Mr. Nelson and Other Evil Teachers in Grade School

Everyone remembers a bad experience with a teacher and I am no different. Except for the fact that I remember MANY bad experiences with teachers and have tried to blame many of my learning problems later on in  life on them. Fifth and sixth grade proved to be a particularly harrowing time for me in the “bad teacher department.” In fifth grade we started getting specialized teachers for certain subjects. The science teacher for those grades was Mr. Nelson. He was the first male teacher I’d ever had in my entire academic career and frankly I was looking forward to the change in scenery. His teaching style was different, dare I say refreshing. He would play albums filled with titles like “What is the Milky Way?” and “The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas” while we worked on certain in-class projects independently. But my hopes for a new type of learning experience were quickly extinguished when I realized an important fact: Mr. Nelson hated me.  I didn’t follow every classroom rule, but was no better or worse than any other kid in the class. Sure, I secretly enjoyed chanting the altered versions of Mr. Nelson’s science tunes  with my classmates when he wasn’t listening (in our revised version, the sun was a mass of Mr. Nelson’s gas), but to my knowledge, I never did anything incorrigible or different than any other fifth grader.  I know what you’re thinking…”Oh please, Barbara, you were just a sensitive kid who remembers the situation playing out this way when in fact you were treated no differently. No, no, no. I have witnesses.

When kids got a bit unruly and weren’t able to settle down, Mr. Nelson would always pick on me and say, “Barbara, you’re talking when you shouldn’t be; go stand in the corner.” He even had a special dunce cap you were forced to wear in these instances and let me tell you, I had to wear this thing so frequently I began to resemble a cone head from the famous Saturday Night Live sketch. An even greater offense was chewing gum in Mr. Nelson’s classroom. I wasn’t the only kid singled out for this, but again it always seemed like I was first in line for getting caught. Guilty parties had to place the chewing gum on their noses and keep it perched there for the rest of the class.

To make matters worse, I wasn’t exactly the best student in the class. In an effort to beef up my grade, I asked Mr. Nelson if I could do a project for extra credit. He allowed it and I thought my luck was about to change. I planned to do a project on the theory of electromagnetism using a horseshoe magnet and magnetic particles to demonstrate movement and the magnetic field. I was confident I would score a great grade and maybe even some much needed brownie points with Mr. Nelson. But the day I demonstrated my science experiment to the class, the magnet no longer had a charge (yep, probably should have checked that beforehand). The particles didn’t dance around like they were supposed to; they just sat there. Not only was the experiment a flop, but Mr. Nelson berated me in front of the class for taking up “valuable class time” and said I would lose credit because the experiment didn’t work. I would have received a better class grade if I had just stuck to chanting about Mr. Nelson’s gas. To this day, it’s hard for me to look at a magnet without breaking into a cold sweat.

We went on a lot of class trips with Mr. Nelson, mostly to the Hall of Science and Alley Pond Park. During one trip, I was told I couldn’t be on line next to my friend Laurie because I was too chatty. When it was time for lunch, I realized I forgot mine at home. You can imagine how pleased Mr. Nelson must have been to hear this from me. Laurie’s mom was the class mom for this trip and she convinced Mr. Nelson to let me sit with Laurie just for lunch so she could share the sandwiches she had brought. After much hemming and hawing, Mr. Nelson acquiesced with the strict reminder that I must immediately leave Laurie’s side once that half a tuna fish sandwich hit my stomach. If it weren’t for the kindness of Laurie’s mom who knows how the day would have turned out.

In sixth grade I had Mrs. Greif for math and homeroom. Her name really should have been Mrs. Grief because all she gave me was grief. When I didn’t get a math concept she would announce to the class, “Barbara, when I had your brother in my math class two years ago he understood this right away; why can’t you?” So much for the “every child is a snowflake” theory of education; the party line with Mrs. Greif was “How did your parents end up with one bright, adorable math whiz and one of you?” We sat at tables of four in math class and my seat faced Mrs. Greif’s desk. One day she announced to the class, “Barbara, I’m sick of looking at your face; switch seats with Cha-Cha.” So now I was stupid and hard to look at. Does wonders for a young girl’s confidence at age 12.

