My Week As Mark Twain

This summer, I taught rising high school juniors and seniors for five weeks. It was simultaneously one of the most rewarding, infuriating, exhausting, and hilarious experiences of my life to date. It also reminded me that I could not be paid any amount of money to relive my adolescence or, as a friend aptly put it, to deal with “that brain chemistry again.” While my own brain chemistry is such that I continue to be a tremendously emotional person–often frustratingly so–I know that my day-to-day experience as a Feeling-y Being pales to that of a body on hormonal hyperdrive (and thank goodness). Interacting with my teenage students–and witnessing their various conflicts, alliances, and thinly veiled insecurities–prompted me to recall how completely not nostalgic I am for high school. However, it made me think even more about middle school, specifically the seventh and eighth grades.

My family lived in North Carolina when I was in middle school, and, in the seventh and eighth grades, I attended a local private school. Now, let me preface this story by emphasizing that I made some wonderful friends at this school. One, E.H., was indisputably my most constant source of support and good humor. She also introduced me to Tori Amos, an introduction that proved critical to my emotional sustenance and general sanity during this time. Moreover, I had a fantastic English teacher in the seventh grade, Mrs. Aldridge. While I always had been fortunate to be supported in my writing (ie. my elementary school teachers tolerated my cheesy horror romances and overwrought poetry), Mrs. Aldridge was the first person to emphasize to me that writing was something I should actually pursue. Such support was especially welcome during those years, because I cannot remember many times when I have felt more vulnerable – or less certain that my life would be a happy one.

The majority of the students who attended this school (we’ll call it Sunnydale Academy) had enrolled together in kindergarten. When I timidly entered as a seventh grader, I might as well as have walked in on the first day wearing a dart board around my neck. I was garden variety gawky, so insecure that I probably emitted special pheromones, and I knew absolutely no one (as we all know, this is especially unfortunate at lunchtime). I suspect that there was a certain type of girl who could have waltzed into Sunnydale after missing out on thirteen years of clique formation and hierarchical distribution. I decidedly was not that girl. That said, it was rough going from the start.

There are nasty kids at every middle school, and, as my parents were later told by the headmaster, I had the misfortune to join a particularly vicious class. The Sunnydale social elites determined very quickly that I was not welcome among them, and this verdict resulted in guaranteed harassment – particularly from the boys. One of the more unpleasant memories I have is of someone calling me on the phone, pretending to be my crush (a popular boy), and asking me out. How the offender had even learned of my secret torch, I do not know, although, as the world’s worst poker face, I suspect that I made it obvious. Anyway, against my better judgment–or what judgment I even possessed at that age–I said yes. When my crush found out what had happened, he was horrified. That same day, we suffered a hideously awkward encounter in the hall, and he made it quite clear that we were not the star-crossed lovers of my dreams. I give this guy credit for speaking to me privately (he pulled me out of study hall) even though I learned that he made fun of me to his friends afterwards. But being the butt of a larger joke was by no means an isolated incident, nor did the perpetual teasing I encountered ever dull in its sting. I wish I had been exceptionally mature during these years, that I had possessed unusual perspective and insight for my age. Then perhaps I could have weathered that hormonal shitstorm with a bit more dignity. But I did not understand how to navigate my feelings; I only knew that I possessed many of them, and that they seemed constantly under assault. And rather than raise my head higher, I crumbled under the weight of every insult again and again.

Forgive me if I sound a little over-dramatic, but I do not think that we can diminish the feelings of shame and self-loathing that young people face. As adults we know that perspective–and the ability to articulate our feelings–can at least temper the pain we feel when someone or something has hurt us (although not always at first). In middle school, we do not yet know this, and we must combat cruel physiology in the meantime. For me, middle school marks a time when my body was constantly under siege by new emotions that I could not articulate. I say “body” because that is where I locate the root of my teenage experiences: they were visceral, sometimes wholly incompatible with language. These are not original insights. As we all know, emotions are experienced from head to toe. Those two years at Sunnydale felt like a churning gut, hot face, tight chest, and watery muscles. Simply put, my body did not feel up to the challenge of facing the scorn and derision directed at me simply because I was me.

Despite being so vulnerable to Sunnydale’s toxic social climate, I was reasonably perceptive when it came to its mechanisms and twisted logic. And in eighth grade, we were assigned a project that allowed me to reflect upon exactly these things: We each had to write our autobiography. I still think that this project is brilliant and only wish that it had been slightly less regimented. For example, one chapter had to be a research-based paper (rather antithetical to autobiography, yes?) and another was designated “descriptive writing.” I still don’t know what the latter really means. At the time, I think I assumed that including at least one metaphor or (poorly conceptualized) symbol every two or three sentences would do the trick. I recall feeling very deep upon composing this chapter, very Sylvia Plath. Ah, that happy, naïve time before we aspiring writers learn what it means to mix our metaphors.

