by Jas Faulkner
A quick tip of the visor is in order to the former classmate whose mother was a school volunteer. Otherwise, this incident would have been lost in the mists of time and alkali dust.
The local West Texas county Independent School System, in their infinite wisdom, decided sixth graders needed not one, but two language arts classes. The first would be one big honkin’ reading class taught by every homeroom teacher. The other would consist of smaller groups who were put together based on how they tested in some standardised test or another.
I was in the smart kids group. This wasn’t nearly as good as it sounded. My best friend, Terri, was placed in a slightly less elevated group where she was allowed to read Marguerite Henry novels to her heart’s content. At the end of the year they got to make dioramas. My group was instructed to read Beowulf as our teacher played the cello. The last fifteen minutes of class were devoted to a discussion of our impressions of the relationship between Grendel and his mother. We wrapped up the term by writing a research paper. Yay.
The homeroom reading class was a different affair altogether. The first day of class, we asked our laconic homeroom teacher, Mister Randall, if there was a book list.
“Aw, hell.” He pulled at his lower jaw as he scanned the county-issued syllabus. “I don’t care as long as you’re reading at your grade level.” There was a collective sigh of relief as he raised his index finger and said, ” This is more than just reading. You have to write a one page report -no skipping lines- that you will read in class and you have to present a list of at least fifteen words that are new to you that will be sent home as weekly vocabulary words.
That sounded like a cakewalk to me and every other book-mad kid in the tin-sided “temporary extension” classroom. Even the less enthusiastic readers saw it as a good deal. There was a reason for this. The new mall included a Waldenbooks. It was a mecca for kids who were limited in their movie choices. The “New Releases” section almost always included paperback novelisations of the latest movies, many of which were strictly off-limits to most of us. While everyone’s parents went to Penny’s or Dillard’s or Shelper’s, we would scurry over to Waldenbooks. As they walked away, our parents would look over their shoulders, of so proud of their little scholars.
So much for that.
I probably acted out one of my father’s worst nightmares when I asked to see “American Graffiti” with my friends. Of course he crushed my little tween spirit by telling me no. As we walked the three-quarters of a mile to the theater, I discovered that only one of our crew had been given permission. Everyone else was too young. And everyone else decided to go see it anyway. I bought a ticket to “Benji” and waited in the lobby for everyone else to get their first look at the bare bottoms in the trailer that scandalised our parents.* The next night, as my parents and brother headed to Shepler’s to get my brother some boots, I sauntered away. At Waldenbooks, I picked up a copy of the novelisation of American Graffiti and flinched every time someone walked by, deathly afraid they thought I was looking for a picture of the infamous mooning scene.
In retrospect, I could have just bought the book and probably should have, given its collector value now. My parents gave me a fairly generous allowance for books. I usually didn’t disappoint them with my choices. My shelves were lined with a mix of classics, science fiction and everything and anything I could find about horses and folklore. Those books served as the source material for Mr. Randall’s big rodeo of a reading class.
My classmates often borrowed, bought, or stole movie adaptations. Then they would go to the movie, scribble a page summarising the movie and rifle through the paperbacks for the longest words they could find. As a result, the chalkboard listing our books for any given week read like the marquees at our neighbourhood movie houses. As long as a book could be produced as proof, Mr. Randall didn’t care. Asking eleven- and twelve-year-olds to hold forth on modern American cinema was exactly as riveting as it sounded. We read our reviews and Mr. Randall nodded and occasionally glanced up from the latest edition of Western Horseman to tell us we were doing fine and to keep going.
As the weeks wore on, Mister Randall’s magazine diet extended to Texas Monthly and Grit. Some of my classmates took the opportunity to move from adaptations of PG-rated movies to fare that was more mature. Best Bud Terri had a stack of books on a shelf hidden by her dust ruffle that were warped by paperclips marking “the good parts”. Being an aspiring writer, I began to turn in reviews of books I hoped to write one day.
For a brief, shining moment, it was the closest thing a sixth grader could get to Camelot. It made up for Beowulf and Grendel and the damned cello. It almost made up for having hockey sticks and footballs taken from my hands by the P.E. teacher shortly before he sent me to go play tetherball with the girls. Morning reading was the best class ever: better than movie day in history, better than recess, better than music.
There was no way it could last.
Bobby Curtis was a sweet but dim kid who soldiered his way through reports on “Benji”, “The Apple Dumpling Game”, and “The Great Waldo Pepper”. Then “Jaws” happened. It stayed for weeks at the theater as people went to see it again and again. Every Saturday, poor Bobby would walk forlornly among the new releases, their covers teasing him with previews of attractions that would come only after people fell out of love with Steven Spielberg’s great white menace. With Jaws in its fifth week of blockbuster success, Bobby grabbed a book that looked like it might be about monsters and took it home.
His report the following week included hair raising tales of creatures of the night dragging hapless victims to a fate worse than death. The class sat in silent awe as Bobby pieced together a blood-curdling tale of bad girls who wouldn’t listen and were dragged away from their beds by the devil. In the meantime, Mister Randall stared at Bobby’s vocabulary list. He beckoned the Cheryl the Student Teacher from Texas Tech to come over and take a look to be sure he was seeing what he was seeing. As Bobby continued his classroom grand guignol oratorio, Mister Randall slumped back in his chair and shook his head.
“Kids,” he said, “We’re just gonna take up the rest of your reports for today. When we get your paper, you can go out and play on the sidewalk until the bell rings.”
We knew something was up, but the specifics escaped us. Mister Randall seemed upset by something on Bobby’s list of fifteen unfamiliar vocabulary words. Terri and I tried to remember what was on the list. There was one word, a very long word that we had never seen before but looked like something that would keep Mr. Randall interested when he compiled our vocabulary list for the week.
“Maybe the word was too hard.” Terri shook her head and looked at the closed classroom door. “Maybe even Mister Randall had never seen that word before. I mean, it was what, eleven, twelve letters long? I think Bobby did a good job of finding a big word.”
Inside the classroom, Cheryl the Student Teacher and Mister Randall stifled their laughter as they put a dittoed list of required books on each desk.
“That could have gotten us fired.” Cheryl tried to catch her breath.
“Oh no.” Mister Randall shook his head. “The day I send home nineteen sixth graders with a vocabulary list with the word cunnilingus on it…That would be the day they have me either committed or killed.”
*And if everyone else decided to jump off a proverbial bridge, would I have followed suit?