There was a very clear track that every kid was on. You “graduated” in eighth grade, and you went to one of the three local Catholic high schools. From there it was good grades, a second try at the SATs if the first scores weren’t good enough to take a stab at Early Admissions, and then the “right” college, where you’d find the “right” person to marry and have a nice, big family with. Simple, clear-cut, easy-to-follow.
I think kids have a better go at pretending they know the score up until seventh grade. I, for one, couldn’t pretend, which sort of bothered me, but later, as I got older, I stopped caring that I couldn’t pretend. I couldn’t get the hang of “cool” to save my life. I was surrounded by kids who, by fifth grade, were merely smaller versions of who they were to become. By seventh grade, I simply stopped caring and just shut down. My parents, alarmed, scheduled a conference with the principal, and were basically told that I was “uncooperative.” I was making no attempt to stay on track.
I left that school in the middle of seventh grade, but not without grave reservations on the part of the one or two kids in my class that would still talk to me. We had been taught that public school was bad, and that it was just a one-way ticket to drug addiction, premarital sex and bad penmanship. I nodded gravely and tried to look sincerely thoughtful about these warnings, but the fact of the matter was that all I wanted was to be able to wake up in the morning without a stomachache.
Fast-forward to senior year of high school. I can’t remember the exact circumstances, but I’d found myself with one of the aforementioned classmates, “catching up.” She’d been a boon companion from first grade up through sixth or so, when the “trouble” really started for me. We were grubby little girls who watched and enjoyed public television, built forts, and wrote stories.
She had become cool, elegant, almost regal. Perfectly sun-kissed hair, tidy sweater. She was looking at Princeton, maybe Yale, taking the A.P. classes and doing everything that she was supposed to be doing.
As I listened, I remembered that I had fallen off the track.
My own hair was an inky black, growing out in dishwater auburn on the sides from where I’d given myself a mohawk. I was failing all my classes except Drama and English. I spent most of my days cutting classes, and writing shitty poetry. What could I tell her?
A.P. classes. Accepted to Tisch at NYU. Student Council. I painted a perfect portrait of the punky-yet-straight-as-an-arrow Good Kid.
She couldn’t have believed me.
I think about that encounter still. Why did I lie? What did I want or need to prove to her? We built forts together, wrote stories.
I wanted us to be the same, wanted us to be on the same track.