Saturday, November 22, 2008

Seventh Grade Memories

For me, seventh grade was a watershed year. Here are a few highlights and lowlights, a brief snapshot in time:

Junior High School was a world away from my Elementary School cocoon where I knew every student and teacher.

It was a tough adjustment to suddenly find myself in a sea of strangers, many of whom seemed dangerous. There was the unaccustomed movement of students from classroom to classroom. The whole arrangement seemed so impractical. It necessitated hauling around books & sweaters & coats (we were not lucky enough to have an indoor mall-type school). It demanded student lockers to store what wasn't needed for the next class. It created great swirling masses of kids scurrying between classes. I thought it quite inefficient & disorderly, compared to the one-classroom/one-teacher elementary school system.

Unlike Elementary School, there were different teachers for every class. I recognized that each teacher had their specialty, some seeming to enjoy their specialty more than others. I liked the teachers that liked what they were teaching. For instance, my English teacher obviously hated both his subject and his subjects (us students). The first day of class, he told us we didn't need to bring our school-issued textbook to class since he didn't intend to teach from it. We spent the rest of the year listening to him recount his travels to Portugal. Interestingly wierd. My favorite teachers that year taught seventh-grade science as a pair. I don't know why it took two of them, maybe because of our large class size, but they were so engaging, it was a pleasure to hear they were actually engaged, and planning on marrying over the summer break.

These were baby boom years, so all the classrooms were very crowded. Unlike Elementary School, I never knew even a small percentage of kids in my Junior High classes. If pressed, I could barely name any of them today. As I said, some students seemed dangerous, but that may be more the perspective of hormones, because the hormones were definitely hitting all of us at different levels of intensity. Phys Ed was where the rubber met the road in the physical maturity dept. Always a scrawny girl, I blitzed through the mandatory group showers, hoping to wrap up in a towel as quickly as possible, lest someone should notice that the boob fairy had not visited me yet. I even developed a convoluted way of getting partially dressed with my towel still wrapped around me. Later that year my mom bought me a glorified elastic band known as a "teen bra" which was a tremendous confidence builder. She also showed me how to shave my legs, so I could wear nylons. woo-hoooo, the whole womanhood thing seemed fascinating!

At the beginning of each school year, the school nurse gave the students a vision test. The kids would sit on benches waiting our turn to go behind a curtain and read the eye chart. All through Elementary School, my eyes were good, at least 20/20 as I recall. But in Seventh Grade, the nurse had so many kids to test, she got sloppy and left the curtain partially open. As I was waiting my turn, I noticed something had happened to my vision ... I could read the eye chart perfectly with my right eye, but hardly at all with my left eye. For some reason, the thought of eyeglasses terrified me (the popular rhinestone catseye style was particularly horrifying), so I took advantage of my waiting time to memorize the eye chart, top to bottom, left to right, right to left, row by row. When my turn came up, I aced the vision test, but who was I really fooling? I later learned that many kids have vision changes associated with puberty. This would finally catch up with me in high school, but by then, glasses were kind of cool, especially the frameless "granny glasses" style.

Junior High was my first experience with lunch time cafeterias. Our school was an older one with an outdoor cafeteria, so it was usually a miserable time, either roastingly hot, freezing cold, or raining. We were herded outside into a fenced off area with long tables. They locked the doors to the school behind us. This must be what prison yard time is like. The cafeteria was also my first experience with "cliques", where I found out that you couldn't just sit & eat at any table of students and expect them to welcome you. Being pretty shy, it was pretty painful. Every lunch time, I couldn't wait until they unlocked the doors back into the school area proper, so I could escape the cafeteria nightmare. Some days I stayed in the school library and didn't eat lunch at all. No wonder I was so scrawny.

For some reason, I ended up with a music class elective. This was a massive screw-up on my part. I thought we'd be studying musical theory, or maybe dissecting the influences of the classical composers, or something. It turned out the class was just a bunch of kids singing or messing around with some ancient and none-too-clean instruments for the entire classtime, while the teacher constantly fiddled with a broken metronome & tried to instill order. After the teacher found out I couldn't sing or play an instrument (actually I could play the accordian, but I would never reveal that in public), I ended up banging some cymbals or tinkling a triangle for the rest of the semester. The teacher never even wondered why I could read music or why I'd sometimes play one-handed piano as a joke (this is the sure sign of an accordian player).

