Sunday, February 14, 2010

Adventures in Middle School: A New Best Friend

Some children make friends easily. Others have lonely lives full of isolation (can you be full of isolation?) fear and despair. Somewhere between J. Alfred Prufrock and Little Nell. They seem to attract misery like a magnet.
Fortunately for me, I fell into the first category, but not without a little trepidation.

The first day at a new school can be unnerving to anyone. This is especially true if the only person you know is your little sister and she is going her own separate way into another grade. Our mother, to give her credit, tried her best to get us switched to the school where everyone else in our former school was assigned, but then wisely backed off when she came up against bureaucratic indifference and, thus began her campaign to make the inevitable more attractive.

At least once or twice a week she would find a reason to detour on our way home from the plaza and drive by the building site of the snazzy new Junior High we were to attend in the fall, pointing out the architectural advantages, like three stories, special music rooms and a huge gym with spotless change rooms and individual shower stalls (a big plus for preteen girls, no matter what their physiques). We would be getting different teachers for each subject and there was the probability of what was called ‘rotation’ of classes, the actual opportunity to move from one room to another for different subjects. And there would be something called ‘lockers’. The opportunity to put an actual lock on a specially designated compartment, ensuring privacy, definitely had its allure to a girl forced to share a small bedroom with her sister. Not to mention the back seat of the family car.

This may sound rather banal, now, but in the mind of a twelve year old, it seemed rather risky and exciting. The fact that this new edifice was ensconced in the heart of one of the most notorious neighborhoods in the city gave it an additional element of risk and excitement, but Mom promised to carpool us to and from the front door every day so the chances of abduction, molestation and murder were considerably reduced. Our anxieties, and hers, now that I think of it, were somewhat abated.

Like many things in life, the experience proved better than we feared. The building was stunning. Those were the days when the education system had money and vision, unlike today, when decimated budgets and political policies have led to the impoverishment of facilities and ideas. The teachers were terrific. They were all experts in their areas of instruction, not just 'diversity' wallpaper, and they were thrilled to be part of this exciting experiment from ‘the States’. The Oral French teacher was especially stunning. From her perch, on top of her desk, with her long legs seductively crossing and uncrossing like a brunette Sharon Stone, she had at least one half of the class hanging on her every ‘mot’.

Although I was not in the market, still gripping bitterly to my indignation at being separated from my childhood buddies, I was singled out from the herd rather quickly by one of the other new girls, who quickly saw something in me that seemed to scream 'potential best friend'. I had to pass a rigorous interview during a long lunch break in the Cafeteria, a place where you could buy your lunch, if only your mother didn’t insist on sending you damp salmon sandwiches every day. I must have passed with flying colours, because from that day on, Cheryl was at my side. (For those younger readers, Cheryl was the name of every other girl in my day. The name has fallen out of fashion, but will probably return with a vengeance as all things do, sooner or later).

Cheryl was a bright girl with even more opinions than I. She had no hesitation in expressing them, either, while I kind of kept my big mouth shut (a skill which I had been developing since that Grade 3 report card). She was the first person my age that I had come upon who was completely certain about everything. She was the youngest in a very large family of five older siblings; a kind of afterthought, or maybe even accident, in those days before the pill made such exotics somewhat extinct.

(These days, if you have more than three children, you get a reality show!)

Cheryl was also a religious fanatic and a budding fascist. (Those were the golden days of public education. Such individuals are now safely tucked away at private and parochial schools). She had an inordinate need for rules and structure, perhaps coming from her lowly position in the family. Imagine having so many people telling you what to do all day! So Cheryl quickly lay down the rules for our friendship. We could only get together at her house since she was strictly kosher and could not take a chance at contaminating herself at my residence, which, I was forced to admit, had the milk right beside the meat in the same fridge. If she had pulled out another fingernail, I might have given up the BLT’s and take-out Chinese food eaten on our regular dishes, not the customary paper plates favored by what I thought were the hypocrites in my social circle, but would never say so to their faces. She seemed satisfied that she had made her point before that was necessary.

Cheryl had a big brain. She liked to astound the teachers with her vocabulary. It was from her lips that I first heard the word ‘intangible’ inappropriately used. The teacher was not impressed, but I was. Cheryl was also devout. A lot ‘devouter’ than I was. My family came from a long line of skeptics and practiced no rituals that didn’t involve the intake of large quantities of ethnic delicacies. Cheryl shut up shop at sundown on Friday night and I couldn’t even dare to reach her until sundown the next day. No calls. She announced to me that she would, in the future, refuse all dates (and there seemed to be many in her plans) until the end of the Sabbath. I worried that she might be taking a big chance, especially in the summer, but, as it turned out, she eventually abandoned this goal when she became a cheerleader in high school and had to compromise her principals due to her popularity.

I was fascinated by this phenomenon. We were quite ‘tight’ for a few months, but then our romance began to fade. The cause of her disillusion with me had something to do with marks, the great leveler in the education game and the game of life, come to think of it.

Junior High afforded us the first opportunity to write formal exams. On foolscap, extra-long sheets of lovely white paper with pale blue lines for inscribing pages and pages of lengthy responses to complex questions, handwritten in legible writing, to be read and graded by our very own teachers.

I explain this because today, no one bothers with this kind of physical/mental exercise anymore. First of all, students, today, cannot write legibly. Some can print a little, but since cursive writing fell out of fashion in the primary curriculum, and kids spend their days texting and typing on computer keyboards, you can forget about deciphering any handwritten material coming from your students. Data cards are the solution. The kids pencil in the dots, the machine marks them in a few minutes. So tests are mainly box-checking affairs, multiple choice, true/false all the way up through university.
For example:
1. What colour is the apparel of Gainsborough’s famous painting “Blue Boy”?
B Green
C Blue
D All of the above
E None of the above

Aside: I will address the problem of the dumbing-down of education in a future post, but for now, let me admit my prejudices. I never figured out how to set up tests with ‘objective’ answers so I could use this easy-peasy method myself. The countless hours spent trying to decipher the hieroglyphics penned by my students have brought me to this point in life where I am shut up in a little room with only my MacBook for a friend.

On the day designated for the returning of the examination papers, Cheryl called me over to her locker.

“Who do you think will stand first?”
Her confident tone suggested that she had no doubts. I had plenty. For one thing, I had no idea what she was talking about. Not having been brought up in an English boarding school, this concept of ‘standing first’ didn’t click with me in any way. I didn’t want to disclose my ignorance, so I just shrugged. In our first class, our teacher cleverly created a lot of suspense and psychological damage by handing back the papers in reverse order, from worst to best. Only I didn’t even understand this pattern until the end, when he held my exam up over his head and called my name. I felt like one of those long-shots at the Oscars who can barely stand up and retrieve the award. Thank goodness I didn’t have to walk far since I always sat right up at the front. (No smirking please. I was very short and quite visually limited, not just a suck). Of course, in this case, there were no warm handshakes or kisses on my little victory march. Just glares and stares as my status quickly shifted from somewhat popular to social pariah in a single moment.

Especially from Cheryl, who ran a distant second.

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