Tag Archive: high school


Bricks, Pt. 2

My 3rd grade teacher was named Ms. Austin. Her classroom was really the cafeteria made to look like a classroom with a bunch of chalkboards on wheels. So the cafeteria became a classroom and the assembly hall became the cafeteria. The school building was extremely old, and it simply didn’t have room for all kids in the school system. They had to improvise, and that included a classroom in the cafeteria. It also included hiring more teachers, and probably not being too picky about those teachers’ qualifications. Thus, I got Ms. Austin, and Ms. Austin was a horrible teacher.

She tried, though. She wasn’t like some severe schoolmarm from the ‘50s with horn-rimmed glasses and a tight bun; she was nice. Before the first day of school, she invited the whole class and our parents over to her house so she could meet all our parents and our parents could meet each other. She had birds in her classroom – parakeets, finches, lovebirds and the like, all in pairs with names like Salt & Pepper and Sugar & Spice. She also let us play tons of Carmen Sandiego. We even had a day where we all dressed up as our favorite Carmen Sandiego villain; I was Miles Long. And most of the time she was very cheery.

Most of the time – she also had a dark side. She got one of those glass drinking birds, and she had it on a table in the classroom. A classmate of mine named Tiffany broke it by accident, and when Ms. Austin saw, she got toweringly angry and swore at Tiffany, making her cry. She gave us all journals and had us write in them during class once a week and hand them in; she would read them, respond in some way, and give them back. I remember I wrote on entry to the effect of “I don’t think you like me.” Her response was something like “Maybe if you gave me some reason to like you, I would.” It had a frowny-face next to it.

She also stood me up in front of the class because I hadn’t done my spelling homework for about a month. She said to the class, “Neal is in hot water.” Later, when I had to stay after to clean the classroom, I found a crumpled up piece of paper that two kids had used for hangman. The words to solve read NEAL IS IN HOT WATER.

Then there’s Wid and Harkness Road High School.

HRHS, despite its miniscule size and budget, fancied itself a bastion of opposition amidst a swirling ocean of liberalism. As a school, it served as an alternative for parents who didn’t want their kids educated in the liberal public schools of the Pioneer Valley. It’s kinda ironic looking back on it, but what HRHS basically boils down to is this: “Don’t let your kids get indoctrinated with extreme liberalism! Let US indoctrinate them with extreme conservatism!”

“Indoctrinate” is a strong word, probably too strong for what was going on at HRHS, especially considering that a few of us came out of there even more liberal than before. And luckily for me, a lot of the good stuff HRHS had to teach me stuck (like grammar, vocab and US government) while much of the right-wing extremist garbage just rolled off.

Wid was the organizer and main teacher for HRHS. We all just called him “Wid,” no last name. The only other teachers at the school were Wid’s wife (Izzy) and his best friend (Denny) – a few others drifted in from time to time, as well as seniors being allowed to teach the younger students if they proved capable. Wid had gone to about three different colleges, and graduated from all of them with different degrees. He was a renaissance man, able to teach competently in any subject. While I was there, he completed his doctoral dissertation in civil engineering. Despite everything, he was a very gifted teacher.

So what’s “everything” mean? I hesitate to say this since I really respect Wid, but Wid basically represents what I DON’T want to become, and indeed never could. Politically, he’s freakishly conservative, like “Democrats are all idiots, Muslims are all terrorists, immigrants all are free-loaders” kind of conservatism. He LOVED Rush Limbaugh. He gave one senior English credit for reading a Limbaugh book. He taught a school-wide course called Famous People of History where we learned about 200 historical figures, and Rush was among Aristotle, Benjamin Franklin and King Hammurabi.

He incorporated his own personal beliefs into the curriculum of HRHS, especially his political opinions. He encouraged discussion, but only from his veering, skewed perspective. Opposition was a no-no. The only kinds of discourse he would accept were agreeing with him, or asking questions like “Can you explain more about why Newt Gingrich is an wonderful human being?”

168 bricks 2 03I can relate a little to “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” when it shouts defiantly, “Hey! Teacher! Leave them kids alone!” This is one of the only places where I feel kind of punkish. The heart of punk music is opposition to authority, no matter what that authority happens to be. And a teacher to a student is one of the most obvious places to defy authority. That’s because it’s so easy and so common for authority to be abused in that situation.

Roger Waters has an interesting approach here, though. In “The Happiest Days of Our Lives,” the prelude to “Another Brick 2,” he succinctly explains schoolmasters’ horrible treatment of students, but then goes into the reason behind it. It goes by pretty quickly, but brutality apparently has a trickle-down effect. Schoolmasters are cruel and dominating to their students because their wives are cruel and dominating to them. But even so, Waters is not in a forgiving mood; there’s no redemption for the schoolmaster in the narrative. Waters does his parts with a high-pitched tone that’s both threatening and ridiculous.

