4 November Breaking with TraditionHeart and Humanity

School and I Never Got Along

I loved Good Shepherd Kindergarten. I was five and life was full of wonder. There was also a girl to bite in the sandbox. After that, school was all downhill—until I discovered that all education is not created the same. And even though I had to bite a girl to show my love for her the only way I knew how, there were other ways to express love and get an education.

 

When my parents started me in kindergarten at age 5, I was happy as hell. We played a lot, learned new things, listened to music and sang along, took naps. Ate cookies. What could be better?

Answer: biting a girl in the sandbox. Of course, the aftermath wasn’t so great. I got a talking-to, by the teacher and my parents; but all was forgiven, and the rest of the year was uneventful, tooth-wise. Then came real school.

Augh!

Item One: First Day of 1st Grade.

Yep, I was one of those kids who clung to his mother’s leg screaming and wailing. Somehow, I just knew. As it turned out, I was right. Because after I was pried off my mom’s leg and led into class, it only went downhill—for 11.5 years.

Right off the bat, Linda Simms–a girl I never really liked—threw up with such volume that her pink, chunky breakfast vomit covered the entire top of her desk and cascaded onto the floor. The event, and smell, brought on several imitators.

I was close to being one of them.

Thus began my hate-affair with in-school roufers. I have no idea how many times kids heaved in class, or in the halls, or in the cafeteria, or in water fountains, but it was often enough that it has become one of my main overriding memories of elementary and junior high school. Fortunately, by high school, my fellow classmates learned how to hold it until they got to a toilet.

Or close to one.

Still, hurling was not my main gripe with school. There were three main areas that brought me great duress: fights, being in the prison of school on a beautiful day (I was raised in Miami), and teachers. I wasn’t too awfully big on learning, either; but it happened despite my best efforts to daydream about skim-boarding in a rain puddle instead of studying Spanish.

For that torture, I had Mrs. Morales, an ever-testy woman who kept her car keys in her capacious bra. (We joked that she probably kept her house in there, too. Drove home, pulled out the house and the keys, stuffed her car in her bra, and went inside.) She was a pain in my ass and provoked a great deal of the wool-gathering.

The closest she could get to Glenn in Spanish was German: “Air-MAHN.” Or, as we would pronounce it in English: Herman.

Herman. I had to be Herman for two years in junior high. I would have hated her class for that reason alone, but it did inspire crystal clear rhapsodies of enjoying gloriously sunny spring days outside the windows of her cell.

Fights and bullies were a close second, and we had plenty. Bullies in elementary school were mainly the coaches who thought it hilarious when one shitty kid hit a nice kid in the nuts during dodgeball. Seeing that boy lying on the ground crying, gasping for breath—and possibly puking (at least outside on grass)—brought great joy to the dystopic lives of our Phys. Ed. “teachers.” Tormenters would have been a better moniker.

Of course, those shitheads only got worse in junior school. But to that in a moment.

First, there was the issue of bad teachers. At the time, I just thought they were mean or annoying. Later, when I was a young adult, my dad explained, “Your problem was that you were smarter than most of your teachers.”

Not to say all of them were dummies. I had some good ones, for sure.

Mrs. Johnson in 1st Grade was a gem. Mrs. Doughty in 3rd, super nice. Mr. Beuher in 4th, stern but effective (and secretly kind—though most kids didn’t like him because he was the only male scholastic teacher at our school. But he and I got along great.) Then there was Mrs. Lindsey 5th Grade, a terrific teacher. Mrs. I-Forget-Her-Name wasn’t too bad in 2nd.

So that really leaves Mrs. Her-Name-Shall-Not-Be-Mentioned in 6th.

Augh!

To say we didn’t get along is such an understatement, it is a lie; akin to saying we with sensitive noses and a revulsion to puke loved those pink, lumpy puddles in the middle of the hallway. Mrs. R was a witch—at least to me. We hated each other.

This was not hidden, by the way; it was open warfare. She once threw an eraser at me. I threw it back and hit her in the head.

I got sent to The Office and my mother was called in. Mom performed well for our principal, but later she asked me, barely able to hide her smile: “Did you really…?” So, all in all, I think my most triumphant educational moment. I learned to fight power with truth.

Or erase power with an eraser, as it were.

Though I managed to get through elementary school relative unscathed mentally and emotionally, junior high was there to make up for any laxness on the universe’s part. Junior high was hell. Simply, plainly: hell.

The first day of class I got slapped by a bully in front of everyone. The second day someone threw up in a hallway. The third day I learned that we would have to “dress out” for gym class—also in front of everyone (and shower naked, ditto).

The rest of the week was just pretty awful as I met my new “educators”—and that was long before I got to experience “Shop” class and the exigencies of a racist ass whose main skill in life was operating a band saw and belittling hapless teenagers.

That joy was yet to arrive.

Going back a bit, I recently came across all of my elementary school report cards and a few from junior high. The only consistent comments from teachers each grading period—nearly every grading period—was, if you can even imagine (!), I talked too much.

There were the “Glenn needs to apply himself” stuff, of course. But predominantly, every assessment was built around comments like: “Glenn needs to control his conversations during class,” “Glenn needs to keep his thoughts to himself,” and “Glenn needs to stop interrupting class to tell stories.”

You see where this was headed: Here! Right here!

My dad once warned an adult traveler for whom I was a ward on a two-hour flight: “His initials spell GAB. Feel free to tell him to shut up at any time.”

You get the idea. I talked. A. Lot.

All. The. Time.

So, though it would assist me later in life, my “gift of gab” was problematic in elementary school and near disastrous in junior high after I developed a love of, flair for, and inability not to use: sarcasm. More bullies and bigger shit-headed coaches.

