Saturday, October 20, 2018

Where's My Barry Manilow Wardrobe?

I don't write about school often. I don't want to gripe, complain or harangue about my job. I've worked enough shitty jobs to know that as shitty a job that teaching can be sometimes, I've got a pretty good gig. This week I had something happen in Study Hall of all places that got me thinking about who we are in the stories of the people around us.

A little backstory. I have a spinal condition called Scheurmann's kyphosis. In short, I'm hunchbacked. It's not aesthetically pleasing to look at, especially if I'm tired and/or wearing something that is a little more form fitting than I normally would. Such was the case in junior high when the head cheerleader, who sat across from me in art class, loudly asked about the hump in my sweater. That afternoon I asked my mother to take me to the doctor because of it and was given a name while showing me the sheer power of being the head cheerleader. In the pre-Internet days of the late-80s, I was left with a cheery description from the doctor: a rounding of the spine, a wedging of the vertebrae and a larger lung capacity (not that it helped when I had to run the mile), so take that head cheerleader. (If you happen to read this since we are friends on Facebook, there is honestly no hard feelings for this despite the tone that it may have.) Over the years, the back has caused many levels of pain, from slight discomfort to Crooks from OF MICE AND MEN level body repositioning including the fracturing of several vertebrae while taking a jump I had no business jumping while skiing to impress a girl when I was seventeen.

I'm self deprecating about it for the most part, dressing as the "Hunchback of Notre Dame" one year by wearing a Notre Dame sweatshirt. The degree of my "hump" depends on my weight, if I'm lifting, what I'm wearing and how tired I am. It oscillates from full on Quasimodo to slightly slumped.

For the last few weeks I've been  finishing a tough rewrite (it's done and delivered), so I've been working after the kids go to bed, staying up past midnight while still waking up at 6-6:30. So, by the time I get to study hall 9th period (out of 10), I'm gassed.

I must have been sitting more slumped than usual (the sweater I wore didn't help) and one of the precocious ninth graders noticed my severely slumped posture, loudly pointing it out to his boys, who then spent the rest of study hall mocking me with banal attempts at cruelty without actually saying it to my face. (They're ALWAYS cowards.) One (at least) took a picture, posting it or sending it out to their friends. That bothered me. I don't want to be a meme or go viral. It was the reason I didn't engage when I had every right to. If I were to engage them (with no physical proof), then I'm the crazy white teacher that goes viral. As I so often do, I absorbed the hits. Luckily, the next period two of my seniors both told me they liked the way the sweater looked on me. So, obviously we are dealing with some real a-holes.

This rolled around in my head for the rest of the afternoon and for a while after. Why were the opinions of some highly immature 9th graders affecting me like this? As I often do, I tried to frame it beyond simple cruelty and I couldn't. It also made me think of Richard Vernon.



Yes, THAT Richard Vernon. The quintessential dickhead 80s principal ( Ed Rooney is an acceptable equivalent) played by quintessential dickhead 80s actor Paul Gleeson. To be fair, I have no idea if he was actually a dickhead, but he made a career out of playing them. (There's a later post about my dream 80s movie called The Dickheads.) Richard Vernon was one of our generations great villains. Darth Vader, Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, Steff, Doug Neidermeyer, Johnny Lawrence (though there's a perfectly valid argument to be made that Daniel LaRusso is actually the villain in THE KARATE KID) then Vernon. When Gleeson played the irascible Vernon, he was forty-five. I am presently the same age. It dawned on me in that moment, to these kids, I'm the Richard Vernon to their John Bender in the story of their lives. Suddenly, it put everything into perspective.

To this day, Vernon is still one of the great villains to many. but in the proper context, especially considering my age compared to his, he's a vastly more interesting and sympathetic character than he was when I was younger. Could you imagine having to come into school on a Saturday morning to oversee detention? I'd be salty too. There's also a great but brief scene in THE BREAKFAST CLUB that sheds new light on Vernon and his Barry Manilow wardrobe. He's alone in the hall and there's a close up on his face. Instead of the smarmy, cruel Vernon we get a weary, lonely middle aged man. We learn nothing else about his character beyond what we need to know about him as the protagonist to our intrepid band of heroes. At this stage of my life, I find him a far more sympathetic character that I have more in common with and maybe I always did. And maybe that's the way these kids saw me and reacted in the limited way they could. (Barry Manilow wardrobe would be far above their pay grade.)

While I don't think I'm Vernon-level of cruel despite the reactions of a few fallow freshman, I see where I might fit in their stories, though I like to think that I'm more of a benignly, blundering Mr. Belding instead.

3 comments:

bgfay.com said...

John, this is the way that people should write about school. It's artful and honest but never mopey or self-congratulating. I can hear those kids. I can also hear those thoughts in your head. I'm not so sure I would have handled it as well as you did here. My whole mission at school this year is to float, to let the waves move me up and down but not sink me. So far... Well, I'll keep you posted.

I might share this with students if you don't mind. I can take your name off it if you like.

John Zeleznik said...

Be my guest, Brian.

And in the words of Dory...just keep swimming.

Carol Christine said...

So glad that Brian brought this writing to mt attention...