8th Grade Unity

Before I begin, I feel obligated to clarify something:  This is not a story of how cool I was when I was a kid.  Nor is it a story that glorifies or celebrates my shitty behavior (actually, it might celebrate it just a little bit).  No one featured in this story (as with most stories of my youth), adult or child, behaves correctly.

When I was in the eighth grade I threw a spit wad at the clock on the wall of my English class.  I’m not talking about a little tiny spit wad either, I’m talking about two full sheets of 8.5 x 11 College Rule notebook paper.  I’d been chewing on that nasty tasting shit for a good twenty minutes and was just waiting for the teacher (A substitute teacher and a total prick, hence the monster spit wad.) to turn around, or look out the door, or drop his guard in any way.  All I needed was three to five seconds to spit the pasty mass into my hand and form it into something solid enough to throw.  Eventually, of course, he did just that.  I spit the paper into my hand, squeezed out some of the excess saliva, and threw that shit like Nolan Fucking Ryan in the middle of a no-hitter.  It was beautiful.  It hit the clock dead center and exploded like John Holmes all over Annette Haven’s face, covering the entire thing.  All you could see was part of the 3 and a little bit of the 10.

At that point, the classroom pretty much exploded in laughter.  The boys were all cheering, the girls were all pretending to be disgusted, and the sub went fucking nuts.  He was an old man who, even looking back from an adult perspective, had no business working with children.  From all outward appearances, he’d grown up in an Emily Post book and  spent most of his day being disappointed in everyone.  I seem to recall him mentioning that everything had all gone to hell before taking role.  At some point, early in the hour, he told us that we were all spoiled brats who wouldn’t last two seconds back in The Good Old Days.

To this day it amuses me how virtually every story some old fart tells about The Good Old Days centers around how fucking difficult everything was and/or getting his ass kicked all the time.  I got my ass kicked pretty good one time.  It sucked.  Nothing about it makes me recall the experience fondly.  At the time this story takes place I was just beginning to realize that every story about The Good Old Days was a bunch of wistful, romantic bullshit.  So when he brought up The Good Old Days, I rolled my eyes.

He noticed this and flew, literally, into a foamy-mouthed rage, “If I’d rolled my eyes at a teacher back when I was a kid, he’d have given me the back of his hand!  And then he’d have given me one of these!  And a little of this!  And a couple of these!” the whole time gesturing violently with this hands and elbows.

“Were they teachers or boxers?” I asked.

“Shut up, punk!  Shut up!  Shut your GODDAMN MOUTH!”

At this point I was more amused than scared but I did, in fact, shut my goddamn mouth because there was enough foam coming out of the corners of his goddamn mouth that he could have doubled as a fucking espresso machine, and I desperately wanted that to stop.  A few minutes later I hit on the monster spit wad idea.

And the spit wad hits the clock and the guy just goes berserk, “Who did that goddammit?  WHO DID THAT?! WHO THREW THAT?!”

No one said a thing.

“Goddamn punks!  Tell me who threw that or I’ll start knocking heads!”

Darren, a huge-ass stoner, spoke up then, “Dude, if you hit any of us, you’ll totally lose your job.”  Years later I would learn from a mutual friend that Darren’s father was an abusive prick who would frequently beat the shit out of his kids.  I wasn’t at all close to Darren, I don’t know if he ever tried to tell anyone about his father or not, but looking back there were a couple different occasions when Darren spoke up to a teacher, informing him of the legal consequences of harming a child.  Darren might have had to put up with his dad, but he knew exactly who couldn’t touch him.

That brought the sub back to reality a bit.  He continued to yell at us, demanding we tell him who threw the spit wad and calling us names, but the threats stopped.  He did this for another minute or so and then finally calmed down and just silently glared at us until the bell rang, at which point we all took off.

All that took place on a Friday.  As I walked into that same classroom the following Monday afternoon, I saw Mr. Nolte, the school principal, standing next to our regular teacher (whose name I can no longer recall and whom I shall hereafter refer to as Ms. Menopause), and they both looked pissed.  I took my seat and the bell rang a minute or so later at which point the room was silent enough that you could actually hear people breathing.

“Well, I hear you all behaved like criminals on Friday,” said Ms. Menopause.

