Songs of My Life: New Kid In Town

songsofmylifeIn the first summer Dave and I moved in with The Beckmans, Aunt Joyce signed me up to go to Wilmot Junior High School. Although my cousin John and I were the same age, he was not going to Wilmot. John struggled with reading so he was going to Deerpath Junior High School in Lake Forest. This meant I would be starting a new school this Fall by myself. Dave and Jim were going to Woodland Elementary. Dave would not have to endure a bunch of new kids by himself – he would have Jim to break the ice. On the other side, all the 7th-graders were new to Wilmot Junior High so I would not have to explain why I was living with The Beckmans. 

This was the second time in two years I would be starting a new school. When my family moved from the ‘Red House’ to the ‘Gray House’ we all had new schools – Hope went to Maine West High School, Lee went to Algonquin Junior High and Dave, Dawn and I went to West Elementary. We stayed until the end of the school year because there had been a discussion that if we moved mid-year Lee would have to go back to grade school because his junior high at the time went from 6th to 8th grade and Algonquin Junior High was only 7th to 8th grade. So Mom and Dad waited until the end of the school year.

The move to West Elementary would be the first time the teachers didn’t know who I was. Before we this, all my teachers knew ‘the Zilligens’ having had Hope and/or Lee before. At West Elementary none of the teachers would know who Dave, Dawn or I were, but they would learn in the next couple of years – until we moved away after my parents died.

One Summer morning Aunt Joyce and I went to Wilmot to get my class assignments and to pick up my gym uniform. Apparently, now that I was in Junior High, kids would be required to change our clothes for gym. That was worrisome. Being almost 200 pounds in 7th grade I was a little concerned about undressing in front of a bunch of kids I didn’t know. It was actually much worse than that.

The woman getting my gym uniform showed us the shirt with Wilmot Blue Jay on it. It was alright, maybe even cool. The shorts were fine – again with the Blue Jay logo but much smaller, even if they were adult large. And then there was this other thing that was in a plastic container she kind of mumbled through. It was something about supporting, what I assumed was the Wilmot sports teams. Everything was swept into a plastic bag and the woman said she would see me in a few weeks. Aunt Joyce grabbed the bag, said goodbye and out of the school we went.

When I got home and started inspecting my gym clothes. I wanted a closer look at that weird thing with the shirt and shorts. That turned out to be a ‘jockstrap’ – or as I figured out later – an Athletic Supporter. I opened up the package and dangled the elastic between my hands. “No, no, no, no, no” – How in the hell was I going to wear that? I had a few weeks to figure it out so I buried it in my dresser drawer. Or so I had thought.

Later that afternoon, I had come back from fishing and stepped into the porch to find Dave and Jim there. Dave was wearing my gym shirt which was probably four sizes too big for him. Jim was laughing so hard he could barely get out – “nice underwear!”

At this point, Dave lifted my shirt to reveal he was wearing my jockstrap. I was mortified. They knew! Dave knew what was going to happen so he took off through the kitchen to the front door. I was too shocked to realize what I was supposed to do. As he started running through the kitchen the shock wore off and that familiar wave over came me – I needed to punch him, as I had done so many times before. But this time he had too much of a head start for me to catch him. He was outside the front door by the time I had rounded the counter in the kitchen. From the front lawn, Dave taunted me dancing in my new Wilmot Junior High shirt. I continued to chase him around the house. Jim was barely able to stumble out of the front door laughing uncontrollably to watch.

I was so ashamed that about the jock strap – they knew. As much as I tried to shame him back that they would have to wear them next year, clearly Dave wasn’t as embarrassed as I was about this new underwear. Wilmot Junior High was not starting off well.

Wilmot was a little over a mile away so I could ride my bike when the weather was good and walked if it wasn’t. When Lake Eleanor was frozen, I could shave a little off my walk by cutting across the frozen lake.

But before I figured out my winter commute, I had to get through my first day at my new school. It didn’t start as inconspicuously as I wanted. After Aunt Joyce dropped me off, I had to wait for the bell to ring with all the other kids. Wilmot combined three elementary schools: Dave and Jim’s school – Woodland Elementary, Wilmot Elementary and South Park (yes, just like the cartoon). That September morning, most of the kids were in groups of friends from these schools. Since I did not know anyone, I stood off to the side by myself waiting for the bell to ring to let us in.

