Mr. Boechler

Thoughts have bubbled up in the wake of a post by Stephanie.

So I had this gym teacher in middle school — I think from 7th to 8th grade — named Mr. Boechler. I heard when I was in 9th grade that he had been promoted to vice-principal at some small-town school, which seemed about right to me since in my experience, vice-principals are often mentally ill, violent assholes. Maybe the job makes them that way, but every one I’ve directly dealt with behaved like a petty Mussolini on the job.

Anyway, this Boechler guy, he was this hulking thug of a man, gigantic and not afraid to use his physical advantage on middle school boys. When I say use his advantage, I mean he was physically abusive. The rumors were worse than what I myself suffered. The rumors, which made us all fear him, included him throwing boys up against the wall in the storage room of the middle school gymnasium, but most of the time, he was just an adolescent-minded, snide, mocking twerp. His special joy seemed to come from making fun of kids who were not athletically inclined. (Which definitely included me, because my parents had an over-developed distrust of the medical profession and as a result I had by middle school been neither diagnosed as being asthmatic, nor prescribed regular medication for, asthma.)

The mockery was bad enough. But there was more: this gigantic lummox of a bastard actually got violent on occasion. I think the only reason he got away with it was because he was teaching up in Northern Saskatchewan, where the local kids’ families were poorer and the less-poor kids’ families were still stuck in that traditional mindset where the conversation goes:

“How was school today, Billy?”
“Well, teacher hit me in front of the class…”
“Really? Why? What did you do to provoke it?

Certainly, that was the question my father asked the day I came home from school and told him that Mr. Boechler had headbutted me and EDIT: a classmate (I would have sworn it was Meka Phaneuf) in front of the rest of the class.

After all, when my dad was in school, teachers caned students for next to nothing. They caned the living shit out of students. I came home able to sit down, so it couldn’t have been a big deal. And such “reactions” were rationally traceable to student actions, after all.

Like, for example, what I did that day. I joined in with all the other boys in class, climbing on the fall-mats that were leaned against the gym wall. Every boy in the class climbed up on them, and dived down off them. Everyone. But only this classmate Meka and I were headbutted.

Well, my father was right in that I wasn’t violently beaten in class. But the man did headbutt me, hard — hard enough to make me momentarily dizzy, hard enough to bring tears of shock to my eyes, and to this classmate’s Meka’s too. That was bad enough. But what he did after that was worse, and much more wrong: he announced that all the other boys in the class would be banned from the school dance that evening.

Now, this classmate Meka and I were the geeks in the class, the boys who were likely not to go to the dance, who would be at one or the others’ place playing AD&D, and Boechler knew that. So he decided to punish us in a special, unique way that not only hurt more, but also reinforced the class’s perception of us as the lowest of the low, the biggest losers. He specially targeted the unpopular kids for punishment in his class, and this wasn’t the only time he did it. In fact, he made a habit of giving detentions as often as he could to unpopular kids, of hitting them in ways that didn’t physically damage them but humiliated them in front of their classmates.

While I was in middle school, there was a time when I would fantasize about waiting till Mr. Boechler got really old, until he was in a wheelchair, and then going and finding the old son of a bitch and beating him senseless. That was how much he hurt and humiliated me. When I got to University, it morphed into a fantasy of getting the bastard fired, though I never did track him down and make a stink about what he did. (Nothing would have come of it, anyway, since he was always careful wth his violent outbursts.) But now, I have only a very mild fantasy — that I track him down, tell him what a piece of shit he is and why, and spit in his face. And you know, I’m mostly a rational, sane adult. It’s just that this man, this man was an outright bastard for several years of my life, made school hell for me two or three times a week, picked on me — like a teenager, he actually picked on me — and the man misused his position and his power not only as a teacher, but as an adult and as a big, strong, physically imposing man.

