Eighth Grade Math

Saturday, April 26, 2008

The jocks in eighth grade math class made fun of me when I broke my finger playing basketball. The injury seemed, to them, to indicate some sort of weakness. The finger I broke was just my pinky, an unworthy choice for a sports injury. It was stabilized with a strip of plaster cast wrapped with an Ace, not with a cool full cast that people could sign. With this sort of injury I didn't look like a sports hero, I just looked clumsy.

But the jocks weren’t there to see my badly dislocated fracture that forced my finger to point out the side of my hand. They weren’t there to see the coach grab it and yank it back into position with the comment that, “It’s not broken or that would have hurt a lot more.” They weren’t there to see me suck up the pain again two days later when I finally went to the doctor who had to reduce the fracture a second time.

Although I would have appreciated their approval and sympathy, I hardly paid any attention to the snickering and whispers of the eighth grade jocks. Self-reliance and independence were some of the earliest lessons I learned in life. Independence was in my nature. I insisted on tying my own shoes before I could manage a knot. This tendency was reinforced by early life experiences, and the combination of nature and nurture resulted in harmonic frequencies that resonated in my soul, teaching me early on that I could “go it alone” when I had to. And for the most part these lessons have served me well. I am nothing today if not independent.

I started kindergarten at an earlier age than most kids in 1968. It was an all-day kindergarten, which was useful since there were no adults at home to watch me during the day. Because of the age difference between my peers and me the teacher segregated me during recess, preferring to let me spend the hour in a closet instead of playing with blocks or reading Dick And Jane books with the other kids. I wasn’t offended by this treatment. I simply used the time to make up solitary games or sneak outside to explore the neighborhood. I always got back before I was discovered and was careful not to lock myself out.

I learned to get myself off to school as soon as I could set the timer on the kitchen stove. After school I’d walk back home, get a snack, watch cartoons and do my homework. I had no regrets for this independence. I was comfortable being alone and throwing more people into the mix of my life just made things more complicated.

Things did get more complicated before I graduated middle school. My schoolwork started suffering. I started spending time in the hallway, banished from class for reasons I can’t recall. I was vulnerable, and the one friend I had became a bad influence. But at least this same friend was a popular athlete and was also a classmate in 8th grade math, which kept the other jocks from being too vocal about my broken pinky.

Our Math teacher was a colleague of my friend’s dad, who taught 8th grade science. So my friend was pretty close with him, and started inviting me to participate in after-school activities that he sponsored. I wasn’t any good at dodge ball, but I played despite the humiliation of getting hit by balls while Mr. Math bit his bearded lower lip and laughed with a loud girlish squeal at my attempts to dodge the balls. Somehow I earned his approval without being a natural dodge-baller, and he moved my desk close to his own along with the jocks whose talent and good looks I normally found too discomforting to approach.

The invitations soon extended to camping trips at a location closed to the public but open to Mr. Math because he had a key and permission to use the land. Those camping trips provided him with the private opportunities he needed to molest adolescent boys. At the end of the weekend he would continue his assaults in his own home before sending us back to our own homes with the instructions to keep quiet.

My reaction to the abuse was the one that came most naturally to me, which was to isolate myself. Keeping quiet was easy. I ditched the only friend I had, who was a victim more frequently than I was myself. I stopped playing dodge ball and refused the invitations to camping trips. I turned myself around and my grades improved. In high school I had few friends, but I was accepted onto the honor roll.

I never told another person about those experiences until one day, 5 or 6 years later, when Mr. Math turned up on the television news for his arrest on pornography charges when I was home from college. I’ve told the story to only a couple of people in my entire life. I’m telling this story now because the easiest lessons aren’t always the most sustaining ones. I may be independent and self-reliant, but I am no island. The adult lessons of Trust may have been harder to learn than my youthful lessons of Independence, but the care of family and community sustain me in ways that complete independence cannot. And that’s a lesson worth nurturing.

3 comments:

  1. dmarks said...

    I hope that guy is still in prison...

  2. Anonymous said...

    Goes to show that a person can turn out to be a great and wonderful man even though he had this happen to him. Continue to LIVE STRONG!

  3. Melinda said...

    So I'm spending some quiet time (kids in bed; Mike out of town) just surfing through your blog, because I just love your writing and I love hearing about your life and I find you and your family so lovely....and I happen upon this post.

    What words can I possibly say that would convey my feelings? I don't want to hate this man, but I most certainly hate the abuse he committed. I thank God that you are who you are....but I hate that part of the reason you became this special person is because of the deficits and abuses in your childhood.

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