Ahhh, junior high school or as they call it today middle school. By the way, I still hated almost every moment I spent in school! During the time that some Norfolk Public schools were closed because of desegregation, the school district managed to build a brand-new junior high school. Because the high schools housed so many students, the junior high schools incorporated grades seven through nine. Today’s middle schools contain grades six through eight, a more appropriate age grouping.
This was a neighborhood school, which made it really nice; Once more, all the neighborhood kids could walk or ride their bikes to school. The city was even nice enough to build us a bridge, across the creek, so we didn’t have to walk down a busy highway, then back up to the school, a detour of about two miles. It wasn’t too bad on nice sunny days, when there was a nice breeze, but oh Lordy, when it rained, it was miserable. It was even worse when it was snowing! They also arranged for the public transportation system to provide, at a mere twenty cents one way, buses for those parents who could afford those tickets. Since my parents already had to pay for my older sister, who rode to the high school some four miles away, I got the pleasure of walking with my few friends.
Now, the city of Norfolk was in, of course, Norfolk County. Geographically speaking, the area of the city and County, where we lived, was basically at sea level. That coastal area was, and is, also prone to hurricanes and tidal flooding. So, the bridge that we walked over to get to school served two purposes: it gave us a shortcut and it allowed us to get over a creek that would otherwise be impassable, during severe weather. Off to school we would go, walking in our little troop of friends and playmates. Our journey was further eased by my pride and joy, my birthday present, a beautiful lavender, and shiny, chrome, Schwinn bicycle, with a huge basket on the front. There were no backpacks or satchels, just books, notebooks, and purses. We would carefully stack all our books into that basket, and I would push my bike, while our little troop forged our way to the junior high school.
On that first day, as we approached the school, we found it to be all shiny and new. Emblazoned across the front of the building, just beside the door, was the name, Azalea Gardens Junior High School. Fittingly enough, the school was located on Azalea Gardens Road and just a few miles from Azalea Gardens, now known as the Norfolk Botanical Gardens, and the former home of the NATO Alliance Azalea Festival. We passed that sign with smiles on our faces, full of anticipation and curiosity about the new school year. see PHOTOS 1&2
Azalea Gardens Junior High School
One of the interesting things about education is that the upper administration is always looking to build a better mousetrap! They will tinker with everything from school hours, to numbers of instruction blocks, and even how to set up curriculum. Most of the time these decisions are made by people who have not been near a classroom in decades; they have no clue what goes on in the classroom. So middle school or junior high school wasn’t spared. They decided to tinker with electives and experiment with teaching some classes in the auditorium. What do I mean by that? Well, every nine weeks you had to take a different elective; they called them exploratory electives. So, each nine weeks you would switch to a new elective, for instance, you would get art, then music, followed by home economics, and finally something like typing or a foreign language. You would get about enough time to get interested in a subject and then you had to switch. I guess they figured that we didn’t know what we wanted to do. So, they would tease us with just enough learning, so that we could make dangerously ill-informed decisions about our future studies.
The other bit of tinkering that they did, as I already mentioned, was teaching some classes in the auditorium; the way that worked was different. Their great experiment was directed at seventh grade Virginia history. Every single history class would troop to the auditorium, three days a week, for instruction. The other two days you would stay in your classroom with your classroom teacher. This wasn’t really a big deal, except that seventh graders have the attention span of a goldfish; therefore, spending fifty-five minutes in a poorly lit auditorium, gave the students ample time to get into mischief. While all the students were crammed into this auditorium, we were instructed by a television. Yes, educational TV was around when I was but a mere seventh grader. The other major surprise was that when I walked into that auditorium for my lessons, there in the front of the auditorium, stood none other than my father. Man, what a surprise! For nine weeks he taught my Virginia history class.
Having a parent for a teacher, whether in the classroom with you or just in the building, presents far more drawbacks than it does benefits. The biggest part is that everyone knows that’s your dad or mom. They think you’re getting extra help, that you know what’s going to be on the test or quiz, or that you’re going to get easier grading. Well, let me tell you, that is so far from the truth! In fact, you are expected to be the pinnacle of propriety, work your little fanny off, and achieve your grades the same way everyone else does, by hard work! The only actual benefit I ever received was the day I forgot my lunch money; I was able to hit my dad up for some change. Yet, another drawback, was that all your teachers could seek out your parent and rat you out for poor decorum or being a slacker. see PHOTO 3
The year was 1961 and most of us seventh graders had no idea what was going on in the world. One thing I did know was that in 1960, John F. Kennedy ran for and was elected president; this country and I was in love with a charismatic war hero. We coasted along taking our education as it came… In my case, it was not easy! Oh, I loved history, art, music, and life science. I was slightly interested in my exploratory classes in French and Spanish. But! I still sucked at math and English.
