More Tales from STHS: Assholes Raised by Assholes

Note: all names, other than those of the interviewees, have been changed for this story.

by Amanda Ann Klein

RAIL_1030_PAB

Let me start this way: I’m an asshole.

I don’t mean that I’m a bad person. I compost and tell my daughter she can marry a girl if she wants to and I always give money to my local NPR affiliate. But I’m still an asshole because, whether you trip up the steps or fart or mispronounce a word you really shouldn’t mispronounce, I’m going to make fun of you. I also like to catalogue these indignities and bring them up later, so that a new group of people can laugh at the stupid shit you did, too.

But for a long time, I didn’t know I was an asshole. I thought I was just someone with a really great sense of humor, a person who could laugh at herself and others—especially others—when the situation required it. I assumed this behavior was normal, even healthy, because everyone I went to school with was like this too. We made fun of each other constantly. We assigned cruel nicknames to those who did stupid shit and used those names with impunity until someone else did stupider shit, and then we’d all make fun of that for a while. In this way, our bullying resembled a really shitty game of tag: the only way to get people to stop calling you by an unpleasant nickname was to give someone else an even more unpleasant nickname.

All of my friends in high school, at one time or another, had been given a nickname, because everyone in high school has to be given a name that is not their own. Among them were “Big Draws,” “Fat Rob,” “Half Pint,” and “Dumb Gear.” That last name was mine. I earned it because I wore something that somebody thought looked “dumb” to school one day. I was given a worse name once, too, one that made my stomach cave in on itself whenever someone said it, but I won’t talk about that name here. After all, even assholes can get hurt feelings.

or the yearbook seniors were asked what they would do if they could travel through time. Note how I have internalized my nickname.

For the yearbook seniors were asked what they would do if they could travel through time. Note how I have internalized my nickname.

Our high school teachers thought we were assholes, too. At the time, I erroneously chalked up their distaste to jealousy. We were smart, we were going places. We felt entitled to all of the good things the world promised to give to young, upwardly mobile teenagers. But those teachers? They had to stay in central Pennsylvania forever teaching assholes like us. This is what we told ourselves, though the truth is that we were just assholes.

For example, we had a Spanish teacher in my high school, Mrs. Smith, who walked with a limp. At the time, I had no idea why she limped. It never occurred to me to ask. What I did do, though, is laugh whenever my classmates gave her a hard time, which was pretty much all the time. This was partly her fault, of course—Mrs. Smith had a bad perm and spoke too softly. You have to be loud to teach high school. You have to be strong or the assholes will tear you apart. We tore Mrs. Smith apart:

Liz Rose Triscari (far right) pictured with fellow class of 95 grads, Dani Liebman Healey and Charlie Heller.

Liz Rose Triscari (far right) pictured with fellow class of 95 grads, Dani Liebman Healey and Charlie Heller.

Liz: “[Mrs. Smith] always tripped over trash cans and we assholes laughed about it. But she had some disability so that was a dick move in hindsight.”

Luimbe Domingos, pictured here with Dani Liebman.

Luimbe Domingos, pictured here with Dani Liebman.

Luimbe: “[Mrs. Smith] had polio as a child, so she was permanently crippled. People would move the trashcan where she wouldn’t expect it and she would trip over it. She caught on and would check the trash can every day before coming into class.”

Matt Rover, Kara Garcia, and yours truly.

Matt Rovner, Kara Garcia, and yours truly.

Matt: “Jim and some other kids in Spanish class, with great gusto and great regularity, would belt out the word ‘dick’ while Mrs. Smith was trying to teach. At one point, Mrs. Smith told us that she would be absent because she was donating bone marrow to her sister who had leukemia. She had barely finished the words when ‘bone marrow dick’ was broadcast across the room. While I feel terrible for Mrs. Smith now, I am a little ashamed to admit that this still makes me laugh. Another time in Spanish class, Jim brought in a universal remote control and kept turning the television on while Mrs. Smith was trying to teach. We couldn’t stop laughing. I still don’t know why she didn’t murder us.”

