Chapter 5: Passing the Buck
The Freehold Regional District was a total of five high schools, no elementary schools. Manalapan, Marlboro, Howell, Freehold Township, and Freehold Borough were the five high schools in five towns, each town having their own, separate elementary school system. Within the five high schools, teachers were regularly shifted around without having any say in the matter. After my first year in Freehold Borough, I was moved over to Howell, an upper-middle class town with a world-class golf course within walking distance. Teachers often ran out of the building at the end of the day, grabbed their golf clubs from the trunks of cars, and headed over to squeeze in as many holes as possible before dark. I was moved without an explanation, but it didn’t matter though because I was happy to be employed. Many years later I learned about an unwritten practice called “Pass the Lemon,” in which schools will move problem teachers to other places so as not to have to deal with them for more than a year. I guess I wasn’t liked, and they passed me along. It happens with principals too, but in this case it likely could have been the reason for my move. Regardless of the reasons, I was happy about it because I was working with a much more user-friendly staff and made a few good friends but also a couple of enemies.
First and foremost was Bob Wheeler, a very happy, round, premature-gray haired guy who could talk about movies for hours, and we did. Since I was thin and balding and he was round and gray, we were usually referred to as “Siskel and Ebert.” It was business as usual for a teacher to get up and leave the faculty room, roll his or her eyes, and mutter, “Siskel and Ebert are at it again.” We argued and debated many films but also agreed on one very important thing: seeing a bad movie was better than no movie at all. We both taught English, so we spent a lot of time together and, I think, we even shared a classroom. Bob influenced where I bought my first home, in Lakewood, NJ.
Someone who did not admire Bob was a social studies teacher, Frank Sninski. Frank didn’t like Bob for one very important reason. They were both Vietnam Veterans but with very different approaches. Frank spoke often about his war experience, even bragging about the number of enemy soldiers he killed. Bob did not kill anyone, at least not that he was aware of. Bob was so against violence that he did not hesitate to tell how he often shot at cocoanuts in the trees instead of where the enemy was hiding. He said he would only shoot at a person if that person were openly charging at him. Frank felt that Bob’s attitude might have cost some Americans their lives, and he’s likely correct, but it wasn’t for me to decide. Frank was rather sadistic at times. He wore a very large college ring and would occasionally turn the ring so the stone was on the inside of his hand. Then he’d stroll around the room and pat kids on the head with a little extra strength and an audible “knock” on the skull. Frank didn’t like Bob and didn’t like me either, probably because I was friends with Bob. Frank was obsessed with the JFK assassination.
Every year around mid-November he’d facilitate an assembly in the auditorium during which he’d show – frame by frame – the Zapruder film on a large screen and explain the details of what happened, according to the Warren Commission. Frank held to the theory that it was an inside job and not the work of one wanna-be Communist. I tend to agree with him, but that’s not important.
Side note: I recently heard from a former student from this school who said that Frank Sninski lied about his service in Vietnam. I don’t know if that is true or not, but I have no trouble believing it. Please scroll down to the comments to learn more about the claim and the claimant. I find it very interesting.
Aside from teachers, there were three notable students from my second year of teaching, two of whom I can remember names, but I’ll start with the boy whose name escapes me. I noticed in his creative writing that he spent an unusual amount of time describing females. He used many words to detail their physical appearance as well as their clothing, and I had to remind him to get to the story and spend less time on the visuals. It didn’t appear important at all – until the day it mattered – that he sat right behind the one high school cheerleader in class. She was the stereotypical pretty, blonde, and dumb cheerleader, which we all know only exists in movies and TV, right?
One random day I was lecturing a sophomore class about The Scarlet Letter when I noticed the boy behind the cheerleader. He had loose-fitting sweatpants on, and he had his hand in his pants, and he was masturbating. I can’t imagine my first thought, but my second thought was to keep everyone’s attention on me. He was in the back left corner of the room, so I moved to the front right corner. I let my voice grow a little louder and got a little demonstrative. Instead of having the kids take turns reading, I started reading aloud and made efforts to act out what was happening in the story. I know I looked silly, and the boy looked sillier, but the last thing I wanted was for others to see him. If they did, and if they freaked out, it would have scarred this kid for life. He’d be talked about and ridiculed to no end. I don’t know if he deserved it, but I just knew that I had seen something like it before, and I didn’t want history to repeat.
In one of my earlier entries I mentioned a kid who was falsely accused of masturbating in school, and it totally changed the course of his life, so I thought about that and kept all eyes and ears on my until finally the whacking boy reached orgasm and collapsed on the desk in exhaustion. Kids turned around and looked at him, not realizing what had prefaced the collapse, and they asked him if he was okay. He looked at me. “Can I use the restroom?” I wanted to say, “You should’ve thought about that ten minutes ago,” but of course I just sent him out. Later that day I told his guidance counselor and never heard another word about it.
