It had looked, when I was in 5th grade, like I might be heading for an art career in Japan. But then I’d gotten tsumetai ashi (cold feet). Not only because I wasn’t sure I would like tempura hamburgers, but because I wasn’t sure I loved art enough to devote my life to it.
I started 6th grade with a teacher named Mrs. Dahlgren. She was nice, I guess. But honestly, I have no recollection of her because she was replaced by a male teacher named Mr. Somethingorother–I don’t remember his name, but I do remember him. He called me “Taheemley” (no idea why) and teased me mercilessly. Teacher abuse, right? Nope. He actually liked me, and unlike any other teacher I’d had, he treated me like a grown-up. He was sarcastic, but always with a hint of a grin at the corner of his mouth. He thought I was smart, and expected a lot from me. He knew I was undisciplined, and pushed me to focus. But he also let me tell stories and do funny voices, and well, be me. I was a 6th grader after all–practically an adult–and finally someone was treating me like one!
Soon after my 12th birthday, we were sent to Sixth Grade Camp! Why? Because we didn’t belong with those little kids anymore. Heck, we were teenagers! OK, twelveteen, but close enough. I remember two things about 6th Grade Camp:
The first was watching an over-testosteroned camp counselor transfer a giant centipede into a scary-cool scorpion’s aquarium! He called it “educational.” I’m not sure it was all that educational, but entertainment-wise it was right up there with Jason and the Argonauts! Heck, The Field across the street from my house had a bajillion bugs, some of them pretty big, but I’d never imagined there were insects this big north of the Amazon! Much less seen them fight to the death like gladiators! I confess, I felt a twinge of guilt at watching this rather sadistic “educational demonstration.” (We heard the counselor got chewed out later by the camp director).
The other thing I remember was lights-out. Which shouldn’t be particularly memorable, but the boys in our cabin were wide awake when it went dark that first night (watching giant bug battles will do that to ya). So, after a lengthy round of fake farting and uncontrollable snickering, someone yelled, “Mitch, tell us a joke!”
I’d gotten a rep for telling marathon groaners, the kind of jokes that went on and on and on, finally ending in some wonderfully stupid pun. So I jumped in, improvising convoluted backstories and absurd details about a penniless nobody who rises to international power on the promise that one day he will reveal “The Great Cush.” Finally, the day comes. The largest ship ever built, as big as Rhode Island (no Texas!) carries an immense sphere as big as a city (no, the Moon!) out into the Pacific Ocean, heats it hotter than the sun (no, the…OK, let’s go with the sun), and then slides it into the ocean, and it goes, “Cuuuuuuuuuuuuuuusssssssssssssssssssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh!”
End of story. Groan. Giggles. More giggles. Still more giggles. We finally giggled ourselves to sleep. And from that night on, lights-out time meant “Uncle Mitch’s Stupid Story Time!”
My career had begun in earnest.