the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

The Dark Side

I think it all started in the seventh grade.  Up until then, I was always the goody-two shoes in school, the student who was always picked to be the "Citizen of the Month."  I had no knowledge at all of the "dark side."  But then, in seventh grade, something changed.  There was a New York City teachers' strike that year that was causing chaos in the school system.   I remember having ten substitute English teachers that one year.

Our class was incredibly mean to these substitute teachers.   Some kids threw spitballs; some threw paper airplanes.  The third substitute teacher was a nervous wreck.  Every time she would turn her back, the class would intentionally bang their desks against the floor, using their knees to lift the desks up and down.  When the teacher would turn to face the class, everyone quickly stopped the banging and feigned innocence.  One day, this hard luck teacher just disappeared in the middle of the day, and we later heard rumors that she had a nervous breakdown in the teachers' lounge.

I'm proud to say that I never participated in any of this nastiness.  But, then again, I never took a stand or protested, an action a more heroic student might have done.  Lisa Simpson would have said something.   I just pegged my peers as "immature" and hoped for the strike to end, so we could go back to learning punctation and grammar.  How would I do well on my SAT?

Finally, English teacher substitute #10 showed up.   I don't remember his name.   I just remember that he had wild hair and looked like an ex-hippy, more comfortable at a Grateful Dead concert than a classroom.  Where did they find this guy?  When the class started to get rowdy, he told us that he was a black belt in karate.  At first no one believed him, but then he showed us some of his moves, which really impressed the class. He became an instant favorite, particularly with the boys.   Although he was very entertaining, he was probably the worst English teacher ever.   He never taught us anything.  Some days he would just let us sit at our desks and read whatever we wanted.

One day, after the bell rang, substitute #10 — who's name I still can't recall — asked me to stay after class.  I was horrified, thinking I did something wrong, but it wasn't the case at all.

"I see you like to read a lot of books." he said.

"I do."

"Me, too.   Reading is great.  Reading can really blow your mind.  You want to read some of my favorite books?" he asked.

"Uh, sure," I said, having never said "no" to a teacher before, being a "Citizen of the Month."   This was still very unusual for me — a teacher offering me books to read…

He opened his briefcase and took out three large books.

"It's called "The Lord of the Rings."  It's going to blow your mind."

I had never heard of these books.   They actually sounded pretty weird, and dangerous. 

The dark side.


  1. anne

    “The Substitute.
    The Dark Side.
    The (beat) Citizen of the Month.
    It was a year (beat) they would never forget.”
    I can almost hear the movie-trailer voiceover man.

  2. M.A.

    Mr. Kramer,

    This entry explains more than even you’ll ever know.

  3. Dagny

    I was the kid who came up with the plan on how to torture the substitute. My fave teacher in high school was my English teacher from senior year. I’d go back to visit her when I was in college. We would sitting around discussing what I had read since I had last seen her. I would always leave with a long list of further recommended reading.

  4. jackt

    Between going through 10 subs in one school year and your teacher who taught you that everyone’s got an agenda (previous post), you certainly are very educated about educators!

    (I would write the above comment in elf tongue but that would make me seem like a geek.)

  5. Trixie

    I’m wondering if your teacher ended up being my Lit professor in college. Sounds an awful lot like him. Did he come to class barefoot and reek of B.O. & patchuli?

  6. claire

    The Lord of the Rings, the dark side? I’m losing faith in you, Neil.

  7. scott

    Tell me the truth, Neil. Did he touch you? You can tell me. You won’t get in trouble. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad boy.

    I love “The Lord of the Rings” almost as much as I love hippies who know Karate.

    Hello, Neil.

  8. Wendy

    Any one who motivates a kid to read is good in my book. (ooh – bad pun – sorry). In seventh grade, I read Helter Skelter. I can still remember my teacher’s reaction when I asked the definition of a word I came across. He told me to ask my father… Yikes.

  9. Kevin

    At least you were introduced to them early on. I never read them until, gulp, I heard the movies would soon be coming out. Well, I started them. I still haven’t read Return of the King. Gotta get on that one, don’t I?

  10. Hope

    Reminds me of a hippie English teacher in my high school. On day my friend passed him in the hallway and said, “Hi.” His reply? “No, but thanks for asking.”

  11. treespotter

    You make me feel bad, I just gave NS’ Quicksilver for my nephews bday last week.

  12. Bre

    Meanwhile, while I was student teaching "The Lord of the Rings" was part of the curriculum for one of the classes I taught… go figure

  13. stephanie

    i devoured not only all of the tolkien books, but the complete chronicles of narnia (genius, absolute genius!) at the age of 13.

    i guess that explains a lot about me, huh?

  14. justrun

    I knew you had to be a hobbit lover. In all the normal ways, of course.

  15. Dustin

    If “Lord of the Rings” turned you to the darkside, I don’t even wanna know what kind of pansy books you were reading before that (If you say “Baby Sitter’s Club” we’re so broken-up).

