Things we learned in school (that really mattered)

Our thinky, preachy, sometimes embarrassing collection of school memories—and what they taught us

Illustration: Robert Ullman

Love is messy

I don’t remember much that’s good about my school years. If hard-pressed, however, I would say my years playing trumpet in the high-school band didn’t exactly suck. Primarily because I got to sit next to my first serious crush, Roberta Nielson. Not only was she a great trumpet player, she was pretty damned cool, too. But this being a school-boy crush, of course she was dating somebody else, so I had to be content to just hang around her, which happened often. In addition to concerts and pep band performances at games, we went on quite a few band trips. On one particular trip, we stopped at a Wendy’s.

Thing is, up to that point this trip had been different from most. I definitely began getting an interested vibe from Rob halfway through the trip, with a small glimpse here, a flash of a smile there. Suddenly I wondered if there might be the possibility of something … brewing.

Still dressed in my band whites, I made the decision to sit with her when we stopped to eat, perhaps work up the nerve to talk about my “impressions.” The Wendy’s menu hasn’t changed much over the years, right down to the little disposable cups into which you dispense copious amounts of ketchup. Back in those days, I adored the red stuff, and filled as many cups as I could get on my tray to get the maximum enjoyment out of my fries. Between that, the burger, the soda and the Frosty, the tray was full.

I spotted Rob seated in the crowd and proceeded over, only to discover two others had joined her at a very small table, no bigger than 3 feet by 3 feet. Undeterred, I wedged my tray in, to some pretty irritated looks from her dining companions, and discovered I could only get it partly on the table. No matter. Down I sat, hitting the lip of the tray and catapulting ketchup, soda, burger toppings and fries all over my band whites. The end result: Well, the ketchup, soda and toppings came out in the wash, my face eventually returned to its whitish hue … and Rob and I never really went anywhere. But thank God Wendy’s Frostys are nearly impossible to spill on yourself. –Ken Miller

Go with what you love

I spent far more of my college experience writing, reporting and editing for my school’s daily newspaper than sitting in classrooms or poring over textbooks. Still, one subject managed to capture my attention to the extent that I actually made sure to attend each lecture and carved out time to study—like, seriously study—every piece of related material I could get my hands on. I’m talking, of course, about my history-of-jazz survey.

Offered in the spring of my senior year, the course basically amounted to the professor—a kooky dude who fancied himself some sort of auxiliary member of the Sun Ra Arkestra—playing his favorite records each week. Which was pretty awesome, considering his tastes tended toward fusion and free; we spent a couple of weeks on the early innovators (Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday … it was all a blur), a few more days getting through bop, and then, whoosh, it was ’Trane, Ornette, Cecil and Ra right through to graduation.

Okay, so the prof’s text—self-written, natch—was a mess, and his tests were an all-out riot (typical wording: “[Blank] was a pianist whose compositions included ‘Epistrophy’ and ‘’Round Midnight.’ Monk also wrote ‘Straight, No Chaser’”). But to this day, I remember listening to and discussing “Hatian Fight Song” more than everything else I paid to learn—combined. The real lesson? Academically speaking, enthusiasm is everything. –Spencer Patterson

The electoral process is bullshit

When i was 10, i broke the blades off an eggbeater and super-glued forks in their place. I called my invention “The Eggstraordinary Spaghetti Twirler,” and I entered it into the Fifth Grade Invention Fair. The class voted on which creation was best, and my Spaghetti Twirler won.

Lee Linden was absent the day of the fair, but apparently he’d gotten in touch with our teacher, Mr. Jahnke, and claimed to have some revolutionary device that he wanted to present to the class the following day. So instead of awarding me the coveted First Place Certificate, Mr. Jahnke told me, “Let’s wait until we see what Lee’s got before we make anything final.”

I assumed this was merely a procedural formality. After all, the votes had been cast and tallied, and a clear winner had emerged: me. Done deal—right?

How naïve I was!

Lee showed up the next day with a “Super Glasses Buffer.” Basically, Lee had ripped the blades off a $1 fan and stuck a couple of cotton balls on it. That much was obvious to me, but apparently not to my classmates, who went nuts over Lee’s golden calf of a device.

Mr. Jahnke declared a second runoff vote was in order. Lee won in a landslide, and Mr. Jahnke awarded the certificate to him.

