Voice of the High School (1997)
So I’m sitting here in English class. It’s first hour and I’ve just been voted Voice of the High School; whatever that’s supposed to mean. I’d ask what it is, but being Voice and all, I should know what it means, right? Besides it would make me seem cockier than I am.
Mrs. Jensen is standing at the head of the class with a certificate for me. Her smile is strained. I know she hates me. I was in her class last year and I gave her Hell. Most of the books we read in there were junk, and the ones I actually kind of liked we tore apart. It doesn’t matter what color the characters wear or who’s supposed to be Jesus. One day I stood up and asked her why we couldn’t read books just to – you know – read them. The class exploded as I stood there waiting for her answer. I didn’t want it to happen that way. I really wanted an answer. But Mrs. Jensen didn’t take me seriously. She never answered. Or, maybe she did and I didn’t hear her. No one listened to her after that. I ruined her class and she hates me for it.
The teacher I have now, Mrs. Jacobs, is smiling too, but her smile is real. She has to be the one behind this. The English teachers all got together to pick this Voice thing and I’m sure Mrs. Jacobs picked me. The others would have wanted someone a little more – safe; like Diana “gosh, don’t I write cute essays” Sterling. Whenever she reads her stuff in class, she makes these little high pitched giggles. They make me nauseous. Of course they could have picked John Neumann. John writes with a capital C Conscience and dredges up long political poems designed to enlighten us unsuspecting masses. Usually they start off something like “I am a poor and oppressed soul whose life is a bottomless festering pit of hardship”, or something equally uplifting. He’s enough to bring cheerleaders down to the brink of suicide. The beautiful thing about John is his dad’s a big stockbroker downtown. He’s pulling in two hundred grand a year while his son is beating the drum for the starving and downtrodden victims of society. I guess he must feel guilty having it so good.
Then there’s me. Mostly I write when someone cheeses me off, or – even better – when I know I can cheese someone else off. I name names and Mrs. Jacobs loves that; she thinks I’m some kind of rebel speaker of my times, a Voice if you will. She gave me a book to read by Jack Kerouac, but I’m not into science fiction.
I turn on my characteristic half-smile as I get up to accept the certificate. There’s some mock applause and a few hoots from the back of the room. Mrs. Jensen stiffens like she just sat on wet paint. This is all my fault. This is a Really Serious Thing, and as a Really Serious Thing, the class should be taking it – Really Seriously. And they’re not because I’m not. This has to be a joke.
I knew there would be a catch. I get a certificate and an assignment for the yearbook: write an essay embracing the school body. Include the hopes and dreams, fears and joys… and keep it to two pages or less (can I write it single-spaced?). It’s the kind of assignment only a teacher could devise. I swear they must lock themselves in their hall closets at night; rubbing their faces in the stale smells of winter coats and unused laundry bags. They sit in the dark until the oxygen level begins to bottom out and suddenly, in that brain-starved, morally deprived, pseudo conscious state, with one eye bugged out and river of sweat running down their foreheads, they come up with a way to utterly ruin a good idea. How about, please explain the Meaning of Life using only complete sentences? What happens if Life is just a prepositional phrase, or a run-on sentence, or – Heaven forbid – a mathematical equation?
I almost laugh at that, but manage to reduce it to a small snuffle. Mrs. Jensen is still talking and I must stay Really Serious.
Another laugh. I cover my mouth as if I had a cough. I look around and the Meaning of Life floats before me, written by God with celestial crayon.
Two laughs escape between my fingers. She’s still speaking, but no one’s listening. They’re all watching me. I’ve got to stop. I have to think of something to stop; something bad.
Like mass death.
I lose it completely.
Sitting in Senior Survey, I have some time to think about what I did. I do feel a little bad about dropping to my knees in hysterics right there in front of the class. I would have apologized, but Mrs. Jensen would have been even madder and the class would have all joined together in a mass pants wetting. It was probably better to roll around on the floor and get it out of my system. Plus it took enough time off the clock so I could just take the certificate and leave as the bell rang before anyone changed their mind. And I’m sure at this point, even Mrs. Jacobs has to be wondering whether I’m worth the trouble.
