Tag Archives: High School

Four hundred meters

“On your mark, get set … go!”


As the coach said that last word, his arm went down, and Billy and I were off. Four hundred meters, four laps around the track. I don’t how this race ever wound up happening in the first place. Billy was clearly the better runner. And yet here we were, both of us coming up on that first turn, the top-left of my right sole always feeling on these curves like it was shouldering too much of my body’s weight as I tried to maintain speed. I don’t know why we always had to run counter-clockwise around the track. It would have been nice to go in the opposite direction, even if just once in a while, to give that right foot a little bit of a rest, maybe build up the left foot muscles, which, I could never notice a difference between the two, but I always felt it, like on molecular level, they just had to have been a little bit weaker in the left.

“You’re an idiot,” Billy said to me, and now I remembered why I’d taken this challenge in the first place. Because great, you’re the fastest runner Billy, that’s awesome. Do you have to be such a jerk about it? Couldn’t you be a little cooler? And not cool, but like, you know, nice, not a dick. If I’m in the locker room and I ask you a question about performance running socks, do you have to make it into a joke, you and your elite running lackeys repeating everything I say in that stupid nasally voice? That’s not what I sound like, by the way.

I wanted to say something back to him, but I couldn’t. I was putting everything I had into just keeping up, and we weren’t even halfway done with the first hundred meters. Hopefully I didn’t outwardly look like I was giving it everything I had, because I had the suspicion that Billy was doing just fine, that he was taking these three laps pretty easy, ready to just tear off at the end.

And then I thought, what if he was only running as fast as I was running? If I were in a four hundred meter race against someone who I was pretty sure that I could beat, I’d probably only try to match my opponent’s speed for the first few laps. Because why waste any energy? Why not let him lead, and then I could sprint away at the end?

So I waited until we turned the next corner and I slowed down just a little bit. It worked. Billy totally took it down a notch to match me. “You getting tired?” he taunted. We were passing the row of bleachers on the final hundred meters of the first lap, that straightaway where all of Billy’s friends were hanging out in their warm-up suits. I could hear them calling my name out in the same stupid voice they used to make fun of everyone who presented an easy enough target, the high-pitched whine, sucking their cheeks in and sticking out their teeth, smiling and laughing, celebrating even, both at the perceived humor in their jokes as well as the contented belief that they’d never have to be on the receiving end of such verbal abuse.

I put them out of my head and concentrated on what I had to do. I felt OK now, like I had a chance at pulling this off. But there were still three laps left. I’d have to maintain this pace for two more, crank it up at the last lap, and then give it everything I had for that last push toward the finish. Would I be able to do it? Doubt started to creep into my fleeting sense of what now felt like misplaced confidence.

Almost on cue, my legs started to tighten up, not a lot, but it was enough of a physical sensation to give my growing doubts some actual weight. My breathing must have picked up, because Billy looked at me. We were approaching another turn and, so far he hadn’t even bothered to get in front of me. He ran right alongside, not worrying about the extra distance he’d have to cover by staying in that further lane. And I could tell, he really wasn’t worried. “You know I ran a four thirty-five mile last month, right?”

And he actually said it. I still wasn’t at a point where I could get words out, my lungs were right now exclusively working toward supplying my blood with the oxygen necessary to maintain my current pace, a pace which was slower than my initial pace, something that, if Billy didn’t have a problem with a four and a half minute mile, this must have been nothing. What was my best time, five and half? Five forty-five?

I had to slow down again and hope that he’d stay with me. As I pulled back, I could hear him laughing, mocking me, “Still two more laps. You sure you can finish?” and again, I wanted to say something, but my breathing was so controlled at this point. How was Billy able to have what sounded like casual conversation? This pace, was it that easy for him?

For the entire third lap, I had no choice, I had to drop my speed. And on the first hundred of the fourth, Billy started running backwards right next to me. From where we were at, the bleachers were all the way on the other side of the track, but I could still hear everyone laughing and calling out in that mocking voice.

As we approached that last hundred meters, I thought, did I have what it took to race him in a sprint? Probably not. But could I at least put up a good fight? Could I somehow will my feet do what they had so far been unable to do, to pose somewhat of a threat to Billy’s dominance?

I wouldn’t be able to find out, because right as I started sprinting, Billy wiped out next to me. He fell to the track, hard. When he bounced up a few seconds later, I was about halfway to the finish line. I looked over my shoulder to see if he could still make a run for it. He probably could have. In fact, for a second I swear I saw all of his muscles twitch, like he was ready to pounce. But then he just stopped. He stood there, and then he started walking.

I crossed the finish line, but nobody said anything. All eyes were on Billy. And just as he was in earshot, I heard him say, “Whatever, I wasn’t even racing. That doesn’t count. Didn’t you see me running backwards? What a joke.”

And I looked to the coach, hoping he’d at least validate my accomplishment, just name me the winner, please. But he looked more concerned with his star runner. “Billy, you OK? Anything hurt?” he was walking in his direction.

“Nah, I’m good. I wasn’t really running that hard anyway.”

Everyone started laughing from the sidelines, and the coach said, “All right, let’s get out of here everyone. Showers!”

Novice wrestling

When I was in high school, all I really wanted was to be part of a team. I’d grown up playing on most of the community youth sports teams, basketball, hockey, baseball and soccer. While I didn’t expect to be a varsity captain or anything, I still thought that I’d at least find something I was good at, or good enough at, to go through tryouts and find my name posted up on the bulletin board outside of the gym, telling me that I’d made a team.