Of course it wasn’t all bad and there were some accepting, caring, and progressive educators at the school. One teacher who stands out for me is Ms. Rifkin, my social studies teacher in fifth and sixth grade. Before Ms. Rifkin, every teacher was Miss or Mrs. and Ms. was just coming into vogue. Everyone pronounced it Mzzzzz Rifkin because if you got it wrong, she would correct you. Ms. Rifkin was younger than many of the other teacher and she had long blonde hair and braces…the first adult I’d ever seen with them. Ms. Rifkin always let you do extra credit, praised everything you did, and never took away points for extra effort. She challenged our young minds with thought provoking and even risque topics. We learned how to debate and some of the topics had very adult themes. My topic was should prostitution be legalized. My mother was a bit appalled and embarrassed taking me to the library to research this topic when I was age 12, but she abided by the teacher’s rules. Ms. Rifkin had the best intentions, but perhaps some of the topics were a bit too lofty. One student was assigned the topic of plea bargaining and asked to debate if it should be allowed. The next day the student came into class and passionately explained that all people should be able to participate in flea markets and hawk their wares. So perhaps not everything that Ms. Rifkin attempted went off without a hitch, but I give her an A for effort. I guess I need to give all these teachers an A for at least creating a lasting impression.

Instant Pants

Instant PantsWhen I was in high school, the best place to get cool jeans in my neighborhood was called Instant Pants. It was a hole-in-the-wall store with shelves of pants that started on the floor and went all the way up to the ceiling. No matter how tall, short, fat, or thin you were, you could always find a pair of pants here. The employees  (over-the-hill hippees that looked like they had just come from a Vietnam War protest) would get an idea of your size, climb a precarious ladder to pull out a pair of the latest Sassoon’s, Calvin Klein’s, or Jordache’s, and voila…instant pants.

In the late 1970’s, jeans for girls were all about what was stitched on the back pocket. Guys might wear Levi’s Smith’s, Lee’s or Wrangler’s, but girls were all about what design was plastered on their butts. My friends and I would spend hours researching the latest designs…loops, zig-zags, rainbows, etc. to determine what we liked. We’d try on the jeans and nearly pull a muscle trying to see how that design looked on our ass from every conceivable angle. And of course we’d ask each other the ridiculous “How does my butt look in these?” question, ignoring any other indicators of poor fit including the ability to sit down in the jeans without ripping them in two. We often had to lie about how we thought the jeans looked on each other. Sure, part of the reason was to be nice. But the other (and more important) reason was to make sure that your friend didn’t get to take home the pair of jeans you were secretly lusting after. For some strange reason, it was perfectly fine for ten girls to show up with the exact same Christian Dior bag (no, I didn’t own one), but showing up with the same design on your ass was a good enough reason to try to transfer out of the school.

The other critical component of a pair of girl’s jeans in the 70’s was the bell. The bell had to be wide; wide enough so that the bottom tip of the pants leg touched the top of your clogs. Yes, this was the preferred shoe of choice until a few years later when bells were out, straight legs were in, and clogs were replaced with Candies, a high heeled clog so dangerous,  they should have come with their own plaster cast and set of crutches.

My mother’s favorite thing about Instant Pants was that they offered instant (and free!) alterations. At barely 5 feet tall, it wasn’t easy finding jeans that didn’t need alterations. Everything in the store looked like it was made for a professional basketball player…there was at least an extra two feet of material that they seemed to be able to cut and hem in a nano-second.

Instant Pants is long gone, but I continue to yearn for them on a regular basis. I’m still only 5 feet tall and I’m constantly on the prowl for petite jeans that don’t have to be shortened. Yes, I could go to a tailor and pay money to have this done, but the thrill of the instant alterations is hard to replace. So as an alternative, when the pants are too long I just buy a new pair of shoes with a heel high enough to compensate for the extra inches of fabric. My solution to the demise of Instant Pants is instant shoes which has become an expensive habit in itself.

It’s probably a good thing that we are no longer interested in the stitching on the back of our jeans. Calling attention to your ass in 1978 is a very different story than calling attention to that same ass in 2013.

