One of my best years in school…

50 minute read

June 21, 2024, 1:00 PM

Out of all of the school experiences that I’ve discussed in the past, I recently realized while I was out operating the train that I’ve never said a whole lot about sixth grade.  That year is a tie with eighth grade for my best year in school, because for the most part, everything that year just worked out really well.  It was a year where I learned a lot in new surroundings, and I had a lot of great new experiences.

Sixth grade came on the heels of my absolute worst year in school, i.e. fifth grade.  I’ve written about that experience in some detail not once, but twice, but to put it simply, it was an extremely toxic environment where the school was actively working against us, and which we had determined would not get better no matter what we did.  Additionally, sixth grade was still part of elementary school in Rogers at that time, so if we had remained, we would have been right back at the same toxic school environment for another year, which have been far less than ideal.  I admit that I was a bit wary about wanting to deal with school again, but of course, it wasn’t like dropping out and doing something else was an option.  I was absolutely delighted to learn that in my new school district, sixth grade was part of middle school, and not the final year of elementary school.  By fifth grade, it was clear that I had outgrown the elementary school format, so moving up to the next tier made enough sense.  I was ready to do something new, and I was up for the challenge.  It was the perfect stage for a fantastic rebound year after the previous disaster of a year.

On the day that we arrived in Stuarts Draft, we took care of school matters for both my sister and me.  She would be starting second grade at Stuarts Draft Elementary School, and I would be starting sixth grade at Stuarts Draft Middle School.  And there was another twist: sixth grade orientation was that same night.  We all were like, guess we know what we’re doing tonight.

I remember going to the orientation with Mom, and it was definitely an eye-opener.  We had previously only ever been in and out of the main office, but now we got to see the whole school, seeing where all of my classes would be, and meeting my new teachers.  I remember that we met four out of my five core teachers (one had to leave before we got over to them), met my Phys Ed teacher, and met most of my exploratory teachers.  Funny enough, the space on my schedule that was supposed to have my locker assignment on it was blank, and when we went to check on it, we learned that I was never actually given a locker assignment, and to come back on Friday for a locker assignment.  This would turn out to be pretty straightforward: go to the school, get the locker assignment from the assistant principal, and then go make sure that it worked.  All in all, it still didn’t feel real that I was going to start middle school in a few days.  After all, we had orientation on Monday, then on Tuesday, my parents formally closed on the purchase of the house, and then our stuff showed up on Wednesday.  Plus not even two months prior, I had fully expected to have one more year of elementary school.

One thing that we noticed about my middle school schedule right away was that one of my teachers was named… Mrs. Bradley.  That gave me something of a sense of trepidation, because just three months prior, I had come out of a very abusive working relationship with a different Mrs. Bradley at Grimes Elementary in Arkansas.  We all recognized that this new Mrs. Bradley was a completely different person of no relation to the other Mrs. Bradley, and as such, went in with an open mind, but the name still brought back some memories, as I never expected that I would be taught by a Mrs. Bradley ever again.  But as it turned out, I had nothing to worry about, because this Mrs. Bradley was awesome (in fact, she and my mother still go out to lunch together from time to time).

The first day of school was definitely a learning experience.  I did not know any of these kids, save for two who lived in my neighborhood that I had met the week prior.  Right out of the gate, this was my first time taking a morning school bus since early first grade.  In Rogers, Mom drove me to school in the morning because the school bus wasn’t reliable enough as far as its schedule was concerned, and we ended up missing it enough times that Mom said the hell with it and just took me herself in the mornings.  I always took the bus home from school, and I thought that was a good arrangement.  Now that we were in Virginia, Mom had decided that my sister and I were going to take the bus both ways to and from school.  I never liked the idea and said as much, but it ultimately wasn’t my decision.  That led to a number of other issues that year, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Getting to school, I found my homeroom and picked a seat for myself.  The introductions were reasonable enough, with a tour of the building, an explanation of where our classes were located and how to find them (first doors on each of the three hallways), and that our hallway was the only one with doors on the front of it (extra fire doors because science hallway).  The doors at the ends of the hallways were also painted different colors, with ours being blue, and the others’ being green and purple.

The use of color was one thing that I liked about Stuarts Draft Middle School during the time that I attended.  While I thought that the walls were largely painted ugly colors (product of the 1970s), the exterior doors were painted in such a way that they helped with wayfinding.  Stuarts Draft Middle School is laid out like a grid, with two longitudinal hallways, and five transverse hallways.  All of the exterior and fire doors on each hallway were painted the same color.  One longitudinal hallway, i.e. the eighth grade hall, went from one end of the building to the other through the cafeteria, and the exterior doors on both ends and two sets of fire doors were all painted orange.  The other longitudinal hallway, i.e. the sixth grade hall, had red doors all throughout.  Then the two transverse hallways on either side of the office and the gym both had yellow doors (the only duplicated color in the place).  In the area where most of the core academic classes were taught, the doors on the transverse hallways were blue, green, and purple.  Just a quick glance and you knew where you were based on the colors.  I was disappointed that these colors were not continued when the school was enlarged in 1993, with the new exterior doors’ all being painted a tan color, and then when the original part of the school was repainted in 1995, all of the exterior doors were painted brown.  Last I checked, all of the exterior doors are now a maroon color as of the most recent repainting in the 2010s.  It’s funny when I would refer to a hallway by the door colors to Mom, and Mom would be confused about what I was referring to, because the colored doors came before her time, i.e. before she worked there.  But when I was there, they were extremely useful as a reference point.

One thing about the hallways that I found interesting in hindsight was that they stressed to us that sixth graders were not allowed in the eighth grade hall, i.e. our presence there was prohibited.  I always found that interesting, because it made it feel like something of a forbidden zone, and that if we dared stray there, that there would be consequences.  What would happen if a sixth grader was caught in the eighth grade hall was never specified, and now, as an adult, I suspect that there was no consequence to it.  The truth is more likely we simply had no reason to ever go over to that part of the school, but the outright prohibition gave it a “thou shalt not pass” forbidden-fruit kind of vibe to it.  That prohibition didn’t extend the other way, though, since the science classrooms were all on the sixth grade side of the building.  In hindsight, I expect that nobody actually cared, but to an innocent little sixth grader…

Overall, the first day was a very unconventional day, as we spent very little time in our regular classes.  The only regular classes that we attended were exploratory, Phys Ed, and lunch, since the teams were not allowed to encroach on those parts of the daily schedule, because we belonged to those non-core teachers during those periods, and not to the teams.  Everything else was spent orienting us to our new environment, which I found helpful.  The real routine could wait a day.  The time after lunch was largely spent in “team time”, i.e. where the entire team was together in the forum doing a joint activity.  It was something of a get-to-know-you activity, where we shared what elementary schools we came from, which, inadvertently, put the kids that were new to town like me on the spot because we had to name out our elementary schools vs. the show of hands for Stuarts Draft Elementary, Wilson Elementary, Ladd Elementary, and High K. Cassell Elementary, where most of the kids came from.  Understandably, no one had ever heard of Bonnie Grimes Elementary in Rogers, Arkansas.

Then we finished off the day going to each of our classes for about ten minutes just for an orientation, and then school was dismissed from our eighth period class.  I was surprised about dismissal from eighth period based on how our schedules were written.  Homeroom was listed at the bottom of the schedule, so I had assumed that there was another homeroom period at the end of the day, and we would dismiss from there.  That turned out not to be the case, as it just denoted what teacher was homeroom, and not a ninth period of sorts.  In hindsight, it wouldn’t make sense to go to homeroom again at the end of the day, because all that you had to ask was, “Why?” and it would fall apart.

