The year is 1988--August. I am 15 years old. Not only is it my first day of high school—the 10th grade—which is stressful enough, but my family moved over the summer, so I’m in a whole new neighborhood, a whole new school district, an entirely new kettle of mostly hostile fish.
I know no one. I’m familiar with nothing. I’m comfortable nowhere.
The hallways of my new high school are made of dark brown brick. All of the lockers and doors are vivid red, yellow, and orange. The floor looks of rusty vomit. It’s intensely ugly. And I want to go home.
Allow me to disspell the suspence, I will managed to get through this day without embarrassing myself in any overtly unforgivable manner—I won’t trip down any stairs, or clumsily park myself at the cool kid’s table for lunch; as far as I know, my zipper will stay up all day, my bra straps will remain in place. Nevertheless, I am a black-clad, moody 15 year old who spends too much time listening to Morrisey and The Cure. I am not a happy bunny. I am hormonally disinclined to have a good day. Despite the total lack of calamity or misfortune, I assure you, I will be miserable at the end of it.
And, indeed, by 7th period Advanced Algebra, I’m boiling over with all the loneliness, awkward angst, and depression my glum teenage heart can muster. The teacher hands out 3x5 index cards and asks us to write down all our contact info: parent’s names and work places, phone numbers, our class schedule, the same shit I’ve been writing on similar cards in six other classes all day long. “When you’re done,” she adds, “Flip it over, and write down three things that you like. Just any three things that will help me get to know you a bit better.”
Dipping deep into my bottomless well of discontent, I sneer prettily, and write: Norway, death, and pain.
A month passes. I make a few friends. I tire of The Cure, and, perhaps inspired by the school’s decorative theme? do a whole retro Billy Joel, classic 70’s Genesis thing. Life grows marginally better.
Every Friday the algebra teacher gives us a quick quiz covering the week’s material. One particular Friday my quiz is handed back to me with a big, red ‘0’ where the ‘100% Well done!’ should have been. It confuses me because there were five problems on the quiz and I know I got all five answers right. After the bell rings, I take my big, red ‘0’ to the teacher, and ask her about it.
“You didn’t show your work,” she says.
“Yes I did. Here. And here. And here,” I say pointing to the numbers, and parenthesis, and mathematical whirligigs which I had been lead to believe amounted to work in the algebraic world.
“But it’s the wrong method. It’s not complete,” she sniffs.
“But the answers are right,” I insist.
“But the purpose of the quiz is to demonstrate mastery of the methods I teach.”
“But the answers are right.”
“But you need to show me that you understand why they’re right.”
“I do understand. I understand so much that my answers are all right!”
“But you didn’t follow my instructions.”
“So give me partial credit.”
“I don’t appreciate your attitude, JEDA. It’s disrespectful.”
“I don’t appreciate your ‘0’, teacher. It’s bullshit.”
With that, I storm out of the room. The teacher turns directly to her filing cabinet to retrieve the contact card she collected from me on the first day of school. She wants to talk to my mother about my bad attitude and disrespect. She won’t be having any more of it in her classroom. It’s then that she sees, presumably for the first time, ‘Norway, death, and pain’ scribbled in red like a curse across the back of my card.
I am referred immediately to the school psychologist.
On a disappointingly anti-climatic note, the incident did not go much further than that. I was dragged out of AP European History the next day to be thoroughly probed by the school shrink. When she showed me the card and asked me to explain it, I laughed a genuine, full-throated laugh--rare from a Cure fan, “Dude, I was having a bad day. It was meant to be funny!” Then she asked me why my last name was different than my mother’s last name, and how do I feel about that, then, hmmmm?
They say you can still hear the sound of my eyes rolling on certain, highly sensative telescopes.
My mother was called, of course. Even in the midst of my darkest teenage fog, she knew me well enough to know that ‘Norway, death, and pain’ really just meant ‘solitude, sarcasm, and hyperbole’ in inscrutable JEDA speak. She wasn’t too worried. All she ever said about it was, “You’ve got a weird sense of humor, my dear. Not everyone is going to get it. You might want to considered holding back every once in a while.”
She was right—on both counts. Unfortunately, I have yet to fully absorb this crutial life's lesson. It seems I might have inadvertently spilled some of my dour humor into Elder Miss’s last homework assignment. There’s a very good chance her teachers aren’t going to get it.
Recently EM has started completing and turning in some of her homework online. Her class has a website where the teachers post links and folders with assignments that open and close according to their due dates. The kids have their own accounts and passwords, so they can log on either at home or at school, complete the assignment, then send it as an e-mail directly to the teacher’s inbox. EM loves these assignments. I don’t blame her. It is pretty cool.
Her assignment this week was to share her three favorite jokes or riddles.
“I don’t get it,” she said after she’d logged on, and read the brief instructions.
“Well, surely you’ve been talking about riddles at school. You’ve heard a few there. Haven’t you?”
“I don’t know. Maybe.”
“What do you mean ‘maybe’? Either you have or you haven’t. Which is it?”
“I think so. But I don’t really understand it.” Ah, language issues, which means she tuned it all out, which means she remembers nothing. “Do you know any?” she asked hopefully.
“Ummmmmm. Uhhhhhhhh. No. Or, wait. There’s the one about what’s black and white and red all over. But it only really works in English.”
“Black and white….red all over…..It’s a newspaper, EM. A newspaper.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Well, the pages see. They’re black and white. And they’re read…..sort of?….all over? Not ‘red’ like the color, though it seems like it should be. But ‘read’ like ‘to read’….only yesterday….I…..’read’ the paper..….yesterday………….Oh forget it! Never mind. You’ll just have to tell them that life isn’t funny and you don’t know any jokes.”
So that’s what she did. She wrote “Livet er ikke morsomt”, attached some sort of silly gif of a chicken getting a suntan, then clicked ’send’.
I knew that that’s what she was doing. She even asked, “Should I write that, Mom? Should I say that life isn’t funny?” And I couldn’t stop laughing—cuz’ it’s funny, isn’t it? That an assignment about jokes declares itself to be so tersely unfunny? Isn’t it? So I said, “Yeah, EM. You should totally do it!” And I kept right on laughing—even though EM wasn’t laughing so much—right up until I heard my mother’s voice in my head say, “Not everyone is going to get it.” Then I started to wonder.
EM’s teachers are already worried about her. She spends too many recesses alone with her books. There was an incident right before Christmas where some punk ass kid wrote “EM is dumb” on her desk. Plus, her best friend just moved, and switched schools right after the holidays. The teachers keep me updated. They’re watching her carefully to make sure she doesn’t withdraw any further. What are the chances they see humor in her assignment, rather than signs of increasing introversion?
Mister wasn’t terribly amused either. He says to expect a call. Or better yet, that I should call, apologize, and explain. Pfft. Like that's going to happen. I still think it's kind of funny. But what do I know? I'm Charlotte sometimes, and the spiderman ate me for dinner long ago.