Ch. 3. My Freshman Year Begins

My first day of high school was somewhat nerve-wracking, as I suppose it is for everyone. Devitt Caudill High School, by most people’s standards, was not a large place, but it was probably one of the largest buildings I had ever visited at the time. It was more than twice the size of Viper, although it housed only half as many grade levels. It was perched halfway up a hill on the edge of the moderately expansive bottom land that flattened out the wrinkled hillsides a little as various hollows fed into the North Fork of the Kentucky River. It was located in the small town of Jeff (no, I wasn’t named for it) that had a single stop sign, a gas station, a post office, a church and a couple of other nondescript businesses of less than permanent character. Kentucky Route 7 intersects the main road (Ky. 15) that goes through the town. “Fi-teen” was the closest four-lane road to my parent’s home. 

I had trouble finding classrooms despite the tiny size of the school. I was shorter than most of the boys, but not dramatically shorter. I was slender in those days, with dark brown hair, and an innocent face that some said made me look like a Beatle wannabe. I had to maneuver my way around giant upperclassmen, which I suppose most freshmen have had to endure.  

I barely understood my schedule; in Viper the school was K-8 (and still is), and while we did shift between rooms a bit, we all did it together, as a unit, and all of the rooms were less than 20 feet apart.  I kept checking my pocket to make sure that I hadn’t lost the handwritten schedule that told me which room to look for next. The last-minute schedule, not in the regular sequence of events because I missed the 8th grader registration and orientation, had been handed to me by a harried school secretary who had no time for explanations. This was the first time, I remember thinking, that I figured out that rooms that all start with 100- were on the first floor, and rooms with 200- were on the second floor. 

Our high school was small, only about 400 students total. My graduating class was 77 people. We were crowded into a 1950’s era brick schoolhouse consisting of a long hallway about 7 or 8 classrooms long, two stories tall, with an adjacent band room and a permanent “portable” classroom added later for special education.  Colonel Devitt Hayword Caudill Memorial High School was named after a school board member instrumental (I assume) in getting funding to build the school in the first place.  It was what is known as a consolidated school because it brought together the students from several different, smaller schools and allowed them to share the benefits of a larger school such as a greater variety of courses and a bigger pool of people from which to select athletic teams. (The real reason, of course, is that it is cheaper to pay one principal to work twice as hard than pay two principals each with a manageable job.) Whatever preceded it must have been much smaller. In the present day, it has been absorbed into a still larger school which effectively serves much of the entire county. The Devitt H. Caudill building itself is used as an office building now, what fragment of schoolyard there was now dedicated to parking, the wooden staircase winding down the hill to the store at the foot of the hill decayed and abandoned, half lost among the tall grass that grows in the summer. 

“You’ll be fine,” said Mom. “You’re smarter then half of them teachers down there at Devitt what gets paid for jes’ setting around on their ass all day.” When Mom wasn’t angry or shouting, the few curse words she uttered she sort of squeezed out like toothpaste; sparingly, and with effort. Sometimes you could barely hear them; when she said ass all you could really hear was the hissing of the s’es: sss.

Somehow I doubted my high school teachers would share my mother’s opinion. I know I didn’t. 

I was terrified of making some mistake, such as the time when I was put into the 8th grade spelling bee as a 7th grader and I was the first one out (glacier doesn’t follow the i-before-e-except-after-c rule). “You weren’t so smart as you thought you were,” said my classmates. Another time a fifth grade teacher had asked me a series of questions attempting to find some vocabulary word I didn’t know. “Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny!” he barked at me. “Whazzat mean, boy?” I had no idea what he was talking about, which made him snicker. “Y’see, boy? Y’don’t know everything.”  

I allowed as I had never claimed to, and there were huge amounts of things I didn’t know, but he never did acknowledge that I was attempting to be the very humble person he was ridiculing me for not being. 

Entering the 8th grade bee wasn’t my idea in the first place, but I had agreed to it. These memories burned in my mind as I worked my way down the hall that first day. Skipping the 8th grade wasn’t my idea, either, but once again, I’d agreed to the scheme.

I navigated carefully through the beginning of my freshman year, amused and embarrassed at the attention for skipping 8th grade for about a month. I was introduced to the principal as the “That Boy From Viper Who Skipped 8th Grade,” and that made me sympathetic with Harry Potter years later. I dutifully spent my days taking notes and filling in fill-in-the-blank questions from Mrs. (Wilhelmina) Caudill’s science classroom chalkboard, plodding my way through Health & PE, cranking out equations in Miss (Mary) Caudill’s Algebra I, and diagramming sentences for Miss (Cheryl) Caudill.  Perhaps a quarter of our teachers were one variety of Caudill or another. Harold, Halford, Byron, Wilhelmina, Cheryl, Nervis, Dary, Pauline and Loretta and God knows who else. Heck, even our school was named after Col. Devitt H. Caudill. (You pronounce Devitt with emphasis on the second syllable, De-VITT. ) For those of you who don’t know, a Kentucky Colonel is a title bestowed by the governor on pretty much anyone who ever had any connections whatsoever with the Old Boys Network, was owed a favor by the governor, was remotely famous, in some cases infamous, or relatively wealthy. 

