A month into his freshman year in college in New England, my brother called me, breathless: "Oh, my God: do you know what's so hilarious and we never even suspected it?" I couldn't imagine; I had no idea. "Our high school," he replied in a low voice, almost a hiss. "Our high school was the most hilarious, bizarre place ever..." And then his tone turned instructive, patronizing.
"You don't see it yet, but you will. Jesus, was it ever funny. Spinning stories about that place is a surefire way to make East Coast friends."
And he was right, but I didn't have to leave Texas to realize it. I had always known how weird our high school was. And a bizarre high school can certainly warp you for life. All that "best four years of my life" palaver about college notwithstanding, it's high school that essentially makes or breaks you in America. Socially, you are in high school what you'll be for the rest of your life.
My school, St. John's School in Houston, was immortalized in the movie Rushmore, by director Wes Anderson, who graduated from the place. St. John's was more ridiculous than most schools?high comedy, elaborate farce. At it, I grew into someone who respects institutions immensely?who needs them, cannot function outside them?and yet at the same time can never quite take them seriously. For me, high school was a long lesson in iron-fisted absurdity, in equal measure seductive and awful.
First to describe. Ever seen the movie Dead Poets Society? School Ties, perhaps? Well, the real Rushmore had absolutely nothing in common with the posh Eastern boarding schools depicted in those films. But it thought it did, and accordingly modeled itself after some archetypal English boarding school of the Victorian era. It strove desperately to resemble Eton or, less ambitiously, Exeter: the seniors-only quadrangle, the immense oaks, the flagstone corridors, the prefects. The existence of a specific prototype is actually irrelevant because, after all, my high school is not a stone's throw away from Windsor Castle; nor is it nestled in bucolic New Hampshire. No, my school is close to the center of Houston, across a busy street from a palm reader and a topiary shop renowned for its topsoil representations of monkeys, boughs and human bodies.
So all the "long-hallowed traditions" and "time-honored virtue" reportedly suffusing the place never seemed that convincing. Not to me, at least. Perhaps some of my classmates?the naturally tan, WASPy varsity field hockey players who entered the school in kindergarten?took these odd invented inheritances for granted, but I never did. I was Jewish, and I entered too late, in the sixth grade, after my parents finally forced me from my ghetto urban elementary school, a vaudevillian pen where the hardcore cutups routinely mooned and molested one another in the hall and the pre-Ritalined "behavior problems" slapped teachers when confused about the multiplication tables.
After switching schools, even after seven years, I never fully "got" my new environment. I always regarded, for example, the weekly nondenominational chapel services as odd and not a little uncomfortable. I even like to think that a small measure of my calculated eccentricity?this insistence on placing myself in settings in which I will never fit?derives from those many years of studying my classmates' scalps as they all nondenominationally kneeled for the Lord's Prayer. I loved my school for never feeling quite right, for always vaguely recalling some Saturday Night Live parody of an old TBS sitcom.
We wore plaid skirts and starched oxford shirts, the latter conspicuously label-free (it was a relentlessly egalitarian establishment, my school, and insignia denote price, class, all the demons...). Everything was always tucked in and exactly the same prescribed shade of Land's End navy. I myself enjoyed no greater thrill than finding the loopholes?sneaking seamed stockings, fishnets, thigh-highs, any risque accessory not explicitly outlawed in the bound Uniform Policy volume we received every semester?but it was tricky. If our uniform skirts hit more than four inches above the knee, a ruler (to measure, not rap) and a morning in detention would set us straight. In England, where even the winos murmur "jolly good" and five-year-olds at state schools don matching little coats and ties, such an elaborate uniform policy isn't so bewildering. But in Texas?where the streets teem with pockmarked Willie Nelson fans in fringed cutoffs and tie-dyed wifebeater tanktops?nothing was more entertaining or more absurd than those fierce debates over the dangers of patterned knee socks in the classroom.