It turned out I made the unfortunate mistake of wearing one of my favorite t-shirts. It said ‘I’m with Stupid’ with a hand pointed to the position that was permanently reserved for Dave. But as one kid pointed out that morning, I was only with myself – so I must have been ‘stupid’. And so began my junior high career.

Not knowing anyone, I really just wanted to melt away, to pass through the hallways unnoticed. But at 200 pounds it was hard to not to be noticed. So I tried my best to fit in – so to speak. I remember the ‘first friend’ I made – Peter Vassiliades. He was the first kid to invite me over to his house. He lived on the other side of Deerfield Road, in a subdivision called Castlewood. That was the first kid’s house I went to since moving to Deerfield. Next was Mark Reisman’s house. Mark had just had his bar mitzvah and had gotten a pinball machine – a pinball machine in his house? So I went overthinking it would be a crappy tabletop version of pinball machine but it was a full size, plug-in, steel legged pinball machine called ‘Fireball!’ Holy crap!

Wait a minute – what’s a bar mitzvah? Apparently, it was like Confirmation for Jewish kids. Jewish kids? I thought Jews were the people in the bible. I didn’t know they were still around. I didn’t know very much about religion or the world. My world was very focused on dinosaurs, plants, animals, stamps and ghost stories. I knew I was Lutheran because that the way they talked about ‘our religion’ at church. I knew there were Catholics, they were the non-Lutherans (which, it turned out, was really the other way around). At this point in my life, I thought Christians and Lutherans were interchangeable. Mark was not the first Jewish kid I met when I moved to Deerfield. On the other side, junior high kids didn’t get into a lot of religious conversations – except when it came to the gifts.

Wilmot Junior High School was split into two grades, 7th and 8th. Each grade was split into two Teams – 1 and 2. The layout of the school was pretty basic: two east/west halls, the south hallway had two sets of four rooms to the south for each of the 7th-grade teams. The north hallway had two sets of four rooms to the north for 8th-grade teams. Both hallways were lined with lockers. On the west end was the open area for the gym with the boys’ locker room to the south and the girls’ locker room to the north. The gym also doubled as the lunch room. The library was in between the two main hallways with music, art and science lab near the gym. The faculty and main offices were in the main entrance on the east side. Wilmot had outgrown the original building so in the summer of ’76 there was construction to build a new gym and auditorium off the main entrance hallway to the north. Our graduating class of ’77 would be the first class to use this new addition,

My 7th-grade homeroom was in Mrs. Boruszak room who taught English. I tried to keep my head down but its hard for a fat kid not to be noticed. Junior high kids are very suspicious animals. They tend to sniff around at things that were bigger then they are. A few would come in for a closer look. Some will come in so close for a nudge or a push. I had learned at my old school West, how you react to these initial pokes and prods would be how all the other animals would react.

A few months into Wilmot the junior high pack thought I needed a nickname. Some were forms of Zilligen but they apparently didn’t get much of a reaction from me – I had already heard most of them before. Some were cruel, some were just dumb. Then one morning during homeroom, Dean Smith came in and “I”ve got it! We’ll call him ‘Waba’ – Water Buffalo Association.” It was pointed out that actually, that was WBA which really wasn’t pronounceable.  Dean decided to put another ‘a’ in it so you could. It definitely wasn’t anything I had heard before. Dean’s nickname seemed to satisfy the rest of the pack. So over the next couple of weeks, then months – and then years. Waba became my nickname.

How many of you know anyone who has a nickname, that is not some form of their name, that is still used into their 50’s? I am still surprised how long ‘Waba’ has actually stuck around. So here’s how a 50-year-old man got to be called ‘Waba’:

The teams in junior high were pretty isolated but apparently, ‘Waba’ had crossed over to Team 2. Over the summer I lost 50 pounds so that Fall I was under 150 pounds. Showing up at school that Fall some said I wasn’t Waba anymore but name continued to stick. The Wilmot kids brought it to Deerfield High School. By the time I graduated that’s all anyone called me. In fact, many people didn’t know my real name. I think in high school kids would test me to see if I would answer to Waba – kids I didn’t know would say ‘Hi, Waba’. I always said ‘Hi’ back.

