We all have memories from high school which we believe define us as people - memories of first kisses, first loves, critical exams, abysmal fashion failures. The first time you heard THAT song. THAT first date. THAT football victory.
Also, that car wreck, that pregnancy scare, that alcohol or drug overdose.
Well, I had similar moments in high school as well (nothing from that second paragraph, though - thank God I waited until I was a “mature” college student before that shit happened to me). But now that I’m a 30-something adult with kids of my own and a little bit of hindsight available to me, I realize that moments like that didn’t really define the fantastically sardonic and wonderfully talented asshole I am today.
Rather, it was the little bitty moments - instances that some of you who might be reading this may remember, though most of which you will not - that affected me the most. There are hundreds of them, many still fresh in my mind.
In fact, I could go on for days, but for the sake of SOME brevity, and to keep from boring you to absolute tears, I’ll just tell you four of them. Some of them are pretty funny, most of them as “moments” are pretty insignificant, but all of them changed me integrally as a person. Now, one caveat before I begin: these are MY memories, and much time has passed since these things happened to me. For that reason, what I’m telling you may not be entirely accurate. Or it may be accurate, and YOU’RE the one who’s remembering it wrong. Either way - the truth is in there somewhere, and the greatest truth of it is that these moments changed me. Which is the point.
1. The Boy On the Bicycle
This one actually happened the summer before I started high school, but the ramifications of it echoed throughout the next two decades. One day, I was picking up pecans in my backyard - a pointless chore which my father insisted on me and my brothers doing. The pecans were small, bitter, and wormy, and pecans didn’t fetch much money when we sold them, but it was something we had to do whenever Dad didn’t think we had enough money or didn’t think we had enough to do. As I was picking up pecans, a boy rode up to me on his bicycle. I knew the boy because he lived a few miles down the road and because he was related to one of the kids in my class, but since this boy was a year younger than me and went to a different school (his Dad taught there so he was able to attend it despite zoning bullshit) I didn’t know him very well.
I guess he was bored - he didn’t having any fucking pecans to pick up - so he decided to stop by and see what was up. We said hi, made some small talk, and then he says to me, “I heard you liked to play Dungeons & Dragons.” Which was true - I’d learned the game a couple of years previous from an older cousin, and it appealed to me greatly. I didn’t really PLAY much, because there was no one close by to play with except my little brother, but I goofed around with making up characters and I read all the books and magazines that dealt with it.
Long story short, we started hanging out, and eventually got my brother and a couple of other neighborhood kids into the game, and on many, many weekends throughout high school, we’d all play D&D at my house or his house.
So… how did this define me? Well, first of all, D&D allowed me to exercise my imagination and intellect outside of the usual academic arena, subtly demonstrating for me the value of deep and far-ranging thought. I think that, had it not been for that outlet, I might have devalued such things, because in high school, I actually strived NOT to be a nerd. Sure, I was a little geeky, a little nerdy, and still am - but I might have abandoned altogether the rich possibilities of an intellectual life (in a quest for shitty beer and pussy) had I not had that tether.
Secondly, that boy on the bicycle went on to become my longest-lasting true friend. It’s 27 years later, and I JUST got off the phone with him - we were planning a Thanksgiving excursion together, his family and mine. How many of us can say that we still have a deep and lasting relationship with a non-family member that has endured so long? And at great distance, too - he lives on the other side of the U.S. If you can, then you should count yourself fortunate. I do.
2. You First
In high school, we had a substitute teacher named Ms. Presley. And when she came to our class to sub for an absent teacher, we… didn’t behave very well. Looking back now, I can say that I really liked Ms. Presley - she was actually pretty cool, even if she was prone to long speeches about really asisine stuff, and even if she never stuck to the teachers’ lesson plans. That was fine, I think, because most of the time the teachers’ lesson plans were “busy” work anyway.
You guys from high school - you remember her, don’t you? Ms. Presley, God bless her, was batshit crazy. In a good, harmless way.
