In honor of Back-to-School season, here are some reminiscences from my brilliant high school career. So brilliant.
What’s the point of a D+? It’s like a punch in the face followed by an insincere thumbs up. That little plus sign does nothing to ease the crushing blow of the D that precedes it. Getting a D+ on a paper or test sends the message: “You’re almost failing, but at least you’re doing it with pizzazz.”
I have never had any problems with math-as long as I didn’t have to do it. In the first grade my strategy of avoidance was simple: when confronted by homework problems which required any effort I simply wrote on the paper “I don’t know,” and left it at that. I was content to remain aggressively unenlightened throughout my career as a math student, but things changed once I entered high school, where they made me take math classes in which we used calculators that were more sophisticated than I was, and sleeker too. They were the kind of calculators you found yourself apologizing to. I had the suspicion that pressing the right combination of buttons would give you access to classified secrets from the Pentagon. I became well acquainted with the D+ in my first two years of high school. Math test after test came back with the same grade: 69. It was almost funny. Okay, it was funny.
My math teachers tried to reach me. Really they did. I was practically notorious. The department saw me as a challenge. They had never seen anything like me before, and mistook my incompetence for defiance. I was a rebel without a clue. They knew deep down that I was hopeless, and yet couldn’t resist trying again and again to get through to me. But none could tame my wild and ignorant spirit.
Have you ever been the slowest one in a ‘slow’ class? I would say that everyone should have that experience at some point, except that they shouldn’t. The worst part is that when things are going really badly in class you catch yourself saying “Well, I’m dumb, but at least I’m not as dumb as…oh.” Because you’re it, baby. Perhaps my problem lies in the fact that math, in any form, has never struck me as particularly useful or relevant to my life. I’m more interested in the underlying sexual tension between Bob and Maria than in how many pieces they’ll have to cut the pizza into so that she gets three times as much as he does and one slice goes to the dog. My memory is also highly selective. It retains only information that it thinks I will someday have a use for, like all the words to every song in The Little Mermaid. I can recite episodes of the Simpsons word-for-word, but ask me how to find the radius of a circle and I’ll fix you with a glassy stare.
My school did not require more than two years of math, and I dropped it with glee in junior year. I was the only one who did, and I was alone in my freedom during math period every day, but I didn’t care. I was too busy doing a forty-minute victory dance. What did this experience teach me? If you can’t beat ‘em, give up. It’s not worth it. And if you’re going to be dumb, you may as well be really, really dumb, because at least that makes you special. Sort of.
I remember when I first learned that writing could be a fancy way of lying. I was in the third grade, and my classmates and I were given the assignment to “write and illustrate your favorite dream”. Lest the theoretical creativity of this assignment garner it any admiration, I should add that these written and illustrated dreams were assigned for the purpose of being raffled off en masse at a parent auction.
My elementary school had hit upon the brilliant discovery that they could force parents to bid for their own children’s artwork. No matter that Junior could produce an almost identical finger-painting at home at the kitchen table. The one he had produced in the fifteen minutes between Snack and Music periods was on the auction block, and for a school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, this meant that the bids flew fast and furious. The catch was that the work was offered only as part of an entire class’s ‘collection’. This meant that if you wanted to bring home your child’s sloppy, haphazard modeling-clay elephant, not only did you have to bid for it as though you sat at the kiddie table at Sotheby’s, but you had to bring home twenty-five other modeling-clay circus animals produced with varying degrees of enthusiasm and talent, by classmates of varying degrees of familiarity and obscurity to you and your child. Who wants to be stuck with twenty-six modeling-clay circus animals, twenty-five of which are made by children in whom you are not responsible for recognizing budding genius?
In any event, my written and illustrated dream was due. I was eight. I didn’t have that many dreams that made sense. The ones I managed to remember were hazy, meaningless fragments involving eating breakfast, sticker collecting and the Babysitter’s Club. They were no help. I needed a dream, and fast. I could drag my feet no longer. Quickly I came up with a concept, which may or may not have been quite blatantly based on a book I liked at the time, “Black Beauty”.
