Title: English Class During My Junior Year of High School
Date Occurred: August of 1979 through May of 1980
Date Written: May 23, 2006, With Edits January 30, 2019
Written By: Joel T. Kant
Copyright (c) 2019 by Joel T. Kant
What would be called my freshman year of high school did not physically occur in the high school building because it was too crowded. It was instead an extension of a year at West Junior High School, which was about an hour-long bus trip each way. The next year, my sophomore year, I did go to the actual high school building. The very old and large building although worse for wear from many years of hard use also had a historic grandeur. I was only there one year, because for my junior year of high school, a brand new high school building had been completed.
The new high school kept the name of the former high school. That is, Lincoln High School. The old high school was converted into a junior high school known as East Junior High. Future junior high students such as my younger siblings would not spend so much of their life in a school bus heading out to West Junior High on the other side of the Wisconsin River. East Junior High remained better known as Old Lincoln. Rather than using the full official name of Lincoln High School for the new building, most people called the place New Lincoln.
While a new car has a smell of most people recognize, New Lincoln had a similar new building smell. It had the smell of fresh paint and drywall. The building was modern and pristine. Most of the interior walls were of bright, garish colors.
New Lincoln was a substantial investment for a city the size of Wisconsin Rapids as well as the nearby towns, villages, and farms that fed into the same high school. I lived in the Village of Biron, but the high school I attended was in the city of Wisconsin Rapids. My graduating class was around 600 students, which gives a rough size of the population of the high school. Once New Lincoln was completed, the freshmen class went there rather than staying in a junior high school.
Various adults I met including teachers and parents of other high school children seemed to expect an attitude of gratitude and appreciation for the new building. I tried to say the expected good things about the obviously expensive new building, but I did not really feel gratitude for it. New Lincoln felt to me like a prison. This might seem an odd reaction to a fancy new building, but much of this feeling for me came with what seemed the prevailing educational thought that went into the architectural design. Immediately obvious was the position of windows. Apparently to prevent students from being distracted into starring out the windows, every window in the new building started about six or seven feet from the floor. Because of the height where these windows started, all one could see out of classroom window were clouds, the tops of some trees, and perhaps the tip of the flagpole. I found that very oppressive. While windows were often opened at Old Lincoln to let in fresh air, they never were in New Lincoln because they were sealed while the air came from ducts and was conditioned, filtered, and carefully controlled.
Old Lincoln had a large fresco at the entrance with Greek columns below it. Inside, there was some minor art like murals or statue heads in various places. The interior of New Lincoln seemed devoid of art. It was just brightly monotone-colored smooth walls and a white ceiling. Outside, a pathetic nod to art was a modern sculpture in front of the building. It was of steel. It had a title like Progress or Upward and Onward, but nobody I knew ever used the real name. What I always heard it called was the Headless Giraffe. It was about the same physical size of a giraffe. It looked like a giraffe with four legs and a long neck. Only the head was missing.
The Headless Giraffe, which I found hideously ugly, was to me an excellent symbol for what I disliked about New Lincoln despite the obvious expense of the building.
The class that most represented to me my new life at New Lincoln was English Class during my junior year. The educational theory that went into that seemed to be to lump students of the junior year into one class regardless of their performance level. One female student was reading Tolstoy's War and Peace on her own time just for fun. Others were at that high level of reading. I think I was wading through J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. My three-years-younger brother Tim had read it first and recommended it to me, so it was not that big of a deal to read it. Still, I was clearly having no trouble with reading large books. Another student was reading Albert Speer's massive book about Hitler as his own personal reading.
Yet in the class seemed a few other students that could barely handle the See-Spot-Run types of stories. Some of these sorts bragged about tactics to get by without reading the assigned books. The tactics I heard will not be a surprise. Watching a movie adaptation of the book was very popular. Reading a Classics Illustrated or Classic Comics adaptation to a comic book was mentioned by some students. Of course, what was also popular was Cliff's Notes. A number of students told me that I was wasting my time actually reading books. They claimed I would get a better grade if I read Cliff's Notes and skipped the book. Sadly, I think if the concern is simply for grade, they were correct.
