Angry At School
by David Lee Beowulf
So my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend, right on time with the first installment of her twice-weekly phone-stalking, calls me up to tell me about her recent experiences as a substitute teacher in the Bay area. She’s mostly been assigned to sub for high school classes, an experience that opened her eyes to the wonders of a liberally-bloated educational system which, among other things, had her teach a classroom full of Chinese and Mexican math students (my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend speaks a pretty good pidgin Spanish). This last week she subbed for three classes, each offering a new experience and shining light on what she perceived as unique.
The first put her in front of a junior high “reading” class. Strange, I thought, “reading” classes, along with “language arts” and “social studies” stopped, for me, in the sixth grade. Once in junior high (which is, as Matt Groening rightly puts it, “the deepest pit in Hell”), the classes became “English,” “History and Geography,” etc. Anyway, the students would take turns reading out loud whatever it was that they were assigned to read. There was one student with some sort of speech impediment or illness (I wagered it was cystic fibrosis) who would, as required, get up and read, all the time struggling against snorting attacks (think Felix Unger’s “honking”) that persisted as he read out loud. What astonished my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend was that all the other students were making fun of the poor kid while he read.
“That’s life,” I said.
“But they were making fun of him!” she replied.
“Well, what did you expect? This is junior high, 13-years olds are very cruel.”
“But that never happened when I was in school.”
“Was there anything wrong with you?” (Was there anything wrong with you, then, I meant. Now, there’s plenty wrong…)
“No. I was in the college prep track and always studying or on the sports teams.” (She lettered in track and field, yet, to this day, cannot swim, odd.)
“It happened,” I said. “You just didn’t notice it because you lacked the necessary afflictions. The kids with physical problems always get picked on. That’s nature! Lions and hyenas and all the other predators don’t go after the stronger food animals; they prey on the sick or frail, the elderly or the young! It’s the same way with humans, especially American junior high students!
“All this liberal clap-trap about ‘being sensitive’ and ‘building self esteem’ is a bunch of sheep dung! First chance they get, kids will work either collectively or as individuals to stomp out anyone who appears to be weak! Those who survive such attacks become strong and very, very mean. Usually that meanness manifests itself in the paybacks they dish out later in life.
“I’m an expert, because it happened to me. I spent the better part of ages 13 through 16 on crutches. I’d broken my hip in the summer of 1977 which required major surgery to repair. [I still have four stainless steel pins in my left hip.]
“The ’76-’77 school year had me in eighth grade, where I was subjected to wonderful tortures including verbal abuse and having my crutches stolen. Because I wasn’t in a cast, many of the students, if not all of them, and the faculty, didn’t think there was anything wrong with me. Leland Junior High School had an elevator, see, and in order to use it you had to have a special key. Well, I’d been given a key, but I had to turn it in at the end of every school day. And as a typical unreliable eight grader I’d forget every now and then, so the secretary decided I’d forfeited my elevator privilege. Great. Well, I used the damn stairs! That was loads of fun! It’s great being told that you’re in the way all the time, or having people give you a shove every now and then.
“So I got off the crutches with one month to go and I’m given an ‘ok’ to go back and be a normal, by this time, 14-year old. But there were limitations. For one, the gym teacher, a real bastard name Mr. Wrightson, thought I was bullshiting the whole thing, while grudgingly allowing me not to participate in soccer, made sure I ‘played’ softball. See, as a kid, I was somewhat mischievous [somewhat?] and ran around a lot. Well, any kid who runs around like an idiot can’t have anything wrong with him…
“So I played softball and I delivered newspapers (a job, not part of gym class, mind you). Guess what? July of 1977 had me back in the hospital for another operation to remove the pins, now bent, and give me a new, straight set. This time, no chances were to be taken and I’d be on crutches for at least nine months, that is, through most of my ninth-grade term.
“Which turned out to be loads of fun… Aside from the nearly daily tauntings, including stealing my crutches, there was one instance where I was walking too slowly for someone behind me; I felt my crutches rising up from under me as they were being pulled away by one Tim Flynn. I didn’t fall, but it was pretty trying. Tim was a disturbed youth; some time in 1983 he put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Good motherfucking riddance.
“But I survived it all. The most important thing I learned was to hit back and hit back ten times as hard. Those I hit with my crutches or cane were rather shocked that I’d hit them. The taunting stopped altogether by tenth grade.
