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revenge of the grown ups
Telling Tales Out of School
You’re free, unfettered and unchained. Nothing but blue skies ahead …at least for three months, which is ‘till eternity’ in Kid Standard Time.
For the next three glorious months, you’re not required to study, sit still, do homework, do book reports, memorize, read, recite, remember or do anything remotely enlightening. No worries about spelling tests, essays, reading exams, arithmetic quizzes, IQ tests or the Mother Magilla of all tests, the Iowa Basic Skills Test which supposedly predicts whether or not you’re ever going to amount to much of anything. (Thank God those know-it-all Iowa school kids are out for the summer too. They’re the little so and so’s, whose ‘basic skills’ are so good the test was named after them. The truth is rest of us American kids can’t stand those damn Iowa kids with their apparently so superior basic skills.)
Anyway, in summer, a kid be can pretty much be an illiterate bum and grownups aren’t officially supposed to say anything about your apparent lack of ambition. You don’t even have to play with educational toys (which my Mom has developed the god-awful habit of buying for me.) No teacher calls your parents and reports “William is a smart kid, but he’s certainly not working up to his potential. He’s not applying himself.”
A kid can be totally witless and ignorant all summer long and not feel the least built guilty about it. That’s the theory anyway — as espoused by every other sprog I know.
Needless to say, during summer, I did what any other self-respecting Baby Boom kid would do: I really ENJOYED myself.
It follows then that when I saunter into the Sixth Grade classroom on the inevitable first day of the new school year, when it comes to recently acquired knowledge, my mind is a definite and completely clean slate.
Thus, it is “bridge too far” when my Sixth Grade teacher springs a 500 word essay — “What I Learned This Summer” — on us as homework, three months after Fifth Grade is over and on very first day of Sixth Grade, Monday, September 10, 1962.
“It’s due Friday, students.”
“Wha…wha…wha…what!? Uh…uh…uh. What did she say!?”
Now while no new Sixth Grader actually says ‘foul …foul…foul,’ that’s the sentiment, as my skeptical classmates look at each other, dumbfounded. Having to write 500 words about what you learned in the summer just feels wrong. And if this homework business on the first day of the new school year isn’t directly violating the spirit of the Summer Season Learning Free environment, it comes dangerously close to crossing some kind of a line. It ruins your whole summer vibe. Doesn’t allow you to EASE into the new school year. Rather, you’ve run into a wall. “Boom. Get back to school work. Now!”
The way we see it, this is some kind of Revenge of the Grown Ups for any summer fun a kid may have had. It’s the authorities saying “… dammit, you little Sixth Graders, you must have learned SOMETHING over the summer and by God we’re gonna find out what it is. You’re gonna tell us or else!”
But even if I haven’t actively chased ignorance all summer, I’ve managed to catch it anyway, just as sure as you can catch pneumonia by walking around naked outside in the dead of winter.
Note that the world is a different place in September, 1962. Fall is officially only a few days away, but the weather is still hot as ‘all blazes’ outside. The most popular song played on the radio in Atlanta, Georgia is Beechwood 4-5789 by the Marvelettes. John F. Kennedy is President. His wife –Mrs. Kennedy– is the wildly popular First Lady of the United States and in fact, Washington D.C. itself is crawling with Kennedy’s of one kind or another in one kind of government job or another. Hank Aaron plays right-field for the Milwaukee Braves and The Jetsons just premiered on Friday night television. No one has yet developed anything gluten-free. Most importantly, no one has thought about inventing the Internet, the Ford Mustang, the Nehru jacket or the Chick-fil-a sandwich.
Now, by Sixth Grade, despite my perennial efforts to get my mother to examine the public school alternative, I’ve been going to Catholic schools since First Grade. I know from experience, nuns, the main teaching staff at Our Lady of the Pines, can be touchy about a list things, a list which seems to be like kudzu in the South. It grows fast and covers everything.
Items on The List of Things We Nuns Hate are matters they rail about almost daily. Sin, Satan, and ‘…that Jezebel, Elizabeth Taylor’ are all threats to world peace according to the nuns, but also ‘Godless communism’, bad penmanship, non-Catholics, as well as “…those other sexpots Marilyn Monroe — and Angie Dickinson.” (In addition to the primary List of Things We Nuns Hate, they have a very long but unwritten secondary Useful List of Sins they keep in their heads. As near as I can tell almost anything fun is a sin, especially if it involves what the nuns refer to as any non-prayer activity involving ‘two consenting adults’ on their knees!)