There was one teacher at the school who went nuts or had a psychotic breakdown. I did not have any classes with her, but had heard from other students that she was "a woman on the edge". Here's all I know: I had only just gotten used to the P.A. system (we never had that in Elementary School). At first it was quite jarring to hear music blasted at us over loudspeakers at the end of each class and accompanying us down the corridors between classes. Even more jarring was "Home Room", the first class of the day, where we would have to sit quietly & listen to some school administrator babbling incomprehensibly over the P.A. about upcoming school events (think Rydell High) -- incomprehensible because the P.A. speakers were so scratchy, you could never be sure what exactly was being said. Anyway, the teacher who had a imminent date with the men-in-white came on the P.A. speakers one day in the MIDDLE of one of our classes. That had never happened before; the speakers had never crackled to life in the MIDDLE of a class. We were all treated to a great whooshing sound, then banshee-like wailing, then finally these words I've never forgotten, "I am Casper the friendly ghost. wwwooooohhh", followed by a great THUNK, and then the mike was switched off. WTH? It was all very strange and scary! Later that day, we found out the "woman on the edge" had been taken away in an ambulance to the Psych Ward. I had to ask my parents what all that meant. I guess if you ever find yourself thinking you're Casper the friendly ghost, better just check yourself into a sanitarium right then, so you don't scare the kiddies.

But the defining moment for my Seventh Grade year, indeed for the rest of my life in ways I couldn't possibly fathom at the time, happened on November 22, 1963. If you've read this far, you know exactly what I'm talking about. For me, it happened while I was in Science Class. Once again, the P.A. system crackled to life in the middle of class, so naturally we all thought, WOW, which teacher has gone nuts this time? But it wasn't a teacher talking over the P.A. No, no, no, this time it sounded like someone on break in the Teacher's Lounge had accidentally turned on the P.A. system while they were listening to the radio. It wasn't music, though, but what with the crackly speakers, we couldn't make sense of what was being said. Really, it seemed like a welcome disruption, an excuse to resume the non-stop gossip-fest that students so enjoy, since it was so loud, the teachers couldn't conduct classes until whoever turned it on figured out their mistake.

After a few moments, one of the Science teachers (remember, we had two), yelled at us to STOP TALKING AND LISTEN! The other teacher ran out of the classroom (we assumed he was going to the Teacher's Lounge to rectify the situation because someone was obviously asleep at the switch in there). But we quieted down enough to hear what was being broadcast. That's when we heard that the President had been shot.

Now it's very hard for most 12-year olds to really grasp the true meaning of those words, but I think we all grew up fast in those few moments. We listened as the radio announcer gave details about the motorcade in Dallas. We watched our teacher put on the kind of stoic face that scares kids more than anything. Her face told us that this is serious, that the world has just changed completely.

Then the other science teacher came bursting back into the classroom and nodded his head. They both sat down at their desks and put their heads in their hands. I remember looking around and seeing many other kids doing the same thing. No one said a word for the remainder of the class.

But time did not stand still. Science class ended and off we went to our next classes. My next class was Home Economics, an all-girl class because at that time, boys would never consider learning how to cook or sew or organize a household budget. During the break, the students were all walking around like zombies, straining to hear every scratchy word coming out of the P.A. speakers. Some of the kids who lived nearby left school at that point. That frightened me because I'd heard other kids talking about foreign military assassinations and war. Up to this point in my life, assassination was only a word I'd read in history books.

We had been in the midst of a sewing project in Home Ec, so we all took up positions at our rows of sewing machines, still listening to the P.A. system. We heard that President Kennedy had been shot in the head and that he had been taken to the hospital. We heard that Jackie had been in the car with him, but she was unhurt. Naturally, we began speculating. As we worked our sewing machines, we speculated about being shot in the head. I remember saying I'd never heard of anyone getting shot in the head and surviving. Someone else mentioned the word, vegetable. Oh yeah, like we were all suddenly medical experts!

That's when the radio announcer said it had now been confirmed that President Kennedy was dead and that Lyndon Johnson was being sworn in. Our sewing machines were all stunned into silence. The next few moments are etched into my brain.

There was a very pretty blond girl named Joyce who was at the sewing machine in front of me. I watched her head pitch forward and hit the sewing machine hard. She then slumped to the floor. I and a couple other girls helped her back up to her chair. She was crying so hard, we all started crying just watching her cry. Crying can be contagious!

And that's when the ugliest girl I have ever known, folded her arms across her chest in a defiant way, and said, "I don't care that he died; my family is Republican!" ... Her name was Brenda.

I have recounted that incident many times over the years, and every time the girl in question becomes uglier and uglier. Was she really physically ugly? Or was it her inner ugliness that has made her so ugly in my mind? All I know is that I was so horrified by her statement that she has become the most hideous visage in my memory.

The rest of the day is blur. I do remember watching TV coverage, but no one seemed to be talking about what it all meant. It really did seem like the world had changed. I was no longer an innocent babe, and we as a nation were in mourning over both the tragedy and for what might have been.