We’re ready to watch a film; another documentary deemed too good for PBS and shipped directly here to us in room 204. Mr. Manga is making his standard speech; reminding us there are other cultures in the world and we should watch this movie without judging said cultures too harshly in light of our own. No one is paying much attention, even Mr. Manga doesn’t care. He has a job for life. Survey is one of those classes the school district had to make mandatory, otherwise no one would take it.
The lights go down and the projector starts up, sounding like it’s full of chopsticks, and we get our first look at yet another Stone Age tribe living in South America. Actually, our resident dude Julian and his girlfriend are making out in the corner as if this was a real theater, so I’m probably the only one watching the movie. I’d be the first to say our culture needs some help. There has to be other cultures out there as good if not better than ours. What I don’t understand is why can’t we watch documentaries about those. Instead we study tribes living the way we did before the discovery of fluoride toothpaste. I think Survey would be a much better class if we learned about the people we’ve heard of around the world. Then we’d be able to solve all of the problems we have. And after we achieve World Peace and everyone’s healthy, wealthy and wise, we can take some time to study the Winky-Winky tribe. If they’re still living in the Stone Age, that means they haven’t done anything new for ten thousand years. They can wait.
This tribe wears ten pound earrings so their earlobes hang down past their shoulders. I decide to watch for the scientists in the movie instead. Judging from the loud shirts and hair styles, I date the movie to be from 1973. If there was music, I could narrow it down to the month. The film finally fades to black and the credits roll: (c) MCMLXXIII. Too bad I didn’t bet any money on it.
After watching one of these documentaries, I always wonder what happened to the scientists. They probably came home, bought alligator sweater vests and BMW’s, and all got jobs teaching Senior Survey like Mr. Manga. However, I hope the tribes ate them after the meaningful film industry collapsed. That is more appealing to the romantic in me.
The lights come on, but Christine DiMoro is still sitting at the front of the class crying her eyes out. She’s like Old Faithful except a blonde. I don’t know why she cries, but when she does, she is able to transcend her shallow stuck-up image. There’s something in her tears that almost makes her three-dimensional. I wonder if she realizes there’s a whole world out there that doesn’t care how she wears her hair, or how dark her tan can be in the middle of winter. I wonder if she realizes there’s a whole world out there full of people who will live and die without ever knowing her name. I hope she cries because she actually cares about the people in these documentaries. Under those circumstances, I could like a girl with an Etch-a-Sketch twitch in her neck. If I sat up front with her, I would give her a hug and console her, let her know everything’s all right. Or I would strangle her quickly to put her out of her misery.
Laura Young’s been watching me watch Christine. Try to control the drooling, she whispers to me from across the back aisle. Don’t worry, I tell her, you can have Christine all for yourself. That earns me a mock laugh and a punch in the shoulder. It doesn’t hurt much, it hasn’t for a long time. Laura and I have been insulting each other since first grade. She’s pretty cool, but I would never tell her that. If I had been born a girl, I’d like to have been her.
Nice haircut, she hisses, do it yourself?
Nice body, I retort. It’s a standard insult, I don’t even get punched for that one. I’ve had at least one class with Laura since we were six years old. Unfortunately, she hasn’t changed much since then. If you saw Laura, you’d describe her as a late bloomer. If you were polite. If you were like me, you’d describe her as a young boy from the back. She has a nice face though; it’s not pretty, but nice to look at even without the shellac most girls put on. And I notice Laura’s not quite as – stumpy as she used to be. I think we’d be perfect for each other and it’s too bad we can never get together. For if we did, our guards would go down, and then the insults could get personal.
I’m not sure how Mr. Kryzyzyk became a Chemistry teacher. I’ve been in this class for months now, and all I have are notebooks full of reminisces of the early days of the school district and the latest recipes from the Frugal Gourmet. No chemistry, at least not any of the chemistry we need to know to pass the tests. I’m getting a C and consider myself lucky. Mr. Kryzyzyk seems to think we already know all the chemistry we need and doesn’t want to waste our time. It’s a gesture of respect I genuinely appreciate because a lot of teachers think we’re still four years old.
