Sunday, August 28, 2011

Fork You, My Beef with Mr. Hammer

This is a tale of my misspent youth.

I had a beef with my former teacher, Mr. Hammer. I say had because I think I’m finally over it.

Mr. Hammer was my social studies teacher in the 9th grade. He’s been dead now for almost twenty years.  I think it’s time to forgive and forget.

There was no particular incident that caused the rift. It was more of an understanding. We took an instant dislike to each other and we both did things to reinforce that dislike as time went on. Up until now, only one other person knew the whole story, my best friend, Dan Barter. But it’s time I lanced this wound and moved on.

I want to make it clear that I was a horrible student. There are a lot of reasons, but it was no ones fault but my own. I wasn’t a victim. Sure, some of the reasons are good ones, but I could have decided to over come those set backs and become a good student. Instead, I used them as excuses and coasted through school. I never studied and never took a book home. But despite my status as a slacker, I hated bad teachers. They offended me. I was forced to be in school, a political prisoner, but they were getting paid to be there. I considered Mr. Hammer one of the worst. He wasn’t stupid like a few others; he just didn’t seem to care.

He would fill the blackboard with notes and then leave for up to 30 minutes while we were supposed to transcribe them for later study. My handwriting was and still is horrible, so even if I had been willing to study, my notes would have been of little use. He was also the first teacher to use a brand new technology to grade his tests. The computer (pause for ooo's and ahhh's). We used a #2 pencil to fill in A through D. We’d never seen this before and he was the only teacher I had in Bemidji that used it. I thought it was lazy and impersonal.

His last crime was just plain creepy. He would arrange the seats of the most attractive and well-endowed girls so they were in the second and third row and in the middle of the room. When he did grace us with his presence, he would always leave a seat in the middle of the front row open so he could sit on the desk and look down at us, but mostly down the shirts of the large breasted girls. For those of you that remember him, think hard before you dismiss this claim. I had occasion to discuss this with other classes, both ahead of us and after us, and it occurred to consistently to have been accidental.

These crimes may seem fairly benign, especially for the 80’s, but as I said, we didn’t like each other from the start. I had beef, and I did something about it. Actually, I did several things about it that I will list here for the record.

It wasn’t my idea, but I won’t rat out who thought of this. I will say I crossed the line. We would take a few blank computer cards and make up fake names and fill out fake tests. We were sure we would get busted, but the first test went by unnoticed. The names were goofy, but not obscene. When Mr. Hammer failed to notice there were 2 more tests results than he had students, my loathing for him grew. The following week we took it up a notch by choosing more risky names and making cool looking patterns with the answers. This went on for over a month until the other students started laughing out loud at the answer key with the foul names we had come up with. Finally, he noticed. He stared at me with undisguised hatred. I returned the look.

Over the next year I: Switched a cassette tape for a filmstrip (really old school tech, look it up), with a Van Halen  tape and cranked the volume, turned a film upside down and backwards, shot spitballs into his coffee cup (which he drank), took a months worth of nail clippings and put them in his desk (this is where he kept his, so I doubt he noticed), and stole all of his caulk. That is all I can remember, I’m sure I did more. It was the chalk that set him off. He couldn’t spend the first 15 minutes of class writing notes and then leaving for the next 30 without chalk. He came up and asked if I had any chalk on me. He loomed over, trying to intimidate me. I told him I had a lot of other school supplies, but I was fresh out of chalk. It was stuffed in my pants and even my socks. The man had a LOT of chalk. If he’d searched me, I would have been done. He didn’t.

The year ended and grades were sent out. I got an F in his class. He had the last laugh. Or so he thought. I was ashamed, but I never paid attention to how I did throughout the year and even though I didn’t think much of him as a teacher, it never occurred to me he would lie. Those were different times and I was naïve. I was sent to summer school to make up the credit so I could move on to my sophomore year. My mom was angry and possibly more ashamed than I was.

Bemidji is a big town as far as northern Minnesota towns go. Still, I thought I knew all of the students by sight even if I didn’t know their names. I was wrong. I didn’t know one other student in summer school, and all of them were hard cases. I always had a lot of respect for kids like Brian Lofgren. He was tough. A teacher once slapped him in 5th grade and he just glared at her. I would have busted out crying, but he just wanted to get even. These kids were like Brian. I was out of place so I kept to myself and hoped none of them would decide I would be fun to pick on.

