Growing up, I was not the best catholic. Not because I was out “sinning” per say, but because I couldn’t really remember all the stuff you’re supposed to remember when you are in fact “catholic” (I still don’t- do I capitalize the word “catholic”?). So I guess to that degree I could have been out sinning as I wouldn’t have realized it, but really it’s not like I murdered anyone. I felt that was fine.
Every week when I was wee, I had to go to CCD. I have literally been told this means about 6 different things. I know there is the word catholic and/or diocese involved, perhaps “children” thrown in as well. At CCD we learned what you are supposed to know to be a well-versed catholic. And frankly, it’s a lot of stuff. It is important to note now (and remember for the duration of this post) that my brain does an interesting thing. It may be a phenomenon actually: If something’s uninteresting to me, I don’t remember it. Literally, it’s like it never happened. Even when reminded, it may take a moment to get the visual. So as some of you may know, I did not become a priest. My point with that announcement is that I don’t hold a particularly high degree of interest in religious studies. Do you see where this is going? I genuinely didn’t know my ass from my elbow as far as the bible was concerned, and I’m pretty sure I went to CCD for about 6 or 7 years. To this day, if you ask me when Lent begins, I’d tell you it’s sometime around Mardi Gras. I got the prayers down, not because they had us memorize them in class but because my parents made us go to church on Sunday (you capitalize THAT mother) and it was embarrassing to be the only one not talking. So I started by mouthing along and eventually corrected the 5 or so wrong words to the point where I was a passable layperson.
In second grade I had a fit the day of my Holy Communion and refused to wear anything but pants to the ceremony. Somehow, many tears later, I made it there in a white dress and tights. I still don’t wear tights. Awful, fat-squeezing things. The picture is hysterical. For Confirmation I prayed that God would think it was funny that I knew none of the answers to the priest’s questions. For our eighth grade catholic kids retreat where we learned how to be more godlike, I wondered aloud when we would be having lunch.
But when I reached the end of 8th grade, I sat down with my parents over lunch one day and mentioned that I was really tired of the school district I was in. Not just “Oh she doesn’t like it,” more like “She’s an A student and now gets D’s because she never wants to go to school.” Everyone’s hormones were laid out and people were so nasty to each other. I didn’t think I could stand four more years of it, and I wasn’t even really a target. My turning point was when the guidance counselor brought me in for a “We care, what’s wrong?” speech. That about drove me bonkers since it wasn’t genuine, and my eighth grade frame rumbled in no uncertain terms that I was peacing out of that joint.
At that time my dad was the assistant girls basketball coach of a nearby catholic high school that was technically in the same district, but also technically private. Monetarily we were fine, but not swimming in green so my dad said I could visit, and if I liked it we’d figure something out. So one day I got dressed in what I thought was “acceptable” wear for a catholic school and went over. I’m sure I looked ridiculous. I tried to remind myself that it was just like when you pretend in church but in a different way. It was completely different from anything I had previously encountered, but I also really liked something about it. After I took a few exams to test into the appropriate classes, I was elated to discover not one of the essays pertained to Jesus. I could totally do this! So I told my dad that day, and was enrolled for freshman year that fall.
In order to attend, I had to pick up my “uniform.”
“What in the blazes?”
I couldn’t decided for a while how I felt about this uniform business. On the one hand, it meant that I wouldn’t have to think about what I wore. On the other hand, it meant I wouldn’t get to think about what I wore. But my mother, bless her heart, drove me to the skirt store in an old school area of Pittsburgh where they measured my ass and arms and asked questions about pleat preferences. I got two skirts, some closed toed shoes and went to the mall to get a couple blouses to go with them. The pants were another issue entirely. We absolutely need to take a moment to talk about the pants. You were required to have no pockets on the outsides of your pants. You could have what I call the “Khaki Slit” aka the inside pocket that puffs up your ass instead of winding it down. And you could NOT NO WAY EVER SO HELP YOU GOD have cargo pants. You need to trust me on this, I got detention for having a pocket. More on that later.
You go into the situation with high expectations. Something along the lines of this:
Your eyes do not deceive you, and no that is not my ass. The point of all of this is that in my experience, khaki pants, navy or beige or rainbow, are friend to no one. It’s a dark secret of the khaki industry. They inflate your ass and narrow your calves. Who wants that? Seriously, who? No one. That’s who. And I think that’s why we had to wear them- to discourage ass wantage. This didn’t stop girls from doing the wind-up with their skirts, resulting in a bizarre triangular shape that also flattered very few, but I digress.
