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Seventh Grade Destroyed My Back

When I was in seventh grade, I had the most gorgeous social studies teacher.  Since he still teaches in the county (yes, I Googled him) and has an easy-to-find name, we will call him Mr. Cohen.  Mr. Cohen looked like a young John F Kennedy.  My dad had a book about John F. Kennedy’s presidency, and I liked to borrow it and sit on my bed, staring at this one picture that closely resembled my middle school teacher.

I still remember all of the quotations he would scrawl across the board.  Lord Acton’s “Power corrupts; absolute power corrupts absolutely.”  A song we wrote to remember all the amendments to the Constitution.  And the look that he got on his face when he discussed the Protestant work ethic.  It was clear, at least to someone like me who studied his facial expressions as much as I studied world history for his class, that he liked the concept of the Protestant work ethic.  And by G-d, if this man liked the Protestant work ethic, then this little Jewish girl was going to work her fingers to the bone in order to impress him by being even more Protestant than the Protestants.  I was going to out-Protestant work ethic them.  I was going to make those Puritans look like wusses.

Mr. Cohen gave me an A for all my hard work.  He did not ask me out on a date.  That only meant I needed to turn up the volume on my work load.

In eighth grade, I moved over to a new social studies teacher whose classroom was adjacent to Mr. Cohen’s room.  Sometimes they’d open the door between their classrooms to speak to one another.  I assumed that if I amazed this new teacher that she would tell Mr. Cohen about my work while they chitchatted in the door frame.  Isn’t that the only thing teachers talk about with each other?  The most interesting things in their lives: their students?

She assigned a ten page research paper.  This assignment was a huge deal, the first major essay I had to write for school.  She asked for ten pages.  I wrote 40.  40 pages.  40 pages on the assassination of Lincoln.  She wanted us to turn in 20 research index cards.  I went ahead and created about 80.  All the other kids were stunned when I pulled them out of my backpack.  I was sure that this was going to be the tipping point, the moment when Mr. Cohen understood the intensity of my Protestant work ethic.

No offer was made to take me to the school dance or even a movie.  He ended up marrying another teacher at the school.  All I got was a note in my yearbook to have a good summer.

I started dating boys my age, but I held onto Mr. Cohen’s beloved Puritan-style of living.  To this day, I’m frugal.  I’m efficient.  I will never stop working as long as there is work to do.  And I can always find work to do.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing.  I completed a double major AND a certificate of study while in college, while working two days a week.  I went on a week-long work camping trip while I had mono.  I didn’t stop working when I had hyperemesis gravidarum with the twins, vomiting into Venti Starbucks cups while I drove to school. (I needed to pause at a garbage can at a midway point between my house and the school because I only had two cup holders in the car to contain my two full cups of vomit.)  My personal motto has always been “suck it up.”

As I neared the deadline for this edit on Apart at the Seams, it made sense to forgo things like eating and yoga and just sit in front of the computer for 12-to-15 hours per day, writing non-stop.  Apparently, my back cannot keep up with my brain and my burning love for Mr. Cohen, because hunching over the keyboard for hours at a time destroyed the rhomboid muscle in my back.  On Friday, Josh took me back to the doctor because even with the pain killers and muscle relaxants, I couldn’t sleep.  The pain was just too intense.  Delivering twins vaginally felt like a day at the spa in comparison to the spasms in my back that had been going non-stop for seven days.

This new doctor looked at me in horror when I told him why the muscle cramping started, and I wanted to scream in his face, “I can out-Protestant the Protestants and Mr. Cohen should have loved meeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee!”  He asked if I had ever considered taking breaks, walking around, swinging my arms and stretching.  Had I considered this?  Is he crazy?  Waste time with things like stretching?  Do you know how much I can accomplish in the time it would take me to stretch?  Did the Puritans pause to stretch?

I hobbled home with a new prescription and slapped on two heat strips.  And then I Google Mr. Cohen because this is all his fault.  If he hadn’t been so cute, so charismatic, so charming 27 years ago, I would never be in the pain I’m in today.  If he had instead had a flicker cross his features when he mentioned slothfulness instead of the Protestant work ethic, I would be happily lounging on a beach somewhere, relaxing.  But no, he had to be enamoured with Puritans, working their farms until their bodies gave out.

I found him first on a “rate my teacher” site, where high school student after high school student raved about his counseling skills.  He had guided them to the perfect career path.  He would do anything for his students.  And in that moment, I realized that I was just one girl in a sea of thousands of kids who had crossed his path and fallen in love with him.  There could be hundreds of us with chronic back problems due to our love for Mr. Cohen.

I said a quiet goodbye to my crush and vowed to become lazy.  That is, right after I finish editing these 270 pages.  I swear, I can quit any time.


1 Kasey { 01.13.14 at 9:05 am }

I had a “Mr Cohen” too! My friends and I were obsessed with him- we actually called him “Mr Blueberry” and I swore we were going to end up married LOL

2 Catwoman73 { 01.13.14 at 10:28 am }

Lol… gotta blame someone, right? This totally made me smile. 🙂 Hope you are feeling better soon!

3 Ana { 01.13.14 at 10:55 am }

This so made me laugh this morning, thanks! There was a hot social studies teacher in our middle school, too, but I didn’t have him. I had the pretty young female teacher—who starting dating said hot male teacher. I do hope you are feeling better, and please please listen to the doctor and make sure you are taking “back breaks” while you work!

4 Karen (formerly Serenity) { 01.13.14 at 11:45 am }

I love, love, LOVE this post. On so many levels.

