Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Middle School

Part of Turning 30 Series.

I was not a cool kid. I knew it, and everyone else seemed to know it, but until middle school it didn't really seem to matter. One summer removed from sixth grade, and it was the only thing that mattered.

In elementary school, it was easy to fit in. You're still a kid, how different can you be from other kids? We all watched the same cartoons, the same movies, we all had to sit in the same rows of desks and listen to the same person talk about the same shit every day. Sure, there was a pecking order like any other social group, but I can't remember anyone being truly ostracized. This is why in high school you hear nerds and geeks constantly lamenting how, back in elementary school, they used to be friends with the cool kids(and maybe kissed the prom queen on the cheek behind the jungle-gym), and they were(and did), because no one had figured out(exactly) who the cool people were yet(or even knew what cool was, beyond Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and the Simpsons).

Once I got to middle school, though, distinctions were being made. I didn't understand(and still don't) what we budding teenagers were supposed to think was cool: there was a trend of guys wearing pacifiers around their necks(I guess this proved you were too tough and mature to suck your own thumb?), using styling gel to make what appeared to be a hair helmet, friendship bracelets, Pearl Jam, smoking and a mild disregard for authority(getting in trouble was now "rebellion"). I was definitely not a rubber-nipple sucking, shell-headed smoking twelve year-old, and now I understand why most adults thought we were all insane, retarded, or both.

My clothes, my glasses, and my braces were decidedly uncool. Toys were out, video games were still a neutral entity(but computers were for nerds only), and having the right pair of sneakers was pretty much the most important thing on Earth. Problem was, I kinda still liked toys, I loved video games AND computers, and as long as my sneakers didn't make my feet hurt, well, who cares what name was on the side? With this attitude, I was(clearly) doomed.

It didn't help matters that I didn't know anyone: I went to a different elementary school than everyone else. For reasons I never really understood, I spent kindergarten through sixth grade at Paint Branch Elementary in College Park(on the opposite side of US Route 1 from where I would go to college, the University of Maryland, weirdly enough), while everyone else at my middle school came from the two elementary schools in Laurel. The cover story for this was I was part of a "magnet" program, but now I suspect it was part of some sick sociological study to see what happens when you drop a kid - who is at the most awkward stage of life - into an entirely new school environment. If so, here is what they found out: it sucks. It sucks balls(to quote my seventh-grade self). Tough enough being the new kid, without being the new kid who resembles Anthony Michael Hall from The Breakfast club. Little did all those teasing kids know, though, that I would grow up to be Brad Pitt(Reader's Note: This has not been verified).

Nothing made my coolness(or lack thereof) more obvious than music. I loved oldies, and besides the Top 40 radio hits so pervasive they were impossible to ignore, nothing else. It was my parents' music, and liking it wouldn't make me cool until college(which is when everything reverts, rendering all previous school years irrelevant, thank god). I balked at the notion that a bunch of idiots named the "Beastie Boys"1 could be superior to The Beach Boys. Bon Jovi looked like an ultra-feminine version of The Rolling Stones(a real rock band). In seventh grade English, we were asked to bring in a tape of our favorite song. People brought in the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Guns N Roses, the girl Rolling Stones, the aforementioned Pearl Jam, and my mind wants to say Sublime, but history says this was impossible(it was probably the Violent Femmes). I brought nothing; I was too embarrassed to admit I had no familiarity with anything my peers were listening to, and I certainly didn't want to put up the weeks of mocking that would have followed playing "Sugar Pie, Honeybunch" by The Four Tops.

For another class, we were assigned a project that entailed making your own radio show. You played a couple songs and read a few lines while the rest of the class stared at you(in prepubescent judgment). I canvased my house for any tape that would be borderline acceptable. I didn't own many tapes(maybe Thriller), because I spent most of my time with either my Nintendo Entertainment System, reading, or drawing. Searching my parent's tapes, I finally settled on two candidates: Stephhen Wolf's Greatest Hits, and the soundtrack to Dirty Dancing.