Let’s fast-forward to the first day of school. I’d never transferred to a different school, and even though a lot of people didn’t know a lot of other people, I felt like a new kid. In my mind most of the kids knew a lot of their friends from catholic grade school, which I clearly did not attend. My friend “Elsie” had come over with me (on the Mayflower) but she wasn’t in my homeroom and we had different schedules. So I walked to the front of the building, literally fell forward onto my face, got up and found my homeroom. My teacher immediately checked in and I was given my alphabetical seat (they are BIG on the alphabet there). I looked around and managed to see a familiar face from my eighth grade god day. We’ll call her “Kerry”. Poor Kerry. I made her be my friend immediately. I did this by forcing her to help me open my locker when I of course couldn’t open it.
I also noticed something in homerooom that morning that I had somehow missed on my visit. To this day I don’t know how I missed this. Maybe they were having an off day when I came to town. But there was a crucifix hanging on the wall in every room. “That’s quaint,” I remember thinking. I don’t really know why I was surprised, maybe it was more of a culture shock. And then the morning announcements came on, and someone said over the speaker “Please rise for morning prayer.” Shut the front door. Well, thank goodness I at least knew my prayers. Hopefully this wouldn’t escalate beyond that. I also noticed that morning that I had a religion class. Hopefully there’d be tutors available.
The school itself was significantly smaller than anything I was used to. My dad, who also went to the school when he was younger (as did basically everyone else’s dad I would learn) had in so many words told me to buck up about that because “When I was in school, it was three times as many kids and they were all guys!” Great. Thank you. That will help me get this person’s ass off my shoulder as I climb the stairs to the third floor. The size differential meant that between classes, you sucked in your gut and got to know the student body better than your own.
I got through my first set of classes alright, but then it came time for lunch. I figured out a few people from class that were in my lunch period, so that in itself to me was a good accomplishment. But when I had to go to the bathroom, I witnessed one of the most perplexing displays I have ever seen. “What could it be, Ingrid, you’ve seen some things!” I know. Here it is: I walked up to the girls’ bathroom, which was probably 20 feet from the door to the cafeteria, and a literal cloud of grey smoke poured out of the door. A fire? No. Literally 5 girls stood right inside the open doorway and smoked cigarettes in every stall. Yeah it was gross, but what I found profoundly interesting was that one of our gym teachers who I’ll call Ms. Bynes, stood directly outside the door absorbing second-hand cancer the entirety of the lunch period. How she never “noticed” the mounds of ash on the toilet seats is beyond me. Especially when I actually heard someone use the phrase “mounds of ash” in a dialogue with her one lunch period. Fascinating. Anyways, I walked in there and looked for a stall that didn’t have the remnants of 3rd degree toilet burn, and all of a sudden a volley of ashen belches started going off. “What do these girls eat?” I thought. To be fair, I am no stranger to burps. In fact as a child, my mother tried to take me to the doctor when I beat my own personal record for burps per hour. But even I was impressed, though I use the term loosely.
And so that first day, I did my best to blend in and went to my alphabetized seat in every class. I prayed my prayers before the start of every period and went home that day slightly proud of myself. When my dad asked how the day went though, I had to be honest about the bathroom sitch. That just wouldn’t do. But somehow he missed my point.
“Hey Zing, how was school?”
“It was good, but dad people were a little bit…”
“A little what?”
“Well, I went to go to the bathroom at lunch and everybody was smoking and burping really loud. And they had REALLY thick accents, some of them.”
“Ingrid. We can’t judge people just because they have an accent.”
“No. That’s not what I’m saying. I’m saying…”
I didn’t know how to articulate it at the time but what I was trying to say was that I hadn’t yet met any city-bred burpers. How would I compete? Not only did they have firepower, but they had accents! Now my dad has a Pittsburgh accent on occasion but having been raised in whitebread suburbia I had no idea how intense an actual Pittsburgh accent can be. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, this is one of my favorite examples:
Now imagine 15 kids standing around a crucifix in butt-blowing khakis whipping that out to the tune of a Hail Mary. I actually hold the school responsible for my occasional one-syllable pronunciation of the words iron, towel, and fire. But these are just some of the things I learned.
