“You only go through high school once, but if you go through the way we did, that’s enough.” ― Steven C. Smith, Off the Rails: Excerpts from My Life
In the summer of 1981, I decided to attend summer school at South Miami High instead of taking three months off until the start of my junior year. I had several good reasons for giving up the “joys” of summer vacation.
First, I wanted to take the two required U.S. history classes early to make room in my schedule for Mixed Chorus and Yearbook Production. Second – and perhaps more important, I didn’t want to spend my summer vacations at home anymore; Mom was still dating Joe B., a retired airline pilot with a penchant for heavy drinking and a bullying demeanor, so South Miami High was my safe place.
Now, I had attended summer school while I was a fourth grader at Tropical Elementary School before I was mainstreamed – and I was bored beyond belief. Mrs. Chambers, my Special Education teacher, was a lovely woman and I thought of her as a second mother.
But when I was 10 and 12 years old, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was sit at a desk doing classwork while most of the kids in my neighborhood were having fun riding bikes, playing touch football, or simply loafing around in front of the TV after doing a few chores.
But in the summer of ’81, the situation was different. I still had a Special Ed resource period on my junior year schedule, so if I wanted to take two elective courses in 11th grade, taking both sections of American History in summer school would free up two period slots.
This was an important factor in my decision; I’d give up six weeks of vacation time, but I’d be in both the school’s mixed chorus and the yearbook staff during the 36-week-long academic year. And even more important, I would not be home as much, which meant that I could escape, at least for a few hours a day, from the not-so-kind treatment from Mom’s alcoholic boyfriend.
To be sure, going to school in July and early August wasn’t exactly a piece of cake, especially in South Florida. Classes were in session during the hottest, wettest months of the year; there were quite a few days when I got soaked by torrential tropical downpours, usually when the bus dropped me off at my stop in the afternoons.
Sometimes the thunderstorms were so severe that we could hear loud “Booms” of thunder outside. If lightning struck too close to the bunker-like school building, the thunder sounded as though a B-52 had dropped its payload of Mk. 82 bombs on the practice field and the fluorescent lights flickered ever so slightly. It was unnerving, yes, but on the whole, it was better than being at home.
To my surprise, many of my fellow Cobras were taking courses that summer. Some, like my predecessor as the school paper’s Entertainment Editor, were seniors who had to make up a failed course before they earned their diploma. Others were underclassmen – like me – who wanted to take tough required classes early in order to take one or two “fun” elective classes.
Though they had different teaching styles, my two history teachers – Freddie Brooks and Robert Cummings – were effective teachers and I got along with both of them. Mr. Brooks was a Vietnam War veteran with a booming voice and dynamic personality. He taught U.S. History to 1877, and in his class we studied America’s past from the colonial era to the end of the Civil War. Mr. Brooks relied on the “great men of history/red-letter dates” method of instruction, which tended to be dry and somewhat dull.
I remember that he required us to keep a neatly-organized notebook, which he inspected regularly. I couldn’t take notes on my own due to my CP-related limitations, so Mr. Brooks was nice enough to give me study sheets he prepared on a mimeograph machine. I still had to keep them organized in a binder; if I didn’t, he would grade me accordingly.
Mr. Cummings had a more interesting teaching style. In his class we were supposed to cover U.S. history from the Reconstruction Era all the way to 1980, but we only got as far as the early Cold War years in six weeks. I liked Mr. Cummings’ method of approaching the topic.
He’d talk about the personalities of various U.S. and world leaders, including Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill, Adolf Hitler, and Joseph Stalin. Because I was already a World War II buff and knew a great deal about the subject, I liked it when Mr. Cummings called on me to answer a question or join in a classroom discussion.
Going to summer school wasn’t as fun as, say, going to Walt Disney World or traveling to Bogota to visit Mom’s family, but at least I was in a safe, secure environment. With the exception of the day that I helped take inventory at the now defunct Lionel-Play World toy store in Westchester to earn money to buy my class ring, I didn’t have a summer job; going to school was the next best and productive activity for me to do. It kept me busy and, most importantly, I had a head start on my junior year.
Summer school only lasted six weeks, and before I knew it, the term ended in mid-August. I did all right, I suppose: I earned a low B in Mr. Brooks’ class and a low A in Mr. Cummings class. I performed better in American History II because I was more familiar with post-Civil War history and loved the more recent eras, including World War II and its aftermath. (This is no knock on Mr. Brooks as a person. Yet, as a teacher, he tended to focus almost exclusively on economics, politics, and the Big Picture of history, as opposed to the more interesting details of what life was like in the 18th and 19th Centuries. He wasn’t a boring guy, but the way he taught the course was not riveting.)
My sophomore year was, in my mind, officially over. My junior year was about to begin.