Cut to the Chase

My daughter is in middle school as I write this, and works as a writer on her school’s daily video news show, which features other middle schoolers reading the announcements on camera.

Her job, as far as I can tell, is to get the announcements and load them into the teleprompter. I’d like to think she gets an opportunity to make an edit pass on them, you know, some actual writing work, but I suspect that between the 20 minutes she has each morning to do her job and my completely unfounded gut-level suspicion that middle school teachers find the idea of an eighth graders editing their words some degree of anathema, that she is more or less a final check and pass through to these words going on the air.

There is one teacher in particular whose announcements she dreads, a teacher nearing retirement whose morning announcements, my daughter says, come from the past. When I ask her what that means, she tries to explain it, but then just says I don’t know dad. She’s just old.

I’m willing to bet that most of you, if you think back through your educational years, likely somewhere in the elementary area, sooner or later you had the teacher-who-should-have-retired-already teacher. And if you do remember such a teacher, I will further speculate (again, I’m just gut-level guessing here) that this teacher plays a pretty large role in your personal cadre of crazy teacher stories, am I right?

I’ve done a lot of revisiting of my grade school years in this season of the show, and I find that the more time I spend remembering and writing down stories, the more frequently one particular teacher crops up. And I remember thinking, back when I was in eighth grade, that she was definitely from a different time. But the way this thought formed for me when I was 14 was to simply wonder why she was a teacher at all, because she certainly did not seem to understand kids, nor even like them.

I don’t know what the retirement age for teachers was back then. I do know that I was only 11 when my Dad retired, so I was inherently suspicious of anyone older than him that was still working.

And by the time I was in eighth grade, I had learned to recognize that there was often a vast generation gap stretching between my Dad and I, and no amount of hand-wringing would ever bridge it. I learned to accept that. Accept that on some issues, there would never be any mutual understanding between my dad and myself never would be. Which may be why, as I think back to eighth grade and the should-have-retired-already teacher that I’m writing about today, it’s not with any anger or discombobulation or fear, but in remembering my acceptance of the situation at the time.

As I wrote a lot of the stories in this season of the show, remembering them brings back the super-intense emotions I felt at the time, sometimes so fiercely that I’m forced to wonder if anyone ever moves on from anything in their lives. But looking back over thirty years to this teacher, I’m noticing how that acceptance I had in eighth grade has turned into odd sense of humor tinted with delightful pangs of disbelief.

It helps, I’m sure, that I’m a parent now, and am married to a teacher, and in many ways I can now see how 30 or more years of working with kids might push a person over the edge. Which is why before I share these stories, which I’m endeavoring to do anonymously, although this teacher passed away some years ago.

I want to make sure that I state up front that while these events were bizarre to me at the time, and even more so now in recollection, that they weren’t really any big deal in the grand scheme of things. Like most children of the 80s, we all got through it more or less unscathed.

OK? Enough disclaimer. Let’s do this.

So I attended a Catholic grade school, and the way it worked in your middle school years was you went to your homeroom and had that teacher all morning for most of your core classes. In the afternoon, we’d change rooms together as a class for other teachers and subjects, which I suppose was one way the school wanted to prepare us for High School.

I want to refer to the teacher I’m thinking of today as “Mrs. O’” since she had an O-apostrophe Irish last name, but I’m struggling not to simply call her Olzy, which is what all the kids called her behind her back. I don’t know where it came from, this nickname, but I guess I assumed it was a combination of that O’ apostrophe and the words Old, and for some reason finished off with a whimsical Z. Olzy.

I only had her for one class in for one year: religion class. And it may be that the odd assignments we completed in her class were entirely due to the equally odd curriculum the diocese of Cleveland or the Catholic church, or whomever, had put together for religious instruction. Which is to say we often read poorly-wrought morality tales aloud from the textbook, and these were then punctuated with inane activities like putting on skits or singing songs — the very kinds of activities that seem to me are directly 100% at odds with a the stance of a shy and insecure middle schooler, which is to say, all middle schoolers, with the exception of early-breakout broadway stars and future serial killers.

