II: Crash and burn
That short vacation time was too great and quite frankly, much needed. I was getting too used to not having to wake up at 06:00 a.m. and being able to play videogames all day without having to worry about anything, but those two months of vacation were about to end—it was time to get in serious mode, or as serious as the immature teenager that I was could get.
Things were supposed to be different this time, our livelihood circumstances were not ideal, yet dramatically better than what they were during seventh grade. That apartment we temporarily lived in was huge but wasn’t located in the best of places (literally half a block away from an infamous prison that no longer exists today), but I had a room, that’s all that mattered to me.
My mom was now working two jobs so we could have enough money: running the pain and palliative care unit in the Miguel Perez Carreño Hospital, and as an anesthesiologist in the Concepcion Palacios Maternity. At the same time, circumstances aligned in our favor and she was slowly navigating through some hefty bureaucracy to sign up for a mortgage for this unfinished and humble apartment that we still call home — a slow process that took more than a year.
While her two jobs allowed us to fare better financially, it really was quite taxing on her, and I’d got to see her less often during the weekdays. My grandmother and one of my aunts stepped in to help when it came to cooking for my brother and I and whatnot.
Mid-September 2000 drew nigh, and I was ready for round two: Eighth grade.
I was determined to be once again the diligent, studied, and smart kid that I was prior to 1999, even if I was still not used to life in Caracas, even if I had no classmates to talk to like back in my Maracaibo days, even if I spend my days alone in that room unleashing the full extent of my childish imagination, and even if I was 2-4 years younger than every other teenager in that classroom.
When my mother went to pay for my admission fees and that of my brother (who was about to start first grade) she was reminded that I had flunked seventh grade math and that I had failed the reparation exam, therefore I had to ‘drag’ that course all throughout eight grade—and of course, there was a fee to be paid.
The plan was simple, just study hard, and get good grades—and pass seventh grade math while at it. It was going to be an uphill and difficult fight, but not impossible. In theory, I should’ve been able to get through it, in theory…
I had all my stuff ready: my standard Venezuelan 7-9th grade high school uniforms (light blue chemise, dark blue pants), my shoes, my socks, my backpack, and my notebooks.
The first days were great and I felt quite optimistic—completely different from how I started seventh grade. Usually, there’s not much to do during the first two weeks, which are mostly spent receiving each course’s Evaluation Plan for the first term (70% of the grade spread across tests and other activities, and a final test worth 30% of your final grade for that term).
I still struggled with socializing as I never quite fit in with any of the classroom’s already preordained groups. There was this group of kids that knew each other for more than six years now, all of which lived close to each other. There was the group of girls, the group of the older kids, and a few other ones. While I was not part of any of those groups, opportunities for conversation spawned here and there, but not often.
Even though it was the same kids, they were now all well ahead in puberty, and as such, they had other interests and topics that drastically were different than my ‘childish ones’, such as video games, and other forms of media.
The fact that I was put in First grade way ahead of time always put me at a noticeable age difference with regards to the rest of any classroom, it’s something that I now realize didn’t help me integrate with any class group. I merely drifted around, never fitting in either of the classroom’s cluster groups.
As for the classroom itself, this was your run of the mill room-turned classroom, many schools here tend to be built around repurposed houses. Unlike the windowless seventh grade one that had an air conditioner, this one relied on natural ventilation. As I had no group to sit with, I just dozed off towards the left side of the rectangular room, almost near the corner, a position I kept until a teacher had enough of two troublemaking students and decided to reshuffle some seats around to keep them apart.
While all of my seventh grade grades ended up being quite atrocious, I did have one saving grace, my one gimmick: English. However, I don’t know what happened, but the original teacher left shortly after beginning the school year, and we spent quite some time without one, just killing time in the classroom—so my one trick, the one thing I still excelled at from a student perspective, was rendered inert for some time.
I was told from the get-go during that first week of class how the whole dragged seventh grade math course was gonna be carried out, more or less this was the gist of it:
1) Three tests, one during each term. The average score of those three tests was to be my new seventh grade math final score.
2) There were going to be special ‘review’ days where me, along with the other students that were in a similar situation, were going to be given a special preparatory speedy refresher class for the test.
3) I was free to attend any seventh grade class that I wanted (provided I had the free time in my schedule). This was probably a formality, because due to the way eight grade’s schedule was set up, it was impossible for me to attend any of those classes without failing to attend some of my eight grade ones—unless a teacher couldn’t go one day for whatever reason, I can only remember this happening one or two times, and in those opportunities, I felt even more out of place, even if I was sitting in the same old classroom from the previous year—just with a completely different set of kids around me.
4) While I could attend any of those classes, I didn’t have to do any of their regular tests or activities, that’s what the three big tests were for.
Anyways, it was still too early to even worry about all that math stuff, I had to focus on eight grade too, and I couldn’t lose my regained tempo.
Looking back at my written notes of that time, I was really giving it my best: My handwriting, skewed as it has always been (left handed + some clumsy motor skills make for a poor calligraphy) did nothing to obfuscate my diligence and orderliness.
