|It could be fun to go back to school, but only if you could avoid the awkward memories of middle school. Why not look into an online education? With the prevalence of online college classes, you can study from the comfort of your own home and get your online degree in no time.|
Daily Breeze, Oct. 2004
click here to read an article by hawthorne middle school newspaper reporters about this experience...
BY COREY LEVITAN
PHOTOS BY BRANIMIR KVARTUC/DAILY BREEZE
"Are you going to this school for the rest of the year?" Kristen asks me. Her gaze fixes down at the basketball court, which she anxiously brushes with a tennis shoe.
"Because if you are, we have these dances."
All my life people tell me I look freakishly younger than my age. Adolescence, when I resembled a zygote with hair, wasn't my time. Now is.
For a while I've wanted to return to high school undercover for a column -- like a male version of Drew Barrymore in a funnier version of “Never Been Kissed.” Every adult geek's fantasy is to go back and do childhood the right way. None of us get to do it.
It didn't look like I would, either. I was turned down by several area high schools before Hawthorne Middle School invited me to drop in on a class and write about what I saw. It seems they had some low test scores and wanted remedial publicity.
An outsider would never achieve the honesty of an insider, I argued.
You read right: middle school. High school I can possibly get away with -- possibly. But junior high is absolutely preposterous. And what better environment for this column than preposterousness?
Of course, that makes Kristen (name changed to avoid ruining her entire life) only 13. But that doesn't change the fact that I can now truthfully claim to have been asked out in junior high school.
At 39 years old.
John Gutierrez, 34, is the teacher whose invitation sparked this two-week adventure. He and the entire HMS staff conspire to go along with my cover story…
I'm a 17-year-old transfer student from New York. I should be a high-school senior, but I was home-schooled and my credits didn't transfer yet. Until they do, I have to go back to the last grade I officially attended in New York, which is 8th.
My believability-enhancing wardrobe includes oversized logo T-shirts, Dickies pants -- which I wear every day, no washing -- and new tennis shoes. (I'll bet I'm the only eighth-grader in America whose Converse Chuck Taylors conceal arch supports.)
I've gone bi-weekly with the showering, and my nails are growing long and dirty. The only grooming I do is shaving -- lots of it, at home and in the principal's office bathroom between classes. And not just my face. My arms, chest and hands are normally much furrier than a pubescent boy's. (In fact, they're much furrier than a human being's. People have yelled "Quest For Fire" at the beach.)
Finally, I had my hair dyed black with green and blue highlights. (My shower is stained like Mr. Spock got stabbed in there.) Ed Hart, owner of Maximus Salon in Hermosa Beach, promised me this is how the kids wear it.
Of course, those may be the kids in the rich suburbs. Hawthorne is decidedly more urban. The 'do accomplishes the opposite of helping me fit in.
"Why is your hair like that?" more than one student asks.
It takes a while before anyone claims me socially. Lunch is particularly mortifying. I sit entirely alone for the first two days -- until the cafeteria runs out of seats far away from the freak.
Lavana is my first potential new friend. I introduce myself with a smile.
"You're a STUDENT?!" she responds without one.
I repeat my story.
"Oh," she says, returning to a private conversation. Three minutes later, she and her friend grab their trays.
"We're going outside," she says. There is no invitation to join. I have newfound sympathy for all the new kids in town I ever ignored.
Things don't pop for me until I meet Sione, who would be my biggest ally. And I mean biggest; he's a full 5'11" and 210 lbs. at age 12. In real middle school, Sione would have collected my milk money every morning. But in fake middle school, he spots in me a certain coolness worth cultivating.
I'm grateful, because Sione turns out to be connected to the cool kids who sit at the cool picnic table outside during lunch. I know it's the cool table because of all the students walking by who seem to want to sit down, but know they're not allowed.
Employing adult knowledge that would have saved much childhood grief, I pre-empt any insults by insulting myself first.
"Hi, I'm Corey," I introduce myself. "I'm a cop and I'm 45 years old." The cool kids crack up.
My reward is reveling for an entire lunch period in my elevated social status with Katherine, April and a couple of others whose names I can't remember because eighth graders don't suddenly bust out a pad and start taking notes.
"Look, it's Billy Madison," my classmates Monica and Olamide whisper as I enter Mr. Gutierrez's room late due to emergency shaving. My new nickname refers to the movie in which Adam Sandler redoes every school grade to win a bet with his father.
I was thinking more Johnny Depp in "21 Jump Street." But OK.
I'm not saying being asked out and hanging at the cool table makes me the most popular kid in school. But I am doing vastly better than my first time around. Back then, all teasing was conducted at my face. Now, at least, it's behind my back.
Mr. Gutierrez teaches an honors class in yearbook, which for two weeks concentrates on journalism. This presents another welcome challenge: to see whether I can pass a junior-high-school journalism class. To my critics, there must be serious doubt.
Our first assignment is news leads. Given a list of facts, we must decide which to include and which to ignore. It seems impossibly tough for the eighth grade, but not for a professional journalist. I proudly turn in my paper before anyone else.
My news leads are three sentences each. But news leads are supposed to be single-sentence paragraphs. Actually, I used to know that. The feature writing I do is less regimented, so I forgot. And I was probably checking my e-mail during Mr. Gutierrez's explanation.
