I learned a lot in school but nothing more important than the lesson I got about people when I was in eighth grade. 

Myron Haynes taught Algebra 1 and all the eighth graders had to take it. I had heard he was tough, a little weird and of course his name was Myron. We were 14 after all.

I sat across the aisle from Wade Sechtem. Wade was everything I was not. He was outgoing, funny, popular with the girls and had tons of friends. He was a good looking guy and he always seemed to have a smile on his face. Often he put that smile there himself. He was not the perfect student for Algebra 1.

I, on the other hand, was still adjusting to a building full of 600 or so students when I had come from a one room school house in the country. I knew almost no one and except for the few guys I met in sports I didn’t really pal around with a group either. Did I mention I was shy? Painfully shy, so shy I hardly said a peep. Tall, skinny and self-conscious because of my complexion, I seemed to disappear socially. I wanted to hang out with the guys and talk to the girls, especially the girls, but I had no idea how. Wade Sechtem was in a lot of ways, my idol.

I knew Wade just a little bit. We played eighth grade football together but not at the same position. I was a defensive end and sometimes-fullback (6’-135) and he was a defensive back and running back. He had his group of buddies and I knew about two guys on the team. We just didn’t run in the same circles. In the classroom it was no different.

The luck of the draw gave me brains instead of social skills I guess. Not that I was particularly pleased with how I had fared in that doling out process at 14 however but that’s how it worked out. I actually enjoyed Myron Haynes’s class a little bit. The subject was challenging but the fact that I almost always did well made me feel like I had some sort of status, some sort of place, even if that place was geeky and really only occupied by me. Wade, on the other hand, didn’t fare as well. I sat behind him so I saw firsthand the struggle it was for him. I felt for him when Mr. Haynes called on him and he tried but he just didn’t get it. He tried to pass it off and laugh about it but I imagine it frustrated him at least as much as it frustrated me to see him walk up to any girl in school (even the 9th graders!) and talk to them. And they liked him, heck he even ended up “going” with one of them that year. I was only 14 but already I could see how different people fit into different groups, how they acted differently and how they valued things differently. Looking back I can also see how I was headed down a wrong path regarding judging people on appearances. At least until the spitball incident.

Wade always loved to laugh and cut up and crack jokes. He liked to goof off in class and talk to the guys that sat near us. I think it was just so it didn’t seem like such a struggle every day with Algebra. Mr. Haynes was an older teacher and valued his classroom control. He was a diminutive guy and very smart but perhaps not the best teacher from the standpoint of identifying with his students. Still, I considered him a fair teacher and someone of high ideals, expectations and character. He clearly didn’t see Wade that way. He viewed Wade as a distraction and rarely had much patience for his struggles at the blackboard. Wade, like any self-respecting 14 year old, responded by goofing off and doing whatever he could to prove to Mr. Haynes that he couldn’t care less about Algebra 1.

Spitballs to a 14 year old are hilarious. The idea that you can take something as harmless as a piece of paper, tear off a chunk, chew it and create a salvo of such great joy is more than our pre-pubescent minds could grasp. We all loved them, but especially Wade. He and his buddies spit and threw spitballs on a regular basis. I, as an outsider, didn’t join into the game. As I said, I was not part of the gang, didn’t know how I might join and wouldn’t have known how to act even if they had allowed me into it. This didn’t stop me on that fateful day from carefully tearing off a piece of paper so Mr. Haynes didn’t hear it and stuffing it in my mouth. I chewed it like you might a piece of gum but only when his back was turned. I was paying attention to the lesson but still having my paper chew, probably unconsciously feeling as if I had the best of both worlds. Wade and the guys weren’t watching the lesson. They looked like they were having a ton more fun. I chewed on in silence alone but eventually I got tired of the paper (it gets so it tastes bad, you know?) and I spit it weakly onto the floor. It landed unnoticed next to Wade’s desk.

As so often happened Wade and the guys got on Mr. Haynes’s last nerve later in class and he came storming down the aisle, all 5’-4” of him. I don’t recall what he was saying but he was chewing them out; Wade in particular. He knew who the leader was and despite the futility he was once again trying to quash the uprising. He stopped next to Wade’s desk and looked down, “What’s that?”