But basketball was out of the question. I went to the first day of tryouts and knew immediately that it wasn’t going to happen. There were something like sixteen hundred boys in my school, and so the sheer amount of bodies in the gym that day, all of them there with their eyes on one of the sixteen spots available, it was a wake-up call, that even though I wasn’t horrible at basketball, I wasn’t really that good either.

And so the coach had us line up and shoot lay-ups, and I missed the first lay-up. I told myself, that’s all right, I’m tall, I’m fast, I’m sure they’re not too concerned with that one lay-up. But some assistant coach blew a whistle and pointed in my direction. I looked at him like, what? What do you want me to do? And he just barely lifted his eyes in my direction and blew the whistle again, this time pointing to the locker room. I’d been cut.

But hockey, I’d been playing hockey since I was in the second grade. There’s no way I wouldn’t make the ice hockey team. I mean, just think about all that it takes to get your equipment ready and have your parents take you to all of those hockey practices and hockey games and summer hockey camps. I thought, I must have an advantage over the majority of these guys.

“Don’t take this the wrong way,” the ice hockey coach told me and a group of five or six other kids after the second ice hockey tryout. His first words weren’t all that encouraging, and I looked around at the others in my company, all of us scrawny, awkward, obviously inferior to everyone else still skating on the ice.

And then it was like, OK, no basketball, no hockey, what else can I do? Volleyball? The volleyball coach actually approached me, seeing as how I was so tall. I guess he had this idea that, even though I told him I’d never played volleyball before, that it was OK, that he’d train me, that by the time I made it to senior year, I’d be some sort of spiking machine.

But those tryouts too ended in the volleyball coach kind of just shaking his head from side to side, one of those, “Listen, I’m really sorry I put you through all of this,” speeches where I could tell by his lack of eye contact that he probably did actually feel a little bad about suggesting that I try out in the first place.

So what was left? Freshman year came and went and I hadn’t made it on any sports teams. Was I destined to go through high school without ever knowing the camaraderie associated with team athletics? One of my friends was on the junior varsity wrestling team and, while he laughed when I asked him if I had what it took to try out for JV, he suggested that I attend the first day of novice wrestling.

Novice wrestling was the only sport in my school that had zero cuts. It wasn’t varsity and it wasn’t junior varsity, but it was still technically a sport. And so I showed up, me and a hundred and fifty other kids that looked as if they’d also never played on any team sport in high school. Everything about novice wrestling was exactly how it sounded, novice. We had to wrestle in this small, old gym, tucked away behind the pipe-room of the main gym. I didn’t even know the school had a secondary gym. It was one of those neglected rooms that looked like it hadn’t really been considered in decades.

Our uniforms were similarly relics of a bygone era. While the varsity and the JV squad wore these modern looking spandex outfits, we each wore a very outdated crimson wrestling singlet, made of whatever fabric they used before the invention of spandex, with bright yellow piping around the neck, arm and leg openings. I looked ridiculous. I was six foot five, but only a hundred and sixty pounds, so my uniform didn’t really hug the sides of my body, it hung, loose, making my torso look like a popsicle stick.

With a hundred and fifty person team, it was unlikely that I’d actually see much action. We basically went to practice every day, and then when we had meets, the coach would give us all turns, placing us into different weight classes, maybe we’d get to grapple, maybe not.

I remember the first time I actually had a match. My opponent was about five foot one, and he made his entrance onto the wrestling mat, slapping himself in the face, making weird yelling sounds, I guess in an attempt at intimidation. I didn’t really get it, and neither did the ref, who blew his whistle immediately and penalized him for unsportsmanlike conduct.

We got into position and the ref blew his whistle again to start the match. And my opponent ran off of the mat and vomited by the edge of the gym. I just kind of stood there, not really understanding what had happened. And then the ref blew his whistle again and raised my hand in the air. I won.

The next day on morning announcements, after they showed the highlights from the basketball game, they read a list of novice wrestlers who had won their matches. I almost felt silly hearing my name called. Some of the other novice wrestlers in my homeroom laughed knowingly. But it wasn’t that bad, because another guy in my homeroom had wound up facing off against a girl wrestler. He pinned her to the ground and won, and everyone was on his case, making up an exaggerated story about how the match went down, how yeah, he won, but just barely.

Being part of a team was cool, but wrestling wasn’t really what I was after. Besides, I kept getting ringworm, and one of my teammates had to go to the hospital because his testicles got twisted around each other in the middle of a match. I did novice wrestling for a year, got my athletic letter, and then threw away my wrestling gear. But every once in a while I’ll have a dream like I’m back in high school. I’m in my adult body, and I’m just totally dominating every single sport. I’m blocking jump shots and scoring game winning goals in overtime. What are you going to do, right? You can only try so hard at sports.

Mr. Halfstrung’s oceanography

The bell rang, but none of the students wanted to be the first to get up and leave. Mr. Halfstrung had this ridiculous rule where the first person to leave class would automatically be given detention. Six years ago, when Mr. Halfstrung was still just Barry Halfstrung, his junior year trigonometry teacher Mr. Crenshaw had a similar rule, only his applied to the beginning, not the end of the class. Crenshaw called it the “touchdown rule,” where, in an effort to cut down on tardiness, the last student seated would have to come back for detention.


“Touchdooooown” he would hold his hands up in the air just like a football referee as everyone pushed and shoved their way through the classroom door. “It’s not fair! I had to go to the bathroom!” students would always protest with some sort of an excuse. And yeah, it really wasn’t fair, especially to the students who had to sit at the front of the room, because in the event of a tie, two students racing through the door at the exact same time, the advantage would always fall to whoever happened to have their assigned seat closest to the door.