***

As someone who now teaches for a living, I can’t imagine what it must have been like teaching assholes like us. I’ve had students fall asleep during my lectures, watch YouTube videos, chat with their neighbors, roll their eyes, suck their teeth, and, on just a few occasions, question my authority. But in my 14 years of teaching I’ve never had a classroom filled entirely with assholes. But that’s what my high school teachers faced on a daily basis.

I recently spoke with a former high school classmate, Joey Laws (Class of ’95), about being an asshole in high school. He had a lot to say:

Joey Laws, second from the bottom, all dressed up for senior prom.

Joey Laws, second from the bottom, all dressed up for senior prom.

Joey: We got away with murder. We got away with things that no other classes got away with. When I tell people about our high school, they think I’m lying.

Me: Or we’re exaggerating.

Joey: I remember Mrs. Miller [the social studies teacher] reported us to…what was that called…it was like a system where you could report people for substance abuse? And they told her to leave us alone.

Me: Ha!

Joey: Because you know, she told them about how we were drinking beer and stuff, and they told her, “Look, these are the good kids. They’re not getting in trouble. Leave them alone…”

Me: …they’re just assholes.

Joey: So you’re interested in the Mr. Brown story?

Me: Yeah, I thought that would be another good example of how we were assholes in high school.

Joey: So, Brown was one of my favorite teachers and math was one of my favorite subjects… But yeah, there were a couple things we did to him. I was taking this new elective that he had started called “Discrete Math.”

Me: I remember that, yes!

Joey: And you know, he treated the guys in his classes differently from how he treated the girls. He didn’t make no bones about that.

Me: Yes, he was sexist for sure.

Joey: So the people in that class were [here Joey lists a group of male students]…One day in Discrete Math, Brown got up to make some copies. And we thought it would be funny to pivot everything in the room by 90 degrees. We moved all the desks…

Me: [laughing]

Joey: That’s funny, right?

Me: Yes!

Joey: We had played pranks on him before…we used to go in and change the grades in his grade book…remember he would give us those pop quizzes in Calculus? Well we would just change the grades. It was so easy to turn a “0” into a “10.”

Me: And wait, would he ever notice?

Joey: I think we did get in trouble for it once and then we stopped. But I think we made it kind of blatant so he would notice…

Me: Like you really wanted to get caught?

Joey: Yeah. ‘Cause we thought it was funny, just like moving the desks would be funny. Because, you know, we were his boys.

Me: Right, you were his boys.

Joey: We almost failed that class. He was irate with us after that. It wasn’t just like a passing rage. He wouldn’t talk to us after that.

Me: So when he came into the room, what did he do?

Joey: When he came into the room he slammed the copies down on his desk and he like, cursed at us. And then he just stormed out. We didn’t see him again for the rest of the period. He wouldn’t speak to me after that.

Me: Ever?

Joey: No. I don’t remember ever having another conversation with him.

Me: Really? But you were his favorite student. After all that, he was done with you?

Joey: Yeah, it was really sad. I even tried to look him up on Facebook because I wanted to let him know that his calculus class helped me get though engineering in college…

Me: You know everyone said that about him—that the first years of college math were easy because of his class. He was a good teacher. A misogynist, but a good teacher.

Joey: Yeah, well he never spoke to me again. And he really crushed us on the final, he gave us a really hard final that semester. You know, we took that class because we thought it would be an easy A. “Oh Brown’s gonna teach us some cool math stuff but we’re really just here to fool around…”

Me: Right…

Joey: But at some point it just, it just got to him…

Me: That seems to be the pattern in all these stories from our classmates: we would push it and push it and push it until our teachers were like “Fuck it, we’re done with you people…”

Joey: We used to mess with Walters [the physics teacher] a lot too. We had him his first year of being a teacher. Part of his long-term plan for teaching was to use the same test in all of his classes. And he was so silly. At first, he would just have them up on his desk! And we were like “Holy shit, there’s the test!” So we would sneak one out and make a copy.