My seventh-grade science teacher, Mr. Fink, was a real entertainer. He taught us about all the wonderful things in the animal world. Of course, in that day and age, there were only three kingdoms in the biology textbooks: Animal, Plant, and Protozoa. I still marvel at how much science has changed and the amount of knowledge scientists have acquired. Mr. Fink would take us out in the woods, near the school, and teach us to observe our surroundings. These sorts of excursions fit hand and glove with both my love of art and my appreciation for the environment. They further enhanced the things I was learning in the Girl Scout Program.
James C. Robinson
Father of Barbara Taber
By June of 1962, I had survived seventh grade and discovered my passion for art, music, and biology. I also figured out that I had enough exposure to French and Spanish to be dangerous and blithely selected one of those as my foreign language of choice. That proved to be, in my humble opinion, a disastrous choice. My math skills were good enough for me to attempt taking Algebra One in the eighth grade. Oh, what a mistake that was going to be… My math teacher just happened to be on loan from the U.S. Marine Corps. Our first day introductions went something like this:
Teacher: My name is Major Rama! You girls don’t need to know this so you can just sit in the back of the room!
Teacher: I said for you girls to sit in the back of the class. The guys need this class because they are going to be engineers and scientists!
I slink to the middle of the class and try to keep up. During the first weeks of class, I followed along and then I made a mistake of asking a question. Raising my hand, I ask…
Me: Major Rama, where did that X come from?
Multiple expletives issued from his mouth, and he tells me to shut up. Thoroughly humiliated and intimidated, I kept my mouth shut and head down.
This type of exchange continued for several weeks, that is, until my parents got wind of what was happening. I was not responsible for ratting out the teacher, another parent told my parents about the cursing, intimidation, and blatant sexism that was occurring in my math class. In short order, my parents and I met with the school administration and guidance department. I was removed from that man’s class and moved to Mrs. Fisher’s Algebra One class.
I want to be clear about this move. The move occurred in early October. By that time, I was thoroughly beat down and far behind the students in Mrs. Fisher’s class. However, she was kind enough to meet with me and my parents prior to the move. She was not one to sugarcoat anything. The dear lady explained to me that I was behind, that I needed to do everything she presented to the class, and that I would not pass the class. She was not trying to be mean; she was just being truthful and setting me up for success in the ninth grade. You see, she said that I would be in her class again the next year. So it was that I stumbled through that year of math. Yes, I failed that class, but that’s OK, you are only a failure if you give up and quit trying - thus said Mrs. Fisher. Oh, she was my first encounter with a disabled person - other than my uncle. She only had her thumb and forefinger on her right hand. However, that didn’t stop her from using that hand and wielding that chalk like a mighty sword!
One of my other mistakes was taking French in junior high and later in high school. My French teacher, Miss. Kraft, was just shy of the nastiness that was Major Rama. She did not miss a chance to make her students feel small, insignificant, and stupid. She would just pounce! There are ways to correct a student without making them feel inferior. I guess she missed that class in her teacher prep courses. Or perhaps, that is just the way foreign language teachers act. Miss Kraft never missed a chance to embarrass me and get a laugh out of those students in the “In Crowd.” Of course, it didn’t help that, while other girls were learning about makeup, boys, and those sorts of things, I wasn’t interested in being fashionable. I was too busy hiding from the rest of the world, flying under the radar.
It’s painfully obvious that mathematics and foreign languages were not my cup of tea! However, you get nowhere in life if you don’t try. So gullible me continued to sign up for French. Had I known that I would eventually vacation so much in Mexico, I would’ve taken Spanish. I’ll have more on that adventure later.
So, seventh and eighth grade taught me to keep my head down and don’t ask questions in certain classes. But boy did I love art and science! Those two teachers were just the best. They never went out of their way to make you feel small and insignificant; plus, no matter how bad your drawings were in art, the teacher was happy that you at least tried. Mr. Fink, the science teacher, showed me that you can have fun learning something and didn’t have to berate people to do it.
The other thing that bothered me about middle school or as we called it junior high school, was that girls were funneled towards one set of classes and electives, while the boys were funneled to another set. The girls were sent to typing, home economics, music, and art. The boys were given woodworking and shop classes. No girls allowed there! Now how fair is that? I would’ve loved to have taken those classes. To this day, I have two favorite stores, one has art and office supplies, while the other has tools: saws, drills, lumber, sanders, pipes, and other neat stuff for building and constructing; whatever you can imagine! Being in your sixties and seventies is a poor time to be learning how to select the correct screws and wood for a project or how to use a multimeter.
