OMG! IT'S 2016 AND THEY'RE STILL PLAYING BATTLEBALL! (A Long Editorial, or Short Memoir)

September 23, 2016

 

V I E W P O I N T S


        There was a game called battleball that we played at Nash Junior High School in Smyrna, Ga., back when I was a student there. What you did was, half of you lined up on one side of the gym and the other half on the other side. Then the strongest, meanest kids on the opposing team would throw big, hard balls and try to kill you.
        It wasn't much of a game--I don't think there was any object but hitting people with the balls until everybody was "out," or possibly dead--and "playing" is probably the wrong word, too. You didn't have any choice in it. Some coach would blow a whistle and you'd have to line up and wait to be knocked down, hoping it wouldn't hurt too bad. I believe you were allowed to cringe and writhe a little but mostly you had to just stand there helpless and exposed like you were facing a firing squad. It was no fun at all, but a pretty good metaphor for the whole junior high school experience. 
        Hi. It's me, Robin, in my guise now as the editorial voice of The Planet. I like to say I'm the nosiest woman in town but mostly I keep my nose out of education. The exception was in 2012 when then-Schools Superintendent Tobin followed up his act of banning a National-Book-award-winning novel at the high school by cutting all funding to the public library. The irony of the board of education waging war on books and learning was too much for me then and it still is now. I will shut up about that one the exact minute that the B of E restores full funding for the library or that the last wisp of breath leaves my body. 
        Except for that, though, I tend to leave the schools alone. Public education is a good thing. I am in favor of it. In an Agatha Christie novel I read years ago, set in England in the 1920s or '30s, one of Dame Ag's stock characters, a retired colonel or something, refers to the village school as a dangerous communist notion: The lower classes were meant to be servants to the upper ones so what was the point of educating them? When I read that I was proud we didn't have that kind of crap in America!
        So public education is a good thing, Dade is a good place that has good schools, and the teachers and administrators I've met in the system, Tobin notwithstanding, have struck me as good, too, people of integrity who are sincerely devoted to bettering the lives of their students. Anyway, I'm a childless adult with no children or grandchildren in the schools, no stake in the system, right?
        But I'm also someone who has spent the rest of her life getting over seventh grade, and two simultaneous events this week have inspired me to climb on the education soapbox: (a) news that Georgia for the second time shot down the proposed Lula Lake Academy charter school for Lookout Mountain, juxtaposed to (b) the stories of horrendous bullying at Dade Middle School I heard at Monday night's Dade Board of Education meeting
        Lula Lake Academy was to have been a small, "place-based" charter school that offered middle schoolers heavier than usual doses of the healthy outdoor life. I don't know if it was the outdoorsy part or the place-based part that Georgia didn't like. Me personally, what I did like was the "small." And that's because what I think was the worst part of Nash Junior High School was that it was big.
        I'd like to meet the genius who thought up the traditional junior high school--they've changed the name to "middle school" now but from Monday night, it doesn't sound like they've changed a hell of a lot else--in a dark alley one night. Whoever thought it would be a good idea to yank kids from their happy, community-based elementary schools and stuff them all into one big, chaotic prison, just as they're being bombarded by the hormones of puberty, deserves to suffer the wrath still festering inside me from Nash.
        Smyrna is now practically a part of Atlanta but when I was growing up there in the '60s and '70s  it was an outer suburb that still had a small-town feel to it, though with none of the charm of, say, Trenton. Think church ladies wearing round straw hats with little veils, working-class shopping centers decorated in December with boxes painted to look like Christmas presents, a little sub-town in the middle for black people, gerrymandered so they couldn't vote, one building in town that was over 100 years old and the teachers told us that was because it was brick and Sherman hadn't managed to burn it down.  
        I hate the place now and would never go back--bad memories!--but it seems to me I was reasonably happy while I was in elementary school there. Shy and bookish, I was a natural apple polisher who when the teacher said her favorite food was broccoli not only ate it in the lunchroom but got my mother to start serving it at home and in fact have eaten it for the rest of my life. I liked school all right. I wasn't particularly popular but nobody was mean to me. Everybody had known each other from first or second grade and we were used to each other. 
