Friday, April 8, 2016

H Is For Humanities - A Slightly Fictionalized Memoir #AtoZChallenge

     I signed up for the high school Humanities course to balance out my certain near-failure of AP Chemistry. It was taught by Mr. J. Bourse, known among the student population as either Chrome Dome or "Johnny". His distinguishing feature, as you may have guessed, was a nearly bald head across which he pasted a few very long strands of hair. As the day wore on, those hairs would start falling across his face and he would flick them back with one hand while holding a book or paper and pacing the room.
     "Uck, why doesn't he just shave them off."
     "We should get him a rug."
     "Yeah, out of dog hair."
     "You'd think Miss Piggy would do something." Miss Piggy was the derogatory name for the typing teacher; she was tall and bony and a fanatical collector of anything porcine. Both Mr. Bourse and Miss Kraft were known to be middle-aged, never married and weird as hell. Someone had created them as a "couple", pining away for each other but too inept or embarrassed to do anything about it. The girls practically wrote screenplays about the two; secret trysts in the faculty room where they stood and stared at each other through the smoke (back in those days, adults smoked everywhere - the door would open to the teachers' lounge and wisps of smoke and burnt coffee would float down the hall) or exchanging books with secret love messages scrawled in the margins.
     I was always trying to fit in, so I offered an idea one day.
     "Shut up, Fang. That's stupid. Where'd ya get that, watching the Guiding Light with your mother?"
     Fang was the newest monicker bestowed upon me, slightly better than Toothpick and far better than Undershirt Girl. (Forty years later, I am now correcting those "fang" teeth - see B Is For Braces.) I used to fantasize about beating some of those kids to death with a rock or a brick. Or drowning them during swim class.
     For the subject of my first paper, I chose Moby Dick. It was titled something like Moby Dick: Existentialism, Nihilism, and Death In A Literary Classic. I threw in existentialism because it sounded good with the other two, not because my ninth grade self was in any way able to connect it to the other two. But I had a long history of successfully bullshitting my way through English courses, and I assumed that high school would be no different. (Chemistry, on the other hand, was a no bullshit zone by its very nature, hence my assumption that I'd probably be on thin ice.)
     One by one we filed up to Mr. Bourse's desk and presented our titles. Everyone else got a cursory nod and a check. I strode up and handed him my notepad. Instead of the anticipated check and dismissal, he leaned back in his chair.
     "Miss Singletary, while I admire the intended scope of your thesis, the length is set at 20-30 typewritten pages. I'm not sure that you could do justice to yours in under...say...a thousand pages." He kept his voice low but I could sense the class turning their antennae in our direction. Vanessa and Tina had their heads together, whispering, and a wet kissing noise erupted from someone in the rear. Muffled snorts and snickers followed. Mr. Bourse leaned forward and, of course, that cursed greasy wisp fell across his nose. He plastered it back.
     "Stay for a moment after class and we'll see if we can't streamline this just a bit."
     Oh dear god, I'd have to stay after. Maybe if I grabbed my books and scuttled out right at the bell, he'd forget. I could hand something else in tomorrow.
     He did not, of course, forget. I had my bookbag slung over my shoulder and my feet out from under the desk when the bell rang. "Miss Singletary, a moment please."
     "Miss Fang, may I have this dance?" someone hissed. "Yoohoo, Miss S, come closer..."
     I hated Mr. Bourse at that moment with the white-hot rage of the criminally insane. Stupid little man.
     "Miss Singletary."
     Yes, Mr. Douchebag.
     "We'll be covering nihilism and existentialism during second semester. May I suggest that you tackle those subjects after I've offered a more comprehensive background? I think that you might be able to make a case for death either as a symbolic element or as the real-life basis of Ahab's story." (I'm paraphrasing here.)
     "OK." It came out more as an irritated grunt. I just wanted to get the hell out there before the next class came in.
     I suppose that he thought I was angry at his suggestion. "Look, this is an honors class, and so I always confer with students' previous English and Composition teachers. I've read some of your papers from Mrs. Zwally's class. They're pretty evenly split between rubbish and very good. There's no in-between. That tells me that you are capable of some really fine work but only if you are so inclined. Frankly, I get a lot of students who do just enough to slide by. They pad their papers, make things up, restate the same idea a dozen different ways hoping that I won't notice. Don't be one of them. You're better than that. And here, I don't usually do this but I think I have a book or two that you might find of interest." He reached behind him and withdrew two books from the shelves. Death, Society and Human Experience. The American Way Of Death. Oh, he's a ghoul.
     "Ummm, OK. Thanks. I've got to get to the gym, so..."
     "Of course. I'll just amend your title and check you off the list."
     I practically ran from the room and just missed colliding with my arch-nemesis, Vanessa, who was leaning up against the lockers outside. Her eyes flicked to the books in my hand.
     "Be sure and check the margins," she smirked, and theatrically flicked a strand of hair out of her face.
     Had we been alone, I might have grabbed those shiny Gee Your Hair Smells Terrific scented locks and smashed her head against the lockers. Bent her blood-red fingernails back, one by one, until she screamed and apologized. Instead I just walked away. But those talons of hers reminded me of something.
     I'd noticed that Mr. Bourse's fingernails were bitten to the quick.