“I don’t know.” was all that Wade could say. Now, clearly he knew what is was, it was a spitball. And clearly Mr. Haynes knew what it was, he taught eighth grade Algebra 1 for crying out loud and he had been at it since dirt was new. Still, the question hung there.

“What have you been doing back here?” Mr. Haynes demanded.

“Nothing” was all Wade would say. Now clearly they had been doing more than nothing. They had been horsing around, talking, joking and yes some spitballs were thrown but this one wasn’t his. Sometime during the interrogation that ensued Wade looked at me and I knew. I knew that he knew I’d thrown the spitball. I had torn it, chewed it, gotten tired of it and in some sort of hopeful, needy, way thrown it trying half-heartedly to be part of the group. He didn’t say anything other than “Nothing”.

This angered and frustrated and finally infuriated Mr. Haynes. Here was this kid who didn’t listen in class, wasn’t understanding the material, appeared not to care about it and then wouldn’t even take credit for the one thing he apparently seemed bent on accomplishing in his class; throwing spitballs.

“That’s fine! You can come in and pick up the room after school today!” and he stomped back up to the front of the class.

I sat silent, ashamed, afraid and confused. Wade looked at me one more time before he turned around in his seat to face the blackboard and pretend to be interested. Now, I had been taught the value of honesty and responsibility. I knew right from wrong and I considered myself a good person but when the fear of rebuke, of getting chewed out in front of the whole class was staring me in the face I thought of only one thing, self-preservation.

I sat through the rest of the class without my normal focus on the lesson, without my usual attention and purpose in solving the equations Mr. Haynes put on the board. I was too busy being filled with regret. I regretted having torn the paper. I regretted having made the spitball and chewing it. I was ashamed that I had done something wrong just to try to fit in. But most of all I was ashamed that I had let someone else take the chewing out and the blame and the punishment for what I had done and I had just sat there.

When class was over I couldn’t take it anymore. I waited until all the other kids were gone, gathered my books and went to the desk at the front of the class.

“Mr. Haynes, I have to admit, that was my spitball. I didn’t throw it at anyone but I chewed it and when I got tired of it I just spit it on the ground. I’m sorry.”

Mr. Haynes was surprised and I guess a little taken aback. I could see it on his face. Maybe he felt remorse for chewing out and giving detention to the wrong guy. Maybe he couldn’t imagine one of his better students in class would engage in the kind of goofing off he thought was the m.o. of the other kids. I don’t really know everything that went on in his head but what I do know is he said, “Don’t worry about it.” I was far from relieved when I heard him say that. It struck at my sense of fairness and my sense of right and wrong.

“You don’t have to make Wade pick up the room. I’ll come in and do it.”

He thought about this for just a couple seconds and then said, “No, he can do it, you don’t need to.” I left in the kind of funk and stupor that happens when you receive a gift you don’t really want even though it’s nice; like getting a new car but it’s a Prius.

Later on that afternoon at practice I screwed up the courage to tell Wade I was sorry. He, like Myron, just looked at me and smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it.”

They say the danger in dealing with the mob is not so much that you do something for them it’s that they do something for you and then you owe them forever. To my knowledge Wade never told his buddies, the cool kids, that the goofy beanpole had gotten him in trouble. He never said the accusatory words that I said to myself during that time, words that questioned my character and my courage. He never even asked me to do his homework, which I would have gladly done. In all of this inaction he taught me a lesson.

Sometimes being a standup guy even to the people you barely know, people who aren’t in your league, people you don’t hang out with, aren’t friends with and don’t need anything from, is the right and best thing to do. I thought Wade was just a guy having a great time going through Junior High riding a wave of popularity and success I could only dream of at the time. I never gave a thought to the fact that he might operate under a code that although not outwardly apparent or determined by him in a conscious way, still governed how he lived. It was that fact that I missed. I missed that and the irony of an authority figure’s disregard for justice and fairness. Neither person, man nor boy, fit into the convenient box I had put them into.

What I will never forget is the loyalty of another kid. It was a loyalty that hadn’t been earned and wasn’t extended to get anything from me. Finally, Wade and Myron taught me a lesson about judgment and assumptions that has stuck with me all these years.

I imagine we all owe people in our past a debt of gratitude for the things they taught us. Who were your teachers and what were their lessons? Leave a comment below. 

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