One day, Ms. Presley was substituting for our Honors English class - a class which my grade shared with the one above it. I can’t remember if this thing I’m gonna tell you about happened when I was in 10th grade or 11th, but I don’t think that matters. Anyway, we all started goofing off as we usually did, and Ms. Presley launched into a speech about how we were someday gonna regret our behavior because God was gonna get us. And at some point in her speech, she says, ” If ya’ll cain’t behave, then ya’ll can just leave my classroom.”
Jamie Cooper stood up. He was in the year ahead of me, and this was just the sort of thing Jamie would do. In elementary school, Jamie had been a bully - faster, stronger, and meaner than most of us and a real pain in the ass to wimpy little shits like me - but Jamie was also pretty smart, and in high school, even though he was rough around the edges, he’d mellowed out a bit. Still, this was typical Jamie - defiant and bold - and the envy of all of us who never dared to be rebellious.
Jamie walked to the back of the classroom and headed for the door, with Ms. Presley railing at his back. And then, up stood Tal Milner, who was in my grade and who was obviously trying to emulate the great rebel of our time. Tal followed Jamie to the exit, and Jamie stopped and opened the door for him. Tal walked out, his shoulders squared, his jaw set and… Jamie closed the door behind him and returned to his seat.
We all cracked up. Ms. Presley laughed so hard she almost hyperventilated. And when Tal came back a few minutes later - he’d made it pretty far down the hall before he realized Jamie wasn’t behind him - the laughter surged again. Class was over for the day - even the part where Ms. Presley preached to us.
There are countless movies and TV shows and books about how tenuous being popular in high school (and even afterward) can be - about how it seems like “rough kids” and jocks and kids with money seem to have the advantage, but can so easily lose their edge if they overextend or defy the repercussions of karma. As I watched Jamie and Tal get up and make to leave the room, a huge part of me wanted to join them, to walk out of the room and make the kids in my classroom wish they were as cool as I was.
But the sheepish look on Tal’s face when he returned reminded me why I didn’t.
3. You Are SO Arrogant
One of my teachers in high school had her hands in a lot of extra-curricular activities which I participated in. She also had a lot of pet students who participated with me - needless to say, I was not one of her pets. I think I could have been, but something in her manner and the manner of her pet students bugged me, so I never went out of my way to suck up to her or try to please her. Also, there was ANOTHER teacher who was also into a lot of extra-curricular activites to which I gravitated, and I WAS one of her pets. I think there was some rivalry between them, too, which fueled the fire that caused this moment.
Not much to it, actually. This teacher and I were talking about my position on one of her “teams” and she was more or less threatening to take me off the team if I didn’t do something she wanted. I told her I didn’t care, but that I thought she was making a mistake,and in response, she gave me this vicious, poisonous look, and told me I was arrogant.
I’ve gotten that a lot over the years. In fact, you may be sitting at your computer right now thinking, ”Well, asshole. You ARE.” But this was the first time anyone had genuinely called me out on it, and for days I had to think about what she said and what might cause her to say it. It stung. I didn’t - I DON’T - want to be arrogant. Arrogant people don’t fare well in the grand scheme of things.
Then I realized a few things, and it is these realizations which changed my attitude about the world and my place in it.
First, if you think I’m arrogant, then you don’t know the meaning of the word. To be arrogant implies an assumption of one’s superiority to others. It also implies an overblown sense of one’s value. Now, we are not all created equally in certain capacities: I may be smarter than you. I may have more money than you. I may have more friends on fucking Facebook than you. But that DOES NOT make me better than you, and I have NEVER believed myself to be better than anyone simply because I had certain advantages over them. I am CERTAIN, in fact, that every person in the world can do SOMETHING better than I can. I bet you can name at least one thing you can beat me at. I bet you can name more than one.
The problem in the past for me has been that I have no problem with acknowledging those things which I can beat YOU at. If I can do something better than you and we both know it, then what’s the harm in acknowledging it?