The tests I had taken to appropriate my classes meant that I got plunked in second level french my freshman year. Now this is important because the repercussions are three-fold: One, I had to take french. Two, because that level of french was period two, I couldn’t participate in the freshman block of health and other novelties, which was also period two. Three, because I didn’t have the freshman block, I had to take gym instead. Was it worth it? Who can say. But here’s what went down: I got to french and was essentially terrified since there were only two other freshman in my class. I then got to gym and was somehow even MORE terrified as the class had only one other freshman and essentially all seniors. I then realized who my gym teacher was and had no idea what to even do. We’ll call him Mr. Butter. I could spend and entire post on Mr. Butter.
Mr. Butter, known in health class lore for his declarations of “PENIS PENIS PENIS” was an older gentleman in (rough estimate here) his seventies who taught gym and was in charge of many elements of athletics at the school. For reasons beyond me, maybe because he knew my dad from basketball stuff, he was fairly nice to me on the first day. There was only one issue: he wanted to call me Bridget. I have no idea why, but from then on for the next four years of my gym class life I was Bridget. Now everything thus far that day was going fine until a senior I’ll call “Beaver” started acting up doing god knows what with a basketball. The situation suddenly turned dire. I stood there on my first day of what would turn into 7 consecutive months of volleyball, learning about the now infamous “Pendulum Swing” motion for the volley.
“Good Bridget! Just bring your arm back and… BEAVER!!!!!!!!!! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, BEAVER?! GET YOUR ASS BACK DOWN ON THE BENCH! DO IT NOW! DO I LOOK LIKE I’M KIDDING?! GET THAT ASS OVER THERE RIGHT NOW! Now, Bridget, what are you doing? Pendulum Swing, Bridget!”
Mr. Butter’s face used to turn beet red when he’d get mad and it always took a little bit to calm down. His temper could escalate and decelerate faster than anyone else’s I’ve seen in my entire life and the faces he’d make would always remind me of Yosemite Sam if you shaved off all of his hair. And aged him about 40 years.
In addition to hanging out with Mr. Butter I also had the privilege of completing health class outside of school. Because of damn french I unfortunately had to complete the class by my lonesome, losing the opportunity and bonding experience of screaming the names of male and female genitalia alongside my classmates. Mr. Butter taught that, too. The health work wasn’t that bad, except for the fact that I had spent all of this time over the semester completing worksheets on diseases, infections and various bodily funtions only to have the family cat literally urinate on my health folder the day before I had to turn it in for credit. Have you ever smelled cat urine? It’s not just pee, the stuff could be used in chemical warfare. Unfortunately for Ms. Bynes who was in charge of my health exercises, I was in no mood to ask for all of my worksheets again. And while I’m hardly proud to say this, I went to Ms. Bynes’ office and dropped that mother off. Plastic bag around it and all. Poor Ms. Bynes. She had my cat urine-logged health assignments and was battling second degree smoke. I hope she gets some award, I really do.
Now we need to address the source of all these shenanigans, french class. Over the course of my high school career, I had a total of five French teachers. I want you to do the math for a moment. My freshman year was normal. My sophomore year was normal. My junior year all hell broke loose, and my senior year things were fine except for that language I had apparently made up that I thought was french. Junior year of high school, french class was held in a bizarre room that most likely is one third of a normal-sized classroom that some genius put walls into and subdivided into three large closets. It was teensy and if you didn’t know your way around the school it was a room where you’d say “What the hell is this? This is a closet.” The year started alright and we met our teacher, “Dr. Ben”. Dr. Ben was fluent in french, came from Senegal, I believe coached the boys’ soccer team, and never wore deoderant. He was a happy fellow and even though no one in class could keep up with what he was saying, it didn’t really matter because no one in class could breathe.
For the sake of argument, I want you to do an experiment with a friend you trust: I want you to have your friend avoid deoderant for an entire week and stand in a closed closet with you for 40 minutes. Now, I would like you to take an exam in a different language in that same closet standing with your friend. Bon chance, mon ami! It got to the point where someone, god bless their soul, brought in a febreeze bottle and hid it underneath one of the chairs in the corner. Whoever got to class first would spray the room and open all the windows. Unfortunately, Dr. Ben would come in and say
“Why are all of dese windows open? You kids are seely.”
