I hated school, didn’t you? When did a day in school ever come close to being as much fun as a day not in school?
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t a bad student. I was a very good student, well-read, almost as well-mathed, and exceptional at things like sewing and music. I simply didn’t like being told what to do for six hours a day plus a couple hours of godawful homework.
I liked learning. I liked the challenge of gaining new skills. I even sort of liked being around other people, at least until they made me want to tuck into a shell like a turtle. It was just that school was the one place my inadequacies were proven every damn day with every damn assignment.
During my years as a student, I never used profanity, except in seventh grade. That was the year my brother returned from the Marines. It was also the year I was trying to be like my ninth grade Gangmates. With John’s tutoring, and the Gang's encouragement, I learned to speak the lingua profana.
After seventh grade I rarely, if ever, swore, not even under my breath. I felt no need to. My history of foul language can be summed up in words I’ve often told my seminary students: “I never drank until I went to seminary, and I never swore until I became a seminary professor.”
But that was now; this is then, and back then I wanted to like school, but school was where I could never be as good as I needed to be for the world that held me in judgment and for myself, who was my toughest judge. Classroom presentations, such as book reports, terrified me. I’d read a book in just a few days. If a teacher would have sat down with me over a Yoo-Hoo and asked me about the book, I’d have gladly discussed it for hours. But to write a book report the way I thought the teacher wanted it, well, that was impossible to my public school self. It would never be as good as it needed to be.
I struggled with written assignments all the way through college. Due to my failure to turn in assignments, I got Ds in English Composition and English Grammar, even though the professor recommended me to write for the school newspaper.
Let’s face it, I was a paradox. And I knew what that word meant and how to spell it by fourth grade. By seventh grade I was ready for bigger and better things: cheating and general mischief.
Tests never bothered me. I had a lot of general knowledge, I read a lot of books of all genres, and I knew intuitively how testing worked. But I was always a little reticent to trust those things. So I began perfecting the art of cheating.
I never looked to someone else’s paper for answers to a test. I never outright claimed someone else’s work as my own, except once in fifth grade before I understood the concept of plagiarism. My specialty was the “cheat sheet,” and I created some of the best.
The most obvious way to cheat on a test was to write the possible answers on body parts. This worked particularly well for math or science formulas that you just couldn’t remember, or important dates and people for a history exam; but I never stooped so low as to get ink all over myself.
I wrote the names, dates, formulas, what have you on small pieces of paper in very fine print. Those papers were custom-designed to fit in inconspicuous places. I wore ties a lot on test days. Cheat sheets fit well in ties, and, if you use a heavier weight paper, they are easily and quickly retracted.
I hid cheat sheets everywhere: on the edges of books in my desk, in shirt sleeves and pockets, anywhere they were in my view but not the teacher’s. My all-time favorite hiding place was a stroke of genius. The night before the test, I painstakingly wrote, in minuscule print on a piece of paper about a half-inch by five inches, everything I thought I might need to know. Then I carefully rolled and inserted the paper into the clear chamber of a Bic Stic pen.
What was the secret? You’ve guessed it by now, I’m sure. The more intricate the means of cheating; the more you learn in the process. All those hours spent writing the information on tiny slips of paper cemented that data in my brain. I never actually used any of the cheat sheets I created, and I doubt any of my disciples did either. I knew they wouldn’t. That’s why I knew they could be entrusted with the secret.
Along with cheating, or really not cheating, I was also guilty of some general mischief. I was not—repeat, not—a troublemaker in junior high. If there was a troublemaker at Bildersee J.H.S., it was the school’s namesake.
Isaac Bildersee was a Brooklyn school administrator in the first half of the twentieth century. He sparked controversy when, in December 1947, he tried to remove all religious symbolism from Christmas and Hanukkah celebrations in Brooklyn public school classrooms. His plan lasted about two days when the school superintendent put the decision to celebrate religiously in the hands of each school’s principal.
At Bildersee J.H.S., I pretty much kept to myself with a few rare exceptions.
I only cut school one day in three years, during my last semester. I did it to try and experience what other kids were doing. I was miserable and actually snuck back into Bildersee in the afternoon.
My life at Isaac Bildersee was boring and pretty well regulated by my internal sense of regimentation. For example, I ate the same thing for lunch just about every day during eighth and ninth grade: two salted bagels, from the bagel shop on the corner, and a chocolate milkshake from the Carvel down the street. Every day. Middle initial “C” for clockwork.
I went a little crazy in eighth grade though. I think it started when I found out I’d have Mr. Balter for Science a second year. Mr. Balter was a legend at Bildersee even though he was a fairly young man. He cut no one any slack with assignments or homework. His tests came with high expectations, and he didn’t mind failing students in the least. I think I got a B in seventh grade and was struggling a bit in eighth grade. I needed a diversion.
Science classrooms in the 1960s had all wooden desks, unlike the modern wood and steel desks in the other classrooms. They were heavy and clunky, and still they were screwed to the floor, to prevent their being stolen by marauding desknappers.
Seeing the screws in the floor one particularly boring day gave me an idea. What would happen if…
I set to work after school that day. Earlier in the year I had come into possession of an extra copy of the eighth grade English book. I also knew where Pop kept his single-edge razor blades. They were a match made in thirteen-year-old heaven.
First, I carefully cut through each page of the English book, a neat rectangle large enough to hold what I needed. Then I realized the pages needed support, so I taped sections of them together, not tightly, just enough to make them stable but still looking booklike when closed. It worked! I filled the hollowed-out book with Pop’s multi-tip screwdriver and a small adjustable wrench. I was ready for Science class.
The next day I tucked my alternative English book into my book bag and headed to Bildersee. I sat in one of the back corners of Mr. Balter’s class, with no one behind me, which fit well with my plan.
During Balter’s typically thrilling (to him) class, I used my stash of tools to quietly undo every screw and remove every nut, along with some of non-essential supporting bolts. The sturdy wooden desk stood, upheld by gravity alone.
When the bell rang, I gently slid my chair out from under the desk. Nothing was disturbed. Nothing looked amiss. As I exited the room, the next class entered. Two of the boys came in already engaged in an altercation. By the time they reached their seats near the back of the classroom, the verbal sparring had escalated into shoving. Out of the corner of my eye I watched the final push. I turned into the hallway and heard the crash of falling plywood. Smiling broadly as I made my way to the next class, I thought I heard Balter scream, “Baisley!” But I may have been mistaken.
The next period, from my seat in Algebra II, I watched as two custodians carried the desk, legs folded on top like the arms of a body in repose, down the hallway. Their heads solemnly bowed, the men gave the desk a proper transport to the room in which it would be reconstructed. I beamed.
Isaac Bildersee died just six weeks before I was born in 1952. Too bad. I think I might have liked him.
Growing up in a religious household has its drawbacks, as you’ll see in The Conflict Between Church and Skate, next week’s episode of Tales of a Canarsie Boy.
To hear this episode, please click the YouTube link below.