There were often fights, one time it was either Billy or Pete, Halfstrung couldn’t remember exactly, but they were both barreling down the hallway and, right after whichever one of them it was who entered first crossed the doorway, he knocked down the trashcan standing right next the doorframe. And it worked, the other student was effectively blocked. But he either couldn’t see the obstacle or didn’t have enough time to slow down, because he tripped and chipped his tooth, and there was a lot of blood.

Surprisingly enough, even though the whole class saw how everything went down, Mr. Crenshaw never got in any trouble. As far as anybody could tell, nobody in any sort of position of administrative authority ever told him he might want to show a little leniency in his daily detentions. You would have thought that Billy or Pete would have gotten a pass after the accident. But nope, there was the crash, the blood, a visit to the nurse’s office, a trip to the dentist, and when he came back the next day, unable to speak through his gums stuffed with gauze, Mr. Crenshaw was standing there with a detention slip from yesterday. “You know the rules,” he said.

However draconian his methods, the man got results. And now that he was a teacher, Mr. Halfstrung wanted results too. Of course it would have been easy to just copy the touchdown rule, but Mr. Halfstrung ended up teaching at the same high school where he was once a student. In Halfstrung’s head, it wouldn’t have come off as flattering, no, it would have been a blatant rip-off. None of the other teachers had touchdown rules. It’s because that was Crenshaw’s thing. Hence the “first person who leaves after class gets a detention rule.” (He wasn’t married to the name. It was only ever meant to be a placeholder, until he could come up with something a little catchier.)

More than anything, Halfstrung craved Crenshaw’s respect, as an educator, as an adult. But it wasn’t happening like he’d envision. For example, did he really have to still call him Mr. Crenshaw? When could he start addressing him by his first name? There weren’t any rules, really, but on his first day as a teacher, they bumped into each other by the faculty lounge, he said, “Hello Mr. Crenshaw,” expecting something in return, something like, “Please, Barry, we’re colleagues now, equals, call me Dennis.” But all that he got back was a, “Halfstrung.”

His last-one-to-leave rule didn’t really take care of the punctuality problem, but it did ensure that students weren’t packing up too early, which is always a little distracting. Instead of prematurely eyeing the clock, everyone had to sit there and wait it out, sometimes well after the bell rang, which made everyone really tense. Like if nobody was willing to make a move, which was a possibility, then the next class would be waiting outside, peeking their heads in, kind of unsure of how long they’d have to stand there in the hallway.

This left the students in an increasingly weird end-of-class routine. The obvious choice would have been for Phil to get up first, seeing as how everyone knew he came from an almost comically broken home. “Come on Phil,” Doug would whisper in his ear from behind. “Why would you want to go home? We all know you’re just going to hang out outside Seven-Eleven for the rest of the day.” And sometimes Phil would do it, because yeah, there wasn’t really anything else going on.

The first time Phil agreed to stand up first, he thought he’d get maybe a thank you though, some recognition for having done something nice for the benefit of everyone else. But nobody said a thing. And then the next day when the bell rang, everyone was just staring at him, like come on man, let’s go. And now when he didn’t get up, people were giving him these overtly hostile looks, shoving him into the lockers in between classes.

Worst of all, this year almost a dozen students had Mr. Crenshaw’s trigonometry immediately after Mr. Halfstrung’s oceanography. And so every day it was this race, a pack of wild teenagers running down the hall, sometimes as late as fifteen minutes after the start of trig, which left some of the more unathletic students at a distinct disadvantage. Bobby and Stacy, respective captains of the boys’ and girls’ track team, almost never had to worry about a touchdown detention, regardless of how badly Phil wanted to sit there and tell himself that he wouldn’t be the one to ultimately stand up first after oceanography.

It was actually getting more than a little mean, bordering on vicious. Like this one time Phil refused, and Sally, the girl with the orthopedic shoe, eventually got up because she had to leave school early for some specialist foot doctor her parents had finally managed to get an appointment with in the city. Phil thought he was off the hook, but the next morning when he got to school, his locker was dented in several spots, a brick with a note wrapped around it placed at the bottom by one of his classmates who had probably been watching a little too much TV. “Don’t fucking do that again,” the note read, with a tiny little drawing of a girl with an oversized shoe giving the finger.

And Phil wasn’t especially frightened. If all he had to worry about at home were the occasionally threatening brick, he’d be a lot better off. But he had to go to the principal’s office, and Principal Hyde had to call the maintenance guy to help get Phil’s locker open. Phil kept saying how he was sorry, “I’m really, really sorry, man,” even though he knew he didn’t have anything to be sorry about. It was like he was conditioned to say sorry, and maybe he was sorry, just a little, that this was an issue, that he stood up after class that first time, that now he was a target, that the maintenance guy had to deal with this broker locker. Even though he never really fixed it. He opened it, sure, but it never quite closed right the same way again, like he couldn’t get the lock to stay shut. And when he went back to Hyde’s office, to see if maybe he could just switch lockers or something, Hyde looked up from his desk and just kind of sighed, a really dramatic exhausted sigh, like what is it this time Phil? And so Phil understood, he didn’t want to bother anybody anymore, not Hyde, not the maintenance guy again, and so, in an effort to say something, to say anything that wouldn’t involve lockers, he made up something on the spot about recently finding out that he had a mild allergy to sunflower oil, and he wanted to know if there was any way that they could check and see if they used sunflower oil in the school cafeteria.

