SLACKJAW by JIM KNIPFEL
April 19, 2015

Eighth Grade Was a Nightmare

 

Gotta say, I have absolutely no complaints about the education I received in the Green Bay public school system. On the whole I had more than my share of excellent teachers, wonderful, encouraging, even inspirational sorts who pushed me to go outside the bounds of what was in the textbooks. By the time I graduated, I’d been able to take classes in Russian history, calculus, physics, advanced biology, British literature, and large animal husbandry (I didn’t mean to take that last one, but there I was).

            Along with the good teachers, though, there were of course the malevolent fuckers to offer up the proper perspective on things. Angry incompetents, sloppy drunks, and a few who’d given up all hope years before I arrived on the scene, but were still taking it out on the students. There was Mrs. Browning in second grade, and Mrs. Jergens (who bore a striking resemblance to Margaret Hamilton) in fourth, both of whom seemed to take an immediate and intense dislike to me and my way of doing things. Neither one ever missed an opportunity to humiliate me in front of the rest of the class. On a less personal level, there was Mr. Rathnowski, my third grade math teacher, an enormous, loud, balding man who always wore a red golf shirt one size too small, and used the threat of violence to help us grasp long division.

            But things were never so bad as they were in eighth grade. I dunno, maybe it makes sense that nearly every class I took in eighth grade was taught by a miserable human being. Eighth graders on the whole, if you think about it, are the worst little fucking monsters in the world, snotty, awkward, smartassed brutes in the midst of puberty. My god even as an eighth grader I hated eighth graders (including myself), so maybe it only makes sense that the nastiest and cruelest of adults would be damned to teach them, quite possibly as punishment for whatever crimes and dark transgressions they had committed while teaching other, better grades. The really frustrating thing from my perspective was that so few of my fellow eighth graders seemed to recognize just how awful these teachers were, likely because they were too consumed with their own throbbing hormones to notice.

            There was Mr. V in social studies. (For some reason every ethnically Italian teacher I ever had in school insisted on being known simply by an initial.) I can’t for the life of me recall what I studied (let alone learned) in his class. All I remember is that he was a bellowing, high-strung, mean-eyed man with a wispy comb-over that was always getting away from him. He also had a penchant for open vests and made no bones about his deep racism. (One day a group of officials from a Japanese school district visited our school to see how we did things here, and Mr. V kept pulling back the skin on his temples to make slanty eyes and saying “Ah so! Ah so!” whenever they walked past his classroom). The slightest infraction in his class could and would set him off on a shrieking, increasingly incoherent tirade that could last the duration of the period, his face growing a dangerous shade of magenta and the veins in his forehead pulsing. Or if he didn’t quite make it to the next bell, he would throw himself down in his chair, staring at us coldly, arms folded, not saying another word until it was time to leave, thank god. Maybe the frequency of his tantrums (a couple a week at least) helps explain why I can no longer remember exactly what we were studying.

            At Washington Junior High, students were given the choice in eighth grade of either taking a year-long industrial arts track, which involved classes in drafting, woodworking, printing, metalworking, and electricity, or a home ec track, which involved baking a lot of cookies. It was a pretty easy gender split, with most boys (including myself) taking industrial arts, terrifying as that prospect was, simply out of fear they’d be called a big fag otherwise.

            Teaching industrial arts is like its own, special circle of Hell reserved for those guilty of a particularly heinous kind of failure in real life.

            Overseeing the woodworking class was a beet-faced toad named Joe Bronski, who somehow managed to remain upright despite being drunk on his ass eight hours a day, every day, thanks to the fifth of Jim Beam he kept in a back office and hit every time he wasn’t, um, teaching. I’m not just speculating here based on the slurring and the watery red eyes, it was common knowledge throughout the school, not just among students, but among other teachers and administrators as well. Why a man who was perpetually shitfaced would be allowed to handle saws, hammers, and power tools, let alone educate America’s youth in their proper use remains a mystery, but he’d been at it at least twenty years by the time I took his class. Fortunately I had his class early in the day—once you got into later periods I guess things really started getting pretty dangerous.

            Over in metal shop there was Mr. Macauley, an enormous man with a grossly undersized head and a bored, whining voice who was generally known among students as Baby Huey. From the looks of him most of us assumed he was a child molester. There was never any evidence of that, but I wouldn’t have been surprised.

            He was another unapologetically open racist, one of several in our all-white school, which left me feeling bad for our first black student, who arrived that year. Poor kid was a short, soft-spoken, non-athletic fellow with an afro. His name was Mugane, which Mr. Macauley insisted on mispronouncing even after being corrected countless times. What Macauley really was at heart, though, was a cold and mean bastard who obviously didn’t want to be there, hated what he was doing, hated us, and had no qualms about publicly and unceremoniously destroying a project you’d been working on for weeks if he found you’d made a single technical mistake along the way. I didn’t do very well in his class, I think because I was so terrified of doing something wrong and having him stomp on a project that I never really completed anything.

            My real nightmare though, my own personal King of the Monsters that year, was Bob Blitzen, my math teacher, a scrawny, blond, bearded guy with little round glasses. On the surface, and in the eyes of most students, he was a mellow, funny, post-hippie type who played folk guitar. I knew better.

            He was a sadistic son of a bitch who took endless pleasure in loudly mocking my height, my clothes, and whatever I was reading at the time (insisting I couldn’t possibly comprehend it). Worse, though, whenever he knew I was having trouble with whatever we were working on at the time—which was pretty much always, given I was never the math genius I wanted to be—he inevitably called me up to the front of the class and, after making a big show of giving me a chair to stand on because I was too short otherwise, had me work out a problem on the blackboard. I always hated doing that, whatever the class, and always froze up, but this was far worse because I knew what he was doing and what was going to happen the minute he called my name. I would stand there on the chair in silence staring dumbly at the blackboard, not seeing the problem he’d written. Eventually I would pick up the chalk and make some feeble marks. He usually let this drag on for a couple of long minutes before sending me back to my seat, telling the class, “Jim obviously has no idea what he’s doing.”

            This went on day after day, month after month. The back pages of all my notebooks were filled with comic strips that would get me arrested today, in which Blitzen was regularly disemboweled in assorted fanciful ways. By the middle of the year I was puking every day before going into his class. My stomach hurt constantly and I was convinced I was getting an ulcer. Later I learned he had a reputation for singling out one student to utterly destroy in every class. Twenty-five years later he was still at it, taking aim at my niece. Hearing that, the only thing that shocked me was that no one ever had the wherewithal to gun him down.

            So yeah, eighth grade was a period of fucking endless torment filled with fear, existential dread, shrieking and puking. Eighth grade was the first time I seriously began to contemplate suicide. Fuck the regular bullies I had to deal with—they were babes in the woods compared with the teachers. But maybe it wasn’t the teachers’ fault. Lord knows what I would turn into if I had to deal with rotten thirteen-year-olds all day long.

 

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