I have four stories that I want to share today, four stories that try as I might just didn’t fit in with any of the larger narratives I planned for season one. But they all come together in this episode, at the intersection of middle school, an outdated curriculum written by an out-of-touch organization with a hell of an agenda and delivered by someone about whom, even now, 30 years later and in my memory, frightens me a bit. These stories are the song, the skit, the hero and the job. They are a four-car pileup of dubious intent that I’m all-but-certain would never fly today. But before we dive in, I’ll say just once more and for the record, we got through it all just fine. And with some nutty stories to boot.

The Song

What I remember about the Song assignment was how quickly and electrically my whole body froze up as soon as Olzy explained it. We were put in small groups and told to write a church-type song for Easter. And then sing it. Out loud. To the entire class.

Perhaps picking up on the vacuum of future mortification emanating from her class, it was decided that if we wanted to, our group could go out in the hallway and record the song into a tape recorder and just play it in front of the class. This was pretty edgy technology for the early 80’s by the way.

I was first paired with my friend Joe and MIR and I think one of the many Burkes in our grade. MIR was not MIR’s real name, but rather his initials M I and R. But we called him MIR, because middle school.

Joe was pretty bright kid, and in short order, we had banged out what seemed like a fine song about Easter, a catchy ditty, both short and to the point. So short was the tune that when we walked up to to the teacher’s desk and told her we were ready to record the song in the hallway, she doubted us entirely, and told us to first sing the song for her, right then and there.

OK — so I’m going to sing the song next, and I want you to know I am right now absolutely feeling the very same trepidation I felt when we had to sing it to Olzy that day at her desk, which we tried to do pretty quietly so no one in the class would hear us.

It went like this:

His name is Jesus Christ
He hangs upon the cross
He died for our sins
And now we aren’t lost

Looking back, I think it was that ‘hey’ that did it.

Olzy sat quietly looking at us in that kind of look that very tired people give you when they’re not sure if they’re being put on.

The silence was uncomfortable.

Joe spoke up.

“I know it’s a short song,” he said, “but at the end I was going to yell ‘One More Time,” and we would all sing it again.

The rest of us nodded to back him up. This had indeed been the plan.

The teacher said “Give me that,” and took the paper we had written our opus on and sent us back to the drawing board, so to speak. For some reason, I was removed from the group with Joe and MIR and paired up with Craig, who was a decent enough dude, but also only two of us in a group? Really?

Craig and I ended up rewriting the words to Billy Idol’s Rebel Yell, which was a part of our cultural idiom at the time. I know we rewrote every verse, but to this day, I only remember the refrain, which went: “In the midnight hour…Pray Pray Pray / With a Jesus yell, Pray Pray Pray.”

For some reason, this was was approved to go into the hall and be recorded. And what I remember most about the recording was thathalfway through the first verse, Craig just stopped singing entirely, and I ended up finishing most of the song by myself, with Craig occasionally jumping in on the Pray Pray Pray part.

I think he knew the damage this song was about to do to what tiny shred of middle school dignity either of us had, and basically opted out, looking at me as I thinly sang the words, with an “I’m out. What’re you going do about it? look on his face that I still see in my mind’s eye as clearly as I know all the lyrics of Rebel Yell.


The Skit

This next story convinced me that there are two kinds of people in the world. There are people, like me, who feel giving any assignment to middle schoolers that involves them performing a skit is constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. The other group is probably serial killers.

Because middle school is the absolute pinnacle of self-doubt, insecurity and fear of anything that draws attention to you. But for some reason, the textbook writers throw in “perform a skit”s as part of what they call extended learning. And, for the record, I suspect you’re already getting a sense of where this story is heading and let me just assure you it will end up in a much weirder place than you can possibly conceive of at this moment.

I know we were studying racism and how our religion thought that it was a pretty bad thing. So, you know, way to go Catholic religion textbook writers. And — I’m making a logical guess here, because I can’t recall for sure — we must have studied the Rosa Parks story somewhere in there. Because when Olzy assigned us the task of creating a skit that showed how to standup to racism, my group, which was a mix of boys and girls, which just doubled down on my self-consciousness, we chose to set our skit on a bus.

This seemed like a stroke of genius. We set up a few rows of chairs, two across, and then one chair out front, for the bus driver to sit in. I make no excuses for what followed, but believe me when I say my whole group was on the same page, and that page was “do as little as possible to get through this god-awful assignment.” Making everything just a little bit worse, our group was the first group to go. Hate being first.

