It was my first day of ninth grade.
Twenty-eight nervous 14-year-olds shuffled into Mrs. Ullman’s honors English class. As students at David E. Williams Middle School, the stories of Mrs. Ullman’s English class had trickled down. We were understandably and knowingly nervous.
Mrs. Ullman entered the room looking like a rock star. She had the figure of a female superhero and she had long, wild blond hair that was usually wind-blown from riding her motorcycle to work.
She stood at a podium and pointed to a model guillotine that rested on top of a cabinet. Calmly, she spoke “Charles Dickens wrote: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. That is exactly how you will feel as a student in my class.”
Prior to that particular year, I used to love the first day of school, the excitement and anticipation. The weeks leading up to it were filled with trips to the mall for clothes, shoes and school supplies. My parents were all about the anticipatory period leading up to: DUM DUM DUM DUM “The First Day.”
Conversely, I also remember not looking forward to starting high school. In fact, I dreaded it. Not just because of Mrs. Ullman (the toughest teacher I had during my four years at Montour High School), but because of the increasing pressure regarding, well, everything.
Suddenly school work mattered more and sports were not to be played for fun, but to earn scholarship money. Even the clubs that you joined had consequences. Joining Students Against Drunk Driving would look good on a college application whereas starting the Young Democrats club could seem provocative to potential schools.
The beginning of high school seemed like the start of the real world and that terrified me.
I have never been a person who enjoys getting older. In fact, I do most anything in my power to stay youthful. I still believe in Santa, the Great Pumpkin and monsters under my bed. My mom still safety-pins my mittens to my coat each winter. In fact my brother Nick refers to me as a “kidult” (half kid, half adult).
I think in some part of my 14-year-old brain I thought starting high school was the beginning of the end of my childhood. It created the most bizarre nervous, anxiety ridden energy within me.
I remember entering Mrs. Ullman’s classroom, spazzing out, and dropping all my books on the floor. When she called my name during roll call, I stuttered like Porky Pig. “I’m, I’m, I’m, Ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-ga-gab Bonesso”.
The most insane thoughts were rushing through my head. I was not ready to grow up. I was not ready for the worst of times. Please! Mrs. Ullman! Don’t use the guillotine on me! Don’t run me over with your motorcycle! Help! I want to be a kid again!
Okay, okay. Perhaps I was a little dramatic and slightly overreacting. I ended up doing well in Mrs. Ullman’s class. I mean, I continued to stutter each time she called on me in class, but I excelled at her oral book report projects. In fact it was during an oral report on Bernard Malamud's The Natural that Mrs. Ullman told me that I could have a career as a performer.
I’m not saying that I became a performer because of Mrs. Ullman, but I did become one because of Mrs. Ullman’s guillotine.
So keep your head. Stay in school. Have fun this year!