Summer school was set up self-paced. We were all at different levels and grades all in one class, so we all had a set number of assignments we were supposed to complete in the 8 weeks. I didn’t know the teacher, but it was clear he was thrilled to be there. We had no homework, just the assignments. I focused on them and not my surroundings. After two weeks, I was done with eight weeks of work. The teacher was confused and suspicious. He questioned me about why I was there. The next Monday, I was sent home as soon as I showed up. My mom was home waiting for me. She’d got a call from the school apologizing. Apparently, my real grade had been a B, but Hammer had given me an F for “attitude”.

I wasn’t the only kid that disliked Mr. Hammer. I wanted to get even, and a friend who will remain nameless, came up with a brilliant idea. Now there have been recent articles about similar events occurring in the Twin Cities, but I am positive, that my nameless friend, back in 1981, was the originator of the idea to fork someone’s lawn. His reasoning was that you couldn’t rake up plastic forms, but you had to pick them up individually. We rushed to the grocery store and bought around 500 plastic forks. We picked a night, snuck over to his house, and covered his lawn.

This went on for years after. We once tried spoons, and then started spelling things with all three plastic utensils. Mr. Hammer moved, but I followed. Long after my friends had grown tired of the game, and after I got out of the Army, I forked his lawn at least once every couple of years. Judge me harshly if you want, but the last time I forked him was on his grave. Just to remind him I hadn’t forgotten.

Do you think that crossed the line? So do I in retrospect, but allow me to give you some missing back-story on why being sent to summer school hit me as hard as it did. It’s all about self-confidence, or in this case, my lack of. In elementary school, I needed tubes in my ears. My canals were small and clogged and it went on for a couple of years unnoticed until I had only 10% hearing capacity. In that time, I had slowly withdrawn from class and into myself. I also failed to learn how to pronounce hard consonants, especially R. It was the “baby” talk that finally tipped the adults off. Once I got tubes, I was put in a class for two hours a day for speech therapy and to relearn how write and try to catch up on what I had missed. I was behind at least a full year of class and missing two hours a day in fifth grade set me back farther.

In 8th grade, they noticed my grades were barely passing. They put me through a battery of tests. It was determined I was in the 98th percentile for intelligence. They also discovered my learning disability. It's in the area of language, which also covers math. They explained that the mylar sheath in most people builds up over time. Repetition increases the thickness of the sheath allowing people to retain what they've memorized. For me, the area of my brain dealing with math and other languages didn’t build up regardless of repetition. I was left confused. Was I really smart or was I stupid? They answered the question by putting me in a special ed class in 9th grade. That’s right, the same year I had Hammer. If you knew me then and I seemed stressed out and sometimes avoided telling you what my next class was, now you know why.

The class was one size fits all, not specialized to meet the needs of each student. No class could help me since the learning disability I had was physical. There was nothing to over come, but it took me years to understand that. I learned near the end of my freshman year, that they had needed one more student, or the program would have lost funding. Those teachers would have lost their jobs and the kids that did need help wouldn’t have received it. I was furious at the time and felt betrayed. Whatever chance I had to my academic life back on track was mortally wounded then and the coup de grace was summer school. Now, with years of life experience and perspective, I think it was worth the shame and damage to my self-confidence to keep that course in place. 

So you see, receiving an F and being sent to summer school when I didn’t deserve it was something I couldn’t forgive. Later in life, I discovered that 98th percentile is the minimum level to become a member of Mensa. I took their entrance test when I was 32 and have been a member every since. Being in Mensa doesn’t make me feel smarter or better than anyone else. I will always have to struggle with English grammar and I will always make stupid mistakes with contractions, synonyms, homonyms and all the other dirty little nym bastards. It’s just the way I am.

A lot of writers take pride in their command of the English language, and they should. Many rail against those who transgress. I’m guilty of many such transgressions and I do feel bad for some of the editors that have had to struggle with my mistakes. Please understand that I do care and I do try. I go though at least 10 drafts before I send a story off, but some of the mistakes are simply invisible to me. 

As for Mr. Hammer, I did have a beef with him, but finally, I’ve put those feelings to rest. I’m happy and content with who I am. It’s time I forgave Mr. Hammer and let go of my beef.

R.I.P. Mr. Hammer, we’re good.


  1. I'm a teacher and I approve of this behavior.

    Yeah, you were probably being an ass at times, but that is what kids do. The adult in the room holds the responsibility to act like one and set an example. The behavior you described disgusts me and I hate to see behavior like that in a teacher. It gives us all a bad name.

    Seriously, screw that guy. But I'm glad you got over it and moved on.