My mom’s house
It’s important to let kids know what you expect of them before you unconditionally expect it. When a kid doesn’t know the expectations they can’t live up to them, they can’t explain that in fact they’d rather not live up to them, or that perhaps they have other expectations that they’re trying to meet. There can’t be any collaboration if you don’t express the expectations you have, and hear out the kid’s counter-expectations. Kids are serious, and the most serious kids of all are teenagers.
When a kid starts high school, it feels like everything is riding on it. Parents know it, kids know it. Your whole future starts with high school. It’s like the first round of a tournament, and if you get knocked out, that’s it, you may as well start smoking crack and camp out under a bridge.
My 20th high school reunion is coming up, and in honor of that momentous event, I’m writing about the place where I spent my final high school years, where my future got serious: my mom’s house.
My mom had remarried, to my step-dad and they’d had a son who was about pre-school age. I’d seen them only summers and some winter breaks, and knew them in that way you know people when you’re trying to be on your best behavior. My son is about that age now, and I can see how tense and peculiar it would be to have a teenage person move in and suddenly be part of your deal, disrupting the well established patterns that come with raising a baby. My guess is I was pretty disruptive. I was angry, and I was about to turn 16.
Things at my mom and step-dad’s were the polar opposite from my dad’s. My mom was a working mom, my step-mom stayed home. My dad’s house was Christian, my mom’s decidedly atheist. There was one similarity: there were expectations. At my dad’s I’d known what these were, and then watched as the promises that were the basis of those expectations disintegrated one by one. Arriving at my mom’s, it was like I was supposed to start fresh, without any nagging doubts about the stability being presented by this new nuclear family. At this point I had failed to meet the expectations for a promising future. I already felt like college, career, all that stuff that guarantees entrance into bourgeois America were well outside my grasp.
But here I was, with my new parents. The expectations were presented anew, presented as though I were capable of meeting them. Moving into my mom’s house was like if Leia had come home after Return of the Jedi to find that Alderaan still existed and her constituency was pissed at her for not passing a farm subsidies bill in the Imperial Senate.
I came from Notre Dame Academy in Hingham, MA, a Catholic girls school where I felt very much like myself. The school had been my top choice coming out of 8th grade. I’d been thrilled when I’d been accepted, and it was just about a perfect fit. By the time junior year was rolling around, I was singing in acappella choir, I’d been elected to student council. I ran a rather sarcastic campaign, if I remember correctly, and since it was 1991, that really went over. I was getting rides to school with Joy and Jess in Joy’s vintage VW bug, since we all lived in Hanover. Being the under class man I sat in the back seat and held the broken drivers’ side door closed with the designated, hand-protecting, holding-the-broken-drivers’-side-door-closed-glove.
It was late into the summer by the time it had been determined by our fine court system that I’d be living with my mom, and it was a bit nerve-wracking trying to get me into school. Public school was not an option. I suggested that I go to a Catholic academy, but my mom had set her sights on the lofty Germantown Friends School. I could tell just by looking at the place that I didn’t have the grades to get me in. The school looked more like a college campus than a proper high school. I knew my PSAT scores were shit. Sophomore year had been abysmal. As my family fell apart, so had my grades. I had barely escaped failing two subjects. The night before my chemistry and geometry finals, my worst subjects already, my dad and step-mom sat me down to tell me they were getting divorced. I remember thinking: “you fucking assholes, I have two fucking finals tomorrow, and all you can do is talk about yourselves. Are you fucking for real?” I was unable to study. Not because I couldn’t muster the focus and concentration, but because these two geniuses kept me at the dining table all night to talk it out. I cannot recall anything they said after “we’re getting divorced” because I was just so angry, it was like I could feel myself failing two finals before I even got to school the next day. I told my teachers what had happened, and neither of them made me take the final. It was like we all agreed I didn’t have to fail just because my parents were idiots.
I basically talked my way into GFS and stayed on academic probation until graduation. I say talked, but the dean of student met with me and she suggested that I write an essay about something that meant something to me, a special experience or something. I wrote about going to see Lollapalooza with Carolyn and my aunt Meredith, and for some reason I got into school. I’m still almost positive that it was because my parents (mom and step-dad) were willing to pay the tuition. (For the record, the only school I’m positive I got into on my own merit is Columbia, for grad school, and yeah, it felt different.)
At my mom’s there was basically no structure. My parents were at work for most of the day, my brother DB had a Polish nanny who took care of him, and she sort of whisked him away whenever she saw me coming. I spent alot of time on my own, and this was new to me. I liked it.
At school I could see what the expectations were, could see what the other kids were working towards, but I was ill-equipped to live up to them. I had come from too structured of an environment to be thrust into so much independent study. I wasn’t ready to be a free-thinker, there was still too much I didn’t understand about how to form a clear, independent opinion, or decision, for that matter. So I set out to experience what I could experience, and learn about what was important to me, on my own terms. First though, I had to figure out my terms.