Phil didn’t know why he said that, where it came from, or why he thought that this might be an easier problem to deal with than a broken locker. He certainly wasn’t allergic to sunflower oil, because back home there was all these empty containers of aceite de girasol that had been sitting on the kitchen counter for what had to have been four or five years now. Phil’s dad would make a move to throw them out every once in a while, but Phil’s mom would start screaming, “Don’t you fucking touch my fucking sunflower oil!” which isn’t really important other than to point out the fact that, one, Phil’s home is even more broken than a few empty sunflower oil container anecdotes can illustrate, and two, Phil couldn’t have been allergic to sunflower oil, unless his mother had never actually cooked with that oil, which would have been unlikely, seeing as how they were always lined up in the kitchen.

Principal Hyde sighed even heavier this time, he dropped the pen out of his fingers and let his head fall into his hands that were being supported by his elbows resting on the warped wood of his Soviet era public school principal’s desk. “It’s not a big deal, never mind,” Phil tried to weasel his way out, but Principal Hyde looked up. “No. No, no sit down, we have to take this stuff seriously. You remember last year, right? The Sanchez girl with that anaphylactic honey reaction? Something to do with bees? Yeah, well, we can’t have anything like that happening again, the district has all of these food allergy awareness measures we have to follow up on,” and he was already shuffling through a big stack of forms he had in one of his desk drawers. “Now, what did you say this was? Sunflowers?”

Which, there’s a good and a bad to everything, right? So in this case, Phil wound up spending the majority of the school day in Hyde’s office, mostly making stuff up about his non-existent minor allergy – “I’m sure it’s not serious, Mr. Hyde, I just wanted to let you know,” – which meant that he never wound up making it to oceanography, and so he wouldn’t have to worry about Halfstrung’s detention. But when he went to lunch that day, it was like the cafeteria workers already knew. They were all giving him a look, it was just like the maintenance guy from the day before, but this was worse, there were a bunch of them standing behind the counter, snarling at him, like thanks a lot kid, as if we don’t have enough to deal with trying to feed four hundred snot-nosed ungrateful jerkoffs, now we’ve got to worry about … what is this anyway, sunflower oil?

And how much food would you think that the school actually cooks with sunflower oil? It turned out to be quite a lot, actually. “Better safe than sorry,” the head cafeteria lady said as she handed Phil his special lunch, one prepared apart from the other students’ meals. Everyone else had bad chicken parm, and he wanted bad chicken parm too, even though he could never understand why everyone called it bad chicken parm, it was better than the bad chicken parm his mom made one time after watching an Italian themed episode of some daytime morning talk show.

But again, that’s another almost unnecessary detail regarding Phil’s broken-home situation. He’s definitely not the kind of guy that talks about it to anyone else, and so there really shouldn’t be too much more of it mentioned here. No, even though he totally has a right to, Phil doesn’t let the nuts and bolts of all of that hard-knocked-life stuff define who he is. He likes to think he’s an optimist, like this whole horrible adolescent experience is just the dramatic precursor to something big and great that’s going to happen to him years down the road. And so if he has to stay for an extra detention every day – it’s not like he didn’t try to get out of it, and trying is something, right? – that’s not so bad. He’s looking ahead, looking at himself years from now, looking back to this very day, and in his future, he can’t even remember anything about high school or detention or sunflower oil. And yeah, whatever, detention sucks, but it’s probably better than just hanging outside of Seven-Eleven. Maybe not now, not today, while the early fall weather still had a lot of that summer feeling floating around. But a couple of months from now? Yeah, detention will at least be warmer.

And so detention it was, almost daily, unless he found himself in a weird sort of funk. Even then, he’d only stay in his seat, make the rest of the class sweat it out for maybe thirty seconds to a minute after Halfstrung’s class officially ended. It’s not like he had Crenshaw’s trigonometry next. That would have been a little much, two detentions. Even though Phil’s a pretty decent athlete. If he had to race everyone else to trig, there’s no way he’d come in last, not on a consistent basis anyway. He’d without a doubt beat Sally with her orthopedic issues. Maybe he’d even make it there first, which would only add to his perpetual state of guilt. And the other kids, they’d exploit it the same way they did in Halfstrung’s class, the same way the maintenance guy made him feel guilty for having to come and fix his locker. They’d eye him down, everyone bringing up the whole Seven-Eleven broken home thing.

Crenshaw, meanwhile, thought the whole situation was absurd. In his mind, the touchdown rule made sense. It was a little harsh, yes, but it produced results. Years ago, administration had gotten all bent out of shape about tardiness, not just at South, but across the whole district. Teachers at various schools tried every way to incentivize coming to class on time. But it was Crenshaw who first came up with the idea of guaranteed punishment.

When he first announced his new idea, people assumed it was a big joke. But to show his students how serious he was, he retroactively applied the touchdown rule for the previous two weeks. There were protests, a big block of students attempted a boycott. But eventually faced with the very real possibility of failing geometry (Crenshaw didn’t start out teaching trig right away,) even the most stubborn resistors relented.

And even though most of the faculty hated the idea of being such a hard ass, Crenshaw’s strict approach to timeliness had an effect on the entire student body. Afraid that every teacher would start copying Crenshaw’s approach, students school-wide started showing up on time. Over the course of two or three weeks, lateness simply wasn’t a problem at South anymore.

