Ch. 2. The Boy Who Skipped

There’s an old joke that goes: When the world comes to an end, I’m moving to Kentucky, because everything happens 20 years later there. Like many of the other infuriating jokes at the expense of “hillbillies,” this one has a kernel of truth in it. I became aware of this because my family moved from Ohio to Kentucky halfway through my 6th grade year in the early 1970’s, and I had entered Viper Elementary in Perry County, Kentucky.

It quickly became obvious that the school I attended in Kentucky was not moving kids along as quickly as my school had in Ohio.

I remember learning about degrees and angles and protractors in the fifth grade in Ohio. The topic didn’t get introduced into our education in Viper, Kentucky until the sixth grade. Late in the sixth. Seventh grade found me so far ahead of my peers, and annoying everyone (students and teachers) by answering all of the questions, blowing the curves, and being a little rude about the slow pace that one day, I was called into the hall outside the classroom to have a “conversation” about it.

At first it was just a knock on the door. My teacher suspended the lesson and answered the door. Then he turned back to the room and gestured to me. “Jeff Mason,” he said, as I looked up in surprise. Again?

This time Mr. Caldwell and my mother were in the hallway. When the rest of the class saw her and the principal waiting for me in the hall, there was the traditional rolling chorus of “ooooOOOHHHoooo!” I rolled my eyes as I left. I didn’t do anything wrong. It’s probably something else.

The hallway was only six or seven classrooms long, but it seemed to stretch on forever, notably empty and silent except for murmurs from classrooms and the hum of fans futilely attempting to redistribute the heat of the day. Mr. Caldwell stood beside my mother, and my teacher stepped into the hall and joined us. I think my teacher was Bobby John Combs, who was also my bus driver, but I’m not completely sure I remember who my teacher was that year.

“Son, we’ve decided that going to the 8th grade here is a waste of time for you,” the principal said.  He always wore a tie with a short-sleeve buttoned white shirt even on the hottest of the humid, sticky days of early summer, and true to form he was wearing one today. He was also wearing a smile, which confused me.

I raised my eyebrows, but said nothing.  Was I being kicked out of class? Why was he smiling?

“What we were thinking is that it might be in your best interests to go on to Devitt H. Caudill Memorial High School next year. What do you think about that, Jeffery?”

Skip the eighth grade? I thought. But I’m not ready! Thoughts of the slow pace and the ease of work I’d encountered so far vanished from my mind. I’d go from being a year ahead of everyone academically to being a year behind chronologically. What did that mean to me personally? My mind whirled.

“Um, what about the stuff I’ll miss in 8th grade?”

“Your teachers tell me that you’re basically a year ahead in every subject and reading at 11th grade to college level already,” replied the principal. My teacher nodded. I was surprised. This was the first time anyone had said anything formal to me about being more advanced than the rest of my class. I didn’t feel advanced. Just... focused.

“He read that Carl Sagan book in less than a week,” said my teacher.

I had read Intelligent Life in the Universe in long marathon reading sessions over several days, and eventually learned how to use the formulas in the back to compute the Schwartzchild radius of a black hole (and taught myself from my calculator manual how to use scientific notation to finish the problems); but once again I was reticent. No one I knew, except maybe a kid down the road named Don I played with sometimes, even knew what a black hole was. I learned about novas and nebulas, and probably got my initial interest in science and astronomy, from sneaking downstairs at midnight when we lived in Ohio to watch reruns of Star Trek (the original version) after carefully twisting our old black-and-white television away from the open bedroom door where my mother snored and my father slept fitfully trying to ignore it. I got caught once when I inched the volume up too loud, and got yelled at for waking up my parents and being up without permission.

None of the television stations we could pick up in Hazard transmitted Star Trek. They went off the air at midnight, right after a brief newscast out of Lexington and the obligatory rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. Reruns were limited to Gunsmoke and The Little Rascals.