But it has taken years of maturing before I became comfortable with not actively competing against people that I personally had no business competing with - in other words, it took becoming a man to be able to openly acknowledge those things which I can’t do so well, and to just “let it go.” As an example - I SUCK at anything car-related beyond changing a battery or a tire. I have no fucking clue where the oil drain is on my car. But in 1988, I’d have bent over backwards to demonstrate that I was as good at automotive stuff as you are, and God forbid I ask your help.
Another thing that took time was understanding that some people, if they cannot do something well, do NOT like to have it pointed out. I have tried over the years since I figured this out to refrain from doing so, but I have a hard time with it because apparently no one has a problem pointing out MY shortcomings (this teacher being a shining example), and because I believe that if you’re sensitive to someone pointing out that you can’t do something, then you are probably in need of some level of self-examination. If you can’t do it, you can’t do it. Let’s call it like it is. Such is life.
As far as an overblown sense of self worth… I am a writer struggling to make headway in an industry which actively resists talent (yes, I said that right). So while I may think my writing is something YOU ALL should pay attention to, apparently not everyone believes the same thing. I AM VERY AWARE OF THAT. I am not a very valuable writer. Not yet anyway.
I am, however, a valuable father. Just ask my kids. And I am a very valuable friend. Try me.
Finally - and I’ve said this before elsewhere - it takes a LOT of arrogance on your part to think that you’re worthy of labeling anyone else arrogant. Who died and made you judge of things like that?
So. Do I think that teacher of mine was arrogant?
Not my place to say.
4. The Talent Show
There are times, though, when other people openly acknowledge that you can do something well, and this was one of them.
We had a bona fide, full-blown talent show once at my high school. To participate you had to sign up ahead of time, you had to have a legitimate talent to display, and you had to follow the rules on stage (length, format, etc.). It wasn’t a bunch of kids goofing around in the theater when they should have been in class. I forget who sponsored it, but it was sponsored and advertised and supported and all that legit shit.
I entered. And I won.
My talent was that I sang a song - a Christian folk song that my youth minister at the time found for me. I sang over a tape that had the whole song on one side and just the musical accompaniment (pretty much just an acoustic guitar) on the other. I sang over just the accompaniment, and I smoked it.
Later that day, in the midst of a flurry of pats on the back and congratulations, one girl walks right up to me and says, “You didn’t deserve to win.” I just gaped at her, stunned into silence.
Well, let me tell you something, little high school girl who’s probably grown up to be a bitter, overweight, and overbearing shithole: I DID deserve to win. I was up against a series of rap acts and some dancers and I THINK one group of kids who sang a four-part harmony a la Boys To Men. And while there were some pretty decent moments of unquestionable talent exhibited that day, and while no doubt there might have been some acts that WERE better than mine, I fucking blew some minds when I hit a couple of those hard-to-reach notes, and I definitely exhibited some unquestionable talent of my own.
But the question is: did I DESERVE to win?
Well, I chose something that wasn’t immediately easy for me - I “reached for the stars” as it were. And I practiced. I practiced so hard and so much that I was so sick of that song, I never want to hear it again. I wore my voice out at one point and wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to sing. And I was nervous - not because I didn’t think I could sing, but because I knew I was singing a slow, acoustic folk song about God in front of a bunch of people who liked rap and Boys To Men (I like rap, too, by the way - as long as the rappers have talent, which many popular ones do not).
So, did I DESERVE to win, young girl who walked up to me and said I didn’t? I’d say hell yeah I did. Just like you probably deserved everything that’s happened to you in the subsequent years. Most people get what they deserve.
That’s why I think that, while I may not be an indispensable part of the writing world now, if I keep at it I CAN be, because that will be what I deserve. And if you think I’m arrogant to believe that I deserve such a thing, then once again, I direct you to the definition of arrogance.
Being a writer of some import will not make me better than you. The foundation for THAT little life lesson got laid in high school.
Which - although in sharing these little memories I never actually mentioned - I did NOT.