A Nickel In San Quentin

Eight A. It sounds like a laboratory where experiments are carefully conducted on rats, monkeys and mice. In many ways Eight A was an experimental place, only rats, monkeys and mice were swapped out for students. And much like rats, monkeys and mice the students in Eight A were unwilling participants.

In the mid 1980s teachers in small town Alberta thought it was a good idea to take teens who didn’t fit in and banish them to a dark corner of the school. Out of sight out of mind was the best solution the powers-that-be could come up with for dealing with troubled students in rural Wild Rose Country.

Although classes for difficult students still exist, you’d be hard-pressed to find one as ill-conceived as Eight A. The only problems the miscreants sentenced to hard time in Eight A had were of the social kind. Outside of low self-confidence and troubled home lives, the six inmates were like any other teenagers in Jr. High-School. 

There was Tia*, a potentially pretty blonde who was encased in a full body cast due to some form of spinal disorder. The product of a single parent home, Tia was intelligent and on the cusp of becoming a pretty young woman. Once the cast was removed and some of her confidence restored, she blossomed nicely.

Mark*, a future friend and partner in crime (not literally – we were too scared to be real criminals) was a smart teen who had been convinced his whole life he was stupid. His holy roller parents – a mother as much a Christian as Charles Manson and a meathead father who needed to be beat down the way he beat his kids down – thought it was okay for him to have one set of clothes for the entire school year.

Danny* was a clumsy and somewhat nerdy guy with glasses. How he ever got lumped in with a small band of alleged misfits is a head scratcher. The product of yet another single parent home, Danny was smart and didn’t belong in Eight A. Maybe the teachers thought he was safer out of the regular population.

Freckle-faced and red-headed Deacon* was a nervous guy with a big heart and a wicked sense of humour. The two of us shared more than just severe anxiety in common, we both loved music. Deacon’s mother was a beastly figure who took out her failure in life on her only son. Like Mark, Deacon was dressed in rags.

Nancy*, the only other female in the class, had a nasally and somewhat irritating voice. She was another oddity, not really troubled but pronounced an outcast nonetheless. Nancy’s only real crime was the fact that her voice made her unpopular with some of the other students (and I suspect, some of the teachers). She was one of the smartest of the Eight A convicts. 

Then there was me. Perhaps the most nervous of the bunch, with a level of self-esteem so far in the negative it would have taken something as powerful as the Hubble Space Telescope to locate it. To many of the teachers I was simply a lost cause.

After failing grade eight the year before – not because I was stupid, but because I had trouble concentrating and was constantly exhausted – I found myself staring down a year behind the cold, grey walls of Eight A. A loose cannon with a bad attitude, I acted like I didn’t give a damn about anything. It was mostly self-preservation. Mostly

Eight A was a death sentence for me (or at the very least the equivalent of doing a nickel in San Quentin). I knew what it meant to be placed in the special class with the other losers. I had a front row seat during my first go round in the grade eight trenches.

To see photos of me in 1985, I certainly look the part of a teenage loser. Unkempt hair, dressed like a bum, with bad skin and eyes that betrayed my put-on confidence and exposed me for the unworthy waste of skin I thought I was. 

To say the teachers were grossly underqualified to deal with teenage outcasts is like saying a two year-old is underqualified to handle a loaded 9mm Glock. Although there were a few who actually gave a damn, one being Ms. Sheila* – an older woman with a big heart who loved children and loved teaching – the majority were there for a paycheck.

The warden assigned to the Eight A crew was Mr. Fagan*, a barrelhouse and balding man. To his credit Fagan did his best to communicate with the inmates he’d been assigned. He had good intentions (he wasn’t a bad teacher); he simply lacked the tools to deal with a group of kids branded losers, outcasts and lost causes. 

Fagan was given a losing hand. He knew it. We knew it. Worst of all, the rest of the students in the school knew it. When you tell a group of teenagers they are losers, outcasts and lost causes, something interesting happens – they start to resemble those things. 

The Eight A class spent very little time mixing with the regular population. We were segregated. The teachers, principle, vice principle and school counsellors thought it best to be keep us separated from the rest of the students.