     Eventually I faded from the bullying spotlight, at least for a time. Jason Wolfe's father lost his mind and shot up their basement (he claimed the Viet Cong were down there). Andrea Marioni's second cousin got pregnant at 16 and was sent to live with her grandparents in Florida. Mike Rusin got expelled for selling drugs (someone snitched because he was actually emptying Benadryl capsules, filling them with flour and selling them as speed - a lesson to never cheat your clientele). During the second semester of that year, some distant relative of mine that I'd never heard of, let alone met, passed away.
     My mom thought that it might be a good idea to go to the viewing. "Since you didn't know Great Somebody Or Other Twice Removed On Your Father's Side, it won't be so bad. Eventually you'll have to go to somebody's viewing that you DO know, and then you'll have an idea what to expect."
     Let's see. Looking at a dead body in a coffin, with a bunch of people that I don't know, plus the possibility of refreshments, versus junior church choir rehearsal that evening.
     I'll take the dead body behind door number one, Monty.

     It was raining that evening. I had on my "good" dress and wedge heels, in which I swayed like a drunken giraffe. As we pulled in front of the funeral home, a man ran out, opened the car door, and stuck his elbow out at me.
     I felt like a celebrity, stepping out of the car, escorted by a man holding an umbrella over my head. Once inside the elaborate front door, my cavalier escort turned around and dashed back out to the curb to await the next car.
     The place smelled of furniture polish, flowers and general dampness. Judging by the architecture, the place dated back to the 1800s at least. I vaguely recalled a scene from a movie that featured a lot of dead Confederate soldiers lined up in the living room of a mansion. The thought of maggots popped into my head. Mom's potpie dinner began to churn in my stomach.  Where was everyone else? Where was Dad? What if he'd had an accident, or a heart attack while parking the car, and we'd gotten the time wrong and I was all alone in a House Of the Dead? (Future Thesis: Innate Paranoia Is the Root Of All Good Horror Fiction). I felt a presence behind me, and then a hand on my shoulder that made me nearly fall off those damned shoes.
     "I'm...oh." We looked at each other.
     Mr. Bourse, dressed in a black suit, his face slightly red, took a step back, then offered me his hand.
     "Miss...errr...Lisa." He cleared his throat. Thank heaven the dreaded hair stayed in place. "I'm sorry to have startled you."
     My throat had that nasty tightening sensation, the one that signals a blubbering spell in the offing.
     "I Dad is...I'm here for a funeral and I feel weird." Actually, I felt like puking as well.
     "That's understandable. It's a difficult time for you, I know."
     I blurted it out. "I've never seen a body, and I'm scared."
     He took my hand and squeezed it. "You'll be fine, I think. You can always take a seat in the back - there's no rule that you have to go anywhere near the viewing area if you don't want to. But it's been my experience that folks who refuse to face that particular fear end up trying to deal with it forever. And if there's one other thing I've learned in life, it's that the living do the hurting, not the dead." 
     Now I saw the little gold nametag pinned to his lapel. Breyers Funeral Home, John Bourse. So my teacher was moonlighting as an undertaker. The persecution possibilities were endless. This little gem of information could be my buy-in to the school cool club. As soon as the thought crossed my mind, I felt disgust. What a piece of crap I am.
     The door opened and my Dad arrived, accompanied by my Uncle in a cloud of mist and pipe smoke. Mr. Bourse gently pointed out the "Smoke Stop" in the corner and proceeded to take their coats. The men in my family are all large and intimidating, with square jaws and lush heads of hair. Mr. Bourse appeared gnome-like next to them. My mind went back to the day I'd stood beside his desk, listening to the hateful whispers and derisive sounds coming from those smug, pimply-faced brats. Surely "Chrome Dome" knew exactly what they were saying, whispering, insinuating. Every day he made the choice to show up for work, to patiently try and teach, maybe even inspire at least one or two of us. It must have been like trying to teach circus tricks to a bunch of jackasses. Evenings he made the choice to show up for work, to greet the bereaved, take their coats, shake sweaty hands and say just the right thing.
     I wondered if he'd always bitten his nails, or if it was a habit he'd started in school - just like I'd begun to pick and rip at my cuticles until they bled.
     I don't remember a lot of what we covered in Humanities, although I got an A+. Much of my time in high school was spent counting the days until I could get out of there. Adulthood was supposed to be the magical doorway through which you stepped and left petty name-calling and ostracizing behind. But it's there, on the other side, sometimes on an even grander scale.
     I still bite my cuticles.
     Mr. Bourse was right - it's the living who make you bleed.



