This weekend Salem High School matriculated another class across the stage. I walked across that stage 10 years ago this year. A lot of thought gets poured on to high school years, but I think there’s value in looking at every year of a K-12 career.
To start with a multi-part series, let’s begin with elementary school.
Kindergarten with Mrs. Kramer
Kindergarten was where I learned I am a morning person. I took a.m. kindergarten for the first semester and so feared being relegated to the waning backwater hours of the p.m. group my mom personally requested an a.m. slot. It could also have something to do with the fact she didn’t want to miss her afternoon soaps.
I would also learn the difference between “Ms”, “Miss”, and “Mrs”, because “Ms. Geralde” was such a stickler for it. I’d also learn years later that Ms. Geralde was directly related to my best friend.
I remember painting a really shitty rainbow, Bradley Nicholson throwing rubber bouncy balls behind the “cubbies”, and my determination to beat Derik Early at owning all of the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys for show-and-tell.
As an aside, my mom met Derik’s grandmother, Judy, and would routinely chat in the hallway as they waited for class to end. I remember them calling sometimes, too, and like to think they had a pretty casual friendship. I don’t know if Judy is still alive or remembers much about my mom, but I’ve long wondered if she has memories of the conversations to share today.
First Grade with Mrs. Catlett
First grade was where I learned I have no patience for people who don’t gather up a lot of evidence before making decisions.
I remember taking a spelling test. I sat next to Cassie Coleman. She and I were taking our test and the paper towel dispenser started making bizarre noises. It was like someone was using it without actually using it. You know the kind: a big metal box that you pushed the heavy metal button on the front of to let you “wind” out a towel with the side crank.
The class was super quiet and this noise of the button being pressed by itself captivated me. “How is it doing that? It can’t be from the other side of the wall because that just leads to the hallway,” I wondered. Cassie, evidently, was curious, too.
Eventually, as we both sat facing this thing while the rest of the class was either really involved in spelling or dead, Mrs. Catlett spoke up.
“Cassie, Justin, put up your portfolios.”
I would learn years later that calling folders “portfolios” was borderline insane. But there sat Cassie and me, putting up our “portfolios” to serve as barriers to us cheating, evidently. All because the wall was making noises and no one seemed to care but us.
Mrs. Catlett didn’t bother getting all the evidence of what we were doing, and it has bothered me ever since.
Second Grade with Mrs. Senn
Second grade is where I learned math was completely useless and had no business cluttering up my brain.
We received our first ISTEP test this year and math was evidently not a thing I was going to do well. There it was in black and white. I scored in the 91st percentile for “Language Arts” — a process I would repeat biannualy, culminating in a 99th percentile rank in 10th grade. I was an English prodigy; the State said so.
It is also where I scored in the 60th percentile for math and would repeat biannually culminating in my lowest math score on the SATs because I would not take the SATs.
This all warranted a parent-teacher conference about how to improve my math skills. I believe flash cards must have been the weapon of choice thereafter given the speed at which they appeared in drawers across the house. This also led to third grade where…
Third Grade with Mrs. Gruesbeck
…I met my third grade teacher in the toilet paper aisle at the Clarksville Wal-Mart. It was summer and as Salem-ites are wont to do, we went to Clarksville to shop.
As we were looking at rows of Charmin, we heard “DONELLA!”
It was Mrs. Gruesbeck, who had my mother, who’s actual name was “Donna”, as a student in third grade so many years before. Like all those years before, she still couldn’t remember it was “Donna” and not “Donnela”.
After light conversation it became apparent that the student rosters had been circulated and I was placed with someone not Mrs. Gruesbeck.
Third grade is where we learned multiplication tables. Those, I was told, were of super mathematical importance. But every parent knew Mrs. Gruesbeck had a proven record of “raising scores in math” and anything less would not do. So a trip to the school later and I was placed with Mrs. Gruesbeck. Because mom’s flash cards were not going to cut it.
Turns out I can rattle off any of the multiplication tables today. It’s about the only thing I can do reliably and from memory with math.
