Two quick things before we get started.
First, I want to congratulate Arcade Fire for winning Album of the Year at the Grammys on Sunday. Arcade Fire, the only independent nominee, beat out heavyweights Eminem, Lady Gaga, Katy Perry and Lady Antebellum for the biggest prize in music (I’d equate this to the Packers winning the Super Bowl if I was interested in having trash thrown at me when I walk down the street). If you like them or not, you should still appreciate that this sort of thing can happen in the bizarre musical climate of 2011. I told you they would be the biggest band in the world back in 2004, and I’m telling you again now. And seriously, who else should have won?
Secondly, you may have noticed that I’ve been rather tight-lipped on all of the current drama taking place in Wisconsin concerning the proposed bill to bust the unions and privatize state government. For the record, I have nothing new or constructive to bring to this argument that hasn’t already been said. As a state employee, I generally agree with most everything that is being argued in opposition to this bill, and hope that some sort of compromise can take place. I like my job, I like my union, and I like the state of Wisconsin, and I hope that they all emerge from this fiasco as unscathed as possible. Any other thoughts I have about this are mostly blisteringly hate-fueled and likely to set the movement back a few steps. So there you go.
Now on to my story. It’s about retribution. Validation. Overcoming one’s fears. Miraculously learning to walk again after a tragic combine accident. Wait, scratch that last one.
Several months ago, my old friend Nicole requested that I come in to Janesville Craig High School to talk to her English students about my writing, books and anything else that came to mind. Apparently, she had been reading my essays to them for several weeks, and thought it would be nice to bring me in, have me say hello, read an essay or two and hit the road.
Educating and entertaining high schoolers has been Nicole’s job for eight years now. It’s second nature to her. She’s animated, intelligent, fearless of public speaking and generally unflappable. So she didn’t seem to understand why I flat-out refused the request the first 10 times she asked me. The idea of speaking to teenagers, and actually attempting to make them laugh, seemed like suicide to me. Literally the most disastrous thing I could possibly think of doing. Maybe even my #1 Fear. I was certain that no student in her class would be interested in seeing me, nor would I be able to win any of them over. Furthermore, teenagers aren’t exactly my target demographic. Sure, my stories of adolescence and teenage awkwardness would seem up their alley, but that sort of stuff is generally appreciated by adults years (and possibly decades) after the fact. Who wants to read about how much being a teenager sucks while you’re living it every day?
I remember what it was like when a speaker came into my high school. They were boring. Preachy. Woefully out of touch with youth. I hated them. Now I was going to become one of them?
No. I wasn’t going to do such a thing.
Over a decade ago, I gave up my dreams of being a rock star so I could write funny stories from the privacy of my Rumpus Room, and it’s what I’ve been enjoying. I don’t tour on my books. I’m not popular enough to get noticed on the street. I do 90% of my communication through Social Networking and e-mail. I seldom put on pants. This has been working for me, and you don’t screw with happiness.
Then I talked to my mother.
Every time I have a conversation with my mother, I eventually accuse her of being an agoraphobic, xenophobic recluse that sold out her dreams in favor of safety and security. I don’t like that she’s afraid of driving over bridges. I don’t like that she turns down gatherings for fear of feeling out of place. After my typical elitist bashing, I hung up the phone and soundly proclaimed myself a hypocrite. I knew now that I had to speak at that high school, even if it killed me (or at least made me throw up in the parking lot).
I e-mailed Nicole and told her I was in, then proceeded to ask her a thousand questions to prepare me for what I was in for. Not only had I not set foot in a high school since 2000, my graduating class was 100 people I knew on a first-name basis. Janesville Craig had a population of 1600 students on a sprawling campus, and I was still operating under the assumption that none of them knew (or cared) who I was. Nicole tried her best to put me at ease, reminding me that this was to be an informal, fun Friday spent talking to young adults about whatever I wanted; this was a win/win scenario.
Then she told me her class sizes were 30-50 kids, and I nearly pissed myself at the thought.
Before I could once again talk myself out of it, I finally found myself sitting in my car in the parking lot of Janesville Craig. I was wearing a tie. I brought books to give away. I jotted down pages of notes the night before in case I lost my train of thought. I was prepared, but I couldn’t even open the door to walk into the school come 7:30am. When I finally did, stepping into the front lobby bustling with kids arriving for their day, I heard the following exchange behind me:
“Hey, who’s that?”
“I don’t know. Who gives a shit?”
“He’s scaring me.”
(Muffled giggles of sadness and failure.)
I heard this five seconds after I walked into the school.
“That’s it,” I thought to myself. “I’m out. This school sucks.“
I went back to my car, where I sat for 15 more minutes to collect myself. Why was I so afraid of these kids? Because I remember what I was like at that age? Because I remember how cynical, apathetic and rude I was? Well, why does that mean these kids would be the same? I kept reaffirming myself, psyching myself up in the car in a feeble, Tony Robbins-esque attempt at getting my legs to move.
“Come on, Ryan. You are a man. You own a house. You have clear skin and a tattoo and you’ve had sex. You drive a Mercury Sable. It’s go time.”