More silence from the students.

“In the 17 years I”ve been teaching, I”ve never been more embarrassed and ashamed of blah blah blah,” and so began the single most ineffective guilt trip I’ve ever seen a person attempt.  It went on for a good five minutes.  When she got to the “Does anyone have anything to say about what happened on Friday?” part, a couple of the students tried to explain to the two of them exactly how shitty our substitute was, but they weren’t interested in anything we had to say if it didn’t involve the name of the person who’d thrown the monster spit wad at the clock.

At the tender age of 13 I was already a good 6’3″ and 180 pounds and I knew no one would have the balls to identify me in class.  I fully expected to be ratted out sometime between the end of class and the end of the day, but I’d be damned if I was going to turn myself in.  Then Mr. Nolte made an interesting offer.

“If the person who did this comes up here and cleans the clock right now I’ll reduce his punishment by half.”

In retrospect, that was a generous offer.  Unfortunately for Mr. Nolte, it had one crucial flaw: Half a punishment is still 100% worse than none at all.  That, combined with the fact that he was a man who commanded absolutely no respect, meant that I wouldn’t be turning myself in that day.  After a minute or so of no one saying or doing anything, Mr. Nolte amended the offer.

“The offer expires at the end of class.  If the person responsible for this vandalism doesn’t step forward, the punishment will double when he is caught.  And if no one comes forward with the name of the individual who did this, the entire class will spend tomorrow’s class time patrolling the parking lot and baseball field for litter.”

That got one or two people who hated me to shoot me a couple dirty looks.  I pulled my novelization of Return Of The Jedi out of my backpack, sat back in my desk and started to read.  Someone else could give me up but I wasn’t saying a goddamn thing.

With the ringing of the end-of-class bell, came three surprises:  First, and certainly most important to my young mind, Luke and Leia were brother and sister.  I mean, that was just fucking crazy, they practically made out in the first movie.  It did let her off the hook for cheating on him with Han though.  Second, no one had given me up.  And third, Mr. Nolte, having been thwarted by a classroom full of children for what must have been the thousandth time in his professional career, had turned beat-red with anger.  Poor guy.

“Fine!” he said, scraping my dried spit wad off the clock, “Tomorrow afternoon you’ll be picking up things that’ll make this look pleasant!”  And with that, he stormed out the door of the classroom.

The next day we were taken to the parking lot where we had to pick up bottle caps, cigarette butts, gum wrappers, and various other bits of detritus.  Everyone refused to pick up the soiled condom though.  It was hot and it was unpleasant and no one in the class really gave a shit.  Yeah, there were a couple people I wound up owing favors to and a few more who reserved the right to give me shit for the rest of my life, but the fall out I had to endure as a result of my stunt was minimal at worst.  At the end of the day, I’m sure Mr. Nolte and Company felt as though they’d taught us a lesson.  Of course what they’d failed to teach us for the last two days was English but hey, it’s only education.

And actually, we had been taught a lesson that day.  Or I had anyway, and it was a lesson that would stay with me the rest of my life.  Simply put, the lesson learned was that those in charge can’t do a fucking thing when everyone else stands together against them.  Teachers, police, congress, whoever…they’re in charge as long as we say they are.

The sad addendum to that lesson (which I would learn before graduating high school) is that nine times out of ten, you can’t get a room full of people to unite for fucking anything.  I seriously doubt I could get a room full of fat people to agree that chocolate cake is yummy.  Most of them, maybe, but you know there’d be some asshole in the back screaming, “Fuck you, lemon-poppy seed cake rules!” and then someone else would call him a hippie and it’d turn into this whole red state/blue state thing.  Over fucking cake.

What happened the day we stood up to Mr. Nolte and Ms. Menopause wasn’t the result of a big popularity contest, there were people in that room who despised me and fucked with me at every opportunity.  The only thing we had going for us in that room was a well-defined sense of Us and Them.  I don’t know what happens to us as we age.  Somewhere along the road we split off into various factions and tribes and our loyalties and priorities get all whacked and we forget how powerful we are.

Back when we were in the eighth grade it took nothing more than an old man acting like a child to get a room full of kids to stand together.  Makes me miss The Good Old Days.