Wednesday, February 27, 2008

good old golden rule days

Every once in a while, as a high school teacher (i.e. a person who, for masochistic reasons unknown even to herself, has elected to spend her entire life in that hormonally insane netherworld we refer to as secondary school), I find myself watching the students in my charge and reflecting on my own experiences when I was their age. Since I have had my own children go through high school, it has become a bit more difficult for me to see myself at the earlier stages; freshman and sophomore years have vanished into the ether of my mind, but that's probably for the best. As I recall, my life back then was not exactly the subject of heroic tomes. I may be far better off not remembering anything than remembering the minefields and tarfields of early high school, and my less than stellar responses to them.

I know, for instance, that I did not have many friends. I wanted friends. I needed friends. After a complete disaster of a middle school experience, the highlight of which was surviving it, I really had hoped to find a more positive environment in the hallowed halls of Trinity High School. I had chosen to be there, actually chosen to attend a Catholic school despite the fact that I had not considered myself Catholic since the age of nine and despite the fact that I had three perfectly good public high schools and a prep school I could choose from. My reasoning was solid and mature: I couldn't go to Salem High or Pinkerton High because neither had a soccer team, I couldn't go to Pelham High because it sucked, and I couldn't go to the prep school because it was all-boys and, though I was not a girl to anyone else, I was to me. No way would I go to an all-boys' school. See? Sound, mature, well-reasoned decision-making.

My mom, St. Marilyn the ├╝ber-Catholic, was of course delighted with my choice for whatever my reasons might be. She saw me choosing a Catholic school; what else mattered? That I told her I did so because of soccer certainly didn't. That I secretly had done so on the hope of starting over, of putting my middle school reputation as the "weird kid" behind me, wouldn't have mattered either. And I was definitely the weird kid. It probably would have been enough that I was the middle school "brain," rivaled only by Anne Bailey, a girl who hated me because I was the only one in her way of being first in the class, or that I was a bit of a loner, or that when I did hang with anyone it was probably someone geeky like Mark DeYoung, a really wonderful kid whose friendship I valued, but who was put down by others due to his effeminate mannerisms. I suppose I didn't need to compound my social problems by being a closet transsexual who was not always aware of how others were seeing me. I remember once at recess--probably in sixth grade--I was walking alone around the hill behind the school dreaming (as I often did) that I was a girl on the outside as well as on the inside. Well I must have been sashaying or something because suddenly I heard two girls' voices behind me giggling.

"Look how he's walking," one said.

"He's just weird," said the other.

By the end of the day, every girl in sixth grade had heard, and I was a huge joke. Not that it mattered: I was just as alone on the playground the next day as I had been on that one. So I had no girl friends, and I couldn't exist well in the world of boys; of course I was a loner! And Anne Bailey, one of the two girls in the playground that day, became a thorn in my side throughout middle school.

So I thought that, by going to Trinity, a school twenty miles from home, I would be able to escape these demons and start again, maybe actually make friends with some of the girls as well as some of the boys. But when I got there, I discovered that five others from my middle school also had decided to make the journey, and one of these--life is unkind--was Anne Bailey. It took her less than two days to spread the stories about me throughout the girls in our shared classes. I never had a chance. So freshman and sophomore years were a kind of hell I don't really want to think about anyway, and therefore it's probably a good thing that when my students' lives and interactions remind me of my own school days they tend to take me back to junior and senior years.

By then, of course, I knew that transition–the long dreamed-of goal of actually becoming physically the girl on the inside–was an impossibility, and I had gone through any number of depressive episodes about it before deciding that I would simply have to make do, get on with my life, and what the hell. So I had fun for two years, in my way. I became editor of both the newspaper and the yearbook, which got me keys to two student offices where I could veg out whenever I needed to. I ate lunch there for my entire senior year. I started playing chess more and more in open rooms, sometimes playing two or three simultaneous matches, sometimes playing speed chess or "blind" chess (in which you kept the board in your mind), and I won my share. I worked several jobs to earn money so I could drive a car–a robin's egg blue 1960 Mercury Comet (ancient even in 1974) that I had picked up for $200. I played hockey and soccer, I listened to music and went to concerts (that was the year of seeing Led Zeppelin live), I read, I wrote, and I just kept getting good grades.

Most of the time.