Now, if the anger in my heart still runs that high, is it any surprise that teenagers get involved in schoolroom shootings? I mean, really… anyone who thinks that school shootings are a mystery hasn’t been in a school in years. They don’t remember what a hellish place high school is: how high schoolers are just like chimpanzees, all fighting over the same bits of territory and asserting some crazy hierarchy by abusing one another. And how the vast majority of teachers either ignore it, make it worse, or join in. The pressures within school are amazing — amazing enough that they contribute to all kinds of things. People wonder why teenagers kill themselves, but I know. They wonder why so many people go through their 20s depressed, but I know. They wonder why kids seek refuge in promiscuity, drugs, and video game brainrot.

Do you really want to know why?

Because school is hell. High school is the ninth plane of hell, for some kids. For good-natured, smart, less self-assertive kids. IT’s set up to be an awful place, and it fulfils the setup to perfection.

All I am saying is that if I ever am stuck sending any child of mine to a school, and if anyone ever, ever strikes any of my children in said school, they are not ever going to forget the visit I make to school the next day.

13 thoughts on “Mr. Boechler

  1. *nods* one of the best-loved teachers in one of the primary schools I attended had a habit of making a boy he wanted to punish go outside and cut a switch with which to be beaten. Was years before I figured out how wrong that was. And he never did it to the girls, which made the whole thing, if possible, even creepier. I forget who said to me that the reason that Buffy the Vampire-Slayer is so successful is because it’s a metaphor for the truth: high school is Hell.

  2. I was fortunate enough to not have been tormented by abusive teachers. In fact I think I was very fortunate in that the vast majority of my teachers were very good people, and the worst were merely incompetent.

    I was still not one of the “cool” kids, though. And high school in North America is a concentrated dose of everything that sucks about human nature. Most of us writing online, I would imagine, are those who were not in the in crowd, and so it is easy for us to sympathize with the hell the less popular kids went through. You know what, though? The popular kids went through the same hell. I will admit that there might have been a difference in degree, but they were shoved into the same brutal world with the same adolescent insecurities.

    There was a girl named Cindy in my grade, and we had been friends since the first grade, when popularity didn’t matter quite as much. In high school, though, she was accepted into the cool clique and I was relegated to the nerd faction. The thing is, though, she was a smart girl and probably a nerd at heart. But because she was pretty she had to be popular, and she became a cheerleader and had to put on her popular face every day. In our senior year, shortly before we went off to college, she confessed to me (in tears) that the past four years had been a living hell for her, and she regretted losing me as a friend.

    That may sound trite, and maybe it is. On a less trite note, we only had one student commit suicide in my grade (not bad by some accounts). And he had been one of the popular kids.

    Not to belittle what you went through, of course (I can only begin to sympathize–and to realize how fortunate I was), but I think high school is hell for the vast majority of people who go through it, not just the good-natured, smart, less self-assertive kids.

  3. Nalo,

    Oooh, that “Go pick your on switch” thing is nasty. Brrr. I certainly am grateful teachers were not allowed to go that far.

    I think you are (or whoever said it is) dead right about Buffy. (‘Scuse the vampire pun. :) )


    I think the popular kids suffer too, but from what I remember, certain subsets of the popular kids also tended consciously, purposefully, to contribute significantly to the suffering of the less-popular kids, in a way that I don’t ever remember less-popular-kids doing to the popular kids. Nerdy kids don’t beat the crap out of popular kids, they don’t continually seek their humiliation, they don’t tend to seek out confrontations with them. Popular kids do this a lot, even if they’re letting their group push them into it. And that’s what’s different about the popular kids — they’re in that group by choice.

    I don’t mean to diss your ex-friend, but it seems to me that Cindy lost your friendship as a result of choices she made, not because she was pretty; being pretty would have opened the door to the cool clique to her, but it didn’t make it absolutely necessary she join. (She could have been one of the in-between kids if she wanted — my high school had lots of pretty girls in the in-between group.) High school outcasts become outcasts far less because of any conscious choice on their part, and actually, as you put it, they’re relegated — by the conscious choice of the “cool clique”.

