I don’t carry a handgun because, ironically, I care so much about people that I worry I would go into vigilante mode and start shooting at perpetrators of the cruel stupidity I see around me. I was born with a strong desire to shoot from the hip to correct bad situations I’ve found myself in. I’ve often wondered if I have some kind of birth defect because, instead of popularity, social justice is what I’ve always focused my sights on. Caring more about the rights of every person instead of my own reputation simply makes sense to me, because if everyone did that it would help the world operate more efficiently and feel more inviting to everyone. I’m a pretty straight shooter when it comes to addressing disturbing truths I see around me. Many people don’t seem to appreciate this characteristic. For this reason, I’m thankful that the public school teachers I encountered when I was young weren’t packing heat.
One day in second grade, while I was sitting at my little desk drinking a carton of sour milk, I had an epiphany. I realized that, technically, all that my second grade teacher needed to be able to teach me, was to have completed a second grade education. And that I would never have the opportunity to know if she knew anything beyond the second grade level. I pointed this out to all of my classmates and they were all indifferent or puzzled by my discovery. I supplemented my education at that time by reading Reader’s Digest and Newsweek at home and watching The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Saturday Night Live. So, ever since my realization in second grade, I didn’t view my teachers as superiors, but as peers, because I felt I was capable of eventually attaining the same amount of knowledge they had through various resources. Teachers either loved or hated my attitude about their role in my life. I didn’t feel inferior to my teachers, but I did give them my respect. Teachers had to earn my disrespect, and unfortunately, many of mine eventually did when I saw them treating someone else poorly.
My sixth grade homeroom teacher quickly earned my disrespect because throughout the day she would write students’ names on the chalkboard if she decided they were misbehaving. At the end of the day, right before being dismissed, those students had to line up in front of her and kiss her on the cheek as a punishment. I pointed out to my classmates how horribly inappropriate that punishment was. I told them they had the right to refuse to kiss her. They responded as if I was crazy. One day my name ended up on the chalkboard. I obediently got in line with the other students who were listed on the board. When it was my turn to approach her, I said, “Gross.” And I turned and walked away because I refused to play her game—which was clearly violating students’ bodies and self-respect. My name never showed up on her chalkboard again.
In junior high I grew tired of the way my ancient phy. ed. teacher was ridiculing the girls, so one day when he was turned away from me on the side of the volleyball court, I impulsively served the ball into his back. He turned to see who did it and I said, “Oops?” I’m a horrible actress when I’m angry about someone’s behavior. He suspected my intent and had me in his sights for the rest of the year. I got hit in the back with a ball once in his class and I suspected it was my teacher who threw it at me—I called it even, except for the harassing girls thing.
In one of my high school math classes, one day I was turned around talking to the boy seated in the desk behind me while we waited for the teacher to arrive. I was seated by the doorway in the front row. When the teacher walked in he said to me, “Turn around and shut up!” And then he took a cardboard poster tube he was carrying and cracked me on the back of my head with it. He swung the tube as if it was a baseball bat—and my skull was the baseball. It felt like a bat because cardboard was often made of solid, high quality material in the 1980s. I heard a collective, “Whoa!” from the students who were sitting around me. I was stunned because it was completely unprovoked. I was a model student in his class because I loved math and didn’t want to miss learning anything. My head hurt for days after that. It was clear during class that he was angry about something and he didn’t have the self-restraint to keep from taking out his aggression on an easy target—me—with the weapon that he happened to be carrying. I’m still stunned today that I didn’t immediately confront him and start a campaign to fire him. I probably had a concussion and was off my game.
There was a high school social studies teacher that I frequently found myself at odds with because we often had opposing viewpoints. I loved studying social matters and enjoyed generating conversation about various issues. My teacher would often turn bright red and look like he was about to explode when I would contribute my thoughts. When I realized how he was reacting to me I sat in the back of his class whenever I could so that he couldn’t hit me or throw something at me, while I continued adding to the conversation.
My chemistry teacher also had a tendency to display his hypertension when I was in his classroom. It wasn’t because I was trying to create a stimulating conversation; I had nothing to contribute because I knew nothing about chemistry and I was there to learn. I also loved chemistry and desired to absorb as much information as possible. I sat at a lab table in front of the chalkboard where he lectured. It was an assigned seat next to the funniest boy in my class. I’ve always laughed easily and the boy knew I was a great audience. Having the same last initial, we were next to each other alphabetically throughout high school. He helped me survive high school by giving me a reason to laugh almost daily.