Me: When were you able to steal the exams?

Joey: In between classes, or we’d go up there during lunch. I mean, he wasn’t even trying to hide it. And then it became, like a game, to see if he could catch us. He knew we were tying to steal his tests. So then he started locking them in his desk drawer. And somehow, I don’t remember how, we got the key to the drawer…

Me: Of course you did…

Joey: And he would tell us that he knew how many copies he had made, so that we couldn’t steal one. So we just unlocked his desk, grabbed a copy, snuck downstairs and made a copy, and then stuck the test back in his desk.

Me: Holy hell.

Joey: Again, at the time, we thought that even if we got caught, we wouldn’t get in trouble because it was like a challenge…

Me: I vaguely remember that, and you always did well on the exams…

Joey: Everybody did well. Remember we used to study together?

Me: I don’t remember seeing a stolen test though.

Joey: We weren’t telling people we had the test. We would just present the problems. And then you all would say, “Wow, you guys really knew what was going to be on the test!” But after we stole the key to his desk, he hit his limit. He made it so we couldn’t cheat, challenge over.

***

It’s true. Pushing our high school teachers to their breaking points was a specialty of my graduating class. My favorite example of this happened during in the spring of 1995, my senior year. At that point the faculty at STHS must have been counting the days until graduation. My gym class that semester was composed primarily of fellow seniors who were enrolled in the same classes I was taking: AP Biology, AP Calculus, AP English, etc. This—and the fact that many of us lacked simple hand-eye coordination—led our gym teacher, Ms. Jones, to refer to our class as “Honors Gym.” She didn’t mean it as a compliment.

In addition to being filled with smart kids, Honors Gym also happened to be one of the finest collections of assholes in the school. Ms. Jones would drill us in the basics of volleyball (“bump, set, spike!”) and basketball (“a girl has to touch the ball before you can shoot!”), and we would try, I think, to follow her instructions. But mostly we made fun of each other’s lack of athletic ability or recited lines from our favorite movies and TV shows. Gym wasn’t going to get us into our reach school. We were just biding our time until graduation.

Eventually, Ms. Jones gave up trying to teach us how to play real sports and allowed us to do whatever we wanted. So naturally we spent the remaining weeks of the semester playing four-square, Honors gym-style. We developed elaborate rules of play—such as requiring players to touch their bellybuttons or to laugh like Nelson from The Simpsons before touching the ball— that were complicated and expanded each week, turning our four-square matches into masochistic exercises of mental and physical stamina.

I can only imagine how Ms. Jones felt as she watched us play Honors four-square, delighting ourselves with our own cleverness. I’m sure the irony must have registered—that we refused to learn the rules to games she wanted us to play, only to invent our own, far more complicated four-square rules, which we slavishly followed as if our reach school admissions depended on it.

Ms. Jones tolerated our four-square shenanigans for several weeks until one day during class somebody said or did something that pushed her over the edge. It’s worth noting here that Ms. Jones had never been what you would call an even-tempered woman. She was the field hockey coach, and, as we lost nearly every game we played, I was accustomed to being called lazy and useless. But the Honors Gym rant was different; it wasn’t intended to motivate us to try harder or do better. This rant was intended to let us know that we were assholes. Ms. Jones sat us down on the smelly mats in a room we all called “the small gym” (though I’m sure it had a proper name), and delivered an expletive-fueled lecture. The only line I can remember—because it imprinted on my teenage mind like a groove in an old record—is, “You’re all assholes and your parents raised you to be assholes.”

The losing-est field hockey team that ever was.

The losing-est field hockey team that ever was.

As I sat there in the gym clothes that I had not taken home for a washing since the fall, my thighs sticking to the vinyl mats that had also probably not been washed since the fall, part of me felt shamed and wondered, briefly, if we were as bad as she said we were. I’d like to say that Ms. Jones’ angry rant in the small gym finally made me realize that turning everything into a joke was a bad way to go through life. I’d like to say that it snapped me out of my cocoon of teenage privilege, out of the assumption that I could do whatever I wanted to do or be anything I wanted to be because I was young and smart and my parents were footing the bill for my very expensive college education. I’d like to say Ms. Jones’ lecture taught me to respect authority, to play by the rules, and to accept that sometimes we have to do things in life that we don’t enjoy or that we’re not good at. But instead, I found Ms. Jones’ outrage delightful. I was giddy with power—the power to cause an adult to call me an asshole, and mean it.