I played a passenger on the bus who sat in the middle row. This was a coup, because I had only one line, and it was one that two of my fellow passengers had to say with me. The line was “Yeah!”

So imagine an 8th grade boy wearing our school uniform, which for boys was white golf shirts and blue pants, sitting in the first seat and miming like he was driving the bus. Then he mimed braking the bus and opening the door.

Another student — and I can’t remember if it was a boy or a girl, but if it was a girl, she was definitely playing a man— got on the bus.

“Go to the back of the bus” said the bus driver.
When she got to back of the bus, another passenger said “You are not allowed to sit down.”
Then a third passenger, still not me, said “Hey! Let him have a seat!”
And then me and the two other passengers said “Yeah!”
And scene.

There was a long pause.

Then Olzy took off her glasses and let them hang around her neck with the weird beaded chain she kept attached to them.

“That’s it?” she asked.

We nodded.

“That’s all you had?”

Our bus driver explained, in the event that Olzy wasn’t connecting the dots.

“See, he couldn’t have a seat and then, um, someone said let him have a seat.”

Olzy said. “Yes. But there was so much more you could have done” and in quick succession she fired off these notes, which are still very much etched in my memory:

1. When the bus driver opened the door, he could have made a face like ‘you stink’ or ‘uh, Gawd, you smell bad’
2. And then one of the passengers could say ‘What a dirty Indian’ and another one could say ‘the only good Indian is a dead Indian.’

We hadn’t specified the race of our protagonist, so I remember being surprised that Olzy interprted her/him as a Native American. I was still sitting in my seat on the bus while she said all of this, and in charitable hindsight, I want to say she was probably trying to fault us for just doing the bare minimum, and not really selling it with our performance. But my eighth grade self thought we were in trouble for not being racist enough. And as I sat there, I saw kids in the other groups frantically scribbling revisions on their scripts.

Mercifully, she did not make us re-perform our skit to clear her high bar for the portrayal of racists. But I do remember at least two more groups had also set their skits on buses, and that those minorities really got it bad from the rest of the passengers.

So, you know, once more, good on you, Catholic religion textbook writers of the early 1980s.

Around the Horn

Racist theater aside, the last two stories are really quick, but I think about them a lot because they’re tied together in my mind. Both of these happened during classes where we had to arrange our desks into a big circle, and Olzy sat at one of the desks with us in the circle and would ask us questions that I assume were inspired by the text, and she would go around the circle and make each one of us answer. I didn’t mind this so much, because it gave me time to hear a bunch of kids answers before formulating my own.

One time, she asked us to name a hero of ours. I listened and nodded appreciatively as we went around the room and the boys mentioned current or recently-former Cleveland Browns and Cleveland Indians. I chose Cleveland shortstop Tom Veryzer, who once tossed a ball to me after batting practice at Cleveland Municipal stadium and was thus my go-to choice for personal heroes from then on out.

I can’t remember who the girls said, and I’m legitimately sorry for that. I was more interested in what paragon of Cleveland sports each boy would select. Which is why I remember that when we got to a friend of mine named Mickey, who was one of the last to go, he said “My Dad.”

And then Olzy let the rest of really have it.

“Yes! All of you! Of course it’s your Dad. Or your Mom! They have done everything for you! What have these athletes done for you? Someone tell me. Anyone? They are not your heroes.”

It’s a trap!

Of course! I was the only kid in the class whose Dad was in World War II. I totally should have said him! Instead, like most of the boys except Mickey looked down at our desktops in the hopes that someone had scratched an answer in the desktops, or at least a warning about future gotchas like this. Because we didn’t know that she mean that kind of hero. The kind you just say during Religion class so you can just move on to the next kid.

Around the circle one more time, another day perhaps, another class. This time, we were asked what we wanted to do when we grew up. It seemed like we were always getting asked this during grade school. We even had a career day when you were allowed to dress as your future career, and most of us chose tennis player, not because we liked tennis (I don’t remember ever playing or talking to anyone about tennis), but instead because the “costume” allowed us to wear sneakers and shorts. Some kids even brought rackets to complete the look, but the teachers made them put them in the lockers until it was time to go home.

