I slip into the high school classroom a few minutes late–hell if I could find Room 3031, tucked back there in the Foreign Languages suite. Since when do high schools have “suites”? Did the demise of the smoking lounge make way for the rise of the language suite?
Most of the chairs are occupied already, so I whisper “Excuse me. Sorry!” a few times as I step over legs, hunching, attempting to minimize my certainly-not-a-sophomore frame as it moves through the rows of plastic chairs. I don’t want to block anyone’s view of The Senora.
She’s sitting on her desk, carefully casual while welcoming both parents and students to the informational meeting about next summer’s travel abroad program. As my rump lands in an open seat, she is gesturing to a slide being projected on the Smart Board at the front of the room.
I’m a terrible audience member when slides are projected. Instead of taking in the information, I spend the time sitting on my hands so that they don’t wave wildly in the air. Were the presenter, upon seeing my raised hand, to call on me, I would become her least-favorite person in the room, for I would offer, a tidge too loudly, “You need an apostrophe at the end of students; it’s both plural and possessive, you see.”
Then, as long as I had the floor, I wouldn’t be able to refrain from, “Also, you need to capitalize europe. Names of continents are capitalized. I’m sure you knew that but somehow missed seeing it when you proofread the slides before tonight’s presentation.”
In the space of ten seconds, my helpful notes would freeze the presenter–who, let’s be honest, never proofread her slides–while simultaneously casting a pall over the room. Clearly, it’s essential that I sit on my hands during presentations, particularly those given by educators who can’t write a clean sentence.
It’s the least I can do, this business of refraining from blowhardy corrections, especially since, when I sign a field trip permission form, I edit the thing and send it back signed and with a full mark-up of the errors.
There is this: I give the teachers something besides the principal to complain about. You are welcome, The Principal. As a resentment deflector, I’m here for you.
So there I sit in the Spanish classroom, hands shoved under my glutes, taking in the scene. In under a minute, the feeling of restraining my impulses so as to not create trouble; the cloying atmosphere created by feel-good posters peppering the walls; the tension between wanting to chat with my neighbors while knowing I should pay attention to the teacher; the hope that if I hold one eyebrow down, I might learn to raise the other, elegantly, archly; the subcurrent of “I should care more about this topic than I actually do” making my shoulders sag; the drifting of my brain to Paisley Park and wondering if I will ever dance with Prince there,
all are eerily familiar hallmarks of time spent corralled in a hard high school chair.
Slumped on the plastic, resting cheek on fist, groaning inwardly at the hokey phrases The Senora has cross-stitched into the samplers that stretch across the whiteboard’s eraser tray, I am 16 again.
My eyes read:
My mind responds:
I am the worst student in the room.
The other parents and the few random teenagers attending the meeting are into it. Naturally and easily, they are accepting and interested in the discussion about how travel abroad can create friendships for a lifetime. They jot down the suggestion that teens on the trip bring along $65-$100 per day for spending money, preferably on a Visa gift card. They ask questions about how many students will fit on the bus, the number of tour guides, the range of cell phone service. They nod appreciatively when The Senora assures them, a measure of scorn in her tone, that while the kids won’t be staying in five-star hotels, the accommodations will still be quite good: “It’s not like they’ll have a bathroom down the hall or something.”
A body language analyst’s dream, I fold my arms across my chest. Really? These kids will need $65-$100 per day for spending money? Certainly, I understand not all meals will be provided and that they might want to buy souvenirs. But $1000 spending money for a 16-year-old on a ten-day trip?
As the conversation continues, my arms tighten across my chest. My right leg crosses over my left knee.
Really? Parents and teen travelers are worried that the group from our high school will have to share a bus with groups of teens from other schools around the country? Really? They need assurance that a quorum of trained natives in each country will be handling the actual speaking and communication? Really? They despair that their family cell phone plan won’t cover unlimited daily conversations with their children?
My right foot twitches in the air.