  16. The Retropolitan

    I loved the “Baby Sitter’s” book where they attacked Mordor.

  17. ACG

    i didn’t know lord of the rings was that old.

  18. chantel

    As erudite as I can be sometimes, I’ve never read the Trilogy. Good for you “Evil Master Genius”.

  19. Tracy Lynn

    I think we did the trilogy when I was ten. My brothers and I all read them at the same time, as he was going through a sort of a revival then for some reason.
    I really enjoyed it, and by the time the movies came out, I had forgotten enough of the books to really enjoy them as well.
    This post does not make you seem sinister. In fact, I think it may up your cuddly factor a bit.

  20. Brian

    I was always pretty good to the subs. However, if they were sub-ing for a teacher I didn’t like or get along with, I’d be enough of a kiss-ass to the sub to inspire them to write a note to the teacher about how great I was- thus giving the teacher a complex about his/herself. It was my little way of “sticking it to the man”…

  21. Sandra

    Neil, you’re a nerd and I like it. I was a total book geek too…I actually used to look forward (SO MUCH) to the summer book club at the library. If you read a certain number of pages and wrote a summary of each book, you got to pick out some free books…and yes, I did write summaries of books in the summer. In order to get more books.

  22. Neil

    Tracy Lynn — Too bad. I was going for sinister.

  23. Melissa

    I cannot wait until I can share those books with my niece. I get all wound up just thinking about it.

  24. Sedulia

    I’m more of a nerd than you. When I read “The Hobbit” for the first time, I recognized the names of the dwarves from “The Elder Edda.” I was 12 at the time and got a letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to prove it.

  25. modigli

    What a cool story! Even though he didn’t teach you anything, at least he introduced you to some very cool books. I wonder what that hippie dude is up to now and if he remembers you the same way you remember him?

    As for subs — Isn’t it crazy how mean kids can be to them? There’s one sub in our bldg who is getting it SO BAD with pranks similar to your class’s! I’m surprised he doesn’t have a nervous breakdown already! It’s tough to be a sub.

  26. scott

    Listen to me Neil: It’s not your fault. Can you understand that, son? It’s not your fault. Sometimes hippies do bad things. It could happen to anyone. IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT, NEIL!

    Hello again.

  27. annie

    Bet you did well on the SAT. Especially the verbal part.

  28. better safe than sorry

    my youngest daughter’s class read lord of the rings last year, in grade 5. i read the hobbit in high school and have never read lord of the rings, but i saw two of the movies.

  29. Michele

    My dad read the LOTR trilogy to my mom when she was pregnant with me, so I like to think that I was a fantasy fan before I was even born.

  30. mysterygirl!

    I’m glad you got turned on to something interesting by a sub– and not in a Mary Kay Letourneau kind of way.

  31. Nancy

    Whoa — that’s a great way to be introduced to those books. I, on the other hand, was tricked into marrying a geek. One who pretended to like Woody Allen movies until the ring was on my finger. After that, it was all Star Trek all the time.

    That’s when I picked up the LOTR. And I’ve never put it down.

    (Well, it’s down now, since I’m typing… but after this, I’m picking it back up. Keeps me in shape. After all, it’s heavy.)

  32. Neil

    Sedulia — Wow, a letter from Tolkien himself.  Do I hear E-bay?

    Better safe — Grade Five?  What is she — a genius?

    Nancy — I hate to give a wrong impression of myself. I never did become a full-fledged fantasy geek. My obsession pretty much began and ended with LOTR. I grew out of fantasy and science fiction two years later when I read Henry James, which turned me on much more than this fantasy nonsense. I was never that much into Star Trek or Star Wars or Alien or The Matrix or Myst or Dungeons and Dragons, or countless other geeky pursuits. If anything, I switched over to "classic movie" geek by college, seeing old movies three times a week. But I will watch an episode of Star Trek: TNG just for old time's sake.

  33. bella

    That first taste will get you every time!

  34. anne arkham

    Never read ’em.

  35. Fitèna

    You just reminded me of my Arabic teacher in primary school in Niger. He taught us nothing and demanded that I share my lunch with him then asking me to tell muy mum that whatever she put in the bread tasted great. Am not making this up, it happened for real. I had the most incredile childhood. The same teacher later – when I got my Primary School Certificate – came to visit and asked for my hand. I swear!!!

    Have a great week end Neil!

  36. Pearl

    Teachers knew about that book too. I’m always the last to know.

    You topped our school. We never got to teacher ten. I think we maxed out around 5 to a year.

  37. plain jane

    “He opened his briefcase and took out three large books.” I held my breath, certain that you would say that he brought out some sort of porn and invited you over to his “pad”. Whew.

  38. Tanya

    Lisa Simpson is a cartoon.

  39. Neil

    Tanya — Nonsense. Next, you’re going to be saying the same about Charlie Brown.

  40. Tanya

    Nah, I know Charlie. He lives in Hoboken, NJ.

  41. Jill

    Oh Neil, I heart you.

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