But Waba wasn’t my only nickname. When I had moved in with Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack I learned that Uncle Jack’s first name was actually John also. So my cousin John was a junior. Aunt Joyce and Uncle Jack were also my Godparents. In the Brumm family, it was traditional that Godparents would get their Godchildren a gift for Christmas. Aunt Joyce would always sign my gift “To – Johnny Mike”. I believe it was my cousin Fred Turner that coined the phrase ‘Johnny Mike ride his trike’ which led to my other nickname – Trike. This name was pretty much just used in the family. But my aunts and uncles on my mom’s side would call me Trike. To this day, Aunt Joyce will refer to me as John Mike or Trike.

At my Aunt Betty’s wake in 2016, I saw my cousin Jeff and as I reached out to shake his hand he said, “How’s it going there Trike? Does anyone call you that anymore?”

“Just the aunts” I replied. And apparently a few cousins.

Waba actually transitioned over to Carthage College thanks to a couple of softball shirts that had ‘Waba’ displayed on the back. When asked about the ‘Waba’, I said it was a nickname. And so it spread at Carthage as well. At the time, Carthage was smaller than my high school it so the nickname actually spread even faster there. Just like in high school, by my senior year, no one knew my real name.

In the mid-80’s, before cell phones, Carthage dorms had one payphone per floor. Everyone took turns answering the payphone if it was ringing. One evening my senior year, Uncle Jack called me on the Don’s floor (South Hall, 4th Floor, South wing) where I lived. Back then Carthage had ‘fun names’ for their dorm floors.

Uncle Jack asked, “Is John Zilligen there?”

“We don’t have anyone by that name on this floor”

“Well, he’d better goddamned be there, he’s expecting my call!” Uncle Jack huffed.

The phone answerer asked another kid walking down the hall, “Do you know a John Zilligen?”

“Yea, that’s Waba”

Waba worked for me as a DJ name and was soon adopted by my brothers and sisters and at home for a while. My nieces and nephews called Uncle Waba – until they got older and thought they were too old to call me ‘Uncle Waba’ anymore. My wife Desi, continues to call me Waba to this day.

When you leave college, that typically is where your nickname ends. There’s a time to put childhood names aside but ‘Waba’ kept popping up.For example,  in the late 80’s we were invited to a watch a Bears Packers game at my co-worker Mike Mecenas’ house with his wife and some other couples. During halftime, the nerdy guys got up to check out Mike’s latest computers games leaving the wives to talk. We finished the game, made small talk and then our goodbyes. As we were getting our coats on and thanking our hosts, Desi, without thinking about it, referred to me as Waba.

Mike’s wife exclaimed, “Your Waba!? While we were talking during halftime you kept referring to ‘Waba’ and I didn’t know who that was! I was wondering if you were having an affair!”

We all laughed but I told Desi it was important that you have to be aware of how you refer to me. Now that I was out of college, and no longer DJing, Waba was starting to lose its recognition. I was an adult after all.

Fast forward ten years. I’m coaching Nate’s floor hockey. We had just ended a line during an exciting game. I was bringing the kids to huddle and discuss the next line’s strategy. Suddenly over the crowd noise, I heard…


I looked up to Desi in the stands pointing to the floor. One of our kids had been hurt during the last play. It turns out Desi was yelling ‘John’ 3 or 4 times but not getting my attention. It was when she reverted to “Waba” that I finally looked up. Apparently, I was no longer responding to my own name.

So in 7th grade at Wilmot Junior High, Waba was born. But Waba was just a fat kid who lost weight and learned to fit in like everyone else. I was in Team I so Mr. Keasling was the science teacher. He was one of my favorite teachers that year since I always loved science. I remember him talking about his thesis paper on paddlefish. I had never heard of paddlefish before. They were weird and decidedly cool.

Mrs. Novey was my math teacher, who happened to be pregnant that year. I remember that first day of class she was taking roll call. When she got to Tejinder Singh’s name she had some trouble pronouncing it. After a couple of false starts, Dean Smith blurted out, “Gesundheit!” Mrs. Novey and the class erupted. It’s a line I still use today when someone stumbles over pronouncing a word.

Dean Smith was the class clown, at least in 7th grade. One morning, to everyone’s horror, Dean asked Mrs. Novey if she wanted to hear a Dead Baby joke. I don’t think the guys understood how inappropriate it was but there was almost a gasp from girls. Mrs. Novey didn’t skip a beat and told Dean to go ahead.