Really? Everyone in the room is relieved that their kids won’t have to walk down the hall to use the toilet?
Hearing all this, my inner Sid Vicious loads up a syringe and methodically pushes the plunger into his rail-thin arm. Three minutes later, as he falls unconscious, his bladder releases, saturating the mattress in Room 822 of the Chelsea Hotel.
Sid may have escaped the meeting, but the rest of me remains alert, teetering between annoyance and amusement. Uncrossing my legs, I shift forward on the unforgiving chair, resting my heels on the book basket below, and apply myself even more fervently to archly lifting a single eyebrow. REALLY?
Well, yes, of course.
It’s not like my daughter attends a tough school. In fact, she attends a privileged, dominantly white, well-off school, the kind of school where taking a crew of kids on a trip to Europe (europe) is possible–expected, even. Of course these are the discussions that take place in the language suite at such a school.
And it’s not like I am truly stunned by the topics being discussed. All of it is standard stuff, aimed at promoting the trip as a safe, well-planned, positive experience.
Nor am I genuinely some sort of misfit in the crowd. In lifestyle, geography, background, and culture, these are my people.
The only thing that is a misfit is my attitude.
This is a common problem.
I can walk into a friendly meeting, an hour meant to clarify plans and answer questions, and within three minutes, my inner Sid Vicious is crawling on all fours towards a used syringe, praying to OD.
My attitude is a damn punk. The rest of me, at best, is aspirationally punk. I like thick-soled shoes, angry music, and a good Fuck You. But, really, to be honest? I’m not so much with needing to pierce, break, neglect, and savage things. I definitely don’t need anyone to whale on me in the mosh pit, either, because owie.
Instead, I’m a Privilege Punk, a woman who snarls in her head while swirling the nutmeg on top of her latte, a woman who reads about Henry Rollins and Black Flag while sitting in a bathroom full of Aveda products, a woman who blasts The Buzzcocks while typing feedback to students about their inability to follow rules.
Indeed. There is something annoying in the language suite at the parent meeting. ‘Tisn’t The Cross-Stitching Senora. ‘Tisn’t the assurances that our children will travel without stress. ‘Tisn’t the other parents, hoping to nail down the details so that they can provide their teens with something they, themselves, didn’t have.
Rather, the annoying thing in the parent meeting breezed in late, sat on her hands, and cheered for the unfolding tragedy of Sid.
It occurs to the annoying thing that maybe she can shape up. Stop pretending to be counter-culture simply because she’s okay with travelers walking down the hall to use the bathroom. Uncross her arms. Stuff her 16-year-old self into a locker.
For 15 bright, upbeat seconds, I do it. I become kind, open, receptive, connected. Instead of correcting The Senora’s slides, I try appreciating how much energy she is bringing to this end-of-day meeting. Even better, I realize that if I mentally white-out her hair and focus on only her face, SHE LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE MY SISTER. Same eyes, same skin, same everything. Whoa.
But then, peripherally, I see on the wall a poster of a kitty. Hanging in there.
In the same moment, someone asks a question about fundraising to offset the cost of the trip, and The Senora tosses up her hands and says, “Fundraising is totally possible. We did a couple things last year–I think five students worked the day we had a car wash, and they each made about $40.”
The car washers had made out better than the kids who volunteered to work at a protein shake shop a different morning–my girl included–each of them netting a cool $6 for their mornings’ efforts.
Continuing, The Senora announces, “I won’t be organizing any other fundraisers, but you could have a garage sale or come up with other ideas, for sure. Whatever you want to do, you should go for it.”
I find myself admiring The Senora in that moment. In a very passive Minnesota way, she is telling the fundraiser enthusiasts to fuck off in their efforts to take over her life by expecting her to orchestrate money-making activities for their kids.
Her message is slow to sink in.
“Have any of you done a pizza fundraiser before?” asks the brown bob next to me. “Like, on a Wednesday, the kids go work at Papa Murphy’s, and they get 5% of the sales.”