My paper comes back marked with more red ink than Tommy Lee's arms. My grade is 12 out of 30. (If I weren't also a bad math student, I could report how little that is out of 100.)
Later, Mr. Gutierrez swears that neither his assignments, nor his grading of me, was any harder than usual.
"Those are the same assignments I’ve been giving for the last 3 years," he says. "I get a chance to teach some of the brightest in the school, so I challenge them with college-level work."
In this accelerated class, I'm decelerated.
Meantime, word spreads like a brushfire through campus about the new old kid. During my next lunch, this reporter is surrounded, like a press conference in reverse.
"You go here?" one student demands to know.
"Who do you have for first period?" screams another.
"How old are you REALLY?"
Most of the questions testing my story miss the point and inquire about New York. I answer these just fine, since I did attend junior high there. In the late '70s. Apparently, being from New York is a stranger thing these days than being 25 years older than you should be.
How I'm not totally busted, I have no clue. My sideburn shadow is showing, there are razor slices up and down my arms and I haven't even memorized my alleged birth year -- 1987. Luckily, another question about New York is fired off before my long pause to subtract 17 from 2004 gets noticed.
Perhaps anyone over age 16 seems over the hill to a 12-year-old -- which makes 17 and 40 the same amount of old.
One student isn't having any of this, however.
"Nuh-uh!" Rodolfo shouts. "He's lyin'! He's lyin'! He's lyin!"
Rodolfo's not enrolled in Mr. Gutierrez's class, but he should be. He's the only HMS student who acts like a journalist, actively protesting the obvious lies disseminated by officials.
"Look at his nose!" Rodolfo shouts, unswayed by my Converse or my Dickies. "His nose is too big! He's middle-aged, like in his thirties!"
Sione, my protector, ushers me away.
"You don't have to listen to him," he tells me. "Let's take a walk around the track." He slings his arm around my shoulders, which are 5 inches lower than his, and begins a lecture on how things are at HMS.
"You need to know who's important and who's not important," he says.
Suddenly, something distracts him.
"What's that jangling noise?" he asks. His eyes light up.
"You have a car, don't you?!"
Oops. I've forgotten about the single greatest aspiration of a 12-year-old boy -- besides you-know-what. When I was Sione's age, I thought driving would mark the precise moment I became an adult. (I'm still awaiting that transformation.)
I have already lied so much, keeping track is difficult. Besides, the most foolproof lies are built upon truth. Sione jumps up and down when I tell him about my convertible Mustang.
"Let me see your keys!" he yells. "Let me see your keys!"
When dealing with adults, you simply can't create this much joy from nothing. So, what the hell, I pull the keychain from my pocket.
Sione yanks it from my hand. Then he holds it above my head, beyond my reach, and calls his friends over to check it out.
Now this is middle school the way I remember it.
Things go better for me in gym class, where Mr. Ramirez asks us to run a lap around the track. I place first of about 30 students. Like Superman as a teenager, I am faster and stronger than everyone around me -- not to mention finally being average height for the eighth grade. To top it off, this week is dodgeball. Talk about closure with the past?!
One kid dares my team to hit him.
"It can't be done!" Cameron boasts, laughing maniacally as he performs something resembling Michael Jackson's Moonwalk dance.
When I get my razor-bumped hands around that red rubber ball, my field of vision goes all computer-y like the Terminator's. Cameron is the bobbing, boasting, Moonwalking target.
"Take that, Eric, you (expletive)!" I scream in my head.
In order for my throw to hit its true target, it must travel faster than the speed of light and arrive in 1979 at Boardman Junior High School in Oceanside, Long Island, where perpetual dodgeball captain and obnoxious jock Eric Abolafia always picked me last to play, but first to mercilessly bombard.
Of course, I miss Cameron completely and he nails me on his next throw. I am doomed to spend the rest of the game out of bounds, from which the other team is out of throwing range.
Or am I? While Cameron's not looking, I sprint up behind him and heave him off the ground, directing my team to throw him out.
What am I gonna get, suspended? (Actually, Mr. Ramirez laughs as Cameron/Eric takes a ball in the chest.)
Dodgeball closure has been attained. Not only that, but everyone in gym class suddenly thinks Billy Madison is all right.
Eventually, my academic life catches up to my social one. Paying attention in Mr. Gutierrez's class buoys my average up to an 8.5 out of 10. Only one or two students born after I landed my first journalism job are faring better than me in journalism.
I consider finishing out the semester here. The Daily Breeze has a tuition reimbursement program for reporters enrolled in writing classes.
Alas, the reveal is made by principal Wendy Ostensen, who gets on the loudspeaker at the end of my final Friday.
"Shame on you, Mr. Gutierrez's class, for not realizing!" she announces while laughing.
I stand up and tell my classmates they've been "Punk'd." School-wide hysteria erupts.
"I knew it! I knew it!" everyone screams as they Google my name on their computers. When the bell rings, most of the other classes empty into a circle around me outside.
Rodolfo wears the hugest smile of all.
"The only thing that threw me off was your voice," he says. "You sound 12 years old."
It's true. I have a hard time ordering from 1-800 numbers without being asked to speak to my parent or guardian.
Students also begin attacking Mr. Gutierrez.
"You lied to us!" one girl shouts. "Don't think we're ever gonna forget about it!"
I don't know what kind of counseling HMS students will require after this. But I got all the therapy I could ever want.
return to coreylevitan.com