Seventh and eighth grades went passingly well. The teacher was not Dutch and I knew it—not because I knew what Dutch was, but because it was somehow clear to me that he wasn’t what I was. From those years, I remember specific lessons—about the Reformation for instance (the glories of the Reformers and the despotic Roman Catholics who were overweight and alcoholic and sold crappy indulgences stupid people were somehow willing to believe would buy them eternal life, a history it took me awhile to nuance), and about the Civil War (I got belovedly lost in the lives of the generals).
Mr. LeFever was Presbyterian of the Orthodox people, someone whose own recent history included breaking away from a liberal church. I think he taught the Reformation itself with an intensity borne out of his own people’s story—hence, more martyrdom. Martydom—people reciting the 23rd psalm as fire beneath them wretchedly licks out their lives—is of great fascination to boys in early adolescence, when very little is capable of grossing them out.
Spitballs were in during those years—not so much fired at each other, but as an element of the classroom’s interior decoration--on the ceiling, for instance, or on the bust of Abraham Lincoln. The idea was to get a clod of that really soft paper that came in tablets given to little kids—soak it up with spit, and then throw the glob hard enough so it would stick somewhere glaringly public. Me too. I was among ‘em, the spitballers.
I got caught one Friday afternoon. I’d taken a thick and heavy spit ball, rolled it out of my mouth, and then whipped it up against the window, where it hung like a barnacle. It wasn’t really a public act—I mean, it wasn’t as if all my friends were watching. It was what we did. There that fat thing sat splatted on the window, a white plug of soggy refuse, gross as anything a middle school boy might love.
LeFever must have seen me throw it because he said something I’ve never forgotten: “You,” he said, “you—a Schaap.”
I don’t know that anything that happened to me during my grade school years mattered as much in my life as that pronouncement because I’d never before thought of myself as “a Schaap,” someone part of a wider community, an extended family, with its very own name and history. Even though I knew my father was mayor and my grandfather had served as the preacher in the church downtown, they weren’t me because me was someone else, and the idea that somehow a single sloppy spitball was a blot on the honor of my family album stayed with me as I walked home that night. That I was connected to something more than just my own body and heart and soul made me both larger than I was and, scarily, a whole lot more than what I’d ever wanted to be.
I was mad. I thought it was awful of him to say that. After all, what on earth had that spitball to do with Rev. Schaap or Grandma Dirkse and her bowtie? I whipped that spitball, not them; but his denunciation had called my association with an entire family album into question in a way I thought horribly unjust and unfair.
No one talked much about “identity” in the late 50s. If I brought up “my needs,” it would have been thought of as sin. It would take the Sixties before people talked at all about “doing your own thing” or “finding yourself.” When I was in eighth grade, I wasn’t undergoing some variant of an “identity crisis,” but I learned by way of what the teacher himself might call today an unwarranted and overemotionally untoward response—and I swear this is true—that I was not my own, but belonged to something, someone else.
And no, this isn’t going to end with “Kumbaya.” Did that eighth grade spitball stick to my soul and alter the course of my life? Absolutely, yes. Did I become an Eagle Scout as a result? No. Did I go sinless throughout high school and commit a career in missions in Ecuador? No. But did what he said teach me something I never forgot? Absolutely, despite himself, despite educational theory, and even what we might call appropriate teacher behavior. In a way, you might say, that spitball was the best thing I did in eighth grade.
Somewhere in a short story, one of Alice Munro’s wonderfully complex characters, a mom, says that what she’s come to learn in the relationship she has with her adult children is that, tragically, some of the things her children remember best about their childhood are things she had never even regarded as important and totally, completely forgotten.
For the first nine years of my education as a child, I learned my multiplication tables and principles of English grammar; I wrote reports and did speeches; I’m sure I came to understand how birds fly and bees make honey; I knew something about the Civil War generals and a basic, hard-core Protestant view of the Reformation. I read stories and wrote poems. I made art—or something like it. I read books that were assigned and some that weren’t; and when it was all over, I graduated from eighth grade into a high school career that were far more sports-crazy than it should have been.
To say that what I’ve been writing is what I really learned is just silly. But it is—for better or for worse—what stuck most tenaciously, and is weirdly instructive, I suppose, even for someone who spent his life instructing—classroom lessons from life itself.