On the other hand, I don’t want someone to come in and scrape me off the ceiling with a spatula. I’d like to know a few more specifics when dealing with the chemicals, especially since I’m not on speaking terms with my lab partner. I don’t hate him, I just don’t understand his language. I was sick the day we picked lab partners, so I ended up with the guy nobody else wanted to work with; Elroy. I call him Elroy – like the little kid on “The Jetsons” – though he doesn’t look anything like that. He’s vaguely oriental and always wears an orange cotton robe and sandals like an extra from “Kung Fu”. His real name is Potiphar or something like that. He tried to tell me once, I think, but like everything else he’s said, I didn’t understand. Whenever he speaks, I end up smiling and nodding a lot. But then when I speak, Elroy will look confused for a moment then smile and nod at me, so I know there’s nothing getting through on either end.
You would think it might be a problem; not being able to say test tube or your hair is on fire, but it hasn’t so far. We have our own language; sort of Tarzan and Tonto meet Mr. Wizard. I can’t tell you exactly what Elroy is saying, but I get the gist of it. In fact, since we don’t waste any time talking, Elroy and I are way ahead of everyone else. Our latest experiment is four parts; each part more difficult that the last. First we had to dissolve a piece of copper in a beaker of acid. This took half an hour to weigh the copper, weigh the beaker, weigh the acid, and so on. The copper-acid solution turned blue and then we had to use an eyedropper to add another chemical. If we added just one drop too much, the blue would turn muddy brown and we’d have to start all over. Finally, we got the liquid to turn clear instead. Then yesterday, black gunk formed at the bottom of the beaker. Elroy spread it on a heated slab of ceramic and now it’s covered with flakes. I lean over to pick the flakes up with a pair of tweezers, but Elroy taps me on the shoulder to hand me a pair of goggles first. Good idea, I say. He smiles and nods and heats up another beaker full of chemicals over the Bunsen Burner. It takes a few minutes, but I manage to collect all the greasy black flakes and sweep them into the bubbling mixture. A few minutes more and the experiment is almost complete. The liquid boils away and we’re left with a small copper nugget at the bottom of the beaker.
A typical teacher idea; I should have known better.
Two weeks of work plus a half-million dollars worth of lab equipment and we’re right back where we started. Elroy shakes his head disgustedly and says something in the direction of Mr. Kryzyzyk that needs no translation. I nod my agreement. To add insult to injury, I weigh our new sample and about half of it is missing. That’s the final straw. I walk over to the supply cabinet to get another pristine copper sample while Elroy tosses our regurgitated result into the trash. Normally I don’t cheat. I’m proud of the fact I’m smarter than most of my fellow students (and many of my teachers), so I don’t cheat because I don’t have to. But this is the ultimate form of busy work and I will not allow my grades to suffer because of experimental error. If Mr. Kryzyzyk wants copper, he can have it. Any questions he can take up with Elroy.
I get more exercise trying to get out of gym than playing any of the stupid games. I think I could enjoy gym class if we played real sports, but we never play football; we might damage the grass on the field. We never play basketball; we’re not even allowed on the court with our shoes on. Instead we play games invented to use the equipment no one else needs. Right now we’re playing whiffle tennis. The object of the game is to hit the whiffle ball over a volleyball net with a badminton racket. Besides being stupid, it’s also impossible to play. Whoever invented whiffle tennis obviously never tried to hit a whiffle ball over a volleyball net with a badminton racket. Our whiffle tennis champion has been able to whack the ball over the net two, maybe three times.
There are two courts set up with four teams playing. I’m on team two; the popular one. We have ten times as many people as the other three teams combined. That’s what happens when gym teachers allow the students to choose sides. All the good players banded together and naturally everyone else wanted to be on their team too. Actually I don’t care whether I’m on a winning team or not. I like it because with eighty-seven people, I only have to play whiffle tennis five minutes a week.
Of course, my five minutes come up today. I take the racket; sticky in my hand. I try to rewrap the electrical tape back onto the handle, but it’s no use. Pat Deluca is the other team’s whiffle tennis champion. He’s a good player, he could have been on our team, but he takes whiffle tennis way too seriously. Everyone else knows this game is a joke; the good players aren’t putting too much effort into the game and the rest of us couldn’t tell you the scores if our lives depended on it. But as I walk onto the court, Pat is standing defiant on his side glaring at me, his mortal whiffle tennis enemy.
