Tag Archives: high school

Roland Muller

7 Jun

You get two biological parents in this life. If you’re lucky, you get to have at least two people (though not necessarily the two people whose genes you share) conduct you through the first eighteen or so years of your time on this planet, using that time to help you create a map that will, hopefully, allow you to spend the rest of your days navigating this confusing world.

But it’s not just parents who participate in this amateur cartography, is it? I mean, they do the majority of the work, and maybe they do the toughest work, but they don’t get all the credit, do they? So many people contribute to helping any given child flesh out their map, adding towns, rivers, and signs that say “Here There Be Dragons.” Children chart the world with their parents, yes, but also with their aunts and uncles, their grandparents, their babysitters, their neighbours, the old Korean couple who own the convenience store on the corner, that nice crossing guard who can’t speak English, and most of all, and especially, their teachers. Their dozens of daycare teachers, primary and high school teachers, and even college professors, all those people who work tirelessly fill their heads with words, numbers, new thoughts and hopefully a little bit of common sense.

Not all of your teachers will be good ones – for some of them, the best that you can say is that you only had to spend one semester in their class. A great teacher, though? A great teacher is worth their weight in gold.

A great teacher will stick with you for the rest of your life.

Roland Muller was a great teacher, maybe even the best. I was in the last ninth grade English class that he taught before retiring, and I will forever be thankful for whatever stars aligned to place me there, in the second row of that dingy first floor classroom at Eastwood Collegiate Institute, during the first period of day two (we had a day one, day two schedule instead of being semestered).

Mr. Muller was old-fashioned. He was impatient with, sometimes even downright uninterested in, newer teaching methods. He taught us English grammar, even though it wasn’t on the curriculum. When we misbehaved, he had us write lines. In fact, I still have the lines that he made me write – fifty of them – because I talked too much. They read, “henceforth, I will not babble incessantly in class.” I don’t know why I kept them, except that I thought that it was sort of nice and funny that I’d had to write lines. Like a character in one of the English boarding school books that I loved so much.

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In spite of all of this, or maybe even partly because of it, we loved Mr. Muller. He was, hands down, the all-time favourite teacher of the majority of the students in his classes. And you know what? He loved us in return. I’ve rarely had a teacher who cared so damn much about his students. And I’m not sure that I’ve ever had a teacher who put in so much extracurricular time, both with academic issues and with any and everything to do with the Arts Package that he helped found in 1988.

And sure, sometimes his teaching methods were a little stuffy for some of us, but holy cats did that man ever love reading, writing and the arts. His classes fascinated and captivated us, and he found ways to make even the dullest subjects interesting. He was funny, too, sarcastic and snarky in the best way possible. And he was kind. And attentive. And interested in us, this scraggly pack of know-it-all fourteen year olds.

I was his pet that year. I don’t know why or how he took a liking to me, but he did, and I’m forever grateful for that fact. He was the first person who told me that I was going to be a writer, a thought that I found flattering but unlikely. When the school organized a special enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour” field trip for English students, he chose me to be one of only three ninth grade students invited along. When I was having a hard day, he always had a smile or a hug for me. During what was the first full school year after my father had left, he was kind of, sort of, maybe a little bit like a father to me, and I will always, always be grateful for that. I’m grateful for everything.

14-year-old me on the English enrichment "Mystery Writing Tour."

14-year-old me on the English enrichment “Mystery Writing Tour.”

I saw Mr. Muller just a little over a month ago at the 25th anniversary of the Arts Package. He didn’t recognize me right away (which led to me yelling, BUT MIS-TER MU-LLER, I WAS YOUR FAVOURITE STUDENT, I WAS YOUR PET), a fact that honestly isn’t surprising considering how many students he’d had over the years. It wasn’t long, though, before he’d figured out who I was. Once he realized that I was the girl he’d once spent a year referring to as Little Orphan Annie, I got this huge, irrepressible grin on my face. He grinned right back at me then turned to Matt and said, “See that smile? That smile is how she wrapped me around her little finger. How could I ever forget that?”

