When I was a kid, the waning days of summer vacation brought a shiver of anticipation and dread to dance along my spine. I had X amount of days to take stock of myself in order to brace for what was to come: the First Day of School Appearance, and dealing with the aftermath for the rest of the year.
Kids knew when the school supply list stopped having crayons as a requirement and instead listed protractors and ink pens, that was when life was about to get serious. In the sixth grade we were required to have colored pencils, which sounded cool until you learned you had to use them for geography class and little else. You kind of missed the waxy odor of Crayolas and all the black-lined art you aimlessly colored in. Besides, the cutesy prim girls with their carefully measured pencil-strokes always made the prettiest-looking maps. The rest of us did what we could to avoid going outside the lines STILL. School kids usually didn’t have the luxury to use calculators back then, as they were still expensive and considered unnecessary. Kids were always going to have to work out math problems on their own; right? You could tell the smart kids of any school by the slide rules in their pockets, since slide rules = higher math = whoa, that’s out of my league.
Clothing was another factor that signaled your entry into Growing Up. If you were lucky your family might be able to get you new outfits – a pair of jeans and a couple of shirts, underwear and a new pair of sneakers were considered great things by me. If I was especially good about holding off a growth spurt, we might afford more. On my rising Freshman year in high school, Mama was able to get enough money together to get me not just one but TWO pair of fashionable-at-the-time wide-bell-legged striped size 0 jeans which fit me like a glove, as well as shirts and a new pair of sneakers, and a can of boot polish for my cowboy boots. My sisters were in college (hooray for scholarships and tribal funds!) so we all went shopping together. It was a blast since I didn’t usually get to spend so much time in their company as a more-or-less equal. I had the advantage of their knowledge of what looked good and fashionable, and affordable. Lord knows my sense of fashion was pitiful.
I lay awake the night before the first day of school, tossing and turning and dreaming about how the next day would go. THIS year I’d be clever and witty, have great comic timing and fearless candor. I would look like aces, and the popular kids in school I knew would include me fully into their group and all the kids in my school would look to me as being the class bon vivant!
Okay, first of all: even in my eager-to-overachieve class, nobody but me would use the term ‘bon vivant’ in any situation, much less apply it to me. Second of all: it never, ever worked out that way.
“First day of school” was a misnomer since we rarely actually had classwork of any merit that day. It was usually brief sessions of Who Is In This Class, Where Will You Sit and Here’s Your Textbook For It. In grade school we had the same classroom with student lockers for that grade in that room and mostly the same teacher all day long, so you knew by heart who was in it. The questions were the seating order and whose old textbook did I get, and did they write in any useful notes? (Usually not; we were clean-cut little ragamuffins back then, carefully obeying the teacher’s admonition not to write in the margins like other, horrible, less good kids in grades above us.)
In high school we would go from classroom to classroom (just like we saw on TV!) and our lockers weren’t in our classroom but lined up along the hallways (just like on TV!) We wouldn’t even be in the same class with everyone else in our grade, since two other county grade schools bussed in their graduates to ours. New faces! New structure! New experiences! New chances!
I wore my striped pants and boots and shirt to that first day of High School, and left my night-before wit and cleverness at home. I was still the same old me, marching steadfastly to my different drummer, eager to make a difference but racked with concern that I would come off as TOO different and be labeled a full-fledged weirdo. I backed off from my alter-ego’s desire for change and remained the same old gender-fluid me.
It wasn’t bad, I suppose. I wasn’t in the A-level Popular Kids group, but many of my friends were. I helped make smart remarks and voted or supported some new idea or proposal, but I wasn’t what you’d call a leader. I wasn’t a blind follower, either because I didn’t like other people deciding my preferences for me. I suppose you could say I was on the A- or B+ level.
I was not an Academic that is to say Geek, which shocked my teachers who all assumed I was as smart as my older sisters. Thing was, I WAS as smart as my older sisters in many ways – just not very good in math or science. English and History, yes I was a Nerd among the Nerdiest, but in the hard sciences I was a remedial wonder. It didn’t matter to the administration; I was a Watson and therefore must take Algebra I. WHAT, no; I stunk on ice in math! They didn’t listen and I spent an entire year completely, totally lost. All I could do well at the end of the year was draw some nifty artwork on my graph paper.