The chemistry teacher spoke in a really nasal, monotone way, so my friend felt it was necessary to liven things up a bit. He would do extreme facial expressions in reaction to things that were said by the teacher when he was turned away from us; he would draw funny doodles on his notebook; he would let his fingers “go for a walk” when they got bored, always ending up in front of me doing something strange … and I couldn’t help but giggle silently at every single thing he did. When the teacher would turn toward us, the class clown could instantly put on his straight, innocent face, but I would be left sitting there, trying to swallow my broad smile that I just couldn’t make go away. After catching me like this a couple times, the teacher started shooting me a dirty look every time he looked my direction, whether I was humored by something or not. He seemed like a very unhappy and volatile person and I knew I shouldn’t upset him, so I did my best to contain my amusement about my alphabetical friend’s antics.
One day, the teacher was talking about gold. He referred to it as, “A-u”. Every time he was turned away from us and said, “A-u”, my friend would mouth it along with him and point at me dramatically as if he were saying, “Hey, YOU!” He did this several times. Finally, an audible laugh shot out of my mouth because my friend was just so wonderfully weird. I quickly put my hand on my mouth with the hope that I could erase the previous sound with it.
No such luck. The teacher turned from the chalkboard, and was the brightest red I had ever seen human skin turn. I thought he might be having an aneurism. He turned to me and screamed, “Julie! Quit laughing at me!”
I was shocked and politely said, “I’m really sorry I laughed, but I wasn’t laughing at you.”
He shouted, “Quit lying to me! Stand up and tell us all, what is so funny about me?!”
I stood up. I said, “Alright.” Everyone’s eyes were fixed on me. I was on friendly terms with everyone in the class and they seemed to be sending me their silent appreciation for the break from the monotony. I said, “I’m not laughing at you.” I pointed at my friend. “It’s just that he’s the funniest person in our whole class and just being around him makes me giggle, so I think it might be helpful if I move my seat to the back of the room where I can’t see him.” Purple started mixing in with the red on the teacher’s face. I stared at him and thought we might get lucky and see an example of human spontaneous combustion.
He screamed (in an unusually high pitched voice for an extremely large, overweight man), “You are a liar! I will not allow you to make fun of me or blame him for your rude behavior.”
I was still standing. “I’m sorry, but I’m not laughing at you—”
He cut me off. “Don’t talk back to me!”
I turned to my friend, whose back was facing the teacher. “Maybe he could help me explain …” My friend looked up at me innocently and mouthed, “Hey, YOU.” I lost all control and stood there laughing out loud at the ridiculous nature of my situation. The whole class started laughing with me. I knew they liked me better than the teacher, and after spending up to eleven years with me, they knew what kind of person I was—a kind one, with a severe laughing disorder. They knew that I wasn’t laughing at the teacher, even if they might have been.
The chemistry teacher went ballistic. He sounded like a piglet that got slammed in a door as he launched what seemed like a lifetime of pent-up insecurity in my direction: “I will not allow someone like you to disrupt my classroom OR make fun of me!” I saw blue appearing on his purple red face.
“But I wasn’t—”
The teacher cut me off. “Julie, shut up!”
I shut up. I looked down at my friend and telepathically asked him what to do. He quietly turned up his palms and mouthed, “Sorry”. I looked back at the teacher to see what was coming next.
He yelled, “Julie, go to the back of the room—now!”
I bent over and picked up my chemistry book and notebook. My friend reached down and touched my calf and looked at me as if to tell me he was sorry. I smiled down at him and mouthed, “It’s okay.” I could never hold a grudge against him; he gave me a reason to wake up and go to school every day. As I headed to one of the empty seats in the back row, I turned to the teacher and said, “Thank you so much for understanding my—”.
He cut me off again. “Shut up and don’t ever talk in my classroom again. You’re not allowed to sit among the civilized people in this classroom. Go to the lab station in the corner. That’s where dunces like you have to sit.”
Dunce? Did he just call me a dunce? Never in a million years would I have guessed that someone with my intellect would be called an old-fashioned term reserved for the misbehaved dummies on The Little Rascals! I looked toward the front of the room and caught my funny friend’s eye. He was doing his best to keep from laughing out loud. His body was shaking after hearing the teacher call me a dunce. I could tell that some of my classmates were horrified that I was called that. They all called me the smartest person in our class. I smiled broadly at my friend and my other classmates who recognized how bizarre the situation was becoming. As I headed to the corner lab station I actually felt thankful that I got to sit in the way back of the room—it was a fantasy come true for a girl whose last name started with the letter B! I was already identifying the good that could come from that strange situation.