His serve. Pat throws the whiffle ball into the air and slams the racket into it with a loud THWANG. The ball flies perhaps five feet before falling into the net. My serve. I have to stoop under the net to pick up the ball as Pat won’t acknowledge my presence. He stalks to the far corner to await my serve. I try to hit the whiffle ball with an underhand swing. The ball goes straight up and down. Fault. Pat’s lips curl back over his teeth in a feral smile. Maybe it would be best to get this over with. Pat serves again and this time the ball just makes it over the net. There’s no way I can hit it. I let it drop to the floor without a fight. Match point.
But instead of leaping in pagan glee, Pat is furious. He throws his racket down with such fury, I think he’s faking it. Until he rushes the net and starts screaming in my face. His breath smells like warm milk and my forehead’s sprayed by microballs of spit. What’s wrong with me? Why didn’t I hit the ball? I should have tried to hit the ball. I should have tried. I still have my bandaged racket in my hand and think about bringing it up between his legs. Even getting into a fight would be better than this pathetic display. Luckily I don’t have to make the choice. The gym teacher puts a beefy hand on Pat’s shoulder and leads him away from me; his spirit broken. I feel bad, but what could I have done differently? The ball was twenty feet away; I could never have returned his serve. Why waste energy on a lost cause? I sit back down; more comfortable marked a whiffle tennis loser than Pat is marked a winner, the thing he wanted most.
I can remember when Math was my favorite subject. It was the one skill that could be used outside of school. Even today, I still use arithmetic; adding and subtracting when there’s not a calculator around. Then we studied algebra and geometry; which doesn’t get used as often. The only time I ever used any of my trigonometry was when my dad cut through the miter box trying to put up some new trim pieces on the house and he had to borrow my protractor to measure the angles. But now Mr. Horner is droning on and on and on about integration and the only need I see for it is if I become a Math teacher. But Math is still my favorite class. I sit in the back and do all of my other homework then doodle Cartoon Lance in the margins of my notebook. I don’t know why I don’t use the rest of the page, I haven’t taken any notes in Math since September. I suppose it’s a tradition.
Back in seventh grade, there was a kid in our class named Lance Weaver. It was like he was in a different time zone than the rest of us. We would be talking about something then Lance would raise his hand with a question – five minutes later. He wasn’t stupid exactly, just thick. It took five minutes for information to get through to him, that’s all. I began to draw little cartoons of Lance along the edges of my papers. Cartoon Lance got mixed up in some pretty wild adventures; braved death in all sorts of ways. The punch line was Cartoon Lance never realized he was in danger until it was all over. I remember passing my notebook around the class and everyone got a kick from it; he was just like Lance.
Now I’m passing my notebook around and everyone still gets a kick from Cartoon Lance though none of them ever knew the real Lance Weaver. They think he’s just a character I made up, and I suppose that’s true. Except for being five minutes behind the rest of the world, the real Lance was pretty boring. I didn’t know him very well and I don’t think he had many friends. I know he was in one of my classes in eighth grade and then he wasn’t. I don’t remember the exact day or time, he just faded from view. But Cartoon Lance lives on; a little bit of immortality.
My locker is down on the ground floor; number 713. It’s the second one from the corner where the hall to the cafeteria and the stairwell meet. I hate it because couples are always up against the lockers like Siamese twins attached at the face. I used to play with them; I’d sneak up to my locker, open it quietly, then slam it shut as hard as I could. Got them out of the mood faster than a couple of cold showers. But I stopped after I shocked a girl so badly, she almost bit a guy’s tongue off. He pushed off her, grabbing his face as flecks of red flew out all over the place. I remember the girl was wearing a white T-shirt and little red specks were soaking into the material. The guy ran up the stairs screaming and gurgling. She was screaming too with blood pouring out from the corner of her mouth like cherry Kool-Aid. I got out of there as soon as I could move again and didn’t go back to my locker for two weeks. I carried my books with me all day long.
Today I’ll have to wait. Chris Giggliano is leaning on his girlfriend like a crutch. They both smell like cigarette smoke and too much after shave. His girl’s a little chubby and has greenish blond hair. It’s incredible some girls are still using peroxide. The gym showers are loaded with chlorine to get rid of athlete’s foot and if you have peroxide in your hair, the chlorine will turn it this sick green color. I shake my head a little and look at the clock. There are only two minutes left in the passing period; they should be wrapping it up anytime.
