Thursday, December 6, 2007
WRITTEN WORD 38 - This Strangely Familiar Place
I was almost late the first morning. The very early first period had not quite begun and the halls were crazed – everyone in boots or sneakers, not the grown-up shined shoes we had had to wear in boarding school. And the boys with hair over their ears, or pony tails, not our old regulation short hair. And there were raucous shouts. No mid-century boarding school suits or sport coats or gray flannels or blazers. Everyone rushing, or taking up room being casual. Walkmen. Backwards baseball caps. Lockers loudly rattled. And pretty girls – girls! – many with long silky hair, some in make-up, some with their belly buttons showing –
Teachers as well as kids had to walk around a place in one hall where a boy and girl, the boy the school's only black person, were locked together, here in the early morning, French kissing.
And then a bell and then three squat, thick-necked middle-aged men with crew cuts – looking and sounding like beery drill sergeants – were running through the halls. They were pushing people and screaming orders –
"Go ta ya classroom!"
Who were they?
Then I realized that these had to be the hall monitors of lore. To me, who had never before been inside a public high school on a weekday, they were like a team of strike-breakers, or Teamsters hired to beat up peace demonstrators.
In my innocence of actual high schools, I'd thought, till now, that hall monitors were the same thing as our floor leaders and house leaders and proctors back in boarding school – well-dressed, crew-cut boys in conservative, diagonally striped silk neckties, chosen from the ranks of the pathologically well-mannered.
I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes in these early morning classes. By this time in my life real stories were a passion with me – not to be messed with, not to be ruined by little constipating tricks of the how-to-write industry.
And just as I never mentioned Rhetorical Modes, I never assigned what the pinch-faced principal wanted – deadly dry, straight-jacketed research papers.
For us, no introduction.
Just the body of the work, wherever it leads.
No foregone conclusions.
And none of the bizarre old rules of grammar – such as not starting sentences with conjunctions and not ending them with prepositions.
No musty school-teacher piety for these girls and boys. Instead, they were taking chances – writing scenes and stories from their own actual lives, stories of hate – love – triumph – abuse – despair – hope – sex – sports – betrayal.
They were getting right at what it had taken me decades to get to in my own writing – writing in which, when I'd finally let it organically unfold, the landscape of my past life had radically changed.
In my own writing, neo-Victorian family members – intelligent, sometimes honored, cautiously Ivy League – family members who had seemed at worst comic in their stuffiness had turned into people who now seemed like characters in horror stories. Despite their veneer, they had left in their wake molestation and addiction and hopeless depression, and the often violent early deaths of sons and daughters.
That was my own writing. In the English class essays I invited I now – within firm bounds of confidentiality – learned of rural, alcoholic, molesting parents – and sometimes real-seeming warm and happy parents too – and the way the school principal had covered up a big drug bust to save his career, and I knew what teacher was faking academic and even sports records for his child, and I knew what girl was going out on the sly with what other girl's boyfriend, and who fucked who and who didn't –
And I also knew from the writing who was having fun, off on adventures through these hills in favorite old trucks and cars, or snow-boarding expeditions, or drug times and shoplifting times, or the up side of dating.
And I came to know from their writing what it was like to be the care-taking daughter of an anti-Semitic state trooper, or the bigoted son of an Aryan supremist druggist, a son who had no place else to put his anger.
And I remembered. My own anger. And so much else. Including seeing the seasons change from my old, tidy Georgian-style boarding school, which was also high on a hill like this homely high school. And discovering Keats and Beethoven and Monet. And, at rare inter-school get-togethers, vertical necking in the name of dancing.
My memories. My own adolescence, now so many years later, coming back to life again here on this hilltop in the Cairo-Durham High School.