In light of all the sadness happening lately, I thought I would offer a cheering anecdote from my childhood. This is only tangentially about teaching and likewise only tangentially about Character and Endurance, and much more about the utterly bonkers things you convince yourself are necessary to do in junior high.
This is the story better known as That Time Alex Fell Down a Mountain.
It was sixth grade and I was kind of an idiot. I mean, I’ve already given it away: I fall down a mountain in this one.
Climbing Mt. Monadnock was a tradition. Some schools went to battlegrounds; we climbed this giant peak in New Hampshire. All the sixth grade classes before us did it and I imagine that if no one’s stopped them by now all the sixth graders after us will do it as well. The mountain’s actually not that giant, you can make a day trip out of it, and that was exactly what we did, all 64 sixth-graders and handful of homeroom teacher chaperones.
This number included my homeroom teacher, who taught French and was amazing, the art teacher (who was decidedly less amazing, for reasons not worth exploring in this story), several others who were just fine, and the drama teacher.
In the Austenian tradition of tastefully obscuring the identities of people one tells certain anecdotes about, I’ll call him Mr. B—. I will do my utmost to pass no judgement, to merely present the facts and invite the reader to draw their own conclusions.
Mr. B— and I had a somewhat turbulent student-teacher relationship. In his defense, sixth grade was not one of my most friendly and effervescent incarnations. I’d just transferred into a new school (my fifth), accidentally messed up some cliques (oops), and mostly lived in the school library during lunch and recess teaching myself how to draw (which honestly felt like a very positive arrangement at the time). That is, however, all the defense he’ll have.
In our first drama production, my character was a seasick delinquent aboard a cruise ship. (It was a student-written play.) The day of our performance, I’d clamped a hand over my dog tags so they wouldn’t clink and make too much noise as I, in full punk costume, got into position behind the curtain. I secretly did want to be a good actor, as any good consulting detective worth their salt could act, and my dream was to either become Sherlock Holmes or marry him.
Imagine my surprise when I slipped behind the curtain to await my cue and found Mr. B— talking to a few of my classmates about me. Now that I’ve become a teacher, I’m still unclear on the finer points of why you would talk about another student’s failings to their classmates but since he, in this story, still has more years of teaching experience than I do as of the writing, I’ll allow him the benefit of the doubt of seniority.
The facts are these: Mr. B— told my classmates I was antisocial, he did not realize that I was standing there listening, and I lit into him just before my cue to go on stage.
I forget exactly what words were exchanged (my wit had certainly not peaked in sixth grade, so I probably just repeated “antisocial?” back at him like some demented adolescent parrot dressed in a much-beloved albeit very holey Commander Salamander black tee and sporting a fake nose ring) but I do know that I still had to perform afterward– we had a live audience waiting, after all. I angrily fake-vomited over the edge of the pretend ship that night with special aplomb.
All this is to say that by the time we got to the Monadnock trip, tensions were high and certain lines had been drawn. Mr. B— and I were in different groups, this was amenable to all, and I was prepared to have a great time chatting French and hanging out with Mme S— as we trekked up the mountain and reflected on nature.
The hike up was uneventful, and three hours later we ate our lunches at the peak. Mum had even drawn me a great picture on my lunch bag. My family, like most people in New England during that time (and likely even more now), were very into saving the environment so while we did have reuseable lunch coolers and used them often, I’d specifically requested a brown paper bag because I loved seeing my mom’s drawings on it.
The teachers talked about appreciating nature’s majesty and told us to be careful on the way down. Mr. B—, who I guess had had just enough of his students leaping around on the ascent, said that we all better be careful climbing back because he was definitely not carrying any of us down the mountain if we fell. I sniffed, finished my lunch, and folded up my delightful lunch bag for safekeeping.
As mentioned earlier, I had an obsession with becoming Sherlock Holmes. I trained myself in mirrors so my everyday movements would be more graceful and rewound Jeremy Brett on tape or on DVD doing the same, subtle wrist flick over and over until I could mimic it proficiently. Like all things I loved, grace became an object of study.
And oddly enough, there were a lot of avenues for practice. People are always in motion, and learning to carry weight in different parts of your body is a skill–anyone who’s attempted to pass as different genders on different occasions can tell you there’s a quiet change in the way you walk, how you hold yourself. This also factored nearly into my thirst for being the Best at Disguises, one of many necessary subgoals for becoming Sherlock Holmes.
So, I was doing pretty well, leaping gazelle-like from rock to rock, practicing for when I would escape my own Reichenbach Falls, when–not half an hour out from Mr. B—‘s lunchtime comments–I made a crucial miscalculation.