The most amusing moment from that first day, in hindsight, was the class change tone.  In my elementary school, we had a physical bell for such things.  In middle school, it was an electronic tone on the PA system.  The first few tones that day, for homeroom, first period, second period, and third period, were pre-announced by the principal and sounded manually (because of a modified schedule due to an extended homeroom period).  The one for fourth period, when we were in our exploratory class, was on the normal schedule, and sounded automatically without an announcement.  I remember that it caught me off guard because I didn’t recognize it at first, and wondered if we needed to evacuate (I didn’t yet know what the fire alarm sounded like).  Then it hit me: oh, right, class change.  Rookie mistake there.

I also learned that my bus was the very last bus to leave the school, well after school got out, because my driver had a full elementary school route that she completed before ours.  This was one thing that I learned about Augusta County compared to Rogers: schools all went in and out at the same time, while Rogers staggered their times so that the buses could do multiple routes.  The result of everyone in Augusta County’s having roughly the same schedule meant that if buses did multiple routes, one of those routes was getting the short end of the stick, arriving at school super early and leaving super late, and the kids would be in a holding pattern during that time.  My bus was one of those routes.  Yay me.

Then the second day followed the regular schedule, save for an assembly during second period, where our principal and assistant principal laid out their expectations for the year.  There are three things that I still remember about that assembly today.  First, our principal, Mrs. Kidd, spoke about what doors to use to enter and exit the forum, which was a smaller event space with a stage in the middle of the building.  Under normal conditions, we were supposed to use the two rear doors to enter and exit the forum.  However, in the unlikely event that we would be in the forum during a fire drill, we were to use all four doors.  Good to know.  I also took that to mean that they tried to avoid having fire drills when the forum was in use, and that would hold up all throughout middle school, at least in my experience.  Then I remember that they discussed how they had redone the new student handbook over the summer, and showed it off to us.  I also remember having a moment of silence for two people from the school who had died over the summer: Trinity Mullenax, a student who would have started his eighth grade year, and teacher Suzanne Trainum.  I didn’t know either one of these two people, nor how they died, but in all fairness, I had only lived in the area for ten days at that point, so I didn’t really know anyone yet.

Then the third day of school was marked by something that I did not expect to experience so soon: the first fire drill of the year.  When I lived in Arkansas, fire drills occurred once per month, and the first drill of the year typically occurred towards the end of September, i.e. during the fourth or fifth week of school.  What I did not know at that time was that Virginia required a fire drill once per week for the first twenty days of school, before settling into a once-per-month routine for the remainder of the year.  They announced when the first drill would occur, at 9:30 AM, during second period.  I remember being a bit uptight about it, not only because of the expectation of a sudden loud noise, but because I didn’t know what the alarm sounded like yet.  I suppose that I would find out soon.  Then just after 9:30, the alarm began sounding (an Edwards Adaptahorn), the teacher remarked, “There it is,” and then we all evacuated.  The evacuation was slightly different than what I was used to as well.  At Grimes Elementary, the alarm was only ever sounded for about ten seconds, i.e. long enough to make its point, before being silenced.  At Stuarts Draft Middle School, they left the alarm going until the evacuation was more or less complete before silencing it.  So at Grimes, classes typically waited for the alarm to stop sounding before opening the door and exiting their rooms.  In hindsight, that was horrible practice, specifically because it conditioned people to waste precious seconds waiting for the alarm to stop before beginning their evacuation, especially when, in real life, fire alarms continue to sound until manually silenced.  Conceivably, a fire alarm could be sounding for hours and hours if no one silenced it.  How long do you wait for the alarm to stop before giving up on it and evacuating anyway, and how much has the fire progressed while you waited?  At SDMS, classes didn’t wait for the alarm to stop sounding.  The door was open and people were streaming out almost immediately, which is how it should be.

Thinking about it much later, I wondered if the difference in the length of the alarm’s sounding came from the location of a horn relative to the panel.  At Grimes, there was a horn in the office itself, right next to the panel.  At SDMS, there were no horns in the office.  So my pet theory is that the office staff at Grimes, with a horn right there, didn’t want to listen to that going off for any longer than they absolutely had to, thus killing the alarm more quickly for their own sanity, while SDMS, with no horn there, had no issues letting it run because it was outside of their space.  For what it’s worth, my high school sounded the alarm for drills for a shorter amount of time than SDMS, but longer than Grimes, and they had a horn directly in the office as well, though not as close to the panel as at Grimes.

After everyone was outside, the teachers called the roll to ensure that everyone was present.  As in going down the list of names, and everyone had to respond with “here”.  That was something that was unique to sixth grade.  At my elementary school, the teachers did a headcount, but didn’t call out any names.  And then in seventh and eighth grade at SDMS, the roll was not called during fire drills.  I’m pretty sure that the seventh and eighth grade teachers didn’t do anything except watch to make sure that no one got in a fight while we were all standing out in the parking lot.

Then after the tone sounded as an all-clear, we all went back in, and once everyone was settled, the principal came on the PA system and congratulated us on our evacuation time of 45 seconds.  I had never given any thought to evacuation time before, because no one had ever brought that up at Grimes, but considering that Grimes had longer corridors and fewer exit doors than SDMS, plus that habit of classes’ waiting until the alarm was silenced before even starting to evacuate, I imagined that 45 seconds was nowhere near what Grimes could have ever dreamed of doing, despite being a smaller school.

So I figured, that was the fire drill for September.  Good.  That’s out of the way.  So imagine my surprise the following Tuesday, when Mrs. Kidd randomly came on the PA system in the middle of sixth period and informed us of (A) a bus loading time change, and (B) that the second fire drill of the year was about to commence.  Then the alarm started up a few seconds later.  I was left wondering why we were having another drill so soon, because we had just done one the Thursday before.  Weird.  But maybe now we were done for a while?  My hopes were dashed the following week when we had a surprise fire drill in sixth period the following week, and the following week after that as well.  After the fourth one, Mrs. Kidd came on the PA system and let us know that our evacuation time was 62 seconds, and that behavior was not up to expectations during that drill, and that we needed to do better next time.

Meanwhile, with four drills in four weeks’ time, I was starting to wonder what weird fire drill rules Virginia had.  Was this the normal thing around here, that we have a fire drill every single bloody week?  I didn’t know if I could handle that.  As it is, I thought that New Jersey was bad enough with their requirement of two fire drills per month instead of one, but this was ridiculous.  Fortunately, when we all finally got our copies of the new handbook, I immediately turned to the section on fire drills to see what was up.  It said:

Fire and safety regulations require that we conduct emergency evacuation drills regularly to insure [sic] the quick and safe exiting of the building.  During the first month of school, we will “announce” the drill on the intercom right before the drills are conducted.  The following months, we will have a “surprise” drill once per month to insure [sic] each student knows how to evacuate the building quickly and silently.  It is important for each student to take the drills seriously and cooperate fully with the teacher.

Reading that, I was relieved to find out that fire drills would be at a monthly frequency, but that didn’t explain the weekly frequency that I had observed to that point.  But at least I wouldn’t have to endure 36 fire drills a year, every year, until I graduated, as I was starting to fear.

The weekly fire drills went on through the fifth week of school.  The fifth one was different, though, since the horn on the opposite side of the wall of my sixth period classroom didn’t sound on that one.  That made for a very large jolt whenever we had a drill in this room into something less startling (that horn would be replaced by a Wheelock 34T later that year).  The teacher reacted with some surprise about that fifth fire drill, as she remarked, “Again?” as we evacuated.  Turned out that this was indeed an extra drill, as Mrs. Kidd made clear in her remarks afterward.  First of all, we had shaved two seconds off of our evacuation time, clearing the building in 60 seconds instead of 62.  Additionally, behavior during the drill was better than in the previous week’s drill.  Good.  I was also relieved at what she said last: the next fire drill wasn’t scheduled to occur until some time in November.  Outstanding.  As far as fire drills went, we were finally on the monthly cycle.  We would miss a few months here and there over the course of the year, but no more weeklies.