I was no Jock by any stretch of the imagination. After spending a few weeks in the bleachers watching the varsity team play the second squad on the basketball court, I had had enough. Basketball was just about the only sport in Deep Fork School, and there was rarely a chance for us also-rans to play Volleyball. Volleyball and its vicious style of serving and spiking the ball was something I actually did quite well. A few of my bleacher buds and I protested to the principal, pointing out that we’d be just as well off sitting in the library studying as we would sitting in a cold gymnasium studying. He agreed, I won a victory and we got out of Gym Class and into Study Hall without further ado. I did have a successful alternative: Musician. I could play guitar and sing, something most of my schoolmates did not do, so that was a plus. It got me out of class on many occasions and won me a letter sweater and a letter in 4-H all four years of high school.
I joined 4-H in grade school but quickly tired of the annual Speech Contest every school entered. It was usually rote stuff the teachers suggested about subjects I thought boring. Since we were allowed to come up with our own speeches, for two years I spoke about Mosquitoes because why not. At least it wasn’t How To Brush Your Teeth (I’m not making that up) or What America Means To Me (are you kidding, I’d have been thrown out of school for declaring “Nixon is an ass”) or How to Bake a Cake (or whatever it was, I was too busy trying to remember my Mosquito speech to pay attention.) I have no idea what the judges thought of me and I still don’t know. I like to imagine that as soon as I walked in, at least one of them inwardly groaned, “oh shit here comes that kid from Deep Fork who apparently fears malaria worse than anything in the modern world.”
I was not a Cheerleader but I went out for it anyway, clowning around in the gym and disrupting the practice session just enough to suit me. It seemed to take the pressure off the others for this skinny-limbed, curly-headed oddball to try and fail and not seem to give a damn about failing, and a couple of girls who were initially nervous about going out for it did well. As I said, I didn’t give a damn. It annoyed me that our only alternative to the grand and glorious Basketball Team was to dress alike in tight outfits in order to gush all over the grand and glorious Basketball Team, so I threw a temporary spanner in the works just on principle.
I used humor and quick thinking to keep me from getting beaten up or resented, and I used that shit for all it was worth for the next four years. I suppose you could say my claim to school survival was that I was an everyman; I knew everyone in school and had friends at every social level. I had no known enemies because I refused to fight. “I bet I could beat you up!” some kid threatened, to which I would nod and say “Yep, you’re right about that, you probably could. You win.” I would saunter off while they were still trying to figure out how their victory could feel so empty. Life was different then. We had no social media except notes passed in class, and bathroom stall walls. Kids would have a fight, only to go home and then have to explain how they got blood on their clothes and where they got that shiner. Then later that evening they would catch hell when the parents got a phone call from the opponent’s parents, demanding to know why their kid was picked on by someone’s imbecilic offspring. Yeah, fighting was tough and cool up until you got your ass blistered by your parents. Life was different then. We didn’t backtalk our parents ever since we were old enough to realize what “oh shit” meant when the words popped out of our mouths.
In the early days of school when summer temperatures still beckoned or the cooler fall temps beckoned us even harder, it was difficult to sit in the classroom until the last bell rang. We’d charge out of the school and rush home. Maybe you’d score a snack but that was usually secondary to the chance to run around outdoors, up and down the street and off into the woods and bike across town. We didn’t come in until dinner was on the table or it was time to help put dinner on the table. If we had homework we’d do it after dinner or at school if possible. Sometimes I’d do homework right after school but as long as there was a warm day and a tire swing beckoning, homework could wait.
As the autumn grew cooler and school activities increased, we were busy and soon daily trials and tribulations erased the anxiety of those first days. School cliques tried to rule the school but at Deep Fork, cliques rarely won and usually dwindled in number until it was just a couple of crabby people bitching at each other. There was a group of girls from my class who liked to sit in the student lounge and pass judgement on their fellow students’ personal style and clothing choices, deciding who was cool and who was not. Two girls in particular were absolutely cruel in their opinions, and to my amazement and outrage, some kids actually took their shit to heart.
Those girls never graduated. Instead they dropped out and went on to live quiet, unheralded lives in and around the Deep Fork area, far from the ‘cool set’ they pretended to be. The most judgmental one now has no friends from high school at all, continuing to harvest her bitter defensiveness in her middle age as she had in her youth.