        I remember sixth grade as The Last Good Year. If anybody is reading the young-adult novel I am currently serializing in this newspaper, my sixth-grade class in Smyrna is where I got most of the school stuff in it, down to Timothy Freeman swirling food around in his open mouth like a garbage truck because of his new braces.
        Then came Nash for seventh and eighth grades, and I don't think I was happy again until the University of Georgia!
        In Dade County there are only two elementary schools that dump into the middle school. In Cobb County I don't know how many dumped into Nash but it was a lot. From walking to school, I now had to ride the bus across town. It stopped all over the place, including at the railroad crossing area where the 100-year old building was. I remember that stop because there was a gaggle of kids who got on there, including one girl who was so tall and so fat and who wore such awful glasses and such shapeless floral print dresses that she looked more like a middle-aged woman to me, an ugly one, than a seventh- or eighth-grader. Later on I figured out these were the really poor kids. 
        Endless other school buses went all over the rest of the county and picked up every kind of kid, white and black, stupid and smart, middle-class and poor (I can't imagined the rich sent their kids there!) and dumped us all at Nash. And we went inside to be shepherded by way too few teachers and the big ones ate the little ones and only the strong survived.
        It's just numbers, and human nature. You put a lot of kids who don't know each other in one place with too little adult supervision and what they will do is struggle for supremacy and establish their own little pecking order-slash-hell. You'd think the Georgia education elite would have figured that out by now. Am I the only one who read Lord of the Flies?
         Anyway, at Nash, It was hard to pee between classes because there were fights going on in all of the bathrooms. And bullying? We didn't it call it that then. It was just normal, like, life. On Monday night when I heard Summer Kelley telling about the mean girls who held her daughter off the floor, slapping her face, I reminisced, "Ah, schooldays, schooldays!" 
        At Nash, there was a group of slutty girls (well, what kind of 12-year-old already wears full makeup, complete with foundation, powder and mascara?) who would gather  around and slap me, calling me queer and bookworm. Then there were some big black girls who circled me in the gym, taunting me: "Those new shoes you got there, sugar?" (To be fair, new shoes on me were probably visible from Mars; my feet aren't noticeably outsized now but like a puppy I got them early and grew into them later.) And I haven't even told you about math class!
        I had been a good student before but, probably like many others' my grades took a dive at Nash. I made a D in Spanish though I've always had an ear for languages and would later win prizes, but math was the worst! I'd never excelled there and now I got kicked out of the smart-kid math class near the beginning of the year and began a sad pilgrimage transferring through the echelons of dumb-kid classes. I  even spent a couple of weeks out in the trailer in the parking lot where Mr. Shows was teaching the real rockheads how to add and subtract. I liked it there! Because math class was the period where you had to eat lunch, and the rockheads were humble and downtrodden and not nearly as mean in the cafeteria as the other kids. But I accidentally revealed I already knew the multiplication tables and bang! Out again into hell.
        Well, I'll shut up about it but Nash was an awful damn place and it scarred me for life. Bullying does that. One of the things about being singled out by a gang is that you really can't tell, you really don't know, if those were just bad kids to treat you like that or if there really is something despicable about you so that you deserve it. I even wondered if I was really a lesbian. How were you supposed to know?
        But I was not alone! One of the most healing experiences I had concerning Nash was 20 years later, around a campfire one night, drinking beer and talking about it with a friend who had been there, too. Our paths hadn't crossed at the school but he'd had practically the same experience I'd  had, and had felt the identical way, which is to say like a rabbit being eviscerated by pitbulls. 