That was 45-years ago.

John F. Kennedy was 46-years old when he was killed.

He may not have been a Knight in Shining Armor, but he was a Beacon of Hope the likes of which we had not seen.

He provided a glimpse of what a smart, capable, charismatic president might do, given the chance. I hope some part of his spirit still resides in the WH.

If you're in the mood for some Billy Joel, "We Didn't Start the Fire", click here (5-mins). A fire was lit 11/22/1963. It has sputtered many times since then, but it truly feels like it reignited this year.


Mauigirl said...

This was such a clear, poignant description of your experience of JFK's assassination and the background leading up to it.

I was in fifth grade; we were in the library. I was still in elementary school but we had a "library period" where we went to the school library and got out books. We too had a PA system and had the same experience of hearing the radio announcer talking about it. We went home early that day and I remember watching the TV for hours over that weekend, I guess it was, seeing the crowds file past JFK's coffin as he lay in state.

Utah Savage said...

This is a beautifully written piece that I am rocked back in time. The Kennedy assassination made time stand still for so long for me.

I may "borrow" the YouTube clip. I love the quotations from that piece.

an average patriot said...

Good job Red! you have pretty vivid memories of that. At the time to me it just meant missing leave it to beaver and the three stooges!
Funny but I loved school more and more as I progressed being one who0 "made things happen" By the time we were done I graduated class instigator! My thing was not wanting to graduate knowing that is when the cocoon breaks!

D.K. Raed said...

Maui G:
I have never liked P.A. systems ever since that year. You were even younger, so it must have been even more scary. Just thinking about that horse-driven coffin & the drums pounding out a solemn tattoo takes me right back to the day. I remember my parents talking about Lincoln, as if comparisons to the civil war would be calming.

UT Savage:
Coming from you that is high praise indeed! I guess I was feeling guilty about not posting in so long, so I started writing down a few memories around midnight last night. I edited out so many details because it went on too long ... details you might have appreciated like when we sardined through the cafeteria doors so tightly packed I got an anatomy field lesson from the boy in back of me. Sadly, being so short, this lesson was delivered between my shoulder blades.

I will pop by later. I know I'm way behind in the blog scene. Glad you liked those quotes in the vid. I had to keep pausing to think about them.

D.K. Raed said...

Avg Pat:
Oh I loved school too ... the academic part, not the social scene. I always felt like a fish out of water, trying to fit in with kids I seemed to have nothing in common with. Being extremely shy did not help. Funny thing for me was as soon as I graduated, my shyness flew out the window. The proverbial late bloomer, that's me!

Fran said...

This is the anniversary of his assassination. Such a sad part of history to have this shining light of hope taken out. they robbed the world of a great leader. We can only think of the potential positive things that could have been,
Sadly, there will always be "Brendas" in the world.
Heartless person with blinders on. Too bad she was so jaded at such a young age, so as to split in her mind the tragedy from the party affiliation.
I was only 5 at the time he was assassinated, so I did not really understand what was going on, other than the funeral cortage & seeing john jon saluting, and it being something very serious & important.

Both John & Robert had their beacons of light snuffed out early, but their wisdom does still live on, and it was wonderful for Caroline Kennedy to step forward and support Obama in such a public way. That was a gift & I bet her Dad is proud.

D.K. Raed said...

I often wonder how awful Brenda's life might be. I imagine her as having produced many little evangelicals for the right wingnut cause. Maybe a few of them lost their faith & caused her much disappointment. I bet her head exploded over this last election. And I also bet whoever she married played around on the side with someone a little less judgmental, thus driving her further into snake-handling territory.

5-yrs old would really be too young to understand what was happening at the time. maybe you were lucky that way. I've always defined things in my early life as pre- and post-JFK, that's how bad the loss of innocence was. RFK was something else altogether for me. I felt personally attacked & robbed and could see no goodness in the world for a very long time.

Cart said...

Delightful and evocative prose DK. What really struck me was a similarity of experience, despite different countries, educational cultures and even gender. You do great reflections.

D.K. Raed said...

well better to reflect than genuflect, I guess. Funny that those pre-teen school years would transfer around the globe ... though I'm pretty sure that teen bra obsession is confined to one gender.

Cart said...

"...teen bra obsession" I had nightmares after my first exploration, coming out with a handful of woolly socks. It cured my curiosity for at least a week.

D.K. Raed said...

LOL, Cart! What a weird choice of stuffing! Soft cotton balls or linty kleenex cushioning is more std, at least I believe so.

Border Explorer said...

D.K., what a great read. I was apparently just a year ahead of you in school, so I could relate to so much of this. Fascinating! Thanks so much for writing this for us to read.