On study halls and school songs

On study halls and school songs
                        

I didn’t really mind being the new kid in school; in fact, I liked it.

Whatever you did wrong didn’t count, and you got lots of mileage from doing something right. Every day offered new chances to define yourself, at least in the early stages, and there was something comforting in being able to erase pain without shame.

If you ever had an Etch-A-Sketch, you know the feeling of relief that came over a person when all he or she had to do to get rid of a hideous effort was to shake it vigorously, side to side, up and down.

All of a sudden, life was good and you could start again.

Of course, that’s not the way school really worked once you’d been there for a couple of weeks. By then you were expected to know up staircases from down, what the various bells meant, how to get a library pass and why there were certain teachers who were never going to give you a break, no matter how hard you tried.

And then there was study hall.

Of all the school conventions that confronted me when I crossed the chasm that separated parochial from public, none was as fascinating as that one.

The concept was simple enough: six classes in a nine-period day — with two for lunch — left two free. They offered a chance to either get a head start on homework or to complete it at the last minute.

Or so I thought.

Turned out, though, study hall had almost nothing to do with homework.

Actually, it had almost nothing to do with school at all.

To fully appreciate the folly of a full classroom period in which you were expected to exercise self-discipline and develop useful study habits, I’ll relate a single, expository, self-evident example.

In my ninth-grade year, study hall was held in the cafeteria. This meant that, unlike a standard classroom setting, there was often a surfeit of temptations just waiting to be exploited.

They included silverware.

Back in the late-'60s in my little town, schools had no problems with providing metal spoons, forks and knives for their students to use as they consumed their nourishing — if not always appetizing — noontime meals. I’m sure no one foresaw what trouble might ensue.

But one day a kid happened to find an errant knife on the floor and had the inspiration to jam it under the table, pinning it just so, and within seconds had devised a surefire way to drive the teacher nuts.

Using the scientific principle employed in a diving board, he pulled the knife handle down as far it would go and then released it.

"Boinnng!" it went, creating a thunderclap of jolting noise.

The supervising teacher, a rather squat and squarish woman who brooked no nonsense, was on her feet immediately, searching for the source of the interruption. Every step she took, however, was echoed by a bunch of other guys who surreptitiously began stomping their feet on the floor as she stalked her prey.

As the new kid, I took in this spectacle with a mixture of admiration and trepidation, waiting, as it were, for the other shoe to drop, but she was no bloodhound nun, and soon enough, she returned to her post to await the bell that would send her back to her classroom.

“What’s the point?” she probably asked herself. “Kids’ll be kids.”

When I recall that teacher now, nearly 50 years down the road, I’m reminded of Grace, Ed Rooney’s officious secretary in “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” and the way she describes the truant’s appeal to his classmates, who support him and his mischievous ways.

“Oh, he’s very popular, Ed,” she says. “The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, d---heads — they all adore him. They think he’s a righteous dude.”

Ferris is, of course, the film’s anti-hero, a self-absorbed slacker who frequently breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience, offering such insights as, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”

He’s right, of course, and that’s what makes him as appealing today as he was back in 1986 when the movie made Matthew Broderick a star. Ferris Bueller takes some James Dean in “Rebel Without a Cause,” stirs in some Holden Caulfield from “Catcher in the Rye” and immerses that potent blend into a simmering broth equal parts “Ridgemont High’s” Jeff Spicoli and Christian Slater from “Pump Up the Volume.”

The result is one of the most memorable characters in high school.

But as affable and engaging and creative as Ferris is, he’s not real.

No one has that kind of luck. Not to be a buzzkill, but he’d probably be assigned to a re-education/military camp in today’s world. There’s just no place for a nonconformist these days. Sooner or later, the whip’s going to come down.

So it’s probably best for kids to go along and get along. It’s safer.

That’s if they’re even in an actual school building at all. In many places across America, COVID-19 has either eliminated or severely curtailed academic pursuits beyond the home, keeping kids far from hallways and classrooms and cafeterias and gyms.

And that’s smart.

You can’t take chances with children’s lives.

When we were that age, we worried about fitting in, making friends, finding our way in a landscape mined with imagined booby traps, a place where a single misstep could cost you dearly.

But none of that loss of stature/status seems to matter at all today.

Paul Simon once wrote, “When I think back on all the crap I learned in high school, it’s a wonder I can think at all.”

To which Bruce Springsteen added, “We learned more from a three-minute record, baby, than we ever learned in school.”

And who doesn’t remember Pink Floyd’s flat-toned drone? “We don’t need no education,” indeed.

But I think — as I so often do — Neil Young might have best anticipated what’s happening in today’s academic crazy-quilt world of stay-at-home learning and lost chances to grow up.

“There’s one more kid that’ll never go to school,

never get to fall in love, never get to be cool.”

There’s an authentic sadness in those words that chills me when I remember, as the new kid in school, what it felt like to finally, wonderfully realize tomorrow just might be better than today.


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