One thing about middle school that I found interesting was the “team” aspect of it all.  Teachers taught a group of kids as a team, and they all had the same kids, with each doing a different subject.  Each team had a name, which lent a certain identity to the team.  Our team was called the Vikings, and unlike the other team, which was called the Shooting Stars, our team name was brand new that year, so our team was still establishing its identity.  “Vikings” as a name wasn’t completely out of left field, though, as it was a modification of the name that the same group of teachers had used in the past: the VIKs.  That was supposed to be a play on VIPs, i.e. VIP = Very Important Person.  So the VIKs stood for “Very Important Kids”.  Okay, then.  From what I was told, people tended to pronounce the name as a word, which made them the “vicks”, so they decided over the summer to change the name to “Vikings”.  Fair enough.  As part of that name change, one thing that we did as a team was come up with a team t-shirt and a team cheer.  In both cases, it was a contest.  I didn’t enter either one, but I did vote on the different ideas.  The Vikings team shirt design looked awesome, and was put into production in various colors.  I got mine in red.  I still have it, and showed it off about eleven years ago in my A Month in Photos set in Life and Times.  Here it is:

"Vikings Team" shirt

Then the team cheer was quite memorable.  There were about three or four entrants, and the one that ultimately won was quite the cheer.  It went like this:

Go back, Shooting Stars, go back to the woods,
‘Cause the Vikings think you’re ugly and you ain’t no good!
The Vikings are the mighty, the Vikings are the brave,
Hey, Shooting Stars, we’re gonna drive you to your grave!

I thought it was pretty clever, focusing on how the Vikings were the better team compared to the Shooting Stars.  Admittedly, the two teams were not in competition with each other for anything, nor did the two teams ever even interact with each other (I could count on one hand how many kids I knew from the other team that entire year), but it was cute all the same.

Meanwhile, I really enjoyed my exploratory classes.  Those were in third period, and in sixth grade, students had two options: six different courses in fine arts and vocational subjects over the course of the year, or band class.  We did the gauntlet of six, since I had no particular interest in band.  The courses were “Fun with Music”, “Fun with Art”, “Intro to Home Arts” (i.e. home economics), “Fun with Computers”, “Intro to Technology”, and “Intro to Agriscience”.  Basically, in sixth grade, the exploratory classes were just a sampling of all of the various offerings, and each one met for six weeks before students moved on to the next one.  The way that they scheduled kids for it was interesting, too, in something like 12-week blocks.  Music and art were paired together, and the groups in those two classes switched spots after six weeks in one in order to then do six weeks in the other.  Then home economics and computers were similarly paired, as were technology and agriscience.  So you would be with the same group for two exploratories, then your exploratory class group would be split amongst the two remaining blocks, and then the kids that were different from the second block went on to their third block of exploratories, and you went on to yours.  Using my own experience as an example, I had exploratories in this order: music, art, home ec, computers, technology, and agriscience.  There was a core group of kids that I remained with in exploratory for the entire year over all six courses.  For music and art, my group and another group had music together for six weeks, while another two groups had home ec and computers, and another two groups had technology and agriscience.

In music and art, I would stay with half of that class for the entire year, and we would go to all of our exploratories together in the same order.  Then my half went on to the home ec/computers block, while the other half went to the technology/agriscience block.  Then after another twelve weeks, that other half of the class went on to music/art, while my half went on to technology/agriscience, and we got the group that had come from music and art.  Here’s a diagram to demonstrate how it all scheduled out:

Diagram of how exploratories were scheduled

For purposes of the illustration, I’ve labeled the different groups of kids as A through L (the school did not formally designate different groups, and I doubt that many kids picked up on this pattern at all).  I was in group “A”, and thus we had music and art with group “B”, we had home ec and computers with group “I”, and then we had technology and agriscience with group “F”.  In other words, they mixed the kids up a bit, but in a very specific way, and you never saw the kids on the opposite side of your block.  So, for instance, “A” kids never saw “C” kids in exploratory, ever.  Then there were some kids who, for whatever reason, had their exploratory schedules changed, and all bets were off for those kids, as they didn’t fit the pattern at all.  For instance, I had music, art, and home economics with this one girl, but then, whoosh, she was off to technology in the fourth marking period when she should have gone to computers next if her schedule had followed the regular pattern.

But all of the classes were pretty enjoyable, except maybe computers.  Music, we did some singing, and playing of instruments using the Orff approach to music education.  I was pretty good on the xylophone, at least with the basic tunes that we did.  And interestingly enough, I still remembered them more than twenty years later.  Art was pretty much what it sounds like, doing mostly drawing and painting, as well as tie-dye on shirts.  Home economics, we made keychains using yarn and a plastic grid mesh, as well as some cooking, and watched episodes of Degrassi Junior High on Fridays.  Technology was essentially wood shop, as we made a giant paper clip out of wood.  Agriscience was kind of about agriculture, but was really just wood shop part two, as we made a recipe holder out of wood in that class.

For computers, we learned touch typing, which was a method of typing that used all five fingers on each hand, making use of the “Paws” computer program for Apple II.  I’ll be straight up honest with you about that: I already knew how to type, and could type pretty proficiently, even back then.  But when I fly over the keyboard, I only use three fingers on each hand.  Pinky and ring play no role in my typing.  They just hover over the keyboard while the other three fingers do all of the work.  I type pretty quickly using only three fingers on each hand, and I couldn’t make touch typing work because I didn’t use it at home, plus I thought that my existing method worked just fine, and therefore saw no reason to change.  We also weren’t supposed to look at what we were doing, instead keeping our eyes on the screen.  And if we looked down too much, the teacher would lay a sheet piece of paper over our hands so that we couldn’t see the keyboard.  I didn’t learn anything in that class, except that touch typing might work for some people, but it was not for me, and that the objective of the course seemed to be misplaced.  The question was, were they teaching children specifically how to touch type, or were they teaching children how to type, and touch typing was the method that they chose to convey that?  If it was the former, I should have failed the course, because at the end of it, I still couldn’t do touch typing to save my life.  If it was the latter, I deserved an “A”, because I knew how to type, and demonstrated as much.  My final grade in that computer course was a “B”, so take that as you wish.  And that was the thing: I could type quite well and had good speed, but just not while using the “touch” method, which always felt unnatural to me.  I could complete all of the assignments just fine, but doing it via touch typing was a very frustrating ordeal, because try as I might, I just couldn’t make it happen, and no real justification of the method over what I was already doing was ever given beyond “because I said so” (which I don’t accept as a valid reason).  I also got the sense that the computer teacher was brand new to teaching, and she had not yet figured out the best way to do the job, so I suspect that her clunky methods came from lack of experience.

