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Thursday, September 30, 2010

What kind of high school student were you?

To follow Jenn's example and compare myself to one of my characters, I'd say I was a lot like Kara in BALLADS OF SUBURBIA... just without the heroin addiction. But in truth you'll find pieces of the high school student I was in many of my teenage characters. As you can see in this picture, I had the same boots that were on the cover of I WANNA BE YOUR JOEY RAMONE.

I had a love/hate relationship with high school, which made me the rebel who got straight A's. (Almost. Freshman year I got a B in my honors Biology class during the first semester. I stopped taking honors science courses after that. Oh and I got C's and D's in gym unless I was taking dance classes, but that didn't count for your GPA.) I loved learning, I always have, even though I struggled a bit more with Math and Science. (Like everyone but Jenn, who is clearly a genius who is going to rule the world so be nice to her.) I adored English and History and elective classes like Psych and Philosophy. I loved to adapt them to my interests. I petitioned for a Women's History class, which they did institute... the year after I graduated. I did a huge presentation about the ethics of veganism for philosophy and convinced my entire class except for the kid who hung on to some religious idea that animals were put on earth for man to dominate and a hippie girl who worried if it would turn out that vegetables have feelings. Sigh. My English papers were the most fun. Senior year, I did a comparison of Fahrenheit 451 and Trainspotting, two of my favorite books for Humanities. For my junior theme (the biggest English research paper in our high school career, which I actually wrote sophomore year because I was an honors student), I compared and contrasted the lives and art of Sylvia Plath and Courtney Love of Hole, my two biggest idols at the time.

The way I loved and related to those two women, both of whom were misunderstood and struggled with anger and depression, says a lot about my state of mind in high school. So now we are coming to the hate part of high school. I hated the majority of my peers. I hated the system. I didn't fit in. BALLADS OF SUBURBIA is set in the town where I went to high school, the very middle class and proud Oak Park, Illinois. Hemingway was from there as well. They have a classroom dedicated to him, kept in the style it was when he was there with this big stained glass windows. I had English class in it my senior year and I used to fantasize about bullets or bombs or something raining through those windows and shattering them and giving the whole pompous school/town a big black eye. It didn't help that I hated Hemingway. I was a Riot Grrrl and I thought he was a misogynist and his writing bored the crap out of me. I'd read newspaper articles that were more interesting and eloquent. But the one thing that we both agreed upon was our hatred for Oak Park. He said the town was filled with "wide lawns and narrow minds." I concurred. I also thought it was ridiculous the way they put him up on a pedestal when he probably just wanted to spit on them.

My issues with Oak Park and my high school were very similar to Kara's in BALLADS. Like her, I moved to the town from a working class neighborhood in the middle of grade school. (Kara moves from the South Side of Chicago in second grade. I moved from the South Grand neighborhood in St. Louis in third grade.) My parents didn't share or raise me to share the materialistic values that my classmates had. I was teased relentlessly through grade school and junior high, clinging to enjoyment I found in my studies and the few smart but different kids that I met. I was shy, but eventually like Kara I found my way to a park a few blocks from the high school called Scoville where all the freaks and geeks and punk rockers and skaters and ravers and stoners hung out. And those became my people. The friendships I formed there helped me survive high school.

And when I started hanging out at Scoville my sophomore year of high school, the more rebellious side of my nature came out. Before I'd expressed it only through the punk music I listened to and the poetry I wrote. I started to act out a bit. I ditched the classes I didn't feel like going to. I smoked pot and went to school stoned. I refused to sit inside the classroom during homeroom which I thought was just gossip period for the mean kids. But because I'd always been the good kid, I got away with all of it. When I got sent to my dean, he'd chastise me a little bit, but then turn to talk of college, which liberal arts schools he thought I should attend. While I was glad that I didn't get into serious trouble, I was also troubled by the injustice I saw at my school. Several of my friends, a few of them non-white and/or non-middle class, all of them artistic and very smart just not people who learned in the traditional way were actually encouraged to drop out of high school while I was being encouraged to go to college. Our high school's dropout rate was low, so it wouldn't look back if the "bad" kids dropped out, but it would bring down the school's academic reputation if they continued to fail their classes and bomb standardized tests. Rather them try to reach these kids, I saw the school trying to sweep them under the rug. And I knew they would have done it to me, too, but my grades never slipped. I never ditched so much school that I failed classes and I never got so deep into drugs and partying that I didn't do my homework. I rode the razor's edge. And speaking of razors.... Depression was a huge problem for me in high school. Like Kara, I self-injured. As you can imagine, if they wanted the weirdo kids to drop out of school, there wasn't a lot of help for those of us dealing with emotional issues.

But like Kara and her friends, I did use writing to cope. In addition to short stories about kids sitting in diners and poetry about unrequited love and razor blades, junior year of high school, my friends and I started making zines. We had a series of feminist political zines called Kill Supermodels (about killing the idea that women should look like supermodels, not killing actual supermodels of course). I wrote a few personal zines about my struggles with depression and self injury and the emotionally and sexually abusive relationship I'd survived during my sophomore year of high school.

So high school had a lot of ups and downs. Maybe I could have been valedictorian if I applied myself more (I was in the top one-percent of my class), but I was more concerned with escaping. I graduated a semester early and moved to Wisconsin with a friend. I didn't come back for graduation because my school had this silly tradition where girls were required to wear white dresses at the ceremony. I thought it was sexist and only wore black during that time of my life anyway and most of my friends were either older or younger than me and wouldn't be there.

High school by that point had been taken outside for me. I learned from the people in a park that meant so much to me I would eventually write a book about it. And our version of the prom was dressing up in the finest thrift store suits, vintage dresses and fishnet tights, and combat boots and going to the middle of Scoville Park with a boombox where we danced to a mix of ska and punk until the cops came to kick us out. As much as I hated high school at the time, it's memories like that one that allow me to look back happily now.


Tiffany said...

We would have been friends in high school.

Jan Blazanin said...

Steph, thanks for being so honest. I admire that about you.

Stephanie Kuehnert said...

Thanks Jan! And Tiffany, I wish I could have known you in high school :)