Of course, that sense of entitlement and fearlessness that fueled my asshole tendencies in high school was eventually chipped away–bit by bit–by the bottomless well of self doubt and loathing that is a career in academia. But even now, when I know that I’m not special, when I know that I am, in fact, just like everyone else, I’m glad that I’m still an asshole. It’s the one trait I’ve managed to hold on to since high school.

What Ms. Jones couldn’t recognize back in 1995 is that learning to be an adult is not about getting serious, accepting the rules, or learning to eat the multiple bowls of shit that life places in front of you with a big shit-eating grin. Adulthood, for me at least, has been about learning to laugh, harder and longer, at the indignities life gives us. And that’s precisely what assholes like me do best.

About the interviewee

Joey today, with his wife, Becky, and children, Jake and Maddy.

Joey today, with his wife, Becky, and children, Jake and Maddy.

Major (Joey) Laws is Deputy Chief of TITAN Operations, USSTRATCOM Joint Functional Component Command for Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (JFCC-ISR) at Joint Base Bolling, Washington DC. In this role, he supports the Commander, United States Strategic Command by leading the synchronization and integration of global TITAN planning efforts and the resolution of critical TITAN requirements. Major Laws received his commission from the Air Force Reserve Officer Training Corps, with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from West Virginia University. He is married to Rebecca Morgan of Tucson, Arizona. They have two children, Madeline and Jake.

Also, special thanks to Liz Rose Triscari, Luimbe Domingos, and Matt Rovner for providing anecdotes about Mrs. Smith. You are fantastic assholes.

If you’d like to read the first edition of “Tales from STHS: Tammy’s Story” click here.

Advertisements

Tales from STHS: Tammy’s Story

Note: all names, other than those of the interviewees, have been changed for this story.

RAIL_1030_PAB

During my sophomore year at Susquehanna Township High School (STHS) I was required to take a class called Environmental Studies. It was a general education course, one that included a mixed bag of students, and, as in all Gen Ed courses, no one was particularly excited to be there, especially our teacher, Mr. Smith. He had a ponytail at a time when no other male teachers had ponytails, and his classroom was filled with the corpses of taxidermied wildlife from the surrounding Pennsylvania forests, all of which had been stuffed by Mr. Smith himself. He was proud of that.

I imagine that Environmental Studies was proposed by the Susquehanna Township school board in an attempt to make us more “environmentally aware”—this was right around the time I first started hearing about concepts like Earth Day, diapers sitting in landfills, and the “hole in the ozone layer”– but that’s not what this Environmental Studies class was about. This class was about whatever Mr. Smith wanted it to be about. One day we watched a National Geographic documentary about the horrors of baby seal hunting. The documentary featured soft, furry baby seals, their wet black eyes blinking in the Arctic sun, getting their heads bashed in by masked men who wanted their precious fur.

The message of the documentary—that clubbing baby seals for their fur is barbaric—was lost on us. That’s because right after we watched those baby seals get their heads flattened, Mr. Smith paused the tape and rewound it so we could watch it all again. “Look at that!” I remember him calling out, his voice edged with excitement, “Bam! Bam! Bam!” It was clear that Mr. Smith enjoyed this brutality, that, perhaps, he might like to have a baby seal in the classroom to add to the dead-eyed gray squirrels and Allegheny woodrats that peeked down at us from shelves above our heads.

