My first day of school, for the first time in my life, I found I was not the member of just one minority group, but two.  While I was a little nervous about it at first, finding that out that Caucasians made up only 7% of the student body turned out to be not that big of a deal. The second minority group that I belonged to was far scarier to me; this was especially true as I walked into class on my first day.  At the tender age of thirteen, I was one of only two students who were not 16 years old and in the eighth grade; many of my classmates even drove themselves to school.  I know it sounds bizarre, but Columbus Public Schools had a policy that if a child failed a grade enough times, they would be automatically passed on to the next grade.  Most of the students would flunk until they reached the age of 16, at which point they would be advanced on to high school.  Looking back on it, it strikes me as tragic that the only lesson those kids ever received in school was that they could do nothing, fail, and if that happened enough times they would eventually be advanced forward.  I wonder how many of them got advanced forward to a correctional facility or worse, a cemetery.  So there I was, walking into class on my first day of school, a boy among men.

Violence was a serious problem at Linmoor.  It frequently happened that, while walking down the hall, one student would be punched in the face by another, for no reason at all.  The school administration’s policy was to punish both students, irrespective of who started it.  There were two possible punishments for fighting at Linmoor.  The first was to be suspended from school for one week. Since most parents did not want these delinquents at home with them for an entire week, the second punishment was what was typically selected: a paddling by Mr. Scott, the school principal.  Mr.Scott was a former defensive lineman for The Ohio State University.  A paddling from him, as I would later learn, was something not soon forgotten.

The first day of school began in home room, with the science teacher; she weighed well over 300 Lbs.  It was then, during roll call, that I learned of the school’s rodent problem.  The teacher was calling out our names when one of the kids yelled, “Rat!”  There was a ripple of screams as the girls (and I) jumped up on their desks.  I was most impressed to see how quickly our home room teacher leaped up on her desk. This was a ritual that was repeated at least once a week for the rest of the school year, whether an actual rodent was present or not.

During the next period one of the guys decided to welcome me as a new student to the school.  He was muscular young man named Craig.  With a wicked grin on his face, Craig leaned toward me and asked in a voice that would not accept “no” for an answer, “You want to Chinese arm wrestle?”  “Um, sure. How do you Chinese arm wrestle?” I asked.  He positioned my arm in front of me on the table so that my palm faced me and the back of my hand faced him.  He told me to make a fist.  Putting his hand over my fist he explained that I was to pull my fist toward me while he tried to pull it away.  The contest began.  I pulled my fist as hard as I could toward me while he applied resistance.  After a moment, he suddenly released my hand causing me to punch myself in the mouth, bloodying my lip.  The entire class burst out in laughter.

Later that day, I learned that the school had a serious problem with students bringing weapons to school.  I was in math class, seated across the table from a guy named Gary Woody.  We were all given a worksheet with simple arithmetic problems on it.  Gary turned over the worksheet and began to draw on the back of it.  It turned out that he was an amazing artist.  I complimented him on his artwork, and we struck up a friendly conversation.  As we were talking I couldn’t help but notice a bulge under his shirt in the middle of his chest.  I asked him, “What’s that?”  Nonchalantly, he lifted his shirt.  Underneath was a huge hunting knife that could have easily qualified as a small sword.

Boarding the bus for home, I was overwhelmed with a sense of gratitude for having survived  my first day.  That feeling ended when I remembered that I would be back tomorrow.

To be Continued….

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