This year, because of some issues with mold in our town, it looked for a while as though our school would change from being a K to 5 school to a K to 6 school next year. This was disappointing to our current fifth graders. They really wanted to go to the middle school. Elementary school is for little kids. They had their reasons for preferring middle school. First, you don’t have to be quiet in the halls. Second, you don’t have to walk in a line anywhere, except when you graduate. Third, you get really good cookies at lunch. Fourth, you don’t have to have a note to take a different bus. You can just go! In short, they are hungry for freedom…and better cookies.
When it looked as though the K-6 plan might happen, I tried to persuade my class that it wouldn’t be so bad to reign as kings and queens of elementary school for two consecutive years. It would be historic. Unprecedented. They were unimpressed. It did no good when I told them that my elementary school as a kid was K-6, and I liked it. That was last century, after all, and middle school probably hadn’t been invented yet.
It got me thinking back to that sixth grade year. At the start of the year, I was in Ms. Solomon’s class. This was definitely the class to have. She was very cool. She read to us about Howard Carter’s discovery of King Tut’s tomb. Later we did our own excavation in a site she had prepared in a sand box at our school. We found shards of clay pots that we tried to piece together, and we found fragments of stone (probably plaster, but we didn’t know that) with a message in hieroglyphics that we had to decode. I was loving that class. Unfortunately, so were 34 other kids, and that was too many.
The school hired a third sixth grade teacher in October, and that meant some people would have to move to the new teacher’s class. But who would get moved? Now that I’m older and wiser, I know how that decision was made. The principal looked over the list of kids, and at the same time looked over the list of parents. He chose the kids whose parents were least likely to make a fuss, or the parents who were least likely to even notice that their kid was in a new class. As a result, I was put in the new class. My parents were in the former category. Most of the other kids were in the latter category. Let’s just say that we were a motley crew. Though I was under the impression that I was fairly cool, the reality was that I was more nerd than cool kid. I liked school, and I liked weird things like Ancient Egypt, state capitals, memorizing the bones in your body, and current events. Greg with one G liked basketball. Gregg with two Gs liked cars, and Angelo liked wearing the same Snoopy sweatshirt every single day.
Our new teacher was Mr. Gleason, and he was pretty cool, too. He had just graduated from college (the University of Kansas. I was also into memorizing trivial things about people!), and one of his college buddies was now an NFL quarterback for the Chicago Bears (Bobby Douglass–it’s really weird that I remember that). That was cool. Also, he either knew Stan Smith or he just wore Stan Smith tennis shoes. I can’t remember which, but that was pretty cool too.
The problem was, even if your teacher is cool, if you’re not really into school and you never have been, you aren’t really going to just suddenly become a student. Most of my classmates hated school. Andrea Cross and I were the only kids in the aqua level of the SRA program. Actually, Andrea may have been the only one in Aqua, but I was close. The rest of the class was somewhere else in the color spectrum. I’m not trying to brag, here. It just wasn’t that important to Greg, Gregg, and Angelo, or any of the other people whose names I’ve now forgotten.
At some point, probably out of desperation, Mr. Gleason decided that he would try bribing his students to get them to try. He held competitions on Fridays, and he gave out mini Snickers and Milky Ways if you won. I remember spelling bees, multiplication facts races, and map contests. I think Mr. Gleason hoped that with candy as the reward, the less studious might change their attitudes. It backfired.
Andrea and I ate a lot of candy.
I loved that I could get paid in candy for knowing things. I actually became pretty good friends with Greg and Gregg, because I could give them lots of candy at lunch on Fridays. I remember one map contest clearly. This is how it worked. Mr. Gleason would have two people come up to the big pull-down map. He would call out the name of a city, state, or country (continent if it was one of the truly disengaged students). The first person to find the place and put a finger on it would get a candy bar.
On this particular day, Mr. Gleason was running the contest like a tournament. I was doing really well. This was like nerd Olympics. Andrea and I had mined a lot of gold. The finals was really just for pride. We didn’t need more candy. We stood in front of the map, our backs to the class, and Mr. Gleason played TV announcer. “This is the big match-up, the finals of the map challenge. A hush comes over the crowd.” (Actually, that was wishful thinking. The crowd was like 15 boys and 6 girls. By reason of my gender as well as my position in the room, I definitely had the crowd behind me, and they were making noise). “This is it. The moment of truth. Who will be the first to find… Frankfort?”
I knew this one. Frankfort is the capital of Kentucky. But wait. Did he mean that Frankfort or did he mean Frankfurt, Germany? He must have meant Kentucky. That moment of hesitation was costly, though. Andrea may not have considered the European Frankfurt. She raised her arm and her hand reached for Kentucky. Her extended index finger loomed over the star. At that moment, I could see that I was about to lose. I extended my arm as fast as I could. And then, I did a most ungentlemanly thing. In one swift motion, I shoved Andrea’s hand southeast, toward the Carolinas, and stabbed at Kentucky’s capital with my index finger. Amazingly, Mr. Gleason didn’t notice the illegal contact. He awarded me the Snickers, and the crowd went crazy. Well, they probably didn’t, but it seemed like it would have fit the scene considering the announcer bit and the Olympics references. I do remember that Greg-with-one-G was impressed. “Wow, nice box out on that last one. You really wanted that Snickers.”
“Yeah,” I said, “you saw that, huh?” I glanced over at Andrea. It didn’t really seem like she cared that much. Still, it felt kind of cheap to win that way. That last Snickers was going to be hard to swallow. So, I did what I had to do.
I took out the ill-gotten Snickers bar… and handed it to Greg-with-one-G.