Those first class notes are relatively clean, organized, and very characteristic of me.
One of my first notable assignments was part of a Biology class, I had to draw a diagram of the brain. Yeah, my mom helped me with the drawing, but I wasn’t the only kid that required help, at least I could excuse myself by being left handed and quite incapable of drawing anything with precision.
My mom, as overworked and tired as she was, was determined to restore as much of our lost normal life as possible, to build something that at least resembled the good brief years that we spent in Maracaibo.
We may not have the best Public (or Private) healthcare in the world, but before the Miguel Perez Carreño Hospital further fell into disarray and its entrances became militarized you could find interesting sellers roaming through the halls of the hospital, from coffee vendors to crossword/word soup book sellers.
There was this guy that often paid the hospital a visit for business purposes, he was a purveyor of pirated media—don’t forget, internet access wasn’t as massified in the year 2000 as it is today. He was quite the chill and friendly guy, and my mom became one of his customers.
Whenever her budget allowed it she would buy me bootleg VHS movies and pirated Playstation games—a new take on the old times when my mom would buy them for me back when she was travelling back and forth between Punto Fijo and Caracas as part of her Pain Management and Palliative Care studies, movies that I owe much of the core foundations of my grasp of the English language to.
Great first days at school, with the occasional new pirated video games and movies. Everything continued in a steady upwards trend, and my mood couldn’t had been better. I’d come back from classes anywhere between 01:00 and 02:00 p.m. straight to my lunch, rest a bit, do my homework (I’d even listen to the radio while doing it, a first for me), and then some good old fashioned video games.
My first tests were great, and according to my own written notes, I got an 18/20 in one of my History tests. When it came to P.E class well—a fat and clumsy kid was not going to fare well. The first term was centered around volleyball, and I somewhat held my ground.
Teams of three had to be assembled for the weekly P.E. volleyball tournaments, and everyone except me already had a group. Since I belonged to no clique and I was not the best physically performing kid, I was put as a handicap in one of the ‘pro’ groups comprised of two older guys that were outperforming the rest of the teams so as to even the field.
“Teams have been auto-balanced,” if you will.
Yeah, those first weeks were pretty great, and I felt like I was en route to be the student that I was—but I suppose that was not meant to be.
Having to skip classes due to protests or rallies blocking the streets was not as common back then as during some of the more recent years of Venezuelan history, but it did happen a few times throughout the year 2000. My mom was always busy working her two jobs so we could have enough money, so more often than not, she was not at home, and her late night shifts at the Maternity would prevent her from even sleeping at home.
As she was not there sometimes, my grandmother would be the one to help us prepare for school, but sometimes she’d just let me skip school, and I wasn’t going to say no. This was a really bad idea in retrospect, as I’d often be out of sync with the flow of each class, and was starting to lag behind a little, yet I was able to keep up with my good grades for the most part.
Unfortunately, I started to regress, and the streak of good grades rapidly began to evaporate. One moment that I still remember involved an assignment—a model that had to be crafted and presented in class. I don’t remember the specifics, but it was human anatomy related.
It should’ve been easy peasy for me to do, as the son of two doctors (who had decided to divorce a year prior), but the thing is, my mom had to travel for work-related reasons that week, and I had no one to help me build it, or pay for the materials to build it in the first place.
So I, for some reason, decided not to say or do anything, and just tell the teacher that I didn’t made anything, that was a big mistake. That teacher had a 3-strike system, where if you messed up three times, disturbed class, or something like that, then she’d raise a note of protest and your parents would be called in.
That was strike #1 for me with that teacher.
The other kids presented some rather impressive stuff, and I was there, like an idiot, with nothing to show, and a huge 00 on my grade.
We finally got a new English teacher a few days later, and unlike the sweet and entertaining one we had prior, this one was more strict, but her assignments were nothing I couldn’t handle—something that most of the rest of the class struggled with.
My grades continued to drop, and I started to deliver some assignments in an incomplete state, but I was able to stabilize a little. All of those mishaps and failures should’ve not gotten in the way with my other goal: the dragged seventh grade math—but I guess they did. I attended the refresher crash courses, and I was confident that I had the hang of the exercises, even if some things were a bit confusing for me.
I honestly studied hard for this test, reviewed every note I had, but I didn’t have anyone to do some exercises with. A few days later and it was time for the first of the tree math tests.
An empty ninth grade classroom and after class hours were the stage and time chosen for the test. The test that was handed over to me seemed easy at a first glance, and I had no trouble answering it to the best of my ability.
The best of my ability was, unfortunately, not good enough. I failed spectacularly, I just was not aware of it that afternoon, and I would not find out until two days later. For some reason I skipped school the day after that test. My mom had to go there to talk to the School coordinator, I don’t remember the specific reason so I’m going to guess it may have had something to do with my brother. The test results were going to be posted on a board. As much as my mom wanted to see them firsthand, she couldn’t wait any further and went to her workplace.