Giggliano notices me standing behind him. What do you want, he asks including an unnecessary “fuck”. I really can’t stand profanity, it’s the last refuge of the incompetent. When they can’t come up with an intelligent retort, they swear their heads off. Really cool. I remember a comedian warning about overusing swear words. If you use them all the time in normal conversation, what’s left to say when a bowling ball drops on your foot? I smile a little, wondering what Giggliano would say.
Be careful, part of me warns. He probably doesn’t react to well to wit. Giggliano is one of those guys who can’t close his mouth all the way.
I bite down hard on my tongue, stopping a laugh halfway up my throat. Giggliano glares at me. What’s the problem, he inquires using a couple of more “fuck’s”. I point over to the locker. I don’t dare look at his face. His jaw is hanging slack with an inch of black void beyond the underbite.
I’m getting into dangerous territory. Giggliano’s arms are about as big as my legs. And he sounds pissed off. Just walk away, says the little voice from the back of my head. Giggliano takes a couple of strides towards me. I don’t move. I can’t. He’s asking me something, but there’s so much profanity I can’t filter out the question. He shoves the books out of my hands. I look at them lying on the floor. Let it go. I’m still standing there not making a sound. My Math notebook is sitting half open on my shoe. Cartoon Lance is looking up at me with a blank smile. Giggliano gives me a shove. He’s a lot bigger than me. My mind is racing in circles. What control I have is trying to keep my chest from shaking. He pushes me again and I see red. I’m up against the lockers on the other side of the hall. Where is everybody? Is the school deserted except for me and this steroid slave? Giggliano kicks Cartoon Lance and he slides twenty feet to the edge of the stairs. I’m trembling from an adrenaline high. I can hardly breathe. I look up at him, ready to throw one punch before I leave this world. There’s anger in his eyes and his mouth is still hanging open with a single strand of spittle hanging from one corner.
And I start laughing.
It surprises me almost as much as it surprises him. I can’t stop myself. He looks so stupid, so pathetic. At once I both hate him and love him and pity him most of all. These are going to be the best years of his life. I laugh until tears fill my eyes. Chris watches me with bewilderment; not sure what to make of me.
Then he punches me in the forehead.
My head has time to clear while I wait in line for the cafeteria. I was only three minutes late, but the line was already miles long. It’s always like this on Monday afternoons; Pizza Day. Of course what the establishment calls “Pizza”, I call “French Bread and Cheese”. I have to wait fifteen minutes for my pizza and as always, it’s loaded with grease. There’s a thin yellow puddle lying on the plate beneath the bread. It amazes me how so much grease can be squeezed from just bread and cheese. I cannot imagine anything doing that which is just as well. I have to eat this thing, you know.
I sit down at The Table and everyone’s already there. Greg and Eric are at it again. Greg just got a total buzz; his hair’s so short, he gets goosebumps on his scalp every time the wind blows. Meanwhile, Eric’s hair stretches halfway to his asshole. Lately he’s been bleaching the sides so he looks like Reed Richards from the Fantastic Four gone psychedelic. I roll my eyes and start to eat my pizza before it congeals. Dave is sitting across from me as always. He’s mumbling to himself as always and I don’t pay much attention because it’s always the same old stuff.
Until he repeats something sarcastically and calls himself a waste of skin. Wait a minute. I’ve been calling Dave a waste of skin since we traded Twinkies back in the third grade lunch room. I put my pizza down and listen as Dave goes through all the standard put-downs:
That was a low blow.
I’m surprised you felt it.
More sarcastic laughter and Dave continues mumbling. I sigh and return to my pizza bread. I guess I’ve insulted Dave too much over the years. He’s been so conditioned, he can insult himself now. I’m no longer necessary.
Michael sits at the opposite corner of The Table, eating his food without a word. That’s normal. Michael doesn’t say too much, only joining the conversation when he has to. He hates me because I broke him. Back in fifth grade he was just like me. He could have been me. He was wild. Michael was the only kid in class I couldn’t put down. And I tried. I really tried for a long, long time. Until I started calling him adopted. I don’t know why I thought of it, but it seemed to work. Michael couldn’t defend himself against it. Pretty soon everyone was calling him adopted. I guess it bothered him because he finally asked his parents about it.