I only spoke to him briefly at the anniversary, partly because there were so many other former students who wanted to reconnect with him, and partly because I had some very important drinking and dancing to do. Although I hadn’t seen him in well over ten years, I figured that there would be other times, other places when we would be able to catch up or reminisce. I always think that I will have other chances; I never, ever think that anything is happening for the last time.

I wish I’d known that it was the last time.

Rest in peace, Mr. Muller. I know that I probably wasn’t an especially amazing kid to have in your class, and I’m sure that I don’t really stand out among all the other students you had, and I know that I talked waaaay too much. I’m not by any means your brightest or most successful or most talented former student. I wish that I had more to show for the year that I spent in your class, because that would give some kind of indication of how very much of an impact you had on my life. I guess the most that I can say is that now, sixteen years after I had you as a teacher, I’m finally coming around to what you knew all along: I’m a writer.

And if I’m at all a good writer, and if my words have any kind of impact in this world, a large part of that is because of you.

So thank you.

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

Roland Muller giving a speech at the Eastwood Arts Package Reunion, April 2013

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High School Redux

29 Apr

So a little while ago I blogged about how I absolutely, no-way, seriously was not going to my high school reunion.

I hated high school. Hated it. There was no fucking way that I was going to be talked into setting foot in that building again.

An old friend and I exchanged several emails coming up with long, detailed reasons for why we were going to miss the reunion.

Naturally, I ended up going.

A couple of notes about reunions:

1. If you blog about how you’re not going to your reunion, every one will spend all evening coming up to you and asking if you’re glad that you went after all. Not that I’m complaining about this – just mentioning, is all. You know, in case you were planning on emulating my life choices (note: I do not recommend this).

2. Everyone will tell you that you look exactly the same. This is meant as a compliment, although admittedly I didn’t initially take it as one. I mean, come on – the whole point of going to this reunion was to prove to people that I’m not the gross, ugly, greasy-skinned loser that I was in high school. But then I realized something – everyone is, in one way or another, an ugly loser in high school. I doubt that even the prettiest, most popular girls were immune from hating the way they looked. I also realized that, as hard as I was on myself back then, I didn’t look that bad.

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I mean, sad, angry and consumed with ennui, sure. Wearing an ill-fitting velour shirt, yes. But not exactly the horrific, Medusa-like creature I’ve been picturing all these years.

Anyway, in response to everyone who is absolutely dying to know whether or not I’m glad I went: Yes. I am.

That’s not to say that it wasn’t overwhelming, because it was. The first part of the reunion, which took place at the school itself, was especially tough. I feel like I spent a good chunk of the afternoon wearing my I’m-so-emotional-right-now-but-I’m-trying-hard-to-smile grimace, so if we ran into each other and I seemed flustered and weirdly toothy, that’s why. It was just a lot of people, and a lot of energy, and a lot of complicated feelings all at once, you know? And by “complicated” I mean “run the whole spectrum of emotions from great to achingly terrible.

The “great” moments include running into friends that I haven’t seen for years and years and spending hours starting every sentence with, “Hey, remember when?” For example: hey, remember when John Winter told the drama teacher on her last day at the school that she had a beautiful body and he wanted to make love to her? Remember how our mascot was Johnny Rebel, the Confederate soldier, and we had a Confederate flag hanging in our foyer, and NO ONE THOUGHT THIS WAS A PROBLEM UNTIL 1999? Remember every fucking crazy thing that Jason Baker ever did?

I was also super happy to be able to see a bunch of my old teachers, including my two favourite English teachers of all-time (one of whom occasionally reads this blog, YEAH, YOU KNOW WHO YOU ARE). Some of my old teachers barely remembered me (or else didn’t remember me at all but faked it pretty convincingly), but most of them seemed glad to see me. One of them, a music teacher, took me aside later in the night and said that she was really, really happy to see that I was in a good place with my life, and that was kind of gratifying because it meant that at least one of my teachers had noticed how miserable I was back then.