That had to be some extreme cosmic luck, because boy, I dodged a literal bullet.
The next day I went to school thinking that I had fared decently on that test—still blissfully unaware of the actual results, until I walked upstairs and laid eyes on the board. What I saw froze me.
Oh, and just in case I hadn’t realized how bad my 08/20 score was, some of my classmates made sure to do so through a few jabs here and there.
Having failed that test was a huge demoralizing blow to me. I could’ve swore I had all of it right, or at least most of it. It’s been more than twenty years and I still can’t figure out why I failed that test so hard, not like it matters now.
That 08 out of 20 meant that I had to step it up and get high grades on the other two remaining tests to compensate for it if I wanted to have a shot at passing seventh grade math. I was more afraid of what my mom would think of me than the consequences of that botched test in the long run.
So I did what I shouldn’t have done: I lied to her and told her I had scored a decent grade. I mean, so long as I did great in the two remaining tests it didn’t matter, right? That was my twelve year old reasoning.
Everything changed after that day, and I don’t know what happened to me. I started to fail test after test after test, to the point that, for the first time in my life, I got the equivalent to an F-, a 01/20 in a Universal History test—this is another one that I have no idea what happened, and to this day I suspect foul play, there is absolutely no way I got every single question wrong on a non-math related test, I still refuse to believe it after two whole decades.
To make matters worse, the weather during those days was very cold, much colder than the previous year, to the point that one morning I could see my own breath, something I had never experienced before in my life (the inclement hot weather in Maracaibo does not allow for such things).
That cold weather flared up my asthma for the first time since 1997, which made me skip some days of school. One of my mom’s colleagues examined me, prescribed me some medicines and an inhaler that really helped, along with a special doctor’s note that asked the school if I could enter classes at 08:00a.m. instead of 07:00 a.m. at least for a few days to help me recover quicker, as it’d be warmer.
The request was instantly denied by the school director, and I simply had to deal with it, coughing in classrooms until I got better. If my cough was annoying to them then so be it, not my fault.
December of 2000 came in, and with it, came the first term tests, the ones worth 30% of your grade. I don’t know how it is nowadays, but back then, if you did exceptionally well during the 70% portion of the grades you were exempt from having to do the term tests. A handful of students were able to achieve this in some courses, but that was not in the cards for me, not even in English (I was slightly close, though).
To sum it up: I fared okay-ish in some, worse in others, and exceptionally well in the English one. Not like any of that mattered at that point, as outside of English, my 70% was so bad that the 30% tests could not make up for it, not even if I had aced every test with a perfect 20/20.
All I could do was brace for impact.
The classroom’s Secret Santa stuff also took place during those final class days of 2000. The one I got assigned was this one kid part of the clique of kids that lived close to each other that I described at the beginning of this entry. I had not much to give, so I gave him my pirated copy of Vagrant Story for the PS1. I also had no packaging, so I hastily grabbed a sheet of paper and did an abstract coloring, wrapping the disc case with it. Most of the classroom laughed at me when they saw the packaging, though. I received some chocolates from my Secret Santa.
I had a follow-up consultation about my asthma on the same day that all parents had to go to receive the first term report cards. My mom went as early as possible and boy, she was so extremely mad at me that she could not wait to arrive at home, she straight up called me to scold me.
I had never seen her so upset at me in my life, but I deserved it. She never hit me in life, but I’m sure I deserved a beating that morning. I had flunked every single class except Religion (which had no scores to begin with), Physical Education (carried by the pro team), and English (the one trick up my sleeve).
The only reason she didn’t unleash the full extent of her verbal wrath was because she was always a calm person, and because we had to go to the doctor that morning. I don’t remember what I told her, but she angrily responded with, “it’s because you failed every single class” while making sure that strangers heard her, a most deserved humiliation, I must concede—to which I responded with “but at least my English one is high up there.”
The rest of that December was pretty chill, all things considered. One full month where I didn’t have to worry about all that mess, and the disastrous seventh grade math situation. I did, however, noticed a discomfort on my left toe, an ingrown nail that didn’t seem like a big of a deal at first. I had already caused too much trouble to my mom, so I didn’t say anything to either her, my grandmother, or anyone else.
And yet, even though I deserved zero Christmas presents, my mom forgave me and rewarded my failures with my very own copy of Pokemon Silver. And from that day, Totodile became my favorite Pokemon of all time, perhaps because I latched onto him as a vector for escapism after all that mess as he and I virtually adventured throughout the Johto region. I played the hell out of that game throughout that month of vacation, churning AA batteries like no tomorrow.
The ingrown nail continued to be a mild discomfort of slowly growing intensity, but otherwise, that Christmas was a solid one, except for one inopportune blackout and a rather displeasing New Years at my uncle’s house along with most of my mom’s family.
My school year was one third done, and it had been a complete disaster so far, but it was still salvageable, or so I thought.
This tale will end in “Tales from 8th Grade III: Salvation code,” which you can access by clicking here.