“He did win that science fair, too,” said my mother. I had won the 6th grade science fair shortly after joining the school with a design for a cryogenically-frozen perpetual motion machine I had imagined after reading a library book on low-temperature physics– not a textbook or a graduate level thing, that would not have been in the school library in the first place–but an age-appropriate science book written for middle schoolers. I had been the first student to check it out, I noted.  The design was based on the idea that cryogenically frozen wires had no electrical resistance and thus no loss of energy. Certain mechanical parts had been demonstrated to be frictionless under those conditions as well. Why not use a cryogenic motor to turn a cryogenic generator, which powers the cryogenic motor? With no friction, and no energy loss in the wires (the wires in my makeshift electrical kit would sometimes get hot) the thing should run forever. A perpetual motion machine. It won’t work–I learned years later–because of the conservation of energy and the fact the thing would radiate buckets of electromagnetic energy– but as this is not a physics text, I’m going to have to let that go for now.

One of the judges said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, but you sure as heck did your homework on this one,” as a cluster of people surrounded my simple hand-lettered poster, flanked by the traditional clay volcano filled with baking soda, baby rabbits in cages, and coal-stained shirts soaking in different brands of detergent.

“Well, son?” said Caldwell. “What do you want to do?”

I looked at my mother. She was a small, wiry woman, already hunched over from years of hard work and worry.  At age twelve I was already taller than she was. Like my sister, she had coal-black hair, worn straight and simple. Today she was dressed in a brown polyester pants suit, the same thing she wore when paying bills or going to town for some official purpose. Serious business.

She shrugged, peered at me with her hands shoved into her jacket pockets, and said, “It’s up to you.”

I was a little worried about the academic preparation issues, but I’d been through similar transitions before (by this time in my academic career I had already attended five different schools in four districts) and I didn’t think it would be a big deal.  What about social issues? My only real friend was Don, and he was held distant from me by my mother ever since she had been offended that Don’s parents made me dig weeds in the potato garden for several hours when I stayed overnight to visit once.

“Kids ought not to have to work all the time,” my mother had said. “They need time to be kids now, or they never will be. Believe you me, I know what it means to lose your childhood.” 

This went back to her hard and laborious upbringing during the depression years. Mom worked in the fields and kitchens and yard and such since she was old enough to lift a hand. Such were the conditions in Eastern Kentucky that the Depression came and went and the region hardly noticed; for a time, the rest of the country came down to our level, then, later, most of the nation prospered as the people in the hollows and bottoms of Kentucky went on, unperturbed, unchanged and unnoticed. The same thing, I noted some years ago, happened again during the dot-com boom.

Maybe in high school I could make some new friends. I had never had many, and the few I had enjoyed the most I had left behind when we evacuated from Ohio. (I know you want to know why we evacuated, but I’m going to have to save that story for a little later.)

If I had been a little more worldly, or thought about it for a long time, I would have considered the equation

one year younger than everyone +

short kid+

from ohio+

academically gifted+

no friends

= high school misery

and said no. But, once in a while, I figured, you either step through the door to a new adventure, or you wonder the rest of your life what it would have been like if you had.

I imagined my future self looking back, trying to talk to me through some esoteric time portal. Why the heck didn’t you jump on this when you had the chance, said the sad, older me, shaking his head. Instead you just wasted your time. There’s only so much time to learn things in a human lifetime. Get started now!

So I said yes, but I wasn’t as confident as my voice claimed to be.

Caldwell produced an envelope from his jacket pocket. “Here’s your 8th grade diploma,” he said. “I already signed it.”

He must have known what I would do, I thought. Or, I thought, if I had said no he could have just tossed it. It’s just a piece of paper. “Do I get to go to the 8th grade graduation this year?” Viper held a formal graduation ceremony for students leaving eighth grade. It never occurred to me that for some of my classmates it might be the last diploma they ever earned.  Some of them didn’t even earn that.

“I’m afraid not,” he said. “We should keep this a little quiet from your classmates here at Viper, because otherwise every Tom, Dick and Delmer will want to skip 8th grade too. And frankly, there’s not many of them as could do it. You’re the first one we’ve had in a while now.” So there were other skippers.

I nodded, and he shook my hand and handed me the 8th grade diploma.

“Congratulations, son, you’ve just graduated 8th grade,” he said. He shook Mom’s hand, swept his thick shock of black hair back from his forehead. He smiled, slapped me on the back and departed. I turned to go back in the classroom.