I did have this reputation for getting great grades. From middle school, where I had been first in my class, through freshman and sophomore years, when the lowest semester grade I'd gotten was an A-, I pretty much expected the highest grades. But in junior year I had to take this religion class (an unfortunate byproduct of choosing to matriculate in a Catholic school). They gave us some choices, and I thought this one about various views on the afterlife sounded potentially interesting. I should have known better than to take a course called "Death" taught by a man named Mr. Dull. (I'm not joking.) The course was death, and I barely stayed away for it, not even caring that I got a C (since religion courses did not count in my GPA anyway).

Then a crazy thing happened. Richard Nixon signed into law the Freedom of Information Act, and for the first time ever we were actually allowed to see our transcripts. Naturally curious, I went to see mine. The guidance secretary, who knew me well, pulled it out and showed it to me, and I was stunned to find an error on it! There was a grade of B in a course I had aced! She was very nice, telling me just to get a note from the teacher and she'd change it. And of course I did so immediately. Upon returning with the note, I handed it to her and she whipped out the White-Out. I watched as the B turned into an A, and then I watched in silent astonishment as, apparently convinced that the mark below that had to be a mistake also, she changed the C in Death to an A also! I should have said something, I know, but I was just so astounded. And then it was over and it was too late. And I never did. Personally, I think all students who sat through that class should have gotten A's, but that's another matter. I got one just on reputation.

That's not the only time it happened to me. I was talking with K, one of my best seniors, today. She's gotten into Notre Dame, and she's happy, and she's still working hard but without as much academic drive as she had before. It reminded me of me. I remembered that, in the second semester of my senior year, I never took a book home. Not once. I realized I hadn't some time in March and then challenged myself to see it through. Crazy notion. I did my homework in free periods in the Newspaper or Yearbook office, and I went home empty-handed. And I still got all A's. I still got all A's despite the fact that, in at least a coupld of my classes, I hadn't the foggiest clue what was going on!

The worst offender was math. I was taking AP Calculus. I had known from the beginning this would be trouble. We had a decent staff at my high school but, it was well known among the students, possibly the worst math department in the free world. There was one strong teacher, Brother Arthur, and a bunch of idiots. Brother Arthur taught (of course) AP Calc. If you survived long enough to get to him, we heard, it was worth it.

Brother Arthur didn't survive long enough for us to get to him. In the spring of my junior year, one bright day in May, word came that he had died in bed. We dedicated the yearbook to him the next year, a testament to how much we as students appreciated him, but we still signed up for AP Calc, assuming that the school would find someone over the summer who could teach it and do as fine a job as he had. But arriving in class in September we were greeted by a familiar face, Ms. Kendricks, one of the math teachers who had already been in the department. She announced that they had tried to replace Brother Arthur but had been unable to do so, and thus she would be our teacher.

"I don't actually know much about Calculus," she said with a laugh," but I guess we can all learn together."

Though none of us made a sound, I am sure we all heard the collective groan.

I managed to stay with what we were doing in that class through the first semester, until they started spinning flat things around on imaginary axes to discover what volumes they would have if in fact that actually had any volumes. It was at this point that I pretty much gave up. Ms. Kendricks, to her credit, did try, but it was a losing battle. I doubt that any of us really learned much. I know I didn't. Yet I kept getting A's. On quizzes, on tests, on class participation, on everything. And I began to think that maybe I did know this stuff, maybe it just seemed that I didn't because the subject was so utterly nuts, but maybe I grasped it fully. I mean I did get very high SAT math scores; why not?

So I signed up to take the AP Calc test. Paid my $45, drove up to the school, walked in with my cache of #2 pencils, and took my seat. The proctor had us all fill in the forms, read the prescribed crap they make us all read when we proctor things, and then handed out the booklets. When we were told to begin, I broke the seal and started reading the test. Around me, pencils started moving across paper, making that scratching, squeaking sound that pencils make when they are talking to the infinite whiteness. Before me lay a booklet, open to the fourth question. I had read the first three and had no idea how to answer them. No idea how to begin to answer them. I honestly had no idea what they even meant. And as I read the fourth question with similarly blank comprehension, the whole thing suddenly struck me as absurd, and I started to laugh. Out loud, right there in the testing room. The proctor shushed me, and I did my best to quiet myself, closed my book, grabbed my things, and walked out.

Elapsed testing time: about ten minutes.

AP tests are graded 1-5. I like to tell people that I got the first ever 0, but I actually did get a 1; I think they give you a 1 for getting your name right.

Ah, school days. Gotta love 'em.

Is it spring break yet?


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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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