We were also required to include one chapter written as a satire; this was the part of the project that particularly excited me. I immediately determined that the chapter on my adolescent years should be the satirical one. In spite of all the emotional turmoil, I was at least capable of recognizing that the rituals and social organization of Sunnydale were utterly ridiculous. This recognition did not assuage my desires for belonging and acceptance, but I hoped that writing about what I was experiencing might propel me to finally reject the bullshit standards to which the girls in my class were held. And maybe, just maybe, calling it like I saw it would encourage some of my other classmates–whether or not we were friends–to turn a more critical eye to the intolerance, harassment, and even downright cruelty. To be clear, I was not trying to be a hero, nor did I have any desire to be a provocateur. If you know me as adult Rachel, it might come as a surprise – no, make that shock – that I spent my schooldays with my head down, trying not to attract attention. But with this assignment, I saw the opportunity to write something meaningful.

And so, I wrote. I of course did not name any names, instead creating the characters “Cathy Coolness” and “Sammy Suave,” and using them as my models for the Sunnydale elite. If I rewrote this chapter now, I would devote much less focus to lambasting what I saw as classic Sunnydale popularity rituals and instead would parody the larger social web. But let’s face it, I was thirteen, had spent a year and a half being mocked for all manner of infractions (my nose, my bookishness, my sensitivity, and I’m sure a number of other things of which I was mercifully unaware). When I began to write about the “Sunnydale Social Experience,” it was nearly impossible not to feel very angry and, admittedly, somewhat bitter. Yet feeling angry was, in many respects, a productive thing. I never felt as if my classmates had a god-given right to tease me, but I also never disputed their assessments of me. As I worked on my satire draft, I stopped feeling sorry for myself for not being pretty, wealthy, or physically developed – I instead focused on the injustice of the Sunnydale social ecosystem. What gave the popular boys the right to sit in the front hall every morning so that they could evaluate and poke fun at every girl who walked by? And yes, wasn’t it rather preposterous that after lunch, those same boys grazed in the playground field en masse, like insecure buffalo herding to a watering hole? What was always so interesting about the Post-Lunch Graze was that, during this constitutional, the boys were completely isolated from the rest of us. They moved as one, shuffling slowly around the middle of the field, while the rest of it remained completely unpopulated. This was their privilege: Any space they occupied was entirely theirs. I guarantee that if my friends and I had also decided to congregate on the field, the event would have been utterly perplexing for the Sunnydale Grazers. But this talk of aimless grazing has, appropriately enough, caused me to lose focus, so allow me to return to the story at hand.

When my English class had finished drafts of our chapters, we engaged in a peer editing exercise. I was tremendously nervous that day. While I knew that we would all have to showcase our autobiographies when they were finished, I did not yet feel prepared to circulate what I had written about Sunnydale. For all I knew, I had just written myself another year’s worth of teenage bullying. But once my rather popular editing partner took my draft to review, the text no longer belonged exclusively to me. I watched anxiously out of the corner of my eye as she read, and when she returned my satire to me, it was accompanied by a look of disdain and confusion. “Oh well,” I thought, “What did you expect? But maybe they’ll all want so little to do with you now that the last months of school will be easier.”

Yet, this was not to be. Immediately after English, and before the following period began, two different girls from the cool side of the tracks asked me if I had modeled Cathy Coolness after them. The halls were buzzing with the news of my presumptuous little satire. It was harsh! It was MEAN. Who the hell did I think I was?

Over the next week, a number of girls complained to their parents about my satire and claimed that I had written it about them. Their parents in turn complained to our headmaster, and he certainly was not inclined to ruffle the feathers anyone who might donate forty thousand dollars to the Upper School. He immediately confronted the eighth grade English teachers and, as I recall, demanded that I rewrite my chapter. I had simply hurt too many delicate (read: expensive) feelings to be permitted to keep it as it was.

