Miro Eggs ©John Mullennix, 2009

Miro Eggs ©John Mullennix, 2009

Have you hugged your inner teen today?

(Do I really have to?)

Hillary was the last person I expected to trigger my 8th grader within. She was cheeky, mouthy and obnoxious, a pain in the ass, and I was, at the time, a self-made, in-the-groove veteran teacher.

Hillary taught me that you can’t spend a thousand hours a year in close quarters with young teens without sooner or later venturing there yourself – within – to reawaken your own dormant disaster, or potential.

Most of us would prefer to revisit innocent elementary playgrounds or to cruise sophisticated avenues of high school or college memories. But middle school? Who wants to remember the “new” body you inherited back then, the clothes you wore to reveal or hide it, the hair you grew in old and new places, your practiced walk, your imitation talk, the posse you hung with, your parent’s control, your teachers’ dirty looks. Everything too tight or too loose, like being strapped into the driver’s seat of a bus with no steering wheel, no brakes, no reverse gear and twenty-one backseat drivers. Go ahead, scrub the rear-view mirror.

Hillary claimed I was her favorite teacher. “What’re-we-doing-today?” she’d blurt, all smiles, after I had already gone over the agenda posted on the board. “Why can’t we watch a video?” She “house-cleaned” her backpack during Posture Exercise, our minute-of-silence ritual to begin the period. “I’m organizing like you told me,” she protested. She asked me to explain assignments I had just explained, and interrupted me when I started over. “I still don’t get it. Would you come over here?“ Her classmates sighed. Some had known her since first grade.

Not that Hillary didn’t have insight. She cut off a student who was questioning the relevance of Roots, the miniseries. When I raised my voice to interrupt her interruption, she lifted her hand like a traffic cop: ”It’s just about passing on family stories to get you through hard times,” she spouted. “You don’t get that?” Five minutes later she demanded to know, loudly, in the middle of a quiz: “Can I take this home? I’m not in the mood right now.”

By the second week of school I stopped calling on her even when she was the only one with her hand up, but that didn’t stop her. She broadcast answers to questions that hadn’t been asked. “Like hanging under the BART tracks,” she asserted, bright-eyed. At the moment we were discussing The Proclamation of 1763. Warnings, time-outs, detentions, referrals or calls home to her limited-English-speaking parents changed nothing. I was on my own. “A cutie. High energy. You’ll get used to her,” the assistant-principal promised.

Several times a week Hillary charged from her seat to the front of the class while I was taking roll and stood toe to toe with me in her four foot, six inch frame, demanding that I give her a third copy of a handout she claimed I’d never given her in the first place, or asking if I was in a good mood, or requesting use of a computer, right now, to print out her homework. “Hillary, ask me at break.” NO. “Go back to your seat.” NO. “Get out of my face.” NO. “Go now, or take a referral!” Exasperated, she’d shake her head: how could you? and perform the latest dance moves back to her desk. If I threatened to call her mom or the assistant principal, she’d hand me her cell phone.

I felt like a first year teacher, again, hooked on rapid-fire comebacks. Routinely, Hillary raised her hand and announced without being called on: “I have two questions.” “Only two?” I’d challenge, sarcastically, and she’d look hurt. Then she might lower her hand, or she might ask three questions. “Why don’t we ever have free time?” “You do,” I answered. “On Saturday.” She dropped in before school, lunchtime, after school just to bug me. I moved her seat – front, back, middle – isolating her, mixing it up, but she chatted nonstop. Everyone was her next-door neighbor.

Then, one winter Monday Hillary announced that she’d brought photos of her weekend to share. I glanced her way but didn’t acknowledge or rein her in. She kept on like a puppy dog, yapping about lunchtime drama, about her older brother who’d just been suspended from high school, about nonsense. I squeezed an eraser in my hand and just before I fired it across the room I stopped. Thinking, talking, moving. Stopped. Then I turned, abandoned the head of the class and floated like a ghost from my stool. The class hushed. Even Hillary was silenced. Her “favorite teacher” had broken role. He appeared to be heading towards the phone on the side wall. Would he call the vice-principal, security, pest exterminator services, 9-1-1? Would he break down and cry?

I turned my back to the class, a risky move. On the front wall to the left of the whiteboard was a window that extended to the ceiling. From our second-floor classroom I peered out over the courtyard, the fence and the nearest rooftops to neighboring El Cerrito, where I grew up. Scanning the urban horizon, three miles away, I observed the eucalyptus trees on a hillside not far from my parent’s house, where I used to play as a kid. The trees had grown quite tall and thick in the forty years since.