One year, during a chillier January than most, a dramatic controversy shot through the halls: since so much outerwear was forbidden indoors (all jackets, especially those with labels, had to be removed and stashed somewhere off-campus), and since every new class period necessitated a brief sally into the wilds of the Houston winter, was it provisionally legal to layer 100-percent cotton, label-free turtlenecks beneath our oxford shirts? Opinions varied: early morning faculty meetings were held, emergency Parents Association teas called.
And if, for any urgent reason, we had to use a phone, we signed out to the "Mother's Desk," where an infamously embittered society matron, whose own children had graduated decades before, would time our calls on her Rolex For Her, and then, with a flourish, daub the receiver with rubbing alcohol to obliterate germs. We were not allowed to ask to go to the bathroom, as only infants needed permission for such intimacies; slipping off quietly?and returning within 90 seconds?was a sign of our young-adult independence. We were encouraged?commanded?to say "sir" and "ma'am," and if we didn't automatically and graciously rise to our feet every time an elder entered the room, another elder would slap us with a detention.
Detentions figured big in our secondary-school experience. Detentions reinforced the disciplined ethos that kept that school afloat. And what a discipline that school imposed?no such rigid structure exists elsewhere, I would wager, outside the Citadel. Not a detail of our personal or academic lives was exempted from the system. In the seventh grade, for example, while examining the reigns of the four presidents of the independent Republic of Texas (David G. Burnet, 1836; Sam Houston, 1836-'38, 1841-'44; Mirabeau Bonaparte Lamar, 1838-'41; Anson Jones, 1844-'45), we practiced?and were drilled, then tested on?a scientifically engineered space- and time-efficient note-taking method that guaranteed we get the most from our lectures. On Tuesday nights that same year, we all switched our uniforms for suits and Laura Ashley frocks and carpooled to the Junior League for our mandatory ballroom dancing lessons, whereupon we would, under the watchful gaze of a middle-aged man in a white suit and black toupee, jitterbug to "Cherish," cha-cha-cha to "The Right Stuff." In the chandelier-decked entry hall afterward, we would giggle at our teachers' repellentness while sipping punch, our pinkies extended with ladylike delicacy.
Such, such were the joys. We were required to study Latin and learn the basics of lacrosse. We spent an entire semester on the Iliad and the Odyssey, and another on the Republic. The only "minority literature" we ever approached was The Awakening and the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass; perhaps the most extraordinary requirement we tackled was the endless list of Comma Rules we received on the first day of ninth grade. Sure, I'd learned every preposition in alphabetical order a few years before; then again, the St. John's veterans had been memorizing state capitals in order of latitudinal placement in my public school years of contentedly throwing spitballs at the substitute's ass and marveling at Ben Baton's ability to pee across the width of the soccer field. I wasn't prepared for the Comma Rule Challenge. The Comma Rules?an exhaustive compendium of every single instance in which a comma is used in English, including a special section on semicolons?took over our lives. We were required to write out every comma rule in modern English usage, and in order of importance, sometimes marking "optional" at the more ambiguous cases (e.g., You don't know the lexical difference between Nietzsche, the philosopher and Nietzsche the philosopher??but didn't we just finish reading Plato, ha! And if you begin a sentence with "my friend, Bob" oughtn't you get out more often? Our teachers found these ripostes shatteringly hilarious throughout the ordeal).
I suppose I'm glad that, to this day, I can identify a comma when it "marks a pause, particularly when read aloud" or "separates compound items in a list," but, well, I wonder if it was worth all the suffering.
