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Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Sideways Stories From Wayside School

It has just dawned on me that it's been almost six months since I started the Pop Culture Addict's Guide To Life blog. I'm not quite there yet (the official six-month mark will take place on November 24th), but it's fast approaching.

I guess part of the reason why I've managed to keep this project going for almost six months now is partly due to you guys. All of you readers who have clicked on the links that I've posted in some areas of the Internet, and who have followed this blogging venture have inspired me to keep writing about the things that influenced my childhood and my life, and for that, I want to extend a little gratitude to you. If it wasn't for your support, and your reading my blog posts, and leaving comments, and even suggesting topics for me to discuss, well, there would be no blog! So, once again, thank you!

Over the last few months, I've had fun choosing topics to talk about in this blog, and I would hope that I have come up with a wide selection of ideas to talk about for people of all ages to relate to. From 1939's The Wizard Of Oz to Selena Gomez's hit song Who Says from 2011, there really is something for everyone.

And with theme days for movies, music, video games, television, cartoons, and even international pop culture references, there isn't a shortage of topics to be least not yet.

Though looking over previous blog postings, I have noticed that I haven't really done a whole lot of discussion on books and literature. Sure, I've done features on Dynamite Magazine and the advertisements on the back of comic books, but other than that, I haven't really done much of a feature on books and reading.

And, I think that I would like to attempt to change that. I've been thinking about making a few theme day changes in the near future. In all likelihood, they'll take place after the new year. I've already featured a change or two that I'm planning for the new year. The feature that I did on the board game Clue is one possible topic change.

I've also been toying with the idea of coming up with a theme day for books, magazines, newspapers, and other things that people can read, and I think that in the new year, I'll make that more of a priority. I mean, it would be kind of silly for someone who wants to make it in the world of writing to not feature some of the authors and books that influenced my own writing style, right?

So, for today, I'll be turning the Tuesday Leftovers day into a feature on one of my favourite novels growing up, and its a novel that some people may not have heard of.

Come to think of it, it was written by an author who not a lot of people may have heard of either. At least not until one of his books was made into a very successful 2003 movie starring Shia LeBeouf.

The author in question is named Louis Sachar. He was born in 1954 in East Meadow, New York, moved to California with his family at the age of nine, and attended college at the University of California, Berkeley to earn a degree in economics. However, along the way, Sachar's career path changed a bit along the way. He would eventually attend law school, graduated with a degree in law in 1980, and ended up doing part-time legal work while working on various personal projects.

Those personal projects ended up being children's books.

It wasn't until Sachar was in high school that he really wanted to become a writer (coincidentally, it wasn't until high school that I actually wanted to become a writer as well). Sachar was inspired to become a writer after being influenced by such authors as Kurt Vonnegut and J.D. Salinger.

Sachar would end up writing quite a few children's books over his lifetime. In his early career, he would balance writing with his other day-to-day jobs that he worked over the years. By 1989, he had managed to have enough success to pursue his writing career full-time. Some of the books he has written over the years include 'Johnny's In The Basement', 'Sixth Grade Secrets', 'There's A Boy In The Girls Bathroom', and his 1998 book, 'Holes', which is probably Sachar's most famous work, and which was turned into the movie with Shia LeBeouf that I eluded to earlier in this blog entry.

But for this installment, I actually want to talk about his first book project. And the inspiration behind the book project is actually one in which I can kind of relate to in my own personal life.

When Sachar was attending college, he, like many other college students out there, managed to get a job working part-time at Hillside Elementary School as part of a work study program to earn college credit. According to Sachar, he felt that it was a great deal. Earning college credit without having to have homework, midterms, or final exams. Just helping out for a few hours in a classroom filled with second and third graders. He even got to supervise the lunch hour recess outside in the schoolyard where the kids of the school gave him a rather interesting nickname.

He was known as Louis The Yard Teacher.

Now, here's a true story. I may not have had a cool nickname like 'Matthew The Milk Monitor' or something similar, but like Mr. Sachar, I too worked at an elementary school on a volunteer basis. In fact, I was a volunteer at the very same school I had attended as a youngster.

The year was 2003 and my nephew was a student in kindergarten at the time.  During that period, he attended Commonwealth Public School (the school that I myself attended between 1987 and 1995).   I was kind of in between jobs, looking for work in a rather dismal economic situation for my hometown at the time. My resume wasn't exactly considered to be all that remarkable at the time, and was probably one of the reasons why I didn't have much success in the job market. However, I had been told by a couple of people that having volunteer work listed on a resume could help improve my chances, so in 2003, I agreed to help out in my nephew's kindergarten class, as well as the class next door. It wasn't much...I just helped the kids with art projects, helped them open up their drinkboxes, helped them build huge towers of blocks. Things like that.

It was definitely an experience to be had, and I ended up doing the volunteer work off and on between 2003 and 2004 at my old elementary school. It's funny how when I was a child, that building was the source of a lot of hurt feelings and being made fun of. But yet going back years after the fact brought forth a whole new feeling. Whereas the thirteen year old me hated going to school for fear of being made fun of and harassed on a day-to-day basis, the twenty-three year old me saw it as a new experience. A renaissance, so to speak.

If anything, those few months that I spent volunteering at my nephew's school kind of put things in perspective, and made me realize that maybe things weren't as dire as I thought. And besides, all the kids that were in two classrooms that I helped out in were awesome. Sure, some of them misbehaved, but it wasn't anything that I couldn't handle. If anything, it kind of made me feel kind of important being there for the kids. I really enjoyed my time there.

And Louis Sachar must have really enjoyed his stint as Louis The Yard Teacher too because he used those experiences as the basis for his very first book.

