Thursday, March 31, 2005


It all started when the high school administration let it be known that this year they were going to come down very hard on each and every student participating in Senior Skip Day. A longstanding and arguably benign tradition at my high school as at countless others, Senior Skip Day had historically been celebrated with low-key picnics at a local public park—some frisbee, some hot dogs and chips, and okay, maybe some drinking of beer and smoking of dope, but nothing out of hand. I still don’t entirely understand why one wouldn’t tolerate a one-day-a-year attendance blip, or, alternately, co-opt the idea by instituting some kind of school-sponsored senior fun day to rob the unofficial celebration of its momentum. But in this case, the school administrators stepped proudly into their Hollywood-scripted role as humorless prigs—professional wet blankets in the Animal House / Ferris Bueller’s Day Off mold—and promised a fierce crackdown. Their threats were seen as credible and fearsome enough that the response went through the grapevine (a remarkably efficient communication apparatus in a class of more than 400): the secretly scheduled late-spring Senior Skip Day was now decreed to be Senior Drunk Day instead. We would show up and be counted as present, but—in a show of solidarity and rebellion—we would be plastered.

(I realize as I write this that the climate in the US has changed a great deal since 1983, the year that this all went down. Teenage drinking today is seen as a scourge and a public health danger, and the thought of a bunch of high school seniors drinking beer has an unmistakably sinister cast. The images conjured, straight from network news magazines and very special episodes of teen dramas, are of drunk-driving fatalities and severe alcohol poisonings. Twenty-plus years ago, though, the cultural attitude was substantially less anxious, and in fact the drinking age in New York State had only just been raised from 18, to 19. The tenor of Senior Drunk Day that spring was that of a naughty goof—a harmless, if somewhat daring, prank.)

It so happened that our established date for Senior Drunk Day coincided with an all-school end-of-year awards assembly to be held in the East Gym during the first two class periods of the day. This meant that what might otherwise have been a pretty dreary affair ended up being rather, well, festive. Paper airplanes flew. Those who couldn’t be bothered actually to fold their paper into airplanes just threw crumpled paper balls. And after a certain point in the droning program, every award announced was met with a huge, raucous, and thoroughly disingenuous cheer: “For most improved grade point average in the sophomore year…” Wild applause! Whistles! Stomps! “For excellence in industrial arts…” Hooray! Clap clap clap! YAAAAAAY!!

Amid the genial hubbub, I pulled a little jar of Pustefix out of my backpack, opened it, and blew bubbles with the plastic wand, as my small contribution to the party atmosphere. Not too much later, my boyfriend elbowed me and pointed to the bobbing bald head of the Associate Principal moving in our direction—“Corcell’s coming. Better put that away.” And so I did, and by the time Mr. Corcell—oh, excuse me, Dr. Corcell—reached us (having to clamber up some bleachers to get close enough to hiss effectively), the bubble stuff was safely stowed. He chose not to recognize that the offending jar was already put away and fiercely whispered (so as not to disturb the solemn proceedings, I suppose) at me to stop blowing bubbles. I gave him a slightly smart-alecky teenaged girl cocked eyebrow and said, “I’m done.” This was apparently not sufficient reassurance, and Dr. Corcell settled himself in the empty bleacher seat directly in front of me. I felt the rage of offended innocence—I was not, myself, like many in the gym, drunk. I was not making noise. I was not, by my own lights, being disruptive. I was a good girl, and, you might as well find out now, I was salutatorian and “Most Likely to Succeed.” If one told me to put the bubbles away, one could trust that I would, in fact, put the bubbles away. One didn’t need to plant one’s chubby little carcass in front of my knees to ensure that I would be compliant. My buoyant mood temporarily ruined, I tried to cheer myself up. I saw some friends, Kevin and Patrice and Gup, across the gym, low down in the bleachers on the opposite side of the gym, watching the little drama unfolding on our side. And so, with Corcell’s shiny head all but in my lap, I amused myself and them by making bunny ears, and wiggly antennae, and crazy hair, behind it. That done, I found I wasn’t mad anymore, and I could let it go, and passed the rest of the time cheerfully. The ceremony had reached the major academic awards for the senior class, and I had to clamber around Dr. Corcell a few times as I went down to collect awards for this and that (including a rather impressive-looking medal that had “valedictorian” stamped on it, given to me in error, and a “scholarship” of $75 for excellence in English).