Let me enumerate the reasons why this decision was total bullshit: 1.) I’d already won the vote, fair and square; 2.) I’d defeated 20 other students; Lee defeated just one; 3.) Lee had an extra day to work on his invention; 4.) My classmates based their second votes on novelty, not merit. They’d already seen my Twirler, and had grown tired of it.

Lee could have shown up the next day with a gasoline-powered turtleneck sweater, and they would have gone gaga over it just the same.

Needless to say, I haven’t invented anything since, so the world’s been denied its Edison incarnate, all thanks to Lee. Lee, by the way, went on to launch an extremely successful Internet start-up company and graduate from Stanford business school. Yeah, I could have done that stuff too if I hadn’t been denied my rightfully earned resume fodder. –Rick Lax

Never let ’em see you sweat

Puddles formed on the chemistry-classroom desk. The moisture reflected the light and was only further emphasized by the black tabletop. The puddles were shaped like my hands. And my lab partner was thoroughly grossed out.

“Are your hands … dripping?” he asked.

“Uh, yeah. They sweat really bad,” I sheepishly replied.

“Why? That’s nasty.”

“They’ve been doing this since I was little. It’s hereditary or something.”

I attempted to wipe up my little hand-puddles with those crappy public-school paper towels—the ones that were better for writing notes on than absorbing liquid. This only smeared the perspiration around the desk. He made a disgusted face.

“I can’t help it!” I whispered, and wiped my hands on my jeans for the thousandth time that day, but to no avail. As if being 15 wasn’t awkward enough. Even worse, we were about to begin some sort of experiment requiring us to don latex gloves in the event of spilling semi-hazardous acids and bases on our skin. I was fairly sure the rain shower originating from my palms would provide a layer of protection. Plus, I knew I couldn’t easily get the darn gloves on anyway.

The next day, I stocked my backpack with an arsenal of possible sweat deterrents: a terrycloth towel, baby powder, another towel. The baby powder only created a paste, much like in the episode of Friends where Ross tried to wear leather pants.

I resorted to wearing cotton fabrics to act as absorbent garments. Black outfits were even better at hiding the excessive sweat from the repeated hand-wipeage. Socks were my new best friends, as my feet were just as bad. If only it was fashionable to wear socks on hands, I’d be set.

But unlike the acne that plagued most of my peers, the sweaty hands didn’t go away after high school, nor was the palm-puddle problem triggered by any particular situation (although just thinking about hands makes mine perspire on cue like a stupid human trick). You’ll still find me grabbing cocktail napkins on the sly and holding them in an attempt to absorb the embarrassing sweat, or clutching a drink glass in hopes the condensation will mask my hyperhidrosis before shaking hands. Perhaps high school never ends … or at least the insecurities we develop in our youth sometimes stick around forever. Thanks, lab partner.

The moral: Always wear black—cotton, if possible. –Deanna Rilling

Cheaters sometimes win (but not for long)

I’ve never been a numbers person. They fall out of my head before I can do anything with them. Back when manipulating numbers meant nothing more than arithmetic, I still had this problem.

My best friend, Audrianna, on the other hand, loved math. We were in second grade, and my entire life was ruined by these horrible addition and subtraction work sheets. I would spend hours slaving over them and then take them to my mom to check; she would make me do the entire thing over again due to my mistakes.

Audrianna saw my struggles and offered to do my work sheets for me. I knew cheating was wrong. But I hated math more than I hated cheating, I guess. It’s hard to remember the moral wars that pass through a 7-year-old’s head. But my ball and chain was removed; I was joyous.

I remember standing in the kitchen while my mom graded Audrianna’s math skills. My mom leaned down from her great height to pat my shoulder. “Your math is finally improving, honey,” she said. I felt horrible.

In the end, I got away with it. The only trouble is that I never fully memorized my addition and subtraction. It’s been a lifelong shame. Imagine having to secretly count on your fingers when playing blackjack. But I learned my lesson. By the time multiplication and division rolled around in fifth grade, I studied my little heart out.

Moral: Cheating carries consequences other than getting caught, and 8+6=15. –C. Moon Reed

Adults often behave like children

my parents sent me to private school so that i could receive a top-notch education and get into a good college, and I did both. But along the way I dealt with repressive rules and administrators seemingly more concerned with their school’s image and finances than what was best for students. I tolerated all of it—the worst of which (for me) was having to wear a uniform—until the day of my high-school graduation, when I decided I’d had enough. My big rebellion? Wearing a T-shirt and shorts under my graduation gown instead of the button-up shirt, tie and slacks we had been told was mandatory.