I felt the teacher tried to find a middle road that would work for all of the diverse students. Most of the students at the high reading level seemed bored out of their minds. I certainly was. However, most of these students also had good manners so just quietly endured the fifty minutes of drudgery.
Other students seemed unable to grasp what the teacher was talking about even as simplified and slow as this class went. One of those students sat behind me. Without even windows to stare out other than the ones that showed only clouds and tree top tips, time crawled at an agonizingly slow pace.
Never before class and never after, but only in the middle of the class as the teacher droned on, the student behind me would slyly open a cabinet behind him. He was in the last row where he could reach it from his seat. He would pull out a textbook from the cabinet. Along with the new building came new books, so this was a fresh book. He would open it, then spit into it. He would then slide it back and close the cabinet. He would grin proudly at the students who watched him do this.
It never occurred to me to snitch, despite how much this behavior disgusted and angered me. I was just trying to survive, graduate from Lincoln, leave Wisconsin Rapids and the Village of Biron, and never come back. I felt high school was hell, and I just wanted it over with! I felt being labeled a snitch by other students could lead to physical harm and potentially enough harassment to never graduate. I just quietly watched the ongoing daily destruction by spit of the new books, counting the weeks, days, hours, and minutes to when I would escape from that horrible place of the expensive new building.
Something about the fresh new building of modern minimalist architecture made it seem more like a prison than any other school I had been in.
I felt it would be as much academic suicide to report the book destruction as it would to tell any teacher or administrator about the potheads whom daily went to a hidden nook to smoke marijuana while waiting for the school bus. As far as most students were concerned, the worst thing to be was a snitch. I just kept my mouth shut and pretended not to see behavior that was actually blatantly obvious.
The cigarette smokers hid as well. Curiously, nobody ever asked me to smoke a tobacco cigarette, but the potheads offered marijuana cigarettes. I always refused. I wondered whether the teachers were willfully blind about this kind of activity.
That student behind me in English class did his spitting into books on a daily basis. He must have destroyed many dozens of books. The teacher never caught him, although I know many other students also observed him at it. He would brag about it to all that would listen. Well, other than to the teacher herself, of course.
Another common demonstration of disdain for the new building occurred daily at lunch in the cafeteria. A popular game was to take a pat of butter and stick it on the end of a straw. The straw was then flicked up to the ceiling. Sometimes if it hit the ceiling with the correct orientation, it would stick up there. The fresh new ceiling of the cafeteria soon had many thousands of straws hanging down like that.
It seemed not to occur to any student to ever point out the students who did this, even though most who did made a big production out of doing it.
That prevailing attitude of having to just watch vandalism with too much fear of the consequences to ever tell a teacher or administrator added as much to the prison-like feel of the place as the high windows that showed only clouds.
The song by Pink Floyd with the line "I donít need no education" captured very well what high school felt like to me at New Lincoln. However, I also could not help cringing at the double negative in that same line of the song, which in a strictly logical sense would mean that the person does need an education. The hall passes, hourly bells, the lockers, the regimentation, and so on made that song seem to touch something fundamentally wrong with the place. It felt like being in prison with the only crime leading to be convicted to this horrible place was being of high school age.
One day, I had a note from my mother to go to the dentist. I could walk there. A block from the high school as I walked to the dentist, I was almost overcome with dizzy exhilaration to be temporarily away from that school environment, even though an excused absence. It was such a release to be away from that place, even for a few hours.
One day in my English class, the teacher instructed us to keep a journal. She claimed that there were no restrictions whatsoever what was written in it as long as it was our own work. What mattered for the grade was a set number of pages got covered with handwritten text.
My journal did not survive. I would not want it if it had. What I wrote was deliberately banal and harmless, but met the page count. I felt the teacher had a scheme to get students to reveal inner thoughts. Afraid of the consequences despite the teacher's often repeated assurances that we could write anything we wanted as long as it was not copied, I put up an emotional wall and revealed nothing of any importance whatsoever. What words I wrote merely marked space in the page of that journal like my whole existance in New Lincoln merely marked minutes of the dull, soul-crushing days going by.
