My wife is trying to restrain me. I want to rip the microphone out of the guest speaker’s hands and tell them the truth. These poor kids, listening to the same old homilies, by some boring adult–they have no idea.
I could tell them. I know what they can really expect in high school.
I look around the auditorium. The audience is filled with eighth graders in various stages of adolescence at various stages of awkwardness. Parents and grandparents are all smiles, holding balloons and flowers to give to their precious ones upon achieving the supremely inane feat of surviving middle school. I am not smiling. I am trying desperately to fight off boredom. Fortunately, the jazz band begins playing an arrangement of “Gotta Be This or That,” and the alto saxophone player puts in a very fine solo. The trumpet and the trombone then trade fours for a half chorus. For just a moment, I pleasantly forget that I am here to be tortured along with the students, with teacher’s platitudes and the voices of a dull authoritarian institution designed to strip all youth of their imaginations the way commercial orange growers prune an orchard.
But of course, the band has to stop sometime, and up steps a mousy little woman who can only be an English teacher. Her voice reminds me of a buzzsaw striking a rusty nail. At least I remembered to bring my earplugs and my iPod.
The mousy English teacher introduces a semi-hip 35-year-old man wearing a faded magenta polo shirt. He simply must be a software geek, as no one outside of such an office would let him live with his poor fashion sense. I’m sure several of the girls are whispering about his shirt even now. He bleats on about how he graduated from Eckstein and how he met the next speaker on Facebook. Great: a teacher introducing a geek who then introduces a guest speaker. Middle management, middle school style. I can hardly wait.
Up steps the token minority speaker for the day. I am all ears as she regales the eighth grade class with the details of her dreams from college, in which she has repeated sensations of dangling from a pole, in mortal fear of her life. The audience is silent. Not, I suspect, from politeness but rather from shock. I can read the unspoken words in the glazed eyes. “What the hell is she talking about???”
And then, abracabra: Oneiromancy 101. The dreams, she tells us, means that everyone needs to let go and just be themselves. It is a completely ridiculous moment. Fortunately, the ridiculous is immediately rescued by the trite. “Everything you do has meaning, everything you do will last forever,” she informs us with complete gentility.
I’m sure that my jaw is so wide open that there are cobwebs forming. I cannot believe this nonsense. Cynthia puts her hand on me and holds me down in my seat. “Honey…” she says. I close my eyes and grit my teeth. The speaker’s words fade into the noise and tumult ripening inside me. Grim memories from my middle school years well up.
Then it’s awards time! The most important award of all! The humanitarian award! For 8th Graders showing an outstanding devotion to community service! 24 nominees! I withhold my skepticism for a moment, until they read the following paean to the female winner from one of the nominators:
“This person is a really nice person. She goes out of her way to help students with their homework, and she’s really popular not just because she helps when people ask but–”
I stop listening there. This isn’t a humanitarian award. It’s simply another middle school popularity contest. Imagine my complete lack of surprise when the great philanthropist turns out to be a skinny, long-haired blond, middle-class white girl who fits every cliché of “the popular girl” I can recall. At least she doesn’t speak, so I can continue to digest my breakfast.
“Honey…just a little longer.”
Thankfully the jazz band starts to play again. It occurs to me I didn’t see anyone in the band stand up as one of the nominees for the humanitarian award. They all get my vote, if only for the service of saving my sanity from these institutional cretins. But band people remain as unpopular as ever. Thank goodness for the constants in the universe.
I’m silent. But I want to scream.
I catch sight of a girl sitting with her friend, quite apart from the rest of the students. She is dowdy, unattractive in any conventional sense. Her friend shares these traits. I can only wonder what is going through their heads. I know what I was thinking when I was in her position, sitting with my only friend in middle school all those years ago. I was thinking, “Please let me out of here.” She is probably thinking the same thing.
And then the final pathetic PowerPoint presentation. Interviews with all the popular kids, the cute boys, the pretty girls about how much they love the school and will miss it. All this sentiment, and the only thing I can think is that I wish someone had bothered to color correct the footage and normalize the sound so that the A/V dork on his Dell computer would quit messing around with the buttons and calling up menus during the presentation. The poor technique of it all distracts me from the vapid content.
At the end of all this, the teachers lecture us about how great high school will be if the kids only apply themselves, and that high school is what really matters.
I am thinking of Springfield. I am thinking of Columbine. I am thinking of my high school friend who drove himself off a bridge. I am thinking of my high school friend Karen and sticking my fingers down her throat to make her puke up the thirty pills she has swallowed. I am thinking of all the outcasts, in all of the schools, across the country, any of whom on a bad day can fall into mortal despair. I listen to these teachers and their encomiums, and I know they are full of crap.
High school isn’t “what matters.” High school is a four-year commuted sentence. The popular kids in middle school will join new cliques in high school and leave all their “friends” behind. The ugly duckling of middle school will suddenly grow breasts, apply some fancy maquillage and find herself in the “in crowd,” where she will become an unholy bitch. The middle school star jock will find others sprouting up taller than he, and they will pass him by as he remains a tiny, embittered youth who will never play sports in high school. Band people and drama students will remain socially awkward, undesirable knuckleheads. The “smart people” will be used and abused by all the dumb jocks and their girlfriends, so that the not-so-bright can get the grades required for their scholarships. Stoners will remain stoners. And the square-peg rebels will wonder what is wrong with them that they don’t fit this marvelous experiment in social engineering.
And then, four years later, it will all be over. And life will go on. The C students in charge of our financial world will find B students to hire A students for their corporations, each cog fitting nicely into the machine that mills human grist for fun and profit.
The presentation ends. I have to leave, and quickly, before I say something less polite than currently fashionable.
Outside, Cynthia and I are walking to Safeway. As we cross the street, I see that same dowdy, unattractive girl from the auditorium. I can tell by looking at her that she will be a great beauty in time. I want to tell her, “Don’t listen to these people. They are nuts. Just hang in there, because it’s all going to be fine.” But I don’t. Instead, I just smile. She smiles back as though she hasn’t smiled in days. I nod, and continue on my way.