In many other instances, I often wondered if all the suffering?the endless guidelines, the ubiquitous detention-traps?was worth it, if the rigor and the discipline mattered as much as its enforcers so heroically claimed. Even up to the very end, the high-stakes "Yes, Ma'am"/"No, Sir" exhortations prevailed. On commencement day we convened early to listen to a series of teachers and administrators?several, and I'm not kidding, with tears in their eyes?beg us "just this once" and "for the last time" to control our behavior in the church. The "long-hallowed tradition" of tossing beach balls back and forth and ringing cowbells from under the large black gowns, of slipping sweaty gummy bears into the headmaster's hand when accepting the diplomas?well, such subversiveness, such criminal disrespect, only signaled a deep degeneracy, a pathetic abominable immaturity, a felonious disregard for other people's?our parents', for example, our long-suffering, all-sacrificing parents'?happiness. Certainly?God willing!?the faith they'd placed in us over the years would at long last be rewarded with a display of adult equanimity throughout the all-important ceremony. These speeches were always delivered with the same gravity and self-importance with which DeGaulle roused the French to resistance.
And all this, for many years, was my life. God, how I miss it sometimes. College, far too chummy, left me somewhat addled, shiftless. I never appreciated professors' vague, blank approval of even the most desperate contributions to class discussions. Not a particularly talented ad-libber, I always expected reproof, even expulsion, when I'd shamelessly try to conceal remissness in reading assignments with observations like: "I think Hindu culture is really, well, in some ways, like...parallel to, er, the Greeks; you know, with all the, like, gods and goddesses and stuff." I always cringed when the professor would only nod and smile in response. And I still can't help believing that people should go straight to detention for daring to demand an extension on a paper.
In high school, as in life, there were due dates. As in life, there were right answers and?much, much more frequently?wrong ones. I long for that kind of certainty today: Yes and No, Good and Bad. In tenth grade, reading "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," when we arrived at the description of "arms that are braceleted and white and bare [But in the lamplight, downed with light brown hair!]" a dreamy stoner in the back row proclaimed that "the sensuality of those lines is really intense?like, you can tell that the narrator feels serious lust."
The teacher's reply was flat, categorical and illuminating: "No, I'm afraid not. I actually think it has more to do with the unattractiveness of brown arm hair?the notion that people up close are always somewhat flawed, that the illusion of beauty from afar is always more satisfying..." In college a professor might greet the same contribution with "indeed, uh...lust always constitutes a critical component of the postmodern delineation of self and others." I still believe literature should be discussed, even by the misguided, as a serious high-stakes thing, and that, even if there is no such thing as a "right" interpretation of a text, there are certainly plenty of wrong ones.
I also pine for our rare excursions into the offbeat. Strolling through London last month, I marveled to discover that daffodils really are the national ornament of spring. I immediately remembered learning "my heart with pleasure fills/And dances with the daffodils" and then spending an entire class period imitating Wordsworth, composing our own odes via staring at a Britta pitcher stuffed with daffodils. One kid?an obese atheist who, in French class, responded to questions like "comment tu t'appelles?" with "oui," and "ça va?" with "deux"?imagined them to contain a poisonous tear gas, so that anyone who dared sniff would lose a layer of skin and acquire a rare disorder affecting the thyroid. It was a lovely class, and I'll always love that poem.
Still, it's that crazed, frothing discipline that I miss most. A few times a month, I long for some surly menopausal guidance counselor to levitate above my bed and cajole me to "shape up or ship out"; I want someone to force me to make that bed with military corners and run three times around the track and write out the declension of slave woman (ancilla), and apportion every feeble idea that strikes me into a coherent five-paragraph theme, with a thesis, topic sentence and clear three-line concluding paragraph. School was good that way. Downtime is overrated.
The deeper I plummet into the abyss of adulthood, the more I remember high school, the more I long for the predictable simplicity of rising every day at 6:30, eating four bowls of Honey Nut Cheerios with my brother and dad, climbing into the Volvo and falling asleep as my father grumbled about morning traffic, then shuffling between classes and underlining key dates in the reign of Louis XIV, passing notes and making fun of the dance teacher's quadruple chin, learning about the Defenestration of Prague for the first time and climbing trees and crunching Cool Ranch Doritos during algebra every day, and every day being told that crunching while another person was talking?especially, by God, an adult?ranked right up there with lynching puppies. It was beautiful, and it was all over by 3 o'clock.