Then there was Phys Ed, which was a very different experience from elementary school.  For one thing, I was like, whoa, we have a real gym, since my prior experience in elementary school was that Phys Ed was held in the cafeteria when it wasn’t in use for lunch periods, since Grimes Elementary at that time had no gym (one was later built there as a freestanding structure, but that was well after I was done with them).  This was also the first time that Phys Ed was paired up with health class.  In my prior experience, Phys Ed was its own thing, and while it did have some health components to it, but there was no full-on health instruction with Phys Ed in elementary school.  In my elementary school, health was its own thing taught by the classroom teachers, and was kind of an afterthought.  I remember it most in second and third grade in elementary school, where we did health for a while, and it was paired up with science, of all things.  In second grade specifically, we were promised science instruction once we finished with health, but we never finished health, so we had no science instruction at all in second grade.  Third grade, we did health for a while, and then sort of gave it up and traded our health books for science books and did that for the rest of the year, which marked the first time I got any science education of any kind.  Seriously, I had zero science instruction in kindergarten, first, and second grade.  Looking back, that was weird, and I imagine that with modern educational standards, that absolutely would not fly today.  In sixth grade, my group started out with health, doing family life education.  That wasn’t awkward at all, learning about sex with a bunch of 11-year-old boys who were all, “ha ha, penis is funny”.  Fortunately, that only lasted for three weeks, and then we were in Phys Ed, where we had to “dress out”, exchanging our street clothes for that ugly little Phys Ed uniform (someone please tell me where the term “dress out” comes from, because I have always found it odd vs. something more pedestrian like “get changed”).  So exchange 11-year-old boys snickering over educational diagrams of reproductive systems for 11-year-old boys now making fun of me for my body while I was changing into the aforementioned ugly little Phys Ed uniform.  They should consider themselves lucky that I had such self-restraint, because I really should have throttled a few of them, because getting the crap kicked out of them was about the only thing that they understood.  Then one kid showed his penis to me in the locker room one time.  I was shocked about that, but I really should have just pointed at it and laughed at him (as comedian Robin Williams once said, “Men cannot take laughter at the mighty sword”).  Otherwise, Phys Ed wasn’t too bad.  We did various activities every day, and I especially enjoyed when we went up to the tennis courts at the high school next door.  Unfortunately, because I had no control of my swing and would give it my all and rocket those balls all over the place, I probably spent more time chasing the ball all over the place than any actual playing of tennis, and also accidentally launched a decent amount of balls onto the roof of the high school.  But in the case of the former, at least I was still moving around and being active, even if it wasn’t for the intended activity.  Then we still did the presidential fitness test at the beginning and end of the year, and I had relatively little patience for that because it seemed like a pointless endeavor for someone like me, since this was also the beginning of the “national” award level’s being called “passing” rather than something worthy of extra recognition, i.e. what’s the point if I’m just going to fail it anyway.  Otherwise, I preferred individual activities over team activities, and when they were doing flag football, I was completely lost.  Everyone just assumed that all boys knew how to play football, and so they never bothered to teach us how to play.  But I never knew how to play football, and still don’t at the age of 43, so I tended to just stand there looking clueless while the others played.  My most prominent memory of flag football was the kids’ yelling at me for being off-sides, which annoyed me because no one ever told me what to do or how to play it.  Then there were the teachers themselves.  They were nice, but I soon learned that middle school Phys Ed teachers were not quite as refined as the other teachers.  That was the first time I heard a teacher tell a group of students to shut up, and then I still laugh at what one of the teachers barked at one of the kids: “GET YOUR HANDS OFF HIS BUTT!”  So eloquently put.  I was amused.  They also were overly quick in sending kids out on an office referral, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Another new experience for me was school skating parties and dances.  Skating parties were held at Skatetown in Staunton where the school rented out the whole facility.  Dances came in two flavors.  One was a a “fun afternoon” held immediately after school where they had a dance in the cafeteria, the gym was open, and they had movies in the forum.  Then there were evening dances, also held in the school cafeteria, but without the gym and the movies.  Of the three different kinds of events, I almost always attended the skating parties, because those were a lot of fun.  I attended a few fun afternoons, but never went to a single evening dance for lack of interest.  Then I remember the “SDMS Halloween Bash” that they held at the school the day before Halloween.  That was a lot of fun, with a haunted house in the gym, a dance in the cafeteria, and a few other events here and there throughout the building.  It was tons of fun, and I remember being disappointed that they didn’t have the Halloween event in subsequent years.  But in all of these various cases, you had to earn the right to attend these events by not having received a disciplinary referral to the office since the last event.  In other words, at their core, these events were incentives to encourage good behavior in school.  It was much better than those stupid “Good Egg” awards that my elementary school did to incentivize good behavior, because unlike in elementary school, where they only picked one winner per month (i.e. most kids who kept their noses clean got nothing), here, anyone who met the requirements got the reward.

One big adjustment that I had to make in sixth grade was with the political environment.  I had just spent the last seven and a half years living in Arkansas, where Bill Clinton had been a fairly popular governor.  As such, from what I could tell, his presidential campaign was generally looked upon pretty favorably in Arkansas.  What I didn’t know when we moved to Virginia was that Augusta County was a very “red” area in what was, at that time, a “red” state.  Most people were Republicans, and the voters tended to elect Republicans.  And by and large, people hated Bill Clinton, while my family and I tended to view him favorably from our time in Arkansas.  Now, mind you, Arkansas isn’t necessarily a “blue state”, and truth be told, the 3rd district in Arkansas has elected a Republican in every single election since 1966.  But all the same, Bill Clinton was popular there.  Amplify all of this newfound dislike for Clinton by the fact that we had moved to Virginia in the final months of the 1992 campaign, i.e. things were well underway.  If it tells you anything, our move occurred the week after the GOP convention wrapped up.  I remember being astonished at how almost everyone around me hated him, and had plenty of colorful things to say about him.  I eventually got used to it, but I never really liked it.  I remember wearing a Clinton button to school the day after the election (because he had just won), and that attracted a lot of unsolicited negative commentary.  Lesson learned: don’t open yourself up to that sort of stuff, especially when you are very much the minority politically.

Meanwhile, it’s funny how things work out.  When I was in elementary school in Rogers, we had so many problems with the school.  In sixth grade at Stuarts Draft Middle School, however, we had none.  It went to show that the psychologist that we had hired when I was in fourth grade was right: we were perfectly fine, and that the school was the problem.  I thrived in my new environment, 1,000 miles away from my old school and all of the problems that came with it.  If that’s not proof that the school was the problem previously, I don’t know what else you could point to.  I also appreciated the way that discipline was handled there.  In my elementary school, the teacher was generally the judge, the jury, and the executioner.  Discipline was handed out by the teacher, who was very much in the moment, and as such, I felt like there was a lot of emotion baked into some of those punishments, with some punishments’ feeling more like retaliation than behavior reinforcement.  In addition, while there was a school-wide disciplinary guide, few, if any, teachers followed it, with each teacher’s making up their own rules instead.  So no consistency, and a lot of retaliation.  Not good.  Middle school was a bit more structured when it came to discipline, and I appreciated that.  They had a code of conduct, which was, in a nutshell, that students shall not interfere with teachers’ ability to teach, nor shall they interfere with other students’ ability to learn.  Additionally, teachers largely did not directly assign sanctions to students.  They just reported the misbehavior and sent the kids involved out of the room.  Teachers had two options for how to handle disciplinary issues: the “time out” setting for minor issues, and an office referral for more serious issues.  The time out referral was printed on blue paper, and commonly called a “blue slip“, while the office referral was printed on white paper, and was commonly called a “white slip“.  For the blue slip, students reported to the detention room, where they typically remained for the rest of the class period, with work assigned by the referring teacher.  That blue slip referral got reported to the homeroom teacher and to the parents, and accumulating three blue slips was an automatic white slip.  The white slip was pretty much what it sounded like, i.e. you were to report to the office, and you were seeing the principal or the assistant principal, who would then discipline accordingly.  Having discipline come from an administrator was good, because in most cases, it meant that the person handing down the punishment wasn’t directly involved in the situation, so there was no emotional investment, nor the temptation to retaliate.

