School, Swamps, and Salvation by
10
(18 Stories)

Prompted By Middle School

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“I would have been one more unfinished song.” — Garrett Hedlund.

A lot of folks wonder why the school bosses dumped junior high in favor of middle school. I’ve wondered if it had to do with finding a better mental and emotional match for 12 to 14-year-olds: kids whose stories are similar to mine.

Sometimes you start out in one direction, only to take a lifelong detour. And that can be a great thing.

Briefly, I am a relatively intelligent guy, a bit of a loner (save for and saved by my lovely wife Anne), and an imagineer prone to impulses. I took that profile into junior high school in 1958. By 1960, those emotional impulses threatened to wreck my education and my future.

The Plot

It was a sunny October morning as I walked into the principal’s office at Jarman Junior High in suburban Oklahoma City. I was just starting my 9th grade year, but I was on a mission of personal liberation to rid myself of school. It involved presenting a typewritten note, carrying Mom’s signature, to Principal Brown and announcing that our family had just bought a home in Florida. We would be moving immediately, so please give Jimmy his school records so he can transfer to a new school down there.

In truth, that note contained two screaming lies, and that’s why my hand delivering it resembled Tom Hanks’ hand in the film, Saving Private Ryan. It was more than a tad shaky. For one thing, the signature was not Mom’s. I had forged it.

For another, we were not moving to Florida. Or anywhere else for that matter.

The worst that could happen, I reasoned (and that verb is a serious stretch), is that the principal would see straight through my ruse and, in a fit of anger, toss me out of school. However, since parting company with Jarman was my goal, anyway, would that be so bad?  I not only thought it could happen; I was pretty sure it would, and I knew the school office would be filled with a lot of loud voices, full of invective, all aimed at me.  I mean, c’mon, the office was staffed by adults, yes?

As a wise editor would counsel me years later, “Never assume anything.”

Sayanora

I tried to hide my jaw-drop when I realized my plan was actually working: Principal Brown must have had a distracting morning because he bought the whole scam, hook, line, and winker. The school secretary, Mrs. Green, simply smiled, said the school would miss me, and that I would love the Florida sunshine. Then she handed over all my school records and warned me to watch out for the swamps.

Prescient advice, as events would later prove.

“Free at last!” I remember feeling as I stuffed my school records into my backpack and biked to the neighborhood Tubbs Drug Store to have a celebratory ice cream soda. Of course, I had no plan on how to hide any of this from Mom and Dad that evening, nor did I know what to do with myself the next day or the rest of my life. Although it was years before the word “clueless” would work its way into the English vernacular, it defined me completely in that October of 1960.

The Pimple Years, Outside & In

Since departing the secure years of grade school and transitioning to the awkward and ill-fitting junior high experience — then represented by grades 7, 8, and 9 – I had waged a personal war with school. I know I am not alone in finding these the most exasperating three years of growing up. Pimples were only the outward manifestation of the bumpiness I felt inside as I traveled this washboard road from childhood to early adolescence.

Even my dad was unsure of what I was, and his well-meaning nature produced one of the worst days of my young life and added to my distaste of junior high. Dad worked at WKY-TV in Oklahoma City, and one day he talked “Tom the Paxton,” the host of the afternoon kid’s show, Crusader Rabbit, into getting the rabbit to wish “little Jimmy Willis” a happy birthday. Did it matter this was my 13th birthday, and that I was trying hard not to see myself as a kid anymore? Did it matter that when I got to school the next morning, the whole classroom erupted in laughter aimed at me?

 “Hey little Jimmy! Did you bring Crusader Rabbit with you?!”

That day continues to live as my own personal day of infamy, and junior high just seemed to go downhill from there.

A Turning Point

Sad, because I had skated through Westside Elementary as a good student and popular guy. What was not to like about school? I mean, I was voted captain of the Junior Police and was the first football player on the team to wear a face mask, although only a single bar which my dad bought for me. So, if I thought about it all, I’m sure I felt ready for the big leagues of junior high. I just might have been, too, had it not been for one thing that happened in the summer of 1958.

Mom got a job.

That sequence of thoughts is not a non sequitur, but it was a sign of the times as our parents, like so many one-career couples across America, became two-career parents.  Like so many other kids, I was left on my own throughout the day to navigate choices for myself.  It certainly wasn’t Mom’s fault; she was just trying to add more meaning to her life, give my older sister C.J. and me a better life, and lay money away for our college years. But there were assumptions made that this 12-year-old Jimmy could make responsible choices on his own.