Oh, and Mrs. Morales with her enormous brassiere.

But she was just one of many incompetent, angry adults given the task of expanding young, impressionable minds. Junior high school teachers have been singled out as being somewhat lower than used-insurance salesmen when it comes to sagacity and compassion.

I am not here to disagree. Rather, to praise.

Hail all you tyrannical rulers of Horace Mann Junior High classrooms, 1965-1967—three years of soul-crushing, spirit-dashing, intellectually-castrating misery.

I don’t have time here to go into one-hundredth of what happened there, but suffice to say that Hell would have seemed a relief. Satan would have made Mr. Womack look like the Pope in drag—and I’m not even sure what that means. But those teachers and coaches were no doubt serial killers in the making when they saw that ad in the paper for “waterboarders and similar ilk needed to babysit young teenage assholes for three years.”

Oh yeah. We were complicit. But still! We were children.

Sort of.

Thankfully it ended eventually, and on to high school we trod! A year-and-a-half of honors classes, great grades, raging hormones, and relative calm. Only one suicide.

Then I discovered pot.

Everything meaningful, school-wise, went to, well, pot. I dropped out. Went to a “prep-school” (read: buy your diploma, pre-GED days) for a few weeks, then back to “traditional” public school for the rest of 11th grade.

Not for long. By May, I knew I could not handle another year of the endless juvenile atrocities committed daily at North Miami High School. SO I re-enrolled in the same “prep” school, Adelphi.

It was a pseudo-Greek miracle, I tell you. A miracle!

I did all my work in two months while sitting in the sun creating the many skin cancers I now trouble my dermatologist with twice a year, then handed in my work. My “teacher” looked shocked.

He said, “You did the work in the books.” I said, “Yes. Wasn’t I supposed to? It was assigned.”

Turns out: no one had ever done the assigned work in the books ever before. I was the first.

I got all As and went straight to Junior College. (It wasn’t called “Community” college yet.) One semester of that advanced high school bullshit and I was out again. On the road with my band to Boston where we got to play The Boston Tea Party before getting run out of town by the Mob.

Another story for another time.

My education would have ended there but for something called “alternative” schools. First, back at Miami Dade Junior College, the universe repaid an old debt and guided me to Micro-College, a short-lived experimental school-within-the-school where I thrived, among the hippies (and the students, too!).

School was fun again. And I didn’t even have to bite any girls!

Two years after that, I sought out University Without Walls and jumped in with both feet. Again, I did all my work, ran it through my local adjunct professor, Lou Skellings (from Micro-College days), and got my B.A. in a year-and-a-half. The University of record was Shaw University in Raleigh, NC, “the first historically black institution of higher education in the South, and among the oldest in the nation.”

I have still never visited or even seen the campus, but I loved their program, which allowed me to work on my own again. I am eternally indebted to all concerned for being at the forefront of alternative education—UWW being the pre-cyber forerunner to today’s (legitimate) online college degrees.

Which brings me to being 62 years old, in the throes of a shaky marriage, and finally having the intestinal wherewithal to seek my post-graduate degree—almost 40 years after attending my last class.

To be fair, I didn’t really “attend” any classes via UWW, which is the only way I could have made it. So when I set out to find one of “the ten best online university programs,” I was determined to stay away from classrooms. Even “low-residency” programs got tossed out.

I settled on Lindenwood University in Missouri, a no-residency, completely online program offered by a real brick-and-mortar highly-regarded university identical in size to the university at which I was then teaching as an adjunct professor.

It went great—after I had to drop my very first class due to a psychotic professor. (Shades of the past that made me wonder but ended with her.)

Only one problem: I wanted to finish in one year; so I had asked how many hours per week could be expected. I was told 20-to-25. Great! I thought. I could handle teaching two classes and still have time to…

That was: per class. Ooops.

So, while navigating a failing marriage, I taught two classes, kept up 15 acres of mountain property—almost a full-time job in itself—continued my writing career, and spent, yes, 50-to-60 hours per week for the next twelve months, doing the online post-grad degree thing.

School was, for the first time, a life-saver.

During those four quarters, divorce became reality, I broke my back, was hospitalized for with a freakish blood infection, and my dog died. And those were just the “high” points.

But I graduated with a 4.0, won an “Outstanding Alumnus” award, was featured in a fancy brochure for the university, and wrote several short stories, essays, and poems that got published.

All in all: well worth the HELL.

At least that hell was not school-related and in fact, school kept me mostly distracted from the painful vicissitudes of a bad stretch.

It may take a lifetime to appreciate a thorough education, and it may take new and alternative approaches, but options exist out there if you look and are determined. And it is worth looking and doing.

But mainly: all of those horrible years of stifling, traditional schooling and truly horrible teachers—with a few good ones here and there—made me a better teacher. Capped off with remembering how fucking hard higher education is—something I was able to share with my students in myriad ways.

So I finally made peace with learning—which made me a better person. And I never threw up in school, once. My fellow classmates may thank me.

And now, of course, I only nibble those to whom I am attracted.

 

Photo Credit:  TrueManhood.com

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Glenn A. Bruce

Glenn A. Bruce, MFA, was associate fiction editor for The Lindenwood Review. He has published eight novels and two collections of short stories. He wrote Kickboxer, episodes of Walker: Texas Ranger and Baywatch. His stories, poems, and essays have been published internationally. He won About That’s “Down and Dirty” short story contest and was a two-time finalist in the Defenstrationism annual short story contest, and three time judge for Brilliant Flash Fiction’s annual contests. Glenn taught Screenwriting at Appalachian State University for 12.5 years and recently “retired” to focus solely on writing.

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