However, I did take some issue with the way that some teachers treated the blue slip, because it did have the ability to be abused as a retaliatory punishment.  My understanding was always that the time out referral was intended to remove a disruption from the classroom, i.e. a kid was being disruptive, so you send them to time out and keep the class moving, and the matter is resolved.  However, I observed several teachers who tended to use it in a more retaliatory way, such as handing out blue slips on their first day back after having a substitute teacher, for kids who misbehaved with the sub, taking the sub’s word for it entirely, of course.  I specifically remember one teacher’s talking about an upcoming absence of theirs, where they told us that if we misbehaved for the sub, that the sub’s instructions were to send the offender(s) out on a blue slip, and then when she got back, she would send the same offender(s) out on a blue slip again.  So you had one correct usage (the sub), and one wrong usage (the teacher).  The sub’s usage would have been correct: neutralize the disruption and keep the class moving.  The teacher’s subsequent usage would have been incorrect, because there was no immediate disruption to be stopped, but rather, it was intended as a retaliatory punishment for something that had occurred some days prior.  All that they were doing was getting their pound of flesh.  Likewise for time out referrals for misbehavior on field trips or anything else like that, where they planned to give the kid a blue slip on a future date.  The disruption had passed, and at that point, it was just the teachers’ way of acting as judge, jury, and executioner rather than passing it up the chain.  I suppose that the temptation to use the blue slip as a unilateral way of meting out punishment was too much to resist at times.  But know that I found that usage to be a bit wrong, even back then.

Something else that I had to get used to was lockers.  In elementary school, of course, you had a single desk that was your home base, and that’s where you kept all of your stuff.  In middle school, students were always moving around, and usually weren’t in the same place for more than 45 minutes at a time.  Thus your home base was your locker.  Those were interesting.  As built, the school had two locker areas, with 500 lockers each clustered towards the end of the sixth and eighth grade halls (seventh graders were split between the two).  I’m sure that the locker areas, as built, made enough sense on paper, since they were in a neat, compact area, and worked just fine with the amount of kids that the school was designed for.  However, the problem came with overcrowding, and you unleashed 130-150 kids on those areas at once during designated class changes (we were only permitted to go to our lockers at certain times), and kids had to wade through these narrow corridors full of kids interacting with their lockers to reach the lockers in the back.  Mine was in the back, and it was definitely a challenge to get in and out of that area and then get to class within the three-minute class change time.  This locker area fortunately no longer exists, as it was removed in the late 1990s in order to create more classroom space.  The lockers now line the main hallway, which makes way more sense than the original setup.  I actually had two different lockers over the course of my sixth grade year.  My original locker was down near the end of the rightmost corridor, but then some time during the second marking period, someone busted into my original locker, and so they moved my locker a few spots forward.  To my knowledge, no one broke into that locker, and I had that for the remainder of the year.

I also appreciated that the school made some effort to ensure that those of us who came from outside of the district were acclimating well to our new environment.  There was one occasion where all of us on our team who were new to the area that year were invited to the guidance office to have a roundtable discussion about our experiences in our new environment (and for what it’s worth, the bad guidance counselor who liked to gaslight me didn’t work there yet).  I admit that we all probably had an easier time coming into a new area because we were at the beginning of middle school rather than in a random level of elementary school or something, because everyone was in a new environment, and with four elementary schools’ feeding into one middle school, everyone was meeting new people.  So even though we didn’t know anyone going in, it was less of a feeling of being the new kid, even though I had very little shared history with any of these kids.  Overall, everyone was doing well, but we all eventually found our way and became part of what made our class what it was.  Similarly, my team of teachers asked my parents to come in for a conference at some point during the year, and my parents initially thought the worst, like the records from elementary school had come in and they wanted to know about the history of things there, but ultimately, it was very much a question of “How do you feel that Ben is doing, and how do you think that we can do better?”  Very positive interaction, which was a pleasant surprise for my parents.

And really, the group of teachers that I had that year were probably the best thing to happen to me at the best time possible.  These teachers were super supportive and they absolutely loved having me.  Yes, I would try their patience sometimes, but one could sense that we had mutual respect for each other.  Considering that this followed my absolute worst year in school, their support helped me in more ways than they ever knew.

Then something else that I was quickly introduced to when I started school in Virginia was the state testing regime.  As it existed at that time, students were required to take the Literacy Passport Test (LPT) in sixth grade, which tested students on three subjects: reading, writing, and math.  The test was Virginia’s first “barrier test” upon its introduction in 1989, and was phased out in 1997 in favor of the current SOL testing system.  Students were required to pass all three sections of the LPT, and were required to take the failed sections of the test again and again until they finally passed.  Until a student passed all three sections, their education was in something of an unwinnable state, in that they would be allowed to complete the high school program, but could never achieve the ultimate prize: the diploma.  My understanding is that most people passed the test on the first go-round, though the teachers of the affected subjects made it clear that this was not a guarantee.  In math class, it was just mentioned as being a thing while no extra effort was made to prep for it, since it essentially tested everything that was taught.  Reading was a cloze test, i.e. picking out the right word to go in a sentence, and we did some practice cloze tests in reading to get a feel for what we were expected to do when it was time for the real deal.  Writing was where we did the heavy lifting, as we did lots of different writing assignments in preparation for the test.  They were pretty fun, though the teacher, by her own admission, didn’t quite know how to properly assess revision work, so her method was to give us full credit for making a certain number of revisions.  She indicated that she would be going to a training the following summer in order to learn the proper methods, so next year will be different, but that wouldn’t help us, so for now, this was the best that she could do.  I recall everyone’s accepting that.  I remember feeling a bit nervous about the LPT, and hoping that my score, particularly in writing, would please “the little old men in Richmond” and be sufficient to pass.  I felt a large sense of relief when my LPT results were mailed home over the summer, and I saw that I had passed all three sections, because that meant that I could put that thing behind me for good.  I wonder if it was brought up at all with students in elementary school, or if students only heard about it in sixth grade, when it was administered.  I have no experience here, because I went to elementary school in Arkansas, so I had only heard about it when I started sixth grade.  Considering the LPT’s relatively short lifespan (eight years), and my class’s being smack in the middle of the test’s lifespan, who knows.  The LPT was introduced when my age group was in third grade, and was gone after our tenth grade year, and it produced lukewarm results while it was around.

When I first heard about the LPT, I figured that it was a peculiarity specific to Virginia, because I had never heard of such a thing in Arkansas.  We did lots of standardized testing, that’s for sure, but none of it was ever presented as a barrier test.  We did the Metropolitan Achievement Test (MAT 6) every year before switching to the Stanford Achievement Test (Stanford 8) during my fifth grade year, plus the Otis-Lennon School Ability Test (OLSAT) in first and fourth grades.  But these were all diagnostic tests and affected future placements, rather than determining whether one passed or failed anything.  Then in third grade, we also completed the Minimum Performance Test (MPT), which was a state test, but it was never presented as a barrier test like the LPT was.  I found out more recently that the MPT was the Arkansas equivalent of the LPT, which explained why we had so many practice tests ahead of it in third grade, because this test counted for something major.  However, unlike Virginia, which gave its state test in a single year, Arkansas gave the MPT in third, sixth, and eighth grade, and only the eighth grade instance was the barrier, in that students would not be allowed to progress beyond eighth grade without a passing MPT score.  For all that I knew at the time, the MPT was just another diagnostic instrument like the MAT 6 or the OLSAT, and then we left the state before I ever saw the MPT again.  That test, meanwhile, was phased out around 1995, when my age group was in eighth grade, so if we had remained in Arkansas, I suspect that my age group was either the last to be subjected to the barrier MPT, or the first not to be subjected to it.  In any case, good riddance to it.

I also was quite intrigued by how the teams were set up in the other grades, with five on a team but only four subjects, as seventh and eighth grade had no dedicated reading class (keep that in the back of your mind, as it will be relevant later).  In seventh grade, the Heroes and New Dimensions teams had the four subject area teachers, and then the fifth teacher was essentially a utility player, teaching all four subjects, so you would not have class with all of the teachers on your own team in seventh grade.  Then eighth grade was really weird, as the Aces team had six teachers, and the Wonder Kids team only had four.  For the Wonder Kids, they just had the four core subject teachers and that was it.  Fair enough.  The Aces, meanwhile, had the regular four core teachers, plus a fifth teacher that taught both math and science, and a sixth that taught both language arts and physics.  I always found that lopsided arrangement somewhat strange (seventh grade with its one utility player made way more sense), but I never found out why.