I spent alot of time alone in the house, in my rooms above the garage. I had my own private apartment, two rooms with a bathroom, a hallway, a door that closed the whole thing off. I filled the space with books and painted all over the walls. I started reading Sarte, Henry Miller, Simone de Bouvier, Germaine Greer, an old book of my mom’s called Sisterhood is Powerful. WIthin these walls I could expand outside of my skin to fill the space around me. I would listen to loud alt music, Madonna, The Dead Milkmen, The Smiths, and seven-inches from the Philadelphia Record Exchange. I played it loud so that the environment on the outside matched my inside. It was like releasing nitrogen on the way to the surface, and I had a bad case of the bends.
Everything in this new world seemed dusted with a coat of sparkle, and I was afraid to touch it lest the sheen might rub off and I’d be blamed. My mom’s house was beautiful, full of art and expensive things, and GFS was the same. GFS was marked with privilege. The kids seemed really confident and together, and they weren’t in uniforms. I hated trying to find something new to wear everyday, and often just wore parts of my school uniform: the skirt, the sweater, the button down, the tights. The kids seemed rich, their families seemed rich; people were getting cars for their birthdays. Everyone seemed to have these bright futures ahead of them and here I was coming off the worst year in my short life. I slowly started to realize that the people I was living with, those in my new family, weren’t suffering from massive personality disorders. They did what they said they were going to do; they behaved predictably. My new parents left plenty of room for me to figure out what was going on with me, without worrying about what was going on with everybody else. Good lord did I appreciate that, even if I didn’t realize it at the time. I was just so inconceivably angry. It was an anger that I can barely fathom the shape and depth of now.
My rage expressed itself in nightmares. One dream I remember is that there was this woman yelling at me, her hair like fire, her face inches from my own. In the dream she was throwing books at me, and when I woke up there were books strewn all over my room. That wasn’t the only time something like that happened. I would try to pray, I would imagine Christ, his arms open to me. I would pray “dear Jesus,” and his face would turn to red, his eyes flashing mean, a horrible sneer replacing the expression of grace. What’s a believer to do when she can no longer safely pray? I was so freaked out.
I don’t know how I seemed to other people, but I felt pretty weird at school. I didn’t know how close I could get to people, I didn’t know how close people wanted to get to me. Early on in my GFS experience I was invited to hang out with a bunch of kids, and we went to pick a movie. Me being new, and they being gracious, they let me pick. I picked a film called I Spit on Your Grave about a woman avenging her rape by brutally murdering her rapists. Yeah, I was not asked to movie night again. S lived around the corner and also went to GFS so she dropped by before junior fall term started. When I opened the door she said “I heard there was a girl with blue hair who moved in so I had to come say hi.” We rode to school together. We listened to The Cure. I knew that the new life would be alright.
My friend N and I became inseparable. Her family was strict, the way mine had been. They were Muslim, where mine had been Catholic, but strict is strict. Her family assumed that I’d be a bad influence on her because my parents were divorced, but the funny thing is that it was a bit the reverse. She dared me to do things I’d never have had the courage to do on my own. She dared me to have sex with a boy from school that I was sort of seeing, so I did. She dared me to stay out overnight, so I did. She introduced me to her boyfriend’s college friend (they were maybe 3 years older), and decided he and I should go out, so we did. I make it sound like she led me around by the hand, but I think I did my fair share of leading. I introduced her to music, to raves, to feminist books, to erotic fiction. She was really smart, and she worked hard, and made it look easy. I was definitely her weird art friend. GFS is also where I met Rachel, who is still my dear friend. But the most lasting friendship of my life was also made at GFS.
I met my husband in high school.
I don’t like telling people that because it conjures a whole high-school-sweetheart thing, and we were definitely not that. Dave introduced himself to me one fall day on the front steps. There was an instant attraction, and we basically spent the rest of high school circling each other like I imagine warring lions do on the savannah. We had a brief fling at the end of senior fall term. We were in drama and choir together. We went out with other people. We ignored each other. Sometimes we would find ourselves alone together. And that was enough to make us reconnect after we lost touch.
In high school we internalized the expectations our parents had for us. We repeated them to each other, we made their wishes our own wishes. Some of us grew up to be those things we said we wanted to be; some of us grew up to discover careers and disciplines no one even knew existed when we were 17, or invented them on our own. Some of us got side tracked, and some of us never grew up at all. There was a pervasive feeling that the world was rooting for our success, was happy when we were happy, was waiting with open doors for us to walk through and take our rightful place in charge of everything.
I fall into the ‘got side tracked’ category of crashing headlong into chaos. I didn’t know what I wanted to be, except that I wanted to write, although my vision never went past words on paper. I grew up without knowing how to compromise, without knowing how to follow the rules, because, as yet, I’ve been unable to figure out what they are. I’m finally learning that the rules are not written down, that they are in a constant state of flux. Maybe the trick is to go around believing that rules exist at all; and that when the bleached bones of nothingness appear in the shifting sand, to calm the heart, and trust that pretending hard enough can make the rules real, even just long enough to make dinner and kiss your kids good night.