Again, my editor friend was right. Mom’s assumptions were naively incorrect.

Here’s how it went most mornings as I faced an empty and cozy house and compared it to the trauma of Jarman Junior High:

Mom would be up early fixing breakfast, Dad was getting ready for work, C.J. would be readying herself for high school, and I was just waking up.  Since my school was only six doors north of my front door, I could leave 5 minutes before the bell and make it. So, after breakfast, Dad was on his way to his television station, Mom left for her job at Tinker Air Force Base, C.J. was on her way to  school, and I was … well therein lay the problem. I was home alone, thinking how great it would be to spend the day right in my imaginary world of bliss. And there was no one to stop me from giving into that temptation, which became stronger with each passing week.

A Budding Writer

I began skipping school and, by the time I reached my 9th grade year, I had started putting my creative writing talent and typing skills to a different kind of use: typing notes to the school principal to excuse me from school because of sickness, then forging Mom’s signature to the notes. There were only a few of these, but they were the first times I put my literary talent out for public view. It was an inauspicious start to my career as a journalist and author, albeit better than a career as a felony forger.

Once ensconced alone in my personal, creative world of home, I would spend the day imagining. I read The Hardy Boys books, and I wrote short stories and crafted other kinds of fiction, usually involving a rugged loner of a man and his dog in the wilderness. I would break that up with watching some westerns on TV, having lunch, and playing with my collie, Laddie. I knew the family wouldn’t start coming home until late afternoon, and I made sure I had a cover story for how my day at school went.

After several tries, it all seemed to go well, although I did run into some snags. One was my dad, who would pop home unexpectedly for lunch. A couple times it happened so fast that I had to make a dash for my closet where I sat in the dark with a flashlight reading a book until he left. A few times Dad stayed home a couple hours later, and I wondered if he was doing the same thing I was.

One problem was Laddie. I couldn’t take him into the closet with me because he would bark when Dad came into the house and, even if he didn’t, Dad would search the house for him. So, I’d leave Laddie out in the bedroom but he would lie just outside the closet door and occasionally scratch at it and whine, wanting in.

Those days were touch and go.

Nevertheless, I decided to make this home-alone thing permanent, because home was much more peaceful and secure than school. But I knew I was stretching my luck with those letters I was writing, so I resolved to write one final note checking myself out of school permanently.

That, then, brought me to that October morning of 1960 and my note checking me out of school forever.

Utopia Turns Soggy

After making the great escape from Jarman, the first few days of my new-found freedom worked pretty well. But the end of the week, I was getting bored. Maybe I wasn’t meant to be a recluse after all? The second week was worse, and I was craving human contact during the weekdays. So much so, that I decided to write one more note to the principal.

Possibly recalling Mrs. Green’s warning about swamps, I crafted this one:

“Dear Mr. Brown, This is Hazel M. Willis, the mother of Jimmy Willis who was recently checked out of Jarman Junior High because we were moving to Florida. This is to inform you that things have changed because we discovered the house we bought there is built upon a swamp, and we cannot live there. So, we are moving back to Midwest City and we need to enroll  Jimmy again in Jarman. Please reinstate him. Thank you. Your’s truly, Hazel M. Willis.”

I have no memory of the day I delivered that particular note to the principal’s office, and that’s probably due to PTSD. Apparently, sometime during the two-week period between my check-out and check-in notes, Principal Brown became a critical thinker, finally saw what I was up to, and began unleashing the loud invectives I’d expected two weeks before.

The roof was finally caving in on Jimmy Willis, just as the roof to my bedroom gave way after years of accumulated stress from sonic boom tests flown overhead by local Air Force jets.

What ensued in the principal’s office were calls to Mom and Dad, followed by a meeting of the minds that night at home, followed by a regular schedule of visits to the school counselor. Everyone was straining to understand what kind of brain this kid had. They were trying to do that math, but 2+2 was adding up to 3 when it came to Jimmy Willis. Still they persevered, and they wound up being very supportive and kind in attempting to find and replace my missing cranial link. My mother’s loving words were, “There is nothing you can do, Jimmy, that will separate you from my love.” To this day, they still mean the world to me and have motivated me to be a better man.