    However, some teachers do tend to side against popular kids on principle. I tend to suspect that it’s less of the adolescent-mindedness in play than in cases where teachers side with jocks, because I suspect that popular kids really do just look like stupid, shallow punks from an adult point of view. (That’s my experience, anyway.) However, I wouldn’t be beyond imagining some teachers actually persecuting the popular kids.

    And I wouldn’t say that I had it the worst, by a long shot.

    By high school I’d gotten bigger, and angrier, and was more apt to ridicule jocks, something I’d learned kept them at bay a little. I also was wearing more camophlage — more normal teenager clothes — and had found myself a little circle of friends. There were people in my school who had it far worse, especially the kids in the A/V club, or the chess club. I could manage actually joining the writing club and playing in jazz band without suffering any assaults in the hallway (though it got close sometimes).

    I don’t know if anyone actually committed suicide in my grade, but I do know that one girl I was close to had tried in 10th grade, and that a significant number of the outcasts in my high school went on to slodging through years of significant emotional trouble in the years that followed. Certainly, some people I knew from the nerd crowd were trying to kill themselves via lifestyle by a year or two after graduation. But I don’t remember any suicides, only one murder of a guy a couple of years younger than me.

  4. “I don’t mean to diss your ex-friend, but it seems to me that Cindy lost your friendship as a result of choices she made, not because she was pretty; being pretty would have opened the door to the cool clique to her, but it didn’t make it absolutely necessary she join. (She could have been one of the in-between kids if she wanted—my high school had lots of pretty girls in the in-between group.)”

    You had an in-between group in high school? I envy you. Every one in my school was pigeonholed in to one group or another (jocks, nerds, burnouts, freaks, etc.), and there was no real middle ground.

    I agree with your logic about Cindy’s choices, but I think there can be a difference between the actual choices someone has and the choices they think they have. It was a long time ago, but I do remember the world being a lot smaller in high school. Even in “real life” people close their minds to actual choices that they have because they don’t feel they are viable. Do those count as real choices? Objectively, maybe, but when is life ever completely objective?

    Anyway, I’m not trying to defend the popular kids. But I do think that perhaps life was not as easy for them as some people think, whether they made all their own choices or not. And the nerds and geeks? Were we really marginalized 100% against our will, 100% without our consent? I don’t know about you, but I actually took pride in not being associated with any of the other groups. I may have envied the perceived power of the popular kids, but I didn’t want to be one of them. So, to some extent, I was in that group by choice–it may have sucked at times, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else. The high school caste system wasn’t rigid in and of itself, it was rigid because, at some level, we were all desperately searching for a label we could live with.

    (Actually, now that I think about it, high school wasn’t nearly as rough for me as junior high. In my freshman year in high school I began training in karate and people started leaving me alone. I wasn’t attacked once after that. But there was still the mental anguish at times, of course.)

  5. Charles,

    Yeah, my school, though it was loaded with jocks — it was known locally as a “jock school”, and I only ended up there because the music program, then in slight decline, had been good in recent years — had a huge in-between group. They weren’t officially in-between, they just were quiet enough and innocuous enough to not get on the radar. In my experience, larger schools have larger in-between groups, but even in small schools, one or another persons manages to avoid notice. I’m surprised that there was no middle ground at your school. Was it very small?

    Life is never completely objective, and people make the choices they think they have to make, but I honestly believe that they perceive them as more limited than they are because they don’t have the guts to recognize the real choices available to them. I firmly, deeply believe this.

    I agree that life isn’t as easy for the popular kids as some think — and I should point out that I don’t class all popular kids by the nasty ones’ brush. Some popular kids were actually nice. I used to differentiate between “jocks” (the assholes whose only abilities were sports, ridicule, and starting fights) and athletes (people who were good at sports but didn’t think that the sun shone out their behinds).