Mrs. Gruesbeck had this weekly table test and each student was represented on the blackboard by a football helmet. I was the Packers. Jackie Hamilton was whatever the godforsaken thing she was. All I remember is that Jackie Hamilton and I blew out way in front of everyone else and it quickly became a 12-week horse race between her and I. We were tied each week, even failing to advance on the 7s, but then retrying a week later and carrying on. Eventually we’d get to the 11’s and I think she missed something that must have been a typo. I can’t imagine anyone screwing up on the 11’s. But the important thing is that I finally pulled ahead of her and beat her a week later when I completed my 12’s. It was the first and last time I’d ever win at a math competition.
I also had a strange crush on Jackie Hamilton at the time. Which is weird and would be incredibly ironic in about 8 years.
Third grade is also where I learned that my mother thought the principal at the time was a complete idiot. This came after the principal took a small group of students outside for recess. In freezing rain.
Fourth Grade with Mrs. Holsapple
Fourth grade was a lot of fun. I remember it fondly. I was in there with folks like Brian Duffy who was already very tall, Catherine Libka who made fun of my dismal math test results, and I think Bradley Nicholson, who I feel like shared a class with me every year but third grade up to this point. In retrospect, Zeb Jones was in there, too, evidently doing recon on me for fifth grade.
I would learn years later that Mrs. Holsapple’s class was the “enrichment class”. Which is a fancy way of ensuring students lacking in discipline did not get in our way. I’m not sure how I got in with my math scores, but maybe my triumphant defeat of Jackie in multiplication tables took the world by storm.
I suspect you could look at this class as the early indication from The Adults that this was the group to watch. My class was already getting a reputation for being a terrible, awful, no-good “Class from Hell”. We’d wear that moniker proudly years later at graduation, but it was cool to be known for something already.
I think 4th grade was where I met Randy Hamilton (I’m sure I’ll be corrected if I’m wrong). We would be good friends for years. We also named the two swings on the playground “George” and “Clooney”. The goal each recess: swing high enough to dislodge the swing set from the ground. I’d lose a tooth to a starburst he gave me a few years later, too.
This is also the year that Andrew Armstrong completely ruined mustard for me. He put it on everything in the lunch room. Sandwiches, vegetables, fries, fruits, applesauce, even the milk. I can’t look at the yellow bottles anymore and not gag.
Fifth Grade with Mr. Crane
Mr. Crane was the first male teacher I ever had. It was different and somewhat terrifying. His booming voice was capable of overriding everything in the room.
This was the year I learned Zeb Jones would forever be my mortal enemy. And also sorta Kelsey Hunt.
Mr. Crane awarded “rubies”, which were just beads from the craft store. But each time you did something useful or good, you’d get a certain amount of rubies. Bring in a box of tissue? That’s 20 rubies. Get a good grade? That’s 50. And so on.
The top-earning boy and girl got to teach the class on the last day of school. Each taking turns with one in the morning and one in the evening.
I didn’t even care about that. I just wanted to DESTROY ZEB JONES. He leapt out in front and it was apparent he was the one to beat. I’d scrounge up rubies everywhere I could and then-some, like a squirrel in a trash can. But he still won. I was second at the end of the year, by about 100 rubies or so. Kelsey won for the girls.
I think Zeb should be investigated by the SEC, inflation-adjusted.
Mr. Crane also hosted Bradie Shrum’s annual “Grammar Gulch”, a performance (if you can call it that) where each student is assigned a role.
I was the Sheriff (LEAD ROLE! EAT IT, ZEB.) and had to arrest “the outlaws”, which included Steven Bailey, for using bad grammar. I can’t remember who else was in there, but I got to don my best flannel and Andy Griffith swagger and “arrest” people.
But what I remember most is my “deputies” (I can’t remember who they were) running around and when asked, “Are you an outlaw?” They would reply, “No, I’m an in-law.”
All I could think was, “I don’t think that means what you think it means.”