I love trips down memory lane, so occasionally I’ll go back through bits and pieces of my past in all their various forms. These include audio recordings, old TV shows and movies, classic video games, and of course journals (Oddball Update has been around since 1994, it just didn’t go public until 2003). Most recently, I’ve been looking at those elder Oddball Updates for a bit of a laugh at the thoughts and desires that I considered important during my early high school years.
Most of the pages are filled with talk of whatever computer-related technobabblery I was into at the moment, all of which now dates itself horribly as you might expect. In one entry, I complained that I couldn’t insert both a color and a grayscale photo into my document, because not only would that make the file size balloon to a ridiculous 800 KB (well, in the days of 400 MB hard drives, that was a lot), the photos wouldn’t display properly anyway because Windows 95’s 8-bit color depth would cause palette-swap problems when trying to view both color and grayscale images! God, the shit we had to endure. It’s no wonder we put up with such godawful page designs in the early days of the web; we were all too busy being impressed that there were any images there at all.
By far, the most conflicted period of my life’s history has to be my high school years. Despite being filled with enormous exploration and learning of new technologies (all on my own time, of course), those years were harder on me, emotionally, than any other. I’ve always hated school, mostly because I loathed its awkward social aspects and resented its trumped-up authority structure. But my hatred sank to all-new depths once I got to high school. The administration’s ultra-conservative approach to discipline, combined with their abject inability to communicate anything effectively, meant that despite my Herculean efforts to follow the rules and remain inconspicuous I routinely ran afoul of badly-written or miscommunicated rules. This landed me in all kinds of awkward and embarrassing situations, which to me are like pyschological Kryptonite. I started to feel persecuted and become paranoid that my every step, sentence or breath might be the next one to get me in hot water with someone. It was years before I was able to get past this, and I feel like a part of how I interact with people even today is defined by what I experienced in those years.
But a lot of time has passed between today and the 1990s, and increasingly, when I look back at high school, I am of mixed feelings about it. Or at least, I start to see things from an angle I didn’t have the capacity to perceive back then. I read about some of the agonizing high school situations I was going through in the pages of my old Oddball Updates and I wish to God I had a way to communicate with my past self, because it’s clear from some of the things I wrote that I was in serious, desperate need of lightening the hell up. Even my mom seemed to recognize this; I distinctly remember her suggesting not-so-subtlely that a girlfriend would take my mind off the stress.
Now yes, we were commonly loaded up with assignments that had unreasonable deadlines and placed in high-pressure situations that required a great deal of stress and effort to extricate ourselves from. But that’s life, and I would have taken it in stride if we hadn’t so routinely been deprecated and treated like feckless idiots by so many of our instructors, many of whom were so disorganized that they would never have stood a chance in hell of completing the tasks they set out for us. I have never had an easy time respecting authority just by virtue of its station, preferring instead to have a reason to respect that authority. Most of my high school teachers provided little, and the school as a whole seemed to treat the notion of positive reinforcement as ridiculous, so I largely turned in efforts commensurate with requirement and not enthusiasm. There were even a couple of classes for which I routinely did not bother to even do the most trivial assignments, in some form of misguided silent protest. This only caused me to feel worse later, as wilfully failing on the job was not something I had ever done before, nor did I feel proud of it.
With the wisdom of experience, though, comes the belief that at least some of this hell that I went through was self-inflicted. Although I may not have had any other way to perceive my situation then, I would love to have been able to have to foresight to realize that absolutely nothing that occurred in high school was worth worrying that much about. I would have tried to spend less time worrying about what people thought of me and overanalyzing a teacher’s barely-concealed derision. I would have summoned up the balls to have words — and if that failed, fists — with the handful of asshats who occasionally used me as a butt end for their jokes. And I would have been more vocal, earlier on, about asking for help during those times when I felt I was losing grip of the situation.
If I had a hotline to 1995, I also probably would encourage my former self to ask a girl on a goddamn date, and not to be concerned that it was only gonna last a few months, if that. During my time in high school there were at least three girls who gave me clues that they liked me, but I was too fearful of rejection to pursue them. That, and I had an idealistic definition of a relationship as something you had for life with your soulmate, which disqualified a fling you might have for six months with a girl in high school. I can say for absolute certainty now that if I had had a girl to think about instead of how pissed off I was at school, I would have spent a lot less time agonizing over the school’s stupid bullshit. Thankfully it all worked out in the end; by the time I got clear of my high school “sentence”, I went looking for the woman of my idealistic dreams — and even more thankfully, it wasn’t long before she found me. (I’ve been married to her ever since.)
However, before this turns into a happy little rose-tinted look at how one man has come to terms with the perceived injustices of his former life and learned to move beyond them, let me state that the flipside of the coin — the one where my school contributed a great deal to the issues I had back then — definitely existed as well. I was reminded of this today when I found an old audio recording that I made on May 29th, 1996, in which I recapped with great detail the math class that I had sat through that morning. Truly, it was the perfect example of instructor mindfuckery.
Back then, it was the final week of the school year and whatever chapter of our trig books we were dealing with, it was giving many of my classmates (and myself) a great deal of trouble. However, given the fact that our teacher had previously demonstrated a vast impatience with anyone who didn’t understand everything perfectly the first time, no one was bold enough to ask any questions as she start going over the previous night’s assignment.
