I remember only two things about sixth grade, and they made such an impression I fear they will stay with me always: Def Leppard’s Hysteria, and the Slam Book. As an 11-year-old, I greeted each with equal parts fascination and horror. In the case of Hysteria, I was fascinated because I’d never seen men in stretch leather pants before, besides which I was pretty interested in uncovering the deeper meaning behind "Pour Some Sugar on Me." And the horrifying part? Again, I’d never seen men in stretch leather pants before, not to mention men with perms. But even this horror paled when Jason Cardillo (names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent) revealed the deeper meaning behind "Pour Some Sugar on Me." Omigod. So gross.
As with Def Leppard, the fascination and horror of the Slam Book were close cousins. The Slam Book — though it looked like an innocent scrapbook, a chance to write "Tru luv 4-eva" and "UR2Good2B4gotten" — was a ballot box for all our budding-pubescent fears and desires. Making its way from one gum-scarred desk to another, the Slam Book asked: who’s the prettiest girl in class? Who has the best clothes? Who is a serious nerd? And we dutifully answered. Were we afraid of being voted Most Likely to Vomit During Chorus? Of course. Did we hope that maybe, against all odds and reason, we had been voted Coolest Girl in Class? Definitely. The fascination and the horror of the Slam Book were that it promised to tell what we weren’t entirely sure we wanted to know: how other people saw us.
Most 11-year-olds, when faced with the choice of uncovering a juicy tidbit of the "what everyone thinks about me" variety, or leaving said tidbit to fester underground, usually dig the thing up as fast as they can. But once you find that you have, in fact, been voted Most Likely to Vomit During Chorus, or, perhaps worse, haven’t been voted tops in any category at all, you aren’t likely to be tempted to pay attention to Slam Book tell-alls in the future. Or are you?
A friend of mine — I’ll call him Matthew — is a first-year biology teacher in an urban high school. Since this is the first time he’s taught germ theory to a class of 14-year-olds, one might expect that the early months would be a bit of a struggle. But Matthew’s rookie status was no salve when, after overhearing a conversation between two teenagers about a Web site on which students "rate" teachers on their performance, he went online and discovered that, on a four-point scale, his students had rated him a meager 1.3. And the real sting came in realizing that his low score placed him last among the science teachers at his school.
During Matthew’s entire high-school and college career, he probably never received a grade lower than a B. So when he told his friends about his score on the Rate Your Teacher Web site, we comforted (and later, gently teased) him. Not having to face on a daily basis the group of people who had given us the lowest performance rating of our lives, we assumed that Matthew saw the Web site as we did: a satisfying way for students to get back at their teacher for giving a killer test on germ theory, and, as such, not the most objective authority on a teacher’s effectiveness. Remembering the Slam Books of our past, we knew that the chance to vote anonymously can bring out the iconoclast in all of us. I mean, no one ever answered the question, "Who’s the most popular girl in the class?" with the name of the most popular girl in the class. Why would they, when this was their chance to level the playing field, if only the slightest bit?
But Matthew took the rating to heart. Not that he was inconsolable — quite the opposite, really. His low rating seemed to motivate him, in a sort of possessed, Night of the Living Dead kind of way. Soon he reported that, after giving his students a fluff quiz and letting them leave class early, his rating shot up to 3.2. The following week, he demonstrated cell function using Gobstoppers and Jujubes: 3.4. Now Matthew was hooked. An "open book" test, a class party at the end of the fungi chapter, M&M’s for the highest scorer on every quiz — they all helped Matthew achieve the height of the Rate Your Teacher world: a 3.8, the highest rating in the science department.
So was Matthew a Slam Book success story? I guess he was, in the literal sense. But when you consider the questionable motivation for his curriculum development, and his Night of the Living Dead demeanor, it’s a little less clear.
Still, it made me wonder whether, if I’d been in his place, I might also have fallen victim to Slam Book curiosity. For many of us, no matter how many Slam Books or senior superlatives or Rate Your Teacher Web sites we’ve survived, the opportunity to learn what other people think of us proves irresistible. Realizing that these forums don’t usually give a particularly accurate read on what people think of us doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. You’d think our first Slam Book experience would rid us of the desire — but then again, you’d think Def Leppard would’ve closed the door on stretch leather pants forever. Alas. We’re stuck with them both.
Rebecca Wieder, who was never voted Most Likely to Vomit During Chorus or Most Popular Girl in the Class, can be reached at email@example.com