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Monday, Sept. 02, 2002
Ever sit back and ruminate about the time you spent in junior high? Indulge me, I feel a rant about to break out.

I tend toward the line of psychology that allows me to blot it out as it happens, but there's still a few glorps of time that slipped through the filtration system. And why, I couldn't begin to guess.

See, I entered junior high at the end of the Age of Aquarius. When flower power hippies were already blasť, and Madison Ave. had already powered up the machinery to cash in on free love and long hair and clothing best left forgotten. This is a story about when bell-bottoms were young.

You got shifted from an elementary school to middle / junior high school after the fifth grade. My elementary school was a bastion of conservative thinking, ruled with an iron fist by a balding, no-nonsense man with black horn rims and little tolerance for nonsense. He was feared, he was firm. But you know what? He turned out to be a pretty cool guy to have around on a fifth grade end-of-the-year campout. If for no other reason than he took the time to wish all of us in turn a good summer and a happy 6th grade. To somewhat wistfully encourage us, his charges.

I remember him now, and how he and his employees taught us well. They were neatly dressed, clearly spoken people who expected to get something done with us every day of the week. It was a good thing that they did, because junior high was another thing altogether.

Junior High was the Democratic National Convention in Chicago rolled into Haight Ashbury rolled into a myopic feel-good sociology experiment.

I think all the teachers in sixth grade must have been spending their summer smoking dope and deciding how to best change the society which raised them. Starting with us. The ones who really needed no changing at all.

I went into it with eyes open, of course. Spotted it right off. This was not a place to sit and learn and stand in straight lines. This was a place where the less active of eighth grade learners were lumped with the sixth graders. I never have figured out how an eighth grader's math skills should be on a par with a sixth graders, but there we were. Teachers tended to show up in whatever garb pleased them, trying to relate to the kids, and somehow coming off as less than authority figures in the process. There was free speech and free love and sensitivity galore. On any given day, the books might be tossed aside so that we could go outside and take our shoes off and run in the grass. And be expected to give breathless accounts of how that made us feel.

The term psyco-babble had yet to be coined, but it fit.

The science teacher, a mature woman who might have known better, came into class one day as we settled into desks and started a little experiment. "I'm going to test several of you, test to see how your 'bubble' works. She started with me, leaning in close enough to breathe in my ear for a moment, without a word, then on to the next kid. She tried this on several of us, and with the exception of me, all of them jerked away when she got close enough to 'break their bubble'. Some with giggles, some with actual fear.

She looked rather annoyed with me. Her point was to establish that all humans have this bubble thing, see, and we were supposed to not let any stranger penetrate it, blah blah. And she compared us to the animal kingdom and how they all have their own bubble thingy, and how important it was for us to learn from the animals.

Funny, I always thought we were smarter than your average lizard. I had to get all the way to 6th grade to find out it ain't necessarily so.

I suppose I brought a lot of it on myself. I wore my hair short in those days. Wait. Not short, but buzz short. Marine Corp short. Every eighth grade girl in the place made it her personal mission to sneak up on me and place a palm flat on the top of my skull and vigorously rub it to and fro. It never failed to garner a laugh, and increase my misery. Every boy in my elementary school had short hair, but the barbers in that town had total revenue meltdowns that fall. At least from the sixth graders. Hair grew long, and the skull grabbing ceased.

I spent a year learning absolutely nothing. The junior high staff was very accommodating in that regard. They spent a year in a social experiment relative to the times, which was to teach nothing, but let the young minds feel and experiment and generally soak up all the Bob Dylan and Beatles and Timothy Leary they could stand.

To this day, I see the result of that. My generation, now grown old and feeling sucker punched by all this, earnestly stands up in PTA meetings and vents wrath upon each other to return to the days of the basics, the days of rote memorization and facts and sitting straight in your desk.

I had five years of that, and can't see where it did me any harm. I'm inclined to agree with them.

I see my kids, now nearly grown, and remember how they proudly showed me what they learned in 4th grade. That they were into the times tables. And I had to sigh and recount how I finished up multiplication in the second grade. And never looked back. They learned all the state capitals in fifth grade, me in fourth. Stuff like that. By the time they get to college, they might be learning what I did in junior high.

It's Labor Day, and my high-schoolers are going back to school tomorrow. All three of them.

If someone tests their individual bubbles, I'm gonna go down there and do some testing of my own.

A good swift kick to the groin ought to do it. Breaking the bubble, so to speak.

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