“At night, when I go to Sleep, I dream that I ride a black Horse through the Woods,” I wrote painstakingly in pencil. “My Horse and I gallop together all night through the forest, and I am not afraid.” That was only two lines. I needed more. What else could I say about my fake dream to make it believable? “I love my black Horse,” I went on. “After I ride my Horse, she goes in her stable.” This was some fairly sophisticated horse knowledge here, and I was proud. After all, what did I know about horses? I was born and raised in New York City. The closest I had come to horseback riding was the carousel in Central Park.
I illustrated my falsehood. I spent a good part of my time drawing horses anyway, as an eight year old girl, so the illustrating part was criminally easy. At the end of the period, I wrote one last finishing touch. “Each morning when I wake up, I can’t wait to go back to sleep and dream of my black Horse again.” Although to the observer it read like an earnest and wistful phrase, for me, it was one last jab of insincerity at adults who would never know that I had completely put one over on them.
The truth, although I didn’t realize it at the time, was that it didn’t matter what I said. What adult was going to question the legitimacy of my dream—particularly given its innocuous subject matter? Besides, my teachers were busy coaxing twenty-five other illustrated dreams out of my classmates to pack up for that evening’s auction. My glib lie went unquestioned. And the lesson, that if you’re gutsy, you can create your own reality in words and make it believable to others, was a good one to learn.
Last week, my laptop got a virus, and there was nothing I could do except hope that it would get better if I turned it off for a couple of days to give it some ‘rest’. I worried. I fretted. I wrapped a blanket around it. I put a hat on it. Not for it, but it helped cheer me up. Finally I called my friend who knows about computers. (Actually, I called him on the afternoon it happened, but I had to whine for a few days and promise nachos before he would come over. Let’s be honest here.)
I sat with my brows knitted in concentration as he worked on my computer, deleting files and asking me questions I couldn’t answer for the life of me. Questions like, “Do you recognize this file?” and “You really don’t know how to use a computer, do you?” Goddamn it, I don’t. I don’t really know anything about them, and I’m not exactly panting to learn. It’s always been that way for me with complex machinery. I was never the inquisitive child who was filled with curiosity, wanted to know how things worked, and had a never-ending stream of questions about every unknown object. When I had questions, they were usually much more straightforward and narrow-minded. “Can I eat it?” I often wondered. And if the answer was no, “Can I watch ‘Rainbow Brite’ on it?” and finally, if the first two failed, before the thing lost my total interest it had one last chance. “Did it bring me a present?”
In fact, once when I was in college and should have known better, I opened a potentially dangerous junk e-mail from an unknown source because the subject headline said simply ‘present’. Indeed, the lure of A Present is clearly still strong. Much stronger than it should be for someone who is no longer six.
Perhaps one of my biggest issues with technology is that I expect it to be more glamorous than it generally is. This problem is best illustrated by an incident from my senior year of college. For several weeks I had been seeing flyers around campus advertising an “Artificial Intelligence Forum”. There was a picture of a human-looking robot on the flyer, and a bulleted list of related topics underneath. I thought it looked like fun. “Are you going to the Artificial Intelligence Forum?” I started asking my friends at lunch. “What are you up to on Friday? I thought I’d go to that Artificial Intelligence Forum. You guys should come.”
When the big day came I arrived a little late at the auditorium and stopped short at the door. The room was filled with chairs, the chairs were filled with people, and a professor in a lab coat was giving a lecture from a podium in the front. I found one of my friends in the hall and grabbed him. “Hey, did you check out the Artificial Intelligence Forum?” I demanded. “It’s just some guy at a podium, giving a lecture!” He looked at me strangely. “What did you expect?” he asked. “Dancing robots?”
Maybe I had.
Lately I have been thinking about money a good deal. Isn’t it funny how you always end up thinking about the things you don’t have? Nope. Especially when those things are either money or sex. It is funny when those things are rickets, though. Rickets.