“What’s easier to load into a truck, a pile of bowling balls or a pile of dead babies?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know, ” said Mrs. Novey.

“A pile of dead babies because you can use a pitchfork”

The boys laughed and the girls groaned but most importantly Mrs. Novey was laughing, in fact, she was face down on her desk laughing. This just prompted another joke from Dean.

“What’s worst then a pile of dead babies?” Dean asked.

“I don’t know,” said Mrs. Novey.

“One in the middle eating its way out”

That got universal groans followed by adolescent male titters. Mrs. Novey groaned with a smile and got up to pass out her math assignments for us. We learned that Dean had dozens of Dead Baby jokes at lunch. More were passed along in the coming weeks and the rest of the year.

Another series of jokes going around that year was ‘Mommy, Mommy‘ jokes, which had nothing to do with Dead Baby jokes. They typically went like this:

Mommy, Mommy! I don’t want to play with grandma!
Shut up and keep digging!

Mommy, Mommy! I don’t wanna go to Europe!
Shut up and keep swimming!

After the first few days of Dead Baby and Mommy Mommy jokes, the goal was to find new ones. My kids were shocked to learn how old Dead Baby jokes were when Dead Baby jokes started circulating around in their school. One of my favorites of theirs…

How do you get 100 dead babies in a bathtub?
A blender
How do you get them out?
a straw

I will give my kids’ generation credit for Chuck Norris jokes. These basically place Chuck Norris in a god-like reverence. A couple of my favorites were…

Chuck Norris doesn’t cut his grass, he sits on his porch and dares it to grow.

Chuck Norris doesn’t wear Superman pajamas. Superman wears Chuck Norris pajamas.

Chuck Norris was once bitten by a poisonous snake. And after many days of agony, the snake finally died.

In a cosmic full circle, Naomi had a pregnant teacher in grade school, around the time that Dead Baby and Chuck Norris jokes were going around in her school. All the kids in this teacher’s class referred to her baby as Chuck.

I remember one specific joke in 8th grade told by Todd Combs. Todd was just a 7th grader who lived down the street from me. We met fishing on Lake Eleanor, despite the fact that his family didn’t live on the lake. Technically that was against the Lake rules. But he was a nice kid and liked fishing. Talking his way into fishing on the Lake was telling of Todd’s personality. So despite being Dave and Jim’s age, Todd and I became friends. Eventually, he would join Dave, Jim and I as we went to school – riding our bikes as weather permitted and walking in the winter. In the middle of the winter, we would cut across the lake. It wasn’t unusual for us to walk to school together but we didn’t always walk back together.

At the end of the day one winter, Todd showed up at my locker to walk home. As I got my jacket on for the walk home he asked me if I wanted to hear the Purple Gorilla joke. Sure – Todd was good with jokes. He starts telling the joke, or rather the story, as I’m putting on my hat and gloves. 25 minutes later we are standing on the bay of Lake Eleanor where we split to go to our homes – and he is still telling this story! When it finally finished all I could do is groan. You can read shorter version here.

Junior high wasn’t all just jokes. One of the worse moments was having to strip naked and take a shower with 30 other guys. Everyone was embarrassed and yet Mr. Laarveld shooed all of us into the showers. Fat kids hate being naked in general. At 12 years old no one saw me naked anymore except my doctor – and apparently 30 other naked boys and 30-year-old gym teacher. And there was that one jerky Life Guard at Mitchell pool that insisted we take a ‘nude soapy’ shower before letting us through the locker room to the pool area.

Looking back I guess the naked shower in Junior High is a rite of passage in Junior Highs across the country. In high school it was less traumatic because of the ground was broken here and the levels of puberty were more consistent among us. Years later I was never worried walking around the health club naked. As I got older, I really didn’t care what people thought – I just wanted a shower to get the stink off.

The absolute worst moment was throwing up in Mr. Frazin’s 8th-grade math class. It was right after lunch and everything was fine – then suddenly it wasn’t. I wasn’t the type of kid that would have to leave to go the bathroom. I could hold it. Heaven forbid if you actually took a crap at school. I had no stomach issues, except when I had the flu.