  1. I was a very apt student with declining marks as I stopped trying by grade 10/11. Could NOT STAND high school culture. Dropped out at 17 due to unquenchable thirst for the freedom of adulthood. Never regretted it. Had a banking, then I.T. career which both supposedly required high school diplomas but no one never asked! I'm semi-retired since age 40 with no savings or investments (but with universal health care)! I'm poor and happier than anyone I've ever met. Let me get to the point... Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet is probably the very best YA book I ever read, featuring a delightful character named Fang!

    1. I'll have to check out that book- always looking for recommendations for my students.

  2. very beautifully written, the gem being, 'it's that the living do the hurting,not the dead'

  3. I have vague memories of high school being a similar experience. So true about the living doing the hurting.

    1. There must be a few people who enjoyed high school, but I don't think that I have met them...

  4. I love this sentence: 'Since you didn't know Great Somebody Or Other Twice Removed On Your Father's Side, it won't be so bad.'

    I feel that the petty name-calling and ostracising continues into adulthood. The difference, though, is you have a choice - you can either be a part of it or remove yourself completely from the situation. In school, you're forced to be in that place where all this happens.

    Lovely post. Thank you.

    Aneeta from
    How to Tell a Great Story

    1. I also think that it's easier, as an adult, to just ignore certain bullying behavior. You learn that the opinions of others don't really carry any weight unless you actually respect them in the first place. Thank you for visiting!

  5. An excellent little piece of writing! Apparently you learned something. ;) I went to school back when teachers could still smoke in the lounge. I don't remember there being any AP classes back then, and I'd have been offered them if there were.
    Revisit the Tender Years with me during the #AtoZChallenge at Life & Faith in Caneyhead!

    1. I don't think young people today have any idea of how prolific smoking used to be. People smoked in restaurants, schools, offices, trains, airplanes (!), buses, was really awful if you were in an enclosed place like a lounge. Of course I'll come and visit you. :)

  6. I stopped by to say thanks for visitng my blog, and got totally caught up in your story. Fabulous!

    1. He was a great teacher. I'll never understand the whole comb-over thing, but maybe if I went bald I would...I dunno.

  7. At least Chrome Dome was supportive and encouraging. He meant well, despite the weird hair-baldness combo.

    1. Duh...I goofed. My reply to you somehow crept up to the comment above. :)

  8. Great story - well written.

    Thanks for stopping by my blog.