And then, at last, the assembly was over. The Principal gave a summary address that strained to be inspiring, and then we were all filing slowly out of the gym, on our way to 3rd period classes. I was taking my time, since I had a free period up next, and let a lot of people go in front of me. I’d almost made it to the sets of big double metal doors that led out of the gym, though, when Mr. Jooster, the head of the Physical Education Department as well as an Assistant Principal, strutted into my path and told me that he wanted to speak with me in Dr. Corcell’s office now. As it happened, my phys ed-related conscience was not entirely clear—there was a small matter of dropping after-school Modern Dance (disappointingly humiliating) but not going back to gym class. I’d already been caught, and had arranged to make up the missed classes in time to actually be able to graduate (and this, at the special senior amnesty cut rate of one make-up class (jogging, picking up golf balls from the last period) for every week of ditched gym—an absolute bargain, one of the best of my life). So faced with the red face and jutting orange beard of an incensed Mr. Jooster, I immediately began to stammer my clarification that I was going to make up those missed classes, when he cut me off with that kind of impatience that says “I’m not even going to begin to try to figure out what the hell you’re talking about” and hustled me out and down the hall to the main administrative offices of the high school.

Dr. Corcell had managed to make it to his office before us and was behind his desk. Mr. Jooster ushered me in, had me sit, though he himself continued to stand, and closed the door. And, for the next 20 minutes or so, these two esteemed high school administrators lectured and berated me. I remember that they called me an exhibitionist. They talked about how immature my behavior was, and how disrespectful I was to the other students. This awards assembly, it seemed, was the pinnacle of everyone else’s high school experience, and my blowing bubbles during it was the moral equivalent of spitting in their fresh-scrubbed faces. Moreover, I was committing unspeakable insubordination to my elders and betters by showing so little regard for what they had to say over the gymnasium public address system. Interestingly, no direct mention was made of the bunny ears and crazy hair—maybe that was subsumed under the rubric of “childish conduct.” In the beginning, I did try to defend myself, and to make the point that I had in no way intended to be disruptive of what was already a noisy and somewhat chaotic event. As the tongue-lashing continued, though, I got so frustrated and angry that I was afraid I’d cry if I said anything, and I couldn’t bear to give them the satisfaction, so I just sat there stonily.

In their conclusion, when it finally came, my tormentors waxed unctuous. With a grand show of generosity and sanctimony, Dr. Corcell observed that as salutatorian, I was to speak at graduation in a couple weeks, and that he (magnanimously) hoped that the audience would show me the respect I had denied to others, and not blow bubbles during my speech. He seemed to find this to be a pleasing ending note, and I was thereupon turned out again, shaking and pale, into the wide, tiled corridor.

At first I couldn’t do or say much of anything. I spent the remainder of my free class period hiding in the walkspace between a bookshelf and the windows in a kind of student lounge, not quite able to have a good cry but not quite able to pull myself together yet, either. I had hoped that my best friends, Sharon and Chris, would be there, too, to hear my story, but they weren’t. (I later learned that they were having their own Senior Drunk Day run-in. They had shown more class spirit than I, and did, in fact, arrive at school with a substantial buzz. Chris’s empty stomach didn’t do so well with all the alcohol, though, and Sharon went with her as she had to throw up in the girls’ bathroom. A suspicious hall monitor entered; Sharon escaped unidentified (if not undetected); but Chris was cornered and ended up slapped with a 5-day out-of-school suspension, during which she studied for finals and got a nice start on a tan.)

