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April 15, 2024

Schoolday Memories (no, I wasn't paying attention)

By Dan Mulhollen

Between being asleep and awake, there was the sound of a child crying, and a banging on the door. "So you did it again," my mother said. "Don't your parents teach you anything?"

I got up and put some clothes on (a little secret there I did not want my mother to know about). Walking to the kitchen, I found Lenny Hamilton, the five-year-old neighbors' kid sitting on a kitchen chair, still gasping for air.

"Okay," my mother said, pouring a teaspoon of mineral oil. Lenny stared blankly at the spoon as if trying to decide whether or not the cure was worse than the problem.

"It was just one stick," he said, thinking that would matter.

"Drink it down," my mother said, grabbing another bottle. After Lenny had taken the mineral oil, she dragged him into the bathroom. "Now take this," she said. I knew the only cure for swallowing chewing gum was a teaspoon of mineral oil followed by a teaspoon of Syrup of Ipecac. The cure worked all over the bathroom floor.

So began another school day. I walked the half-mile trek to New Tom L. Johnson Junior High, so named because the building was just seven years old. The old TLJ, with its largely-broken skylights and rickety staircases, was condemned either for falling apart, or for being haunted by the ghosts of 100 years of terrorized students. Former Old TLJ students were split on which explanation was more likely. (Mind you, the junior high years coincide with puberty; never a fun time.)

Even New TLJ was too imposing to be enjoyable, appearing to be an entire college squeezed into one three-story building. But this new building, awash in sunlight with wide halls and too many staircases for "up" and "down" designations, was mostly a well-laid-out floor plan. It was expected that many students would get lost their first Gym class, so it was easier -- by design -- for girls to find the correct locker room.

Homeroom began with the usual PA announcement. Then there were conversations between the various, unrecognized at the time, cliques of students. The stereotypical cliques of typical teen movies were still a few years off. I was friends with jocks, nerds, future farmers, future secretaries, and future body shop workers. (In recent years, I've noticed an increase in those, and have to wonder if drivers licenses are far easier to get than when I went to school.)

First period was gym, or physical education as the people who wrote the class schedules insisted on calling it. At that age, we may not quite have known the meaning of sado-masochism, but every gym class, we were exposed to it. Mister Heidler seemed sympathetic to my athletic deficiencies, although he never taught me the importance of the "follow through" when throwing a ball. Others, like Marty Krackowski, Irving Gregorov, and especially the Finkelstein twins were regular targets of his wrath. For most, it was just recess, but given the wonderful facilities there, weight machine, underground track, wrestling room with padded floors -- perfect for calisthenics, yoga (for those who listened to too much Beatles music), or Pilates (for those who could see into the future), for me, it was a missed opportunity.

Second period English was easy enough for me. Mister Kirkpatrick was a tall, lean, effeminate ex-beatnik, who valued one's poetic abilities far more than their test scores. Dryly passionate about the written word, he often had to contain himself from keep from channeling Jack Keroac or Alan Ginsburg. The two weeks spent reading "On the Road," and his thunderous interpretations suggested in addition to being a beat in childhood, he had also thoroughly enjoyed the psychedelic era.

I generally avoided novels -- there is no better way to turn a teenager off to literature than to make them read lengthy works. Today, I might enjoy one of the classics, but back then, it was just an imposition on my developing fantasy life (or literary gristmill, if you will).

For Third period I had a choice: either study hall, which reminded you how long forty-five minutes could take, or you could spend them at the school library. One area of the library was designated for private study, with shelves containing several sets of antiquated encyclopedias. However from these, I discovered a lot of interesting 'facts.' A springtime picture of a bustling West Berlin street when compared to a bleak winter picture of East Berlin showed how the free market system was superior to communism. All US Presidents were great and noble men, regardless of the scandals, corruption, and general stupidity of their administrations. And rock music was dismissed as simply a short-lived fad of the late 1950s.

Fourth period was science. Not wanting to have to dissect anything, I took the non-invasive Environmental Science. Mrs. Eldrich may have been attractive woman in her college days, but her disdain of any makeup and her gray Moe Howard haircut made her seem more formidable than she really was. This was another class where I preferred to know the stuff than to do the work. I ended the year with a passing, if unexceptional grade. I may have leafed through the textbook, picking up bits of information helpful on tests, but not much else.

Fifth period was lunch. Lunch, the usual broiled rat and a potato dish, somewhere between mashed and fully raw but diced, topped with cream of custodian gravy. (Those were unofficial, but widely-rumored food items.) Considering the generally unsavory, heartburn-inducing "hot lunch" fare, I stuck with a bag of chips and half-pint carton of chocolate milk.

The cafeteria doubled as study hall in the afternoon and high school students are not the tidiest eaters ... that explains those silly paper bookcovers they made us put on the books at the start of the school year, mostly bearing ads for local businesses -- including, without a trace of noticable irony, a local printer.

Sixth period was Algebra. Math is hard enough without resorting to replacing numbers with letters of the alphabet -- not fair! But you can't have a class of twenty-five students all failing, and so that class did teach me to appreciate "the curve."

The "curve" the school used was an interesting variation of the classic geometric abstraction. Every test, quiz, and homework assignment (numerically quantified) were entered into the class grade book. The student with the highest total "points" got an A-plus. Everything else was based on that score. 90% of that was an A. 80% a B. And so on, to 60%, the lowest passing grade, D. Some teachers, showing a sick sense of humor, would give students in the 50% percentile a F-plus. The overall standards between a plus, plain, and minus grade were vague and completely meaningless.

Seventh period was social studies -- this year world history. Some may quibble that it's basically European history. But I like to think of it as "mainstream" history. Sure, there was a lot going on in Asia and Africa, but it wasn't until more recently that they entered the main stream of history (and the textbook was far too old to cover any of that). Also, history is about people, and at this time, history teachers were very good at telling their stories. I also learned, albeit indirectly, that there are far more gray areas in history than solid blacks and whites, and it is terribly short-sighted to try to judge past events through a contemporary sensibility. There was also a Civics class, which neither student nor teacher held in high regard. And seniors could take Problems in Society and Economics, or PSE , for short -- although some schools preferred calling it S & E Problems.

After all that profundity, I needed some time to rest. I was scheduled not one but two consecutive study halls. By 2 pm, nobody seemed to care if a student dozed off -- as long as they had a book open and maybe a sheet of paper nearby. I could have taken a vocational class, but being terrified of power tools, the internal combustion engine, and the thought of being stuck working in an office (required to wear white shirts and ties), study halls were a preferable choice.

Yet as tiring as nine 45-minute periods may be, the 3:30 bell was a huge shot of adrenaline. Oh, over-achievers will have their extra-curricular activities. But for most of us, those bells were the chimes of freedom.

I arrived home to find my mother arguing with the neighbor.

"That's just an old wives' tale," the young mother stated.

Mom, twenty years her senior, took her choice of words as an insult. "Next time, I hope you have the mineral oil and Ipecac handy. Otherwise, you'll let him choke to death!"

When the younger woman stormed out, she turned to me, "So," she said, her anger evaporated, "how was your day?"

Article © Dan Mulhollen. All rights reserved.
Published on 2015-12-07
Image(s) are public domain.
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