May 27, 2024

Column: “That Got Me to Thinkin’…?” “Junior High”


“That Got Me To Thinkin’…?” “Junior High” Chapter 63
By Bruce Williams

Bruce Williams

While taking my daughter to ‘Bulldog Day’ at her middle school—a sort of dry run for class schedules, corridor maps and locker combos—I was able to tour her new campus somewhat preoccupied by reflecting on my own junior high school experience (I don’t know exactly when they decided to change it to “middle school”).  The hallways were filled with positive banners emphasizing kindness and inclusivity, masked-but-still-sunshine-faced kids, and staff that was enthusiastic and welcoming—much different from the cutthroat, “Lord of the Flies” petri dish I had grown up in as a Tumwater Firebird.

Back then, our first football practice in 7th grade was prefaced by an unsupervised game that was terrifyingly and homophobically called “Smear the Queer”.  Oddly, in the late ‘70’s this game of tossing the football to one guy while he runs for his life and everyone else tries to kill him (complete with the insensitively pejorative nickname) went uncensored on most playgrounds, and ours was sadly no different.  Before the coaches had even sauntered down to the field with their coaching shorts, whistles and mustaches, Tim Irving had snapped Dave Parish’s leg in two in that very game—sending Dave off in an ambulance and Tim unceremoniously jettisoned off the team…the latter departing with a backward facing middle finger raised high to the heavens much to the chagrin of the furious coaches.

Tim was a bit of a legend in junior high.  Having been held back at that point I believe not once but twice, he was much deeper into puberty than most of the rest of us.  His shirt unbuttoned to mid-chest displaying a menacing tuft of gnarly tangle, Tim would circle the lunchroom on hamburger day, eyeballing some pale, scrawny kid’s lunch tray, insert his oddly large index finger squarely through the middle of their be-gooped* burger and inquire, “You gonna eat that?”  Of course the answer was always either “No” or “Not now” and thus Tim would feast on the conquered carcasses.  His fistfight with Quentin Boatright (real name) on the four square court was also epic, put to a stop by teachers only after he’d broken his fist on Quentin’s cheek.  One final note on Mr. Irving before I move on…it was rumored that he actually drove a car on the last day of 8th grade.  True or not, it made great locker room fodder and added to the ever-increasing Irving lore.

In retrospect, there were endless questionable things going on at that school that I wouldn’t want my own children tangled up in—kids routinely getting “pantsed” on the playground; a gym teacher, both shaggy and bald, who would read confiscated Playboys openly on the crapper—strangely opting for the one doorless stall to execute his grotesqueries; “burns” handed out extrajudicially with the Swiss cheese wooden paddles hanging prominently behind the most sadistic male teachers’ desks; tongue-wrestling, groping contests held behind the eighth grade building for couples experiencing those first pangs of Spring fever; food fights spurred in protest over stewed prunes, propped up disgustingly as an adequate dessert in an Oliver Twistian fashion.

Notable characters abounded.  We had a limping vice principal with the Hollywood-scripted name of Myron Grubb.  Pat Holt would dress up as Ace Frehley every Halloween, complete with platform shoes and face paint.  Mr. Hoover had six wiry black hairs growing crookedly out of the top of his nose that I couldn’t help staring at while handing in papers at his desk—even though he had one of the aforementioned paddles hanging angrily behind his desk.  Someone kept jamming Mr. Greenwood’s lock with a broken-off pencil during lunchtime, only to watch and snicker at his unbridled fury upon returning and finding that his key would no longer work.  Good-natured Clayton Boze—already losing his center-parted hair while wearing impossibly wide-flared denim.

 Relationships would start with the simplistic note, “Will you go with me—Yes, No, or Maybe?”  Now the kids have to deal with their iPhones and social media—with every stupid maneuver recorded for posterity.  What a terrifying prospect.  Navigating all the pimples and pubic hair, the onset of menstruation and the errant boners with someone possibly recording every bit of it.  My kids’ resistance to me posting anything about them on Facebook is similar to how I felt when my own mother would talk openly about me aloud at a party or gathering.  Please…just don’t.  

It’s good to see that the adult awareness of how cruel junior high can be has now been intensified.  The attempts to keep things respectful and appropriate are certainly appreciated by this parent, and my desire of getting them through college with as little trauma as possible seems hopeful.  And I suppose that old Epperson—he of the doorless bathroom stall/porno mag perusing—is in a retirement home somewhere…pinching some poor nursing student’s bottom while flashing that trademarked, yellow-toothed grin of his.

*Goop was a mixture of relish, mayo and mustard that was generously slopped on top of the ½-soybean burgers then served by the school district.  A heavy-set, hair-netted crone with rubber gloves to her elbows would snarl, “Goop or no goop,” as you moved your tray cautiously two steps to the left to receive your allotted splatful.