I leaned towards the dirty glass. My gaze dropped slightly and fixed on the roof-line of Portola Middle School, just below the trees a couple of miles away. When I had attended Portola in 1960, it was called Portola Junior High School, but the sloping gravel rooftop-eaves supported by rusted four inch, iron pipes were exactly as I remembered. Same rows, same puke-green color, same ugliness. My old school. From my own classroom window. Why hadn’t I noticed?

I spied myself as a thirteen year old seated at my desk as if I could see right through the rooftop of Portola. I was talking out in class without being called on: in social studies, in English, in science, in woodshop, until finally in math, Mr. Buckner blew up. He stopped teaching and yelled across the room, demanding to know if I asked stupid questions and made off-the-wall comments just to bug him. His face was red and his hands were trembling. He strode down the aisle between desks. The memory startled me, just as when I was 13, sitting in the back row. My jaw dropped. I had thought old man Buckner a pretty good teacher, actually, and I hadn’t intended to offend him. I was making positive contributions to his class, I thought, trying to solve mathematical unknowns and explore important tangential territory. Geometry was my favorite subject, next to P.E. and lunch. Mr. Buckner could have at least told me in private that he had a problem, or asked me if I had a problem. The whole class stared. Something must be wrong. I looked down, then lifted my chin in pseudo-defiance and focused on Mr. Buckner’s bow-tie. He resumed the class. A few snickers, some groans of sympathy. I shut up after that, never spoke out in math or raised my hand again.

I turned away from the window – a lifetime away – back to class. Maybe ten seconds had elapsed. My students watched, waiting. “Now where were we?” I asked cheerfully. “Hillary, can you remind us?” She opened her mouth, smiled, and closed it.

Everyone knows Hillary is not the only one. Nor am I. Every year, in every class, students remind us that someone like her (or worse) is ever-present, onstage or in the wings, on cue or hiding, stuffed away, outside or inside, like my thirteen year old self. Behind masks we might draw or doodle, unwrap candy, read comic books, pass notes, text or whisper to friends. We might smile to hide our vulnerability, or because we’re in a good mood. We might speak out, longing to be heard, or because we’re afraid no one’s listening to us, ever, or because we just got called on, or to control others. We apply old habits like fresh coats of paint. And then like magic a crack appears, or closes, and something shifts. We relax and appreciate the entire chaotic concoction, even the worst of it, and in that moment anything can happen.

©Bob Pressnall, 2009

Following a 15 year retirement which began at age 18, Robert Pressnall was hired to start the 8th grade English/U.S. History core at Albany Middle School, where he has been for 25 years. When the budget allows, he teaches a Creative Writing elective. He attended the BAWP Summer Institute in ’86 and was co-director of BAWP in the early ’90’s.

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9 Responses to “The 8th Grader Within by Bob Pressnall”

  1. Lanette Says:

    Bob,
    What a great piece…it takes much courage to remember our experiences as teenagers and then give the teenagers in front of us another chance… one that may not have been given to us. Thank you for writing.

  2. laury fischer Says:

    Bob — you have a track record with me. Every piece of yours I’ve ever read — dating back to when 1923 — has just rocked me, kept me rapt, and always, always just surprises the hell out of me. The tale of Bob and Hillary did just that — so well-crafted, so well-told, such a moment of epiphany really, almost in the religious. I’m in a kind of stunned silence.

    Thanks. Laury

  3. jane juska Says:

    well, I liked it too, a lot. For details, I refer you to the above.

  4. Tureeda Says:

    What more can I say!
    Ditto on above comment except for the every since part.

    Hope to read more of your work in the future.

  5. Anthony Says:

    Heyyy, it’s anthony…aka manga/anime kid…you said you’d remember us by our I-searches…

    this is a great story 😀

    i miss you…all my high school teachers suck (except a couple, but none of them are as awesome as you were)

  6. Beau Luque Says:

    Bob, you always were a fantastic writer. Even the letters you wrote were sometimes pure prose. Did you ever write about our travel adventures?

    Would love to hear from you.

    Beau

  7. Beth Kim Says:

    Wow, Bob. That brings me back. Both to being an adolescent and a teacher, barely keeping it together. Thanks for sharing your wonderful writing. Very inspiring and how it really is in the trenches. I wish you had been my eighth grade teacher.

  8. julia Says:

    Bob, you WERE my eighth grad english/history teacher!!
    I have to say, you had an incredibly positive influence on how I identified with myself and my world, academic and otherwise. Your passion for learning, introspection, honesty, and humility are as refreshing as ever. Thanks!
    Julia

  9. Katherine Suyeyasu Says:

    Hi Bob!
    I hope this note finds you well. After meeting you I always wished you were my middle school teacher. After reading this, I wish it even more.
    happy end of the school year,
    ks

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