Tuesday, October 20, 2009

School Story for The Moth

Last month The Moth came to Chicago for the first time to do a StorySLAM. I went on assignment for Gapers Block, and even came prepared with a story to tell in case my name got pulled from the hat. I didn't prepare very well though, I typed the story up that very morning, and spent the day trying to memorize it. I was so caught up in my notes that I forgot to put my name in the hat once I got to the event, and I was feeling insecure about how little time I'd invested in rehearsing. I did get a decent Gapers Block piece out of it though.

It would be a shame to leave the as yet unperformed story in its dusty little corner of my computer, so I thought I'd publish it here even if I never manage to tell it on stage:


I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. I'll say that again - I almost didn't graduate from high school because I failed gym. Not calculus or AP French - no, gym.

I went to a tiny Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, a town about 60 miles north of New York City that might qualify as a rust-belt city, but with none of the accompanying cache. A percentage of the student body was on the fast track to success, but it was widely known as a second chance school, and several of my classmates had repeated a year upon entering, or had been given the choice between boarding school or military school.

As boarding schools go, it was pretty lax. There were no uniforms, no football team - only soccer, and it was co-ed. We had dances, but no prom - that went against the Quaker aesthetic of not making people feel bad if they don't have a date - or whatever, I can't remember exactly which tenant of Quakerism is compromised by prom night.

The PE requirement was, to say the least, relaxed. While I'd spent two seasons on the cross country team - becoming a Hudson Valley Athletic League All Star, by the way. I even got a letter, but since the cross country team didn't have jackets I never sewed it to anything.

I was never a great student, I had trouble concentrating on anything that didn't interest me, and had perfected the art of self-sabotage to the point that every semester it seemed I might fail all my classes, but by some miracle of last minute studying I passed. By the spring of my senior year I had developed a serious case of what is sometimes referred to as senior-itis, and the most athletic endeavor I could bring myself to sign up for was Outdoor Club. Yes, we had something called Outdoor Club, and it counted as PE credit. A few times a week the Outdoor Club would load up in a van, drive to some out of the way, picturesque locale in the Hudson Valley, and go for a walk.

And I failed.

I was in my Outdoor Club coach's office, if that's even what his title was, I'm not sure. It was about two weeks before graduation. My family had made arrangements to rent a car and drive up from Brooklyn to watch me graduate under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree in a ceremony that featured the puppeteer Kevin Clash - best known for bringing Sesame Street's Elmo to life. My coach and I were having what I thought was a friendly conversation. Jack was somewhere in his fifties, he was balding with a monk's fringe of gray hair on the sides of his head, he had a pot belly and all the menacing presence of Santa Claus.

"Well," Jack said, his eyes on an attendance sheet spread out among a pile of other papers on his desk, "it looks like you've missed four sessions of Outdoor Club." It was true, I had. That spring I'd met my first real boyfriend and together we cut class and idled the hours away. By the time I was accepted to college, most of my academics, including Outdoor Club, had fallen pretty low on my list of priorities. Who cared if I wasn't out walking with Jack and the rest of the club? I was so out of here, my life was just beginning, and what kind of a gym class was Outdoor Club anyway?
"Yeah," I said.
"You know the maximum number of absences is two," he said.
"Yeah," I said. As bad of a student as I was, I never made excuses for myself, I took whatever punishment came my way as a result of my bad habits. I spent hours in what was called "special study hall", where all the under-performing kids were sent. We sat together in the dining hall under the supervision of a teacher, who sat at a table grading papers. They didn't care what we did, as long as we didn't leave the room. I spent my time writing notes to my friend Cori. I never did a lick of homework in special study hall.
"Well I'm sorry," Jack said, "but I'm not going to be able to give you a passing grade."

Suddenly the future that I was no longer going to enjoy flashed before my eyes - college, career, family, success - and in its place came a new future, an unpleasant and dark future filled with menial, backbreaking jobs, cigarette smoke and a terrible soundtrack - songs like Irene Cara's What a Feeling.

"But Jack, I..." I stammered, and the rest became in incomprehensible blur of half-choked pleas and stammered explanations, "I... can't... not... graduate... I'm ... already accepted to college..." My tears were so forceful they practically shot out of my eyes like water from a lawn sprinkler, I couldn't see anything. All I knew was that my life was ruined, and that it was all my fault.

"Okay, okay," Jack said between my outbursts, "now let's just take it easy, just settle down." His tone was soothing, listening to Jack was like listening to a bedtime story. "If you go outside right now, and go for a nice long walk," he said, "I'll just erase two of these absences, all right?"

My tears stopped. Could this really be true? Could one walk really make the difference between working in a gas station or becoming a tenured college professor? Was this even ethical, could Jack really do this? I didn't care if it was or not. "Uh, okay," I said, and left Jack's office.

I went outside and walked like I had never walked before. I walked all the way around the school campus, up the hill past the auditorium and the gym, past the boys dorms and beyond to the other side of the hill, past the main building, the science buildings, the infirmary, the girls dorms and the dining hall until I was back in front of Jack's office. When I was done circling the campus I did it again for good measure. To this day I don't know if Jack was watching me.

Two weeks later I graduated under the shade of a 100 year-old oak tree with 65 other students, in a ceremony presided over by Elmo, and never told any of my classmates how close I came to not graduating.


Richard said...

Great post.

You might be interested in this site.

j.cro said...

Indeed, a great post!

Is this the school you went to the reunion for? I wish you'd asked your teacher (if he was still there) if he'd watched you walk. Just for curiosity's sake.

Plus, the wrap up of the MOTH slam was really good too.

MamaVee said...

I would have loved to hear your voice telling that story onthe MOTH. I'm glad I got to readit.

JP said...

What would I do without you guys?

@Richard - that's an interesting blog, I'll have to check it out.

@j.cro - yes, that is the school I went to the reunion for! Jack was pretty close to retirement back when I was a student, so I didn't expect to see him at the reunion. I wonder if he remembers that incident, it would be great to find out. Maybe he has a facebook page I could connect to, everyone else seems to.