Apr 13, 2020

The Year of Nothing

In the fall of 4th grade, the young nun teaching our class got sick and disappeared. We didn't know what was wrong with her, or when or if, she would return. One day the principal came in and introduced a substitute teacher and that was that. Our regular teacher never came back, and we spent the rest of the school year with a series of substitutes. I made a list. Our class of 40 kids had 17 separate substitute teachers.

Our parents said nothing. Or, if any of them raised a concern, we never heard about it. This was the early 1960s and parents stayed out of our education. They didn't help with our homework, or sign it. They didn't know we had a book report due on Friday or a test on Monday. And they certainly didn't challenge the wisdom of the Church. We went to school, played outside, ate dinner, did our homework, and no one bothered us. "Parental involvement" consisted of signing our report cards and helping out with an occasional bake sale. 

Our school, St. John the Baptist in New Haven, CT, had 2 sections for each of its 8 grades. Each section had 40 kids and each section stayed together for all 8 years. Since folks rarely moved, and no one got divorced, I graduated 8th grade with almost the same 39 other kids with whom I started first grade. 

Normally well behaved and studious, without a real teacher, I became a common criminal. I stole an old pair of my mother's eyeglasses and wore them to school, claiming they were mine. The obviously too big pale brown pearl frames swamped my little 4th grade head and prevented me from seeing, but I insisted they were mine, until the principal pulled them off my face at recess and told me to give them back to my mother. 

I got caught cheating on a "times table" test. I had placed a copy of the tables under my butt, and since I lacked x-ray vision, couldn't see through my ass to copy them without squirming, so of course I got caught. Despite the clear and convincing evidence of my guilt, I sat there and denied it. If a nun had been there, I'd have been called bold, made to chew on soap, and got sent home with a note to my parents. But nothing happened. I got an A in math. 

I took a crayon and scribbled like a 2 year old all over the inside of my desk. I faked being sick, running the thermometer under hot water so I would look like I had a fever, and stayed home. I missed the maximum number of days you could miss and still be promoted. I "fainted" while kneeling at the altar, waiting for Holy Communion. The following week I lied and claimed that Billy had pushed me during recess. Billy looked stunned, then shrugged, not even bothering to deny it. I got an A in conduct. Billy won the "best citizen" award that month. 

The Year of Nothing was the Year of the Lord of the Flies. Howie became the de facto Lord of the Class. Heavier than everyone else, he pushed around the smaller boys, stole our lunches, and mocked all the teachers behind their backs. 

We didn't learn long division, or our times tables, the way the other section had. We didn't sell as much World's Finest Chocolate. We misbehaved in and out of class. Our section didn't get to sing its own song during the Christmas Pageant. Rather, they scattered us among the other classes so as to dilute our presence. None of us made it into the Queen's Court for the May Day celebration. 

But I was one of the successful kids. When I got to 5th grade, and under the careful eye of the same nun all year long, I became a reformed criminal. I reverted to actually earning good grades and behaving myself. And I stayed that way. But not everyone did. By the time we graduated, our section had a well deserved reputation as being the "worst" class ever, with the "worst" penmanship, "worst" behavior (bold and wild!), "worst" standardized tests, and, worst of all, the "worst" attitude. 

I often wonder what happened to some of my classmates. Several of the girls attended the same all girls high school as I, and I know they ended up fine. But some did not. Howie did not graduate with us. He got expelled in May of 8th grade, a month shy of graduation, for cheating (on a math test). Eddie never really learned to read, but he graduated. He was killed in Viet Nam. Carol had a nervous breakdown in 9th grade and we lost track of her. Mary Beth went to "live with her Aunt" her Junior Year of high school (and I suspect she gave the baby up for adoption).

Did 4th grade cause these problems? No clue but I can't help but wonder. A savvy researcher would have tracked the two sections of kids to see what effect the Year of Nothing had on us. An even savvier group of adults wouldn't have let it happen. But, no one was paying attention, so we'll never know. It was 1961 and there was The Bomb and Communism and putting food on the table to worry about. 

I thought of that year recently. It was scary being out of control. Getting behind in math wasn't the worst of it -- cheating and lying were. Watching all the schools close down, I thought back to my crazy 4th grade and wondered how shutting all the schools is affecting our kids now. It didn't take much for me to go from being a "perfect" student to a little criminal! Let's hope we all have a little more savvy now and are paying just a bit more attention to these tender souls. 


SmilynStef said...

thankfully I never had an entire year like that, but I did have individual classes like the year they hired someone with a literature degree to teach our
High School Geometry class ... and I wonder if I'd had a competent teacher (vs. her asking me to teach the class) if I'd have a better understanding of those concepts today. I do wonder what impact this year will have on lots of kiddos and families ... and what we will do different going forward.

Jen Timko said...

There is so much evidence all around us on the power of teachers to change the course of a child's life. Beautifully written.

Debbie Olson said...

Interesting and thought-provoking, Joan. Thank you for sharing!

Jeanne H said...

I really enjoy your writings and this one today was insightful. I do object to the inference that the substitute teachers were to blame. I taught for years and was a substitute teacher too. Loved the little ones, but the kids in 4th and 5th were so disruptive that it was hard to teach anything. I worked so hard. I do wonder if your subs were credentialed. Oh well, off my soap box...

Leslie Miller said...

Interesting. You do know how to tell a story. It sounds like an extreme circumstance and I honestly don't imagine today's kids will be affected in quite the same way. One point that stuck with me was the fact that your nun teacher just disappeared with no explanation. There was not even a made up story offered. Kids need to know or at least feel they've been brought into the loop. As an adult I still have so many unanswered questions from childhood.

Sharon said...

Wow, Joan, what an interesting story, a social experiment really. The parallel I think of today is the lack of fathers in so many homes. Fatherlessness tracks so closely with discipline problems in schools, then dropouts, then crime.

Sabrina said...

Thought-provoking and interesting post.It's certainly going to have widely differing effects on kids, depending on how much their parents invest into home-schooling them (or not) during this time. I'm glad you got a good teacher the following year after the Year of Nothing and reformed, LOL.
I always remember that when my sister started school (after being homeschooled till I started secondary school,and she was able to attend the attached junior school) she had a teacher she loved... actually, I believe she might have been American, now I think about her. Her class were told that she had "had an accident on her bicycle and hurt her ankle", and she never came back - in fact, she died. That was the early seventies, I would like to hope that communication skills have improved somewhat since then, but I am not sure.

Carol Cel said...

Wow - what a thought-provoking post. As a recently retired 6th grade middle school teacher (30 years) I can remember only 2 years with challenging students. Other teachers felt the same about these groups of kids, all the way through middle school -- but we have no idea why.
I do worry about the students this year, and their school careers going forward. NY just cancelled in-person school for the rest of this year. Many of my teacher family and friends are so very busy preparing lessons, trying to keep students (& their family) engaged and moving forward. It has been so very hard on all 3 sides (teacher, student, family).
No one can even predict what the fall's school year will be like. All are worried. We've all discussed options. None are perfect. I wish I had a crystal ball. I am sad for the students.
I miss teaching.
thanks for your post, and letting me vent.