I’ve always envied those famous and wealthy people who say, in television interviews, that they are the luckiest people alive because they get to make money doing the things they love. I suppose anyone could pull that off in theory, by learning to love whatever it is they’re stuck doing. However, I’ve noticed that it’s mostly writers and actors and rock stars who say that kind of thing. Have you ever heard a dentist tell an interviewer, “I can’t believe I’m getting paid to do this.”? Then again, how many dentists do you see interviewed on television? Not too many. Maybe they have bad publicists.
In the beginning of my junior year of college, after working long hours at two separate summer jobs which left me exhausted at the end of the day, it began to occur to me that in a lot of ways, Money and Fun appeared to be mutually exclusive. By this I mean I couldn’t have the one if I was working to get the other. But, if I didn’t work to get the other, then the one often meant going to a movie at the $3 theatre and eating sugar packets.
After careful deliberation, I have come to the conclusion that right now there are four ways for me to get more money.
1) Work hard at an honest job and build a career.
3) Marry rich.
4) Search the pockets of all my pants.
The last idea is definitely the most appealing at the moment. In fact, I think I’ll go and do that right now. It isn’t that I don’t want to work; I would just prefer to already be successful. I really think I’d have a talent for coasting. Give me a critically acclaimed bestseller under my belt and I’ll spend my days in Italy eating omelets and struggling with writer’s block while the tabloids whisper about how I might never write the Great American Novel again. It’s not the success and fame I fear, it’s the effort it takes to get them.
I do have a job right now, but it’s definitely not in the field I studied in college. In fact, my college degree (in Literature, with a concentration in Creative Writing) feels a little less impressive with each relative and stranger alike who asks, “But what are you going to do with it?” I got the damn degree, shouldn’t that be enough? Nobody asks you that question when you have a baby, and that takes less than a year. Fine, I’ll tell you what I’m going to do with it. But first I’m going to go rummage through my pants.
I may not be in school any more, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t get a Fall Break this year. It’s not a very ostentatious break, the one in Fall. It’s a little darker, a little shorter; you generally don’t get to go that far away during it. Girls don’t squeal its name as they rip off their tank tops and do the Froog. It’s not necessarily an excuse to drink, unless it’s a brandy-in-your-tea, hunkered down in your wool sweater, muttering under your breath as you watch dried leaves swirl in the icy wind that rattles your closed window kind of drinking. Not that there’s anything wrong with that kind of drinking, but wouldn’t you rather have sandy legs and a sunburn and down a $9 cocktail with the word ‘Tiki’ in its name as you giddily anticipate the end of the school year? Of course you would, and Fall Break knows this. Fall Break is Spring Break’s wizened, gimlet-eyed grandfather. You may have a week off, it warns, but Winter ain’t going anywhere. It’ll be right here, waiting for you when you get back. And you’d better have found a decent coat by then.
This Fall Break was different. I spent the second week of October in Miami, staying in the fanciest hotel I’ve ever not just snuck in to use the bathroom of; lounging by the pool and sipping complimentary icewater. The trip was a graduation gift to my friend from her grandmother, and I was the lucky friend in tow. It was a bizarre mix of extreme luxury and shameless cheap-skatery. The two of us shared an enormous, king-sized bed in a suite with a marble bathroom and a closet with real, removable coat hangers. Every morning we sat cross-legged on the thick carpet and spread peanut butter and jelly on Saltines with a swizzle stick. I had brought my hotpot, and we made Ramen and ate it out of the ice bucket, passing the tongs back and forth. We tiptoed around the mini-bar, fearing we would be charged for leaving fingerprints on the $3 Kitkats. It was like Pretty Woman; if Julia Roberts had pushed Richard Gere off the balcony, then snuck her best friend into the room for a week. Having never spent any time in a hotel that didn’t have vending machines in the hallways and hideous carpeting, I often felt like a fish out of water, or perhaps like a fish in a ratty t-shirt and flip flops suddenly swimming in temperature-controlled Evian and finding its bed made up a different way every time it comes back to the room. Everywhere I went, people with nametags smiled warmly and asked me if I needed fresh towels.