But this particular afternoon, as I sat in Mr. Frazin’s class right after lunch, my stomach started somersaulting.  As I do with any illness, I willed it to pass. I focused on keeping my stomach from its gymnastic tricks. Steady, steady, and then nope – suddenly vomit raged up. Despite my efforts to hold it in with my hands, it gushed out between my fingers and onto my desk, and my notebook, and my lap.

I don’t remember the kids’ reaction. Just the unreality of what had just happened. But I did hear Mr. Frazin say, “Go to the nurse’s office.”

And then he added, “and tell them to send the janitor here.”

Dripping and smelling like vomit, I went for the first time to see the nurse in the front office. She called Aunt Joyce. I was picked up and brought home. The stupid part was I felt fine after that. Clearly, something wasn’t right with my lunch. I always blamed the cantaloupe, but no one else in the family seemed to have a problem with it.

The next day was the real challenge. How would kids react to the new kid throwing up in class? There were a few ‘Puke boy’s and ‘What’s Up Chuck’s but honestly, it could have been much worse. After a few weeks, my ‘puking’ episode had all but faded, it seemed a little too convenient. It could have been that junior high kids have short attention spans but I always suspected a conversation was had with the class for my benefit.

Junior High kids are known for doing stupid things. I remember at the end of one day in 7th grade, Jon Sabath was trying to hit the tips of his fingers with his comb. He had heard that if you prick the ends of your fingers and swing your arm around, blood would spray out the ends. Unfortunately, Jon’s comb was not very sharp.

But fortunately for Jon, Dean Smith offered to help. All Jon really needed was a little more force. So Dean took Jon’s comb and as hard as he could, he wailed on Jon’s fingers tips like the comb was a 6-inch machete. We all saw Jon’s pain through his reaction. But as he tried to smother the pain in his mouth Dean shouted, “Now swing your arms around!” After all, that was the point of all this.

Sure enough, little droplets of blood speckled the ceiling tiles above us. All the gathered 7th-grade boys congratulated Jon on his successful blood splatter as he wrapped his fingers in a tissue to stop the bleeding.

The lunchroom was always a hive of energy. The loud buzz of adolescent conversation with accents of laughter, screams and howls. The overall buzz would grow in volume after the food was consumed, which was a clear sign to release the animals into the yard. The first step was to stifle the din so the release could be coordinated; and any necessary announcements that needed to be made.

I remember one afternoon in 8th grade when they announced we could no longer have chicken fights during recess or risk detention. Obviously, someone forgot the first rule of Chicken Fights – you don’t talk about Chicken Fights. OK, maybe some of the teachers saw us holding one another on their backs trying to push each other over. We weren’t exactly hiding what we were doing. We were just having fun. And, of course, it’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.

Junior high school kids aren’t always the best behaved. And unfortunately, substitute teachers bore the brunt of this. Something about that temporary teacher brought out the worse in some of us. Kids, in general, like to see what they can get away with. So one day in Mrs. Ivy’s homework and we had a sub. The sub had just finished taking attendance when Tracy Calderie walked in.

“And you are…?” she asked.

“Bob Yancy,” Tracy said. The whole class snickered but the sub did not let on that anything was wrong. “Bob” took his seat on the opposite end of the room from the door as the sub dutifully check his name off the attendance list.

A few minutes later Bob walks in.

“And you are…?” she asks again.

“Tracy Calderie,” Bob says.

Again, the whole class snickered while ‘Tracy’ took his seat right by the door.  But the sub had her attenance list all checked off so everything was fine. This was until someone from the front office knocked on the wall and said, “Excuse me, I need Tracy Calderie to come with me. ”

Now the class cracked up as the sub pointed toward the door while “Bob” stood up in the opposite corner. Best prank bust I had ever seen.

On another Fall afternoon, a month or so after school started in 8th Grade, I was in Mrs. Ivy’s homeroom waiting for the final bell. Earlier that summer I had started collecting Famous Monster magazines. So far I had accumulated 4 magazines. This particular afternoon I had brought them to school so my friends could check them out. A group of us were in the back of the room getting our fill of “Food of the Gods”, “Futureland” and “Space 1999”.

Mr. Camporeale, our Social Studies teacher, would occasionally cut through Mrs. Ivy’s room to get to his room next door. He looked a lot like Mr. Kotter from “Welcome Back, Kotter.”

