Back in sixth grade at Hatch Elementary School in Oak Park, my cohort of 12-year-old classmates and I were brimming with anxiety. It was 1996, our last year of grade school, and, as some teachers loved to remind us, how we did now would determine whether we got placed in the advanced classes at Emerson Junior High, which would in turn determine whether we got honors-tracked at OPRF High School, thereby stipulating whether we would get into an Ivy League college or end up flipping burgers more locally.

Though I’m sure I didn’t realize it at the time, my favorite teacher, Mr. Ron Lundgren, thought this pressure inflicted upon us was a bunch of crap.

Mr. Lundgren was creative, funny, and sarcastic. He was the kind of guy who, when asked, “Can I go to the bathroom?” could be counted on to reply, “I don’t know, can you?”

Although he was probably in his mid-50s by that point, he related easily to our frenzied, transparent 12-year-old thought processes. We were on the cusp of puberty (or if not, we were freaking out about the fact that we were not yet on the cusp of puberty.) The girls in my crowd were also starting to notice and debate the merits of our male counterparts, who were not geeky prepubescent 12-year-old boys in our eyes, but rather were ravishingly handsome men.

Mr. Lundgren understood all this. Though I’m sure he and the other teachers enjoyed some good laughs at our expense behind closed doors, he knew it was imperative that in class, we each look totally awesome at all times, avoid humiliation at all costs, and still cover the decidedly not-cool matters of vocabulary words, pre-algebra, and, uncoolest of all, standardized testing galore. Though this was back in the pre-No Child Left Behind testing mania days, my classmates and I still underwent a plethora of tests with unmemorable acronyms for names. Plus, we had to take the dreaded placement exams for junior high school-and those were the ones that could potentially determine (and/or ruin) the rest of our lives.

Though I never talked with Mr. Lundgren about it, I imagine from his treatment of these tests that he believed they ran counter to the fundamental logic of teaching sixth-graders. He knew we weren’t cut out for this kind of thing-hours on end of answering arbitrary questions, filling in bubbles with a No. 2 pencil. What 12-year-old hasn’t stared at the clock as the second hand traveled round and round, pleading with God to make time go faster (“Please, God, let it be time for lunch so I can eat my turkey sandwich with mustard and lettuce and drink my delicious juice box”), or to make the Scantron machine explode in a fiery inferno, or make beautiful 12-year-old (insert miscellaneous boy name here) stand up from his desk across the room and interrupt the monotony by declaring his undying love for your glorious pubescent face.

Alas, none of this ever happened. Like a bad case of typhoid, literally nothing could stop those tests from running their course.

Luckily, Mr. Lundgren had a plan. As a standardized test began, he’d circle the room, distributing on each desk a napkin, followed by a handful of what he called “Power Pellets.” We could eat one every so many questions, Lundgren instructed us, but we must make them last the length of the entire test.

Lo, what magical powers these power pellets possessed! Multicolored and filled with high fructose corn syrup, Power Pellets (aka Skittles) had the ability to stimulate our drooping brains as we answered one multiple choice question after another in our hot third-floor classroom. Skittles worked fine, a special treat with just enough fruity flavored pep to get us through the afternoon. But if Mr. Lundgren could have his way, maybe he would have given us each a double shot of espresso instead.

Lundgren had another idea about combating our universal, overwhelming urge to go down the form and fill in (B) for every answer. At the western wall of his classroom, Mr. Lundgren had built a condominium for kooshballs, each with its own plastic face protruding from its fur (or whatever that stuff was). Some were animals, others were cartoon characters.

On special occasions, like when we were about to do something utterly dull, we were each allowed to travel to the Koosh Condo Complex and retrieve a koosh character of our choosing. We could hang onto the toy throughout the test, gripping its weird texture in the hand not in charge of the No. 2. Lundgren knew these toys weren’t interesting enough to mount a real distraction to our minds already accustomed to the near-seizure-invoking excitement of MarioKart and other Nintendo creations. But something about the tactile stimulation of the kooshes was enough to keep us going a bit longer without spontaneously combusting out of boredom.

When we weren’t undergoing these tests, Mr. Lundgren’s class was chock-full of hands-on science and math activities and vibrant class discussions. We each got to indulge in the creepy delight of handling what I believe was a sheep’s brain and spinal cord. Instead of pressuring each other to dumb ourselves down and look cool, my posse of sixth-grade girls convinced each other not to be too grossed out to actually participate. I still recall the oddly satisfying smell of formaldehyde, the squishiness of the brain in my hands, and, above all, the adrenaline rush I got from the experience.

I also wrote my first research paper ever in Mr. Lundgren’s class. We each chose a nation in
Africa to cover. Mine was four or five pages on everything I could discover about Burundi. Of course, we were still 12, and the whole class went bananas when one of our classmates got up to present his paper on Djbouti (or, as some boys in the class repeated with glee, “YO BOOTY!”). Still, who knew that my start as a researcher and writer in Mr. Lundgren’s class would one day lead to my extensive college thesis on labor movement strategies in Latin America? (On second thought, Mr. Lundgren probably could have guessed.)

A few years after I graduated from
Hatch School, as I embarked on my struggle to survive freshman year at OPRF (the rest of my life depended on my success there, after all), I got the news that Mr. Lundgren had passed away. He had just returned from a trip to Europe with his family and was about to begin his 27th year of teaching. His wake was packed with his former students, all recalling his sharp sense of humor and sly smile. But more than anything, we remembered the comfort we felt in his classroom at an age where debilitating awkwardness prevailed pretty much everywhere else.

I’m a grown-up now. I somehow got through junior high, high school and college without becoming a complete drain on society. With some perspective and additional education, I can now look back and appreciate Mr. Lundgren’s unique pedagogical approach.

I wonder what he’d say nowadays, looking at the state of our education system after eight years of President Bush’s standardized testing-crazed education mandate. Maybe he would have retired by now, and would be lounging with his family on another European vacation this summer. But I’m guessing that come fall, he’d probably still be teaching in that third floor classroom, well into his 60s, and opening up another bag of Power Pellets.

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