Another student, also sophomore, was a wide-eyed, innocent kid named Ricky. He liked to work on cars and tried hard to make friends, but he only did well with cars. He didn’t have great grades and often missed his homework, but he was a good, genuine nice kid. People made fun of him sometimes because his eyes always seemed to be popping out of his head. Ricky tried hard enough to make friends that he’d do almost anything anyone asked. Later that year he went to what was probably his first party, and popular at the time was something called “huffing,” when you’d fill a bag with gas from something like a whipped cream can or spray paint can, inhale it, and basically get a dizzy and temporary high. If you inhaled too deeply, it could stop your vital functions. That’s what Ricky did while just trying to fit in. He passed out, and other kids just thought it was a case of a lightweight who couldn’t pace himself. They figured he’d wake up eventually, and they just stepped over him and pushed him to a corner, not realizing he was dead. Obviously, that’s the worst part, but what fueled me further was the reaction in school.
It’s common for schools to bring in grief counselors when a student passes away or suffers something traumatic. After Ricky’s death, kids were visibly upset and crying in school, seeking to leave class and meet with these counselors, but it was all phony. These kids just wanted to get out of class and get a little attention for themselves. Not uncommon are copycat deaths, in which other kids see how much attention the deceased is getting, and their own instability drives them to commit suicide even though they’re not around to actually get the sympathy. That didn’t happen, but what did happen was me yelling at students for their bullshit act. I told a room full of kids that absolutely none of them, not one of them even knew Ricky’s address or even his birthday. I told them they were all just little shits who wanted to gain a little attention from Ricky’s death and that if any of them even cared one ounce about him, they’d have stopped him from huffing because they would have known the boy probably never drank a beer in his life until the night he died. Then I challenged them to go ahead and be one of those copycat kids, to go kill themselves, find Ricky on the other side, and go apologize to him.
The last student is probably the most regrettable moment of my 25 years in the classroom. It was the last day before our Spring Break. I often talked about what was happening in the news during class but not with essays, just with friendly discussions. There was a murder case in New York in which a teenage girl was invited into the neighboring home of two or three boys. They attempted to rape her, but instead they killed her when she put up too much of a fight. They hid her body in their basement while authorities and volunteers searched the area for a few days, only to eventually find the body. Although the boys denied any involvement, they later confessed. So, just before Spring Break, I talked about that case and begged the students, especially the girls, to be careful during their week off. During that week off, concert tickets went on sale for the band Bon Jovi, which was just becoming one of the most popular acts in the world, never mind the country. In the local news was a story about a girl who was waiting overnight to buy tickets when they went on sale in the morning. In the middle of the night, a guy shows up and tells some kids that he has tickets already, bought them in Pennsylvania where the rules are different and the tickets had been on sale the previous day. All anyone had to do was walk over to his car and he’d sell them the tickets. A girl waiting was naïve enough to believe him and followed him, only to be raped at knifepoint. Beyond sad, but I made it worse.
The following Monday, after the break, I stood in front of the class and lectured them again, asking if they’d seen the story and shooting my mouth off. “Didn’t you hear what I said last week? Didn’t I tell you to be careful where you go and who you go with? Look at this story about this poor girl and what happened to her. Blah blah blah,” and on I went, all the while semi-noticing one girl with her head down. I figured she was tired, partied too much during the break. After class, she got up and left like most other kids, except one girl who stayed behind and looked at me confused. “Didn’t you know?” she asked. “Know what?” “Didn’t you see Jenn with her head down the whole time you were talking? She was the girl who was raped.” I don’t think I ever felt more stupid, not before or since, as I did at that moment. Of all the things I’ve ever done that I wish I could take back, that’s likely at the top of the list.
Probably the only bright spot, aside from the friendship with Mr. Wheeler, was a trend that began and lasted to this day. I noticed that there were certain kids who occasionally would come to my room after school, at lunch, or at random times during the day just to sit in my room, talk, or do nothing. The troubled kids, the ones who were often in detention or cutting class would want to bring their situations to me for my opinion or just a sympathetic ear. For some reason the bad kids looked at me as someone who could help or at least just listen.
It likely started when I overheard a conversation one day about hockey. When I threw in my two cents, they were surprised to find out that a teacher knew anything about their sport. When I told them I had been playing since I was about 10-years old, they were impressed and asked me if I could help organize a school hockey team. That wasn’t possible, but a club could easily be done. Not ice hockey as that was too expensive, just street hockey, sometimes called ball hockey. We had an unofficial school team and played pick-up games a couple of afternoons a week, nothing official, but a bunch of kids staying out of trouble after school. After the games, we’d hang around and just talk about anything, and it was the only bright spot I had felt. They weren’t bad kids, they just needed direction, something to do, a focus or purpose. Nobody paid attention to them. I didn’t realize back then, but it was a clue to what was going wrong with education. Schools were focusing on information and tests instead of focusing on kids. They seemed to forget that kids were people, not just names in a gradebook.
The plan was to expand the school hockey team and get a teacher in the other four schools in the district to organize a team, and then we could have a five-team high school hockey league. I would have coached the Howell team, and I say “would have” because at the end of that year I was transferred back to Freehold.