    I can’t say that I was in the nerd group by choice… it was the default for the kids that got picked on the most. I didn’t petulantly, defiantly cling to nerdhood at all — I just didn’t fit into any other category and that was the one imposed on me. Being good at music, and being very forcefully sarcastic, were things I developed when I moved from one city to another in 11th grade. I think these skills were what salvaged the last few years of high school for me. I wasn’t so much searching for a label — I just was atheistic about those labels then, and kept trying to destabilize them, or at least dodge them.

    Middle school was much worse than high school for me too. I still had mental anguish but it was mostly self-inflicted in high school — girl problems and conflicts with specific teachers who didn’t see things as I did, and so on…

  6. My school was kind of small, but not that small. I suppose it is possible that there was a very minor in-between group, but I can’t think of anyone I knew in high school who didn’t have a label. Then again, if these in-betweeners really did manage to avoid notice, it is possible that I never knew them or at least never paid attention to them.

    Perhaps this perceived lack of a middle ground was what caused me to actively seek out a label–if I was going to have a label, it was going to be one I could live with. Apparently you had a much more mature outlook in high school.

    “…people make the choices they think they have to make, but I honestly believe that they perceive them as more limited than they are because they don’t have the guts to recognize the real choices available to them. I firmly, deeply believe this.”

    Again, I’m not arguing with this line of thought. In fact, I completely agree with you. I’m just wondering if we really have the right to judge others for not making the choices we think they should have made. If you can tell me that you never let life bully you into making the wrong choice, then throw that stone. Me, I’ll be putting down my stone and quietly walking away.

  7. Charles,

    Every school is different. Maybe you didn’t notice them, maybe they really weren’t there. Maybe they were there but weren’t labeled enough.

    I don’t know, I think we do have the right to shrug and say, “Eh, you did have a choice, you just didn’t look hard enough for it.” Recasting this as “being bullied into making a wrong choice” seems a little, well, I had a teacher recently who liked to say, “It’s easy to say, but is it true?”

    When a friend cuts off another friend for personal gain, that looks to me like a coldly calculated cost/benefit analysis. I don’t remember being “forced” into anything like that by “peer pressure” in high school — in fact, I remember finding most of the discussion of “peer pressure” very insulting, the way I would feel if someone assumed I were a sheep following a bellwether. I always used to think, “Are you so incapable of imagining us young people having any guts?”

    But it’s not for me to start criticizing people from your past. I have enough people in my own past for me to criticize. :)

    By the way, I’m curious (on another note) to hear what you think about the recent test up in Nork-land. I’m a little bit shaken, I have to say.

  8. I think we’re coming at the same issue from two different perspectives here. I can definitely understand where you’re coming from–I hope you understand where I’m coming from.

    As for Norks with Nukes… I wouldn’t say I’m shaken. I wouldn’t even say I’m stirred. I don’t know what I am right now, to be honest. At any rate, it’s not a happy place.

    On the positive side, Kevin over at the Hairy Chasms has a link to an article that says it might not have been a nuclear explosion. I wouldn’t put it past them.

    Not much in the way of thoughts, there. Sorry. I’m in something of a blah mood.

  9. My high school had under 500 students in 4 grades.

    My grade, my cohort, had less cohesive “groups” than the grade above us and the grade below us. As a class, we were more chill. (As a class, there was a higher percentage of Grateful Dead fans than any of the classes we were in high school with, as well — it seemed to be a defining characteristic.) As a class, we didn’t care as much about who was “in”, we cared about what was going to get us into college OR where we were going to score our next fix (or both, in a number of cases), and didn’t get so much into hassling each other. L. was a track star and liked hanging out with me sometimes. K. was a jock and had been a goof-off until senior year, and nobody hassled her about taking academics more seriously at that point. (K. was ultra-cool, in a laid-back way where she could include me in stuff and nobody cut her down for it.)

    I don’t want to discuss junior high right now. :(

  10. *G* That seems to be an interesting emerging pattern — junior high being worse than high school for many people. Hm.