Mr. (Byron) Caudill, the principal, didn’t think much of me when he first met me. “Too short for basketball, ain’tcha boy,” was his first comment to my face. 

“Yes, sir,” I replied. In Kentucky we always called our elders “sir” even when they insulted us. 

“Well, I sure hope you’re as smart as everyone says you are,” he said. “You sure ain’t gonna get an athal-letic scholarship.” He grinned at me. I didn’t know what to make of that; wasn’t the point of high school to get an education to get ready for college, rather than seeking an athletic scholarship as an end unto itself? Or rather, wasn’t the point of an athletic scholarship to get an education, and if you were going to get an education anyway without the assistance of basketball, why bother with the whole bouncing-running-throwing-keeping score part?

“Are you sure you’re up to high-school work, son?” he said. He peered at me over the top of semicircular reading glasses perched on the end of his nose. He was probably in his 40’s or 50’s, about the same age as my parents, but without the world worn, weary look of what my father would call a “real workin’ man.” He had a rim of hair bravely defending the open territory on the top of his head. Whenever I spoke to him, he made me feel as if I was being tested and I didn’t even know what the questions were really about. “I have had my doubts about them cutting out the eighth grade for some of these students,” he continued before I could compose an answer. “I don’t really think most of them are ready for it. They’re not mature enough yet.“ I wonder who the other skippers were, I thought. But I’m the only one from Viper this year. “Well?”

“I don’t know if I am or not,” I said. “I’ve never done high school work, so I can’t rightly judge whether or not I’m ready to do it.”

He looked at me with his mouth twisted to one side, trying to decide if this was a serious answer or some sort of smart-alecky remark. 

“Well, boy,” he said, folding his arms on his chest, “I reckon you’re about to find out. Good luck.” He dismissed me with twitch of his head. I left, wiping sweat from my forehead. That could have gone better, I thought. 

I had had few friends at Viper, and was invisible to the former 8th graders who were now my classmates. None of the people in my classes were my friends, or were inclined to be. Yer not from around here, are ye boy? was a phrase I’d heard more than once, despite the fact I had been born in Perry County like the majority of my classmates. Except for my older sister and a couple of cousins older than I, with whom I shared no classes, I didn’t know anyone. It’s nearly impossible to go to school in Eastern Kentucky and not be related to someone. 

The high school had several feeder elementary schools, and those few faces I recognized were absorbed into the mass of people who crowded the hall at every class change. Even a small school can seem crowded when you put everyone into two narrow hallways simultaneously. 

I’d always made some friends among the slide-rule set whenever we made one of our frequent school district shifts in Ohio; but it’s different in high school. An outsider behaving as an outgoing person, introducing themselves to strangers, is considered odd, a curiosity almost.  

I was so anxious to prove myself, and so used to being on my own in a new school, that I think I was kind of numb to the isolation and loneliness I had brought upon myself, and just accepted it as part of the Smart Kid’s Burden, just another thing that had to be endured like Finding A Way To Keep The Obnoxious Bully From Copying Your Homework and Always Getting Picked Dead Last For P.E. Teams. 

Days would pass when, if I didn’t answer a question for a teacher, I wouldn’t speak to anyone, about anything, all day long. Sometimes days at a time would pass where I would issue only one word, curt responses in social settings. I was terribly lonely and had no idea at all what to do about it. Once you start off in a group of people as shy and reserved, it’s really hard to break out of it and show your true colors. Your classmates will either think you’re weird, on drugs, in love, or something worse. So those first few impressions were critical. And mine were: quiet, unassuming, loner, nerdy. Like millions of other bright, but socially isolated kids, in every community in the country, I felt trapped by the first impressions that other people held of me. 

I’ve been a teacher long enough that I know that happens to a lot of people. Not everyone. But more than you think. 

Anyway, to give you a taste of high school life in that time and place: I even had a study hall. In those days we could schedule an hour to study, and during that hour you could do special things like practice basketball if you were on the team, or sleep, or get all of your homework done so you didn’t have anything to actually do at home. You can guess which of those three I did. When I finished I doodled cartoon aliens zooming around the universe. Endless drawings of the Starship Enterprise adorned my notebooks and binder covers.

These days we don’t have study hall because the adults are frightened of what an oversized class of teenagers with no specific assignment might do. They might organize, form a mob or some whole new gang no one’s ever heard of before with some distorted spanish-sounding name ending in a vowel, or perform identify theft with their cell phones. I guess it was a more innocent time then, although we didn’t feel particularly innocent. Probably everyone feels that way about his or her childhood. 

© Jeff Adkins 2014