Outstanding 8th Grade Boy

“Shawn!” someone shouted in a whisper. I looked up from the wood block I was sanding and saw Andy and Joe peeking their heads through the doorway of my classroom. “Come on!” they beckoned. They wanted me to skip class. I was in sixth grade. Maybe seventh. I cannot recall. I was in whatever grade it was in which we had to make a wooden shelf in Industrial Arts. And, as I was twisting in my seat to join them, three of my bullies filled the doorway behind them. I stopped. This could be a trick. My bullies were a temperamental bunch. They were not to be trusted. But Andy and Joe were solid. And, they were bigger than my bullies. Hell, they were bigger than all of us. Joe by some. Andy by a lot. I mean a lot a lot. Indeed, it was rumored that Andy drove himself to school. Andy and Joe were the bad boys of school. They had long hair, smoked in the bathroom and wore black Led Zeppelin t-shirts. They were so goddamn cool. So much of something I could never imagine myself being. I was the good kid, a good boy.

“Come onnn!” Andy and Joe pleaded.

I looked at Mr. Palmore, looked at Andy and Joe and back again at Mr. Palmore. He was busily searching for something in his desk and the gale-force floor fans were noisily blowing tumble weeds of saw dust across the floor. So, if I was going to skip class, this was my chance. And, I did. I cannot believe I did. But I did. I leapt out of my seat and as soon as I exited the classroom Andy and Joe threw their arms around me. And, we ran!

We ran as a pack, without permission and with our sneakers making an orchestra of squeaks on the highly polished hallway floors. We weren’t running in any particular direction. We just ran. And, upon hearing some adult voices, we ducked under a stairwell smiling and laughing and doing our best to catch our breath.

Since my first day in middle school, smiling was something my bullies went to great lengths to make sure I did not do. Every morning, upon spotting me in the lobby, they would get up off the long wooden benches lining the lobby walls they occupied (always occupied), stab a finger into my chest and bark “Stop smiling!” So, I stop smiling. In their presence and soon enough in general. But, under that stairwell, they were smiling. I was smiling. They were laughing. I was laughing. We were smiling and laughing together. And, for the first time in Middle School, I felt free. Maybe, they felt similarly.

“Come on, let’s go,” said Joe.

Following Joe, we crept out from underneath the stairwell, made our way up the hall to the music room and peaked through the windows atop its double doors. Mrs. Yandell was at the piano. Her students were standing on the bleachers holding their song books and singing one of those songs you only sing aloud because Mrs. Yandell is making you sing it aloud. Something like the Carpenters’ “I’m on Top of the World”. Anyways, someone, I’m not sure which one of us, rapped their knuckles loudly on the music room doors. And, as soon as they did, we sprinted down the hallway.

Now, whether I was laughing and jostling or scared as hell as we ran away, I cannot remember. But I’d bet it was the latter. However, I do remember getting caught. I also remember standing outside Mrs. Yandell music room with the double doors wide open and the entire class watching as she furiously read us the riot act. “Who disturbed my class?!” she rightfully snarled. No one said a thing. Nothing. Not a thing. Then she focused her glare on me. She knew I was the weakest link. And, she said the thing a kid like me could never bear hearing. “Shawn Humphrey,” she said “I’m disappointed.” And, with those words, Andy and Joe stepped forward, formed a line between Mrs. Yandell and me and said “Shawn didn’t do anything.”

I got away with something that day that I should not have gotten away with. And, after that day, Andy and Joe would go their way and I would go mine. Indeed, I would go on to perfect the art of being the good boy. Namely, be polite, do well in school, follow the rules and listen to the adults. Indeed, I got so good at shaping myself into the boy that school wanted me to be that in 8th grade, at the end-of-the-year full-school assembly, Principal Smith would call me up on stage, hand me a brand-new Webster’s Dictionary and congratulate me on winning the “Outstanding 8th Grade Boy” award.

It was the pinnacle of middle school achievement. I still have the Webster’s Dictionary. It sits on my bookshelf. I keep it displayed as a cautionary artifact. You see, that was the beginning of my addiction to external validation. And, I would go on to chase every award, medal and scholarship in high school. I would do the same in college. And, in the early days of my professional life, “listen to the adults” morphed into “listen to the bosses”. Damn if I could not have written a “Conformist’s Guide to Living a Life for Others”. Now, having said that, chasing awards did teach me a few things. I learned how to set a goal, objectively assess my strengths and weaknesses, eliminate distractions, and stick to a course of action (even if that course of action got painful). But I always did what others wanted me to do.

Not Andy and Joe.

School could not hold kids like them.

And, what kind of kids were they?


They had a code. And, according to that code, on that day outside of Mrs. Yandell’s music room, they were duty-bound to step forward, form a line between me and harm’s way and take the punishment.

Andy and Joe had honor.

They had what I strive to earn every day.

Can you imagine being Andy and Joe and living your code, never bending to the system, enduring detentions, time-outs, and the principals’ office and watching some compliant douchebag like myself walk up on stage wearing corduroy Ocean Pacific shorts to collect the “Outstanding 8th Grade Boy” award?

Hell, I can barely tolerate just writing about it.

The shit’s embarrassing.  

If our public education system honored honor, then they would have been called up on stage in my place.


If you enjoyed this blog, you may enjoy my This is the Work newsletter.

Thanks. – shawn