The spitter who sat behind me had a different attitude. He showed me what he wrote. He wrote a porn adventure! One story had a plot that started with him going over to his girlfriend's house. He made out with her, when her older sister showed up. The older sister then joined in to have a threesome! Then, the girls' mother showed up. Rather than getting upset, she eagerly disrobed to also participate! There was dialog in the story, amply laced with four-letter words.
In my opinion, his writing was entertaining! I wondered what would happen when the journals were turned in and this got read by the teacher.
When we got the graded journals back, my meaningless, harmless drivel merely had a check mark by it. There were no comments at all. I had fulfilled the requirement of filling a certain number of pages with words, and that was the end of it.
The man behind me had a comment on his journal. It read something like, "This is not exactly what I had in mind."
Despite that comment, he had inarguably filled the required number of pages with words, so next to the comment, he had a check mark as well. He got away with it. He seemed to hate being in that class less after that, and stopped spitting in the new books in the cabinents during each class.
We had certain books to read for the class. I think Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter was one of them. The book itself was reasonably engaging, but the analysis done for the class made it dry and dull in my opinion. Nothing can ruin an excellent book like overanalyzing it for English class. The teacher rattled off comments listing the protagonists and antagonist, the setting, the main type of conflict, what occurred at the climax, the resolution, and so forth.
We were then told we had to do an oral book report. As with the journals where we were told we had complete freedom in what to write, this time we were told we could pick any book that we liked for the report. However, for our oral report, our freedome was taken away. We had to give it in a very rigid, stylized format similar to what had the teacher had done for The Scarlet Letter. A list of specific questions that we had to answer was given to us.
I was not first in giving my oral reports, which extended over several days. While the better students had obviously read their books, sometimes thick tomes that served to show how intellingent they were, it seemed to me that quite a few others were reporting on what was in the movie, comic books, or skimmed out of Cliff's Notes. I saw many of the students going through Cliff's Notes or comics books in study hall and library. Other than those who were clearly the strong students in that class, to actually read a novel seemed treated as a task only for fools.
With the rigid format of the questions to be answered, it seemed to me that an acceptable performance was easy to give whether one read the book or not. I felt if I were given a copy of Cliff's Notes or a Classic Illustrated comic book, and perhaps a mere ten minutes to prepare, I could pull off the simple requirements for practically any book. I felt all of the strong students could do the same, which is why they seemed to be going out of their way with presenting massive book books like War and Peace. Perhaps presenting one of Tolkien's books would put me in that group of highbrows, but maybe I should read something larger and more impressive.
It particularly irked me because in previous English classes with the requirements of more substantial reports, it was trivial to tell the when somebody reported on the movie or comic book rather than the book itself. All of the movies that I know about change substantially change the characters and plots. All comic books based on classic novels outrageously abridge the story to make it fit in a few drawn pages. The rigid, specific requirements here were so minimal that I felt using the movie or comic book instead would be more than enough to pass muster. My assumption was this was done by deliberate design of the teacher.
As I fumed watching the performances, I decided to test how well the teacher adhered to her own rules about allowing us selection of any book whatsoever. At the time, mainly as a form of escape for my rotten life at New Lincoln, I was reading a couple large science fiction novels every week of all the typical authors like Arthur C. Clarke, Ray Bradbury, Robert Heinlein, Lester del Rey, Andre Norton, and so on, as well as J.R.R. Tolkien. Therefore, I had no shortage of novels that I had truly read to choose from. Instead, I decided it was more important to make a point to this class and to this teacher that I liked so little.
When I got up, I announced, "The title of the book I am reporting on is Green Eggs and Ham. The author is Dr. Seuss."
Although never before was I in the role of class clown, that got nervous laughter. Some had done fairly small, paperback books with fairly large fonts more suitable for what are now called tween readers, but this was outrageous to do so blatantly a little kid book!