        It was an important epiphany. It wasn't just me! He had suffered the same shame and misery. Still later, it struck me that probably the slutty girl gang hadn't been that happy, either. What kind of families did they have to let them at the whorehouse paint in seventh grade? And those big black girls? They probably hadn't felt that big! Integration was new back then and they were a tiny black minority in a teeming anthill of mean white kids. And what about those kids who were getting beaten up in the bathroom fights? And there was a boy who got hold of a gun and went out to the trailer to kill Mr. Shows though they stopped him in time. Don't reckon he was livin' the dream either. And the huge fat girl in the flower-print dress who looked middle-aged? Wonder how she got along with the bullies? Hell, Nash scarred everybody for life.
        And I do mean for life. Decades later, I was reading those fascinating couple of books by Jean Harris, the Scarsdale Diet murderess. Remember her? She was the headmistress of an exclusive girls' school and she was in love with Dr. Tarnower who came up with the Scarsdale Diet. But Dr. T  was a playboy who flitted from flower to flower, drinking the nectar thereof, and he broke Jean's heart and she shot him. She maintained her innocence at the trial, saying that she had meant to commit suicide and they'd struggled for the gun, but the doctor had died and she had shot him and she was convicted and imprisoned. 
        So here you had this sensitive, intellectual woman banged up in stir with crazy serial killers and writing about prison life. They were very powerful books but what I took away from them was: Wow. Just like junior high school! And I was very careful not to do anything illegal for the rest of my life.  
        Just this spring I got mad at the local chamber of commerce and that was Nash-related, too. The C of C had honored three people as Citizens of the Year but had not sent me photographs of any of them to put on the front page of The Planet. I'm used to being snubbed, I'm the new publication in town and the underdog, but it turned out neither of the other papers had gotten photos, either. The C of C hadn't taken any! They'd just said so you're citizen of the year, so what, you can go home now.
        That made me irrationally angry and I shortly realized why: It reminded me exactly of my one solitary triumph at Nash and how that had been ruined like everything else. I'd won first prize in a short-story contest, like $10 or something. But instead of naming me the winner at an assembly, school administration called me over the intercom to the principal's office like I'd done something wrong, handed me the money and sent me back to class. So you won, so what, go away.
        Well, there you go. My point in telling you all this is not to relive bitter memories but to underscore the message that TRADITIONAL MIDDLE SCHOOLS SUCK! Whether or not small, "place-based' outdorsy middle schools are really the wave of the future, they beat hell out of big institutional ones.
        Just about all the flaws of public education are functions of schools being too big, including, not to put too fine a point on it, "educators" like ex-Superintendent Tobin. My objection to him was that he had no reverence for learning but indeed why should he? In big schools discipline is the overriding problem and the administrators who rise to the top are not scholars but the guys hired to coach football, who can hulk around with  yardsticks looking menacing.
         But the biggest problem is that the student turned out by hellholes like Nash is not somebody bright and perky ready to sally forth to greater academic glory. It's somebody spooked and shifty who has learned to keep his head down.
        You could argue that the hellhole school prepares a kid for the real world, which can in fact look a lot like a game of battleball its own self. If it really is all dog-eat-dog out there, why not go ahead and let the redshirts get slurped in seventh grade, reducing the surplus population? 
        But my position on that is if you have to send a kId out to face the slings and arrows of outrageous et cetera, that kid is better prepared to take arms against the damn sea of trouble if he's brave and confident and has spent his school years learning a few things as opposed to dodging battleballs.     
        My motto with The Planet is "focus on the locus" and I try to stick to local issues I can do something about as opposed to spitting in the wind about the larger problems of the larger world. And it's not like I have time to editorialize anyway what with the lineup of big local happenings I have to cover, like the Methodist Men's Luncheon.    
        But this week I felt moved to say something whether there's anything that can be done at the local level or not. What I heard Monday night was that the Georgia middle school experience is pretty much the same as when I endured it 40-plus years ago, and what I learned the next day was that the Georgia Dept. of Ed had rejected the concept of something kindler and gentler.
        So It's not so much an editorial we have here as a scream of shock. Cover your ears if they're sensitive because I am fixin' to get loud:
        OMG! IT'S 2016 AND THEY'RE STILL PLAYING BATTLEBALL!

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