“And that is the way of nature. It’s how evolution works: to deny it is to proclaim to the world that you are a fundamentalist creationist! And that’ll get you kept out of the public school system for good!”
The second class… Well, that wasn’t as exciting, as it was an “adult education” class on computers or something like that. My estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend’s main observation was that the “older” folks (she’s 33) felt odd looking upon her as the instructor, especially when she was taking role. These were people who’d never learned to type and now desperately needed some “marketable” skills to put food on the table. Maybe they should’ve played a few games of Ms. Pac-Man back in the day when they had the chance!
The third class, and this was the kicker, mainly because I rant and rave about the teasing shit all the time, was “shop.”
My estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend informed me that she’d never taken shop as she was on the “college prep track.” Let me ask you this: she has an engineering degree from Berkeley… And she’s never taken shop? What kind of engineer never took a shop class? A few, I think, but those are the ones promoted to management, where they’re (wrongly) perceived as being in places where the damage they cause is minimal.
Me, I took “shop” courses all through junior high and high school. Yes, even with crutches, I could sit at a work bench or band saw or whatever. See, I believe I was born to build things, to work with my hands, to create. I’ve always loved making things with my hands and I thrived in high school woodshop.
But my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend told me that her peer group and family had some ephemeral feeling that people who worked with their hands were somehow “lower class.” (To be fair, -and I am fair -decent, too; “nice” is what I am not – my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend does not think this way.) I, too, grew up with this. My immediate family were of a similar mind, as were, I’d say 90% of my peers in high school. To work in the wood shop (or worse, auto shop) was almost alien, you were an untouchable. What’s funny is that my mother’s father (of genuine Viking ancestry, like it matters to an American) was a certified Master Carpenter (i.e., passed the union process from apprentice, journeyman, master), as is my uncle, who was married to my father’s mother’s sister’s daughter, i.e., my dad’s first cousin, a women I referred to as an aunt, until she died in 1988. In fact, everyone on my father’s mother’s sister’s daughter’s side of the family has built fortunes on working with their hands, be it farming or home construction. Yet my dad can’t tell which end of the screwdriver is which (not to take anything away from him: he’s a brilliant -not rich, as he works for a large company he doesn’t own – computer scientist). I, on the other hand, rejected the false philosophy of handiwork as being beneath my birth (fuckin’ A, we’ve didn’t get a firm foothold in the middle class until my dad graduated from college in 1957! What was this putting on airs shit?!) and built, built, built!
Now, my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend remarked that the students in the shop class really wanted to get to their projects, but couldn’t because the regular teacher wasn’t there (safety reasons). Her real surprise was that they were so focused on working. I asked if she told them she was an engineer, she didn’t. For some reason she was afraid – an engineer who didn’t know how to use these hand tools?
Anyway, my estranged lunatic ex-girlfriend when on to say that the engineers she knows are all theoreticians and not “practicals” (my word) at all and that they’re really more into mathematics than actual construction.
That’s kind of strange to me, as all my fellow engineering students were very good with tools and real pros at building. In fact, I’m still jealous of their skills with electronics. Of course, they’re damn good at fixing cars, too, something I’m not. They’re also superior engineers. For those in the know: Mr. Yuck, Land Shark and Batman are mechanical geniuses; their practical skills and intuitive abilities with tools and electronics are a marvel. Me, if it’s made out of wood, I’m a pro. When electronics are involved, I get out of their way. So, if you want to get me anything for Christmas, how about a Heathkit crystal radio kit? I need to catch up!
The folks I work with for the most part are quite good practical engineers as well as theoretical people, although the actual work we do is nearly all practical. The only shortcoming is the dearth of knowledge concerning computer software (not including me, that’s one of my strengths), which isn’t their fault: given the time to learn (a couple of days – which they don’t have) and the genuine need to learn it (which is debatable) they’d all be pros.
I’ll finish with my favorite grad school professor’s words of wisdom to my Steel Structures class: he would tell us, often, of his high school years (late 1940’s-early 50’s) spent at a vocational-technical high school where he’d take “shop” for four hours a day. He soon went on to Cooper-Union, one of the nation’s best civil engineering colleges -and it happens to be free, you “win” an appointment- where he honed his skills at structural engineering (he knew other things, too, mind you). He also told us how he told his kids that “…if they wanted a car, they could build one!” And they would; he himself built three cars.
Damn! If only I had a teacher tell me these stories when I was thirteen rather than 27…