I continued, "The protagonist is given in first person, with no name ever given. Based on the drawings rather than the word description, he looks like a bipedal dog in a tall hat. The antagonist is named Sam-I-Am. Secondary characters include a mouse, a fox, and a goat."
I got to the point where I stated in a careful, deliberate monotone to emphasis how useless and boring I found this entire exercise, "The setting includes a house, a box, a car, a tree, a train, and a boat."
The class roared with laughter. I told of the central conflict being Sam-I-Am trying to get the unnamed "I" to eat green eggs and ham. When I told how the climax had the character finally did this, I had to speak loudly to be heard over the laughter. I noticed even the teacher was chuckling, so I knew I was going to get away with this. After all, I had disobeyed no rules at all. I felt she fully understood the real point I was making with this choice of an easy children's book.
For Christmas of 1979, I decided to bring my parents and siblings to a movie with money that I had earned from my newspaper route. The movie was Star Trek: The Motion Picture. I assume it was titled that way to emphasize that it was not just some television episodes. The movie was neither a great success nor a great failure, but the special effects were terrific for that era. I had been the very anxious to see it, although my brother Tim also seemed eager. Back in grade school, my friends and I played Star Trek games the way other kids played cops-and-robbers or cowboys-and-indians. I still owned my Captain Kirk action figure and a fourteen inch long model of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise. My brother Tim had a different plastic model of the interior of the bridge set, with figures like Kirk, Spock, and McCoy each about an inch high.
The next semester, which was now in the year 1980, as the end of the semester got closer, it became time in the English class to do another oral book report. The method was to be the same, listing off a bunch of answers to the supplied list of required questions. The questions were the same as last time.
Since I had never before been the class clown until I gave the last oral report, I discovered a negative side to that atttention. People wanted a similar or better performance the next time. Students who were not even in my English class asked what I was going to do my book report on. I had no answer because I had not decided yet. Doing a report on an actual book that I had just read, which I think was perhaps Arthur C. Clarke's Childhood's End simply wasn't going to do it! People expected more from me now!
One day when in the public library, I looked over the science fiction books when I found the perfect solution!
I raided my toy box as well as that of my younger brother Tim. I came to English class with a large paper grocery bag. I kept it a secret what was in it.
When it came my turn to give my oral report, I brought the bag up to the front with me.
I announced, "The title of the book I am reporting on is Star Trek: The Motion Picture."
I put deliberate emphasis on the words Motion Picture. I reached in the bag, and pulled out the book itself and showed it around while pointing at the title. All could see that "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" was not just a movie, but the actual title of this novelization. I explained, "Despite the title, as you can see, this is a book with paper pages. It is the novel based of the movie. The author is Gene Roddenberry."
Laughter showed some got the point that while I felt some students were watching a movie and then only pretending they had read the book.
I said, "Most of the time, the setting is aboard the starship called the U.S.S. Enterprise."
I reached in the bag and pulled out a model of the Enterprise about fourteen inches long. I had had it since grade school. The model was changed from the television show for the movie, but I did not have the movie model. It did not matter as the class howled with laughter. Using props with the oral book report seemed not to have occurred to anybody before I did it.
I mentioned some of the other settings in the novel. I pointedly stressing one that was from the beginning of the novel and not in the movie. I worked that in to make it abundantly clear that I truly had read the book. I was not just giving a report based on watching the movie, evne though a novel with the words Motion Picture in its very title.
When it came to the protagonists, I pulled out a six-inch-high Captain Kirk action figure. By then, anybody in the hallway outside the room would likely wonder what all the loud laughing inside the room was about. This had gotten more like a comedy club than a classroom.
For Mr. Spock, I had a figure only about an inch high that belonged to Tim. Everybody knew who Mr. Spock was, so it did not seem to matter the figure was too small for any but those in the front seats to see his raised eyebrows and pointed ears.
Being at New Lincoln did not seem quite so bad after that second oral presentation I gave in this English class.
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