But then, as I sat down and faced the front of the room so I could learn about chemistry, the teacher shouted, “Julie, turn around and face the wall so I don’t have to see your ugly dunce face.”
Being called ugly by an adult hurt, but hearing him call me dunce again made me realize that he was not that smart and had some serious issues he was working out on me. After being called ugly by a really unattractive person, I knew that I had ammunition to use against him if he dared to try sending me to the principal’s office. I had witnesses who would back me up. I decided there were no holds barred in whatever kind of fight he was engaging me in.
The teacher turned back to the chalkboard and resumed teaching about gold. Knowing that my friend would be looking at me to get my attention—in the event that I dared look toward the front of the classroom—I quietly tore a sheet of paper out of my notebook and scribbled vertically in bold letters: D-U-N-C-E. I shaped the paper into a cone and held it on top of my head from the front, so that as I faced the wall, the word “dunce” would be visible to anyone who looked my direction and saw my new cap. I heard the teacher talking and scribbling at the chalkboard for a few minutes. Suddenly, I heard my friend laugh out loud. Mission accomplished—he saw my new cap. I heard the teacher briefly stop writing and talking. I continued facing the wall because I didn’t want to see what color had been added to his face. I waited to hear him tell my friend that he was a dunce, too, and that he had to join me in the back of the room. He didn’t though; he kept teaching. But, soon I heard other classmates snickering and snorting. They must have been turning around to see my dunce hat. I heard the teacher throw his chalk on the floor. He screamed that he was leaving. I heard the classroom door slam. So, I turned around and my classmates let out a collective cheer. A bunch of them came to the back of the room and thanked me for getting rid of the insecure man and we all fantasized about what our new chemistry teacher would be like. The bell rang and we headed to our lockers. I body checked my friend on our way down the hall and we called it even.
The next day, unfortunately, the chemistry teacher was back and I was once again sent to the dunce’s station. I’m a visual learner so the hope of learning anything about chemistry flew out the window once I had to sit with my back facing the chalkboard. My future career in chemistry was banished to the land of What If … and I ended up doing a lot of doodling in chemistry class every day. So, the hour wasn’t a total loss—it was meditative for me. The thing that bothered me most was not being allowed to participate in classroom discussion about science. One of my best girlfriends, and the second smartest one in our class, took over for me and became known as the science expert.
We had a sub in chemistry for a while and I was told by her that I wasn’t allowed to sit at the lab station; that I had to join the rest of the class and take one of the empty seats in the back row. I did and I was thrilled to be making occasional eye contact with my funny friend in the front row once again. When the chemistry teacher returned from his break, I forgot to go sit at the dunce’s station, and sat in the back row. Once I realized it, I was concerned that the teacher might kill me for disobeying him, but he never said anything. So, I sat quietly—giggle free—in the back row for the remainder of the year.
The rest of my junior year of high school seemed to be going fine until that spring. In early May I had a study hall. One day, I went to the library, most likely with the intention not of studying (my classes weren’t challenging enough to require that I study), but because I needed a different window to look out of and I liked the library’s view of the people coming and going in the parking lot. So, as I was walking into the library, happy-go-lucky as could be because the weekend was coming, the librarian was screaming at a kid for something he did. As I passed them I said, “Cheer up, it’s Friday.” My intention was to spread joy and encourage the librarian; let her know that soon she would be free of us little monsters for two whole days.
The librarian didn’t pick up on my good will. She said to me, “That’s not a very good way for you to start out, Julie.” She misunderstood me a lot—we had a history that wasn’t very smooth. She seemed to hate that I always left the library smiling, because life, and certainly school, was apparently not meant to be fun in her book. She always thought I was guilty of something. Even if I was just gazing out the window once in a while to help myself tolerate being locked up in that building every day, she would yell at me for it. That day the windows were taken by other kids, so I actually ended up reading for the hour. When the bell rang, I headed out of the library for my next class. The librarian stopped me and asked what I had accomplished while I was in the library. I matter-of-factly told her she had no right to ask me that because I hadn’t been disruptive in any way, and I headed for class.