My Mr. Cohen was a professor in college, who taught me how I could do pretty much anything if I had high expectations of myself and was willing to work really, really hard. To this day I still love him. And hate him, because it’s totally his fault I can’t say no and end up strung out and miserable.

Hope the back is better soon. xoxo

5 a { 01.13.14 at 1:04 pm }

I never had any teachers worth having crushes on. Sure, there were some great ones and some memorable ones. But none were really attractive. Or at all attractive.

Slothfulness is an essential part of every day. You just can’t make it the whole of every day. That, or you need to adopt the laptop and reclining couch option that I use. Not hard on the back at all, but it would probably make your butt spread.

6 Laurel Regan { 01.13.14 at 2:10 pm }

Love this post. Thank you for the smile (even though it’s at the expense of your back).

7 Mali { 01.13.14 at 5:23 pm }

You make me laugh! And you completely remind me of my Protestant-work-ethic father-in-law who is in danger of killing himself because he doesn’t take breaks, and thinks work = life.

It is very easy to sit at the computer for hours and hours. It eats time, I find, and I forget to get up, walk around, shake out my hands, drink water (when my water bottle at my desk is empty). But it isn’t weakness to stop and take a break.

Finally, I never had a teacher worth having a crush on. Lucky you.

8 Queenie { 01.13.14 at 8:15 pm }


9 Aerotropolitan Comitissa { 01.13.14 at 10:09 pm }

I hope your back is feeling a lot better.

On the other hand, we wouldn’t want you to quit! You just need one of those desks that attaches to a computer treadmill. And maybe to make sure your keyboard and screen are ergonomically aligned. I’m sure there’s a solution that allows for 12-15hr days (please let me know when you find it).

10 Persnickety { 01.14.14 at 12:02 am }

Oh no! I don’t think I had a mr Cohen in my formative years, and then I got to university and it was filled with har working overstriving girls. I think that was the beginning of the end for my work ethic…

That said, I did have hot history prof in Geneva, who talked about the Protestant work ethic ( and spoke at least three languages), but he was more into the other Smith student in the class.

Can you arrange a standing desk at all ( put the computer monitor, key board and mouse at a level that you stand in front of to work at). It’s harder to slouch, and harder to remain at work for 16 hours solid.

11 kateanon { 01.14.14 at 12:37 am }

Oh, I had a Mr. Cohen, but I had him a bit later, enough to really screw with me, because maybe he’d recognize my talent / work ethic / secret love if I just did things a little louder / better / stronger. I’m a bull head and still push through like that. I get it.

12 It Is What It Is { 01.14.14 at 4:59 pm }

Such a great post (and delectable insight into you).

I am so sorry about your back and know from experience how debilitating it can be. I read your more recent post where the NSAIDs you found are working better and I hope that continues to be the case.

I wish I’d had a Mr. Cohen…

13 Justine { 01.14.14 at 9:12 pm }

I suspect your work ethic came from elsewhere. Just a hunch.

Amazing Mr. Cohens of the world aside, I wish more of us had teachers in our lives who taught us balance, and self-care. Many of us aspired to a life that was lived by monastics, or at least, so they seemed to us. And it was an unrealistic goal.

I do hope you’re feeling better soon, and I’m glad that you’re telling all of YOUR students the cautionary tale. (Wish I could make you tea.)

14 Elizabeth { 01.15.14 at 11:28 am }

And here I was feeling totally jealous of your work ethic and wishing I wasn’t so lazy…! Rest up and feel better soon!

15 Tiara { 01.15.14 at 12:53 pm }

I really like this. I really identify with the intensity of your 7th grade crush!

16 Lori Lavender Luz { 01.16.14 at 11:26 am }

Maybe absolute work corrupts absolutely.

The fact that you’re a little bit Protestant and I’m a little bit Jewish makes me understand our connection even more.

17 loribeth { 01.30.14 at 1:54 pm }

LOL… the first day of Grade 12, there was a huge buzz among the girls at my school about the cute new guy in school and had we seen him yet? I caught a glimpse of him in the hallway: he had longish dark blond hair, a dimple in his chin, and wore white pants (!) & a black polo shirt. Imagine our surprise when we walked into math class & found out he was the new teacher. He was 23 years old & this was his first full-time teaching job. His nickname became “Peter Pan” because he looked so young. Someone “bought” him as a “slave” for freshie week (I’m assuming such politically incorrect activity is banned these days) & made him wear a Peter Pan outfit.

He was a bit of math geek, which diminished the allure somewhat, but we all liked him a lot. I missed quite a few classes that spring, owing to band trips and other extracurricular stuff. I wrote a final make-up quiz for him during my spare, which would determine whether I got a high enough overall math mark to avoid having to write the final exam in June — I was borderline (math being my least successful subject, next to phys ed). I hung around for him to grade my paper, & could have hugged him when I just squeaked in under the wire.

Unfortunately, he & all the other new young teachers that year did not have their contracts renewed for the following year — seniority, etc. etc. What a pity, they were all fresh & enthusiastic and we all loved them.

That was (gulp) 35 years ago. I didn’t hear anything about him for years & years and then about a year ago, one of my girlfriends e-mailed me to say she’d been at the theatre in the city close to where we grew up, & the usher handing out programs stopped her & said, “You’re J., aren’t you? you got 100% in Grade 12 math.” It was him! He AND his daughter (a girl in her 20s) were volunteer ushers there. She said he was grey and had a beard (!) but still looked pretty much the same.

(c) 2006 Melissa S. Ford
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