Today I was looking through a National Geographic magazine and had a flashback to middle school.
When I was in elementary school my town was building a new intermediate school (middle school). It was intended for grades 5-8. I actually attended for grades 5-9 (due to a high school renovation project) but I digress. We students were proud of this brand new school. It was built with open classrooms—not the educational theory of open classrooms but literally, there were no walls. It was a very interesting place. I was forced to learn to concentrate and to listen carefully in order to hear what my teacher was saying as we could hear the chatter from all the other classrooms surrounding us.
There were two lecture halls. It was a cool design actually. There was a big stage, then steps that went all across the front of the stage going down into a sunken cafeteria. Everything was carpeted, the front of the stage, the stairs, and the cafeteria floor. Behind the sunken cafeteria, facing the stage was a giant retractable wall. When opened, it revealed two side by side lecture halls with stadium style seating. The chairs were plastic and they had those retractable desk tops. So if you can imagine sitting in the stadium seats, when the wall was open you would have in front of you, the entire cafeteria floor sunken down and then in front of you, the stairs (great for choir performances) and then the stage behind (for plays and other stage performances).
The lecture halls were side by side, and there was a retractable wall in between the two. When the front wall was up, a giant screen could come down and we’d watch movies in there. I don’t know how many could fit in one side of the lecture hall but I recall something like 20 seats in one row and there had to be 25 rows.
Periodically we would be lead into the lecture hall to watch a documentary that was the fun stuff. We also used that room for administration of standardized tests. I remember a lot of stress and tension on the part of the teachers when we’d walk to the lecture hall. Stand in line, be quiet, and all that jazz.
As we went into the lecture hall they tried to keep order and forced us to start seating at the top row and to go into the row and fill every seat. The teachers were very stressed out about this. As you can imagine the students wanted to sit next to certain friends and so the whole process was a bit chaotic. We kids did not mind this but boy the teachers were tense. It also would take quite some time for all the classes to get in there and to get everyone seated. By then the tensions were at an all time high and the kids were all talking and it was noisy.
I remember feeling so free and happy to be doing something other than the same-old, same-old classroom work. We didn’t care what we watched we were just happy to get out of the class and to sit in the lecture hall to watch a movie.
All this time the teachers were fumbling with the movie projector. A tension was building as often there was some problem with the machine. And as we students got noisier and noisier the teachers were on edge.
This was our favorite part. The lights went out and it was very dark. Then the show began, with that fantastic National Geographic theme song. We students had a routine and the teachers knew it. They hated it. They began their announcements to be quiet and to not make noise. They said if we made noise we’d never get to watch another National Geographic show (that was a lie and we all knew it). So we did it anyway. The music would go da-nah-nah-nah-nah, da-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah-nah and then we’d all stomp our feet and slam the desktops BAM! BAM!
It was fantastic!
It really sounded great to do that.
And the teachers went wild! They’d be walking up and down the carpeted stairs and yelling, “Stop it! Stop it! I see you Steven, you did it!” (We all were doing it; you could not pick on one student or punish just one person.)
If my memory serves me correctly it was at that point that all the students erupted in laughter and cheers. We then quickly quieted down, (shut up) and watched the movie without causing any more problems or stress.
Being a part of the rebellion was great fun. I think that what bugged we students was not understanding the big deal was. So what if we made the loud bam-bam sound? It was not a problem. We all saw this as yet another stupid control tactic that the teachers were imposing on us. That was yet another part of the politics of school. And the fact that they got so upset about it made us want to do it more. I wonder if we would have done that if the teachers didn’t care?
It was great fun. That was the one and only time that we all, as students were united and acting together as one big group. (The rest of the time we were all cliqued off and in subgroups with differing agendas and opinions.)
To this day when I hear the National Geographic music I want to make the loud noise for the bam-bam part.
(You can listen to that theme song here.)
Thinking about this as a parent I don’t like the fact that the kids were not respecting the authority of the teachers. However I still think it is not that big of a deal to make that noise and also I do remember that in so many ways we were overly-controlled by the teachers and a person (even a child or a teenager) can only take that kind of suppression for only so long.
I wonder if still today in that school they show the National Geographic documentaries to the middle school students and if so, if they do the bam-bam thing.’
In summary for me the memory is about the feeling I had of being suppressed and trapped in school. I remember such boring days of copying long outlines off of an overhead projector, filling Mead spiral notebooks with pages and pages of notes while not understanding or caring about what we were even writing. I remember boredom and wishing we could go outside. We could not even see outside, the contemporary building was made to barely have any windows, so similar to a jail. I felt like I was in jail, and those times of watching a simple National Geographic documentary were the short times when I could feel a happiness at the break in routine, a break from the doldrums. It reminds me of the bad controlling part of teachers and public schools, just that oppressive nature of public schooling in America.
The middle school years were the grades in which I stopped being curious about learning and where I realized that school was a game. I learned to play that game and sometimes I chose to play it while other times I rebelled and refused to play it. I lost my love of school in middle school.
And socially it was when both the girls and the boys went through puberty and hormones were raging. It was about having crushes on members of the opposite sex who we were afraid to talk to. Cliques were formed and I found my place with a group of girls. There was a huge focus on looks, trying to avoid or treat acne, obsessing on hair styles (we all hated our own hair) and obsessing on clothing. There were issues of wanting to wear make-up but some parents (like mine) wouldn’t let me (until some time in 8th grade). Some wanted earrings but the parents refused (I got mine at age 13, finally but my best friend had to wait until age 18). We all wanted to wear the same brands of clothing and shoes. My father did not allow me to wear a bikini or a mini skirt but the skin tight jeans and the short-shorts were alright (thank goodness or I’d really have had a problem with teasing). These years were the meanest of all, socially, a blend of nastiness, back-stabbing, gossiping, judging others on their looks and clothes, and immaturity.
I am so glad my kids won’t be a part of all of that nonsense that is the culture of American public middle schools.
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