Sometimes, childhood things don’t seem weird until you really think about them as an adult. And then you’re like…hmm. The names in this completely true story have been changed to protect the guilty.
I was in one of the last 7th grade classes at Tillman Junior High, in 1996. It was located in a small town outside Portland, Oregon. A few years later the whole state changed “Junior Highs” to “Middle Schools.” The school didn’t last long after that change. It was closed, and condemned, and in spite of efforts to save its turn-of-the-century architecture…it’s now an empty field that’s next to a new elementary school named after a President.
My 7th grade social studies teacher, Mr. Stenson, was one of the only male teachers in the whole school. He was also the only school employee who wore overalls and a tie dyed t-shirt every single day of his life… except for when the administration forced him to go to a school board meeting.
He drove an orange and white VW van that he had hand-restored himself, and all of the windows were covered in the ugliest curtains imaginable.
If you asked Mr. Stenson what he liked most in life he’d hold up his hand and count with his fingers along with the following list:
“I like two things: One…Grateful Dead bootleg tapes. Two…more Grateful Dead bootleg tapes.”
That was also his Christmas and Birthday wishlist every year. He didn’t believe in compact discs or vinyl records.
On the first day of class, Mr. Stenson reclined in the chair behind the pointless empty table he kept at the front of the room, and lined out the procedures he’d use to teach the entire class.
Every day, we’d be tasked with copying down, exactly, everything he wrote onto a transparent sheet of acetate he’d placed on an overhead projector. He’d lecture along, and we’d copy everything he said.
Copying things he wrote down after saying them made up 90 percent of our classwork. Mr. Stenson was a big believer in T-charts, which were simple two-column charts. This was clearly the best way to disseminate information about world history and geography to 13- year- olds.
We were not allowed to use pencils in our quest to copy everything he wrote down with precision. Oh no. We had to use blue or black ink. That was it.
And then at the end of each week, he would collect everything we’d copied down, and “grade” it based on whether we’d copied everything or not.
This seemed totally reasonable to me when I was a 7th grader. An adult told me this, and he was my teacher, so I had to do it.
But now it’s like…what? Was this the only way he could figure out to make sure kids listened to him?
After diligently explaining all the rules about copying everything, and going over how we’d have a test every month on all the information we’d just spent 30 days copying down…he lazily gestured towards the right wall of the room at a bulletin board.
This was the Bonehead Board(tm).
On a standard 90’s classroom bulletin board, which Mr. Stenson had hastily covered with blue butcher paper, were big yellow cartoon letters that spelled out its name.
Below the large letters was a white piece of printer paper with a bunch of small writing on it that was only legible if you stuck your nose in front of it.
Mr. Stenson had a deep rumbling monotone voice. In another dimension he was probably a sports arena announcer.
“The Bonehead Board exists to save my valuable time,” said Mr. Stenson. “It contains the answers to any boneheaded questions you might ask even though I just told you all of the rules for the whole year, and you should remember them and never ask again.”
He extracted his lanky nearly-7-foot-tall frame from his chair and walked over to the bonehead board. “If you ask me a question that’s posted up here, I won’t answer it. Instead I’ll just say ‘Bonehead Board’ and make you go read the answer.”
He gestured at the tiny piece of paper. I realize now that it was unreadable from a distance so that students would have to waste their time getting really close to read it, and then feel more ridiculous than they already did.
“For example,” said Mr. Stenson, beginning to spend time reading the questions that he himself had decided were too time-wasting to be asked, “Mr. Stenson may I use a pencil? Bonehead board. No, you must use blue or black ink. Mr. Stenson, may I go to the bathroom? Bonehead board. No, you may not, you’ll need to get a hall pass from the office ahead of time. Mr. Stenson, may I talk during class? Bonehead board. No, you must only copy with blue or black ink.”
Each time he’d say “Bonehead Board”, he’d point to the exact spot on the piece of paper where the answer lied in wait for unsuspecting students.
I saw several people get referred to the ol’ Bonehead Board over the course of the year.
They’d go up to ask a question at the front of the room during our rare quiet work time, and he’d just point to the board and say “Bonehead board,” and they’d have to sheepishly walk over and squint at the small print, before feeling stupid and returning to their seat.
Outside of class, surprisingly, Mr. Stenson didn’t come off like the walking ego he sometimes was during lessons. He was a pretty friendly, hilariously tall guy. He was a willing participant in the school’s annual talent show. The teachers would always do a group act, and he loved it.
One year they did a group rendition of “We Are the World” that to this day is one of the best live performances of anything I’ve ever seen.
Mr. Stenson made a great Bruce Springsteen.
He was even nicer about questions outside of class hours than he was during them. He’d open up and act like a real guy. He’d help students out with tough material. He’d even talk to you about any band you were interested in…as long as it was the Grateful Dead.
For one month of the year, Mr. Stenson was gone. He’d been granted our school district’s first-ever paternity leave when his daughter was born. We had a substitute for that month, Mr. Richardson, and he was the total opposite of Mr. Stenson.
Mr. Richardson loved to dress up as characters from history and act them out with elaborate dialogue and accents…which probably wasn’t racist because he was Irish?
He’d bring his guitar and play original folk songs for us he’d written. Some of them were really good! Mr. Stenson probably would have hated them because they weren’t Grateful Dead songs. Not even close.
And only once did Mr. Richards totally lose it at and scream at one of my classmates and run out of the door, leaving us all alone in the room for a while. He almost got fired for that.
For that one weird month, the Bonehead Board was retired, its comic sans yellow letters a haunting ghost of humiliation in the corner of the room. The only threat in social studies was that you might upset our costume-owning guitar-playing secret-theater-kid substitute teacher.
But when Mr. Stenson came back, the copying and the board returned in full force. A few times, his baby daughter was in the room with us, but that didn’t stop him from “Boneheading” people.
It’s weird to think back about it now. I’m flabbergasted that any of it was allowed, but not angry?
For one year in the mid 90’s, in the heart of one of the most progressive towns in one of the most progressive states in the country, a former hippy spent every afternoon making me copy down a bunch of information, all while my class lived under threat of public embarrassment at the hands of the Bonehead Board.