It seemed that the boys, at least the ones who had gotten burnt on that whole personal hero thing, had learned their lesson. Nobody was offering up “running back” or “shortstop” as future professions. Instead we were all Doctors or Scientists or Businessmen.

One of the first girls to answer this question, I’ll call T, whom I remember as both always kind to me and shorter than me, the latter of which was kind of an accomplishment back then, I remember that she said she wanted to be an Attorney. I remember it because I was just putting together that Attorney and Lawyer were the same thing, and I thought Attorney sounded better, so good on you, T, for choosing it.

“You don’t want to be an Attorney,” Olzy snapped. “There are plenty of attorneys. Everywhere you look there are attorneys. You know who else wanted to be an Attorney? Me! And I’m a teacher.”

There is so much to unpack in this exchange, which may be why I think of it so often. There was the fallen look on T’s face, the inconceivable idea of Olzy being something other than a grouchy teacher. Then the idea that there were apparently lawyers hiding under every nook and cranny. What? Where? Really? My head!

I want to admit that for years and years afterwards, I thought of this exchange as the textbook definition of what it means to crush someone’s dreams. And I thought of it in pure black and white terms. But as I wrote this episode and did some research, I learned from my teacher’s obituary that she had indeed gone on to law school after college, but then World War II broke out, and she served in the Red Cross, met her husband, moved to Cleveland after the war, raised a family and became a teacher. All of which gives me so much more context, now, 30 years after the fact, that I’ve begun to find in the exchange a great sadness on both sides, for T- and for my teacher, who wanted once to be a lawyer, until duty called and life happened.

So, I’m pretty sure I said “Businessman” when it came around to me, which seemed generic and safe enough, the kind of answer you give in religion class so that you can just move on. I can assure you no one else ventured to offer a career in the legal profession after the beat-down T- got.

I often wonder, looking back over 30 years, why these two around-the-circles remain lodged so clearly in my memory.

As an adult, I can see that Olzy may have been a good teacher in her career, maybe even a great one, but we were the class that caught her at the tail end of it, the last year or two before retirement, when she was done with the bullshit. She had no time for empathy, and when she asked us our opinion on things like heroes and careers, she bypassed things like positive reinforcement and related voodoo and instead chose to cut to the chase, her chase, to be sure but a chase none-the-less.

At the time, I grew suspicious of her motives whenever she asked for our opinion of something, saw each around-the-circle as a set-up for her, a jilted lawyer with a penchant for theater, to explain why we were wrong. Which oddly enough describes to a tee how my entire relationship with Catholicism has gone in my life, and I assume was the pretty much the prime directive for the people writing religion textbooks for the Catholic church in the early 1980s, most of which I believe could easily have been titled “Catholocism: Here’s Why You Are Wrong!”

I don’t know what what became of T today, but I have always secretly hoped she became an attorney. I don’t want to look her up and find out, either. I’m not sure I’m up for the truth.

One last note as I close out these middle school stories, and it’s something I’ve noticed in my own kids as they traverse these three years. It’s about the way kids at this age will sometimes repeat things that they’ve heard, just to test ’em out, and see how grown-ups might react. They may, or more likely may not, even agree with or understand what they’re repeating back. The bigger goal seems to be to practice communication in the upcoming grown-up world, to feel like a grown up for an exchange or two.

Because I remember my Dad asking me, around this time, to think about going to Law School and becoming an attorney.

“There are too many attorneys already, Dad” I repeated, feeling very grown up about it. “They’re hiding under every nook and cranny.”

My Dad took this in for a moment, and then said “That might be true,” which honestly shocked me, but he went on “But there’s always room for another good one. No matter what you choose to do, remember that there’s always room for a good one.”

This may be the most supportive thing he ever shared with me, and my eyes are tearing up as I write this at Starbucks, some thirty years later. I repeat this line to my kids often, not because I’m trying it out, but because it feels so completely and wholesomely true to me.

He never mentioned Law School again, and years later, when I switched my major to English and said I wanted to become a writer, he just nodded along and said “We need good writers. Everyone needs good writers. There’s so few of them anymore.”

And I felt the truth of that as well. For the vast distance that often sat between our generations as I grew up, my Dad always showed up at just the right time to share a brief word or two of quiet certainty.

Like the hero always does.