Later that day, and the next, I began to tell my teachers about my ordeal and was gratified to get their support and sympathy. My calculus teacher, who was also the head of the math department, even let me use the typewriter in his office (which he said he didn’t even let the other math teachers use) to type up a letter to Corcell and Jooster, cc’d to Bill Stacchio, the Principal. I wish I still had a copy of the letter—I fear it was kind of strident (I remember the phrase “sacred cows” appearing) and probably a bit overwritten. In any event, I gave it to my trusted teachers to read, and then carefully copied it and delivered one to each of the addressees. I never did get any kind of response, but I’m not certain that my letter had even requested any. I suppose I mostly just wanted a chance to say the things I wasn’t able to say while trapped in Corcell’s office.

The weeks before graduation passed. The valedictorian, a co-salutatorian, and I were called into the Principal’s office to receive instructions for the content of our graduation speeches (salutatorians—looking back at the past; valedictorian—looking ahead to the future). The sun shone. I made up my requisite gym classes. Chris returned to school. We signed yearbooks. We took final exams.

My dad and his wife and their month-old baby came from 3 hours away for my high school graduation, and my maternal grandparents flew in from Minnesota. I had bought myself a vaguely 40s-style black dress with a print of little white crescent moons from the cheesy mall clothing store where I worked (ooh, 15% employee discount) to wear under my white nylon graduation robe. I had also cut my butt-length hair to shoulder-length, deciding that looked more grown-up and marked the transition from high school to college in a satisfying way. What I still hadn’t done (characteristically, I’m afraid) was written my speech. Mr. O’Connor, my English teacher, was responsible for certifying its appropriateness to the school administration, and I was responsible for getting him a copy at least 5 days before graduation so that he could fulfill this responsibility. He told me later with a shrug that when they asked, he just told them that he was sure that whatever I came up with would be fine. I started to write it the night before, but then I got tired, so I just went to sleep, and there I was, the morning of graduation, lying on my bed and furiously writing out a speech. This made my grandmother nuts. She couldn’t believe I’d let this go so long. My mom, who had witnessed firsthand the process by which my high school term papers were produced—and who had put in her time at the typewriter at 3 in the morning on more than one occasion, as I scribbled the next pages on a legal pad—was unfazed. (A speech, after all, has the great virtue of not having to be typed.)

By the time we arrived at the downtown performing arts center where the graduation was to be held, the speech was not only done, but transcribed into a sort of classical-looking blank book—green leather with gold-toned filigree. The other co-salutatorian’s speech was first (her grade point average was 1/25th of a point lower than mine—on a 100-point scale—which I suppose made her something of a first-runner-up), and didn’t go particularly well. I wish I could remember a single detail, but I just can’t. All that remains is a vague sense of unease. And then it was my turn to speak. I’d had my preamble written for weeks, long before I even started on the main body of the speech. Even now, I remember it nearly word-for-word: “Recently some members of the school administration have taught me that it is considered rude to blow bubbles while someone is speaking. So for the rest of the ceremony, I respectfully request that you not blow any bubbles. I would be both pleased and honored, however, if you would blow bubbles during my speech.” I then launched into a sort of satirical fairy tale (with the justification that I was supposed to talk about the past, and there’s not much farther in the past than “once upon a time”), in which a young maiden is trying to earn the right to leave the enchanted forest but has not fulfilled her requirements in the sportsmanlike arts. The high school Principal, Bill Stacchio, was transformed into King William the Industrious (Principal Stacchio was kind of a bland presence, and knowing very little about him, I wasn’t able to summon any more pithy epithet than that but couldn’t bear to sacrifice the joke). There were references to the morning PA announcements, to hall monitors, to guidance counselors. I had intended it to be funny, and through some alchemy of an audience pleasantly surprised at not being totally bored, and my own adrenaline-amped delivery, it was. I got laughs. Laughs from an auditorium of maybe 3,000 people. It was an amazing feeling. The very best part, though, was that through the whole thing, from much of the front row of my classmates, and from scattered spots behind, came dozens, and then hundreds, of floating, shiny bubbles.

It’s now nearly 22 years later, making that day in June of 1983 well more than half my life ago. I still, at 38, think of myself as young, but am beginning to realize that that self-concept is reaching a point of being more denial than reality. I always knew that life held disappointments, but when I was in high school, that was only going to apply to other people. I was going to march forth into a bright future. Everyone said so. I didn’t have a plan for that bright future, in particular, beyond finishing college, but I knew that something fabulous would materialize. I would wing it. I would write it the morning of. And it would be great. A resounding success.

