what not to say in a library
Most of you know I love school. I have a master’s in literature and I would like to some day get at least one more graduate degree. I taught college writing for a few years and loved it, and I plan to teach again someday. While most of my students liked me, it was never my objective to make them like me, and I am a strict teacher who expects a lot from students.
But what some of you don’t know is that I was a horrible student in high school. Really, one of the worst of all time. I went from being a straight A, honor roll student throughout grade school and junior high to being so dreadful that there was always a moment at the end of each school year when I’d breathe a sigh of relief when I learned that I did in fact pass that year.
I’d refuse to read any of the assigned books in our literature classes, but I’d read 500-page novels of my own choosing outside of school. Sometimes I’d read them during English class, while the teacher (my arch-nemesis throughout high school) would glare at me, knowing I hadn’t read the assigned work. In Algebra II, I put my head down on the desk everyday and slept. Didn’t try to hide it. And in the required religion classes, I usually refused to do most of the work and deliberately put the wrong answers on all the tests (I did happen to disagree with most of what we were supposed to be learning in religion class, but back then it was more stubbornness than conviction). Also, once I apparently refused to buy the text we needed for a class called “Lifestyles in Christianity” saying “I don’t believe in that crap.” My dad got a call from the principal over that one. Actually, they got calls from the school constantly. My parents were probably on the assistant principal’s speed dial.
Otherwise, I really wasn’t a bad kid. I was always in trouble over grades and such, but I rarely did many other things wrong. I never ever drank in high school. I worked part-time from the time I was 15. I didn’t get into much trouble because of anything in my social life. Then again, I was grounded all the time because of stupid shit I did at school, which is probably why I didn’t have a chance to get into much non-school trouble.
Anyway, at the very beginning of 10th grade, when there was still some hope of getting my act together and being a decent high-school student, Miss Littner (the aforementioned arch-nemesis English teacher) didn’t really like me. That’s ok, since I didn’t like her. Everyone else in the school thought she was the coolest. However, she made me want to throw up. Imagine Barbie as a super-conservative, Catholic, high-school English teacher. That was Miss Littner. I didn’t have any issues with her at first. But shortly after the school year started, she mentioned that later in the year we were going to read To Kill a Mockingbird, which I had already read and loved. I knew the book by heart at that point, and I was beyond excited that I’d have another chance to read and discuss it. After class one day, I went to her and told her I’d already read it, and I was about to say how excited I was about the prospect of reading it again. But she cut me off mid sentence and said, “Yeah, well you’ll just have to read it again and not complain. Don’t expect to be excused from the work.” She had such a sour look on her face. She totally squashed my excitement and didn’t give a shit about my love for that book. It was horrible, and from that moment I hated her and her class. And I hated the rest of the school for thinking she was so brilliant. That encounter sort of set the tone for my high-school years and my relationship with all my teachers there. My stubborn defiance kicked in and any hope of me becoming a good student again disappeared.
Later that year, Miss Littner assigned a term paper, using research and references and everything. It was the first research paper for us, so this was a big deal and the class spent about an entire quarter on it. Except for me. I didn’t do it. Nothing. Didn’t write one single word. Never did any research, not even an outline. I didn’t care. And neither did Miss Littner. She knew I wasn’t working on it, and she never said a word to me about it. The deadline came and everyone turned in their papers. Not me. Weeks later, she returned the graded papers. Still didn’t say one word to me about my missing paper. Never once questioned me. The thing is, this paper was a requirement for passing 10th grade. So the night before the last day of school that year (several months after the research project was over), Miss Littner called my mom at home and told her I never turned in that research paper, which meant I’d have to repeat 10th grade. My mom just about crapped her pants, since she knew nothing about this. But she was also furious at Miss Littner for not having called her earlier in the year to tell her about this, rather than waiting until 8pm the night before the last day of school. So as a compromise, Littner gave me one week to write this paper, which would give her enough time to grade it before her final grades were due to the school.
I remember hearing my mom’s end of this phone call and knowing exactly what it was about and fearing for when she the conversation would end and she’d turn her attention to me. It was bad. I heard the phone hang up, and then mom yelled my name across the house. This shit hit the fan hard. It clobbered the fan. I was in so much trouble. But I felt a tiny sense of satisfaction over the fact that I knew mom was almost just as pissed off at Littner for having dealt with it all the way she did, but I couldn’t let on to anything other than pure humbleness and humility.
I spent the next several days at the library writing the world’s worst research paper. At this point, I wasn’t even allowed to choose my own topic, as my classmates had been able to do. My dad assigned one for me. He made me write about President Kennedy, one of his heroes. Normally I loved the library, but this particular week almost ruined the whole place for me. At any given moment during this ordeal, at least one of my parents sat right next to me in the library and watched me work. It was so uncomfortable. I could feel their frustration, anger, and disappointment hovering in the air over us the whole time. They were both too angry at me to talk and I know that the whole time, all each could think was “What the hell is wrong with you?!”
Finally, I finished it, and it was time to type it. This was back before most people had computers or even word processors in their homes, so we used the typewriters in the library. Finally, we finished it. This was a group effort, and the paper I’m sure was lousy. But we did it, and that meant I’d passed the 10th grade.
After finishing with the typewriter, we gathered our stuff to leave the library. Since the paper was finished, which meant my summer break was about to begin, I started thinking about some books I wanted to check out from the library to read during the first few weeks of break, when I was going to be stuck at home grounded. Before we headed to the door, I stopped my mom and—having already forgotten the trouble I was in—told her I wanted to grab a couple books. Well, she was evidently still raw with anger because she exploded. “YOU’RE GROUNDED!” I replied that I just wanted to get some books to read. She said, “You’re in so much trouble! You’re grounded from everything you like to do, and that includes reading. YOU’RE GROUNDED FROM BOOKS!! NO READING FOR YOU!” She really did yell this in the library, and the entire place stopped and stared at us for an uncomfortable few seconds.
It was an odd moment. I mean, really. Who gets grounded from books???
So I spent the first couple weeks of the summer after 10th grade in hideous trouble and grounded from books. I can’t remember what I did with my time then, other than bum around the house and back yard with my sister each day.
Who knew I’d eventually grow to love school so much that I crave it anytime I’ve been away longer than a year or two. Of course, college is so different from high school, and graduate school is even more fascinating and esoteric by comparison. Knowing myself now, it makes total sense to me that I hated high school, loved college, and now can’t get enough grad school.
But still, I can’t imagine having made choices since then that would have surprised my 15-year-old self more. Back then, if someone had told me that I’d go on to spend four years as an English major and then a total of three years getting a master’s in English, I’d have laughed my ass off. And if someone had told me I’d then go on to teach the stuff, I’d never have believed it. Not in a million years.
On the other hand, when I was teaching a few years ago, if you’d told me that by now I’d work at Starbucks in West Palm Beach, I’d have sworn it was a ridiculous lie. And yet here I am. Who knew?
Kind of makes me wonder where I’ll be in a few years that would surprise me now.
(By the way, my mom has since admitted that grounding me from books was a tad irrational. But then, I was the reason for her irrational mood at the time. We've also laughed about that whole scene in retrospect.)