(Between Liz Taylor, Marilyn Monroe and Angie Dickinson, the one the nuns hate the most is Angie Dickinson. Even a Fifth Grader, which is what I was last year, knew that Angie was one ‘Hot Mama.’ I figure the nuns hate Angie because of how much they hate sin. But mainly I figure the nuns hate Angie because last year, she has this starring role in a movie called ‘The Sins of Rachel Cade and all of us Fifth Graders were just dying to know what it was that Angie and that guy, Peter Finch were doing on their knees, because they sure as hell weren’t praying.)
Anyway, near the top of The List of Things We Nuns Hate – ranked higher than even Liz Taylor is missed homework assignments —and the kids who miss them. But their biggest pet-peeve is a kid who doesn’t live up to his potential — a kid who didn’t apply himself, although you get the impression from the nuns that outside of the Pope, the only persons in the history of mankind who have really ever amounted to much (i.e. who ever lived up to their potential) were Abraham Lincoln and Albert Einstein, neither of which was even a Catholic. I figure both of them must have done awfully well on that goddamn Iowa Basic Skills Test.
Missed homework is a red-flag, surefire way to trigger a call from a nun to your mom to talk about you not applying yourself and not living up to your potential. Thing is, Baby Boomer mothers could be quite touchy themselves about getting a teacher’s phone call. In the Fifties and Sixties, parents did not easily –or maybe ever — come to their kids’ defense. There was no habeas corpus, no plea bargaining. If a teacher accuses you of practically anything, parents automatically assume that YOU’RE ‘Guilty As Charged’, no matter how outrageous, out of character or even-impossible-for-you-to-do the ‘anything you were accused of’ might be:
“Mrs. Cantrell, I caught William assembling a thermonuclear bomb at his desk. Also, the boy is not applying himself, not living up to his potential.”
“Sister Jean, thank you for calling me. I apologize on behalf of Billy…uh, er I mean William and on behalf of all our family and ancestors. If I’ve told that boy once, I’ve told him a million times about making those thermonuclear devices. Wait till I get my hands on him. I promise you that you won’t have any more problems with William making any more thermonuclear devices ever again. And he’s going to start living up to his potential — even if it kills him!”
After Sister Jean hangs up, probably to harass some other kids’ parents, Mom immediately grounds me — “until such time that I start applying myself…” which potentially is for the rest of my life especially since even when you’re doing great, nuns aren’t nearly as eager to call a mother and say “Bravo for William, he’s really been applying himself lately.”
Then Mom gives me this big lecture about how expensive it is to send me to Catholic school and how the Pope isn’t giving out any coupons or discounts on tuition just because we’re mackerel-eaters. Then she goes on some more reminding me for the billionth time that money doesn’t grow on trees and that “…we’re not the Rockefellers, you know. ”
I hate it when my mother gets one of those calls. I have little leverage in the situation. I also hate getting grounded for another lifetime. (For one transgression or another, I’ve been grounded for so many lives, sometimes I think Mom must get me confused with our cat, Mrs. Callabash.) Mostly though I hate those calls to Mom because I hate hearing about those goddamn Rockefeller’s and those $#@&^%$ kids in Iowa and how well they do so well on the $%^&%%$# standardized tests.
So on the night of Tuesday, September 10, 1962, I sit down at my desk at home, turn on the desk lamp and under the watchful eye of my autographed picture of Angie Dickinson, start applying myself to the evil task of writing about ‘What I Learned This Summer’ assignment. Five hundred words. Due Friday!
And I swear, if I didn’t know better, I think Angie has just winked at me.
TO BE CONTINUED
See Upcoming: No Happy Campers
- Author's Note: for part II, “No Happy Campers,” click here. Images: Book, The Last Day of School by Louise Borden (promo); Photo, Nun teaching African American children by Aleander Alland from the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York (fair use); Movie poster for The Sins of Rachel Cade via IMDb (promo).