After a while of this, the teacher angrily asked if any of us had even done the assignment, since no one was asking anything about it. Not wanting to be thought of as slackers, a few of my classmates worked up the courage to ask about certain problems that they had had difficulty with. Each time a student asked for help with a particular problem, the teacher asked if there was anyone in the class who could go do the problem on the board. Usually everyone was too shy to respond to this, so when that happened, the teacher would just pick someone and draft them into doing the problem on the board against their will. Well, on the morning of May 29th, no one volunteered for any of the problems, and as it happened, everyone who was drafted was unable to complete the problem either. It seemed that the class was having a lot more trouble with the concepts from the chapter than you might think — almost no one had successfully solved those problems.
When the teacher saw that the students she’d drafted were either not solving or only partially solving the problems on the board, she became irate, threatening that “You people better start doing this stuff!” and demanding “Did you guys not do the homework, or what?” I was sitting there quietly stewing, wondering why she never seemed to look at the possibility of students not understanding stuff. If any problems weren’t done, it had to be because we were lazy slackers who blew them off. Y’know, it’s tough to ask questions when you’re so lost that you don’t know where to begin — and it’s especially tough when the teacher is sitting there constantly griping and belittling the class as a whole for every perceived mistake. Not only that, but whenever you’d ask the teacher for help with a problem, she’d always go make you do the problem on the board, on your own, before explaining word one to you. Which meant that anytime you asked for help, you’d automatically get to be made a fool of before any teaching would begin. It’s little wonder that few students rushed into that opportunity.
So by now there was a handful of students up at the head of the class with problems on the board that they didn’t know how to solve. One of them, a girl named Alicia, is trying to muddle through hers after everyone else has either finished or given up and gone back to their seat. After a few moments of puzzling over it, she concludes that she still doesn’t know where to begin, and begins to return to her desk without having completed the problem. The teacher barks at her, “What, did you not do this or something?” Freaking out, and desperately seeking an act that will avoid landing her in the firepits of hell, Alicia scrambles to find a friend who has managed to get further with the problem than she has. The teacher wants the problem done, so Alicia’s friend lets her borrow her paper so Alicia can complete the problem on the board.
Again, the teacher flies in to a rage. “Oh, so now you’re gonna copy it!” she blares. Confounded by this continued beratement, Alicia attempts to defend herself, the way a cornered puppy would after you’ve given it a treat and then beaten it for having the gall to eat it. Likewise, the teacher continues bitching at her, all while standing right next to my desk. By this point I was so fed up that after the instructor’s latest gripe, I muttered under my breath — but deliberately audibly — “Man, one more remark like that and I just wouldn’t do it at all!” Perhaps luckily for me (especially because I hadn’t figured out half of the problems either), my remark was either unheard or ignored. I just cannot conceive of a situation where this method of “teaching” is recognized by anyone as acceptable, let alone effective. It’s no wonder I did so horribly in math during high school, despite consistently performing at least to a competent if not spectacular level in the years prior.
The rest of that day’s review of our previous trig assignment continued in a similarly stress-inducing fashion. The real kicker came at the end of the class, when the teacher informed us that not only were we going to have a test on this stuff the very next day, but the final exam in the following week would include problems covered by the next section of our books, which we weren’t going to have time to cover in class! “You guys will have to figure it out for yourselves, because it is on the final,” she said dismissively, as if it wasn’t her problem. A pretty amusing and hopelessly idealistic thought, given how much it had just been demonstrated that many of us were struggling with the material we already had. What a talentless hack.
I can think of numerous other teachers I had in high school who were similarly disorganized, similarly disinterested in doing their job and similarly eager to treat us all with the same level of contempt that you’d reserve for something you just scraped off your shoe. Most of them were from the math department, though there were examples nearly everywhere, including the religious studies department (it was a Catholic school) and the English department. On the flipside, I also had some teachers who were so on-the-mark with everything, that by the final week of class we had not only completed the lesson plan, but also were handed back all of our old tests to review and ask questions of and even had a couple of light activities on the final day before exams. Ironically, some of these exceptional teachers were also the most strict in their expectations, but managed to elicit the best responses from us — not because we feared retribution otherwise (though there was that!) but because we respected them and felt we owed it to them to do our best. Those were the classes in which I got the highest of my grades.
After this past week’s worth of excavating archaeological finds from the ’90s, I’ve concluded that not only was there indeed a whole lot wrong with the high school I attended, there was also a whole lot wrong with my response to it. It was a shitty time and a shitty place, and even the rose-colored lenses of history can’t eradicate that fact, but I wish I’d had the wisdom to approach the most dismal of its people and situations with a different frame of mind. Taken a few more chances here, a few less there, and most importantly, just let the little stuff go. But I suppose that’s easy to say when you’re an adult who no longer has to worry about people trying to sabotage you because of what you look like, what you wear, or what you say.
All I know is, I’m happy to have a family, a job that I enjoy doing, and a place of my own to call home. I wouldn’t trade a single minute of it for another second in high school, but at least now I can look back on those years with a sort of detached bemusement, rather than the smoldering contempt I once felt. And if nothing else, I hope those experiences will make me a wiser font of advice when my son eventually gets to high school himself. If he’s lucky, he won’t need to draw on them — but if he does, I hope I can steer him down a clearer path than the one I charted for myself.