Teacher: Mr. Johnson
I think it was Leo Tolstoy who asked “War! (huh-yeah) What is it good for?”* If Mr. Johnson’s teaching methods are any indication, it’s at least good for instructional films on the topic. My entire fifth grade experience can be nearly summed up with the phrase “war films.”
Mr. Johnson seemed really old to me when I was in fifth grade and even now I don’t really have concept of how old he was. I believe he was a veteran, but I don’t know which war it was. My guess would be the Korean War, as I’m pretty sure he was too young for World War II and a little too old for Vietnam. That’s all speculation, of course. All I know is that we watched film after film of World War II. They were the black and white newsreel type, and when they were done, they always elicited the same response in all of us:
It’s surprising how often he let us do it. I’m not sure what the appeal was, but we always wanted to see the exact same film we just saw, only in reverse with no sound. I’m sure it was funny to see all the soldiers, tanks, and planes going backwards, but I’d bet it was more because that took up more class time. It’s the eternal struggle of students versus teachers: teachers want to teach, students don’t want to learn; teachers want to utilize class time, students want to get the teacher off-topic. In that sense, it’s much like the war films: ground is won, ground is lost, there are casualties, and every so often, somebody brings out the heavy artillery and concessions are made and reparations paid. Getting a diploma is like getting a signed peace treaty – “We will no longer pursue this war. You can no longer badger us and we won’t try to make you learn anything else.”
Mr. Johnson couldn’t see all that well and he was pretty gruff. If you were in the back of the classroom you could goof off fairly safely if you weren’t too overt. Bad kids had to sit in the front row. I remember this because I sat in the front row a lot.
I didn’t always sit in the front row, though. I know for a fact that I sat in the back-right corner of the classroom for a while. I know this because my efforts at class clowning were aided by the wall in that corner. Mr. Johnson would frequently leave the classroom for brief periods of time and we were expected to behave. I, of course, took these opportunities to not behave. For a short time I accomplished this by doing headstands up against the wall very briefly. Unfortunately, one day I wasn’t brief enough and Mr. Johnson saw me when he came back in. A firm believer in “let the punishment fit the crime,” he had me do a headstand in front of the room against the wall for an extended time. I’m not sure how long it was, but it felt like hours. I was told later that my face had been super-red. I’m sure it was dangerous to make a kid stand on his head for a long time, but that’s just how Mr. Johnson rolled. He also didn’t waste time sending kids to the office – if you had earned yourself a spanking, you got it out in the hallway. Anybody that happened to be in the hallway at the time was privy to all of the proceedings. Whether that was meant to be an example or another facet of the punishment, I’ll never know. It served as both.
Fifth grade is the year I start having memories of what the other kids were doing. My previously-mentioned not-friend-yet Josh knocked the clock off the wall above the chalkboard one day, right as Mr. Johnson came back into the room. Josh was pretty tall, and I think he was showing how high he could jump. The look on his face as he caught the clock and looked up to see Mr. Johnson can only be described as “mortified.” I may have secretly delighted in his getting in trouble, I’m not sure. Josh was popular. Really popular. He was smart, athletic, and funny, a sure recipe for success in school. We weren’t friends, on my part probably because I was jealous and on his part probably because he had enough friends already, and, frankly, why bother? Again, this is speculation on my part, and I leave it to Josh to give his side of the story should he ever be inclined.
This was the year Larry K. joined our class and he and I started a destructive friendship. Whether it was shooting the bratty neighbor’s kid in the leg with a BB gun or almost burning down his house by using kerosene in the wood heater, Larry was a never-ending source of danger. Our class took a field trip to his family farm, and I remember he showed me a family of baby raccoons that were hidden away in the barn. I also remember him telling me later that they were no longer alive, and I got the distinct impression he might have had a hand in it. The thing about Larry was that he was given to telling expanded versions of the truth, so it was difficult to distill actualities out of his conversation. At the same time, if the conversation was about destructive behavior, it was easy to believe he was being factual.
We already had one set of non-identical twins (is that “fraternal”? I can never remember) in the class, but this year we got a set of twin sisters who were, by nature of being new, weird. That’s just how it works: new kids are weird kids. I’m sorry. That’s nothing against them, it’s just how the rules work. We didn’t make them, we just followed them. They were identical twins, and, as it happened, they were born on my birthday, making us ersatz triplets. We didn’t really play that angle up until we got to high school, but it was strange to me to share my birthday, and with twins, no less! Because they were new and weird, though, we (the guys) concocted a scenario in which Scot J. was in love with one of the twins (Kerry), mostly to give Scot a hard time for some now-forgotten reason. I hear rumors that Scot’s a millionaire now. Hmm. There’s a life lesson in there somewhere, but I can’t decipher it.
Though we got a small morning snack break in fifth grade, we stopped having two recesses. It was Life’s way of teaching us that with age came less fun and it was usually disguised as “more responsibility” or “character.”
Two things I remember being very popular in fifth grade: fruit roll-ups and The A-Team. Fruit roll-ups I got to experience fairly regularly, in all their difficult-to-eatness, The A-Team, not so much. My brother and I weren’t allowed to watch TV aside from occasional parentally-approved things, but The A-Team certainly wasn’t on that list. I caught an episode or two here and there, but most of my appreciation for Mr. T has come after the fact. His in-your-face no-nonsense fool-pitying approach to life should be a lesson to us all, I feel.
Sixth grade meant moving into the “other half” of the building, and into a whole ‘nother phase of life.
*This is a Seinfeld reference, lest you think I am misinformed.