Stephen Tobolowsky: What I learned in the seventh grade

Stephen Tobolowsky: The Indignities of the Seventh Grade

Stephen Tobolowsky: The Indignities of the Seventh Grade

Snapshots of life at home.
Oct. 3 2012 3:45 AM

My Insignificant Year

A miserable basketball team, a Nazi classmate, a fateful standardized test: notes on the indignities of the seventh grade.

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I expected that this would be the beginning of a long dangerous war between John and myself. But it wasn’t. John left me alone after that. Maybe a teacher talked to him. Maybe he realized I was still Tobo, but I doubt it. The truth was more likely in the realm that we were 12. We were growing and changing so fast, trying on the different skins of the men we wanted to become.

In that insignificant year there was another event of great significance. It was another bit of deviltry cooked up by education majors. In what seemed to be a page torn out of the Soviet playbook, the Bureau of Education announced it was going to give a statewide exam to all seventh graders. The grade on this single test would determine your academic path for the rest of your future. If you scored below 110 on the test, you would be put in the big classes with all the troublemakers and the old textbooks. If you scored above 110, you would be put in the smaller classes with the good teachers, with brand new textbooks, and go on field trips.

I scored 110.

I was unsure of my fate until an assistant from the office came into our class and gave my teacher a slip from our principal, Mr. Moffat. I had been reassigned. My teacher told me to pack up my books and belongings. I remember a couple of boys laughing that I was being sent to the “dumb class.” Almost everyone tried not to make direct eye contact with me. Everyone except Claire Richards. She looked at me steadily and sadly.

I was escorted down the hall to my new classroom. 217. I entered into a scene from Lord of the Flies.


The room was crowded and noisy. The teacher hadn’t shown up yet. I didn’t blame her. One of the boys was flipping over a desk and laughing at how much noise it made. A couple of girls with giant bouffant hairdos were sitting in a corner chewing gum and talking nonstop. Another couple of kids were running around the room throwing pencils and wads of paper at one another.

I cannot adequately describe the shame I felt as I sat at my new desk, which was actually a very old desk that had been drawn and carved upon by several generations of underachieving seventh graders. I studied the hieroglyphics in the wood for secrets of survival.

If you want to know what the waste bin of history looks like—it looks something like Room 217. It was a room whose every piece of chalk, every eraser, every desk, and every poster on the wall said, “Welcome to nowhere.” It was a public declaration that there was nothing expected of us and it would be better for everyone involved if we were just warehoused until we could find a job working at a filling station somewhere.

Losing never hurt me when I was playing with the Carpenter Crusaders. It was always part of the game. It came with the turf, especially when you played against boys who were already shaving. This wasn’t the same thing. With one slip of paper I was separated from all of my friends and classmates. We had been together since second grade. That was five years. Almost half of my life. I was separated from Claire Richards, the girl I had a crush on since a day in music class when she played the piano and I saw her in her Bluebird outfit with a hole cut in the back of her cap for her ponytail.

I didn’t understand what had happened to me. My grade on the test was just at the cut-off to be moved into the honors class with Claire and my other friends.

As it turned out, it was a judgment call by our principal. Mr. Moffatt thought since I was “an athlete,” I would appreciate the light workload and expectations that went along with it. (It’s obvious he never came to any of the games.) It was a very Texas way to think. Of course I was never asked what my preference would be. My opinion on the matter was too insignificant to be taken into account. After all, I was only 12.

I walked home from school that day. I went to my room, closed my door, and despite my advanced years, I cried. I heard my mother call out, “Stephen is that you?” I tried to stifle any audible sobs. “Yeah, Mom.” I heard her footsteps coming down the hallway. She knocked and asked if she could come in. I told her, “No,” which in mother-speak apparently translated into, “Yes. Please, come right on in.”

Mom walked in and sat on my bed. She rubbed my back and asked, “What’s wrong, Stepidoors?” I told her about the test and the transfer. Mom listened and said, “I’ll go to the school tomorrow and talk to them.” I told her how I would never see my friends anymore or be able to go on the field trips or have the new science and math textbooks. Mom just listened and said, “We’ll see.”

The next day Mom talked to Mr. Moffat. He said he was sorry. He thought he was doing me a favor by lightening my load. But he wasn’t going to change the transfer. He wanted me to give it a chance and see if it worked out.

As I listened to her report of the meeting, I felt hopelessness burning inside me again. Then without saying a word, Mom handed me a paper bag. Inside were the new math and science textbooks. She had driven to downtown Dallas and bought them for me. She said, “Don’t you worry about that class. Here are the books. You can study them on your own.”

And I did. I used to work on the problems in that math book after I finished my regular homework more out of spite than any desire to learn.

And now, almost 50 years later, as I sat on my old bedroom floor looking for trash and treasures, there on the bookshelf—beside the little ceramic graduation keepsake—was the new math text book. Mom had saved it, too. I’m glad. The real lesson of that book was found not on any of its pages but in my mother’s trip downtown to get it for me.