Sunday, April 19, 2009

This is how we do it

I tend to associate songs with important and memorable moments of my life. Sweet About Me for the New Zealand trip. In My Life from my high school graduation. Toxicity from that New York trip, which Zach sang the ENTIRE time.

A few days back, I randomly heard Montell Jordan's This Is How We Do It (and quickly bought it on iTunes) and it brought me back to the sixth grade at Arlington Elementary School in Cranston.

Why that song? I'll get to that. Why am I writing about the sixth grade? Well, because I consider it the turning point in my life. 1994-1995. When the little boy Stevie became the person you know now ... me.

Some background: I acted out a bit as a kid, like most young boys. I was a late bloomer ... in everything. It took me a while to talk, to stop sucking my thumb. I did an extra year between kindergarten and first grade because the teachers didn't think I was ready. My teachers were pretty sure I'd be a mediocre student. I got into occasional trouble in grades 1 through 3 and calmed down a bit for grades 4 through five.

During these years, my best friend was a kid named Mike, who lived across the street from me. He was pretty much my polar opposite. He was great with girls. Always had girlfriends. He was outgoing, brash and a bit of a rebel and trouble-maker. We were an odd pair, but a good one. In some ways, I wish I had his type-A personality and maybe (and this is just me guessing) he wished that he could have been a better student like I was.

So we enter sixth grade in a portable classroom in the very, very large recess yard at Arlington. The kids in my grade were, to put it mildly, a bit rambunctious. All the other teachers disliked us or distrusted us. Besides myself, the Vietnamese twins I lived next to and a few others, the kids were Hall of Fame rabble-rousers.

We were so bad, the sixth grade teacher we started off with quit over the first or second weekend of the year. One Friday, she was there. The next Monday, there was someone else. We put the next substitute through hell. One day, we were so loud the third grade teacher (we shared the annex) barged in and yelled, "You're all acting like a bunch of wild Indians!"

We paused. Then a large portion of us mimicked the Indian yell by putting our palms to our mouths. It was a thing of beauty. I didn't yell, but I sure as hell laughed my ass off at the reaction. So picture us like the class in Dangerous Minds, sans the drugs and weapons.

Enter Michelle Pfeiffer. Or Holly Scripsack, as we knew her. She took over as our full-time teacher. Miss Scripsack would go on to become my favorite teacher ever. Elementary, high school, college, doesn't matter. She's my favorite teacher and I would bet a lot of money more than half of my sixth-grade classmates would say the same thing today.She's the sweetest, nicest woman you'll ever have the pleasure to meet. I truly mean this. So how did she tame our class?

It was simple, really. She took a personal interest in every single kid in our class. She wanted to understand what their home lives were like. She didn't care if you misbehaved before. She gave up on no one. When she had to discipline us, it was fair. And you felt that you had disappointed her, and since she was so nice and such a great teacher, you wouldn't want to do that again.

For the first time, I had a personal relationship with a teacher. I talked to her outside of school. I vented about issues at home. She encouraged my reading and writing. She loved that I was reading Michael Crichton books during recess and activity periods while the other kids were playing kickball or on the computer. I wrote my first serious short story that year, about a kid who falls off a ladder and cripples himself. (Yeah, it's corny now.) I saw her two years ago and she told me she still has it.

She also put me in charge of the school store. Yup, I was the Michael Scott of my class. We sold school supplies and candy and I always had to keep an eye out for thievery. It was important to be handed a responsibility like that and I took it seriously. She also encouraged us to get invovled in an after-school walking club to help raise money for leukemia research. After school we'd go to the track next to Bain and compete with each other over how much money we could raise. She'd walk with us and we'd talk about anything and everything.

Again, not to sound too corny, this was when I discovered myself. I could write. I could read. I was pretty smart. I was not very popular and sucked in social settings. I was also too meek and shy. But it was a big step just finding these things out. Mike was there for those walks, too. She played a similar role for him. Where many teachers would have seen a no-good troublemaker not worth their time, she saw a somewhat confused, good-at-heart kid whose intelligence went unnoticed by many. Today, he's serving in the National Guard and fixes helicopters.

It wasn't all fun and games for young Steve. (Cue the music.) Despite being friends with the most popular kid in the class, I was never in the "cool" crowd. This was the first time I really got a grasp of the social stratification of school and this was the first time I knew I'd never be in that crowd. I would always be on the outside.

There were also the requisite girl incidents, which popped up for the first time. That could be another Bill Simmons-esque 75,000-word blog post. Here's a couple of stories. One, Mike tried to set me up with one girl who was kind of fruity, but in a good way. She had wild, fritzy hair but I saw a cute girl beneath all that. (I'm good at that.) He asked her for me because obviously I was too scared. And obviously the answer was "no." Years later I heard that she had indeed turned into a very attractive girl. So at least I had the foresight.

Second, one night I told Mike about this one girl I liked on one condition ... he could not tell ANYBODY. So guess what happens the next day.


It was a bad day. I was pissed at him. And myself for telling him. I kept those sorts of feelings to myself from then on.

Despite the intermittent embarrassments, that mish-mash group of miscreant children had a bond. We were the rebels. The class everyone looked down upon. We fed off it, hence the school store and the walking for leukemia. The school held a talent show that year and we worked very, very hard to put on a good show, to prove them wrong. So we picked a dance routine to a No. 1 radio hit at the time ... This Is How We Do It.

Saying "we" is misleading. I really had no part. The cooler kids danced and directed. Others did some choreography and handled the sound and clothes. I just watched. When show time came, we impressed everybody. I don't remember if we won anything, or if there was anything to win, but I recall vividly all the practice they did in our class, how it brought everyone together. And how I heard that song about 50 times. Hence the connotation.

Most of our class would move on to Bain the next year. I still speak with Mike occasionally, but I have not kept in contact with almost all of those kids. I wonder where they ended up. A nice memento of our final days was our sixth grade yearbook. Mike's mother showed it to me two years ago. It was hilarious of course - the photos, the profiles. The cool kids constructed a page where they listed all the nicknames for us in an artsy manner. I didn't have a nickname so they gave me one.


Mike tried to tell me it was because my eyes were the shape of melons. Nice try, but I knew why. I wasn't stupid. It was because I had (still have) a big head. Melon-shaped in their opinion. And sure, it hurt, but I also smirked inside, knowing I would turn my superior intelligence into a job that would pay more money than they would ever see.

That didn't work out either.

And right on my page, with a picture of my face with weird teeth and bangs at my eyes, was a line that said "What I want to be when I grow up."

I wrote one word. "Author."

If any of my classmates ever see this (doubtful), my subsequent writings and personality were shaped from the good and bad from that year. The great friends. The mischief. The slights. The humiliations. The laughs. The fun. They all shaped me.

And if Miss Scripsack ever sees this, I still write. I do this motely blog and I find time to write when I'm not working. I copy edit for a sports website and it's a cool job. And, Miss Scripsack, maybe one day down the line, I will be an author. Who knows? If it happens, it's because of you.

1 comment:

  1. Steven, As I sit here, crying my eyes out, I am so very proud of you. Your kind remarks are what being a teacher is all about. You will be an author, actually you already are. And what you think is a corny book is probably one of the most sensitive stories I have ever read. I do still have it and read it to my class to show what a student is capable of. I just can't even express what your words mean to me . I will treasure them always. Come by and visit again, although we now live in the tan house behind where we used to live. All my love, Ms. Scripsack