Now, there is a lot your school reputation can weather: a particularly bad week of acne, an stray fart in the middle of class, a lost fight, wearing highwater pants one day, or being extremely nonathletic. Nothing, however, puts a mark on you like playing "Hungry Eyes" and "I've Had The Time Of My Life" to your seventh grade music class.

Hungry Eyes (Dirty Dancing soundtrack) - Richard Marx


Luckily, popular music made after 1970 started to leak into my consciousness, mostly due to my friend Joel. Joel moved into the neighborhood when I was starting the sixth grade at Paint Branch. His family moved into the house of my former best friend, Liana. I was sad to see her go, due in no small part to the fact that she was the first girl I had kissed, and she was interested in continuing said kissing. I really had good reasons to hate Joel.

It was decided by his mother and mine that, because we were born only 3 days apart, we should be best friends. Inexplicably, this actually happened.

Joel had an older brother, Sean, four years our senior(making him a teenager, or as I recall, the coolest motherfucker I had met to that point in my life). When I hung out with Joel, after we got bored playing pretend wars with his expansive GI Joe collection(of which I was very jealous) or playing with his NES, we would hang out in his brother's room and listen to his cassettes. Sean's room was, to my naive and innocent eyes, the lair of Satan. There was a poster for something called 'Megadeth': the poster said it was a)the death of over one million people and b) the best metal band ever. He had posters of half-naked women, throwing stars, and his own TV.

One night Joel popped in "Dr. Feelgood" by Motley Crue. It sounded similar to Bon Jovi, but louder, fuller and much more sinister. It sounded like something that my parents wouldn't want me to listen to, and for the first time, that idea appealed to me. We listened to it again and again; I loved the chant 'Dr. Feelgood' and when Neil wails 'he's gonna be your Frankenstein'. I was such a dork, though, that Joel had to explain that Dr. Feelgood was a drug dealer.

Dr. Feelgood - Mötley Crüe

During the summer after seventh grade, spurned on by Joel, I started watching MTV after my parents went to bed. It was there that I was first exposed(nearly) to Anthony Kiedis's taint.

Give It Away Now - The Red Hot Chili Peppers

Indeed, if not for some his sequined speedo(or whatever that was), we would all know Anthony a little better(enough to be on a first name basis). The video for "Give It Away" now was a revelation to me. There, in black and white, were four sexually-charged acrylic-silver painted musicsatyrs . Fueled by love, lust, joy and for some of them, heroin. Where had this world been my entire life? How could I ever join it?(would I need silver paint and horns?)

Watching late into the night(two in the morning was scandalous to my middle-school mind), I saw videos like Nirvana's "Lithium" and Pearl Jam's "Jeremy", giving my cast-off, loser self an outlet that told me I wasn't alone. I would grow up and still be bitching apparently(with power chords), but I wasn't alone. Watching at the house of a friend I met through Joel, I discovered the angry side of my angst: Metallica. If there is a perfect song for feeling alienated, alone and powerless to change anything(and all before 13), it's "The Unforgiven".

The Unforgiven - Metallica

That same friend of a friend introduced me to the awesomeness of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", bringing some unbridled joy and silliness to my music(though it begins and ends with melancholia).

I wanted more, and I wanted my own music. I bought Nevermind, Ten, borrowed the Black album(hey, CDs were expensive back then), and then, on my birthday, my brother Scott was the first person to ever give me an album. And what an album, Automatic For The People, by REM. Contemplative and mournful, with classics like "Everybody Hurts" and "Man on The Moon", it was the perfect record to have right before high school.

Man On The Moon (Album Version) - BILL BERRY


1During an actual argument I had with some kids about the Beastie Boys, an adult overheard us and said that I was right, no one would remember any of the crap the other kids listened to in thirty years. I guess we both underestimated Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock, and sometimes sixth-graders are visionaries(Hannah Montana notwithstanding).