Now that the COVID 19 remote learning school year has officially ended, students are receiving their report cards. As an experienced teacher, I realize that although these reports are necessary to provide insights into a student’s academic growth, they do not convey the entirety of an individual’s personality, intellect, creativity, and knowledge base, especially in the trying times we’ve had to live through these past months. With this in mind, I dug out my old middle school report cards to see what memories I could recall, and what I could glean from the information they provided from forty years ago.
Between 1978 and 1980 (5th and 6th grades), I experienced some difficult circumstances–my parents’ divorce, my father’s subsequent abandonment, my uncle’s physical and verbal abuse, and an incident perpetrated by a friend’s father during a sleepover–and entered middle school with a secret heaviness. Unfortunately, as I was processing all this turbulence on the threshold of my adolescence, John Lennon was senselessly killed in December 1980, further adding to my predisposed anxiety, depression, and general malaise. Often what goes on outside school seriously impacts the learning and growth of a young student, which may explain the slight dip in my grades halfway through the year.
I did well in 7th grade ELA due to having Mrs. Edwards, a teacher with a pleasant disposition who talked to students like human beings rather than children. She taught us the helping verbs in a bouncy poetic rhythm that I still recite today. That year, we read The Witch of Blackbird Pond, and had to “Write the next chapter” at the end of the book. I was surprised when my essay was posted on her bulletin board with a big encircled red A+, “You have a great talent for writing,” and Mrs. Edwards’ trademark smiley underneath. She was a sharp contrast to my eighth grade ELA teacher Ms. Jaouen, who conveyed a no-nonsense approach to teaching. She had survived my brother Tom, so she was pleasantly surprised when I turned out to be a focused student and avid reader.
In Mr. Duchardt’s 7th grade Science we had lessons about everything from nutrition to dissecting sheep eyeballs. Before an upcoming starch lab, he asked us to bring in bread, eggs, or crackers from home. The following day, when no one remembered any materials, he became visibly disappointed, frustrated, and a bit put off, announced that we were all getting zeroes, and had us sit in silence for the rest of the period. I thought of asking to go to the bathroom and sneaking down to the cafeteria for supplies, but was too intimidated by him to actually go through with it. The next day, we had an abundance food items brought in. Mr. O’Brien taught 8th grade Science and Health class. He was a down-to-earth, likeable guy, often tinkering with various dump finds. One time during a temperature lab, he asked Dan Goss to put his hand in a large tin can of water and predict the temperature. Dan tilted his head, curled his mouth into a smirk, then declared, “Ah, it’s kinda limbo,” which broke us all up, especially seeing Mr. O’Brien’s pursed eyebrows, deadpan stare, and mouth agape, not knowing how to respond to Dan’s peculiar humor. It became known as the infamous “Limbo Lab” thereafter.
I had Mr. Milukus for 7th grade Math. He was constantly chewing gum, and his affable demeanor and animated performance made class enjoyable. He taught me to appreciate geometry, algebra, and practical applications. That year, he wheeled in a Wang computer–the first one I’d ever seen–that was as big as a desk. He slid in an album-sized floppy disc into the vertical drive, and we all gathered around as the green screen came slowly glowing into view. He had me type in some DOS commands (“10 Print ‘Jim’ 20 go to 10”), and when I hit enter, my name repeatedly appeared in a long vertical row to the ohhs and ahhs of classmates. Mr. Lucy, my 8th grade Algebra I teacher, taught me the acronym “My Dear Aunt Sally” when approaching math problems. He had a unique Lee sense of humor (he’d later dub me “V-Man,” claiming my appendectomy senior year was just a guise for getting a vasectomy).
Mr. Menin was a short statured, muscular man, who taught with a classroom bravado similar to the way he coached wrestling. He and laidback rock music enthusiast Mr. Gillooly made up the middle school Social Studies dynamic duo. We learned about England rulers like Henry VIII and Queen Elizabeth, gained knowledge of colonial times (the triangle trade route, slavery, cash crops), problem solving and critical thinking skills (“The mystery of Roanoke Island”), and a love of murder mysteries (with their “Who Dunnit?” unit). I recall playing a Spanish Armada “Grappling and Boarding” game, and creating my own board game about Charles I (“Lose your head, move back 2 spaces”) and Oliver Cromwell (“Become ‘Lord Protectorate’ move ahead five spaces”). Mr. Menin (a hot rod/GTO aficionado) also had us racing H.O. slot cars during recess.
For specials, I had Mr. Zablonski for Wood Shop (where we made wooden shelves and memorized names of work bench tools), Mrs. Kerber for Art (who let us listen to music while we attempted to emulate her artistic creations), Mrs. Welch for Foreign Language (a spirited, congenial teacher, who could also give you a serious mom glare if you acted out), and Mrs. Jones for Home Ec. Mrs. Jones stopped me as I was getting on the bus to go home to thank me for being her only student to ever receive 100% on every quiz, test, and final, saying it was “a nice way to end my career.” Her replacement Mrs. Brehm was soft-spoken and taught us sewing along with some cooking skills. I made a decent owl pillow that year, and Jeff Schuler and I constructed a papier mâché chicken leg that she displayed in the corner of her room all year.
Mr. Wartella was our middle school music teacher, who ran a tight regimented ship having the whole grade corralled in the music room at once. My best friend Fred Peck and I did our final project on the Rolling Stones, who’d just released their now classic album “Tattoo You.” Later on, Mr. Wartella generously let a group of us dubbing musicians jam in the back music room after school unattended. I did surprisingly well in PE class both years, since I was what my brother Tom labeled a “non-handler” when it came to physical activity. I recall we only had two exams, and were given fact sheets to study, so I used all my memorization tricks to ace them both (I still remember that the first basketball game was played in Springfield, MA in 1891 because it was the reverse of that year 1981).
Though the teacher comments are sparse on these report cards, I did notice that I received perfect attendance during my middle school years, apparently wanting to spend as much time in school with my friends and peers, and possibly because I had patient, understanding, and inspirational teachers, who helped me navigate through these formative adolescent years, something I try to keep in mind as I am now on the other side of these report cards.