Rick Charlie

The Politics of Killing for an A


This is how Killing to get an A started

“Okay, here’s how this is gonna go.  (Going around the circle) – You are going to do all the measuring and cutting.  You and I are going to do all the building and hammering.  You are going to get started on the roof.  And you (me) are going to read the blue prints take the notes, and write the stupid paper.  Everyone got it?”

It was my second week of 9th grade.  I was in a brand new Jr. High school.  My family had moved from the only hometown four generations had ever known.  It was a mere 5 miles away, but we went from solid Middle America city suburb to Upper America not so city suburb.  I knew a few kids, (none in this class) but I was the “new kid.”  Nobody really knew me.

It was wood shop, and we had been broken up into groups for the project we would work on for the rest of the semester.  We had to build a wall of a house, complete with functioning window, and partial roof that would be shingled.  Both the interior and exterior were to be completely finished.  It was actually a pretty cool project.

I was paired up in a group where it was obvious I stuck out like a sore thumb.  These were the core of the burnouts, and their leader, an indignant bully Tom, without asking, had put himself in charge of our workgroup.  They all were all dressing in tattered Wrangler jeans, flannels, or army jackets and steel toed work boots.  I was in my typical khakis and suave Wham colored Polo shirt with the popped collar and a nice pair of Docksiders.  Yeah, it looked as bad as you can imagine.

My first big mistake

Like a moron who just didn’t understand the cultural rules of the school, and this particular group, I spoke up. “Ummm, why do I have to just do all the writing?”  The entire group froze, and all faces turned toward Tom (that should have been my first clue).  He smirked at first and, with one swift flip of his neck, the medium length; wavy, greasy black hair flew back revealing his now somewhat annoyed face.  “Because I said so,” he said quite matter of factly.

While I was the “new kid” I also had the advantage of being 6”1” tall at age 14.  Though pretty lanky, I was still a towering figure over most kids.  Tom, however, was 16 years old.  Yeah, he’d been held back a couple times.  While not quite 6 feet, he was still a large and looming figure.  He looked much more like Bluto than a Jr. High student. The 5 o’clock shadow on his face should have also clued me in that this kid was not someone to probably mess with, but needless to say, I persisted.

“Ummmm, yeah, cool, but I didn’t choose to take wood shop just to write papers or read a blueprint, I already know how to do that.”  He had choices at this point.  There was certainly room for negotiation, compromise, a bag of Doritos and a Mt. Dew, but he chose the only route I think he really knew – escalation.  NO OTHER KID DARED to question anything he said.  If they did, they got pummeled.

The Shit gets real

Tom stood up from the stool at the workbench we were all sitting around.  He picked up a hammer that just happened to have a hatchet instead of a nail claw on the back half of it.  All of the other kids backed up.  The look on their face was a somewhat shocked, yet somewhat excited pause.  The teacher had left the room after handing out the blueprints, so the potential for a free-for-all was there.  Slamming the hatchet end of the hammer into the thick wood workbench, Tom gritted his teeth and repeated very slowly his first answer, “BECAUSE.I.SAID.SO.”  He picked up the hammer again and moved towards me.  “Who the fuck are you, punk?”

Well, this is how you make friends quickly, right?  While I knew that my logical questioning had nowhere NEAR warranted this response, I made a hasty, yet logical decision myself; I too picked up a hammer.  I realized that other than his little band of merry men, no one else in the class had yet noticed the WWE rumble in the jungle that was about to transpire.

Noting my hammer grabbing reaction to his actions, the burnout bully once again smirked as he slowly walked toward me with his hammer, hatched end out.  “What the fuck you gonna do with that smart boy?”  Smart boy?  I was a straight C student!  But I’m sure he had no clue.  I looked like the smart preppy kids.

Ummmm, you might want to think about that

I really had no clue what the fuck I would do with the hammer.  I was a lover, not a fighter (YES, Michael Jackson stole that line from me).  It just seemed like the logical thing to do – even up the armaments.  I was actually quite terrified at the moment now.  If there had been any pee in my bladder at the time, I’m sure it would have been trickling down my leg at the moment.  I really had not expected this kind of reaction, and I had ZERO allies in the room.  Unlike my foe, who was pretty much pinned in the corner, I did have plenty of retreat room behind me.  Pretty much a straight shot out the door – had that thought even occurred to me.

He flipped the hammer in his hand as he continued to walk slowly toward me.  “I SAID, WHAT YA GONNA WITH THAT PUNK?”  I think someone has watched too many Clint Eastwood movies (thank god my mouth did not get the message to verbalize that thought).  With my hammer in hand, I foolishly moved the stool in front of me out of the way and established my position.  From all appearances, it looked like I was standing up to this kid.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  I had no fucking idea what I was doing.

Oh yes he did!

This action further displeased my adversary.  He looked down at the now vacant 10 feet between us, and in one shockingly quick move, flung his hammer straight at my head.  Being a hockey goalie and all that came with it at the time pretty much saved my ass.  I was able to dodge that hatchet with a very quick head bob to the right.  Had I not, it would have hit me square in the middle of my face.

