When I was a little kid and in grade school, before I knew anything, Harrison Elementary School was BAD. Later on, when i knew something, McKinley Middle School was HORRIBLE. Everything was WRONG about those schools. Everybody always says tell kids what’s right and wrong. Don’t tell a kid what’s right and wrong. He already knows all about it.
But that’s where I found myself. It was where I found out you don’t have to be bad because bad things are going on around you. As terrible as it was, there were some first-rate kids who were doing their time there.
The day I got to McKinley, in 6th grade, we had a young vice-principal. We got along great. But the next year he got a principal’s job somewhere else. A newer older man got his job. He was on the crabby grumpy side of things. On top of that, I don’t know why, but he didn’t like me.
With him and me it was better never than late. He personally had something against me. I don’t know what I ever did to him. I’m sure it was nothing. I always showed up on time. I wasn’t a troublemaker, like a lot of the four hundred kids in the school. I didn’t come to blows. I got good grades, rather than not. I didn’t riot whenever I wanted more time in the library.
I didn’t get any detentions, although I did get some once in a while. I mean, everyone’s going to get a detention sometime. You’ve got to do it all, hit the books, go to pep rallies, get detentions.
At an assembly one afternoon I asked Mr. Kakis, the new vice-principal, what would happen if someone brought a gun to school. “Would they get expelled?” I asked. It got dead quiet.
It was the same question I heard at an assembly at Lakewood High School that I went to with my dad and Sadie. My older sister was a freshman there then, before she went to her on my own BW college, living the Life of Riley. Everyone calls her Sandy, except the idiots who call her Sadie Masochist.
My mother named her Sadie because it means princess.
Asking that question got me in a buttload of trouble with Mr. Kakis. You would have thought I was going to use a gun to break kids out of detention. He just didn’t like me that much, even before that. I got called into his office about the question. Why, I don’t know. It’s a free country, unless you’re a kid.
His office was like a waiting room at a police station.
In public schools all the stuff is the same. The rooms all have to have the same desks and cupboards. You walk into a class and there are desks on each side of the room, there’s an aisle, and in front there’s a teaching table. There’s a big white board across the whole front of the room and a Promethean in the middle. A projector shoots pictures on it. It’s all very smart, all computerized, and stuff. There’s a PC on the teacher’s table and they have shelves and bookcases for their things.
The teachers always have something in their offices on their desks or office walls that’s about them. Mr. Kakis had crappy hunting duck decoys on his bookcase and duck posters. He had won a fishing contest twenty years ago and there was a dusty plaque on the wall about it, which was his trophy for hooking the fish. He also won a rib cook-off once and there was a smaller plaque for that, too.
He probably wasn’t married. There weren’t any pictures of any wives or kids or dogs anywhere. He just had his crappy trophies.
“Winning takes talent,” he said. “No almost about it.”
He was a smaller man than most of the teachers, under five-foot-seven for sure, and mostly bald. He wore a little mustache, gray and scraggly. He was probably in his 50s, but I always thought of him as in his 60s. He usually looked worn out used up.
He was missing a finger. The pointer finger on his left hand, the whole finger, was missing. It just had a little bit of a nub left over. I never asked him what happened. He would point his missing finger at me whenever I was in his office, jabbing what wasn’t there at my chest, pointing out my shortcomings.
He was an awkward man. Sometimes he would stumble around for no reason, losing his balance. He always wore a faded dress shirt and dark pants. He kept a jar of lubricant on his desk. His hands were chapped. They were stubby fat hands with blotchy marks on the backs of them.
One day at lunch he pushed a kid, which he wasn’t supposed to do. Teachers weren’t allowed to manhandle us. He tried to roughhouse Billy, who was my friend, against a wall, even though he hadn’t done anything wrong. Someone told Mr. Kakis that Billy had stolen his Chicken McNuggets. They weren’t really nuggets, anyway, just nasty chicken school food, bits and pieces of disgusting something.
The cafeteria gave us milk that was four years old.
“It’s frozen,” they said. “It’s OK because we thawed it out.”
Mr. Kakis stormed into the lunchroom fast for his age, kept his balance, and picked Billy up by his underarms, pinning him against the wall. But Billy was taller and bigger than Mr. Kakis, even though he was only thirteen years old. He shrugged Mr. Kakis off of him and just walked away. He didn’t look back. Never look back. He didn’t even get into any trouble about it because he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Billy the Kid walked out of the lunchroom leaving Kakis the Man behind him in the dust. We all just watched quiet as mice. It was literally power outage dead quiet. There were more than fifty of us watching. Mr. Kakis gave us the stink eye. After he walked out nobody said anything for a minute, but then everybody started talking at once.
He was mostly a mean grouchy man, overall. Nobody knew nobody cared nobody bothered about what his problem was.
At Harrison it seemed, at least, like the teachers cared about you. At McKinley they didn’t even pretend to care. If you wanted to do better and needed help, most of them truly didn’t care. In the 6th grade some of them helped. In 7th grade a few helped a little bit. But in the 8th grade, not so ever. NOT AT ALL!
Eighth grade is the hardest year, too.
“We are willing to help you,” they would say. But they didn’t care. It was how they acted that was the tip-off. If you needed it, they acted like you were a nuisance. They didn’t give it to you.
Mrs. Hack was one of the worst. She more-or-less cared about you in the sense that she sort of wanted you to learn. But she would pile so much stuff on us that it was hard to learn anything.
“You’re going too fast,” we would tell her.
“We have to move on now,” she would say. “We have to get through the units.” She was obsessed with the Civil Revolution, which is what she called the Civil War. She was wacky.