Another high point was finding this extremely adorable (if I do say so myself) picture of me from when I was fourteen:

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This was from a writing “mystery tour” that happened in my first year of high school. It was a small group of students, and I was one of only three ninth graders invited along. They took us to various exotic locations around Waterloo Region (including the West Montrose Kissing Bridge and the boiler room of our high school), and at one point a photographer from the local newspaper showed up and took a picture of me sitting on a giant pile of tires behind Paleshi Motors in Elmira. The whole idea was that we were supposed to be inspired to write amazing things by all the places that we visited, and maybe that worked out for some people, but not me. Every word I wrote that day was terrible, and even as I was writing them, I knew they were terrible.

But you know what? My English teacher thought that I was a good writer, and that’s how I ended up being asked along on the trip. And now I look back at this picture and I think, Whoa, someone actually thought that I was a writer, and look, there’s me writing like a real gosh-darn writer lady.

Plus I am just super adorable. LOOK AT HOW SERIOUS MY FACE IS.

The less-than-great moments were watching the “documentary” that someone had made about the Integrated Arts Package and hearing people talk about how the program had absolutely, definitely, for-sure been a wonderful, life-altering experience. Because I guess the fact is that I’m jealous of those people, jealous in a gross, green-eyed-monster kind of way. I wanted to have been able to say that I, too, had come out of high school feeling brave and confident and talented. I wanted to be able to go on record saying that the Eastwood arts program was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my whole stupid life, but it wasn’t. The fact was that I couldn’t get my shit together, and not a whole lot of people there really seemed super interested in helping me get my shit together, and that was that. And, I mean, I did get my shit together later, and I have a great life now, and everything worked out fine, etc. It’s just that I feel sad that I missed out on this apparently amazing time that everyone else was having.

Except that not everyone else was having an amazing time – you just don’t find out until afterwards that pretty much everyone else was, in some way, miserable, too.

At one point on Saturday, while we were still at the school, I texted a friend and referred to Eastwood as the “pit of despair.” And like, I was kind of joking? But also kind of not?

I mean, I guess maybe that’s the thing – maybe high school is supposed to be a pit of despair, you know? Maybe that’s what these reunions are really about – reconnecting with people who went through this terrible, hormone-fuelled hell at the same time that you did. Maybe reunions are supposed to help you realize that everyone was so wrapped up in their own self-loathing that they had no time or energy to notice how much of a loser you were. Maybe you were fine all along and you just didn’t know it. Maybe.

Your high school classmates are like people that you lived with through a war, or a natural disaster, or some other awful event. You might not have a whole lot in common, and maybe they wouldn’t be the people that you’d pick as your friends if you were given a choice, but they understand something about you that not many other people do. Just the fact that you were able to push through and survive and make it out the other side with all of your faculties intact somehow binds you together, even if nothing else does.

I guess that one of the main things that I took away from the reunion was a realization that so many of these people would have been willing to be my friends, if only I’d let them. At the time I didn’t think that I was building walls and pushing people away from me, but of course I actually was. And I’m not saying oh God imagine what could have been, but still. I keep thinking about the part in A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, when Francie graduates from the eighth grade and discovers to her astonishment that all of her classmates, none of whom were her friends, suddenly want to write in her yearbook and know what her summer plans are and where she’ll be going to high school:

“They’re nice,” Francie thought. “I could have been friends with them all the time. I thought they didn’t want to be friends. It must have been me that was wrong.”

I mean, I guess that’s the thing about walls, emotional or otherwise – they make excellent defences, but they can be isolating, too. If you’re smart enough, you’ll let the good people in and keep the bad ones out, but Jesus, who’s that smart? Especially when they’re fifteen?