Mr. Smith also once told our class that he once spent an entire semester teaching his students incorrect information. He didn’t reveal his treachery until end of the semester, after the students had studied these false lessons and taken exams on them. When we asked Mr. Smith why he would waste his student’s time and his own time, told us he wanted to teach his students to never blindly trust authority figures. Today I find Mr. Smith’s fake lesson almost admirable, a kind of anarchic lunatic protest against the drudgery of teaching Environmental Studies to a bunch of bored surburban high school students. But at the time it was a total mindfuck — we had no idea if we should believe anything he tried to teach us after that. Were we being misled about the lifecycle of the May fly? Were prairie dogs *actually* “good eatin'”? (nota bene: “Are prairie dogs good eatin” was, in fact, a true/false question on the final exam that semester).

I also remember engaging in lively debates over politics with my History teacher/track coach, Mr. Brown, a man who actually seemed at home in the dreaded short-sleeved button-down shirt-and-tie combo favored by so many male high school teachers. He was a Republican blowhard and a neoconservative before the term ever existed. I don’t remember learning a thing about history in his class but I do remember learning how to argue endlessly with cranky neoconservatives, a skillset that has certainly served me well in life. Below, some of my classmates relate their favorite anecdotes about Mr. Brown:

Dani: “I remember asking Mr. Brown for directions to Franklin and Marshall College for an Indigo Girls concert…he said we would turn into hippie lesbians if we went to the show.”

Liz: “I remember the Indigo Girls incident. If I recall he asked why we would want to go see ‘a bunch of lesbians.’”

Molly: “I was recently thinking about Mr Brown’s History class, he would tell us to read page 146, then go have meetings with sports guys who were sitting in the back of the classroom waiting for him. He would also get very angry and try to talk himself down by counting backwards from 10 or walking into the hallway to punch a locker! His class was usually amusing”

Kara: “Mr. Brown told us he was as conservative as he was because his parents were hippies and he was actually taken to Woodstock as a kid… but he was lying and trying to tell us that our kids were going to be super conservative.

Matt: “One class, Mr. Brown called us a bunch of knee jerk liberal pansies, who should have been slapped around by our parents”

Luimbe “Brown did ‘maturity training’ …heads down on a desk for 10 minutes after the bell rang because his straight-from-the-book lesson plans failed to keep our attention…That was the class where Benny the B [our classmate, Ben] dared to challenge the sanctity of Christopher Columbus’ virtue and argued for hours with Mr. Brown about it.”

Me “Lou, tell me more about Benny! What did he say?”

Luimbe “Christopher Columbus’ ethnicity was at issue. Brown vehemently disagreed with Benny’s assertion that there was some evidence or possibility that Columbus may have been secretly Jewish.”

I should pause for a minute now to say that I am quite pleased with the quality of my public high school education. I was challenged and encouraged during my 4 years at STHS and I was accepted to quality colleges (as were many of my classmates). But, still, I remain mystified by some of my teachers’ eccentricities. It’s hard to tell if we brought out the weird in our teachers, or if it was the other way around. Regardless, this post marks the first in a regular series where I interview people who went to high school with me, asking them to tell me their oddest stories. We begin this series with Tammy Tibbens Vasbinder and her experiences with Mr. Goldman, who taught History and also coached the basketball team.

 Me:

How did you find yourself in a situation where your teacher was asking you to perform Mary Poppins in your classroom?

Tammy:

You know I love that movie. I’ve probably watched it 100 times.

Why did you watch it so often?

 Um I don’t know. I just really loved the movie. I loved all the characters in the movie. I loved the singing…

And you memorized it?

And I memorized Rain Man and I memorized Forrest Gump…

 I didn’t know that…

 Yeah, all of it. Mr. Goldman would have to go and he would ask me to entertain the class…

Wait, where would he go?

 [laughing] I don’t know…

What grade was this?

 You know I should know that. Maybe 10th?

I’m going to say it was 10th  too.

I don’t know where he would go but he would have to go…[laughing] So he would ask me to take over the class.

How did this even start? What gave him the idea to put you in charge?

That’s another “I don’t know.” Sometimes it’s a little of a blur. [laughs]

But he would have me take over the class. He’d say “Tibbs”—he called me Tibbs—“Tibbs, take over the class.”

