To live as an eighth-grader is to see yourself as inferior to almost all who look your way. Despite the bravado and swagger displayed by many, eighth-graders are, deep down inside, quaveringly unsure of themselves. This is true for girls as well as boys. The only difference between them lies in their responses. I won’t speak for girls, except to say that in my experience they deal with their insecurity more quietly, less mischievously.
Eighth-grade boys tend to nurse an angry fire. And why shouldn’t they, when every day is a series of passing back and forth from one system of control to another and then another? You go from home to school to sports or church or wherever, and always there stands “The Man,” a controlling authority wagging his finger, looking down on you: “Do this! Do that! What are you doing? That’s not right! What’s wrong with you?”
And let’s be clear: The Man is not gender-specific. For an eighth-grade boy The Man may be—and at school, often is—a woman. The Man is that collection of adults—including your parents—who flippantly wield their power over you.
Thus there grows an increasing anger at The Man. And that anger has to go somewhere. “It in him and gotta get out,” to quote John Lee Hooker in “Boogie Chillen.” And the anger often gets out by way of retaliation at The Man.
But this is tricky business, for The Man possesses all the power. Therefore, you can’t go full-frontal assault. You must go guerilla warfare, as in some variation of sneaking up on The Man and plunging a thumbtack into his ass. If you’re lucky, you get away before The Man turns around. This will bring you a fleeting thrill, a foretaste of some future freedom. This has been true as long as there have been eighth-grade boys.
Half a century ago, I was an eighth-grade boy. In my day “goot drawing” was the preferred retaliation. In case you don’t know, the goot was, in the parlance of those days, the male member, anatomically speaking, and the rendering of it was more stylistic than graphic or accurate. It was much less about sex than it was about eye-popping scandal. I would put such a drawing here in the blog, but Miss Moore, my eighth-grade teacher, might burst from the grave to destroy me with all the fury of The Man. So I’ll describe it in words.
Picture a curvy outline of a mouse head in which the ears are rounded (sort of like Mickey’s) and the snout is elongated horizontally from beneath them. Now, turn this drawing upside down so that the “ears” hang pendulously like, well, balls, and the snout extends left or right from above them. That is how one draws a goot.
With pencil, pen, or marker, the goot can be applied surreptitiously in one continuous stroke to walls, stalls, and other flat surfaces. A favored place was the wooden surface of a desk occupied by another student. This way, you stuck it to The Man by shoving one of your classmates toward him. (You’ll recognize this as “throwing someone under the bus.” We were masters at it.)
Invariably teachers’ eyes would fall upon a goot and go wide in horror. “WHO DREW THIS?” And invariably, the question would be met with a silent ripple of shrugs. Such was (and is) the eighth-grade code of solidarity.
The goot looms vividly in my memory especially because of a classmate called “Whitey” on account of his pale skin and toe-headed hair. Despite those features, Whitey didn’t stand out especially. He wasn’t among the verbose kids who made C’s, D’s, or F’s in Conduct. He seemed to go along peacefully, occasionally smiling and giggling at others’ jokes. But soon we would learn that beneath Whitey’s placid veneer, there raged a powerful storm against The Man.
One night, when his parents were deep in sleep, Whitey rose from his bed, dressed himself, tip-toed into the garage, and very quietly opened its door. Then, he stuffed into his back pocket a screwdriver, a wide paintbrush, and a stirring stick. Next, he crouched down and snaked a skinny arm between the middle rungs of an extension ladder as he clasped the handle of a nearly-full gallon can of paint on the floor. Then, very quietly, he rose from his crouch, the ladder on his shoulder, the paint hanging from his hand.
I imagine him silhouetted by moonlight, marching the block or so to the school. Don’t hate me for this, but a decade later, while in seminary, I read a short story depicting Jesus carrying his cross to Golgotha, and there came into my mind the image of Whitey and the ladder and the paint.
Our school sat atop a hill, one side of which declined a great distance into a valley. From classrooms on that side of the school you could look out across the valley and see the old mines of Red Mountain which were at least five or six miles away. Also on this side of the school a new addition had been built and left with a façade of whitewashed concrete block. It was on that wall that Whitey painted, under cover of darkness, the biggest goot the world had ever seen, a goot for the ages, or, as one classmate gasped in admiration, “the Goot of God.”
And on that morning , after sunrise, from many kitchen windows of many houses that checkered the slope down into the valley, many mothers stood, mouths agape, eyes lifted upward to Whitey’s art. Phone calls were made—to neighbors, to teachers, to principals, to the Board of Education, to police. Frenzy ensued.
When I arrived at school, the custodian was on a ladder taping butcher paper over the goot. But Whitey’s work was thick and many-coated, and so the custodian’s efforts worked like onion-skin on a stop sign. The goot was too mighty to obscure.
By now principal and teachers were frantically corralling students from the playground, where we normally waited for the opening bell, and where the goot was most clearly visible, around to the opposite side of the school where it was not. The principal was shouting, teachers were shrieking, and we eighth-grade boys were exchanging gleeful glances, barely able to contain our elation. One of our arrows had finally found Achilles’ heel! The Man was in full panic, rattled more than we’d ever seen him! Victory!
But, of course, The Man eventually prevailed. Whitey was found out. My memory is gauzy. I don’t recall if he was ratted out, or if, as I would like to believe, he surrendered himself to the authorities as Jesus did in Gethsemane. I believe he was expelled. I know that, by noon, workman had arrived from the Board of Education and had painted over the goot.
But I must confess that the episode still stands in my memory as a most glorious moment. By God, through Whitey, we eighth-grade boys had really stuck it to The Man!
Some four decades later, as if to prove He has a wicked sense of humor, God made me an eighth-grade teacher!
That’s right. God made me The man.
My school has a tradition in which teachers spend the first three days of the academic year reviewing rules and the consequences for breaking them. As I lead my students through relentless slide-shows and videos depicting proper and improper behavior, I see the boys exchanging furtive glances, eyes gleaming with mischief.
This always leads me to think of Whitey and the Goot of God, and I’m reminded that the eighth-grade boy is still very much alive in me. Occasionally I’ll catch some boys throwing mischievous glances at one another, and they’ll see that I’m looking, and as I scan their eyes, I try to send a silent message with mine:
“You go, guys! Stick it to the Man! Even if The Man is Me.”