It sounds like such a small thing, but it meant a lot to me, and apparently it meant a lot to the school, too, because even though my entire outfit was covered with a gown, when a fellow student noticed my attire, I quickly had both the dean of students and the headmaster demanding I go home and change. When I refused, the situation escalated to the point that my parents were called in to convince me. I held my ground, and threats were made that I wouldn’t be able to graduate, and that the headmaster would write a letter to the college I planned to attend detailing my insubordination.

My grandparents got so upset over the whole thing that they left and missed the ceremony. Eventually it was too late for me to change even if I wanted to, and not surprisingly the threats turned out to be empty ones. I walked onstage with everyone else. I sat through the ceremony and received my diploma. No letter was written to my college of choice. Afterward, at the reception, I had the gown off and was wearing my scandalous outfit, and a teacher remarked that I sure had changed quickly. No one even knew what I was wearing during the ceremony.

My lesson? Well, I learned I could be extremely stubborn over even the smallest things, but so could theoretically responsible adults who should have been serving as role models. It was more important for the administration to be right than to be fair, and all of my academic accomplishments were meaningless in the face of breaking one rule. That emphasis on obedience over merit is one that can be found in corporations, in government and even in social gatherings. To this day, I avoid any place that has a dress code. –Josh Bell

Teachers are people, too

I walked into the classroom in shell-shocked silence, the images of towers burning, smoking and falling still playing in my head. It was my senior year of high school, and despite the fact that the attack on the World Trade Center had happened that morning, I was stuck in school, going through the motions of learning while teachers and students alike stared blankly into space.

Ms. Alper was not staring blankly. Her eyes were red from crying; her voice was strained; and the cool demeanor that we’d seen in the first classes of senior English had crumbled into a nervousness that made me squirm.

“I lost two friends in the South Tower today,” she said flatly after we’d taken our seats. “So just bear with me. This is going to be a shitty class.”

It was a shitty class, but the rest of the semester, Alper, as we called her, shone in our windowless classroom. She told jokes and teased us, used funny voices while discussing Shakespeare and openly admitted that she had been unable to make it through one of the books on our assigned summer reading list. When it was time to count off into groups, we used the exaggerated intonations of telemarketers; and when it was time to write poetry, Alper often went first, reading her own work before asking us to share. The random collection of students went from strangers to confidants. We met for dinner in Harvard Square during the winter and, with Alper holding the lighter, burned our college rejection letters in a show of solidarity and defiance.

Readings in our classroom took on a confessional tone. During one poetry reading, held at a nearby coffee shop, a student revealed that he was gay. He cried, and we hugged him. We’d already known. Another day, a student shared a scarily descriptive work that hinted at heroin use and other methods of self-destruction. Most teachers would have booked a session with our school’s drug and alcohol counselor, but we understood that what had been revealed in his story was sacred, and Alper knew it, too. I never heard the details of what happened next, but rumor had it Alper had tried to deal with the admission on her own, steering the student toward help without turning him in to the campus authorities.

A year later, Alper and I met on the opposite side of town—me, a college student feeling my way through my first months

on the hill; her, unemployed, writing some and singing some and trying to figure out where to go next. She had given us too much in that semester of secret truths and silly voices, and it had cost her the job. All I could do was thank her, and it didn’t seem nearly enough. –Sarah Feldberg

Good ideas aren’t always good enough

Most of the life lessons I learned in school I learned in fifth grade. Like: Being a writer is cool. Wearing glasses is not the end of the world. Floor hockey is the greatest sport ever. But the biggest involved the nature of eggs.

I entered a competition to see who could transport an egg farthest without breaking it. I don’t remember all of the solutions. Someone tried a slingshot. Another kid hollowed out the inside of a Nerf football, slipped the egg inside and threw a long bomb.

Me? I cut up a Styrofoam egg carton until only one “pod” was left, placed the egg inside and taped it up. Then I took the wrapped-up egg and attached it to the back of a plastic G.I. Joe airplane seat, which came out of the toy line’s F-14 fighter knockoff. The chair came equipped with a plastic parachute. In straight-up-in-the-air tosses in my back yard, the parachute usually deployed, so I figured a more horizontal trajectory would be fine.