I do not recall the exact sequence of events, but somehow my parents were made aware, either by the English teachers or the headmaster of the Upper School, that I had transgressed some sort of boundary. Thus, measures would have to be taken to mitigate the controversy. In an inspired act of parental support, my dad sent a letter to the headmaster, at the top of which was written out the full definition of the word “satire.” He proceeded to explain in his letter that I had fulfilled the assignment exactly as I was asked and that I would not, under any circumstances, rewrite the chapter. My satire, probably accompanied by my father’s letter, was then sent to the headmistress of Sunnydale School for review. In the meantime, my classmates continued to hassle me about why I had felt compelled to write such a scathing review of Sunnydale (I don’t know that I ever had much opportunity to respond). They also, I might add, began to write their own satires about our school.

Finally, the two eighth grade English teachers held me after school one day to discuss what was to be done about my chapter. Having never been held after school before, I was mortified and, in the midst of my anxiety, forgot to call my mother to tell her that I wouldn’t be at carpool that afternoon. Instead, E.H. waited for my mother so that she could tell her that I was being held for interrogation. (E.H. also waited for hours after school ended so that she could be there when I finished my meeting.)

I will always remember the dread with which I awaited that meeting, and I certainly will never forget the meeting itself. As it turned out, my English teacher, a very kind and sympathetic woman, did not want me to rewrite the chapter, but she was new that year and, I suspect, nervous about causing trouble. The other English teacher, a brilliant, irreverent woman, had been at Sunnydale for years and was outspoken about her utter lack of respect for our headmaster, a man she regarded as both spineless and unjust. I also had heard from friends that she was notoriously critical of writing and, as it turned out, the very first thing she did in that meeting was provide me with a thorough critique of my satire, introduction to conclusion. I was unsettled. I had come to this meeting expecting a lecture, punishment of some kind, maybe an “F” on the assignment (the last of which was, of course, the worst of my fears). But this woman was talking to me both seriously and earnestly about my writing. She told me that the satire was “very good” – “not perfect,” she emphasized, but promising. I learned that both she and my English teacher had fought for my satire and that the headmaster had finally backed down with the request that I change one, particularly scathing (and, as I recall, not very good), sentence. I agreed to this condition. Then, the English teacher sat back in her chair to take my measure (I, in the meantime, was crouched in the corner of my desk, barely capable of squeaking out responses to her questions).

“Well, Rachel, ” she smirked, “You certainly have caused a great deal of trouble. But do you know how much trouble Mark Twain caused with his writing?”

I don’t remember exactly how I answered that question, or if I even did, because it was about this time that my mother stormed into the classroom. E.H. had told her that I had been held after school to talk about my satire, and my mother, determined to rescue me from what she assumed was unjust punishment, set out to secure my freedom.

My mother was no great fan of Sunnydale. After I completed seventh grade, she met with the headmaster to discuss my classmates’ behavior. She left without much assurance that any steps would be taken to combat the bullying (none were, to my knowledge). She had listened to me sob day after day as I choked out who had poked fun at my nose, or thrown balls of wadded paper at me as I left the girls’ bathroom. As far as Kathy Vorona was concerned, I could write what I damned well pleased after being tormented by a bunch of spoiled brats. And this is precisely what she told the English teachers before I could assure her that things were not what they seemed. Once my mother was caught up to speed, we concluded the meeting; I went home to make small revisions to my satire; and, as is the case with middle school, the controversy was largely forgotten within a few weeks. So it goes.

But I speak with complete sincerity when I say that this is, ultimately, one of my most positive memories from Sunnydale. If you had posed this scenario to thirteen-year-old me as a hypothetical and asked what I would have done, my response would have been unremarkable. I probably would have responded, sadly, that I would have rewritten the satire – that is, I would have offered to rewrite it. I was not at all brave, I would have explained to you, and I certainly was not the kind of girl who wanted to cause trouble. The very notion of receiving an “F” made me sick to my stomach. And yet, when actually faced with this dilemma, I never once considered a rewrite. I had merely written what I had observed, after all. Didn’t I have that right? As my father had pointed out, I had been asked to write a satire – what made Sunnydale immune as potential subject matter? Moreover, I had observed how my parents, each in his/her own way, had fought for my freedom to write what I felt was true. The Sunnydale English teachers had done the same. What is more, they had spoken to me in that meeting not as a problematic little girl, but as a burgeoning writer who was attempting to find her voice. And that’s precisely it: In a time when I so frequently silenced myself out of fear, shame, and insecurity, I all of a sudden said something because I believed that I should. In middle school, I was not in the habit of being terribly impressed with myself – I never felt that I had much reason to be. Nor did writing that satire–and fighting to include it in my autobiography–overwhelm me with self-confidence. I was still often unhappy with myself, still scared to speak. But after writing that satire–and facing the aftermath–I looked forward to another day when, scared or not, I would raise my voice anyway.

For E.H.

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