Friends and Crushes
In the fifth grade, I had several issues with the teachers and the administration. I was also a target for bullies on my bus and in my neighborhood. I became very negative about going to school.
My parents were conscious of my problems and became alarmed that I turned so negative about learning. Though not able to afford private school, they looked around for options and found a combination of scholarships and promises that satisfied the administration at a little private day school in Madison, and I started school there in my sixth grade year.
The bus ride was the first eye-opener. The kids, including the high schooler from Hammonasset School, were very docile, and some were even friendly. The ride seemed long, though. I caught it at the 154 exit and rode it through Clinton, up the connector to Hammonasset School, then up 79 and through the woods to The Country School (TCS).
Once we arrived on the first day, the staff was kind and helpful and the grades were each one small class. There were about 20 of us in the sixth grade, with a few more boys than girls.
My first teacher was Mr Fox. My mother was glad to hear that I would have a male teacher for most of my classes, since I seemed to respond well for them, and least in behavior.
For me it was all about the challenge, and TCS was a challenging environment. The kids were more interested in learning and there was some peer pressure to study. Conformity was not as strong a push at TCS and the teachers were not typical either.
Just looking at the staff told a story. There were a few hippy-style non-conformists, but most were pure teaching geeks, people who chose the profession purposefully, the kind you would meet on the campus of a small college. They were laid back, except for the English teacher. But even he had a dog he brought to school. A dog in class! Things would be different.
Not that it was a perfect place. There was an undercurrent of wealth that ran below the surface and would sometimes spring above. There was talk about skiing or what country club you belonged to, which always left some of us out of the conversation. And once in a while there was a snicker behind a hand about someone being a scholarship case.
Most of that did not dampen my spirits in the early days. I was learning and getting to know the teachers and staff, most of whom we called by their first name in the upper grades. The campus was easy to learn, and we explored it. The kids lived up and down the shoreline, so it was interesting to make friends with kids from different walks of life.
And sixth grade was the first time that I joined an organized sports team, other than a stint in Little League. The coach needed every guy he could corral into the soccer team, and I was an able body. I had never played the game at all, but I learned to dribble and kick properly and received a “most improved player” award from our tiny, private school league.
In seventh grade, I also went out for basketball. Even though I had become good at soccer, my fullback skills worked against me on the court. The only way to put it is that I hurt people. My knees and elbows were more like weapons and my ball handling skills were novice at best. I wasn’t tall enough to get a shot from under the basket, so all I had was my outside shot, which was just okay.
To cushion the blow of not making the team, the coach (who was also our head master and our math teacher) asked me to take on the role of “Manager” for the team. That meant I would keep score, run the time clock, and make sure our equipment made it to the game and back to the equipment room after practice and games. I could see that it was one step lower than warming the bench, but at least I got a great seat for every game. And I got to hang out with my friends, including my buddy Alvin, who was our star player.
In sixth grade my reading began to improve, but very slowly. Reading aloud was painful because I could not keep my place on the page. A very smart teacher asked me to sit across from her and follow the movement of a pencil she was holding. It only took her a few moments to declare that there was a problem with my vision. My eyes did not track smoothly.
An eye doctor confirmed that, though I had good eyesight, I had an astigmatism in my right eye. It explained a few things, like why I couldn’t read quickly and why I couldn’t hit a baseball when batting right-handed. They called that second part cross-dominance. With reading glasses for the books and switching to left when batting the world started seeing things my way.
And I had friends again. There was a boy named Nick, who shared my sarcastic sense of humor and enjoyment of limericks. We played Mad Libs and laughed until our sides ached. And there was a boy name Peter, who played violin and liked funny stories. And then there was Lance, a kid whose home life was as mixed up as mine. Lance became a good friend, and we stayed close into high school, even after we moved to different schools.
And then there were girls. Well, mostly there was one girl. She was gawky and awkward and she always reacted to me like I just escaped from a freak show, but I couldn’t stop thinking about her. But I couldn’t talk to her. When I tried she just rolled her eyes and walked away. She had a close friend named Liz who was easier to approach. She was sometimes mean, sometimes funny, but mostly just odd. One time she had a huge lollipop that she was licking while walking down a hall behind the library. She stopped and asked if I wanted a lick. I said sure, so she licked me. It was somewhere between gross and exciting, but mostly gross.
At the end of sixth grade, my teachers voiced concern that I was still a little slow with reading, even though I had improved after getting glasses. They asked that I read six books over the summer. They allowed me to pick two of the books and they would assign the other four. I had to write a report each week on what I had read. That summer, the world of literature opened up to me.
For my two books, I chose science-fiction. I read Bradbury’s October Country and The Inverted World by Christopher Priest. I don’t recall all the books they chose, but the biggie was Watership Down by Richard Adams. Six hundred pages! Those books took me on amazing adventures all summer and turned me into a great reader.
In 7th grade I was a much better soccer player and learned to love the game. Pele was popular as he played for an American team and I had to learn to scissors kick like my hero. His skills encouraged me to practice my own, at least in August through November.
In 8th grade I was good enough in soccer to be named to the “all-league team”, which was our itty-bitty equivalent to the All Stars. Our team did well during the season, but there was no championship in our league.
Eight grade was very eventful. My little crush had gotten the better of me and I tried sending the girl a gift of a piece of jewelry, a bracelet. I wore an identical bracelet which gave me away as the secret admirer, but she never wore the one I sent her.
One time, they invited the whole class to that girl’s birthday party. [I am purposefully excluding her name here. It’s hard, but I think it is necessary.] I tried to be smooth when talking to her parents so I would make a good impression. I botched it royally. Her parents made a point of asking me about my name. They were wondering if I was Jewish. I proudly said that my family was German and English, not understanding the situation at all. I could sense that their reaction was negative, but I didn’t know why. They were kind, but distant after that.
My mother later explained that their last name would suggest that they were Jewish and that boasting to them about a German heritage probably wouldn’t be a good icebreaker. I was clueless. Not that I ever had a chance of impressing the girl, but that didn’t help.
Also that year, I took an elective class in anthropology. We studied the Anasazi Indians and made a field trip all the way to New Mexico as part of the course. Our teacher, Jim Masker and his wife, took ten boys and three girls across country by train and car on a camping trip. Just think about that for a minute. Thirteen thirteen-year-olds traveling on a train and in two station wagons and staying in tents. Were they brave or foolhardy?
My time at TCS ended too soon. There was talk of a ninth grade year with a very special curriculum involving a lot of hands-on learning like our southwest trip, but they nixed it. Too expensive, they said. I was excited about it and got bummed when it died in committee, but it was for the best. It was time to move on.
Not everything was rosy at TCS. There were snobs among the students and one bad apple teacher who preyed on the junior high boys. The snobs isolated themselves and the nasty teacher got caught and told to resign. Overall, it was an amazing experience that I think I took advantage of it positively for being such a rotten kid.