And then he would shut them and we’d all die inside. Our first exam was so difficult I believe I repressed any memory of the questions. My grade without a curve was somewhere in the seventies and I had actually done alright. Things continued in that vein for most of the first quarter, when all of a sudden one day Dr. Ben was not there. He had been replaced with someone named “Mr. Ben”. As it turned out, Mr. Ben was Dr. Ben’s brother. Dr. Ben had been deported and Mr. Ben had been brought in to ensure we had a proper French language education. Unfortunately, Mr. Ben also had been denied the benefits of antiperspirant and ergo, so were we. Things got so bad that the biology class that followed used to harass members of our class. But what the hell could we do? Clearly, this was a deliberate decision to avoid avoiding B.O.
Additionally unfortunate for us, Mr. Ben had grand plans for our impressionable minds from the start. Almost as soon as he arrived he entered us into a language competition he had caught wind of and to our unbelievable credit, we managed in a period of two weeks to come up with a series of commercials in French to present in the competition. However upon arriving, it soon became clear were were grossly underprepared. When asked by the opening panel how long they had prepped, the other schools threw out answer like “7 months,” “all year,” and “prior to conception.” It was a bloodbath and even my massive pièce du fromage wardrobe did not help our cause. So we came back and continued class as usual. But one day Mr. Ben was not there. Now, I’m not sure if he was also deported as the rumors were inconclusive. What I do know is that my freshman year french teacher stood before me. She hung out for approximately two weeks, and then was replaced by one last teacher who taught us things like how to eat crêpes and rap in French. As I like eating and rapping, this finally was an ok situation.
Let’s talk science, shall we? Freshman year I had the experience of “Mr. Willy” who was a very nice person, and knew a lot about biology. But he also had interesting teaching methods. Methods like reading Chicken Soup for the Soul to kick off our pre-class prayer. If you knew the boys in my class, you knew this was a lost cause, but we read them anyway and then dissected things. I studied enough for the tests, but no amount of studying could prepare you for his “relaxation techniques” for test taking. These techniques were the playing of music during exams. This is not an uncommon way to study FOR exams, particularly if it’s Brahms or Bach. However trying to label a cell’s structure while listening to the BeeGee’s is another issue entirely. Especially their duet with Celine Dion that he was particularly partial to.
I still can’t listen to “Immortality” without harkening back to a mitochondria.
When it wasn’t bio, it was physics with “Ms. Trowel”. I just have no idea how to explain what happened in that class. Whatever her teaching style was, my brain just did not agree. It got to the point that during one exam there was a fire drill, to which Kerry said “Maybe it’s a real fire, and your test will get burned. No one can grade it then!” I tried to do study groups with Kerry and our friend “Noelle”, but every time we’d attempt one we’d just get subway sandwiches and chat for two hours. My frustration with the class culminated when I got 5,000% error on a lab and Ms. Trowel, after about an hour after school, also could not figure it out. My chemistry class was ok, except that my partner, whose father knew my father (of course) only ever asked “Are you Italian?” Probably could’ve used a few more fire drills in that class, too.
Religion was another issue entirely. The best year by far was the first, and by best I of course mean most humiliating. As mentioned thus far, my brain has retention issues with catholicism and up until this point in my high school career I think I had managed to hide it fairly well. I’d even convincingly feigned belief when we were taught that the rhythm method could prevent pregnancy for crying out loud. But one day, I just couldn’t stop the train. We were going downtown to humiliation station. I had a nun who we’ll call “Sister Hildegarde”, and as I was an ass and didn’t know about sisters I thought that was her last name. And then asked what her first name was. We would always do review games before each test. I did well on the tests because I would study, but because I knew how my mind worked, I didn’t study until the night before. It wasn’t an “I don’t have time” issue, it was a “this isn’t gonna stick more than about 12 hours” issue. So I never knew what the heck was going on during review games. But we were all lined up in our alphabetical rows, and each person down the line would be asked a question about whatever portion of the bible (do you capitalize bible?) we were studying at the time. I will never forget this the rest of my life because every single face of catholic-raised kids turned around the stare at me after I failed to answer the following multiple-choice question:
“Ingrid. Who baptized Jesus?”