Eventually I did, where I met up with Nicole in the lobby, and she (thankfully) escorted me to her classroom. I hadn’t seen Nicole in over a decade; she was an old friend, an ex-girlfriend and one with whom I shared a singular brainwave for probably two full years in the mid-late 90’s (she was Holly Flax to my Michael Scott). Seeing her again was great, and she put me at ease and again reminded me that this was supposed to be nothing more than a silly, fun afternoon, and that I should immediately remove any reservations I had about being mature, appropriate or nervous about what I was about to say or do. I grabbed a ‘Visitor’ sticker so nobody accused me of being a pedophile (again), and prepared for my day.
Nicole greeted me in her classroom with a plate of homemade blueberry muffins. I soon realized that getting these muffins out of the school unscathed would be my most difficult challenge of the day. The kids were hungry, pawing at the plate like starved zombies upon a fresh corpse, and I had to keep finding new hiding places throughout the day. By the time the 1st Period class came shuffling through the door, I felt slightly out-of-body, standing in front of them as they looked up, wondering who I was and why I was about to waste their time. Hopefully they couldn’t tell, but I was shaking.
Then, suddenly and without warning, the questions started.
Looking around, I saw students holding copies of my book. Reading along with me when I read my opening essay. Asking for autographs and snatching up the CDP buttons I brought along with me. Nicole was right; some of these kids sincerely wanted to see me. Sure, these students probably represented 10-15% of each class, but that was 10-15% more than I had expected. Instantly, my apprehension melted away, and I began my hourly ritual of meeting the students, rambling about myself, answering (and asking) questions, signing books and taking pictures. This was not what I had expected at all, and it was definitely for the better.
The kids who didn’t care who I was? They sat quietly and respectfully. The kids who did care? They grilled me for 50 straight minutes, which was great. By and large, they cared less about the mechanics of writing and humor, instead opting to ask a lot of questions about myself and the wide range of hard-to-believe stories I’ve written over the last eight years. The more inappropriate, the better. Here I was, sifting through my books the night before, trying to find any essay that was ‘school safe,’ and all they wanted were the stories about poop, sex and violence. I liked these kids a lot, and obliged whenever I could. Even the kids who were asking me any dumbass question simply for the hell of it (I’m looking at you, Kid With The Cast On His Arm) still cracked me up.
Going in, I wanted to be professional. Mature. Stoic. And I was, for a while. However, they sucked me in with their enthusiasm and humor. By the time each period came to an end, it had devolved into all-out chaos, which is an environment I can handle far better than sitting straight and raising your hand. I didn’t want to be a boring speaker, and thanks to them, I wasn’t.
The first three periods were straight-up English classes, but the next two were more elective-based, which meant a class of students that probably wanted to be there a bit more. For Period 4, the teacher across the hall (also a fan, apparently; he had a copy of my book), gave his students the option of watching my spiel instead of his, so for my last class before lunch, it was pretty much standing room only. I only had one more book left to give away at the end of this class, and so many students wanted it that I had to throw it over my head, wedding bouquet-style. The visual of watching kids fighting over a copy of Aerating The Mashed Potatoes was equal parts hilarious, beautiful and…well, beautiful.
I should have brought more. Sorry about that.
I had one more period to go, but it was after lunch, so me and Nicole took the opportunity to grab some food and catch up for an hour. We talked about old times, what we had been up to recently and generally fell right back into the repertoire we used to have. To meet an old friend for the first time in a decade is one thing. To do it under such strange circumstances was yet another. She assured me I was doing a good job, I praised her for running such an insanely-paced classroom for the last eight years, and before we knew it, the day was over and it was time to say goodbye.
I had done it. It was awkward at times, but I had done it. Before leaving, I encouraged the students to vandalize my Wikipedia page (as you can see in the title photo), find me on Facebook and buy a million copies of the books if they liked my writing. Every fear I had was proven wrong, and simply because I felt bad for being a hypocrite to my mother, I wandered into one of the more rewarding (and exhausting) days I can remember.
I want to once again thank the students and teachers at Janesville Craig High School for being so welcoming (or at the very least, tolerant). I want to thank the guy that talked about MarioKart with me and accused Nicole of being a racist. I want to thank the girl who suggestively licked her sucker until Nicole and I both told her to stop. I want to thank the Freshman that looked like Angus and said he ran a 10k and shot cats for fun (I’m calling shenanigans on the 10k, but I wouldn’t put it past him on the cat thing). I want to thank the goth girl that talked about retro video games with me. I want to thank Hannah, Devan, Kelsey, Susie, Haley, Katrina and anyone else who I signed a book for (Sorry, I’m crap with names). It was nice talking to all of you.
I had a great time, hope you had fun and appreciate all the questions and feedback, even if it was nothing more than stuff like “Did you and Nicole used to date?” and “Are you rich?” (yes and yes, by the way). I probably won’t do something like this for a very long time. Maybe never again. But I’m glad I did.
And to answer the question that was asked to me the most: Yes, the student teacher that liked me was hot, and yes, I probably should have ‘porked her hard.’ I consider it a lost opportunity.