Meanwhile, for as much as things went well for me in sixth grade, there were two main points that were less than ideal: relations with the other kids, and the school bus.  The two were related at times, but were also often not related.  As far as the school bus went, overcrowding and understaffing were a lot of what caused issues there.  In Rogers, the school bus was never so full that they had to realign the routes, with its being filled comfortably.  In Augusta County, the school bus system came off as something of a hot mess, with my bus’s having to have its route changed on several different occasions because of overcrowding, trying to fit three middle schoolers in every seat and still not having enough seats for everyone.  Thus my neighborhood was served by four different school bus routes by the time that I graduated, just for middle and high school, as my bus route was gradually sliced up to alleviate overcrowding.  It was not ideal by any means, and I had wished that they would have done a full-scale reworking of the routes to eliminate overcrowding, and also have all of the kids in my neighborhood served by one bus, but they never did it.  My neighborhood really was big enough to merit its own bus, but we never got it, at least not while it was relevant to me.

The understaffing issue, meanwhile, manifested itself in two ways.  First, my bus had an elementary school route that was done after us in the mornings, and before us in the evenings.  Thus our bus came to pick us up super early, and returned us home super late.  I always found that to be quite unacceptable, since it was only a 7-10 minute drive from the school from the first passenger stop, and the bus traveled directly from the school to that first stop.  In other words, one could justify getting home from school that late or picking up that early if it was some distance away from school, but this was a very short commute, even when you factored in all of the service stops.  Plus add that we were the very first bus to arrive at the school in the morning and the very last bus to depart.  That led to our being placed in various minimally-supervised holding areas before and after school, which led to a lot of student conflict because, well, middle schoolers are middle schoolers.  The morning holding period had become untenable for me by November due to much bullying (I even got kicked in the shin by a girl wearing a boot one time), so I talked to Mrs. Kidd about it, and she allowed me to sit outside of my homeroom in the morning during that holding period, and not in the cafeteria.  That worked out well, with the idea that she couldn’t necessarily solve the whole bullying problem, but she could at least remove me, the victim of it, from the situation.  (This is the situation that Frank Wade criticized me for the following year, making remarks about things that were none of his business.)

Besides the ridiculous arrival and departure times for our bus, the supervision on the bus was minimal because the only adult on the bus was the operator.  I can tell you from personal experience that as a person with bus experience myself, your full attention has to be on the outside of your vehicle, i.e. the road.  The contents of the bus are secondary to not hitting something with your vehicle or running off of the road.  In other words, if your job tasks you with both operating the bus and supervising the children, something is going to lose out, and the supervision is what’s going to lose.  I suppose that’s why I’m such an advocate for bus aides on school buses as an adult, because the bus operator can’t do everything, and I was bullied pretty badly on the bus because of inadequate supervision, and placing a video camera on the bus is no substitute for an adult whose sole job is to monitor and address student behavior.  Compare a camera’s recording an event occurring and then the adults’ being able to review it later and say, “Yep, they really did kick the crap out of him,” vs. a live person present on the bus to supervise who can stop something before it gets that far in the first place.  Plus, let’s not forget that middle schoolers are middle schoolers, and they act like middle schoolers.  I remember one occasion where a kid tied my shoelaces to the leg of a seat without my knowledge, and I only found out about it when I went to get up and couldn’t move.  The bus operator had to help me undo the knot after unloading all of the other kids both at the middle school and the high school in order for me to get free.  We had no idea who did it, but that was some really mean behavior on their part, whoever it was.  I’m not blaming the operator for the minimal supervision, because she did as best as she could, and we still had a good relationship.  In fact, we’re still friends all these years later.  It’s just the reality of it that the bus operator can’t drive the bus and supervise children at the same time.  It’s not physically possible, and the blame rests solely on the school district’s administration for not providing the proper amount of supervision.

Then the other sticking point was relations with the other kids.  I was not a popular person in school, and got mistreated quite a bit by some of the kids.  My mannerisms have always been a little bit effeminate (think those “Lyle the Effeminate HeterosexualSaturday Night Live sketches), and so I got bullied a lot for that, and was regularly called various slurs typically used against gay people.  That happened to me in Rogers as well, and I thought that I had left that sort of treatment behind when we left Rogers.  It really bothered me that it reoccurred on its own here without my doing anything.  At the time, I viewed its recurrence in Virginia as some sort of failure on my part, i.e. I must have done something wrong or otherwise didn’t correct something to cause it to reoccur in Virginia, but I now know that there was nothing that I did wrong or could have done to prevent it, and that it actually wasn’t my problem at all, but rather, it was theirs.  But I didn’t know that at the time, and as such, it was torturous, as I had to endure such terrible treatment while wondering where I had gone wrong.

Bullying also took a different form here alongside more traditional forms, as the school had a new peer mediation program that they were trying out that year.  The school had the noblest of intentions in trying the program, but it was ultimately used as a novel way for children to bully each other.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because I wrote about the program about a year ago, and if you want to read more about how that went down, go read that (it’s about a 14-minute read).

There was also a kid who lived down the street from me who was incredibly two-faced with me.  He was nice to me when we were alone, but in a group, he bullied me.  Because of this, our friendship didn’t last very long, because I didn’t want to be friends with someone who only wanted to be friends with me when it was convenient for him.  But at least in sixth grade, he was awful to me.  He bullied me in the hallways, intentionally running and slamming into me, and he would do various other things to me.  He was also the subject of many of those peer mediation sessions that were wastes of time.  In hindsight, I should have just beaten the crap out of him (though I did nail him square in the balls one time outside of school, which I admit that I’m pretty proud of), but I wouldn’t fight him for fear of getting suspended and allegedly screwing up my future (though knowing what I do now, I should have absolutely clobbered him).  He ultimately got suspended a lot for fighting with various kids who were less concerned about getting suspended than I was, and were more than happy to beat the crap out of him.  However, I got the last laugh when he got me sent to the office during Phys Ed for allegedly cursing, and his plan ultimately unraveled when the administration realized that I had never heard of the word that I was being accused of saying, and that he was the one who did it.  Mind you, the Phys Ed teacher who wrote the referral was also an idiot for taking a kid’s word on something and initiating an office referral based solely what the kid said without so much as looking into it.  As far as I knew, I was just handed a white slip and sent to the office completely out of the blue.  When it all came out, though, the bully got suspended for the final week of school, and I had peace for the remainder of the time.  He eventually outgrew all of that behavior, and we reconciled a couple of years later, though our paths ultimately diverged in high school as things naturally happened, i.e. we drifted apart as we started hanging with different crowds and doing different activities.  From what I hear, he is now living on the west coast, has a family, and is doing just fine.  I’m happy for him, though I admit that I’m sad that I’ll probably never see him again, because as I understand it, he has put the part of his life where I knew him firmly in the past and moved far away from here in order to start his life anew.

The thing with school problems, and why they happen, is that the kids are tightly controlled while they’re there, and thus they cannot remove themselves from a situation.  They are required to be in a certain place and are not allowed to leave the room to separate themselves from a bully.  As an adult, you can walk away and remove yourself.  You can’t do that in school, or else you’re in trouble for being somewhere that you’re not supposed to be.  So it’s like a pressure cooker, where the victims can’t remove themselves from situations involving their bullies, and the bullies know it, and thus it’s quite unsurprising when something eventually pops.

