Eighth grade English: The reality check

Eighth grade English was a small introduction to the real world. Not everyone is eager to learn. Not everyone wants to be in school. Not everyone has respect for teachers or those giving presentations. Kids act up and cause disruptions in class for no reason. Not everyone does the work or makes an effort.

I viewed trying and making an effort, being respectful and paying attention as expected behavior. I wasn’t abnormal for following those protocols, but I viewed others as weird for not doing so.

This year was also a glimpse of the real world because of my teacher. I had known Mrs. Davis for most of my life. Her mother lived two houses down from us. Mrs. Davis had two daughters. Madalyn, the oldest, was my brother’s age, and we’d hang out a lot. I had a deep respect for Mrs. Davis. I knew she taught English, but I never would have guessed she’d end up being my teacher. I was with students who made an effort and then there were several who put up a fight every step of the way and just didn’t care at all.

Looking back it seems more obvious that some of my classmates were likely going through very difficult experiences at home. Maybe they didn’t have a lot of money, maybe there wasn’t much food or maybe parents worked too much and didn’t spend a lot of time with them. Maybe there was abuse at home or drugs. There are many factors that could have influenced their behavior in the classroom. Factors I was blissfully unaware of.

It was a challenging year because I did want to do well in class. I wanted to do my best. And because of that eagerness, I got picked on.

One of the ongoing assignments in class was maintaining a journal. We periodically handed these in for a grade. Some days there was a specific prompt we were responding to, but mostly it was up to us to write about something. Anything. I’m grateful I still have it. It’s an amazing time capsule for what life was like. There are many cringe-worthy entries where I talk about going out to eat with my family which was ok but having a very cute waiter made the whole evening a thousand times better. Or how I was in church and happened to spot a crush and oh he’s looking in my direction. That must mean something!

But then there were entries of how I was treated in class. Some of which I had forgotten about. Standing at about 6 feet tall, it was very hard to find pants that were long enough. They would be fine while standing but end up being short once I sat down. So kids teased me for that on a regular basis. The classroom was set up like the picture below, in an us vs. them kind of showdown. And the students who caused problems for me sat on the other side of the room.

Spelling and language arts were fairly easy subjects. I guess that included learning parts of speech, diagramming sentences and other skills. We had several encounters with essay writing, not detouring very far from the 5-paragraph approach. I did fairly well with that. We had to turn in handwritten final drafts. I spent extra time making sure my cursive was neat and legible.

I struggled in the literature portion of class. Of reading stories and passages and being able to analyze them, identifying themes. Drawing broader conclusions that could be applied to life instead of just part of the current story. And identifying the plot. I still had a tendency to include smaller details when describing the main plot points.

But I found ways to challenge myself. The weekly spelling assignment was to write sentences. Well, when we had a unit of French words, I got it in my head to create a story with the words. I didn’t stop there, though. I thought my one year of French lessons in 6th grade was enough to allow me to translate the story. Yep, I was that kid, dubbed the overachiever. But I wanted a challenge, I wanted a way to push myself in a reasonable, achievable way. I got my French-English dictionary and did a very literal translation of what I wrote, completely overlooking that you had to conjugate the verbs. I ran the text by my brother who had several more years of French experience and was planning to study in France soon. He helped me with the translation. I actually read the French and English versions of my little story aloud to the class, to the admiration of my teacher and the eye-rolls of my classmates. Yes, that certainly made me more of a target.

So here’s a first-hand glimpse at what happened in class:

Journal entry: 3.9.98
I gave my presentation for my Holocaust project. No one really appreciates me in this class. They were all making snoring sounds. I’m glad Josh volunteered to help me with my poster. He is really a sweetheart. I hate it when people don’t respect others when they are giving their projects. It’s so sad that they have to act like that. Oh well.

Comment from Mrs. Davis when she reviewed this entry: This class (many of them) lack respect for themselves. 

Such an accurate assessment of my classmates! I’m grateful she wrote that comment for me. While my journal entry seemed to show me brushing off the incident, at least she reinforced that I wasn’t the one with the problem.

Journal entry: 3.23.98
Today we have a substitute. He is a nice person, but I wish I could say the same for my classmates. After lunch, they started up. Especially with a laser pen. They were pointing it at me, and when they got a reaction out of me, they started to laugh. I felt like cussing them out but I didn’t want to get written up. They flashed it in my eye and this really got me mad. So I wrote a note to Mrs. Davis which I gave to the substitute. I do seriously doubt that they will let me forget this.

Journal entry: 3.24.98
I let Mrs. Davis know about what happened on Monday. She told me that she would talk to them. All the teachers that read my note agreed that they shouldn’t have done this. Mrs. Davis thought that this was considered harassment. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me over the years. The first time was in sixth grade with all my fellow classmates. This experience lasted about ¾ of the year. That was why I transferred schools.

The Holocaust
Learning about the Holocaust was a big deal to me. I was amazed at the conditions people were forced to live in, the cruelty, the discrimination. It was hard to imagine that actually happening in the world, and yet it wasn’t that long ago. We did several lessons in class and then had a few speakers talk in assemblies. We watched a movie about Anne Frank and did some reading in class. Then we heard a survivor give her story as well as a man sharing his father’s experiences.

Journal entry: 2.5.98
I can’t believe how brave Mr. Korn was to be able to stand in front of that many people and give the talk he gave. I wouldn’t be able to talk about something so tragic like he did. I thought I was going to cry! I still can’t believe that the Holocaust actually happened. All those people died just because of one mad man. It’s so terrible!

Reading that entry now and the one that follows, I’m amazed at the self-awareness, the ability to empathize and relate on an emotional level. I’m amazed at the maturity, because while I’m sure some classmates had a reaction similar to mine, others only viewed it as time away from the classroom.

Journal entry: 3.11.98
During 4th period we saw an assembly for NJROTC. It was very interesting to watch. I learned a lot. It seemed like it took awhile to learn what they showed us. I think it would be extremely difficult to learn and prepare to do even competitions. I felt bad for those who didn’t get the full respect of the eighth grade. It takes a lot of time and effort, in my opinion, to participate in NJROTC!

Comment from Mrs. Davis: Excellent volume and thoughtfulness! Thank you for being serious about this assignment!

And while English class was challenging and I still had to face some harassment, the year itself was so much better than sixth grade. (If you missed that blog post, you can read it here.) At least in eighth grade it was just a few individuals who got me down instead of everyone. And I had more people in my life who actually wanted to be around me. So that certainly helped counter the negativity from English.


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