Wednesday, June 25, 2008


I went on a little tour of my older daughter's soon-to-be middle school yesterday and was amazed at the technology she and her soon-to-be teachers showed me. While I like to think of myself as being somewhat aware of technology, I had no idea white boards had gone computer, eliminating the marker dust. Don't get me wrong. I knew our schools no longer had students clapping our chalk-caked erasers, but these computerized pens blew me away.

I think one reason I wasn't aware of these innovations is that they are only used in the technology classrooms in elementary school. And when I did a short stint for the county, we used traditional white boards augmented by LCD's, PowerPoints and overheads. That was always plenty for me. I happen to like white boards and different colored markers. But then, I like crayons, too, so that gives you some idea of where I am coming from.

Don't get me wrong. Desktop publishing is a blast, and I'm really enjoying the new MS Word Vista upgrades with its funky 3-d shapes and designs. Microsoft, of course, likes to be the everything to everybody, so they have put elements of programs like Page Maker and Print Shop into this latest version. I still like Print Shop quite a bit, but Word is easier to access and send out as attachments. Print Shop has to be converted.

Speaking of converted (rather contrived transition here), I've got to get myself out of the 80's. I think I made the teacher twitch yesterday when I asked her if kids smoked in the bathroom like students did in our school. A good 13+ years younger than me and apparently accustomed to better schools, she gave me a look like, "Where did YOU come from?" I chuckled and said, "Never mind. I went to middle school a hundred years ago." Still, my daughter had some concern about being shoved and closed in a locker, to which the teacher replied adamantly, "Anyone who even tried that would be out the door!" She didn't mean the locker door, either. Middle school teachers apparently case the hallways apprehending such criminals. That makes me happy, though my daughter still isn't convinced, one more piece of evidence that television can produce unnecessary anxiety. Ever see some of those shows on the Disney Channel?

On our way out, my daughter still nervous about the locker thing, asked me about my middle school experiences. I told her some of the more general ones like learning to use the lockers and finding my way to the locker rooms. "But in my day, middle schoolers had to use showers after gym class." We didn't have P.E. We had gym. Our polyester shorts stunk after gym. This was before I moved to Catholic school. We had to cross the street to use an old armory to play floor hockey. We didn't shower or change either. Then we stunk.

My daughter still wasn't satisfied, though. She wanted to know the dirt about my public middle school, not the Catholic school. She didn't care about our leaning out of the leaky casement windows and clapping the old erasers against the brick exterior, or the coat rooms where we stashed our stuff or the old fashioned desks with hinged tops that look nothing like the funky, wire desks they have in her brand new middle school.

"Well," I said. "In our public middle school, we had kids setting fires in the back of the classroom."


"We had these rolling book cases and these two kids would go back there and set fire to the books."

"Didn't they get thrown out?" She meant the kids, I think, not the books, though those did as well.

"The teacher would throw the kids out of the class, but the kids wouldn't go to the Principal's office. They would come right back in until the Principal hauled them out of the class. They did finally get expelled."

"Why did they do that?" She meant burn books. "That's just stupid."

"Well, they had really bad homes for one thing. One guy's dad was in jail and I guess he didn't have any supervision at home." I can still picture that guy in my head, a blond in too-big, belted, light blue Levis cords, plaid flannel shirt and work boots. I heard later he went to jail which was no surprise. My daughter was appalled which makes sense since most of the students were appalled even at the time. We were, after all, just in sixth grade.

I remember sitting in that class (English class, ironically) and focusing my eyes on the teacher until I smelled smoke. For awhile, I just stared at the front as most of the kids did until one kid raised his hand and said, "Mr. Foley, X is lighting the books on fire." I did peek then and indeed, saw flames. Why the sprinklers didn't go off, I will never know.

I am quite certain the teacher, poor Mr. Foley, has since passed away. He was pretty aged at the time and was later my drivers' ed teacher. He remembered me as one of the "good kids" in his English class and used to pick me up first for driving lessons and let me drive everyone home again. So I got extra time behind the wheel which is good because...well enough on my parking skills. I did pass the driving exam the first time, which was a little too easy come to think of it.

Academically, public school was pretty easy for me except for advanced math. In my sophomore year, I switched from Catholic high school to public high school and it was a zoo, but I could get away with "business math" which was essentially Algebra I and II. I've managed to avoid calculus and trig most of my life which was to my liking because first, I had trouble with math, and second, while in ninth grade and still in Catholic school, I had a really mean and scary sister for Algebra I, the basics for higher mathematics.

Boy, those "calling cards" she had felt like Russian Roulette. She wrote all our names on index cards. She would shuffle them and one by one, call us up to the board to demonstrate one homework problem or another. My hands were always shaking. When I wasn't at the board, I would sit in my seat and keep my head down as she went around the class (never in order, mind you) and checked off homework. I knew she was coming when I heard and saw those black, cracked leather shoes clopping my way over the scratched wooden floors. You didn't want to ever get in her way. She screamed at the class, humiliated kids in front of everyone, and went through examples on the board like we should automatically have known what she was doing.

When we asked questions, she would say, "Well the example is in the book. Just follow the example." Those red examples with no answers in the back...I just stopped asking questions and muddled through. My friends showed me how to do the problems, but basically, I just memorized the patterns. That's how I got through.

By the way, I'm not dissing nuns. We had some really sweet ones as well. But this sister traumatized us all. I got a "D" in math that year and my parents hit the ceiling. When I switched to public school's "business math" I got A's and B's.

These memories come at a time not only when my daughter is entering middle school, but at a time I decided to get a permanent. I haven't had curly hair since my early twenties, but I had perms all through middle and high school, part of the 80's big hair thing. On the way back from my daughter's middle school, I sang along with Tom Petty and fingered my curls. Some things do come around full circle.

Thank God, my daughters' middle school experiences will not be some of those things. While I am sure my kids will have their problems, I suspect arson in the classroom and deathly frightening nuns will not be included. Progress is good, and it looks like the PWC school system is evidence of progress. Big sigh of relief for that and that we still have a whole summer to get used to the idea we all are getting older.

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