Sanity & Salvation

The grown-ups’ plan proved more effective than mine had been and, thanks to the unmerited grace of Mom, Dad, the school counselor, and Principal Brown, I miraculously graduated from Jarman and moved on to high school, where life improved greatly. Gone were the three tortuous in-between years of childhood and young adult and the complex unease that came with them.

C.J. was a senior as I entered the sophomore year, and she helped me through the transition. She later motivated me to go on to college, promising that she could introduce me to plenty of coeds since she was now working as a counselor in a freshman women’s dorm. Her promise came true, although to this day I blush when I tell my own students that I went to college not to find guidance, but to find girls.

I suppose, somewhere in heaven, the voices of Mom and Dad are thanking my big sister and sighing, “Whatever works. Way to go, C.J.!”

I stand amazed at the number of switchbacks that form life’s road, and the epilogue to this story is one of them. After spending so much time hating school, I went on to the University of Oklahoma, graduated, and then kept on going with an M.A. at Texas A&M and a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri. I went to work as a writer and, for the past four decades, I’ve been a university professor, retiring last year as professor emeritus at a private California university.

And my discipline? Journalism, of course. Sometimes I ponder those curious home-alone days writing fiction and fake notes to the principal, and how they were my springboard into an adult life of writing non-fiction.

So far as I know, none of my seventeen books has contained a single lie.

Profile photo of Jim Willis Jim Willis
I am a writer, college professor, and author of several nonfiction books, including three on the decade of the 1960s. Several wonderful essays of gifted Retrospect authors appear in my book, "Daily Life in the 1960s."


Tags: Junior High School, Adolescence, Writers
Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written

Comments

  1. Suzy says:

    Jim, welcome back to Retrospect! I love this story for so many reasons. The angst we all felt in junior high so well captured, your brilliant plan to escape via a note to the principal, your realization that it was boring to stay at home, and your equally brilliant second note to the principal. And then, of course, the irony of your eventual career. Please keep writing for us!

  2. Thanx for this real “home alone” story Jim!
    What fun to follow your middle school escapades, and bless your understanding, forgiving, and supportive parents and teachers!

    So glad you went on to be a writer, journalist and prof, and now a returning Retrospecter!
    Looking forward to more of you stories!

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    What a wonderful middle school story, Jim, full of the angst we all felt, but you really embraced yours and turned it into full-fledged drama. I love what your mother said to you and how it has stayed with you to this day. I hope I may be so wise and compassionate, always.

    I hope you will continue to share many more of these great tales with us. Happy holidays!

  4. Khati Hendry says:

    I have to second your opinion about Junior high/Middle school as the worst–I managed to finesse the whole thing by having a family that DID move. The “war on school” was not yours alone. And although I was nowhere near as active in creating excuses, I did manage to avoid many classes in high school. I actually thought when I finished the SATs, I would never take another standardized test again–HA HA HA. Life turns out funny. Great story, well told. Thanks.

  5. John Zussman says:

    Super story, Jim, and welcome back to Retrospect. As others have commented, you exquisitely captured the awkwardness and angst of junior high, and I loved hearing about your creative ways of escaping it. I suspect the whole episode became a cry for help to your parents, who realized that they couldn’t just let you navigate this life change on your own, as you had doubtless done with ease before.

    I cringed along with you at the Crusader Rabbit story, but tell me, what were your friends doing WATCHING a show aimed at young kids? Definitely the kind of Treppenwitz retort that only occurs to us years later!

    • Jim Willis says:

      Thank you, John, and I’m sorry I’ve been gone so long from Retrospect. So hard just to get my butt in the seat long enough to pound out a story for the pure pleasure of writing. But it does feel good when it’s done, right? As to one of your comments, yeah I thought about retorting to my classmates with that very question, but I was way too tongue-tied that morning. I didn’t reveal my embarrassment to Dad until years later because I didn’t want to hurt his feelings. What he did, he did in love. I look forward to getting back to reading your prose!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    I loved this story, Jim. It truly captured the awfulness of middle/junior high school. I did not grow up in a community that segregated kids in this age group in one building, but my kids (and now some of my grandkids) endured this difficult passage. I could really empathize with your solution to the problem of surviving junior high school — quite creative. I’m so glad you have decided to return to Retrospect and look forward to reading more of your stories.

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