The Christmas Box
Entry # 7:
THE Eighth Grade
The following excerpt is found on a storage box, used to house Christmas ornaments, a bedraggled cardboard arrangement, upon which I began scrawling an annual message, careful to affix the date each year. Some of the messages are filled with hope and whimsy; others, with dark forebodings of dire straits. Still others contain a blending of the two, a more accurate description of life up here on the mountain, on Bell Springs Road, and possibly where you live, also.
January 4th, 1991
Well, it’s that time of year again;
Christmas time as found its end.
The only question that remains,
Is will it ever come again?
The next question is, Will I survive the 8th grade?
Will the Witch ever go away
And quit harassing people?
Will it ever warm up?
I guess that’s enough for now.
Till next year, Happy Trails to you.
Considering that the third line of this particular Christmas message suggests that there is only one question, I must have found additional inspiration further on. As we approach the twentieth anniversary of the date this message was written, the answer to the first question is self-evident. It may even have been that I asked the question with a slight sense of despair, recognizing that I was at the end of my break (as opposed to being at the end of my rope), and knew that it would be a long road ahead to the next one.
Long road? It was more of a trans-continental highway, this next year. In the order that the questions appeared, as opposed to the gravity of the inquiries, I did survive this first experience with the mighty top dogs themselves, THE eighth grade. This is that class of kids who had driven out the regular teacher who taught them math and science and then been merciless to the long-term sub. On the day school got out, someone stuffed a potato in the guy’s tail pipe of his vehicle, and his car would not function properly.
He was simultaneously relieved that it was not serious, and devastated that the kids could be so mean. Eighth graders mean? The only time I ever saw them egregiously cruel, is when there was a lack of respect, whether deservedly so or not. Kids who respected their instructor(s) were no more inclined to be mean, than adults. Conversely, if students feel that there is a lack of respect on the part of the instructor, then it’s a no-holds-barred contest to the end, only one contestant in control of the classroom when the dust settles.
I saw two of those now-thirty-something 8th graders at one of Casey’s tee-ball baseball games. Casey was the coach of a Laytonville team of kids, among whom was this kid. I doubt those two have more than the vaguest remembrance of that guy they had for one period of social studies, in their eighth grade. During that year we covered such areas of past history as the Fall of the Roman Empire, The Incan, Mayan and Aztecan cultures, and the Feudal period, both in Europe and in Japan. It was quite the experience, because I had examined the text books, and found them hopelessly antiquated, and completely unacceptable to me, a first year teacher, who obviously was out of my mind.
I created ten times the work for myself, blazing a trail across the social studies curriculum, having to manufacture lessons for every single one of those 180 school days. The one helping hand came from the fact that I had two other identical social studies classes, each consisting of 24 or 25 seventh graders. Those other classes were a breeze compared to that 8th grade.
Even if it weren’t for the fact that I taught them in isolation, as opposed to also having them for core classes, there were the five anarchists, four guys and a girl. The only other instance of five anarchists in the same class, was more than ten years later. No rules, except those which they imposed upon themselves. If they listened to anything I had to say, it would come as a huge surprise to this old cowboy.
On the last day of school, as we were just letting the final minutes trickle down to go-time, I was circling the class and came across the five of them, grouped around one setting, comparing their respective stacks of referrals. On top of the heap was that girl I had mentioned, as being one of the anarchists. She had a ridiculous number of the orange badges of certification necessary for official designation as an anarchist, and yes, they left that symbol behind in every text book or dictionary, or on every ruler or other available recipient they could find.
Political views being on the table, I will mention in passing, that this would have been right around the time that my legal action against Amaka, was being resolved in court. I was trying to prevent her from ever writing the kind of letter she had written to Dominican, to anyone else.
Finally, the reference to the cold, was tempered by the fact that during Christmas break, I could either stay in by the fire, or bundle up and go out with the boys. I also remember that I was starting a unit on Islam with my three social studies classes, so Annie and I had worked one afternoon in the classroom, redoing the bulletin boards. With Annie’s knowledge and guidance, I had the best bulletin boards on the block that first year.
My closing provided that seemingly endless example of optimism that appeared repeatedly on this Christmas box, which is amazing considering that it was written at the conclusion of the break. As I used to say to Paul on the first day back, “When it gets too tough to come back, I’ll hang up my grade book.” And I did.