Not once had Crenshaw ever seriously considered backing off, not until last year anyway, when Halfstrung started teaching. When Barry Halfstrung was a student at South, while he never really got along with any of the other students, he took quite a liking to the faculty. Yeah, even during his first few weeks as a freshman, Halfstrung knew that he wanted to be a teacher one day. He especially admired Mr. Crenshaw, for his no-nonsense approach both to mathematics and starting class on time.

Halfstrung was even lucky enough to have Mr. Crenshaw as a teacher two years in row, first for geometry, and then the next year when he was promoted to trigonometry. Unfortunately for Halfstrung, the admiration and respect wasn’t mutual. Sure, Crenshaw wanted students who were interested in math, who understood the importance of getting to class early, but there was something about Halfstrung, the way he didn’t even try to suppress that crooked smile every time Crenshaw announced, “Touchdooooown!” To Crenshaw, the whole idea was to maintain order, with a daily punishment the unfortunate means of enforcing student compliance. He didn’t necessarily like giving out detention. It always gave him pause to watch one of his students delight in the daily suffering of someone else.

After Halfstrung graduated, he got through college as quickly as he could, taking as many summer classes as possible, racking up student teaching hours in record time. It was only like three years later that he showed up back at South as an oceanography teacher. (He really wanted the geometry position, but Crenshaw lobbied hard against the idea of having to share the math department office.) Crenshaw saw Halfstrung’s last-person-to-leave rule for what it was, an opportunity to dole out punishment for punishment’s sake, all in the guise of copying an effective strategy aimed at curtailing tardiness. Maybe Crenshaw would let go of the touchdown rule after all. He’d been thinking about it since the start of the school year, but how would he just undo almost two decades of policy? And would lateness become a thing again? Would the faculty start getting all of those inter-district memos, the tardiness weekend workshops? Maybe this was a sign, that he’d had a pretty good run, that maybe now would be a welcome time to retire.


While everyone waited for Phil to make a move, across the hall, Suzanne should have been settling in for Ms. Heaferschafer’s third period World History. But Suzanne wasn’t having a great day. She wasn’t having a great week, really, but today was especially hard. She could feel it coming last night, the anxiety, worrying if she’d taken too much focus medicine too late in the day. It’s not like she had a choice though, not really, not if she wanted to get all of her homework done. Really it wasn’t that much focus medicine, and by the time she should have been getting ready for bed, all of the most active ingredients had mostly made their way out of her system. But just the idea that she might not be able to get to sleep caused her heart to beat a little faster, her anxiety swelled and eventually gave birth to a litter of lesser anxieties, all of them pulling her racing mind this way and that, eventually she saw the sun start to rise out of her bedroom window. Upon seeing that light of the new day, Suzanne went into a total freak out followed by a chemically induced catatonia.

This was because her Suzanne’s mother was up all night watching over her, worried that her daughter might be too worried about the focus medicine to get a good night’s rest. “Honey?” she’d ask every couple of hours or so, not too loud, not loud enough to wake her up, but if she were awake, which, last night, she was up the whole night, she’d answer back, “Yes, mom?” and Suzanne’s mother would say something like, “Just try to get some sleep baby.”

This went on until sunrise, when Suzanne’s mother saw Suzanne start to breathe a little heavier. “Mom,” she said, “I don’t know how I’m going to do it today mom. I’m not going to be able to stay awake in class. I have a huge history test third period. Or, I will be able to stay awake, but I’ll be too tired to do well on my test, too tired when I come home from school to do all of my homework, and I’ve got so many assignments …” she started talking really fast, her sentences blurring together in the lead-up to what Suzanne’s parents have already come to accept as just another bump in the road of their adolescent daughter’s development, a full scale freak out.

“There, there, honey,” Suzanne’s mom broke half a tablet of a mild antipsychotic, along with some sort of a generic label tranquilizer, and yeah, it wasn’t an immediate effect, but twenty minutes later, Suzanne uncurled somewhat from the fetal position that her body had instinctively clenched into while she ranted less and less hysterically about unfinished outlines and after-school activities.

“Suzanne?” Suzanne’s name was called out during roll call. “Present,” Suzanne’s mom tried her best to fit in as she sank a little lower into daughter’s seat.

“Are you for real? Where’s Suzanne?” whispered Craig, one of the boys sitting across from Suzanne’s desk.

“Why don’t you be quiet and mind your own business?” Suzanne’s mom whispered back, although you could tell she was angry, or worried, because whereas Craig’s whispering went unnoticed, Suzanne’s mom’s reply caught the teacher’s attention.

“I’m sorry, Suzanne? Is there a problem?” the teacher asked.

“No, no problem. I’m sorry,” she picked her head up just barely enough to make fleeting eye contact with the teacher.

Honestly, nobody really expected her to pull it off.

“You’re crazy!” Suzanne’s dad tried to protest as his wife struggled to fit into her daughter’s clothes. “This is never going to work.”

“Well we owe it to Suzanne to at least try. She’s been working so hard this year. We can’t afford to have her start accumulating absences so early in the semester. I’ll just sit in for Ms. Heaferschafer’s history test, and then I’ll leave.”

They both looked at their girl, completely zonked out from the meds. She had been working really, really hard. But her mom had been working a lot harder. It’s just that, things were so much more difficult for Suzanne than they ever had been for her mom. And back when she was in high school, there just wasn’t as much pressure to succeed. Even though Suzanne had never let her down, Suzanne’s mom couldn’t shake the feeling that it was only because she was shouldering a lot of her daughter’s responsibilities. Yes, it was the science projects and the handouts. What parent didn’t correct their teenager’s homework before it was due the next day? But it was the study sessions, researching and writing every book report. Suzanne really tried, she did. It’s not her fault that, despite the hours of joint-study after school, she still couldn’t manage to stay on top of everything.

