1968–A Personal Memoir: Van Buren Junior High School

Part IIIa of a multi-part series

At school, life was humming along with the usual start of the year energy, but made all the more intense for me as a ninth grader. How had I arrived here so fast? There was quite a lot to be done as a ninth grader and if ever a class took ninth grade with gusto, it was the Class of 1969.

Van Buren Junior High School was in 1969 about eight years old. It was situated along a busy north-south thoroughfare in southeast Albuquerque, near the edge of the semi-secret atomic weapons installation called Sandia Base. All of the “base kids”–those who lived at Sandia Base–went to Van Buren as did the kids from the surrounding Southeast Heights neighborhoods which varied from working class to upper middle class. Students from further west and around what then constituted Kirtland Air Force Base, went to Wilson Junior High School, Van Buren’s archrival.

My “posse” (to use a word in a context not yet invented in 1968) consisted of smart but strange guys like Dennis Johnson, the scholarly Marvel comic book fan John DuBois, the just plain smart Charles McElwee, the smart and athletic Johnny Teale, the smart and preppy Fred Lancaster, the smart and clever Doug Carlton and others who floated in and out of this ill-defined group.

Doug Carlton epitomized the combination of brilliance and irreverance in our set. One day in eighth grade science, my favorite teacher, Mrs Alice Scott, was at the blackboard lecturing and writing notes about a certain class of metamorphic rock that had igneous origins and was found in New Mexico.

Doug, as usual, was carrying on a running commentary on her remarks which had the middle of the class room in an uproar. Mrs Scott, a very genial woman in her forties (I would guess–the forties part–not the genial part), had admonished him several times. We all knew not take advantage of Mrs Scott–we liked her too much. But this day, Doug kept going and at some point must have crossed a line.

When that line was crossed, the next event was shocking. Mrs Scott, wearing low heels, spun around like a right-handed pitcher about to pick off a runner at first base. Her hand was drawn back quickly and there was fire in her eyes. Her hand moved forward faster than anything Koufax or Drysdale had ever had, and with her skirt swirling, she fired a piece of chalk aimed precisely at Doug Carlton’s forehead. Paradoxically, it all seemed to happen in slow motion at first.

Doug was sitting to my left and as accurate as her aim had been, Doug’s reaction was as quick. He ducked to the right, avoiding the missile by millimeters. The chalk exploded into dust against a blackboard in the back of the room with a loud bang.

When I looked up, the classroom was silent. Mrs Scott still had fire shooting from her eyes and was breathing heavily. Doug Carlton dusted himself off and said, “Wow, that scared the schist out of me!” A beat. Then Mrs Scott doubled over laughing.

The really important thing to me about September of ninth grade was the student council election. I had been thinking about it all summer and I was ready to run for president. Having just watched the two major party conventions on television, I felt I knew enough about politics to pull it off. I went to Fred Lancaster and suggested that we run as a ticket–he could be the vice-presidential candidate. Fred and I knew each other well enough that he was neither surprised or offended by my offer. Likewise, I was neither surprised or offended when he turned it down and told me he was running for president.

Fred was one of the “Four Hills” kids; one who lived in an upper middle class enclave near the Sandia Mountains called Four Hills which had an actual country club, stables, and horses. Most folks that of Four Hills people as “rich,” but I don’t know. I don’t recall exactly what Fred’s father did for a living. Fred did have an unmistakable air of privilege about him; how we became friends is hard for some people to fathom. Anyway, I liked Fred then and have pleasant memories of him now.

The presidential campaign would be the old fashioned type: we would comport ourselves as gentlemen and let the better man win. Fred and I each, for different reasons, felt a certain inevitability about winning the office.

One day about a week or so before the election, Fred caught up with me between classes. He had a look on his face that I couldn’t quite read.

“Have you heard?” he asked me. He seemed a bit huffy–indignant in a way.

“Heard what?”

He fairly snarled as he answered. “There’s a girl running against us.” He gave each word the emphasis the situation called for. A girl! Running against us! For whatever fate had in mind, the inevitability of one of us being elected student council president did not countenance the entry of a third candidate–and especially not a girl!

Any fool could see that her plan was that the boys would vote for anybody but a girl, thus likely splitting the boys vote and leaving the path wide open for the girl to win!

Who was this conniving wench? Kathleen Gregory? Not her style; besides, she would have told me first. Marta Hoge? Really not her style: weren’t her parents Quakers or something? Judy Worlund and Eva Castleman had already pledged to support me as had Laura Wells, Barbara Stewart, and other ninth grade girls.

Aha, it was Darryl Glen! But eighth graders couldn’t run for student council, even if they had skipped the fourth grade and academically laid waste to every other grade since. I couldn’t imagine who would have the moxie to challenge us in this way.

As I stood for a moment pondering, an attractive girl in a brown suit came down the hall. She had brown hair and blue eyes, and I had never seen her before. And not since Phyllis Bloom’s tailored suits and polished nails in seventh grade had any girl at Van Buren dressed so stylishly.

“There she is!” Fred snarled, pointing a finger. I had never seen him like this before. Then I did something I had never done before. I walked up to a girl and introduced myself.

“Hi. I’m Craig,” I said, extending my hand. “You must be new here [muttering under my breath “or else you’d have the good sense not to mess with inevitability!”].” I couldn’t stop taking in her striking beauty.

“Yes,” she said, shaking my hand and looking me in the eye, “I’m Mary Wolak. We just moved here from Germany.” Ahhh, another Base kid like me. “I think I saw you at Mass on Sunday.” Hmmm, a Catholic Base kid like me. But wait a minute, you just got here and you’re running for student council president?

Had I said that out loud? Apparently so, because Mary Wolak replied, “It was my dad’s idea. He thinks it’s a really good way for me to get to know people.” A good way to get to know people? Didn’t Mary Wolak and her dad know better than to fool with the inevitable forces of nature?


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3 Responses to “1968–A Personal Memoir: Van Buren Junior High School”

  • […] 2.  Can we all agree that there’s nothing geekier than winning the school letter in science ? Van Buren Junior High School, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 1969.   See this post for a story about a Van Buren Junior High School science class. […]

  • […] Virginia, You Are a Hamm! 1968-A Personal Memoir: Van Buren Junior High School 1968-A Personal Memoir: Presidential […]

  • Donna says:


    I have to tell you how much I thoroughly enjoyed your series. I never would have thought that I’d enjoy reading stories about someone else’s life. But, because you write so well, I was completely enthralled and waiting to see what’s next. You really should consider writing your memoir. This reminded me of Bill Bryson’s Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid. I liked it for the same reasons I like Bryson – well written, poignant, and made me burst out laughing on occasion. I applaud you, because you’ve raised the bar — THIS is what writing family stories is all about. Thanks for sharing.


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