With great equilibrium, The Senora affirms, “Yes. I’ve heard of that. If you’d like to call Papa Murphy’s and arrange that, I’m sure some of the kids would benefit.”
The pizza fundraiser discussion gains momentum, with three other women chiming in, “They do something like that at Sammy’s, too” and “Oh, my son’s hockey team did that at Pizza Hut” and “I know Little Caesar’s has a link on their website for fundraising.” As their words fade away, they look expectantly at The Senora who, again, says, “If you want to call those places, you should. You can make a plan for the kids.”
The fact that no one in the room realizes they are being told to fuck off is beautiful. The Senora? Is kind of a badass. Suddenly, in her, I see a Nancy to my Sid.
For the first time that evening, I wish I had pen and paper to take notes.
With 95% of attendees still oblivious to the “Fuck you, fundraiser zealots” subtext, ideas continue to pour out.
To a fantastic degree, I am with The Cross-Stitching Senora: uninterested in, recoiling from, rolling my eyes at fundraising. C’mon over, Nancy; have a perch on Sid’s knee. It’s bony, and his wasted skeleton won’t be able to support you for more than a few puffs on a blunt before he sends you sliding to the floor, but c’mon over, Nance. Give us a cuddle.
The business of fundraising starts early in schools these days, when kindergarteners are sent home from school clutching packets of catalogs, order forms, and listings of prizes they can win if they are effective at emotionally blackmailing their grandparents into buying wrapping paper and frozen artichoke dip.
For the first few years, we tried. We blackmailed relations, guilted neighbors, convinced ourselves we NEEDED a little red clay thing to put into our brown sugar container so that it would stay soft.
The whole thing felt bizarre. Wrong. Bad. At some point, we decided to take a page from Sid’s book and “Undermine their pompous authority, reject their moral standards, make anarchy and disorder your trademarks. Cause as much chaos and disruption as possible but don’t let them take you ALIVE.”
We talked to our kids, explained why selling crap to people who don’t want it is disingenuous and a convoluted type of profiteering. We talked about understanding that schools’ budgets had been cut, and therefore families were being asked to contribute more. We talked about opting to write a check and drop it off with the nice lady in the front office. We talked about recycling the fundraiser packets the day they came home.
Without protest, we had complete buy-in on our new approach of, um, making anarchy and disorder our trademarks. Every last one of us was relieved.
So. No. To. The. Fundraising.
Thus, when our daughter approached us about going on this school trip next summer, we had clarity. The cost was not something our finances would bear. We would not be selling junk to help her raise funds. She would need to earn the money herself.
Because she is diligent and always on-task, she immediately started gaming out the finances. If the group of kids did fundraisers, she intended to participate. Until, well, she learned a big lesson after a morning of not really making protein shakes and not really making money. More fruitfully, yes, we would allow her to tap into love and apply that emotion to a grandma and step-grandpa. She could use some of last Christmas’ gift money from my mom; she could accept a generous check from my mom’s husband. As is the way with grandparents, they were delighted to be of help, and all the better that they didn’t have to order a clutch of holiday-themed dishtowels as part of the bargain. Their support would get her a quarter of the way to the final amount.
The next step was finding a source of income. Last spring, we drove her around the city, stopping at 20, 30, maybe 40 businesses likely to hire a 15-year-old. We brainstormed; we asked other teens; she made lists. Often, after working up her courage to walk into a restaurant or store and ask for an application, she came out empty-handed, explaining, “They only hire 16 and older.”
Eventually, she accrued a stack of applications, filled them out, returned them. She had an interview at Dairy Queen. Crickets.
Ah, but then. She scored an interview with a popular, established sandwich shop. The manager called. She would start the following week.
Throughout the summer and still, now, during the school year, my daughter works as a dishwasher. She scrubs the soup pots, carves the congealed cheese off the nacho plates, breaks the occasional pint glass. She clocks in and out. At the same time, she runs cross-country, does her homework, takes babysitting jobs. She deposits her paychecks into our bank account, from which payments for the trip are made each month.