It wouldn’t matter if you were given ten options rather than three. The answer has the question in it, and it would be of course John the Baptist. Hellooooo. My response was the meek
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t KNOW??”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Ingrid. Ingrid, Ingrid. It’s John the BAP-TIST that BAP-TIZED Jesus!”
I will never forget that answer the rest of my life. I probably mumble it in my sleep sometimes. Then there was “Mr. Huang”. While Mr. Huang was not quite a nun, he did leave an impact on religion class attendees. His guitar, ponytail and singalongs were as much a part of lesson planning as anything about the lord. He sounded and looked (in a way) exactly like Crush from Finding Nemo and is perhaps best remembered for his explanation of why we wear clothes: “Well, I mean you don’t want your bodily fluids on the chair when you leave, now do you?”
We did have other nuns, and one of the most potent was Sister “Flodores.” Sister Flodores taught history, which you may have guessed was not my strongest subject. I had to make so many flashcards because I just wasn’t interested in who beheaded whom and what prince denied cake to what. But I vivdly remember sitting in class and being told that we could go to an exhibit at a museum that was relevant to what we were learning about, but
“I don’t want you perverts getting our kicks looking at the nudes.”
“It’s gonna he hot where you’re going, that’s for sure!”
Sister Flodores, if you can’t tell, was rather feisty. She used to stand outside her doorway inbetween classes and yell at the kids to tuck their shirts in, pull their skirts down or just get it together. She also gave me all of my detentions, and she’d issue them on the spot as she stood holding her stack of detention passes in her hand. All my detentions were for having pockets on my pants. Oh, and helping someone on crutches get to class. That was Flodores as well, and no I have no answer to that one. But what do pockets cost you, you ask? An hour and a half of writing the “Our Father” (seriously, thank the lord I knew those prayers of all things). I’d show up with my pockets and sit with the kids that had decked someone and we’d prayer it out.
But let’s talk math. Math started with Geometry and “Mr. Translucent.” The math teachers were either extremely colorful or in the case of “Mr. Bake,” really not. But Geometry with Mr. Translucent was in another tiny, tiny room and took place during a period of time when there happened to be a dying tree outside that smelled exactly like rotting fish. This inspired some distasteful jokes in class when the windows were open and was made more awkward by the fact that we all sat 4 inches apart from one another. Despite his fake name Mr. Translucent was hard to read and sometimes you couldn’t really tell if he was angry or not. That is until one day he left class. In the middle of class. For a very long time. I actually can’t remember if he ever did come back or not, but if he ever did it was a long time later after we’d all sat in the stenched-out room and stared at each other wondering what the hell to do with ourselves. Then there was “Mr. Bake.” Mr Bake taught calculus and we would play “math baseball” once in a while to break up the monotony of the fact that we were learning calculus. Well, some of us. I for one was not. There was one day where for literally 5 straight minutes we were given mathematic instructions for our graphics calculators with the goal of getting the square root of some ridiculous number. Finally when we got to hit “ENTER” I of course came up with zero. Which about sums up that experience. “Mr. Paxton,” for algebra, was interesting in his own right. He used to let us bring in wishbones for extra credit, and my friend “Jan” brought in the death of 26 turkeys one year. Where she came up with all those wishbones, I have no idea. I don’t even want to know. Jan and I literally had the same entire schedule one year which was insane. We went through every single ridiculous moment of the day together, culminating in the coup de grace of perhaps all of our high school experience: English.
The English education we all received at that school was actually very good. The problem was that at the time, when we were reading all of those books and writing all of those essays, it would be impossible to tell that it would all culminate in a meaningful way. And while I can state for a fact that had I not been forced to read all those poems and all of those famed novels throughout my high school years I can count out loud the times I’d have been humiliated in college, graduate school or in various conversations, it’s with all due respect that I would like to say that GETTING to the point of knowing all those things was absolutely one of the most ridiculous shitshows I think any of us had ever been witness to.