And so what was Suzanne’s dad making a big deal out of? It’s OK to hire an expensive after-school math tutor, but it’s wrong to dress up as your teenaged daughter?

As the history tests were passed out, as Suzanne’s mother wrote expert essays detailing communism’s spread across Southeast Asia in the twentieth century, she thought about what she’d say to her husband after she got home. “Ha! I told you it would work!” Suzanne’s mom imagined herself bragging.

Which was true, so far it had worked, but not in the sense that she thought. See, nobody was really fooled by the appearance of a forty-something year old mother sitting in a high school history class. Obviously that one boy had called her out, and it’s not like an adult teacher is any less oblivious to the students sitting in a classroom. It’s just that, in an uncanny stroke of coincidence, Ms. Heaferschafer’s mother was pulling off pretty much the exact same stunt that Suzanne’s mother was.

Yes, Karen Hearferschafer had been similarly coached by her own mother throughout high school. When it came time to go away to college, she couldn’t imagine the idea of living apart from her mom, and so she stayed home, continuing to receive the same intense help and supervision that allowed her to excel as a teenager. This pattern of support continued through college and graduate school, and now through her first year as a teacher.

“You don’t understand mom,” Ms. Heaferschafer would sob to her mother, having collapsed right after walking in the door. “It’s so hard. There are so many students. I’m supposed to be teaching all day. You have no idea.”

Heaferschafer’s mom had some idea, she had been a career high school teacher herself. “But things were so much easier back then,” she told herself.

And so what could Ms. Heaferschafer’s mom do? There was a test to be given out that day, and if Heaferschafer wasn’t there, how long would the school put up with an absentee teacher? She’d just go in and proctor the tests and nobody would ever have to know. Well, the students would know, but they wouldn’t say anything, because she’d threaten them with detention. And yeah, they didn’t say anything. Similarly, Ms. Heaferschafer’s mom didn’t say anything when she saw a much older woman sitting amongst the students. She’d been there, she knows how hard parenting a high school student can be, so much more difficult than it was twenty years ago.

Back across the hall, Phil still hadn’t made a move yet, and Mr. Halfstrung kept on teaching oceanography, not blind to the fact that Mr. MacCoughley had to teach Spanish II in that same room. All of the students crowded around the doorway, and finally MacCoughley got his way to the doorway, to grab Halfstrung’s attention, to give him a face, point to his watch, saying without saying, come on Halfstrung, let’s speed this up, all right? I’ve got a class to teach too. But Halfstrung just kind of shrugged, like what am I going to do? You know about my first to leave rule, right? Nobody’s left yet.

And even Halfstrung looked toward Phil, like come on Phil, somebody’s got to make a move. But Phil was in hurry a today. He was supposed to be over across the hall, taking a world history test that he hadn’t prepared for at all.

Science fair flashbacks

I think back to high school, all of those awkward social moments, the never-ending double periods of calculus or physics, nothing was worse than the annual science fair. Nothing. I can look back at every other terrible adolescent memory and think, well, that wasn’t necessarily pleasant, but I got through it, and I’m fine now. But I’m still haunted by the science fair. What a nightmare.


The whole idea is ridiculous. We’re going to tell a bunch of teenagers that they’ve got a month or two to start working on a big science project. “Don’t let it get to be too late!” was the generic advice, our teachers warning us that we’d have to present our final projects in front of everybody, that the whole thing would be something like half of our final grade for the trimester.

And I can only speak from my experience, but of course I always let it get to be too late, every single year. But with so much of my GPA on the line, it’s not like I could ever just give up. That would have been academic suicide. So I had to come up with ever-ridiculous ways to somehow bullshit my way through the science fair.

Freshman year I remember laughing at this kid who started growing silt samples back in September for his science fair project due in March. What a nerd. But then I’d see him bringing in all of these tinfoil trays containing silts of various sizes and colors, asking for constant guidance from the teacher, really taking the phrase “above and beyond” and shitting on it, like ha, above and beyond, that’s cute, I went above and beyond back in October, now it’s January, look at all of this silt I’ve cultivated, not only am I going to get a hundred, I’m going to bring everybody else’s grade down just by comparison, because look at this, what do you have, do you have anything? Do you?

Of course I had nothing. So I kicked it into the next gear. Which wasn’t actually a gear where I got any work done, no, but at least now I was conscious of the work that lie ahead. Whereas before the science fair loomed in the distant future, something that I thought about only when prompted, that once-a-month reminder from the science teacher, “Don’t forget about that science fair, boys. Don’t let it get to be too late!” now I started to feel the ever-approaching deadline encroaching upon my thoughts with more of a weekly regularity.

And then it was February and I really started to panic. Mind you, this was all way before the modern Internet. I mean, the Internet existed, but it was just AOL, a shitty dial-up modem that, even when I connected, it’s not like Google was Google yet, it’s not as if there were a lot of even semi-legitimate web sites to rip off ideas from. Science fair projects must be so much easier now. You go online, you watch some YouTube videos about great science projects, it’s got to be a breeze.