She has sketched out her past and projected wages and will hit her target.
When she rides with her friends on a big bus through Italy, Germany, Switzerland next summer, she will have earned the hell out of that trip.
These are my thoughts as I sit in the Spanish classroom, watching The Senora duck while fundraising ideas are thrown at her. Only now, it’s not just the parents who are tossing out ideas.
Excitedly, a teenager in the room waves her hand. Frick. Is she about to point out that missing apostrophe on Slide One and steal my thunder?
Nope. She has an idea. For fundraising. Which she’s been doing for the last few months.
She’s been selling scented candles to friends and family and strangers who didn’t realize they needed more scented candles in their lives until she showed them her catalog of scented candles.
As this perky girl speaks, the Sid in the back of my brains reaches over Nancy’s slack body and grabs an unscented candle from the windowsill. Clicking his lighter repeatedly–damn thing’s about out of fluid–he gets enough spark to light the wick.
Then, locking eyes with the scented teen as she explains the details of Pumpkin Spice and Gingerbread Maple and Berry Trifle, Sid moves his palm over the candle’s flame. Holds it there. Watches, transfixed, as his skin changes shade.
Little knowing she’s engaged in a grudge match with Sid Vicious, the burbly scented candle girl wraps up her spiel. A minute later, The Senora wraps up the meeting. Licking his palm, Sid leans over and, with a puff, extinguishes the flame and his presence in my head.
Released from the room, I don’t need him any more.
What I need now is to get my bearings and look at my daughter’s daily schedule. It’s almost time for that night’s Open House to commence. I’ll be attending First Period (Honors English!) by myself, as my husband has a work commitment. He and I will hook up in Second Period, and by hook up, I mean HOOK UP.
Who says I can’t go back and do high school right this time around?
Fourteen minutes and two shortened class periods later, my husband and I wander the halls together, trying to find the stairs down to the band room. In the process, we pass the suite of language rooms.
Hissing to him, I say, “We gotta whizz through these hallways for a quick sec. I need you to stick your head into The Senora’s room and take a particular gander at her. Your job here is to hold up your fingers so that they cover her hair. Just look at her face. She totally has my sister’s face, right?”
Making goofy expressions at each other, feeling startlingly at home in the corridors of the high school, we grab hands and, like the head drum major and majorette, tumble down the stairs to band.
A few hours later, I’m chatting with my daughter, debriefing her on the evening. Yes, I understand her feelings about her English teacher, noting that I do like the lady’s glasses. Oh, yea, we really liked her math teacher. And do not even get me started on the awesomeness of her AP U.S. History teacher.
Eventually, she asks what I learned in the parent meeting for the trip to Europe. ONLY THAT THE SENORA LOOKS EXACTLY LIKE HER AUNT. THAT’S WHAT. Oh, and also a few other things about buses and bathrooms. Plus, there’s a lot of talk of fundraising.
My girl and I take a quiet moment to roll our eyes and exhale disgustedly.
I mention the perky candle seller, which elicits an even more dramatic eye roll. “Yea,” my daughter tells me, “she’s been pushing those candles for months now.”
“I wanted to stand up and shout about the fact that scented candles are actually bad for you,” I added. “It was all I could do not to yell, ‘Those candles do terrible things to people’s lungs.’”
Feeling me, my daughter agrees. “She’s always talking about this fundraiser she’s doing, and I always want to tell her, ‘Hey, if you’re trying to earn money, here’s a tip:
…get a job.’”
And with that suggestion–one that recommends a very traditional path to success–I realize something.
In her willingness to challenge the dominant mindset, to question the legitimacy of group thinking, to look at her peers with skepticism, to reject the energy in the room,
my reliable, studious, self-disciplined fifteen-year-old
is a bit of a punk herself.
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