As far as classes and things went, I felt that sixth grade really “grew out the beard” at the end of the first six-week marking period.  There, the team gave us all new schedules for our core classes.  The original class placements were fairly random, with kids of all different learning abilities together in their classes.  The new placements were more homogeneous, i.e. the smart kids were grouped together, the dumb kids were grouped together, and the more middle-of-the-road kids were grouped together, and they could adjust their classes consistent with each group’s individual needs.  It created a more challenging and engaging environment for me, which I appreciated, since the teachers now could better tailor their instruction to everyone’s needs, providing remedial work to the groups who needed it, and pushing some kids a little harder because we could handle it.  Everyone was challenged to a suitable level, and it worked, at least from where I was sitting.

There were, however, two things that I did not appreciate as far as the core classes went: Accelerated Reader and the science fair.  Everyone in sixth grade had to do Accelerated Reader (AR), and I absolutely hated it, because I felt that it was an unreasonable request of my time outside of school reading content that I was not interested in consuming.  The idea there was to get kids reading, which was a noble enough idea, and it was accomplished by having the kids read books on the list, and then completing a quiz about the book on the computer to verify that they had actually read it and actually paid attention to it, and would award points based on that quiz.  If you failed the quiz, you didn’t get any points, and had wasted your time reading that particular book.  The problem was, the list was all works of fiction, which I had no interest in, and the amount of reading required to do well in it meant that you should be reading their books any time that you had a spare moment.  In other words, if I was watching TV at home, or even reading a book that I found far more interesting than one of the approved books, the idea was that I really should be reading one of the fiction books on their list instead.  The list also wasn’t all that large, so a lot of the books in the school library were not in the AR program’s list.  So I may have found a book in the library that was interesting, but then had to put it back since it wasn’t on the list, and thus I couldn’t use it for AR.  That was the root problem with the AR program, in that it assumed that kids should be reading fiction specifically, and it made reading into a chore rather than something that is enjoyable.  For some of us, after all, while we loved to read, children’s fiction was not it.  Give me a nonfiction book about something that I’m interested in, and I’ll be in the bathroom all day with it.  Additionally, the program did not care about timing.  If you were in the midst of a book that would fill you out but you wouldn’t make it in time for the end of the marking period, that didn’t count for anything in that marking period, and your grade for AR for that marking period would reflect that.  And they didn’t look kindly on taking quizzes for books that you read in the past just to make the points.  I did that once because I was in the middle of something at the end of a marking period and wouldn’t make it in time, so I tested on some Ramona books by Beverly Cleary that I read years ago in elementary school in order to make up the points that I needed, with my parents’ blessing.  I did well on those tests and got the points to make the grade for that marking period.  Would you believe that they discarded those results?  Stupid kids saw what I was doing and ratted on me, and the teacher acted accordingly, enabling the little tattletales’ behavior.  I felt like the system was unfair but gamable, and so I gamed it.  I was pissed about losing those points, but technically, I did cheat, but the program was also terrible to begin with because I was in the middle of something else that I wouldn’t be ready to test on by the end of the marking period, so I did what I felt that I had to do.  If the goal was to instill a love of reading, AR did the exact opposite, and made reading into something unpleasant, and made me feel guilty about doing anything that I enjoyed because I allegedly should be reading instead.  And it made fiction into the end-all, but not everyone is interested in fiction.  I have to be in the right mood for fiction, and even then, I much prefer my fiction as television or film.  But I will read a book full of facts every day of the week, and AR made that seem unimportant or even frivolous by comparison to the crap that we had to read under that program.  And the biggest insult was that for all of the emphasis that was placed on AR, and for all of the stress that it caused me, it really wasn’t that big of a part of our grade, i.e. I could have been fine even if I’d just blown it off.

Then there was the science fair.  I hated that because we were required to do a project, which was a lot of work outside of school, and we got very little recognition for our work beyond a grade – one which, like AR, was weighted disproportionately low for the amount of work required for it.  We never got to share our work with our classmates except via the fair itself, and then, they saw it for maybe about ten seconds and then moved on.  The only people who got any attention whatsoever for their science fair projects were the few people who won, and I never did.  By not getting any recognition of any kind for my project, it felt like a lot of work for nothing, just to take the whole thing home and throw it in the trash.  I had to do the science fair all three years in middle school, and I hated it every year, for the same reason.  I was delighted that, in high school, semester block scheduling saved the day, because it effectively precluded the science fair.  First semester science students were completely finished with their classes and their final grades were submitted by the time that the science fair came around, and second semester science students had barely started classes when the science fair came around, meaning that they had no time to do a project.  As far as I was concerned, good riddance to it.

In sixth grade, I also got to see how Virginia weather played with the school calendar.  At that time, Augusta County built no snow days into the calendar, so every day needed to be made up somewhere.  Late openings were plentiful, which was a completely new concept to me, because in Rogers, it was all or none, i.e. school either started on time or it was cancelled completely.  No late starts.  We had a lot of snow days – 14 in all – in the 1992-1993 school year, which was way more than we ever had in Arkansas, and we had lots of late openings.  The snow days ended up pushing the calendar out to June 16, which was later than originally scheduled, but as that was my first year, I didn’t know how that performance compared to other years (but the following year exceeded that performance).  We also lost a bunch of teacher workdays and conference days, as well as Memorial Day (by comparison, Rogers never took away workdays or holidays, and just tacked any make-up days onto the end of the year in June).  Meanwhile, the late opening days were good, because school was still held, so we didn’t have to make anything up for those.  However, their amount that year did make a massive bug in those late-opening schedules quite clear.  The one-hour delay schedule was pretty straightforward: homeroom, and then first, second, and third periods were each 26 minutes long, with the regular schedule’s resuming with fourth period, which was also when the first lunch period started.  We only had one or two one-hour delay days that year.  The bug that I speak of was in the two-hour delay schedule, and we had quite a few of those days that year.  There, we had the usual homeroom period first, then had first period for about twenty minutes.  Then when the tone sounded at the end of first period, we went directly to fourth period, resuming the regular schedule from there.  Second and third period classes did not meet at all on a two-hour delay schedule.  With as many two-hour delay days as we had, we missed more than a week’s worth of instructional time for those two class periods, with no way of making that time up.  I imagine that someone in the right place made a fuss about that issue, because the next year, we had a new two-hour delay schedule where all classes met, and the only thing that we did by the regular schedule was dismissal at the end of the day, which made far more sense.

Then there was one day when the maintenance people were doing alarm work at the school.  Mrs. Kidd came on the PA in the morning and told us all that they were doing work on the fire alarm system, and that if we heard the fire alarm sound on that day, to just ignore it.  That had me on edge all day, because who knew how often we might be interrupted by a sudden loud noise.  Knowing what I know now about fire alarm systems, that announcement was probably unnecessary, because notification appliances can be disabled during maintenance activities, thus allowing testing without disturbing building occupants.  And considering that the fire doors dropped a few times that day with no alarm’s sounding, they indeed had the notification appliances disabled for the work, because the doors would still drop whenever the system went into alarm, even if no horns sounded.  So much added stress for nothing.  Additionally, if they needed to do an audible test, that could be preannounced immediately before, or, even better, they could wait until school was out to do it.  Fortunately, there was no audible test during school hours, though I don’t know if they did one later on.  All I know is that I didn’t appreciate the feeling that the fire alarm could potentially sound many times that day and we were supposed to sit there and ignore it.