During my next class I got called down to the office where I was informed that I had detention after school. So, I went to talk to the vice-principal, which happened to be my chemistry teacher who had been recently promoted into that position. I asked him what was up with the detention because I couldn’t think of anything I had gotten caught doing. He said it was what I had failed to do. He said to me that if I would just listen to authority figures at my high school and do what I am told and not question them, everything would be just fine. And that if I try to fight the system and stand up to it, I will lose. According to the chemistry teacher/vice-principal my crime was not listening, standing up to the librarian, and telling her it wasn’t her job to examine what I had accomplished in the library; therefore, I lost. I knew that my real crime was being friendly to her when I walked into the library that day—she had absolutely no tolerance for behavior like that. He informed me that I was banned from the library for the remainder of my junior year. I told him I sure would miss the librarian and he sent me out of his office. I didn’t have the opportunity to point out that he was violating my 8th Amendment right to no cruel and unusual punishment.
I served my one hour of detention for “not listening to and questioning an authority figure”, which I didn’t really mind because I was amused by all of the stoners that were there for skipping school to get high. I was embarrassed, though, when they asked what I was in there for, when my crime was so absurd. So, I jokingly said, “Killing an authority figure.”
They said, “Cool! Which one?”
I said I hadn’t decided yet, but that I imagined it’d be either be the chemistry teacher/vice-principal or the librarian, or possibly both. I thought detention was fun, instead of cruel and unusual, because I got to sit and look out of one of the windows that I didn’t normally have access to.
The following week my punishment did become cruel and unusual. My parents and I were informed that I was kicked off the National Honor Society. My mom and I went to talk to the chemistry teacher/vice-principal about it. I was beyond sad. I loved being on the Honor Society because we got to rake a lot of leaves for elderly people in town to show how honorable we were. I loved raking leaves and felt bad that I wouldn’t be doing it for other people in the fall. But, I felt even worse for my parents that I got kicked off the Honor Society because of the embarrassment it must have caused them. He kept telling us that I was dishonorable, and that the Honor Society is an organization reserved only for honorable people. He said that I had demonstrated time and again how dishonorable I was. He said he had no hope that I could ever behave honorably and that he no longer wanted my involvement to mar the Society’s reputation. I took in everything he was saying with complete disbelief; it was as if he was talking about someone else. He had the power to create whatever reality he wanted to about me so he could justify his treatment of me. I noted that he refrained from saying that it was because I was a dunce or that I was ugly in front of my mom. And then he said that I should try to be honorable like my good friend (the second smartest person in the class) who was also on the Honor Society.
For the first time in my high school career I was actually speechless. Out of respect for my mom I refrained from speaking what was going through my head at that moment: Did you just say I should be more honorable like my friend?! Sure, she is extremely smart, but she is also extremely good at fooling adults. She is the naughtiest person I know! She’s sleeping with a guy who’s ten years older than us and she has tried every drug available, with cocaine being her current favorite. I didn’t hang out with her anymore beyond school hours once she started drugging and sleeping around with adult men, but I figured with the way things had been going in the vice-principal’s office, he would somehow try to pin her “dishonorable” behavior on me, too, and I would somehow pay for it if I said anything. I left the office without saying another word. To this day, it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t employ my natural desire to shoot from the hip and tell my chemistry teacher/vice-principal how stupid he was to think that she was a better example of honorable behavior than I was.
So, I finished off my junior year of high school kicked off the Honor Society and banned from the library. But, I wasn’t banned from waving hi and smiling at the librarian—which I did every time I walked past the library doors and caught her eye. I actually got her to crack a smile during the last week of the school year.
I was just a kid trying to help make life enjoyable and run efficiently for myself and others—my intentions were honorable. I didn’t know at the time exactly what it was that the librarian and chemistry teacher/vice-principal found so despicable about me. But he held the power to destroy my life if he wanted to. The chemistry teacher won that odd battle he forced on me.
My experience with my chemistry teacher my junior year was the breaking point for me—I was so done dealing with volatile high school teachers. So, instead of returning to high school for my senior year that fall, I went to college, where my art profs seemed to appreciate my intelligence and my sense of humor.
I guess I ultimately won the war I was fighting. But, if my teachers were packing heat in the 1980s, I would have made a great target for them and I don’t think I would have survived high school (literally).
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© 2018 by Julie Ryan. All rights reserved
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