“Where you going?” she asked. “You heard the man, you’ve graduated from Viper. You’re done.” She grinned at me, her false teeth flashing white. She didn’t smile much, probably a learned habit from years of having bad teeth until she surrendered and had the remaining teeth removed in favor of an entirely artificial upper plate.

I’m going to miss the last three days of school? I thought. But what about my grades? Then I realized it didn’t matter; I’d already graduated. I had the diploma in my hand. No one in high school cares about your middle school GPA. Once you’re done, it’s done. I looked at my mom, who was obviously proud of me, and smiled. For some reason, the thought came to my mind that I had just saved her an entire year’s worth of money on food, clothing, school supplies, and field trips. I doubt she ever thought of it that way. She probably thought I was stealing away one more year of living at home with the family, if she considered it at all.

All my life, for nearly as long as I can remember, people have told me how smart I was. I liked being smart. I got special privileges. My parents pampered me by letting me pursue my interests, even against their better judgment. The thing is, though, I’ve never really, down deep in my heart, felt smart. If someone asked me, “What’s it like to be a genius?” I wouldn’t know what to say. People have asked me that–mostly people I knew from school, but still.

Most people don’t know how much front-end work it takes to appear to be smart. Not to mention the fact that I personally considered the root of my academic success lay 400 miles to the north, because it was mainly due to the slower pace of schools in Kentucky relative to those I attended in Ohio that I gained a real reputation for being bright in the first place.

Because I had a kick-start like that, I’ve always felt as if I’m somewhat of a sham in that respect; as if someone really smart is going to come along and expose me for the fraud I’ve been all these years. And of course whenever I admit that to people they don’t believe me, or consider it a false modesty, and then they start in with that whole “you’re a genius” claptrap again, so for the most part, I keep my uncertainties to myself.

I’ve met some really smart people in my time. When I have a conversation, today, with a PhD about how to interpret space probe data and set up observations with my students, it can take me a week to decompress the amount of information coming my way in an afternoon.  College provided me with my first true academic challenges, and it damn near overwhelmed me. My attitude had always been that I just attacked academic problems early, without procrastination, and got help when I needed it. I forgot that for a while, and I suffered mightily in my sophomore year of college because of it. The risk to my major saved my collegiate academic career by making me focus again. Ironic, if you think about it.

Some people meet that challenge much earlier in their academic careers. Some people meet it much later. Some who fail to conquer the challenge of perhaps not being quite smart enough never recover, and never find out what might have been.

Most of the kids I went to school with weren’t dumb. Some suffered from the lack of opportunity or enthusiasm of some of their teachers. Some suffered from the lack of personal vision or having a mission, a niche for themselves in the larger world. They were perfectly capable of doing the work, but they didn’t see the work as having any purpose, and without purpose or goals, it would be boring and a waste of time to learn anything the teacher tried to teach.

What made the difference for me was that I had had it drilled into me since I was small that schooling was my ticket out of poverty. “Work with your head, not with your back,” my Dad would say. “Your back won’t last. But your brain will.”

Still, it’s hard to keep an even keel when you’re surrounded by people you love and respect, and all you hear is how smart you are, how gifted, how talented, how ... everything. The day you start believing everything people say when they praise you beyond your ability is the day you stop wanting to learn new things. Once you stop growing and having adventures, what fun would that be?

Complacency is the enemy. Taking the easy way out of schoolwork is a death sentence for your brain.

I stepped back into the doorway and looked back in my 7th grade classroom. Already it seemed small, in the way that elementary school rooms seem small when adults go back to visit. That wasn’t the first or last time I had a sense of being displaced in time, conscious of what my future self would think when confronted with a memory that was still happening. Kids were still looking at me, wondering if I had finally managed to get myself in trouble. I got my books, told a couple of people I knew that I was going home, nodded in the teacher’s general direction, and left. 

Simple as that.

That’s how I became the Boy Who Skipped 8th Grade, and one of the reasons I wound up in Miss Caudill’s English and Drama classes a year early, just in time to meet Lyn Anderson, the most beautiful girl I had ever seen, the first girl I ever loved with all my heart, and who changed my life forever.

© Jeff Adkins 2014