Sixth grade was also the closest that I ever got to being in school during renovation work.  Plans had already been put in motion to enlarge SDMS by eight classrooms before we moved to the area, and the spring of 1993 was when it got started.  There would be three interconnected classrooms and a new locker area on the southwestern side of the building, and five classrooms on the southeast side of the building.  The school operation largely continued uninterrupted during the construction, as all work occurred on the exterior of the building until school was out for the summer.  Most of what affected the school operation was loss of access to the school’s southern facades west of the gymnasium, as that was where the construction occured.  That included the bus loop.  For the buses, we were given a new bus loading plan for construction, as all of the buses had to be repositioned.  Additionally, for the later buses, including mine, we now were in a holding space in the cafeteria rather than waiting outside at the bus loop.  That was unpleasant because it was the morning holding period all over again, with all of the same problems.  The teachers who were (minimally) supervising that also got upset when I would show up later than all of the other kids and threatened blue slips for my allegedly being late to a holding period after school (my thought was that you can’t be tardy to something after school, because school is out).  I found that to be unfair, because I was with my eighth period teacher for a while after class just chatting, mainly to avoid having to deal with those kids, and then came over to the holding space closer to when the bus would show up.  So it’s not like I was wandering around unsupervised or anything.  I was fully supervised by staff, and then made my way to the holding space when it was time, and I never missed the bus.  But they would hear nothing of it, but that sort of ended in a stalemate, which was probably the best that I could ask for.  Then the other part of what affected the school operation was during fire drills.  Normally, the sixth grade hall evacuated through the doors at the ends of the side hallways.  With those doors blocked for construction, the sixth grade hall now evacuated across the school to the equivalent side hallway on the eighth grade side.  One thing that made me more comfortable, though, was that all of these construction fire drills were preannounced.  Mrs. Kidd would come on the PA system and announce that a fire drill was about to occur, and remind everyone about the modified evacuation plan.  Then the alarm would sound, and everyone would go outside.  The end result of this was that practically the entire school evacuated to the school’s north side, save for exploratory and Phys Ed classes.  The funny thing about the fire drills was that when I learned about the construction, I had assumed that this was why we had weekly drills at the beginning of the year, i.e. that we were having the drills for March, April, and May in September and early October in order for us to not have fire drills during the construction.  Oh, how wrong I was.  My hopes were dashed when we still had regular fire drills during the construction, though I wouldn’t learn for a while still that the weekly fire drills at the beginning of the year were enshrined in state law.  And then of course there was the day to day banging and such caused by the construction.  Imagine trying to concentrate on your studies while the construction crew is doing a lot of noisy work right down the hallway.  Plus it was more unnerving because the Vikings mostly had interior rooms, so we couldn’t even see what was going on and causing all of the noise.  Just trying to ignore all of the noise as well as you could.  The noisiest time was when they were jackhammering in order to break up and remove the old sidewalks next to the exterior doors.  You could just forget about trying to teach, because even in an interior room with a little bit of distance from the work, it was so loud that you couldn’t hear anything.  You would have thought that they would plan to do any really noisy work like jackhammering when school was not in session, but that would not be the case.  Then the other team lost their view of the work when the cinderblocks started going up, and all of their windows got bricked over from the outside, with those classrooms’ beginning their new life as interior rooms.  Those windows were later bricked in from the inside over the summer as well, creating a nice enough presentation, while still leaving evidence that a window was once there.  Come the next year, though, the new spaces were completed, and they looked amazing, though their addition did nothing to alleviate the overcrowding that they were built for, as the county really needed to build another middle school in Fishersville, even back then, to account for population growth.

Then as the year began to come to a close, a few activities stood out.  The first one was scheduling for the following year.  This was done by the guidance office, which was a task that they did well (because they sure as hell didn’t do counseling and mental health very well).  I suppose that I was a bit surprised about how the scheduling process worked, because prior to this, I had never been allowed any input into my education.  Prior to this, I never had been permitted to pick my classroom teachers (because there were a few in elementary school that I definitely wouldn’t have picked), and my sixth grade schedule was determined for me, other than the six exploratories vs. band decision (and I think that my parents made that decision for me, because I don’t remember ever being asked about it).  Now, we had some amount of options for seventh grade.  We had the choice between third and sixth periods for exploratory and Phys Ed, with one in one period and the other in the other.  The difference was in the 12-week exploratory classes, as some of the exploratory teachers did different subjects, like music did Orff in third period (i.e. xylophones and such), and chorus in sixth.  For me, there was no difference between the two periods for what I was picking, so I chose third period for exploratory and sixth for Phys Ed.  The reasoning behind that might surprise you, but at the same time, probably not.  See, at that time, SDMS liked having fire drills in second, sixth, and seventh periods.  They never had fire drills in first, third, fourth, fifth, or eighth.  Fourth and fifth were because of lunch periods, and then the other three, who knows why, but they never did them in those periods.  I didn’t want my exploratory classes to be interrupted by a fire drill, so I chose to have them in third period, when the school never had fire drills.  I could live with fire drills during Phys Ed, so that went in as sixth.  And yes, you read that all correctly: I really did schedule my exploratory and Phys Ed classes based on fire drills.  I absolutely went there.  Then the other thing that we were able to choose was what we would do during our “extended learning” period.  Those were basically like exploratory classes, but they were taught by the core academic teachers rather than exploratory teachers.  Those classes ran for six weeks each, and replaced the spot in our seventh grade schedules that reading had in sixth grade, as a dedicated reading class was not offered beyond sixth grade.  Those classes would end up being largely forgettable, with some teachers’ just showing various educational videos every day all period, but at least I learned a few things here and there.

As the year continued to reach its conclusion, we had the yearbook signing party.  That happened on a Friday afternoon.  First, everyone returned to homeroom, and the yearbooks were distributed.  Then upon announcement from Mrs. Kidd, with an admonishment not to put anything mean or untoward in anyone’s yearbook, we were cut loose in the school to mingle around and get people to sign our yearbooks.  It was pretty fun, as I signed quite a few yearbooks, and quite a few people signed mine.  One signature that amuses me to this day was that of my homeroom teacher.  It said, “I’m delighted that you’ll be a seventh grader soon.”  Take a look:

"I'm delighted that you'll be a seventh grader soon."

Yes, it was a backhanded “I’m happy to be done with you” comment, but I also admit that I definitely tested her patience on numerous occasions over the course of the year, both in homeroom and in science.  But she handled it well, and we had a good working relationship overall.  Thirty-some years later, we remain in touch.  So it makes me laugh knowing how things turned out.

Then another Friday a couple of weeks after the yearbook party, we had field day.  That was very different from field day in elementary school.  At Grimes Elementary, field day was an all-day affair, and included a midway of sorts that the sixth grade put on, trivia challenges, a few other things that I’m probably forgetting, and then relay races at the end of the day.  At SDMS, this was a half-day affair, with regular classes in the morning and field day after the lunch periods were over.  It was a much smaller thing than Grimes did, with more athletically-oriented events at the high school’s football stadium, and when you weren’t participating, you mingled around on the bleachers.  It wasn’t as fun as the Grimes equivalent, but I suppose that it worked well enough.

And in typical Stuarts Draft Middle School form, the dismissal to the field was treated as an evacuation drill.  It was staggered, with some classes’ going in a first stage and some going later, but it was essentially a fire drill without the alarm.  I thought it was a little ridiculous to run it as an evacuation drill, but that’s what they did, rather than just letting us go out to the field in a more carefree way.  Never waste an opportunity to practice evacuating the building, I suppose, even in the final weeks of school, when we ought to have this evacuation business down pat after eleven or twelve fire drills over the last nine months.

Then the last day of school was pretty low-key.  I don’t remember much about it, but I do remember that it was something of a bittersweet ending.  I truly had a great time in sixth grade, even with the various issues that I mentioned above, and I was sad to see it end.  This was the rebound year that I needed after fifth grade, as things on the whole were going very well in Augusta County.  I knew that there was a certain magic that wouldn’t be recaptured when I returned in the fall for seventh grade.  And I was pretty proud of myself for figuring out so many things about the school, even though a lot of it would no longer apply the following year, as the school mixed the kids up more on account of all of the changes related to the additional classrooms, as they went to three teams per grade instead of two, and all teams would have four teachers instead of five.  But I will always have fond memories of my sixth grade year, as I really feel like I grew a lot as a person that year, perhaps more noticeably than in most school years as I adjusted to a new environment, with a new town, a new school format, and all new kids.