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Geiger’s Counter: The coolest kid in junior high

Frankie Formby was the coolest kid at Wilder Junior High School. He wore jeans and a black leather jacket over a plain white t-shirt. He usually had a box of red Marlboro cowboy killers stashed somewhere on his person and was generous with them. His hair was long and greased back which was still cool at the junior high level in 1966. Years later when the television show Happy Days debuted and Fonzie’s star emerged, Frankie Formby had been immortalized forever. The best thing Frankie had going for his image was the black, slightly chopped motorcycle he rode to school each day. Frankie was cool, all right ‘“ until he padlocked his chopper to the same rack that held our bicycles. You see, Frankie was 16 entering the seventh grade. The rest of us were 12 with a couple of 13-year-olds thrown in. Frankie had not been able to escape Savannah’s strict public elementary school requirements and had flunked somewhere between two and four grades. We were never able to determine his exact academic situation. Frankie didn’t talk much about it. I thought about Frankie the other day while attending a chamber of commerce planning session. As it always does, the discussion turned to our schools and the woes of public education. A school superintendent was present and he owned right up to the fact public schools have a lot of work to do before they can be considered an asset to economic development and industrial recruitment. He bemoaned the lack of parental involvement and, in some instances, abject parental apathy. He talked about how parents let their children sleep as late as they wish and arrive tardy every day and how parents often sign kids out of school or let them miss school altogether for a birthday or other trivial event. He noted how many students live with their grandparents; their parents off with the wind. He lamented the fact parents and guardians will turn out in droves for football games, basketball tournaments and board meetings where dress codes are discussed but PTO meetings can be held in a good-sized walk-in closet. It was not that way at Heard Elementary School in Savannah. We knew shortly after arrival in Miss Brown’s first grade that Mrs. Woodcock’s sixth grade stood between us and advancement to junior high. There were few discipline problems. If we acted up in school, we got paddled. When we got home we got Dad’s belt, Mama’s switch or both reapplied to the same anatomical target area. Homework was done and handed in first thing the next morning or you stayed after school until you learned your lesson. It only took once for me. And, waiting at the end of the elementary school gauntlet, was Mrs. Woodcock. She was right out of general casting with high-necked school marm blouses and gray hair done up in a severe bun. She stalked her classroom with a band director’s baton and did not hesitate in cracking you across the wrists with it if you got out of line. Mrs. Woodcock’s big thing was grammar and English composition. She taught us to diagram sentences ‘“ something I still do in my head every time I write. Her pet peeve: the comma fault. If you turned in a written work containing a comma fault, she would not read past it. A comma fault meant an F ‘“ no questions asked. There was neither arbitration nor recourse. A comma fault was an automatic F. And, too many Fs meant you did not graduate from elementary school to the junior high with its prettier girls some blocks away. The junior high had organized sports teams and coaches always looked to the elementary school playground for athletes. However, neither Mickey Mantle nor Johnny Unitas would have made it past Mrs. Woodcock until they were polished to an academic shine. She was the toughest of the tough and we adored her for it. I wondered what Mrs. Woodcock would think if she could sit in on the meeting and hear all the talk of after school programs, self-esteem enrichment programs and free tutoring programs offered at taxpayer expense which go virtually unattended. I think she would offer up a tough love approach, crack us all over the wrist with her baton and make us clean erasers out back of the building until we came to our senses. Mrs. Woodcock never showed one iota of concern for my self esteem although I am sure it was there behind her tough facade. She demanded performance but worked patiently with those who were a little slow to pick things up. Still, when test day came, we were expected to perform. That was her legacy. She demanded academic performance and, in all but a few cases, got it. We would do well to heed Mrs. Woodcock’s lesson, put aside all our nonsensical programs and get back to a performance based approach to public education. Besides, Frankie’s chopper would look cool parked out behind the middle school. It would be the sign of a quality school system that demands performance and has in place stiff consequences for those who fail. Originally printed March 9, 2004.

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