I found my niche in the sixth grade while attending Pioneer Elementary School in Davis Mr. Arvizu, my sixth grade teacher, got me, but he may have cursed me too. This was his final evaluation on my sixth grade report card, “Michael enjoys the bizarre or different kind of school activities, i.e. plays, newspapers, acting. This is healthy if he can maintain the basic skills he will need for future. Michael’s communication skills improve tremendously when they are applied practically to something he wants to do. Such is not always the case in school. Concentration will pay big dividends next year for Michael. I have enjoyed having him in my class.”
Well, yes. I always do a better job when I’m following my own agenda or I am immersed in something that I am passionate about, but I can play the game if it means a good grade or a paycheck. Really, I can.
Film fascinated me. Up until the sixth grade most films at school were shown with a 16mm projector or a film strip projector. In Mr. A’s class there were 8mm film cartridges that played over and over again in a loop. One in particular possessed me. It was a colorful image of a jelly fish doing his or her thing near a coral reef. The blues were very blue, the reds were very red, and the yellows were very very yellow. Up until the sixth grade my school days seem to always be in black and white.
Mr. A. was my first male teacher. One day he brought in a large deck of Loteria cards and started to teach us Spanish. I especially liked the card that showed the Devil. He told us that in Spanish the Devil’s name was El Diablo.
My parents were not very enthusiastic that I was being taught Spanish. They assumed that the reason for the Spanish was that some of the other students were the children of local migrant workers who didn’t know very much English. I guess they thought it was supposed to even out the educational playing field.
One day, Mr. A. gave a lecture on responsibility and personal freedom. The gist of it was that the more we took responsibility for our actions the more personal freedom we would be allowed, first by our parents and then by society. Up until that time, teachers wanted me to follow the rules and do the work that was assigned. Mr. A was speaking in another language and I don’t mean Spanish.
I began to take personal freedom very seriously. Those who imposed on my freedom were a great aggravation to me. In particular, there was a bully named David who was always picking on me at recess. He would call me maggot and push me around whenever there wasn’t a teacher or playground monitor nearby.
It got to the point where I would stay in class during recess just to avoid the name calling and physical abuse. One day, I had all the name calling, kicking, and tripping I could take. The kid had the same name as my old nemesis, Uncle David. I wasn’t going to take it anymore. I told David to meet me on the playground after school and I would deal with him once and for all. It would be a fight to the death.
Word got out and there was a crowd of kids waiting after the final bell. David threw out a few choice words and the fight was on. If Mr. A hadn’t shown up to pull us apart I might have killed him. I had never been that angry before. The good news is that David never bothered me again.
At Christmas time, we sang some carols in Spanish to show off our second language skills. To my delight, we also did some songs from Mary Poppins. I already knew them by heart. Another teacher was brought in to help us with our musical education and our English skills, her name was Mrs. Wagstaff and she obviously had a thing for folk music.
She played us records by Peter, Paul, and Mary, Simon and Garfunkel, and The Limelighters. It was great to be in the choir and sing songs like “If I Had a Hammer” and “500 Miles”. I received good marks for Music and Poetry, but I still needed to work on my Reading and Spelling skills according to Mrs. W.
My contribution to the class poetry book, published in January of 1968 included this poem:
Hippies, hippies everywhere,
In the closet over there.
Hippies in the bedroom,
Hippies on the roof,
Hippies in the bathroom,
Poof, poof, poof.
It was a poem for the time and surprisingly scatological for publication in a sixth grade collection. I also contributed a science fiction story to the class newspaper, Arvizu’s Articles, named in honor of our fearless leader, Mr. A.
I took mimeograph paper home to type my story on the office typewriter and illustrated it with a picture of a spacecraft drawn with the help of some mechanical drawing tools that I had bought at the Stationary Store. I didn’t know what beam compasses and French curves were, but I liked the shape of them and I knew that I could trace a design with strong lines better using these mysterious tools than I could freehand.
My story was about an air attack on a gas station near the school, and then, the school itself. It was meant to be a cliff hanger and in my mind the first episode in a serial about me and my classmates dealing with an alien invasion. It was big on atmosphere, but very weak on plot. There were also a few misspelled words.
I believed at the time that I would pick up the story where I left off when I went to Junior High School, but I never got any further than leaving a big imaginary hole in the ceiling of my sixth grade classroom.
The school owned a reel to reel tape recorder and there was blank tape available. A group of us kids improvised a Christmas play and recorded it scene by scene, stopping and starting the machine to listen to what we had done and then going back or going on until we reached the end. I loved improvisation and I loved telling a story using only sound.
When Mr. A told us that each of us would have an opportunity to talk about a hobby, my first thought was to talk about my stamp collection, but stamps are small and I was just getting started. I decided the thing to do, especially after one kid brought in his Iron Burtterfly album and played “In a Gadda Da Vida”, would be to share my movie posters, 8 x 10 movies stills, and lobby cards. Most kids had never seen a pressbook, so I also brought a few of them so that I could explain how movies were promoted.
I packed all this paper into a double stack of supermarket bags. Some of my most precious possessions were included. Titles dated back to The Nutty Professor and Mary Poppins from 1964. Since the bag was so heavy, and I also had a backpack and a lunchbox to deal with, I was waiting for a day that my father could pick me up at school and drive my collection home. It was a long wait.
My collection remained in the classroom for a few weeks and Mr. A kept reminding me that I needed to take it home before something happened to it. One rainy day, I decided that I would walk to the nearby liquor store and call my father to come and pick me up. They knew me there. I had made phone calls before.
When my mother picked up, she told me that my father had gone to Sacramento for a manager’s meeting. She didn’t know when he would be home. I resigned myself to walking home in the rain with my paper-bag full of paper. I would keep my umbrella low and put my coat over the bag. It was starting to get cold and windy, but the important thing was to protect my collection.
The first mile, that took me just past the Forest Service facility, wasn’t bad. I kept my head down and sang aloud, “If you miss the train I’m on, you will know that I am gone. You can hear the whistle blow a hundred miles.”
When I got to the marquee, the weather took a turn. Thunder, lightning, and a great wind started to blow. It was a cartoon storm of Fantasia proportions that grabbed the bag out of my hands and sent paper flying around me. It was a mini tornado. I was so close, but I still had a way to go. Ditches on either side of the road were filled with water and there was no use in trying to reach any of my possessions since most were still in flight or landing beyond my reach in the mud and muck on either side of the road.
I continued my trek home in tears. I had been robbed by the sky.
The front gate was usually chained and locked. A side gate would be my final passage home. As I approached the front gate, the wind grew strong once again. I quickened my pace, my feet hardly touching the ground. It was as if I was swimming home.
Suddenly, there was clap of thunder and a flash of light as the front gate burst open before me. I gasped. Passing through the portal, I saw my mother coming towards me. She had been watching, waiting, and worrying. She took me in, drew me a hot bath, and brought me a cup of hot red wine that she had boiled on the stove.
After my bath, I slept. When I woke up my father gave me a few items that he had rescued for me. There wasn’t much left, but it was a kind gesture. There would be more posters, stills, and lobby cards in the future.