Leaving the Nest

Junior high was great fun. I'm certain that's when sensations became more important than society in my universe. And, man, if I wasn't anticipating them! They would come eventually, as this memoir will reveal: the storms of the kookie Kay, the deranged East Side Pharaohs, and all the craziness of Oscar Wilde and 249 Norton Street, even grad school under a professor who defined the word haywire. Goddamn, I've been so lucky in this incarnation.

The ninth grade especially remains in my genome, its tangled helix running throughout my genes and especially my jeans. Rather remarkably, while lying in abeyance for a while (laying, for the past-participle challenged--I bet that's a qualifying disability worthy of "accommodation" at a certain notorious junior college), an identical aesthesis popped up briefly, twice, in the twilight of my years.

Euclid's Fifth Postulate speaks not of lines, but lives. Parallel lines may never touch, but lives extended far enough, must meet sooner or later, for better or for worse. At least when a person works from first principles, which I've always felt so important. It just occurred to me that even in ninth grade, back when I detested mathematics and knew nothing of it anyway--always the most worthy basis of detestation--formalism had become a way of life. Could it be that sociopathy is nothing more than a metonym for formalism? Or vice-versa?

So what was going on back then? Music and hooliganism, if you really want to know. But you didn't put up with that last paragraph of airy conjectures just to read something so nondescript. You'd like to know the rest of the story. And I always aim to please, so here goes.

Don't ask me when I ever found time to do homework or concentrate in class, for by this era I really was on a roll with respect to raising Cain. Somehow I managed to balance delinquency with pushing my brain just a trifle. While that might seem odd to some, to me the two have always seemed inseparable.

Previously in seventh grade I was completely enthralled by Charles Dickens and especially William Thackeray. Side-by-side I was reading Candy and just in general looking down in the shower where a person shouldn't ought to look, in case there was an untoward reaction. By eighth grade I had stumbled upon a clandestine copy of Lady Chatterley's Lover (the first time I ever saw the F-bomb in print, which I assure you caused a bit of rustling belowdecks).

My Anglophilia was definitely commencing, but then again, Mrs. Shell, our bleach-blonde busty hell-cat eighth grade English teacher who got me thinking big time about the value of reading and writing, turned me on to John Steinbeck. Man, you would never think that someone on pins like those, almost concealed behind skirts from Yonkers of Des Moines, and cleavage a young teen could get snow-blind from, could expect so much of you!

Mrs. Shell was basically unfair. While built like someone straight out of a Bunny Yeager pin-up, she never gave me (or any of my classmates) a chance to meditate erotically. Instead, it was always push, push, push. Nowadays she would be fired for expecting a student actually to be accountable for learning something new. It's nice to have an income, but thinking of this afresh tonight makes me so glad I'm no longer an academic prostitute.

I read everything she threw at us, usually in jig-time, and waited for more. While finger-drumming bored in class one day, I found time to squirt a large quantity of that foul men's cologne, Jade East, from a hypodermic syringe (don't ask me where I ever came upon that) onto the back of Barb D.'s fleecy white sweater without anyone noticing. She never saw it or heard it or felt it coming. But the sweater soaked up the pungent fragrance like a sponge and made her waft like a French tart on dollar day. Barb never did figure out from whence it came, and kept twitching her head, arm over shoulder, reaching behind to stretch the sweater upward, sniffing, turning to and fro, attempting to ferret out what had happened. I never saw such fidgeting again until I met Itchy Archer a few years later.

Something else transpired then. Mrs. Shell (who was married to a former Minnesota Viking football player, if you please) was also my Spanish teacher. What happened is that I fell in love with all language as an abstract creation. Ostensibly, eighth and ninth grade Spanish existed simply to get us conversant with how to communicate about tangible objects, but I felt something more magnetic: language is the source of thoughts, not the converse.

There's been a lot of philias in my life (the suffix of choice among sensualists) but none so intoxicating as glossophilia.

Language is the only lover I've ever had who never wrote a "Dear John" letter.