I guess what I really want to say is this: high school. It fucking sucked, and maybe it didn’t have to. But it did, and that suckiness got me to where I am now.  And my life now is pretty sweet, so there’s not much point in regretting any of it, or feeling bitter about it. I mean, okay, maybe I still regret some stuff, but on the whole I’m a lot more at peace with everything. And that’s pretty cool.

My only disappointment with the reunion was that they didn’t play this song:

Because you know what? I would have fucking nailed it.

Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

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Bullying (or, nolite te bastardes etc.)

7 Oct

I’ve written on here about some of the less-than fun stuff I went through as a teenager, but I think that last night was the first time that I’ve ever publicly referred to it as bullying. And now I kind of want to talk about it?

A little bit of background:

I’d had the same group of friends throughout most of elementary school. The five of us had been pretty tight, spending every recess and lunch hour together, pairing up for science projects and book reports. On the weekends we would force our parents to shuttle us around the city for various playdates and sleepovers.  I’d known them for so long that I couldn’t imagine ever not being friends with them.

Then, one mid-day recess in seventh grade, my friends told me they had to talk to me.

We sat in a circle on the schoolyard pavement, near the edge of where the grassy field began. It must have been October or November, because I remember that the sky was grey and there was a chill in the air. My friends started out by saying that they’d been talking about me, and had realized that they collectively found me annoying. They told me that they’d come to the decision that they didn’t want to hang around with me anymore, and asked me to stop joining them at lunch and recess. I tried to argue with them, then tried to bargain, but it was pointless; their collective mind was made up.

Basically, they broke up with me.

What had already been a difficult year went from tough-but-manageable to downright miserable. Even before I was de-friended, I was already being picked on by my classmates for my bad skin, the way I dressed, and the nerdy things I liked. Now, not only was that all still happening, but I suddenly had no one to protect me, and no one to tell me that I wasn’t an ugly pathetic loser.

As the year went on, the kids who made fun of me became braver, making more and more publicly humiliating comments about me. One kid said that I didn’t need to use whiteout, because I could just use the pus from my pimples – the teacher laughed at that along with everyone else. Another kid wondered aloud why my clothes were so terrible, since my father was a lawyer and could almost certainly afford something better than ill-fitting sweatshirts and track pants. Boys from my class prank-called me in the evenings, pretending to ask me out – then repeating everything I’d said on the phone the next day to the rest of my class.

I didn’t tell my parents what was happening because I was embarrassed, although they must have noticed that I wasn’t being invited to my friends’ houses anymore. I didn’t want them to know how much of an outcast I’d become at school, because it seemed like it was mostly my own fault for being unlikeable. Anyway, I reasoned, even if they did know, what could they do?

When I started high school, I chose a school that almost none of my classmates were going to. The only person from my class who was coming with me was the girl I’d become close with in 8th grade, so that was fine. I figured that this was the perfect chance to start over. No one at this huge new school knew me, or knew my past; I would walk through those front doors in September as whoever I wanted to be.

I didn’t get to start over, though. Does anyone ever really get a fresh start? I still had all the problems that had led to being teased in the first place: bad skin, the wrong clothes, and geeky interests. Even worse, the last two years had left me with zero self-confidence, which meant that I was constantly second-guessing myself. Because of this I had a hard time making friends, and when I did I was clingy and jealous. I was even more of a mess when it came to boys. Boy, was I ever.

Bullies can smell a victim, and I was soon back to being the butt of the joke. I went to an arts high school where I majored in dance, and the girls in my dance class were saccharine sweet to my face (most of the time), but made fun of me as soon as my back was turned. By the end of the year I was so tired of it that I transferred out of dance class and instead majored in visual art, where I was surrounded by pretentious art school kids, stoners and comic book nerds – on the whole, a much nicer group.

I don’t mean to make it sound like I was totally friendless. I mean, yeah, I had people that I hung out with – a pretty big group of friends, actually. But even within that group I was teased. Early high school was pretty much just as shitty as late grade school.

My later high school years were better, and the same goes for university. I moved out east for school, made some great friends, and became the stunningly self-confident adult you see before you today. Things are mostly totally fine now. I am mostly fine now.

