I was a certified loser now. There would be no more advanced classes for me. My eighth grade classmates were the average and the rowdy: Tony, who actually pulled the “dick in a box” trick on our study hall teacher; Spazz, who practiced french kissing on his desk; Scott, who sat in front of me in science and passed the time reading Hustler. If Mr. Patterson happened to wander to our end of the room Scott would toss his skin mag du jour onto my desk. Oddly I never got caught, and I never gave him his magazines back. He came to class once with hundreds of puncture wounds on his forearms. He looked like a leper.
“I was poking myself with a compass in math class.”
“I don’t know. Bored.”
Not one teacher noticed what in retrospect seems like a…something. A cry for help, perhaps, or at least for attention. But when Scott called Mr. Patterson a possum head it was straight to vice-principal Bullet Bob’s for an ass whipping.
And that’s how it was for my classmates and me. We weren’t the kids with potential, nor were we the kids who posed a threat. We were simply average little assholes taking up space between seven and three, Monday through Friday. As long as we didn’t liken teachers to marsupials we were free to drift along.
Social studies was as close to a zoo enclosure as I have ever experienced. Matronly Mrs. Henderson, sweet as could be with her glasses slipping down her nose, tried day after day to teach us about the Smoot-Hawley Tariff and whatever else while a storm of spitballs flew around the room. She told us in her melodious voice about the three branches of government while we threw a barrage of paper airplanes at each other. A question about the Bill of Rights was likely to earn in reply a verse of AC/DC’s “Big Balls,” with all of us chiming in at “we’ve got the biggest balls of them all.” While Mrs. Henderson lectured on civic duty we drew KISS, Ozzy, and Van Halen logos on our desks.
At the center of the hurricane sat one boy: Peter Kuster. Peter was from Switzerland, but he was all American. No, he was more than that — he was a Southern boy, no mean feat for a transplant. He looked a bit like a young Conan O’Brien, perhaps, and easily was as charming. The first airplane or spitball was always Peter’s, but as frustrated as Mrs. Henderson would get she couldn’t resist his smile and laugh. The kid had the touch.
Eventually we progressed from paper-related projectiles to pre-internet flash mob disruptions. When Peter yelled “Surf’s Up!” we’d jump on our desks and pretend to surf, never mind that we were three hundred miles inland. (I’m sure he stole this bit from a movie, but I’ve never found it. Do you know which movie? End my suffering and tell me.)
One day a substitute, Miss Underwood, appeared. She returned the next day, and the next. Days turned into weeks. Miss Underwood was hellbent on not taking any shit. The smallest infraction meant a trip to Bullet Bob’s office. Offended by my handwriting she tasked me with repeating “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog” 100 times on college rule paper. I did it maybe twice before turning back to Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas.
“Didn’t I tell you 100 times?”
“Then why aren’t you writing?”
“Because it’s stupid and it won’t make my handwriting better.”
“Okay, Mr. Stafford, then you can give me four pages from your social studies book by tomorrow for talking back.” I did as I was told. I tore four pages out of my textbook and handed them to her. Oddly Bullet Bob didn’t beat my ass. Maybe he was tired of dealing with her discipline problems.
After a couple of months we heard that Mrs. Henderson would be back the following Monday. Peter decided we should welcome her back.
“Let’s stack as many desks on top of hers as we can,” he said. We got to work. When Mrs. Henderson entered she looked genuinely happy to see us, and then she saw her desk of desks.
“Stop it! Stop it!” she screamed, and with one mighty bingo wing she sent the tower of desks flying. “You are horrible! Horrible!” And that was the least we saw of Mrs. Henderson, at least in school. I ran into her a couple of years later at a wedding.
“Hey Mrs. Henderson,” I said.
“Hello, Jim. How are you?” She was calm, pleasant.
“Good. I’m in tenth grade now.”
“I’m not teaching any grade. Would you like to know why? Because you and your little friends ran me out of teaching. I hope you enjoy the tenth grade.” And that was the last I saw of Mrs. Henderson.
Not too long after she stormed out of her last classroom, Peter Kuster moved back to Switzerland. Without our leader and with a revolving assortmet of substitutes to antagonize we all sort of lost the hell raising spirit and simply wasted the period sleeping, talking, drawing on desks, or in my case reading.
On March 30, 1981, Ronald Reagan was shot, and that same day Bullet Bob commandeered the school intercom:
“Attention students. I have the unfortunate duty of announcing that your former classmate, Peter Kuster, has been killed in a bicycle accident. He was a special young man and our prayers go out to all of you. You may come to the office and call your parents if you need to go home.”
Peter’s was the first death in a streak that remained unbroken all the way through high school graduation. Every year someone died, usually in a car accident of some sort, and almost always one of those average/middling/dead-ender kids on whom the adults had given up. And inevitably the deceased was venerated as a very special young man with a lot of potential. I guess it’s easier to notice and support the dead than it is to deal with the kid poking hundreds of holes in his arm.
After school I rode my bicycle straight to Lee G’s house. I don’t remember what we did or talked about. I simply remember needing to be with someone who knew Peter, who was my age, who was alive. I rode home in a fog, so deep inside my own head that I wasn’t even on the bike. I turned left to take the shortcut up Ricky Brent’s driveway, left crank down. The pedal dug into the asphalt and I hit the pavement. I heard the squeal of brakes, looked up at the grill of a Dodge Aspen — Lee G’s father on his way home from work.
“Are you okay? I almost hit you.” I stared at him saucer-eyed, righted my bike and rode away.
My mother arrived home at the same time that I did. “Are you okay?” she asked, probably in reference to my bloody arm and torn clothes.
“Peter died,” I managed, and then I collapsed on her, sobbing.
“I don’t know who Peter is,” she said, but she held me.
You are probably wondering where the music was in this piece. My friend just died, so maybe you can get off me. Besides, I drew a Van Halen logo on my desk a few hundred words ago. Give me a break or I’ll hit you with a spitwad.