It was toward the middle of the year when she started on it. She wanted to get to it so bad that we rushed through everything else, and then we stayed on it for most of the rest of the year. Whenever we told her she was going too fast and asked her to review something, she wouldn’t do it.
“You should know this because you’re an advanced class,” she said.
“Just because we’re an advanced class doesn’t mean we know it all,” I told her.
But she waved me off. She was a tall skinny ashy-skinned woman with bony hands. She kept her hands balled up in fists.
I wasn’t getting bad grades in her class, but I wasn’t getting good grades, either. I got good grades in most of my classes, but her class was too hard. She expected us to know everything that ever happened to the Yanks and Johnny Reb, even though it all happened a thousand years ago. She even wanted us to memorize how much booze General Grant drank and how many legs and arms General Hood lost.
“I’m having trouble,” I told her. “Can I do something for extra credit to catch up?”
“No,” she said. She didn’t care. Even though I was putting out a max effort and still not getting a good grade, she wouldn’t help me.
Mrs. Hack had no eyebrows and always put on a ton of make-up. She wasn’t old, just older, probably in her 50s. She was married, but nobody knew anything about her family. She had wacko hair, short, and messy. Her clothes were no-style funky and she hunched over a little when she walked because she was so tall. She wore flats and weird dresses with stockings.
She had an accent, like she was English, but she wasn’t even from England.
She taught history in first period. We started school at 8:30 and there were eight periods. My other classes were math, computer, science, health, and consumer studies, which is all about cooking and etiquette. My fifth period was lunch and home base, which wasn’t like a study hall because you could run around and go crazy.
I had a Spanish class, too. There were twenty-five of us in it. Our teacher was a Spanish lady with a Ph.D. Why she had to be so smart to teach us, I don’t know. Her name was Mrs. Puga. She had been to every Spanish country in the world.
“Ola, chicos, how are you all?” was the first thing she said on the first day of school. She told us all about herself and the class and then DROPPED HER BOMB.
“After today and for the rest of the year there will be no English speaking in class,” she said. We all thought it was a joke.
But that was just about the last English we heard in class. None of us had ever taken Spanish before, but for the rest of the year we weren’t allowed to speak English. She would yell at us about it. Everybody hated the no-English rule. Nobody was OK with the all-Spanish la regla. Some kids did all right, probably because they were better learners, but most of us suffered.
Mrs. Puga was short, dark, and blonde. Her hair had sweet highlights. She wore glasses, dressed nicely, but hobbled because she had had her hip replaced, but it still didn’t work like new. When you’re old, operations are useless, like replacing a flat tire with a used tire. Whenever she got mad, she would stare at you, make faces, and her features started twitching. Whenever she was downpressing and her face was twitching, I would lean forward and look at her. I would just stare at her, dead serious.
Sometimes we would stare and stare at each other. She would eventually go on to something else. I would say, watching her walk away, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”
Everyone in class got to pick a Spanish name for themselves. It was like a nickname. I picked Carlito, or Baby Carlos. It’s from a movie about some guys who find a baby in their closet. They’re sitting at the breakfast table and one of the guys picks up the baby’s hand and starts smacking a lady’s butt with it. While he does it, he says, “Not at the table, Baby Carlos.”
Sometimes when Mrs. Puga talked nonsense my friend Noah and I cracked up, but then she would yell at us. She hated us pretty fast, even if we were good most of the time.
She was married and had six kids and more than twenty nieces and nephews. She kept pictures of them in the classroom, some on her desk, and showed us slides of herself on vacation with her family. Everybody always looked happy.
Mrs. Cash, our consumer science teacher, was a nitpicker. She yammered at us for not using the right font on a crumb project that counted for a millionth of our grade. That drove everybody crazy. She was a nut, for sure.
Science was my favorite subject.
Mr. Maxinhimer was our science teacher. He looked like an angry elf. He was short, only a little taller than me, and chunky soup. He was a dead-on little Oompa Loompa. His goatee fell off his face down his neck and over his collar. Noah and I played a game every day of who could touch it the most.
We would sneak away from our desks and try to finger it whenever we could, which was basically whenever he wasn’t looking. When we saw him in the lunchroom, we always tried to walk up behind him and touch his goatee from the back.
The teachers didn’t eat with us, but they had to be in the lunchroom while we ate. We would start talking to Mr. Maxinhimer, touch his goatee, and dart away. It was only Noah and me, at first. But after a while, we got a trend rolling, and everyone started trying to touch his beard. We were the fastest, though. Other kids tried to do what we did, but they just didn’t get it. They didn’t have the right technique, no way.
Mr. Maxinhimer always got mad about it. He threatened to send us to Mr. Kakis’s office. But he never did. We never grabbed or pulled his face hair, anyway, just touched it.
He showed us pictures of his family and their two little girls. He was a solid dresser and dead serious most of the time, too. He would try to tell jokes, but he never was good, always off. He talked loud in a weird, scratchy voice. Sometimes he would sit at his desk and stare off into space.
Mr. Maxinhimer was only thirty years old, but he was already losing his hair. He was sick 24/7, like he had a cold or the flu. His nose always ran, and he sneezed more often than not. We liked him the best of all the teachers.
We got shuffled from class to class at McKinley Middle School. Everybody had to do the same things all day long. We weren’t even allowed to carry bags and backpacks, for some safety reason nobody understood, like it was national security, so we had to trudge from classroom to locker to classroom between every period.
But the worst thing about McKinley was that everything smelled bad most of the time, even though we were a top state-ranked school, with computer labs and all that. Somebody was always spraying Axe in the hallways. It smelled like disinfectant and cheap perfume.
It smelled horrible, no matter what, like you just wanted to get away from the bad tang.