Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Social Studies

School was a difficult time for me — especially my elementary and junior high years. Each school has its own micro-culture. And just like any cultural microcosm, the first order of business is to determine the pecking order — the hierarchy of power.

For students, the process of doing that differs somewhat between boys and girls, but it can be fairly brutal for either group. Actually, I think it’s much simpler for boys. Everything is governed according to size, aggressiveness, and athletic ability. As you get older, there is some credit given for academic ability. But sometimes this can even work against a boy with his peers, as he can become regarded as a teacher’s pet — in effect, being labeled as a shill for the wardens.

The rule is pretty straightforward. The boys that win the size-aggression-athlete lottery intimidate, beat on, and treat as inferior and subservient the boys that come up short on this scale. It doesn’t take long for the boys entering Kindergarten to figure out the hierarchy. Move-ins, move-outs, and physical changes can alter the dynamics somewhat over time, but many are permanently relegated to the same approximate classification throughout their school years.

Just being big doesn’t necessarily push you up the scale either. A big boy that is shy and is poor at sports is likely to spend his school years as a member of the disrespected grunt class. From my earliest years, I knew a boy named Joey that was like that.

Being one of the youngest kids in my class — I was more than a year younger than many members of my class — I was perpetually way behind the average in physical development. Moreover, I seem to have come into this world athletically impaired. I was (am) lousy at sports and I was always one of the last to be picked for any kind of team athletic event.

Being good at sports can help overcome being small of stature. I went to school with Ray from first grade on. Although he was smaller than me, he was great at sports. So he ranked among the popular group in the hierarchy.

Early in life I developed an intense aversion to sports that continues to this day. I don’t know how much money you’d have to pay to get me to watch a whole football game from start to end. You’d have to pay me a lot more to watch a baseball game because I find the sport incredibly boring. Aside from the occasional Olympic event, I don’t watch sports unless one of my children is playing.

In some ways, I think girls have it much worse than boys. Their method of deriving a pecking order is far more complex and sometimes more insidious than the male model. There’s a reason that the word “catty” is used in the English language almost exclusively to describe interactions between human females.

There is also a reason that American politics is heavily dominated by men, some notable exceptions notwithstanding. Our nation’s top politicians are rank political amateurs compared to the average eighth grade girl wending her way through the political minefield that makes up the relationship hierarchy among peers. Why reduce oneself to a lower political status?

Boys can be friends one day, have a scuffle the next, and then be pals again the following day. But if girls that are friends have a falling out, they’ll often end up being enemies FOREVER. Boy fights and girl fights also differ. Despite all the stuff about finesse in boxing or martial arts, most boy fights come down to an exchange of a few clumsy blows.

I got in a few ‘fights’ during my school years. I was challenged several times by guys that, I guess, figured I was marginally wimpier than them. There was a lot of pressure not to chicken out of an after school fight, even if you didn’t think there was any reason for fighting.

The only time any of my fights actually came to physical blows was in the fifth grade when a boy named Ken challenged me to a fight with the warning that he and his friends would get me if I failed to show up. To this day, I still don’t understand what it was we were supposed to be fighting about — perhaps just to establish pecking order and nothing else.

Of course, there were other guys there to make sure it all went off. At first, I just kept refusing to fight. I wouldn’t even put my school stuff down. Then Ken came at me and grabbed me in what I guess was supposed to be some kind of wrestling move. In a panicked response, I brought the ukulele I was holding squarely down on Ken’s noggin. About a quarter of the back panel of the instrument broke off. Ken stood back, laughed derisively, and said, “That didn’t hurt!” But in his eyes I could tell otherwise.

Ken and his friends called out some insults. But the fight was over. I went home scared, angry, and confused. But none of those guys ever bothered me again. The broken ukulele still worked for another 10 years.

I still remember the first time I saw two girls at school engaged in a “catfight.” That turned out to be an appropriate name for the activity. I viewed the spectacle on the front lawn of the school as a girl named Cindy and another girl whose name I can’t remember screeched, scratched, hissed, ripped hair, and otherwise acted very much like two cats fighting. It wasn’t pretty, but it was hard to look away.

Being stuck down low on the school social hierarchy can be painful. Being one of the youngest in my class, I was also perpetually developmentally behind the average class member. I can remember sitting in math class in elementary school, watching others around me busily completing their tests, while I sat there without the slightest comprehension of what I was supposed to do on the test. I got used to being stupid in almost every subject.

The situation didn’t improve much during junior high school. But in the last two years of high school, it was as if someone flipped a switch in my head that suddenly made almost everything I worked on highly comprehensible. I earned top grades during those years while hardly ever taking homework home.

For me, school was a place I had to go that was filled with tasks I had to do. Although I occasionally engaged in extracurricular school related activities, I preferred to stay away from the place during off hours. I didn’t get into the social scene at school and I was always eager to leave at the end of the school day.

My wife, on the other hand, found tremendous social fulfillment at school. She still gets together several times each year with a group of women that were schoolmates back in the day. I tolerate attending her high school class reunions, but I avoid attending mine. I didn’t enjoy hanging out with those folks years ago. Why would I want to hang out with them now?

My graduation celebration was rather simple. After turning in our caps and gowns following commencement exercises held in the school’s gym, I went with some friends to dinner at a Mexican restaurant. I then went home because I had to get up early in the morning to go to work.

Before going to bed, I looked through the yearbook. I was surprised to find myself crying and feeling something very strange. I had been engaged in compulsory public education for a dozen years and had endured what for me was a fairly unpleasant social structure. Still, it was as if I was mourning the passing of an era. It was like being at a funeral. How could there be any life worth living beyond what I had known for most of my young life?

But life teaches us some wonderful lessons. One of them is that life goes on even after major milestones. I spent that summer working at a Boy Scout camp in a remote area of the Tetons. By the time I returned at the end of the summer, I was preparing to begin college. Since graduation night those years ago, I have never had even a single moment of pining for my old school days. Of course, given where I was on the social ladder in that culture, there’s little wonder that I’m grateful that those days are long past.

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