The plan, simply, was to throw the egg-in-chair as far as I could, then watch the parachute open and guide the egg to a feather-soft landing. I didn’t need to win the contest, but I wanted my egg to survive.

When it was my turn, I threw the egg as far as I could, then waited for the chute to deploy. And waited. Finally, somewhere past the apex of the long curve the egg traced in the sky, sort of close (or, okay, just beyond) the point of no return, the parachute rather meekly showed its face. Strangely, it did little to slow the egg, which continued on its inevitable course toward the ground. The egg exploded upon touchdown. Damn …

The lesson? Lots of lessons here: Life is a constant engagement with failure. Someone else always has a better mousetrap. Kids’ toys don’t really work as well as advertised. Life goes on ... –T.R. Witcher

Seeing shouldn’t be believing

Mrs. Blue was a rotund black woman with a fat lap perfect for perching kindergartners on. I was enamored by the fat of her, by the droll lovingkindness, by the way she always wore big, stretchy pantsuits or bright skirts and matching jackets that made her body seem like a giant doll with interchangeable outfits. When I was homesick, Mrs. Blue would pick me up and plop me on her lap while she went about teaching from her desk. She did the same for any of us, even the kid who stole Kathy M.’s oatmeal cookies and put them down his pants. Mrs. Blue was particularly kind to me when I insisted on wearing a Washington Capitals snow cap throughout spring in Virginia, after I’d busted open my head in a rock-throwing mishap and was embarrassed by the bald spot shaved around the stitches.

So it was with absolute horror when, one morning, I looked to the front of the classroom and saw that Mrs. Blue had no arms. Or no hands. Something was wrong. She was sitting at her desk, happy as usual, wearing a bright blue pantsuit. I looked at her shoulders, which seemed fine, and then followed her jacket sleeve down to her wrist ... and there was nothing. No hand. Same on the other side. In fact, as she went about talking to the rest of the class, I studied the shape of her sleeves and concluded that she’d lost both arms way up, possibly above the elbow, and not even mentioned it to us. Mrs. Blue had gone through some kind of horrible accident the night before, and here she was, talking about something or other, kindly carrying on with kindergarten. I began to cry. Her empty sleeves dangled menacingly.

“What’s the matter?” the armless teacher said to me from behind her desk, big brown eyes now turning from gentle to creepy as hell. I saw one sleeve move abruptly when she turned to address me. It was empty.

“What happened to your arms?!” I cried, afraid of the ghastly answer, preparing to run into the coat closet.

And then, I learned a little something about wardrobe. Mrs. Blue magically pulled her arms from inside the blue jacket, tucked by her sides; the jacket was merely over her shoulders; the sleeves were dangling empty, but her arms were still attached to her torso underneath. “They’re right here, sugar,” she said, stretching those magnificent plump hugging arms wide, waving her hands, smiling a big, gentle smile.

Huge life lesson that applies in a zillion ways to this day: Wardrobe can be deceitful. –Stacy J. Willis

You can have a pretty good time for $2

A couple of times a week my Irish Catholic friends and I would creep off our high-school campus during lunch period. We were armed with $2 each—the cost of a school lunch in the Buffalo suburbs circa 1999. Seldom did those two George Washingtons, left on the kitchen counter by mom, get spent on cafeteria food, though. The chicken patties weren’t worth it. Not when a 40-ounce bottle of Milwaukee’s Best could be had for 79 cents at the Yellow Goose corner store. And not when a Whopper Jr. cost 99 cents. And certainly not when you could finish both in 26 minutes and still make it to sixth-period gym class with a buzz.

We would cut out the side door and calmly, acting naturally so as to not arouse suspicion, get into a car and pull out onto Legion Drive, heading west toward Camp Road. Whoever had the best fake ID at the moment would run in and grab the cold brown bottles. We’d start pounding in the car and as we pulled through the Burger King drive-thru. It felt like such a grand adventure, exercising our right to party in such a blatant yet illicit way. We listened to Eminem and told jokes.

We chomped Wrigley’s in a lame attempt to not smell like drunks. Sometimes we would bring in extra Whoppers for friends who couldn’t make it that day, those poor souls limited to fish sticks or sloppy joes. Sometimes we got caught. Sometimes we got detention. Sometimes we were forced to deny the smell of cheap beer. Once a vice principal called our parents.

But, thankfully, nothing ever really happened. –Mike Trask


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