As he walked passed one of my friends looking at my magazine, he stopped. Grabbed the magazine and flipped it to look at the cover.

“This yours?” he asked.

“No, its Zilligen’s,” he said. Thanks, I couldn’t have been sold out faster if I were a free umbrella in a downpour.

“You got more of these?” he asked.

“Just these four,” I answered. Crap, I had just started collecting these and now they were going to be taken away.

“You know,” Mr. Camporeale said as he grabbed the magazine from my friend casually flipping through it. “I used to buy these when I was a kid. In fact, I have #1”

He had #1? That was worth $500! They didn’t even sell that one in the magazine anymore.

“Where do you get these?”

“In the magazine store in the Commons.” (The Commons was a strip mall in downtown Deerfield.)

“Can you get me the next issue when you pick one up.”

“Sure,” I said.

So the following month when the new issue arrived I picked up two. The next morning I delivered it to Mr. Camporeale’s room.

“You know,” he said. “Every Halloween I bring my monstere magazines in. You can look at them when I do.”

“Including #1?”


Halloween was only a couple of weeks away. And true to his word, when we had Social Studies on Halloween, Mr. Camporeale’s desk was piled with Famous Monster magazines.

From behind his desk, Mr. Camporeale started his class by saying, “When I was a kid, I used to buy Monster magazines. My mom said they would rot my brain but I bought them anyway. So – every year for Halloween, I bring them in to show you kids that what you read will not rot your brains.”

“OK Zilligen, come up here.”

Uh oh, as much as I wanted to see #1, I didn’t want to be called out in front of everyone. On the other side, it was now no secret that I was now Mr. Camporeale’s supplier, of Famous Monster magazines. I was feeling a bit dirty; dirty about being a teacher’s pet.

“Come on, you know you want to see these.”

Slowly I got up and made my way to his desk.

“That, my friend, is the first issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland.”

Sure enough, on the top of the furthest pile was the first issue – worth a cool $500! The most expensive magazine ever! As I was looking at the 40 or 50 magazines, Mr. Camperelli said, “Go ahead, Zilligen. You can touch it.”

I reached out for the magazine but instead I grabbed it and ran back to my desk.

“Hey, Zilligen! Put that back!” Mr. Camperelli yelled. The class laughed their support of my theft.

So I got up and started to put it back.

“Nah, you can go ahead and look it,” he said. “In fact, each of you can come up and take a look at them as I go through today’s lesson. And this WILL be on Friday’s quiz!” he warned.

During his lesson, I flipped through Mr. Camporeale’s #1. I was horrified to see there were pieces of the magazine cut out. It certainly wasn’t worth $500, in fact, the cover was coming off. I bet it was only worth $450, maybe $475.

For the rest of that year, each month I dropped off his copy. He was definitely my favorite teacher that year, despite the fact that I didn’t really care for social studies.

Another Mr. Camporeale story: Unsurprisingly, it turned out Mr. Camporeale was also a movie buff. So it was not unusual for him to supplement his lessons with movies. For kids, this will typically get you on the favorite teacher list.

Now – in 1977 we were told that Drugs were bad. In fact, It turned out drugs were so bad, the teachers in Wilmot Junior High spent an entire week telling us how bad drugs were for us. Having to fill up an entire week it seemed like they found were starting to run out of ways to tell us that drugs were bad for you. This is before Ronald Reagan declared war on Drugs.

The message accumulated in an anti-drug movie shown to us in the lunchroom on a Friday afternoon. It was announced that this movie was rated ‘R’ but we were supposed to pay attention to the message being sent. Once again, for those of us not paying attention earlier in the week – Drugs Are BAD!

For the movie, I was sitting at a table behind the movie projector. Mr. Roeing, my Science teacher, was sitting next to the projector and Mr. Camporeale was next to him. The movie was about a nice girl who turned to drugs and went bad. Toward the end of the movie the now ‘bad girl’ was living with her drug-selling boyfriend. When her dad confronts them in their apartment, the boyfriend gets out of bed, he’s naked. So is the girl.

Suddenly, the film went out of focus. I looked at the project saw Mr. Roeing’s hand on the lens of the projector. I saw Mr. Camporeale look over and hit Mr. Roeing as the two of them animated their best Abbott and Costello routine. His body language said, “What are you doing?”

