When I began teaching in a middle school some years ago, I was afraid most of the time. I came to school afraid, I stayed afraid much of the day, and when the final bell rang, and all those wild middle school kids streamed out to the buses, I felt such relief that I nearly wept.
Why was I afraid? Oh, it wasn’t for any physical reason. Sure, there were some fierce eighth grade boys, but I wasn’t really worried about that. Kids didn’t attack teachers, not in those days, not, anyway, in Spoon River Middle School in rural northeastern Ohio.
By the way, I made up the name “Spoon River Middle School,” and I’ll explain why in just a minute. But first, here’s why I was afraid during my early years: I didn’t know what I was doing. And I was terrified that the students would find out.
Oh, I was a college graduate. I had majored in American literature, and I knew some things about writing (or at least I thought I did). And I’d done all I’d needed to do to earn my teaching certificate. But I didn’t really know how to teach middle schoolers. I’d done my student teaching in a high school—eleventh graders. Most of those kids had been pretty serious. They knew the importance of the next year or so. Some wanted to go to college or trade school. Others just wanted to be able to interview well for a job. And so most of them pretty much tried to do the best they could.
But when I finished my student teaching and began looking for a job, I found nothing available in any high schools in the area—and I wanted to stay in northeastern Ohio. I didn’t have any family there anymore—or many friends or any lovers—but even as a young man I was pretty … settled. I’d lived there most of my life; I didn’t want to go anywhere else.
As it turned out, I got one interview—at Spoon River Middle School in Spoon River, Ohio. Eighth grade English. I wore the new blue suit my parents had given me for graduation; I was ten minutes early; I carried with me a yellow legal pad. I tried to look serious, professional, prepared.
I needn’t have bothered. The Superintendent of Schools in Spoon River had been in the Lions Club with my dad for years. The job was mine. All I needed to do was show up for the interview dressed, not naked, keep my fingers out of my nose, try not to drool or moan or to say anything startling—like “Eighth grade girls can be pretty hot, can’t they?”
So there I was, age 21, a teacher. I spent the ensuing summer doing two things: 1. thinking about my classes; 2. trying not to think about my classes. I was simultaneously excited and terrified, you see. And that summer, time accelerated, the way it always does when you don’t want it to.
All too soon, classes started. And I was busier than ever before—in my life. I had more than 150 students a day each of my first few years. And most of them were not of the sit-down-and-be-attentive variety. By the weekends, all I wanted to do was sleep—which is pretty much what I did.
In those early years I was teaching the way I’d been taught. (Go with what you know!) Lots of grammar and mechanics. Some stories and poems from our literature book. Some writing assignments. I found out pretty quickly, though, that writing assignments were a killer—so many hours of grading for 150 students.
But I stumbled upon something that in a way saved my life—and in another way brought about the book you’re now reading.
I started setting aside writing time in class every week. Free writing time. Well, sort of free. Sometimes I would tell the kids to write a poem—or a letter—or a story—or a memory—or a dream. You know. Just to see what they’d come up with. I kept all these writings in folders—a folder for each kid—and once a marking period, I would flip through the folders, reading a little, seeing what they were up to. And give them a grade and a brief comment. These pieces show a lot of thought, Bob. Or Why do you write about baseball all the time, Tim? Or Your grandmother sounds like a really interesting woman, Sue. That sort of thing.
After a while, I noticed that quite a few of the kids were using their folders to hold more than just the writing they did in my class. Other things appeared. Notes. Pieces they’d written at home—or in other classes, or in earlier years. It was odd.
I started a file, too, though I kept it to myself. In it I put notes I’d found on the floor, writing that kids had tossed in my trash—or left in the printer tray. Odds and ends.
And that first summer, I took it all home. When I was beginning to recover from that first very difficult year (in mid-July or so), I took the files out and began looking at their contents a little more carefully, and I noticed a number of things. Lots of kids had just sort of gone through the motions—writing something because they had to. No surprise. (I’d done a lot of that sort of thing when I was a student.)
But there were other kids who’d clearly written about things that mattered to them, had written with passions of all sorts (love, hatred, anger, sorrow, and so on). I even saw a sort of story emerging—or, better, stories, stories that sometimes intertwined, sometimes not. I pulled out the pieces that seemed most—what?—meaningful? Honest? Unique? Typical? I don’t know. But the ones that appealed to me in some way—or revealed something that surprised or moved me.
And now we get to the “Spoon River” part:
One of the books I had liked in college was a collection of poems by Edgar Lee Masters (1868–1950) called Spoon River Anthology. He’d grown up in a small town in Illinois (Lewiston), a town which greatly influenced his outlook and writing. Later, he wrote a series of poems in the form of monologues and epitaphs from fictional people in the fictional town of Spoon River, and those poems give readers an idea of what life and people were like in that small, rural place.
And so I got an idea from Edgar Lee Masters. Just as his poems revealed the attitudes of the residents of Spoon River, so the pieces my students had written would give readers a good understanding of life in our middle school, a school whose name I changed to “Spoon River” in honor of Masters.
So here they are, such as they are. I’ve not done anything with the words the kids wrote, but I have straightened things up. Spelling. Punctuation. You know. But the words belong to the eighth graders of Spoon River. And these are their stories, their thoughts, their lives …