I did finish college, graduating with departmental honors, a writing prize, and magna cum laude, in a hot tent with a bunny-fur collar on my academic regalia (college tradition). Since then, there have been illness and depression, crappy clerical jobs and crappier relationships with a small series of bad-news boyfriends and girlfriends of varying DSM-IV diagnoses. I’ve been fired twice. I have a second bachelor’s degree (in nursing) but no advanced degrees. I’m now married, and a mom, and relatively healthy. We’re struggling financially and otherwise, though at long last I am at least discovering the benefits of a good antidepressant. The life I had imagined being made up of bold strokes and bright colors, great achievements and big steps, has been complicated and difficult and weary, with compromises and half-measures and tones of gray. What successes I’ve had have been generally modest and hard-won. Pretty much the best thing I’ve got going at this point is my 2 1/2-year-old daughter, who is bright and sweet and sunny and resilient, who gives her stuffed animals crazy names and does silly butt-wagging dances. She was conceived after two years of trying, an infertility work-up, and a miscarriage.

And yet, somehow I persist in believing that any time now, I’m going to fulfill that promise that everyone seemed to agree I showed. It’s a sort of cognitive tic, I guess, that stubborn idea that great things still await. I feel a lot more compassion now, though, for the two short, bald men who raked me over the coals back in 1983. The memory floats to the surface that Dr. Corcell’s teenage son had been involved as a perpetrator in some kind of violent incident that happened before I arrived in that town, something about a death by stomping. Disappointment and grief clearly weren’t unknown to this man. And anyway, does anyone really set out to be a second-tier public high school administrator? Would Dr. Corcell and Mr. Jooster tell you that they had reached the pinnacle of their potential policing a rowdy gym full of irreverent teenagers while the Principal droned on about the achievements of students with exemplary performance in home economics? I begin to be able to imagine how it might feel like the unsupportable last straw if one girl who at least wasn’t supposed to be a problem chose that moment to thumb her nose at order and decorum. It was an affront for her, of all people, to disrupt this celebration of things that had to be important if any of this were to mean anything.

I hope now that, against all probability, great things did still lie in store for Dr. Corcell and Mr. Jooster. Just as I hope that great things still lie in store for me.


At 12:08 PM, Blogger elswhere said...

This is a beautiful post. Really, truly, sparklingly beautiful.

And, having been both the goody-goody turned snarky teen and the put-upon teacher, boy can I relate.

At 12:02 PM, Blogger Savtadotty said...

I'm proud to know you. You have already done great things. Fame and fortune await.

At 11:25 PM, Blogger Udge said...

Wonderful post. Elswhere did the world a favour, when she got you to start blogging.

At 9:50 AM, Blogger Native New Yorker said...

I've read several of your blogs now and am struck by your level of self awareness, the subtlety and sophistication of your thought and your mastery of language. They are all indeed impressive.

To the extent that it may be of some solace or source of hope to you, what you are in your late thirties doesn't have to define your life. I know this from my own experience. There's lot's of room for growth and change and being able to achieve a level of fulfillment and comfort with who you are and where you are in life.

At your stage of life (I am tempted to but refrained from saying "when I was your age..." since that has always implied for me a degree of pomposity in the speaker and infantilization of the hearer) I was stuck in a career that gave me virtually no satisfactions and seemed headed nowhere, and had recently left a marriage that was filled with all kinds of problems. That was almost half a lifetime ago. In the interim, I was able to change careers to one that provided a great deal of fulfillment and a degree of success, and become part of a marriage that is enormously fulfilling for both of us.

I don't mean to imply that these are the issues in your life, but this post does say that you wish that your life could be more than what it is - however you define for yourself what "more" is.

Hang in there. It can happen.

At 10:43 AM, Blogger Rosie Bonner said...

oh my goodness, you guys, you made me cry. thanks.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger RHD said...

I follwed Elswhere's link here, and am I ever glad I did. This was just beautiful. *Blows bubbles in your honor*

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