I went to a play reading last night; a new play by my friend Matt Bennett, intended for public school performances, about school bullying. The play was lovely, and will do a lot of good when performed in local schools–and he’s got a grant to do just that. But in a way, I wish I hadn’t gone. Anything about junior high brings back some pretty stark memories, and I probably made kind of a jerk of myself, inappropriately venting.
Junior high, though. Man. “Who trusted God was love indeed, and love Creation’s final law, tho’ Nature, red in tooth and claw with ravine, shriek’d against his creed.” Tennyson nailed it; that’s junior high. The creed of Christian civilized behavior, fervently believed by idealistic teachers, love indeed, but under that, in kid-world, pure savagery; unremitting violence. I don’t know how anyone survives it; I really don’t. There are a lot of junior high kids out there right now who are being bullied and attacked and still hang in there, courageous and amazing.
I have basically no positive memories of seventh grade at all, and only a few positive memories of eighth grade. Eddie Deckard and Jeff Tate–and I’m going to use their real names, I think it’s empowering, and if you’re reading this and know anything about what happened to them, like the federal prison in which they’re currently incarcerated, drop me a line–made my life hell. Eddie Deckard was short, dirty blonde, a vicious little sociopath, a thief and a thug and a criminal mastermind. I had this great jacket–very warm and comfortable–I loved that jacket. He stole it (I told my Mom I lost it), and then stole its replacement. Stole my bike. Stole my lunch money–I didn’t eat lunch one day at Binford junior high. Just handed it over. Deckard was head of a largish gang of angry and stupid white kids, and Jeff Tate was his chief enforcer–a huge kid, the kind who can grow a full moustache at twelve. Tate liked it when you fought back–he’d kind of grin and he’d say ‘hey, good for you,’ and then he’d pulverize you. He was smart enough to prefer body blows–bloody noses and chipped teeth and black eyes got noticed. I know he broke ribs; one whole winter, I could hardly breathe, walking home. He’s the guy who held me down while Deckard carved a swastika on my arm with a switch blade, but I respect him for first trying to talk Deckard out of it–he thought a flesh wound was sure to be noticed. But it wasn’t. I saw to that. Went home, slapped on a bandage, made up some story for my Mom. I never told. It never occurred to me to tell. I would sooner have flown to the moon than tell a grown-up. If you told, that was a death sentence–everyone knew that.
Mostly, you hid. A good day was when no one noticed you at all–loneliness being far preferable to violence. I discovered the school library, checked out books, spent my days reading. I don’t recall ever doing any school assignments in my classes; I just sat in the back and read, and if the teacher called on me, would mumble something. My grades were pretty bad, and my parents were worried, but I couldn’t possibly have cared less. Good grades got you noticed.
And good grades weren’t possible, I decided. The school had started this thing called SCAP. The Secondary Continuous Advancement Program. The S in SCAP stood for Secondary, but Satanic would have come closer to it; it was Exhibit A in Failed Education Fads. (I say that, but I actually have no idea what SCAP was trying to do, or how it proposed to do it). I know part of it involved these standardized tests, the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, I think they were called. We took ’em at the beginning of the school year, and then our grades were determined, not by how well we did in our classes, but by how well we did as compared to how well the Iowa tests suggested we were capable of doing. I was a smart kid and a reader; I think I probably aced the Iowa tests, and thereby screwed myself royally. I remember early in the seventh grade school year, we had a spelling test. 25 words. I got a 23–missed 2. And on my paper was a grade: D-minus. I looked over at the kid at the next desk: he’d gotten a 16–missed 9. And the grade on his paper was B-plus. He’d missed 9, I missed 2, and I got a D and he got a B-plus.
And I thought to myself: it’s true. They really are out to get me. I’m not just being paranoid–this school really does hate me, me specifically, me. I’m not imagining it; there’s proof. And I looked around, and I could see that my 23 was the highest score in the class, and my D the lowest grade. So I thought: fine. Okay. They hate me; I hate them. That’s the last time I do a school assignment. And as I recall it, it was. That’s probably not entirely true–I probably did occasionally try, a little. But I don’t remember it, trying in school, ever, at all.
(Did a teacher, seeing my confusion and how upset I was, kindly take me aside, explain the way the grading system worked, encourage me, tell me that grade just reflected how bright I was, and how much they wanted me to work up to my potential? Heck, I don’t know. Maybe. If so I don’t remember it. That did happen in 8th grade, as you’ll see.)
I’m not going to bore you with my revenge fantasies. I do know that I’ve never trusted authority figures ever since junior high. They say there are in any culture Chiefs and Indians: some people are natural leaders, and others are good followers. Me, I’m a medicine man. I don’t lead and I don’t follow well. I sit back and observe. And when I step forward, it’s to entertain.
Quick revolutionary aside: there’s a big debate in education circles over testing, over the mandatory federal and state standardized tests kids take basically every grade level, upon which funding and teacher raises and salaries depend. If I could speak to every kid in every school, K-12 in America, I would say one thing: fail that test. Fail it on purpose. Those tests mean nothing to you, and failing them will not impact your life in any significant way, and the people administering them do not have your best interests at heart. Fail them. All of them, every year. That’s the monkey wench that will destroy the educational establishment, and it needs destroying. It’s SCAP, times fifty. Educators love their faddish notions, and build programs around theories; stop them. We know what works. Free teachers to teach. Period.
Anyway. There wasn’t a day in junior high when I didn’t think about suicide. Couple things saved me; one was Indiana basketball. I could go out in the driveway and shoot away my anger and frustration. The other was this: I met one good teacher.
Kenny Mann. Mr. Mann. He was the English teacher, and he was kind, and he gave us an in-class writing assignment (and mirabile dictu, I did it), and talked to me after class and told me it was very good, that I had talent as a writer, and did I have anything else I could show him. So I gave him the first forty pages of a novel I’d started, and he took it home and read it and told me the next day, ‘wow, that was really good!’ Which I’m sure it wasn’t, but I just glowed.
When I finally finished Junior High, and went to High school, I discovered that Mr. Mann had transferred there, and so he was both my eighth and tenth grade English teacher. And he got me involved in the school paper and in the school creative writing magazine, and introduced me to the school drama teacher, and I started acting. That’s all it took. One good teacher, caring about a kid.
Look, adolescence is tough, and some kids negotiate it without difficulty and some kids really struggle. And junior high school teachers should be, all of them, nominated for sainthood. But there are things that can be done to make it safer and easier. A strong anti-bullying policy is a good place to start, but schools need to be aware that kids will probably not report being bullied. You’re going to need an entirely different level of vigilance, probably for, at least, grades 4-9.
I would also give junior high teachers the authority to identify the Eddie Deckards and Jeff Tates of the world and summarily execute them, but that’s just me. Seriously, though, a Deckard does need to be identified and dealt with pro-actively. Does the jacket he’s wearing look a lot like the one that really skinny kid wore yesterday? Check it out. Bear in mind: his victims will almost certainly not self-report.
And I’m rooting for Matt, and for his play, Different=Amazing. I think it might do some good. Some. It won’t fix junior high, though. Not sure that age is entirely fixable.