What’s strange is that now I’m friends on Facebook with a lot of the people who made me miserable (maybe some of you are reading this now – hi guys! kind of awkward! sorry!). We’ve never talked about or even acknowledged what happened; after half a lifetime of not knowing these people, we mostly just “like” each others’ statuses and comment on photos of each others’ kids. Initially, I felt awkward having them back in my life, mostly because I worried that they were still judging me and still finding me wanting, but now we’ve settled into a sort of comfortable camaraderie, reminiscing about our collective school days as if we’ve been friends all along.

Maybe they’ve forgotten what happened, or maybe it just never seemed like a big deal. Maybe they feel bad.  Maybe I’m the one with the problem. Maybe they were right, and I am a pathetic loser. Maybe they were dealing with their own stuff at the time and didn’t realize how much it sucked for me. Most likely it’s a combination of most of the above.

I find that when I talk about what happened, I use a lot of euphemisms; I’ll say that I went through a tough time when I was younger, or else that I had a bad year the year I turned 12, or any other number of variations on the same thing. I’ve been hesitant to use the word “bullying” when talking about my own circumstances, for a couple of reasons:

1. Was I even bullied? I mean, yes, I was teased, but does that count as bullying? When does it cross the line from normal kid behaviour to bullying? Or is bullying so pervasive in our culture that it now seems normal?

2. Weirdly, I feel anxious about what the people who are my friends now will think of the fact that I was such a loser. There’s a part of me that thinks that they’ll start to reconsider our friendship, start to notice all of the less-than-stellar components of my personality.

3. Saying that I was bullied is admitting that I also became a bully later in high school. I made fun of people, talked behind their backs, told secrets. I was even party to making a girl cry in 11th grade chemistry class. I was mean, and I liked being mean.

I do think that it’s important to start a dialogue about this, especially in reference to the first point. In the wake of Jennifer Livingston’s on-air response to an email criticizing her weight, in which she refers to the man who sent her the email as a bully, there has been a lot of discussion about what qualifies as bullying, and whether or not it was the appropriate word to use in that instance. David Dickson, chairman of the Bullying Prevention Initiative of California, says“Bullying, normally, is what someone, in a very mean spirited way, continually and on a repeated basis, does to another person, typically in a social setting in front of other people…It was a stupid letter he wrote, but he commented privately.” 

Now, I’m not an expert on bullying, and none of the definitions that I’ve found online have really been satisfactory, but it seems wrong to ignore this entire discussion just because what happened doesn’t fit Dickson’s fairly narrow definition of what bullying is. Whether or not the letter sent to Livingston was public, it was certainly hurtful and unnecessary, especially considering that she’s likely spent a lifetime of facing comments like that. Also, it sucks to have a so-called bullying expert be so condescending and dismissive, especially when bullying in our culture is so often dismissed as kids just being kids (or, in this case, fat ladies just being too sensitive).

Maybe Dickson wouldn’t consider what I went through to be bullying. I mean, sure, it was public, and it was often mean-spirited, but maybe it wasn’t very mean-spirited, or maybe it wasn’t repeated or continual enough. Maybe it was just teenagers being dicks to each other, and I’m just an oversensitive lady-type. Usually writing things out here makes them clearer (and hey, it’s cheaper than therapy), but this time it just makes them seem murkier and more confused. Was I the one with the problem? Were they the ones with the problem? Was I undeserving of friends? Am I still?

What I do know is this: I’m tired of pretending that nothing happened, and I’m tired of feeling like I did something wrong and have something to hide. I’m tired of waiting for all of my friends to discover that once-upon-a-time I wasn’t cool, and then to high-tail it out of my life – so take that, brain, a pre-emptive admission of uncoolness. Most of all, I wouldn’t want any other kid to feel as shitty as I did.

So yeah. Can we talk about this?

Me at age thirteen, centre, with my cousins and sister.