It all started with “Mr. Small.” Mr. Small, similar to Mr. Butter seemed to want to call me Bridget. I seriously have no idea, and honestly I didn’t mind it except for the fact that I was seated next to someone that was actually named Bridget. So I couldn’t decide if it was more appropriate to throw a bone and just answer when he called on me, or if the better option would be to wait and see if the real Bridget responded or one of us got yelled at for not answering at all. Mr. Small also had worse handwriting than a doctor and so you were left with two options: form a memory worthy of government employment or bring an audio recorder because you were not going to read what was written on the board. We had to give several speeches and presentations in that class, and I can vividly recall not one but all of mine going slightly to terribly awry. I worked for hours and hours preparing a presentation with my friend “Macy” only to find that after we’d literally wrapped someone in a sheet to pretend he was a rock (illustrating the word “stoic”) we had prepped the wrong chapter of vocabulary words. In another instance I had nothing to give a “How-To” speech on, but considering some of the topics I figured I’d just utilize the near abduction I had one day and gave a speech on how to not get kidnapped. It was terrible. What I remember from that class is confusion and mild embarrassment, but whatever happened I passed to the next round.
After Mr. Small you moved onto a woman who needs no introduction. And truth be told, I don’t know how I won’t use her real name as it is spectacular. I will do my best to pay it justice: Ms. Bampak. Ms. Bampak took our literary minds to the next level by simultaneously teaching us such classics as Death of a Salesman, and also scaring the shit out of us at the same time. I was seated between two different Michaels for most of my high school experience and if one of them wasn’t hearing it from her the other was, which of course meant that I was. She was a force, and the class was difficult not because of the subject matter but because you simultaneously always wanted to laugh out loud but had absolutely no idea for certain that you’d be alright if you did.
One year her room was tiny (are you noticing a trend?) and directly next to the art room. Behind both was a rooftop and after a fresh rain, someone sent a paperboat sailing called the “S.S. Bampak.” It’s really difficult to give presentations when that happens. There would be moments wondering “How the hell did we end up talking about this?” For instance, her stint training to be a nun, her thoughts on the lunch menu, or that one day when she talked at length about the female hymen after a passage from Romeo and Juliet that I really don’t recall being relevant. She somehow always found a way to relevancy, no matter how absurd the topic. I’d seen her hand back entire papers for having once sentence on the last page, issue redrafts the day papers were do, and if memory serves I think a boy was crying in her room one day. This could be a dream I had, I’m not sure.
My goal in that class was to consistently fly under the radar, though that didn’t always work. There was an incident where Macy had been poking me, probably for a pencil, who knows, and I turned around to retaliate. Of course I was caught and my infraction announced to everyone. The irony of it all is that it was a violence breeds violence situation as you feared the repercussions of Bampak. I’ll remember this moment the rest of my life, when Macy and I had to stay after class and Bampak said in no uncertain terms two inches from my face
“Did you smack her, Ingrid?”
And I thought for a solid two seconds. Did I actually smack her? Not really, we were arguing over a pencil. But there was no grey area with Bampak. What would happen if I said yes: we could be suspended. Ridiculous but to Bampak nothing was ridiculous. And then I thought about if I said “No,” which would allow Macy to take the fall, but neither of us would get suspended. So I said no, Macy almost killed me on the spot, but neither of us was really punished since our stories conflicted. And besides I’d rather deal with Macy’s anger than Bampak’s wrath. I still hold the belief that that was the correct decision in the face of impending doom.
If you got through Bampak, you were “privileged” enough to go to the class of the one and only “Mr. Planner.” I have saved his class for last because it was simultaneously ridiculous and fantastic. I have actually since written a letter to Mr. Planner genuinely thanking him for forcing us to read everything he did, and making us take all of those tests, and making fun of everyone that he did. I think I learned more in his class than any other in those four years, but again, getting to that point was a journey. He taught AP English and it was quite a group. I always like Planner because even though class could be ridiculous, he had the wit to respond to people calling books “gay” with
“Did you had a sexual experience with this book?”
Mr. Planner had a fascination with two things, one I could appreciate, the other I could kind of but not really understand. The first was Springsteen, which we’d talk about sometimes when I got to class early. The other was Emily Dickinson. And maybe you’re thinking to yourself that you like her poetry. And that’s great. I like her poetry, too. But I’m not talking about a simple appreciation of her poetry. I’m talking about celebrating her birthday with Emily Dickinson cake. I’m talking about board games and films to commemorate her isolation. I’m talking about field trips to poetry forums that celebrated her craft. I’m talking about a nude portrait he painted himself that we almost would have seen had another student not had the equivalent to a decency report filed at the 11th hour. Planner had lots of interesting things happening in his class, and (trend alert) he also taught my father. I would turn in essays that referenced people in my dad’s grade and get notes back saying “I remember that!” I always found that cool.