Mrs. Shell never shied away from treating us like pupils...again a foreign concept in this modern age of automatic promotion. "Teacher" and "pupil" are not dirty words. She never brought the content down to the least common denominator, as I saw happen all around me latterly in my so-called career.

I'm all for relativity in general, but Mrs. Shell expected the class to rise to her level, not the other way around. Among other things, under her tutelage I first conceptualized what the subjunctive mode really meant, having employed it in everyday speech, but never seeing the subtlety behind the scenes. Would that all teachers had that impact.

Can you credit it? While setting the society I had been thrust into aflame, the mysteries of language seduced me, even in those junior high days.

By the way, in English class we were reading Steinbeck's The Red Pony. It was wonderful, and I basically finished the book that first day and night, even though only a dozen pages had been assigned for the following morning. While hanging around the Principal's office the next day, I witnessed a dour pair escorted in to interrogate "Mousey." (The Principal was a dead ringer for Jerry from the Tom & Jerry cartoons, hence the name we assigned him.) These two were the parents of Marilyn, a fellow pupil in English class. They had come to complain about the obscene literature Mrs. Shell was having us read. You may recall that the cowboys in that fine novel spouted a bit of scurrilous language. (Ranch hands have been known to take the Lord's name in vain from time to time--horrors!) In other words, John Steinbeck did what he was supposed to do.

I knew something was up and ever lusting for controversy, hung around for a while to see the outcome. Eventually, Mrs. Shell ascended the hideous shiny maroon painted staircase (which I still dream about often, even though West was razed years ago), swished past me in her incredibly short skirt for the time--she had comely gastrocnemiae by the way--turning into Mousey's office. While trying not to appear too much like an eavesdropper, I leaned in and heard raised voices. Five minutes of back and forth. Then the parents, both flushed, exited.

Parents can be so cruel.

Next day, we all continued to read and discuss The Red Pony.

I really was beginning to see the importance of learning if
ever I was to shuck the leaden weight imposed by a populace wearing shock-collars and living behind an invisible electronic fence called America. In that same year Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger, Tom Hayden, Rennie Davis, John Froines and Lee Weiner became heroes. Goddamn, how I love people who reason axiomatically. Very few had read the Declaration of Independence in those days.

Here's a bit of a postscript. Sophomore year in high school, Marilyn and I ended up in the same biology class "taught" by a track coach who had barely mastered one language, let alone the one the rest of us used. Seriously. I sat behind Marilyn. It's hard to imagine, but it was about forty-five years ago this past spring we were taking our final exam. As usual, Ames was hot and humid, yet another reason I'm glad to have fled north, but since it was final exam day, the dress code was relaxed. Astoundingly, Marilyn's parents permitted her to don a pair of bright white shorts that day (surely the sign of wantonness in the making). Need I mention that due to a perpetual absence of sun, it was hard to tell where the shorts left off and the flesh began? I wouldn't be a bit surprised if she was vitamin D deficient.

Parents can be so cruel.

Anyway, as were gnawing on our #2 pencils filling in the ovals, struggling with this fiendish biology exam (Hah! Multiple choice! Easy to grade and to get on with summer vacation...and there we are back to the junior college alluded to earlier. I'm pretty sure Plato never employed a Scantron at the Academy.) There's some fidgety rustling in the seat in front of me occupied by Marilyn. Eventually she caught the attention of the track-coach-cum-instructor who flushed visibly and gave her permission to exit. White is a mighty canvas. Odd that this should have happened in a class which ostensibly explained menses earlier.

Parents can be so cruel. 

Marilyn's two elders would have benefited from Steinbeck. Or maybe Gonzalo's priceless allusion in Act I, Scene I of The Tempest...at least she might have picked up a thing or two from it even if her parents were clueless...

So, anyway, that's how I got out of West into Ames Senior High. Note to my deity whomever you may be: should you decide to revise your rough draft of the world, leave junior high alone. You got it right the first time.

Next installment: The Transition

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