Trick-or-Treat Till You Drop

I grew up in a huge apartment building in Queens called Saxon Hall. The building has two wings that criss-cross like an X, just like the X in the building’s name  (yes, I think that was an intentional part of the design). With over 400 apartments, Saxon Hall was Halloween paradise for a kid. You could gather enough candy in one night to feed a small country for over a year, although in those days the thought of donating candy was just plain stupid. One kid was brazen enough to go around the whole building twice in one night. It’s not like anyone would realize he’d already been to an apartment; the swarms of kids were such that all the ghosts, witches, and Disney characters started to blur into one rather quickly.

I generally went trick-or-treating with my childhood friend, Cha-Cha. That wasn’t her real name, but no one could pronounce her real name, so this is the one she ended up with. The story of how her name and other first-generation American children’s names were butchered by ignorant residents of Queens will be the subject matter for another post another day. Cha-Cha and I always started out with the best intentions every year to cover all 400+ apartments in the building. We planned and strategized for weeks,  plotted our course, and visualized our success just like marathon runners. But somewhere in the middle of the second-half of  the race, we hit the wall and were carb depleted (obviously this is a metaphor since we were sucking down chocolate as fast as we could gather it along the way), but you get my drift. We were tired and sick of ringing doorbells. At this point we soldiered on and trick-or-treated selectively, based on who we knew or who we recalled giving good candy last year. There was one lady who once gave each of us our own 16-ounce chocolate bar. We believed her to be insane, since no one in any of the other 399 apartments was this generous, but we didn’t care. At this point in our journey, we also began the task of inspecting our bags for unwrapped candy which we accepted politely but then hurled off the building’s catwalk in case someone had managed to cram a razor blade or piece of glass into that ominous piece of  cherry string licorice.

Mom was generally in charge of selecting the candy we gave out to our fellow trick-or-treaters and she had a pretty good track record for making respectable choices such as fun size Milky Ways and Three Musketeer Bars. I held my head high as my friends collected their chocolate treats from my house and while I secretly wished mom would offer more than one piece, I felt I could live with that. But one year, my father  somehow got put in charge of purchasing the Halloween candy that we would give to trick-or-treaters and he returned with licorice…black licorice. I was horrified. The only thing worse than this was perhaps a box of raisins or the sucking candy offered by the lady in apartment 907 that had been lying around her house collecting dust since the Eisenhower administration. I pictured that black piece of licorice at the bottom of everyone’s bag until at least Easter when their mothers would force them to throw it away. I was ashamed and embarrassed;  I feared the worst; ostracism from my peers , teasing, or maybe even a beating from some bully expecting chocolate or at least a stick of gum. I survived, but dad’s candy buying duties were quickly relinquished and Halloween returned to normal the following year.

Then there were the costumes. No one in my family ever made the costume. Chalk it up to laziness or the lack of creativity in my household, or the fact that there was no way mom was letting me touch her stuff, but every year the costume was store-bought. I remember being a princess two years in a row. The mask was made of hard plastic, (probably the kind that is laden with dangerous chemicals, like everything else in the 70s) and had an elastic string that got caught in your hair and made you scream. And besides, it was impossible to sample the candy with that mask on. By the time we hit the third floor of the 17-story building, the mask was in the trick-or-treat bag. Cha-Cha always had a home-made costume and they were always great. I was convinced that if there was a Saxon Hall costume contest she would win hands down. My favorite was when she went as Pocahontas. She had a little suede dress, a head band with a  feather, and war paint on her face. Of course this was before the Disney movie and before dressing up like an American Indian was considered insensitive. It was during a time when we played games like Indian Chief (in school!), and before American Indian became a category of ethnicity on a job application. Even though I was a bit jealous of how cool her costume was, I also realized that her great costume could be used to my advantage to get more candy from impressed neighbors or those that just pitied her friend, the one with her mask shoved in her candy bag.

Back in those days, I don’t remember any parents having any rules about how much Halloween candy you were allowed to eat in one night. And as I recall, the candy didn’t last long. I remember placing my loot in a large bowl and most of the good stuff being gone in a day or two. Of course there was still that one sucking candy, the box of raisins, and that stinking piece of black licorice.