On Thursday night I went to “Back to School Night” at my son’s middle school here in Benicia, and I was extremely disappointed because the hallways and classes were clean and neat, the teachers were bright, young and motivated, and all in all it seemed a wonderful place of learning. What the heck has happened to the American educational system anyhow?
I went to Bret Harte Junior High in Hayward. It wasn’t called “middle school;” it was junior high, and it consisted not of the sixth, seventh and eighth grades as Hank’s is, but of seventh and eighth only. A few of my fellow students at Bret Harte were old enough to have mustaches and serious whiskers, and some of the cars they drove were stolen.
Many students at Bret Harte went on to high school, college, and flourishing careers. Others now have their pictures displayed in the “Most Wanted” books at the post office. Bret Harte was so tough that even the rats in the hallways carried guns. In shop class they taught students how to make toy guns out of soap, a potential job skill for those who went to prison and needed to break out.
By far the baddest dude at Bret Harte in my day was Robert Jones, the school bully. He intimidated even the teachers and principal to such a degree that they gave him his own office. The sign outside of it said, “Head Bully.” If you acted up in class, the teachers didn’t threaten to tell your parents, they threatened to send you to Robert Jones and let him deal with you. That straightened you up fast.
Jones was as big as Danny DeVito but he could lick any man twice his size, including cops. He was an equal opportunity bully, picking on both seventh and eighth graders. But seventh graders like myself were his main victims. We used to post lookouts around campus to warn us when he was walking down the hall. One lookout would pass the word to the next, “Jones is coming! Jones is coming!” like Paul Revere warning the colonists about the redcoats.
Jones traveled with a posse of fellow bullies, but he really didn’t need to. He was an army of one. If for some reason our early warning system failed and he happened to appear, unannounced, in the hallway in which you were standing, God help you! Every kid in the hallway froze on the spot, praying to himself, “Please don’t pick on me, please don’t pick on me.”
When he passed by students pancaked themselves against the wall, trying to become one with the lockers in the hopes that he would not see them and harm them. Being a little guy, Jones had an instinctive grudge against big guys. He seemed to always target the biggest guys, lifting them up bodily and depositing them in the nearest trashcan.
When we were talking with Hank about what he had heard about Benicia Middle School (this was before he started, about two weeks ago), one of the things he mentioned was “canning.” This was what he called the practice of dumping kids in trashcans, which he had heard can happen in middle school and high school. We reassured him that that was unacceptable behavior, and that if he ever saw or heard of anything like that to let us know or his teachers.
I did not share with Hank (or his younger brother) my memories of Robert Jones who, now that years have passed and I am safely away from his clutches, I view with some fondness. After all, he showed great restraint for a bully. After throwing a seventh grader in the trash, he did not then set the can on fire. For this he deserves praise.