But no, I was in full last-minute mode. I found something about sundials, how you could make a rudimentary shadow clock with your basic arts and crafts supplies. I had my mom drive me to CVS to buy all of the essentials, the oak tag, the foam-core board, scissors, a protractor. And then I started folding things and poking holes and about ten or fifteen minutes later I had this really crappy version of something that, if I told you it was supposed to be a sundial, you might scratch your head and say, “Oh yeah, I guess that kind of looks like a sundial.”

I put it in the sun and I got a reading, only it wasn’t anything close to the actual time. I consulted whichever science fair book I’d checked out from the library, and it turns out I had to do all of this work to calculate my latitude on the planet, like I was supposed to use that data to position the sundial at a certain angle to be able to make any sense.

But then I got an idea, I can just make up all the results. Like, I could go back, I could make a chart that showed what it would have looked like had I actually done all of that work. And it’s not like I needed video proof, no, I could just take a picture of the sundial and put it next to a digital clock that I’d rigged to show exactly the matching time. I did this like thirty or forty times and, bingo, all of the sudden I had months of hard work to show for.

Was I actually going to get away with this? I typed out and printed all of these nonsense paragraphs about sundials, I cut out those paragraphs and pasted them to the foam-core board, making sure to use construction paper as a border, to make everything stand out. In the center of my science fair booth I displayed my really shitty looking oak tag sundial and waited as the teacher made the rounds on the day of the science fair.

“Wow, nice job,” he told me after a cursory glance at my complete fraud of a project, “Ninety-five.”

“Thanks!” I couldn’t believe I’d gotten away with it. All of that stress, the two-month-old pit in the center of my stomach, all for nothing, the whole thing was over in about two minutes. I looked over at silt-boy, standing there with his massive trays of homegrown vegetation. Sure, he got a hundred, but I got a ninety-five, and for a fraction of the effort. Talk about winning the science fair, I don’t care who got that ribbon, I totally won the science fair.

And so sophomore year, I didn’t give it a second thought. I figured I could bullshit my way through the same way I did the year before. I waited until about two weeks before everything was due and I bought a bunch of plants at the Home Depot. I arranged the smallest specimens in one group, mediums in another, and after everything was sorted out by size, I cooked up the results that I was looking for had I actually bothered to do any work.

“You see,” I explained to the teacher the day of my second science fair, “I fed these guys water, these medium-sized plants were given soda, and the small dead looking guys only drank beer.” It’s science. The teacher looked at me and was like, “Well, this is kind of a grade-school project,” and I don’t know if he expected me to say anything back, like I certainly wasn’t going to argue with that, but whatever, look at the oak tag, don’t you like my plant illustrations? I did those with colored pencils.

I got a ninety. I’ll totally take a ninety. I got a ninety the next year also, when I did a complete last-minute science fair project about neon lights. And this one I actually feel a little bad about, like in my total disregard for even trying to show that I put even the smallest amount of work into a project, I’m sure I’ve done a disservice, to my teachers, to my school, to the entire education system.

It was the night before the science fair and, aside from picking a topic, I hadn’t lifted a finger. I don’t even think I had any foam-core. And my mom was like, “You’re waiting until the night before to ask me to take you to buy science fair supplies?” That was when the urgency of the situation started to kick in, like, maybe I had grown a little too cocky in my belief that I could pull anything out of my ass, maybe it was going to be hard to fake a couple of moths worth of work into one last-minute all-night work session.

But I didn’t even need the whole night. I found a speaker from an old stereo system in the basement. Next I took a bunch of cardboard paper towel rolls and wrapped them in different colored construction paper. “As you can see,” I presented everything to the teacher, “These rolls represent neon lights. And this here speaker is a model of all of the science stuff that goes into making the neon lights possible.” And I connected the box to the rolls with wire and printed out all of these charts about neon gas, pictures of neon light clipart that came preinstalled on my computer.

“Ninety?” I remember my mom’s disbelief, “You seriously got a ninety?” I’m pretty sure she almost wanted me to get some sort of a ridiculous failing grade, so I could come home and get punished and learn some lesson about hard work and grades and responsibility. But I got a ninety, and so my mom couldn’t really say anything.

During senior year, the science fair was a little different. Each student had to make a bridge out of thin pieces of balsa wood. The whole thing had to weigh under a certain amount, and on the actual date of the fair, the teacher would attach a bucket of weights to the center of the bridge, the winner determined by who’s bridge could support the most weight.

It was the same night-before nonsense, I didn’t even consult any of my resources, I just cut and glued together a bridge that looked like what I thought a bridge was supposed to look like. And yet I was still a little surprised when the whole monstrosity collapsed immediately after the teacher attached the empty bucket used to support the weights. What did I expect? I doubt I even gave the carpenter’s glue enough time to actually dry, and I walked away from my final science fair with an eighty, the minimum grade, the grade everybody got just for showing up with a bridge.

And I kind of felt a little bad, like that eighty hit me all at once, the realization that I never even gave it a shot, the science fair, I never took it seriously. And what else hadn’t I taken seriously? Which of my other classes did I give only the minimum effort, coasting through with mostly unearned nineties and ninety-fives? Couldn’t I have maybe achieved something if I’d actually tried?

Who knows? All I’m left with is that feeling, not of accomplishment, not even the relief of having gotten away with presenting a totally subpar project, but the dread, that pit in the center of my stomach, knowing each year that I’d have to scramble last minute, sweating while I tried to come up with another way to fool my teachers into believing that I’d actually done some work. And who was I fooling, really?