    I think I remember hearing there was 1000 students at my high school when I went there, in four different grades. The school website doesn’t have anything about such stats, so I have to assume I remember right. But it could be way off…

  11. LOL not exactly how I remember it. In fact I am not even sure it was me that was the one in this story. I think it was Chad that day. Now I admit that I was not the most athletic kid, in fact more on the geeky side, I still was into sports. I played soccer growing up and later played highschool football.
    I just never realized that Mr. Boechler had this affect on you.
    I think we need to teach our kids today that if they are affected like this that schoolroom shootings and such are not the answer but will only make things worse. We need to instill in them that they have people they can talk to in order to sort out these feelings. Also as parents if our kids are reporting these type of incidents to us we need to investigate what is happening and see if something can be done about the teacher involved. If nothing can be done about the teacher then the least I can do as a parent would be to remove my son or daughter from this situation.

    Anyway on a side note how are you doing these days Gord?

    1. Meka,

      Damn, really? I would have sworn you were the other guy who got headbutted. Maybe it was someone else, then, like Brett Paddock or something? In my head, I remember Chad Lussier being pissed that he wasn’t able to go to the school dance, and me wishing I’d been banned from that instead of headbutted. Well, I’ll edit this comment to reflect your remembering differently. And sorry about those misleading comments about you and sports, I was mostly talking about me.

      Funny thing, as I reread this, I think we didn’t actually play D&D together that much, did we? I remember a few Greyhawk things–that was your setting, right?–but not a lot of playing. Maybe you just showed me your boxed set or something. I think you did play Gamma World with a group I GMed for, though, right? Like, with Chad playing? Which was funny… I recently watched the TV series Freaks and Geeks and I was all, “That’s not realistic,” when one of the burnouts joined the D&D group, but then I started thinking about Chad. Chad wasn’t a “burnout” of course, but he wasn’t the kind of guy I expected to play RPGs with me–hockey, sex talk, a detention-magnet in middle school: he was, in my mind, a “tough” kid, and I seem to remember him being on okay terms with the meaner and rougher kids in our school. But he seemed to really like playing Gamma World, and for a while there, at the end of middle school, we were actually pretty good friends.

      Ha, watch him show up next and say, “Gamma World? I never played that!” But that much I do remember: I never had a bigger gaming group than when Chad was playing Gamma World. I remember a group of about ten players, which was, really, more than I could handle.

      Anyway, about the hell of high school, or middle school as the consensus of the comments seemed to suggest–I agree: schoolroom shootings won’t make things better. I was just saying that those who say the kids’ reactions are inexplicable are willfully forgetting a lot of what it was like to be in high school. To be frank, we expect kids to tolerate all kinds of things in school that we would not tolerate as adults–and not just abusive teachers. Did you know, teenagers have more rules they’re supposed to follow than adults in prison, and US Marines on active duty? (That’s according to Robert Epstein in this book.) I really do feel like the structure of middle and high school is pretty analogous to a cross between a monkey cage and a prison, except you can (sort of) go home at night. So for me, removing my son or daughter from a specific situation of an abusive teacher still leaves the question of how to deal with the abusive system.

      (Epstein argues we need a culture-wide change in how we think about growing up, including a reassessment of whether sticking people in schools all day is even healthy or effective for the goals it claims to serve. I agree with him, though I don’t see the way forward. I also don’t have kids yet.)

      Anyway, I’m doing okay. I’m living near Seoul, in South Korea, and working as a prof at a uni here. I also have racking up a good number of professional fiction publications–mainly SF–and am trying to make time to get a novel out. I’m now mostly over the crap I rehashed above, or I like to think so. (There’s some stuff that lingers, and for example I’d probably still tell Boechler he was garbage for doing what he did to us.) Just busy busy busy, these days.

      I am guessing you went to Carleton? I went to St. Mary’s for a year, but then moved to Saskatoon. Became a jazz band kid, did a lot of saxophone for a while, but midway through a music degree I decided to do literature too. Which took me to Montreal and then, in search of work, to Korea. Korea’s not forever, though.

      And how are you? What’s happened in the–woah–twenty-odd-years since I last saw you? How are you doing these days?

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