[Here’s a little excerpt for you, from something I’m messing around with. I don’t know if this will ever see the light of day as part of a larger work, but I like it a lot, so I’m putting it here. Most of the details are autobiographical, with one exception: I was never skinny.]
Anyone who’s a product of the American educational system knows that high school is first and foremost a stage production, stylized and ritualistic as a Japanese Noh play or the commedia dell’arte. There are a set number of roles, mostly handed out the first few weeks of freshman year, and while there’s a tiny bit of room for improvisation, the interactions between the actors are choreographed with precision borne of endless repetition.
Everyone hates the preppies and the jocks, who preen like rare birds and kick the shit out of everyone else. The stoners and the greasers have an uneasy alliance. None of them pay attention to the band geeks and the speech and debate geeks, who hold a slightly elevated status over the math and science geeks, who play chess endlessly after school as a stimulating way to avoid inevitable ass-beatings. There’s the squeaky clean Christian kids, who are usually preppies by proxy, and who never get invited to keggers until junior year, when they inevitably have a lapse in faith and turn into major drunks and whores. There’s the Future Farmers of America hick kids, who inhabit a weird space all their own, an alternate anachronistic dimension where it’s perfectly acceptable to stick your hand up a sheep’s ass. The gay kids, who are always in choir, and who learn very quickly to either keep their heads down or cultivate such a ridiculous presence that they’re simply regarded with bemusement.
You think I’m stereotyping? Then you’re either an amnesiac or you’re fooling yourself. Every year, there are new faces in every old role, like some local Shakespeare troupe. Walk into any high school in America and you’ll see the same kids you saw every single day of your four year tour. The haircuts and the soundtrack changes, but that’s about it.
It’s life or death down there, in between the varsity spirit hand-lettered posters and the endless rows of identical lockers and the baleful glares of teachers who’ve been baking too long in the fallout of this teenage wasteland, and who have grown sick and twisted and tired and bitter, nothing more than shells of the bright young educators they once dreamed of being. Every social loss or gain is a tragedy or a victory, and all love is true love, even if it’s nothing more than a flirtatious look shared across an English Composition classroom that still smells like 1955, all chalkboard dust and and half-understood desires.
Maybe you don’t remember, but I do. I never forgot. And maybe the ghost that haunts me the most is the specter of a skinny, slump-shouldered kid in a Pixies t-shirt and a Vietnam-era surplus store Army jacket, dark hair hanging in stringy ropes to his shoulders, scruffy jeans ripped carefully at the knees; under his arm a copy of whatever rebellious novel he’s tracked down in the library this week. Jack Kerouac. William Burroughs. S.E. Hinton. Whatever. That ghost has a little silver cross dangling from his left ear — only and ever the left ear, only faggots have earrings in the right ear, and fuck what Mike Webster said about that, he was just fucking with us anyway — and Chuck Taylors with an anarchy symbol drawn in the same meticulous ballpoint ink as the SOUNDGARDEN and the HUSKER DÜ and the SKINNY PUPPY carved into the cheap denim of his Trapper Keeper.
I see that ghost on a dozen street corners a day, every time I drive by some school and see some sophomore sitting by himself out on the curb after everybody else has gone home, bobbing his head to whatever music he’s using as triage to hold his fucked-up existence together. He’s got an iPod and my ghost has a dented cheap Walkman knockoff; where my ghost had the ‘Mats and the Pixies and the Clash, he’s got the Arcade Fire or the National or even some shit like Taking Back Sunday. But they are twin brothers, him and my ghost, sons of no one, bastards of young, and if I could I’d pull my car up and tell him not to be so scared, because it really does maybe work out in the end, and the horror fades.
But I can’t tell him that. He wouldn’t listen. And he’d probably think I was trying to get all pedophile on him. I can’t save him, any more than anybody could have saved me. So I just pull away and turn up my own rock and roll and go on pretending I’m an adult, and any of this shit matters in the end.
Keith Legg here. awesome writing. How eloquently you speak the truth. That period in life is so surreal and confusing, I think we need the stereotypes to tell us who WE are. Once you get through it there is this feeling of , “wow, that was really dumb, what the hell was I thinking?”
Since I went to high school with you I felt it was proper to reply. I dont however think you fit into any of the stereotypical groups I was familiar with. But I was a hick from Wyoming so what the hell do I know.
No, I didn’t, and that’s something that I talk about in this piece — how there were people like me who were never really part of any other group. We were an anti-group.
And yeah, I know that exact feeling. We were pretty stupid back then. Not that I’ve figured much of anything out since, really. 🙂
Also, the kids I’m writing about are a couple of years older than we were. These are class of ’92 graduates.
C’mon Josh… I’m hoping something exciting happens… Please make his anomie and existential angst propel him to do something drastic, like joining al Qaeda, or hack into the computer system of the NATO High Command. Otherwise it’s just another teenage disaffection story!
Uh huh. Remind me as to why I didn’t hire you as my editor, again, Joe? 😉
Dang. Good stuff Josh. Reminds me of Jon Katz’s Hellmouth articles. I also see some resonance with Danah Boyd’s identification of class divisions among teens, and of course your own article on Taste Tribes.
Wow class of 92 yes thay are Fucking ancienct!(says the bitter class of 90 grad)
By the way that was indeed a lovely bit of writing Thanks!
Right on, good writing.
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