Would you believe it? He actually was adopted. It was just a joke. I didn’t really know he was adopted, but Michael thought his parents had told me before they told him. And that’s what broke him. I felt really bad about it. I insulted people all the time. I still do. But I’d rather get a quick laugh than draw blood. I have a conscience. If I had known Michael was adopted, I like to think I would have kept it a secret.
Greg gets in an extra-nasty barb about Eric’s hair and we all laugh; even Michael. But I can see the hate in his eyes and I know his laugh is forced. He could have been so much more if I hadn’t cut him so deeply. I do what I can to help him out. I include him with my friends. He eats at The Table. And I really push other people to like him. But he still hates me. He hates me for what I did and what I do to make it better. I can see his point, so I’m in a no-win situation. It’s my fault he’s screwed up; I have to do something to make it up to him as best as I can. I hope it’s more of a noble cause than pity, but I’m not so sure anymore.
Spanish class is seventh hour, the last hour of the day. Lisa is sitting in front of me. She is so beautiful, she has the softest blond hair. Sometimes when we’re taking notes, she will shake her head so her falls off her shoulders onto my desk. It tickles my hands as she moves in her seat. I know it sounds like I’m doing something bad, but I’m not. I don’t ask her to shake her head and I still have to take notes whether her hair is there or not. Still, I like it a lot. I like her a lot. She’s been my conversation partner since the beginning of the year and I’ve got to know her pretty well from talking about our weekends in Español. I could tell her how I feel; tell her how beautiful she is. I could even ask her out – in either language – but she wouldn’t take me seriously. Lisa would smile and say gracias – sarcastically of course – because everyone knows I never mean what I say.
Even when I say what I mean.
I don’t know what to say now. Lisa’s turned her desk around and she’s telling me about her – I can hardly think about it – her First Time. I don’t want to be here. I don’t want to hear this. She was at this party over the weekend with this guy. The party was at his house. There were a lot of people and someone brought beer. They went upstairs to his room -
NO NO NO NO NO NO
I’m trying, but I can’t stop listening. He joked about having a hard on.
Bus full of nuns.
Lisa smiled and asked, what do you want me to do? Sit on it?
I’m trapped in someone else’s wet dream. Lisa screwing some guy and I’m being forced to watch. I am numb, completely numb except for the pizza bread flipping end over end in my stomach. How did this conversation start? How was your weekend? I don’t remember asking to hear about Lisa losing her virginity. I would rather have been there myself. For God’s sake, I could have come up with a better punch line than that, and that’s the line Lisa will remember for the rest of her life… fuck.
The bell rings; I’m saved by the bell. There’s a funny dry taste in my mouth. I think I need a cigarette. Lisa gets up and walks out with me. I take it back. I never could have asked her out. She’s the center on the basketball team and I can look straight over at her left shoulder. It would’ve been more like having a bodyguard than a girlfriend; a beautiful dream, but nothing more. Now, not even a beautiful dream.
I skip a trip to my locker and go straight to my bus waiting out in the parking lot. Life is so unfair and it doesn’t mean anything. I wonder what would happen if I wrote about any of this? Would anyone believe it? Could anyone believe it? We’re all covered in sugar coated force-fields, keeping the bitter stuff inside. It would be like killing myself.
I can see myself walking into school tomorrow at ten after seven. My friends are hanging out by my locker like normal, plus or minus an amorous couple. I’d walk up to them and tell them I’m dead.
They’d laugh. Tell us another one.
No, I’d say, I’m really dead. I put a gun in my mouth. It chipped one of my front teeth, see? My jaw would hang open like Giggliano’s as I show them the evidence.
Then I leaned back and pulled the trigger.
Greg and Eric would shake their heads. Michael would smile hesitantly. He’d be hopeful, but unsure. While he’d like to believe me, would he? I burned him badly once before and he probably wouldn’t commit. Laura might believe it, but she wouldn’t cry in public, and Cartoon Lance wouldn’t notice until seven fifteen. In the end it wouldn’t matter because everyone knows I never mean what I say.
It’s all just a joke, they’d say.
I’d finally have to shrug and reply with the Voice, you’re right. And then it would be time for class.