I think we need to pause here for a minute. I think it’s weird that a high school teacher would leave during his own class. That’s the time when you’re supposed to be teaching your class.

He had shit to do.

He had shit to do that was not teaching his class….Okay so he would leave and then what would happen?

Sometimes I would do Rain Man, but usually I would just do different scenes from Mary Poppins. Remember the scene where the different animals sing?

[TT begins singing the chorus to “It’s a Jolly Holiday”]

I’d do all the different scenes. And I would get up on the windowsill…

That’s the way the story’s always been told to me—that you performed Mary Poppins on the windowsill. And what did the class do? They just watched?

 Yeah, pretty much!

How long would that go on for?

Until Mr. Goldman came back.

How long is that?

Like maybe 15 minutes? [laughing]

And then he’d start teaching again?

And then he’d come back and say  “Okay, Tibbs, you’re done.” And I’d sit down.

[Liz: “I was there!! It was high-larious. Mr. Goldman was a great guy but teaching was way down on his priority list. He had basketball games to win. He was happy to have Tammy entertain us instead. It was both shocking and endlessly entertaining. I couldn’t believe it was actually happening.”]

How often would you say that happened?

 Maybe half a dozen times.

Really?

 Yeah. It was…interesting.

Do you find that odd?

 Yeah. It was a little… odd.

But you liked it.

I did like it. And actually when I took English with Mrs. Williams. senior year, she came to me and she said “Tammy, you’re failing. You’re going to have to retake the class.”

This was senior year?

Yeah. And I said, “No, I can do this.” And she’s like “No, you don’t understand: you have to get a 99 to pass this class this semester or you’re not going to graduate with your class.”

And I thought, “No I really can do it.” I really focused, I studied. I got together with all these other kids from high school…

Who did you get together with?

Um, you know…another [TT indicates that she is drawing a blank]. Maybe Talitha? I just remember reaching out to all the smart kids…

You didn’t reach out to me…[note: I said this with mock outrage]

I didn’t. I don’t think you were in my class.

Talitha was in my class….

 [laughing]

She probably wasn’t in my class either!

[laughing].

I don’t know what it was, but she was smart… So I remember the final thing that was due…

Was it a paper?

I remember writing this skit out where I was in an insane asylum and I was all these different characters. I was Forrest Gump, I was Rain Man,  and I was Mary Poppins. And I acted out the whole play.

Really?

Guess what my grade was?

99?

100. And Mrs. Williams yelled at me at the end of the year. She was saying “If you would have applied yourself….”

But I did it. And I graduated.

I remember!

 But I’m sure somebody was in that class and that they remember. And maybe the smart people who tutored me remember.

I can fact check this before I publish. I remember hearing the Mary Poppins stories and I remember being jealous that I wasn’t in your World History class. I would hear all about your performances.

 Yeah those were good times.

I think you would do it at parties sometimes, and that’s where I saw it, but I never saw it in class, on the windowsill.

 Now I’m more into rapping.

Today?

Yeah. People make requests at parties.

What do you like to perform?

 My standard is Slick Rick. The Indian story. It gets pretty…

Is it racist?

 No, it’s not racist. It’s kind of dirty. I would do it but.,..[gestures towards restaurant]

No, you don’t need to do it here.

Tammy, with her family, today.

Tammy, with her family, today.

****

Did you witness Tammy’s windowsill performances? If so, share your memories below. Also, if you would like to be interviewed about your strange and wonderful experiences attending STHS, please email us at tellusastoryblog@gmail.com and we’ll set up an interview.

About the interviewee

You probably remember Tammy Tibbens as the curly haired jokester who enjoyed playing sports and entertaining her classmates. Since high school, Tammy (now Tammy Vasbinder), has had a successful career in Sales and Marketing. She was featured in a national publication called “Radio Ink” in October 2007 as one of the top 10 radio reps in the country. Tammy now enjoys raising her two children. Keeping screwdrivers out of the wall sockets and crayons out of the clothes dryer are now her biggest accomplishments.