In the middle of my grade seven year, my family moved from Michigan to Oregon.
Of course, I had to change schools. My old school was a Christian school, but there were no Christian schools in our town in Oregon, so I was enrolled mid-year into a large junior high school that had only grades seven and eight.
I had seen bullying in the movies, but at my new school, I witnessed it firsthand, and it was much worse than is shown in the movies.
I had come to know about the existence of drugs from TV, but had assumed that you could only get them in New York City, and possibly Detroit. At my new school, I saw a kid sell a joint to another kid in the cafeteria.
We had girls at my old school, and I had discovered them. On one occasion, I walked over to a girl's house and gave her a plate of cookies. At my new school, at recess, lots of kids lay around on the grass making out. At my old school, we played games at recess.
At my old school, there weren't any fights. There were fights at my new school in which the combatants really tried to hurt each other.
There was a designated spot on the school grounds where fights occurred. Moments after class ended, news of an impending fight spread through the corridors like pheromones through a hive. And if you hurry, you could make it to the fighting place for the pre-fight ritual, which always ended with, "Let's do this." I'd seen fights on Westerns and cop shows, but the short playground fights were more brutal than the choreographed TV fights. I watched a guy with his eyes swelled shut trying to fight a guy who could still see. It was bad. I also remember a kid named Billy cutting the hair off a yappy kid named Kevin, with a long piece of metal he had sharpened in the metal shop.
There was a gang of four guys who were after me. I was a new boy, and they thought that I needed to be roughed up a bit and given a swirly—head shoved into the flushing toilet. I spent months trying to avoid these guys. I always had to enter the hallways very carefully, and once in, I needed eyes in the back of my head. Eventually, my luck ran out, and I was caught outside my science classroom. I was about to receive my working over when the leader of the gang was slammed up against the locker next to me.
My lab partners from my science class, Bob and Greg, having developed an appreciation of my academic skills to help them pass science, had come to my rescue. They were also big, especially Bob, and Greg possessed a lot of social collateral. With fists clenched and smiles on their faces, they informed my would-be abusers that I was off limits. It worked; I never got that swirly.
Another big difference between my old school and my new school is that we had to take showers after PE. In my old school, we had PE, of course, and I think there was one shower that no one ever used--never even considered using it.
In my new school, PE was, by far, the scariest class. There were a lot of classes taking PE at the same time. I don't remember there being any instruction. None of my PE memories involve a teacher being more than three feet outside their office. And only then to announce, "Everyone takes a shower. If you don't take a shower, you get an F for the day." I didn't know what that was, but I knew it must be bad. I got As and Bs. I didn't get Fs, so I knew what was required of me.
The showers were huge, with many spigots along the walls and on columns in the middle of the room. After you took your shower, you had to walk dripping to a window in the middle locker room, where you could get a towel. That was a long time being naked in front of a lot of other people.
Given the sheer number of students, I figured out that appearing to have taken a shower was just as good as actually taking one, so I tried to figure out how to get my hair wet while still keeping my underpants on. This was too dangerous; if caught, you would be quickly grabbed, pummeled, stripped, and tossed into the shower.
I wasn't going to stick my own head in the toilet, so there was nothing for it but to take a shower.
There are two kinds of middle school boys. Those who have experienced the magic of puberty and those who have not. I was one of the latter. Typical of this group, I was aware only of the former. All the other boys were tall and broad shouldered and hairy and spoke in deep voices. I realize that this was middle school, and I, too, am puzzled about where these guys came from, but these are the ones that populate the locker room of my memory.
I also remember the distance from my locker to the shower being at least 100 yards. The distance I had to traverse, naked, through a throng of naked, strutting man-boys. The key was to be invisible. Walking too fast would draw attention. Walking as if one were naked and horrified of drawing attention would draw attention. I made the long walk through the gauntlet of towel snapping and naked jollity, then I stuck my head in the nearest of a hundred spigots. And prepared for the return journey.
The return journey was more perilous because you had to stop halfway and interact with the boy handing out towels. I was still at the stage where interacting with someone while naked was the stuff of nightmares. The towel boy was the football team's running back who was unable to participate in any sports because his leg was in a cast. His bitterness and frustration came out in his towel distribution.
When I came to the towel window, the injured football player, like any alpha predator, detected my vulnerability. He extended the towel toward me, but as I reached for it, he pulled it quickly back. How many times? Maybe once or twice. In my memory, it was at least thirty, so that I was practically dancing naked in front of a room full of laughing boys.
We had PE every day.
Also that year, Tammy, the neighbour girl, wanted me to kiss her, and my father had a debilitating stroke.
Lesson Learned: Wow, there were so many lessons in those months.
I learned that school is better and safer if the teachers do more than just teach, but step out of their classroom occasionally to offer a zone of safety in the hallways, the playground, and the cafeteria. Even if your supervision is uneventful, your presence can really matter. A lot.
I learned that kids lead a life beyond the classroom, and you have no idea what might be going on in their lives. And that whatever is happening in their lives might, legitimately, be a lot more important than what you are trying to teach them.
I learned that it's hard to adjust to a new school, and I always pay special attention to the new kids and encourage my students to do the same.