Although he borrowed the character names from actual students at the school he worked at, and based one of the characters after himself, Sachar claims that the storylines in his first book were completely fabricated. The reason being that Sachar felt his own personal experiences were too dull to put into a book, and that he had no choice but to make it up as he went along.

That book was Sideways Stories From Wayside School. Although completed in 1978, it took a while for the book to become popular. It was only after the book began being promoted in Scholastic book clubs and school book fairs that it started to gain in popularity. The book became so popular that two more Wayside School books were released in 1989 and 1995 respectively, and the book spawned a cartoon series called Wayside in 2005.

The book detailed life at Wayside School, which was supposed to have been a normal elementary school with thirty classrooms in a one story building. Somehow, when the blueprints were read, the builders misread the layout, and as a result, Wayside School ended up being thirty stories tall, with only one classroom on each floor.

The way the book was designed was exactly the same as the school. The book contained thirty stories about thirty characters inside the school. The book had thirty stories, just like Wayside School.

(Well, okay, technically there's only twenty-nine stories, as the builders forgot to build the nineteenth floor during the construction of the school. Chapter 19 was about the teacher who taught the class on the nineteenth floor, Miss Zarves.

Miss Zarves did not exist.

The majority of the stories were based on the classroom at the very top of the building on the thirtieth floor. Each chapter was about a student in the class, as well as the two teachers they had throughout the year as well as Louis The Yard Teacher, who happens to have the last chapter in the book.

Initially, in chapter one, we learn that the classroom on the thirtieth floor was Mrs. Gorf, an evil teacher who would turn her pupils into apples if the children misbehaved in any way. Eventually, she does turn them back into humans, but when the students misbehave again, she attempts to turn them back into apples. But when one of the students holds up a mirror, Mrs. Gorf turns herself into an apple, and is promptly eaten by Louis! This sets the stage for the next chapter, when the class is taken over by Mrs. Jewls, the teacher on the thirtieth floor for the rest of the book.

Mrs. Jewls has a grand total of twenty-eight students in her class, and as you read the book, you'll not only see how weird and backwards the school really is, but you'll also recognize a lot of the students as having the same characteristics as some of the people you went to school with yourself.

For instance, I know that some of the kids I went to school with were kids who took great pleasure in picking on the other kids. There's a few kids that are like this. Chapter 20 for instance introduces us to Kathy, a girl who hates everyone in the class, even Mrs. Jewls. She's more or less the bitter student who doesn't have a nice thing to say about anyone, but it's also revealled that she brings a lot of the hatred on herself too. There's Terrence (Chapter 26), who likes to insult kids with such sayings as 'Drop Dead, Ketchup Head' while kicking all the school's bouncy balls over the fence. He gets his comeuppance in the end of the chapter when Louis kicks Terrence over the fence. And in Chapter 27, we meet Joy, who steals lunches, and purposely gets fellow student Todd into trouble. The so-called mean girl of the group.

Of course, we meet Todd in Chapter 5 of the book, and Todd is the troublemaker of the school, having always gotten into trouble in class. Ironically enough, Todd is more often than not the best behaved kid in Wayside School, but because the school was built a little bit sideways, the way things ran were sideways too. Mrs. Jewls had a discipline board (similar to the broken rules list my second grade teacher used), where if you were bad, your name was added. If you got in trouble two more times, then you actually got sent home early on the kindergarten bus.

Which if this were a normal school would be swell, but apparently going home early was a real punishment. Anyway, in almost every chapter of the book, poor Todd would get sent home each time.

Some of the students would have some rather entertaining quirks. Sharie (Chapter 4) would always fall asleep in class, and one time fell out the window during a power nap. Thankfully, Louis saved her, but Sharie scolded him for waking her up during her nap. John (Chapter 17) could only read books upside down until a whack on the head flipped his brain right side up. Paul (Chapter 10), had a habit of pulling the pigtails of Leslie, who herself tried to sell her toes to Louis in Chapter 18. There was Rondi (Chapter 13), who kept getting complemented on her missing teeth, Bebe Gunn (Chapter 6), who once drew three hundred and seventy pictures in an hour for art class, and Sammy (Chapter 14), a student who wore a bunch of smelly raincoats and was nasty to Mrs. Jewls and was eventually revealled to be a dead rat.

Yes...apparently dead rats can be enrolled as students.

One student in the book ended up changing his name with another student (Nancy, Chapter 28), you met Eric Bacon, Eric Fry, and Eric Ovens (Chapter 22), and Joe (Chapter 3), who can't count in order, but still arrives at the same number each time.

There's many more students featured in the book, but just based on the descriptions, can you imagine what life at Wayside School would end up being like? It would be kind of crazy, and insane, and fun all at the same time.

I think part of the reason why I enjoyed the book so much was that despite all the dead rats, and apples, and sideways arithmetic that appeared at Wayside, there were always people that I could relate to. In fact, what really got me was how none of the students (except for maybe Kathy, Joy, and Terrence) never really harmed each other, or went out of their way to make anyone else feel bad. Sure, there was some good-natured ribbing, but for the most part, the classroom worked well together. In fact, for a perfect example of this, you should check out the chapter on the student known as Maurecia (Chapter 9). It's probably my favourite chapter in the whole book.

Really, I recommend this book, Wayside School Is Falling Down, and Wayside School Gets A Little Stranger. The books are well-written and very creative, and are loosely based on a true story.

And hey, Louis Sachar inspired me in a way. He and I had quite a similar experience in our lives. If he could use that experience as a stepping stone towards having the career he wanted, maybe it's time that I made that happen too.

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