“The Happiest Days of Our Lives” and “Another Brick In the Wall Part 2” are really one song; without the track division, it’s hard to say where one ends and the next begins. I never hear “Another Brick 2” on the radio without its prelude, and it gets played a lot. “Another Brick 2” enjoys the distinction of being Pink Floyd’s best known and most commercially successful song, probably due to the absolute monster hook of “We don’t need no education!” While that statement is hugely ironic (your grammar would indicate that you DO need an education), the punk attitude cannot be summed up more simply or beautifully.

Pink’s experiences at school and the cruelty of adults to children provide a lot of bricks, but still more are needed to complete the wall. And what better source for those than Pink’s wife?

Next: love, lust, and the devouring nature of both.

A word of caution: what follows is how I remember things, but not necessarily how they actually happened. An event can happen, but if it doesn’t happen to someone, did it really happen? To a certain extent, the meaning of a thing is assigned to it by the person describing it. So bear in mind that what follows is my version, which is probably different from other people who were there.

The high school I went to (7th-12th) was very small – 15-20 students in the entire school. It was a little private school in Amherst, MA that’s not there anymore, called Harkness Road High School, or HRHS. My older sister went to HRHS, too. I was still in 6th grade, not yet old enough for HRHS, when I first laid eyes on Debbie. HRHS was holding its annual prom-like event (not a dance, but rather a themed dinner). I was there, since families of students were invited. Debbie was one year older than me, and was close to finishing her first year at HRHS. I remember I was struck dumb that first time seeing her.

Debbie was incredibly quiet, passive and introspective. She didn’t talk very much, and probably wasn’t noticed a lot in her family of 8 siblings, her being the youngest. She wasn’t unusually good-looking, but she had a killer smile. It was probably so powerful ‘cause she didn’t use it very much. Seriously, she could level mountains with that smile; she leveled me.

There’s just something about girls like Debbie; a lot more is hidden from view than is shown. Most guys just pass them by, but I’m intrigued by a girl that doesn’t just give her gold away to any passing stranger. For me, though, intrigue lead to attachment which lead to kinda creepy behavior. Being a teenager, everything was a big deal for me, and thus my infatuation with Debbie became all-encompassing, 10 times larger than the vessel that held it.

For her part, Debbie viewed me as an annoyance, an unfortunate bug in her ear she couldn’t get rid of. But as irritating as my unrequited affections were, it’s regrettable that she didn’t respond with more grace, or even more temperance. Because of the people we both were (she wasn’t very direct and I wasn’t able to take a hint), things got messy. Instead of just telling me flat-out that she would never date me, she withdrew further inward, hoping I would just go away. In such close quarters – and in a school of only 20 students, everything is close quarters – I couldn’t; not completely.

Throughout my 7th grade year, Debbie and I pretty much ignored each other, though my feelings were still lightly simmering. But in my 8th grade year, they started boiling over. Everybody knew – granted, “everybody” is relatively few – including Debbie.

If the story had gone on like that, it probably would have been fine. My feelings would have eventually faded (a fire that hot can’t burn for long), and Debbie would have relaxed about me. But around a month into my 8th grade year, Debbie started dating a friend of mine, named Nick. Nick was my “bad” friend, the one friend your parents think is a “bad influence.” He was into some stuff I wasn’t, like gangsta rap and weed and smashing mailboxes. I went over to his house after school sometimes, and we spent the summer after 7th grade working for the same guy, doing random manual labor jobs around his property – if I never see another post-hole digger as long as I live, it will be a-okay with me. I didn’t really understand Nick, though I thought I did. His life was a lot harder than mine had been, and he had a large will to rebel.

But obviously, Nick didn’t value our friendship very much, at least not enough to keep him from saying yes to Debbie’s advances. Debbie might have just started dating Nick, a friend of mine, to get me to leave her alone, but it pained me for more than just the obvious reason. Other than the blatant scorn that I felt, there was that Nick didn’t view women as human beings who had actual thoughts and feelings. Instead, he thought of them as walking sets of tits, objects to be used and discarded. Or at least that’s the big talk he advertised to me, anyway.

So there you have a real-life soap opera-like love triangle, rife with teenage stupidity and groan-inducing melodrama. It seems like a much smaller thing 17 years later, but back in 8th grade, it was the literal destruction of the universe.

So I can totally understand Clapton’s wailing, moaning and sobbing over a woman he loves that just doesn’t love him back. When he sings in “Layla” to the title character, “you got me on my knees,” I get it. ”Layla” and the rest of the album it’s on mean so much to so many people because his pain is our pain. And nobody that album touches hasn’t felt that pain in some form or another.

Sometimes a musician presents his pain so honestly that it’s like watching someone committing suicide. But when you share a little empathy with the musician, it changes. His pain is your pain, so his catharsis becomes your catharsis. Art is therapeutic, but not just for the artist; it works for the spectator as well.

Tomorrow: oh, the damage a simple zipper can do…