The movie came back into focus just as the girl got out of bed. Mr. Camporeale made alot of Junior High boys very happy that day.

While Mr. Roeing may have been a bit prudish, he was a fun science teacher. He would encourage students to try things on their own. I remember me and my lab partner were making up a lab – it was either during lunch or after school. Dean Smith had taken Mr. Roeing up on some extracurricular lab work so he was in the lab as well working on his side project: ‘Contact Fly Paper’.

The concept had a great ‘wow’ factor. Earlier Dean had mixed the chemicals and passed the mixture through a filter. The filter had been drying. Dean was walking passed us gingerly carrying a brownish yellow circle of paper when I asked him what he was working on. Dean explained that the ‘Contact Fly Paper’ would explode when the fly landed on it. He sounded like Peter Brady describing his volcano project. I thought the fact that he was carrying it already proved it wasn’t going work. But just as we got back to our lab we heard a loud “Pop!”

Dean was just at the door a part of the brown paper was floating to the ground. Dean’s hand was now the same color as the filter had been. Son of a bitch – I guess it did work!

In Junior High us kids were all trying to find our social circles. Mayim Bialik from Big Bang Theory described the difference between Nerds and Geeks – Nerds maintained an interest regardless of the social implications, while the Geeks maintain an interest because of the social group. In Junior High these social circles were in constant rotation and development. And as we got older the would be increasingly important to us. The older the ‘social circle’ was, the less ‘geeky’ it was. Also, the more overall acceptance of the ‘social circle’ by society at large, then it was viewed less ‘geeky’.

The largest and older circles were Boys and Girls. As much as I wanted to play in that game, it would still be years for me, I was much too shy. Sports was another group I wasn’t involved with that was well beyond the ‘Geeky’ label – as described by Mayim. Music, on the other hand, was based on bands you wanted to follow. The Beach Boys definitely leaned on the nerdy side, while Peter Frampton was the mainstream geeky side. For me, Monster Magazines put me on the ‘nerd’ chart. While there were other kids interested in monsters, we were mostly on the nerdy side. Pop-can collecting – nerdville. My plants, still nerdville – though cactus helped a little. Unfortunately as basic as stamp collecting was, for most Junior High kids, that started me running for various offices in nerdville.

Fads are quick popular things and activities that attracted alot of people. These would also fuel more socials circles. Some of the fads we experienced back then were mood rings, more in 7th grade. Back then everyone had to have a mood ring on display so we could tell if you were ‘calm’ or ‘angry’ or ‘catatonic’.

Bubble Yum and Pop Rocks became a crazy in 8th grade. Anyone that had connections to someone on the East Coast that could send packages of Bubble Yum was a King/Queen at Wilmot for 24-48 hours. Kiss also came on strong in 8th grade. While I was no artist, I was able to draw the faces of Ace, Gene, Paul and Peter. Decently enough to get a couple of commission pieces (which I think amounted to a couple of ‘Thank you’s). My cousin John had the Destroyer and Rock’n’Roll Over albums which I borrowed as I tried to work my way into that cool music scene. My obsession with Kiss lasted about two weeks; which ended when John and I got into an argument and John wouldn’t let me listen to his Kiss albums anymore (and he had just gotten The Originals collection – their first 3 albums). After another week of grumbling, I simply went back to my Beach Boys – which was #1 on the radio in nerdville.

As I said, I would never consider myself artistic, but I would rate my Kiss portraits above average. On the other end of the spectrum, I also tried to introduce 8th grade’s Team I to Beatleman. Beatleman was a drawing I learned from one of two guys who started a cactus store in the Deerfield Commons the summer of ’76. The two owners named their store Quetzalcoatl, who was the Aztec Sun God – that turned out to be wrong. All they sold were cactus – that also turned out to be wrong. By the Fall they started selling regular house plants too, because they found out the Deerfield market for cactus was already saturated by the colored Moon Cactus that Jewel was selling in their florist department.

The store was an odd building in the northeast corner of the Commons’ parking lot. In the summer they would put cactus outside to attract customers. Instead, they attracted two nerdy Junior High boys, John and I. The inside was white stucco with a brick floor. It smelled like dried potting soil. I was in heaven.

