The School Pill

Gene Bruner '78

Gene Bruner ’78

I dreaded going to school as a kid. I had much more fun riding my bike, hanging with my buddies, and watching TV. Alice Cooper’s School’s Out spoke to me in a visceral way. In fact, as I made my way toward middle school, I despised the concept of classwork, studying, and test taking even more. Don’t even get me started on homework. Why couldn’t someone invent the School Pill? I could take it on the Tuesday after Labor Day, and every bit of knowledge I would need for the year would arrive in one quick dose, and I could go back to riding my bike, playing the guitar, and fishing in the river.

I told my older sister my idea, thinking I would have a slightly older, like-minded ally in my quest. She was pretty good at chemistry and knew how to combine elements. However, she took a contrary view. First, she feared that the poor teachers would be sent packing, roaming the streets with their chalk and gold stars and red pens with nothing to do and no place to find work. Sure, the math teachers could serve as toll attendants and language teachers could work as translators, but a lot of nice people would be unemployed. Also, she warned that I may be in the minority, that she figured most people loved going to school and hated the idea of summer vacation … that perhaps some even wished for the Summer Pill in order to get back their studies as soon as possible. As far as I was concerned, that was crazy talk!

By the time I arrived at St. Christopher’s as seventh grader, I would have sold my soul for a School Pill. I failed miserably at every level. I was disorganized, uninspired, and constantly afraid that I would bomb yet another quiz or test. Plus, the classes were non-stop and rigorous. I assumed it was only a matter of time before they sent me packing or, worse yet, they sentenced me to perpetual summer school. I recall, with vivid clarity, the endless streak of failures and mistakes I made during that stretch, and the ironic twists – the yin and yang – that materialized every day. I would pass a tough quiz in Latin but flunk the algebra test. I would make the big tackle in the Bulldog football game, but get cut from the basketball team a week later. And, when I felt the mounting pressure to simply give up and walk away – chuck it all and do something stupid, my teachers found me when I most definitely did not want to be found.

Don Golladay saw me sitting on the bench and showed me how to hit the bull-sled, Bruce Nystrom sought me out at the lunch table and subtly pointed out the consequences if I didn’t hit the books, Andy Smith caught me roaming into an alley under a cloud of smoke and hired me to paint lacrosse goals, and Carl Koenig found me crying in the locker room and suggested I try running track. In the middle school game of Hide & Seek, these teachers found me in my hiding places and offered special advice. They discovered Gene the worrier, Gene the confused, Gene the follower, and Gene the failure. They never made me feel deficient, and they made an impact when I otherwise would have made a poor decision. I recall the experiences and the friendly guidance, and as a little brother, I watched with fascination as these teachers and coaches reshaped not just me but seemingly everyone. They cajoled us, challenged us, and stood by us as we grew into confident and compassionate young men. Their message was consistent: they stressed stick-to-i-tivity, patiently allowing young men to challenge themselves logically in order to experience the pleasure of self-expression, especially cooperation, mindfulness, and consideration. Each class served as a jumping off place, and the work of past students offered a mentoring voice, an example to emulate. This emulation involved perseverance, guts, smarts, discipline, savvy, and a willingness to endure. Moreover, working with us and cheering us on, it made me feel as if I were ascending as wall, climbing, going up … and becoming a better person. Somewhere between the magic and drudgery of school, we all got a little bit of the St. Christopher Mystique implanted into our own psyche. That uncanny ability to stare down life’s challenges without blinking, yet possess the right stuff to embrace our integrity, personality, and limitations – and make the most of them.

As a reformed scoundrel, knucklehead, sullen outsider, and smart-Alec, I strive to place myself into the shoes of my students. That is why I signed on to this teaching gig, and especially here! The key to this place is the relationships, one-on-one, between students and adults. Teachers and especially the administrators understand the narrow filter that middle school boys possess, a pragmatic space where the boys seek play, competition, physicality, and fitting in among their peers, and the teachers work as a group to expand that filter. The teachers admire how boys begin to learn when their world does not run their way and allow room for change. In addition, as a former student, a teacher, a coach, and a parent, I know how boys make not-so-great decisions in “30 second moments”, and the imperative to become more skilled at providing awareness for the myriad of “30 second moments” that await them, just like my teachers did for me.

Needless to say, I am glad I never took that School Pill.

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  • jane Emrick says:

    What you wrote here made perfect sense. My son started at ST. Chris in seventh grade, and I have seen him grow and thrive. that is due in large part to the nurturing atmosphere and the environment for his success.

  • Rotche Strickland says:

    I still respond the same way you did to School’s Out whenever I here it in late May or Early June. You have inspired me to download it from ITunes, won’t play it until the Graduation Ceremonies are over next May.

    Your article was a very good read. Keep up the good fight, it is nice to know that teachers do reach students at times. I know we all try. Godspeed to you and your family.


  • Holly Aldridge says:

    Thanks for sharing! This was so great. You are one of the many people that makes St. Chris such a special place! I have always been amazed at how so quickly the teachers know my son. As a parent, I really appreciate this. Have a great year!

  • Margaret Wade says:

    It is encouraging to hear about the challenges of others growing up and to see how it ends up eventually working out. We always joke and say, “you dont want to hit your peak in middle school, or even high school!” We are greatful for everything you and all of the other wonderful teachers have done for our son at St. Christopher’s. He absolutley loves it and it is due to the outstanding faculty. Thank you!!!!

  • Grace Cuevas says:

    Gene, thanks so much for your essay. I really loved what you had to say. It really emphasizes what is most important about a school’s responsibility to it’s students. It explains why you have been such a great teacher to so many boys.

  • Chris Mumford says:

    Gene – my son starts 6th grade this year. He will need a reformed knucklehead in his corner. It will remind him of his father. Looking forward to the year.

  • Hoppy Ancarrow says:

    Good job…I miss seeing that knucklehead!