It was great fun, if a little strange. Sometimes it’s nice to see how the other half-percentile lives. We watched, round-eyed, as a fat, balding man with a shaved head and a mustache cavorted by the pool with a young, tanned brunette in a bikini. He had a white towel around his waist. She was wearing shades and a baseball hat, and her long, red, manicured nails flashed in the sun. We got priceless looks from the front desk by asking where to get good takeout Burritos and whether there was a Marshalls nearby. We strolled through South Beach on Friday night, sneering at the long lines of wannabes waiting to get into nightclubs whose bouncers, had we tried to get in ourselves, probably wouldn’t have bothered to disguise their laughter with fake coughing fits. At another nightclub in Coconut Grove, a one-armed lawyer told me I was born to dance in Miami. And last but not least, a pair of uniformed Miami police officers sitting at the table across from us in a restaurant, after learning where we were from and that we were on vacation, casually inquired as to where we were staying. When we told them the hotel, they asked for the room number. “They probably just thought you were hookers,” my mother said flatly. What a vacation. The memories will last a lifetime, and the stolen mini bottles of shampoo will last at least a few weeks.
Saying that I went to a fiercely competitive all-girls’ high school is like saying that I am going to graduate in seven months and be thrown into an unfriendly job market full of people who will laugh openly when I mention my creative writing portfolio. In other words, it’s true, but the horror of that truth is difficult to convey on the printed page.
It’s not that I didn’t like most of the girls I went to high school with, I just liked other things better. Like applesauce, for example. Especially since applesauce didn’t spend four years asking me, “What’d you get on the Biology test? Uh-huh. Oh, I got an A.” If it ever did ask me, applesauce would probably add something like, “Well, that was a really hard test though. I’m pretty lucky; I totally guessed on a lot of it.” Truthfully, applesauce probably would have stood a good chance of doing better than I on a Biology test. Especially if it had actually studied, and not just flipped through its notes and then wandered off to watch The Simpsons.
Every year in March my high school had EXAM WEEK. A few months before Exam Week, teachers would start referring to how certain things they were teaching were going to be on the Exam. (Cue thunder, shrill screams, fainting of strong men.) A hushed silence would fall over the room, and everyone except me would take a moment of silence to tremble over the imminence of Exam Week, the Armageddon for neurotic prep-school girls who had been taking practice SATs since before they could focus their eyes. I was usually too busy composing haikus about how I wanted to be eating lunch or making out with David Duchovny instead of sitting through double history.
Ooo, Exam Week. I’m so scared, I’m trembling. Don’t let Exam Week get me! That was my reaction to Exam Week when I was listening, especially after I read in the student handbook that the Exam for any given class counted for not more than 1/7th of our grade in that class. One-seventh? I wasn’t one for numbers, but one-seventh seemed like not very much. If you divided a dollar up into seven equal amounts, each amount was only about…oh, forget it. The point is, nobody else in my class seemed appropriately impressed by my discovery that we really didn’t need to worry about these exams, as they didn’t count for much. Although now that I think about it, I have since taken Finals in college that counted for a healthy 25% of my grade for a class (now there’s a percentage I can both tabulate and respect) without getting too worked up about it. Perhaps I just lack a healthy fear of education. In any case, despite my protests, Exam Week continued to inspire fear and anorexia in those around me.
There was no middle ground. Either you gloated over your academic achievements and measured your self-worth by them, or you gleefully showed off the reading quiz you failed in English class because you hadn’t bothered to read Wuthering Heights and had written that Heathcliff was Catherine’s cat. I was the only girl in my grade to drop Math after two years of hard-earned 69’s on all my tests, which gave me five extra free periods all to myself each week. My comment that ‘Not taking math is like having a 40-minute orgasm every day’ found its way into the yearbook, where I hope the math department enjoyed it. I’ve generally found my failures to be funnier than my successes. And, you know, I’ve learned more from them. Or something.