Networking with my old friend Bret

My friend Bret from high school sent me an email out of nowhere. I hadn’t seen him in years. It’s not like we cut the chord or anything, but it went down like most high school friendships went down. We went away to different colleges, sure, I think we might have hung out a few times over the course of the next year, the first Thanksgiving back, stuff like that. But after that, that was it. Facebook wouldn’t be around for another two years or so, and by the time it became massively popular, it wasn’t like I was sitting around thinking, you know what I should do? I should send Bret a friend request.


But that’s how it happened a few months back, all of the sudden I got this friend request, it was from Bret. I said yes. And then the next day he sent me a message. “Hey Rob,” he started off with some introductory remarks, stuff like, “It’s been such a long time. How are things with you?” which, I never really got the whole asking a question via long Internet message. Yes, it’s a mostly nice thing to do, and if we were standing face to face, say we’d just bumped into each other randomly, all right, I can see it happening, “How’s it going?” “Great, you?”

Anyway, after he got all of that mandatory chit-chat out of the way, he got to the crux of the problem. He needed a job, badly, and he was wondering if my company was hiring. And I always kind of clench up at request like this, which is crazy, because how else are you supposed to get a job? It’s not like sending your resume out to the Internet is ever going to work. You have to like know people.

And even though I wouldn’t really say that I knew Bret, certainly not anymore, even though I hadn’t actually clicked all the way through his Facebook page, I was more than certain that, had I given some time into finding out what he’d been up to, I would have totally been surprised as to how different he looked after all these years.

Still, I thought back to all of those times that I needed a job, how I would’ve loved some random acquaintance from way back when to have pulled some position out of nowhere for me. So I said, “Sure, I’ll definitely pass it along.” And I hoped that would have been the end of it, I could have walked in to HR, dropped off a resume, done.

But it wasn’t done. I forwarded Bret’s email to the HR lady, and she wound up shooting me a response right away. “Rob, did you even check this guy’s resume?” And I didn’t, of course I didn’t. I’m not a resume guy. Whatever got me to where I’m at right now, it certainly wasn’t because of my resume. If anything, I’m currently gainfully employed in spite of my resume, that trivial obstacle that I always wind up tripping over as I make it a goal to figure out how to get work.

The back and forth emails were constant, like every two minutes or so, to the point where I clicked print and took the elevator up to HR, maybe see if we couldn’t iron everything out face to face. “Hey,” I told Sarah, I think her name was Sarah, she interviewed me when I was applying, but I don’t know, I hadn’t really been up to this floor in a while. And I could never really gauge how to approach HR, like what was the relationship? Back when I was still a potential employee, she held all of that power over me. It’s not like she was my boss, but that feeling of seniority still felt very present, whenever there was an email, or a face to face, like right then.

“Yeah, sorry, look, I haven’t seen this guy in like ten years. So I didn’t really feel right going through his resume. I kind of just wanted to do him a solid, pass along the document. You know what I mean?”

And she shook her head no, like she didn’t know what I meant, “Rob, look, if you want to network, and I get it, OK, I get the whole networking thing, it’s really important. But if you’re going to do someone a favor, do them a favor. Look at the resume. Do you see all of these typos? It looks like this thing’s current as of 2012. If you’re going to pass along a document, if someone’s reaching out to you for help, you should try to help.”

And this is exactly why I didn’t want to get involved in the first place. Like I said, what was I going to do? What if I tooled around with his resume and it wound up backfiring? What if whatever skills I brought to Bret’s resume wound up negatively affecting whatever chances he’d have not only at gaining employment here, but everywhere? Especially since he doesn’t seem like the kind of guy that actually updates his resume, I couldn’t bear that, the idea that I’d be permanently hindering this guy from getting a job, all based on good intentions, it doesn’t matter.

Sarah looked at me, she was still kind of shaking her head back and forth, but eventually she did this sigh before looking up at me and saying, “You know what I’m going to do? I’m going to do you a favor. I’m going to call your friend Bret in for an interview, but you have to spend some time helping him with his resume. OK? When I see this guy next week, I want to see something polished, is that cool?”

“Yeah, that’s cool,” I didn’t know what else I was supposed to say. Maybe she was doing me a solid, but she definitely felt like a boss in this situation. Worse, when I got back to my desk, there was another email, it was from LinkedIn, a message from Sarah, she wanted me to join her professional network. And that sigh that she did when I was up at her office, I was doing it right now, I tried to log on to LinkedIn to accept her friend request or whatever, but I couldn’t remember my password, or my username, I couldn’t remember which one it was that I couldn’t remember, it had been so long since I’d signed up for that site.

A week later, Bret shows up for the interview. I had to meet him for coffee and we had to go over his document and it was just like I knew it would be, I barely recognized him. And the part that I did recognize, it just sort of jostled in my memory how Bret and I, we weren’t even like direct friends. We hung out with the same group of people, but I never did anything with Bret one on one, it was always within the context of the larger group.

Even weirder, Bret wound up getting the job. Sarah made a comment to me, something like, “Nice work!” And I couldn’t tell if it was my resume-building advice, or if she meant like nice work on finding such a great hire. But Bret got hired, he was joining the HR team. And so now, I mean, I never see Bret, he works on a different floor. But every time I run into him, that thin veil of old friendship, it’s totally overpowered by the slightly thicker veil of is-this-guy-my-boss? And I don’t know? Is he my boss? What’s the HR relationship with the rest of the company? I wish we had a flow chart like I see at other agencies, like an organizational hierarchy, because it’s so weird, I don’t know how I’m supposed to address anybody, and I worry that I’m constantly coming across as too standoffish, or not serious enough.