Luck would continue on my side, for as I dodged to the right and turned toward the airborne spinning hammer, I was able to see where it landed – right on the now returning teachers steel toed boot.  Tom, standing there still with his hand outstretched was busted!  “OUTSIDE – NOW!”

Tom’s face turned to pure rage at this point.  He blew right past me extending his arms to shove me aside.  I fortunately dodge that too.  At this point the entire class was now keen to what was going on.  The burnout crew just stood there with their jaws on the ground.  The teacher pointed to one of the “popular” kids and said, “Yer in charge till I get back!  Everyone TAKE A SEAT AND DON’T MOVE!”

The shop teacher was a hulk of a man.  About 6’4” and maybe 350 pounds.  He shoved Tom out of the room, and then the entire class stopped in silence with what happened next.  Just outside the door we all heard the distinct sound of a body being slammed up against a locker hard.  Even in 1979, a teacher didn’t touch another kid in school like that.  But this one did.  “DON’T YOU EVER PULL THAT KINDA SHIT IN MY CLASSROOM AGAIN!”  This was followed by loud slapping footsteps down the hallway to the Principles office.

The aftermath

I was placed in a different group for the semester project.  I never had another incident with Tom after that.  It certainly was not out of fear from him, nor was it out of respect, no; I think I just wasn’t even worth a second thought on his radar.  Besides, he was rarely in school anyway.  The next year at the high school, he was gone.  I have no idea what happened to him.

Though this kid flunked pretty much every class he had ever taken to that point, he wasn’t dumb.  I figured out later that the plan he put in place was actually quite smart.  He knew those other kids and their abilities pretty well.  Without knowing me at all, he had fit me in to the perfect slot.  While I WAS a C student, reading things like drawings, and writing were the two things I did just happen to be really good at.  Had I not questioned him, and had this incident not happened, we probably would have gotten an A for the semester, and honestly, would have had the best project.

The Lesson

But here was the problem – while all that would have been nice, what we had was a difference in values.  Tom wanted an A, and I wanted to learn. Sure, everyone wants an A on pretty much any project in school.  And, with our team, we would have earned that.  In a work environment that would have been the ideal set up.  Each chosen for their strength to lead at the best skill they had.  But we were in a school, and schools are for learning.  That is what I wanted to do.

I SUCKED at cutting wood, hammering, drilling and generally putting things together.  I took the class to learn how to DO those things.  I was scared to death of table saws, nail guns, and band saws.  The fact that the shop teacher was missing 2 fingers didn’t help that.  But I needed to overcome those things and learn how to do them, and with Tom’s plan I would learn nothing of those.  Sure I wanted an A, but more than that I wanted the satisfaction of measuring out 2X4’s, cutting them to the correct size, fitting them together and nailing them down.  But I didn’t get a chance to express that.  We never got to actually talk.  We went from disagreement to war in 10 seconds.  I’m not sure; however, Tom was going to listen anyway.

So, WTF?

So, what does this picture have to do with that story?  That was Tom’s house.  Well, that’s where it was.  Like Tom, the old, beat up, tiny ranch that was once there is long gone.  This behemoth of a McMansion has now taken its place.  It rests at the end of a long dead end road.  Most of the houses on it are old and very small, but are perched on quite large pieces of land.  It seems that some have gotten wise to this forgotten parchment of the city, and a few have torn down those old houses and taken advantage of the large parcels, building beautiful giant homes.

I hadn’t been down there in almost 30 years.  In Jr. High, our bus would drive the long road just to pick up Tom.  He was the only kid down there.  I’m sure the bus driver hated it.  The turnaround was a bitch, and he knocked over the mailbox on a few occasions.  The other reason?  Tom rarely came out for the bus.  It’s not that he got a ride, or walked to school, no, most days, he didn’t even bother showing up.  When he did, he was typically quite jovial, in his own put down mean way.  The next year in High School, that stop was not on my buses route.

It’s not like I have avoided going down that road, I just never had any reason to.  As I said, it does not go anywhere.  It’s just a long dead end road.  I was getting bored with all my other neighborhood walking routes, and so yesterday I said, screw it, let’s try something new.  As I approached the end of the road, I remembered Tom, and our little incident.  I had actually completely forgotten about it.  I got closer, and could not see the house; I thought perhaps the brush had overgrown everything, burying the house behind it.  But no, it was gone, and in its place, just off to the right now, was this one.

I stood for a few moments wondering whatever happened to Tom.  Of course all my first thoughts were that he was either dead, or some drunk somewhere going from job to job as was reported that his old man did.  Then I felt deeper.  I really hope that was not Tom’s fate.  For as much of an asshole as he was, and for as much of a bully that I saw, there were a lot of really good things about that kid that could have come out.  He had a lot of potential to be great, funny, even a leader.  I’m pretty sure he never saw that, or had the opportunity to.  Listening, like writing, were not in his skill set.  It was something he needed to learn.  I really hope he did, because he really could have been somebody.  Maybe he is.



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