With this fiftieth reunion coming up I'm taking a look back at my elementary years at the K-12 Burris Laboratory School in Muncie, Indiana where we were all lab rats without knowing it—who can I sue 56 years later? (Just my dead parents for leaving Muncie.) I'm wondering about the positive or other effects of going to a school like that, affiliated with the teachers college next door which sent over three student teachers in the morning and three more in the afternoon for my whole K through 6 experience.
When my father got the teaching job at Ball State in 1960 I don't know if he was aware of or cared about the Burris connection when we moved to Doctor Gill's rental at 225 N Celia (Atlas 80438) across from Ball Memorial Hospital for $85 a month, a five minute walk to school.
My classmates were always nice to each other as we went from Miss Schroeder in kindergarten through Miss Smith, Miss Vanetta, Mr Lykens, Mrs Harshbarger and finally Mr Mazza in sixth grade. (What happened after is a mystery about which I'd like to know everything, and am especially interested if it's none of my business.)
There were no bullies in our class but maybe that started in junior high or high school? Or maybe bullying just didn't exist in a small town like Muncie, with 60,000 population back then. (Now I remember a couple older guys who liked to torment me—more on that later.)
Burris did not prepare me for the real world: school life after we moved away to Fort Wayne in the summer of '66 was an unpleasant surprise.
At Burris we did not have grades! At the end of the school year the teacher wrote a short letter to the parents, I wonder if anyone has one of those still? Before the letters I think there was another form of evaluation. Did junior and high school have real grades at that time? Did the whole school finally convert to the standard method, A to F?
Looking back I would have probably been a happier kid if I'd stayed at Burris: the continuity, the familiarity, and the smaller town vibe, but I've never thought about that before.
In Fort Wayne the schools looked like prisons and the teachers and administrators were allowed to beat you—I got “the board” a few times and it really hurt, they wound up like sadists and hit you as hard as they could. One time I got four whacks leaving me in tears in the bathroom. Girls however were exempt from getting the board, something about “not harming their reproductive organs.” (Of course it's mostly boys who were bad.)
Our eighth grade basketball team got creamed by a cross town school 63-12 and at our next practice the coach made up derogatory nicknames for the starters. Mine was “No Moves Modic,” an apt moniker which my therapist years later probably agreed with when I showed up at her office with anxiety, whining about how hard it was to meet a nice woman. (Anyone who missed a layup that afternoon got the board, ouch again, dammit!)
I doubt that Burris ever had corporal punishment—maybe they wrote the parents a letter? In shop class in Fort Wayne they encouraged us to make our own paddles—I still have mine. On the first day of high school the seniors terrorized the freshmen, chasing us down with colorful markers to splotch up our faces and maybe they had boards too—they didn't catch me.
I'm proud of kids today because they wouldn't put up with that crap, at least ones here in California. (“Hit me? I think not. I'm going home.”) But I just took it like a weenie back then. (I have written some revenge fantasies but am saving them for the Fort Wayne Northside essay—that 50th reunion comes up a week after Burris.)
In junior high I guess I had a weird snorting laugh and the science teacher Mr Budenz ordered me to write 600 times “I must not make strange noises in class.” How would Burris have handled that, sent a letter home?
“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Modic, We are concerned that Paul may have some kind of nasal blockage or other issues which might need attention by your family doctor. We think he's trying to laugh but we're not sure—was he possibly raised by wolves? That would be no problem—we're very inclusive here at Burris Lab. We are planning to send over our three funniest student teachers, including that happy horn dog Mr. Western, from Ball State to work with Paul and his odd laugh.” (After writing it about thirty times Mr. Budenz called off the punishment when I agreed to never laugh again.)
The student teachers at Burris were pretty much teenagers themselves but to us elementary kids they were like big adults. Were there as many student teachers in high school as well? They would be barely older than the students so I wonder if there were any intra-dating scandals? ( Pregnancies? Relationships? Marriages?) Did a student teacher ever invite a high school girl to the prom? (Did Mr. Mazza?) Did Burris even have a prom? I never went--is it too late? (I want to play spin the bottle before I die!)
Were there any lasting effects from having the Burris Owls experience? (Open up the lab files!) It was all so random: the arriving, the leaving, we were all there because our fathers (any single mothers?) got jobs and we moved to Muncie, a famous little town studied and written about by the Lynds as “Middletown” and also mentioned in MAD magazine as the place that manufactured the shopping carts which veered to the right. (Muncie has been kind of a punchline for some reason, maybe because of the Lynds?)
So as we meet for this reunion be grateful we chanced upon this laboratory school experience: we lucked out and the brutal realities of life were delayed as we nestled peacefully in the bosom of Burris, the happiest lab rats around.
* * *
I had always thought my first “sexual experience” was when I was about ten trying to save an injured chipmunk with Jane (she was really into that) in our sandbox and when she bent over the shoebox containing the rodent I peered down her shirt for a look at the nubs of her starter boobs. (I still remember her numbers: Atlas 22816 at 104 South Manning.)
I remember now that the first one actually happened in the Burris School bathroom when I was seven. Jerry Fisher was in there also and he said, “I'll show you mine if you show me yours.” I must have agreed because Jerry whipped out his string bean and I scooted out of there without doing my side of the deal.
Where do kids get ideas like that? Maybe another classmate had tried that line on him, showed him his, and made him curious? Maybe he had a friend or brother doing those trades or his parents paraded around naked—do rich people do that? I guess they can do whatever they want.
Muncie was all about the Ball Brothers who made their name manufacturing canning jars in the 1800s. As an heir to the family fortune Jerry always brought a dollar for lunch, which seemed extravagant at the time, while the rest of us just had the standard forty cents needed to buy lunch at the nearby Ball State student center, when we didn't bring it or walk home for it.
Our whole class once was invited to Jerry's birthday party out on Burlington Pike, a row of mansions in the country just outside Muncie. His orange behemoth stood next to his uncles' houses, all the descendants of the original Ball Brothers: Lucius, William, Edmund, Frank, and George.
This morning I woke up thinking about Jerry Fisher's penis: I've always recalled it as a string bean and now I realize that's because it was uncircumcised, wearing a little hat off to the left, an unfamiliar sight for me on a couple of levels. Maybe it wasn't just a silly little sex game children play but Jerry was seriously interested or confused about his and was seeking more data?
Jerry left Burris after a couple years, was shipped off to boarding school, and now I'm starting to wonder what happened to him over the last sixty years and how his eagerness to share may have affected his life? I searched for an hour but couldn't find anything about him.
(I find it amusing that sixty years later I'm still writing gossip, this trash, because back in 6th grade at Burris I had my little notebooks, called Jewel Books, was writing observations about class activities and personalities, and still have them in a box somewhere.
In the eighties and nineties I had a zine, a news and opinion rag called The Gulch Mulch, and often wrote about my small-town neighbors including one enraged subject, Dana, who drove down to my cabin and berated me in the parking lot about my veiled description of her. Another agitated crazy, Hoy, screamed insults at me in front of the school a day after publication, and thirty years later I'm still writing about local people, teasing them, and myself even harder, including a recent piece called “The Beast of Boonville” which didn't go over well with the subject.
When Daryl Cherney showed up in the area in the late eighties I was relieved to realize I was no longer the most annoying person in Southern Humboldt.)