Even though the mental class as we were sometimes referred to by other students was segregated, we were thrown into the general population for things like shop, health and gym class. The latter being a constant and painful exercise in humiliation. 

If you’re going to brand students losers, outcasts and lost causes, and remove them from the rest of the population, for the love of all that’s holy don’t then turn around and throw them in with peers who have been conditioned to think they are better than them.

When you have one set of kids staring at their shoes, feeling as good about themselves as a dog that has been mentally abused its whole life, and another set of kids who think they’re somehow superior, things are going to go sideways in a hurry and bad shit is going to happen. 

I can’t speak for the girls, but the guys were picked on in gym. Why? Because we didn’t have any self-confidence or athletic ability. 

It didn’t help that the gym teacher was a complete jag-off. A tall and thick man, Mr. Garrison* fancied himself a De Niro-esque figure, some kind of super stud. He was always playing a tough guy role like he was in a movie (I never saw any cameras), but in reality he was nothing but a bully; a failed athlete who took out his bitterness on the weaker kids.

It would be misleading to suggest the Eight A class contained the only outcasts with self-esteem issues in the school. There were other students who related more to us than the privileged and doted upon. Somehow those students managed to slip through the cracks and survive out in the general population. The Eight A convicts were simply considered the worst of the lost boys and girls. The others were thought to be just slightly out of line with the mainstream, but still reachable.

It would be easy to blame only the teachers for the us and them mentality that existed, but it goes much deeper. We were all conditioned – by society, by our parents, by the school system – to believe we were different. We all took the cards we were dealt and bluffed our way through the game. Some did better than others.

Considering we were all in the same boat, you would think the cell block six would have stuck together. There was a connection, of course, but I’m ashamed to say we were often as cruel to one another as the regular population was to us. 

It wasn’t uncommon for Fagan to leave the classroom for a few minutes only to return to a full blown uncivil war. Once the fuse was lit it took a nuclear event to restore peace. More than a few times Fagan had to himself detonate to bring the wrangle to a halt. 

The Hiroshima like destruction from Fagan’s blown stack was usually enough to end the hostilities, but tensions were always bubbling just under the surface. The biggest battle waged in Eight A happened between me and Fagan. 

Fagan was out of class one day, and even though he’d left instructions and assignments, we decided we would live up to our special class handle. We gave the substitute teacher a hard time and acted out all day. There was no taming the beasts. Like the gloomy winter weather outside, we were in a dark way.

In all fairness to me and my fellow classmates, we were treated like idiots and losers. And As much as we wanted to break free from those labels, there were times when we would give in and play the roles we’d been assigned.

When Fagan returned the next day, he was not in a good mood. He came in late. He was a mess. Had I known what transpired the night before, I’d like to think I would have handled things differently. 

Apprized of the goings on during his absence, Fagan lit into us. He’d had enough of our antics and he let us have it with both barrels. The six of us were riddled with verbal bullets by the time he’d emptied his six guns.

At the end of our dressing down Fagan said, to no one in particular, “what the hell happened here yesterday?” Since no one else spoke up, I did. “Not much, Bro, what happened with you?” 

It was the final straw for Fagan, he completely lost it; exploded into a million emotional pieces in front of the class. He got right in my face and told me I was nothing but a punk (among other things). 

While he was rebuking me, Fagan stopped mid sentence, his attention drawn to something on the floor. He was locked on my shoes. There was dried mud all over them and the floor in front of my chair. He became even more unravelled. “Go get a vacuum and clean up that mess up!” He howled.

Fagan had had it with me – with all of us – and he let us know. But I’d had it with him, too. And I didn’t hold back. “I’m not a fucking janitor,” I retaliated. “clean it up yourself.” 

The room went silent. Fagan’s bald head and face were so red I thought he was going to stroke out. Stunned, he backed away from my chair. I stood up, all one hundred and ten pounds of me and let it all out. Years of frustration erupted and the anger flowed from my lips like searing lava. I was tired of him bullying us. I was sick of him being an asshole and treating me and the rest of the class like dirt.