We had to make interactive projects that in highsight were a great idea but at the time, for me, slightly terrifying. There were dramatizations of short stories and commercials we’d model after god knows what. And we’d watch them on a screen bigger than three of me. I think that was one of the most frightening days of my life, and class was the last period of the day.
“Mom, can I please stay home today?”
“Why, you’re not sick.”
“I don’t want to watch the commercial we made, I’ll have to watch myself on this huge tv.”
“Go to school, Ingrid.”
The class also showcased in retrospect the most awkward critique of art I’ve had in my life. Planner liked to make visceral, real interpretations of the literary work we’d read, which in hindsight was a great idea, but at the time was slightly bonkers. We’d create interactive projects centered around poems, and in return he always said he would show us a project that he had made.
There is a poem called “Sailing to Byzantium” by William Butler Yeats. You may be familiar with it or if you’re not, you may be familiar with the line “That is no country for old men.” Shazam? Here’s the full text:
That is no country for old men. The young
In one another’s arms, birds in the trees
– Those dying generations – at their song,
The salmon-falls, the mackerel-crowded seas,
Fish, flesh, or fowl, commend all summer long
Whatever is begotten, born, and dies.
Caught in that sensual music all neglect
Monuments of unageing intellect.
An aged man is but a paltry thing,
A tattered coat upon a stick, unless
Soul clap its hands and sing, and louder sing
For every tatter in its mortal dress,
Nor is there singing school but studying
Monuments of its own magnificence;
And therefore I have sailed the seas and come
To the holy city of Byzantium.
O sages standing in God’s holy fire
As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
And be the singing-masters of my soul.
Consume my heart away; sick with desire
And fastened to a dying animal
It knows not what it is; and gather me
Into the artifice of eternity.
Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy Emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.
I’d like to direct your attention to the line “An aged man is but a paltry thing, A tattered coat upon a stick.” In the time since this event occurred I’ve learned how to appreciate art and also more importantly, how to (I hope) non-rudely critique it. But I think I can speak for the majority of my classmates when I say that neither I nor any of us had any idea how to respond to the tattered coat upon a stick that was brought in for our visual consumption: A cane with a piece of cloth over it attached to a piece of wood at the base.
“What the fuck is that?” Kerry uttered. Kerry was one of the reasons class was hysterical for me. She had a very funny angle with which she viewed the world. She also had a near photographic memory that helped us both study for tests.
“What does Maudlin mean, Kerry.”
“Uggggghhhh sad or depressssed.”
So we all sat there looking at the stick with a piece of cloth on it, and then he uttered those four words that make you want to pee yourself when you’re shit out of appropriate responses:
“What do you think?”
I’m sure Mr. Planner could have handled even Kerry’s response at that time, he’d been in the game long enough to have probably seen it all. But I think everyone was speechless, and to this day I don’t know what my response would be. I’d hope it would involve words.
I remember also being forced to almost do drugs to finish papers. I should elaborate on that. Planner would give me good grades on short stories but lambast my papers. And there was a stretch of time where literally all my papers were B+ and it drove me nuts.
“What does it take to get an A!”
And one day, when we had to find a poem and compare it to a literary piece of art, I found the poem “The Tiger” by William Blake.
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forest of the night
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?
In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare seize the fire?
And What shoulder, and what art,
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? and what dread feet?
What the hammer? what the chain?
In what furnace was thy brain?
What the anvil? what dread grasp
Dare its deadly terrors clasp?
When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the lamb make thee?
Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy fearful symmetry?
And then I compared it to THIS
Who painted this? Dunno. What’s happening here? Dunno. I have absolutely no idea what I said. In some form or another I believe I compared the poem to the crucifixion (capitalize?) but probably not in an artful way as clearly I had an appreciation for neither art nor catholicism at that time. But I reread it before I turned it in and clearly remember saying to “Batie Blanakovitch” that
“I’m going to fail, this sounds like I was high when I wrote this.”
But that was the only solid A he gave me on a substantial paper that semester further cementing my confusion. And to me, that is a perfect metaphor to sum up my high school experience.