Any time Aunt Joyce or Uncle Jack would go to the Commons we would visit their store. After mowing Grandma’s lawn, we would stop by their store. John and I so became friends with the owners. We rarely bought anything because they never carried smaller plants. The owners put up with me and John.  I would dare say we may have been friends.

I don’t remember their names but during one of our visits, the clean-shaven owner drew me a Beatleman. It was something he had made up when he was a kid (probably 5 or 6 years ago). He had specific rules on drawing Beatleman – the smile was uneven, one tooth was always bigger and he had 3 hairs on the top of his head. After he taught me, he had me practice it. It felt very important. I decided this was the image I was going to plant at Wilmot Jr. High. Whenever I could, I would draw one on the chalkboard or leave a scrap paper with a Beatleman in one of the classrooms or in the hallway. I imagined everybody going “who is the Beatleman?” “Here’s another one!” “Who keeps drawing this?” Soon there would be other people doing it. It would be the strange little face that would get swept up like the Bicentennial fervor we were already going through.

The results were predictable. Outside of one or two “what is this?”s Beatleman was unceremoniously erased or throw away. Outside of a few friends he was gone in a 3 or 4 weeks. He never reached the level of ‘Kilroy‘ or the Smiley Face. And after a year, the same fate followed the Quetzalcoatl cactus store. The owners sold what plants they could and closed up shop the following summer. Only Beatleman survived with his trusty sidekick Waba.

But before my Jr. High career ended, the Eagles would release “New Kid in Town,” just in time for Christmas in 1976. By that time my new kid smell was pretty much worn off. I still related to being the new kid despite the fact that I was beginning to find my way through the social circles and their traps that we were all maneuvering through. No, I wasn’t hanging out at kids houses regularly. In fact, I would say I had only 2 or 3 kids I would call a good friend. Back then I was just trying to get through school so I could get back home. Back to fishing, my plants, my pop cans and my stamps.  The song spoke of romance but at that age, the closest I was getting was the occasional glance at a pretty girl.

Don Henley and Glenn Frey’s lyrics captured our need to belong which seemed so important in Junior High. “There’s a new kid in town, Everybody’s talking, There’s a new kid in town, People started walking.” In the song the ‘New Kid’ took the singer’s girlfriend. The singer said everybody wanted to be like him. While the ‘New Kid’ was romantic – I was anything but. I was hoping someday to have a girlfriend but that was still years away. For now, I was happy having a few friends and finding my way as a new teenager. Losing 50 pounds lessened the teasing. Gaining my nickname ‘Waba’ would benefit me for many years to come, and in ways I could never anticipate. But no one was doing what I was doing.

Finding my way through the social labyrinths of Wilmot made moving to Deerfield more comfortable and made leaving my past behind easier. There were good times. Those I would like to repeat. But there were many turns and traps back then that left many bruises and heartaches. Being 12 and 13 years old was a tough age but it was survivable. I will just cherish the memories I have, that now have been time has polished them to reflect the sparkle of memories. I will leave this to remind myself what it was like to be the new kid at Wilmot Jr. High.

New Kid in Town
There’s talk on the street; it sounds so familiar
Great expectations, everybody’s watching you
People you meet, they all seem to know you
Even your old friends treat you like you’re something new
Johnny come lately, the new kid in town
Everybody loves you, so don’t let them down
You look in her eyes; the music begins to play
Hopeless romantics, here we go again
But after a while you’re looking the other way
It’s those restless hearts that never mend
Johnny come lately, the new kid in town
Will she still love you when you’re not around?
There’s so many things you should have told her,
But night after night you’re willing to hold her, just hold her
Tears on your shoulder
There’s talk on the street; it’s there to remind you
It doesn’t really matter which side you’re on
You’re walking away and they’re talking behind you
They will never forget you till somebody new comes along
Where you been lately? There’s a new kid in town
Everybody loves him, don’t they?
And he’s holding her, and you’re still around. Oh, my, my
There’s a new kid in town, just another new kid in town

Ooh, hoo. Everybody’s talking ’bout the new kid in town
Ooh, hoo. Everybody’s walking like the new kid in town
There’s a new kid in town. I don’t want to hear it
There’s a new kid in town. I don’t want to hear it
There’s a new kid in town. There’s a new kid in town
There’s a new kid in town. Everybody’s talking
There’s a new kid in town. People started walking
There’s a new kid in town
There’s a new kid in town

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