Fagan stood there and soaked in my words. He didn’t say a word. After a few seconds, he turned and stomped out of the classroom. My face felt as red as Fagan’s bald head. Had I been wise, I would have left school and went home and told my parents what happened and dealt with the situation the next day, but wisdom was absent from my crazed mind. 

I bolted from the classroom, but instead of going through the big glass doors that lead to freedom, I went in the opposite direction. I made it as far as the boys’ washroom where I sat in a stall and thought about what had just transpired. I was certain a small army of teachers would soon be out looking for me.

At this stage of the game in my young life, I’d begun weighing the consequences of my actions and would decide whether or not I cared what happened to me. This process always lead to the same question, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Usually it was death. I was okay with that. 

Eventually I made my way back to class. The school was quiet, eerily so. It felt like I was in one of those end of the world movies where the population is decimated and only one person remains. I was the last teenager on earth.

Fagan wasn’t in the classroom when I returned. My fellow cell block eight inmates were sitting quietly at their desks. Mr. Packard*, the school principal, was behind Fagan’s desk. Waiting for me. He was a small, stocky man who could be a bull when he needed to be. I sighed, ready to do battle with yet another adult.

Packard was a stern but fair man. He had always been good to me up until this point. He seemed to understand that my home life wasn’t the best – that I was more a sad and troubled kid than anything else. The Packard I faced that day was one I’d never met before. He was apoplectic. 

All eyes fixed on me when I walked in the room. Packard stood up and met me at my seat. His eyes raged. “You’re nothing but a mouthy boy, Todd Sterling,” he rattled. 

My classmates, who had already endured the wrath of Packard, sat in silence. I felt my face heating up again. Packard wasn’t finished. “You’re a mouthy boy,” he repeated, standing only inches from my face. “You are disrespectful and mouthy.” As roiled as he was, Packard seemed at a loss for words. I wasn’t. 

I let Packard know exactly what I thought of Fagan and how he treated the Eight A class. Packard wasn’t interested, but I continued anyway. I let go a verbal and curse-laden blast (my dad was once a professional curser – so my arsenal was full) that sent Packard stumbling back a few steps and raised his blood pressure to perilous levels.

“You’re just a boy.” he wailed again, as if that was all he had. “A mouthy little boy. Get a vacuum and clean up the mess under your chair.” I gave him the same answer I’d given Fagan. After a few moments of silence, punctuated by the shallow breathing of my classmates, Packard shook his head, threw his hands up in the air and walked out of the room.

My stomach was in knots. I was exhausted and overwhelmed. I stood there, shaking. And then something unexpected happened. My Eight A brethren, who’d sat and watched in silence during my rows with Fagan and Packard, came to my side and comforted me. 

“Thank you for sticking up for us, Todd,” Tia was the first to speak. She was close to tears. One by one Nancy, Danny, Mark and Deacon added their thanks.

A bond was formed that day between the outcasts of Eight A, one that lasted for the remainder of the school year. From that time forward – even if we still fought with one another from time to time – we stuck together when it mattered.

Two days after the showdown with Fagan, Packard caught me in the hallway outside his office and called me to come in and sit down. After a few awkward moments, Packard sat down on his desk in front of me and leaned in close. “I’m sorry,” he said. “For the way I talked to you the other day. I was upset, and you didn’t know the situation with Mr. Fagan.”

Once I agreed not to repeat what he was about to tell me, Packard told me why Fagan was late and out of sorts the morning of our big dust up. The night before, Fagan’s wife nearly died from complications while giving birth. 

Packard agreed it wasn’t right for Fagan to take out his personal issues on the class, but under the circumstances, Packard thought it was completely understandable. 

As bad as I felt for Fagan (and his wife), my question for Packard was “what on earth was a man who nearly lost his wife and child the night before doing at work the next day?” The answer was evident, and that was the end of the conversation. 

A yearbook photo from ’85 sums up how I felt about the Eight A experience/experiment. The cell block six outside on a beautiful, sunny day, lineup up like soldiers for the lensman, posed for posterity. Each one wearing a painted on smile, except me, I look like my final death row appeal was just denied.

(*All names have been changed out of privacy and respect.)


(November 2020)