Throughout my junior high and high school days, the only job I was allowed to hold was babysitting. There was no way I could make very much money, because the going rate was $0.50 an hour! So, I would spend some of my weekends taking care of other people’s children for starvation wages. A good weeknight was making $2.50. Unfortunately, that didn’t even pay for one record album.
It was during the junior high school years, where I sadly learned that the world really wasn’t a wonderful place. In March 1963, one of my fellow classmates, Connie Padgett, was brutally raped and murdered by a man who hired her to babysit. What did not make it into the papers was the fact that he raped and strangled her behind our junior high school, then left her body in Virginia Beach, off Wolfsnare Road. After that, I was only allowed to babysit for people my parents knew. The man, a sailor, was sentenced to death. However, he was granted another trial and his sentence was changed to life in prison. At this point, I don’t know if he is alive, still in prison, or died in prison. In 2003, the last year of verified information had him still in prison. see PHOTO 4
John F. Kennedy
JFK in his limousine, the day he was assassinated
As I stated, our junior high school covered grades seven through nine. So it was that I finally made it to the ninth grade. For a change, I liked my English class. In today’s world, people would be clutching their pearls, because we studied the Bible! Mind you, it was not the entire Bible, it was basically the Old Testament. We studied Genesis, talked about the history of the Exodus, and studied the Song of Solomon, plus the Psalms as forms of poetry. Essentially, we looked at these sections of the Bible as both allegories and poetry. In today’s world, I’m sure somebody would be having a coronary over that type of curriculum. However, I genuinely enjoyed those lessons!
I also enjoyed my social studies classes because we studied world history and geography. All those faraway countries, their customs, culture, and art intrigued me! I’m guessing those lessons, plus my time spent in Girl Scouts, led to my wanderlust and desire to visit many different lands. I don’t remember my teacher, but I do remember those classes, with the topics we studied, and how badly I really wanted to go to all those lands. Never did we talk about war, which is kind of a shame, because if you don’t know about it, you’re doomed to repeat it. The other reason I liked my social studies class was because I got to participate in the Sunday Dinner Debates.
By the time I got to the ninth grade, my father had graduated from college and my mother was enrolled in college. So, the Sunday Dinner Debates became a thing in our house. The four of us would sit around the dining room table and discuss literature, history, geography, and current events. At that time, it did not occur to me that both of my parents were doing something very extraordinary! They were getting an education! Best of all, while they were getting an education, they were making sure their children were having an opportunity to learn as much as they were.
True to her word, Mrs. Fisher made sure I was back in her Algebra One class. Surprisingly, I actually understood most of the math and made reasonably good grades, except for one test. You see, it was November 1963 and as we were sitting there taking an Algebra One test, the principal came on the PA system and announced that the President had been shot! Now, if you recall, I said I was absolutely infatuated with John F. Kennedy. As an adult, I know he was a scoundrel, but he was a good scout. As a young teen, I did not know those terrible things about him and was crushed when I found out. It didn’t help that I was already sad and upset, because my granny Rollins had just died. We just sat there and finished the test, tears streaming down our faces, and Dag gone if Mrs. Fisher didn’t count that test score. Show no mercy and take no prisoners! see PHOTO 5
That school year, I managed to make decent grades in all my classes, survived gym class, and managed to move on to high school. I had only one fear about going to high school; my big sister had already been at that school for two years; now we would both be in the same building. I would be in her shadow and was afraid her teachers would compare us, only to find me lacking. You see, in many ways, my big sister is smarter than me.
But first, it was summertime again and the living was still easy!
Takeaways from Junior High School:
School administrations will always try to build a better mousetrap. Rarely do they seek direction from the teachers in the trenches! Rarer still, their mousetraps are no better and usually set curriculum back several years.
Having a parent working in the school or knowing a parent, from other endeavors, can be a double-edged sword for both the student and teacher. It’s knowing when to go to the parent/educator that is the trick. Sometimes it works and sometimes it blows up in your face.
Keep an eye on the student who is keeping their head down and their mouth shut. They’re smarter than you think, but there’s a reason they’re not participating. Your job is to figure out why they’re trying to fly under the radar.
No matter how stressed out you are there is never a reason to pick on, belittle, ostracize, or curse at students. The classroom should be a neutral ground, where students’ skills are honed and cultivated, not a killing field!
You are only a failure when you quit trying. Never, ever give up!
Tread softly, everyone has different life experiences, and you never know what emotional disaster is playing out in a child’s life.
This world is not necessarily a child friendly or child safe environment. Look out for your students and protect them to the best of your ability.