Possibly this was because I was still too smug about all those idiots who fell down mountains, possibly it was because I wasn’t paying attention and accurate depth-perception was hard, or possibly it was just because I was twelve and no longer completely in control of what my body did anymore.
It wasn’t a big fall, maybe only eight feet. While I was ambitious as a detective gazelle, I was not stupid. I made the first rock but misjudged the second and landed on my ankle at a bad angle.
I cursed myself because I knew I looked stupid picking myself up off the ground, and I gamely walked on like normal. It didn’t bother me much at first.
One thing that is very useful to remember right about now is that it took us roughly half the day to reach the top of the mountain. We started around nine, summited and ate at around noon, and so would need about three hours to reach the buses waiting for us at the base.
An hour after I twisted my ankle, I began to realize that the pain was not just background noise. I ignored it and pushed on for another half hour, going through brush and rock trails. Actually telling a teacher that I had done the stupid thing and fallen down the mountain was unthinkable.
I had to hide it.
However, there is only so long you can do this with non-minor injuries before you have to make a decision: you either keep up the stiff upper lip and risk seriously hurting yourself further because you are too stubborn to admit you did wrong, or you alter your behavior and risk discovery in order to stop exacerbating the problem.
I opted for the second. Sure, I was dead stubborn, but the biggest goal was to make it down the mountain under my own power, and I knew if I hurt myself more I really wouldn’t be able to do that. So, with halfway left to the base, I let myself limp. Most kids did not notice– I think if you’re quiet enough about it, sometimes people in junior high are more inclined to play an injury off as a ploy for attention or you faking it for sympathy, and their best strategy is not to pay you any attention so you understand that what you’re doing is both not cool and not working. This worked well enough for my purposes.
Mme S— asked if I was okay, because she noticed and knew I would not keep this up for an hour without a great reason, but I said I was fine and not to worry.
But, then maybe half an hour from the promised land of humid leather bus seats and my ankle spending some quality time with my lunch’s cold pack, the terrain became rocky. My ankle wasn’t as taxed as it had been thanks to the limping, but after trying to maneuver over the rocks and nearly falling again, I was at an impasse. I could not get down the rocks as I was.
Mme S— had quietly alerted the other teachers that one of her students had had an accident on the mountain and was limping, but didn’t feel comfortable asking a teacher for help directly. And probably all the other teachers had discussed among themselves who would be the best suited to carry me, which logic dictated would have to be the youngest and spriest of the guy teachers. But being able able to figure all this out on the fly did not provide much comfort.
Because in true climactic fashion, Mr. B— came racing down the trail from above, calling out not to move, that it would all be fine and he was going to carry me.
And truly, in that moment, I understood what Candide had felt like when he wondered if he really was living in the worst of all possible worlds.
I was faced with an impossible decision: be the cautionary tale of the idiot who fell down the mountain, the idiot who had to be carried and would never live it down, or hurt myself proving a point, which would be equally stupid.
As Mr. B— rushed to my aid, I chose the third option.
Reader, I crab-walked away from him.
As it happens, crab-walking is a fairly effective means of traversing rocky terrain, especially when you don’t have full use of all your limbs. My hands got a little torn up and while it may not have been the most elegant mode of egress, one thing I will say was that it was quick. I crab-walked right on out of there.
Mr. B— did catch up with me, because it is unfortunately not hard to outpace a twelve-year-old doing the three-legged crab down a mountain, but I held my own. No, I said as I crab-grappled a rock, I did not want or require his help. This anti-social kid was doing just fine.
And that’s it. I crab-walked and limped the rest of the way down Mt. Monadnock. I think my parents kept me home a day after because, surprise! I’d sprained my ankle and no one wanted me walking on it for a while. Emails were exchanged, but that is another story entirely.
Was this dumb? I mean, probably. The third option was not that much better than the original two. And yes, as an adult, it’s easy to say, “well I would’ve just asked for help because there’s no shame in that.” And that’s true, there’s not. But coming at it as a kid who was already having a hard time at school and just wanted to make it out of this with her dignity intact? I can’t say I would have done much different besides, you know, not fall down the mountain in the first place.
But even that was okay, because my twelve-year-old self clued me into a valuable lesson: when faced with two unacceptable situations, it is sometimes completely within your power to crabwalk the fuck out.
You just have to be creative about it.
And as far as sixth grade stories go, the ones where you end up looking like an idiot no matter what, I’m pretty okay with this one.