12.31.2015

The Trick of Maintaining That Smile For Such A Long Long Time.



The same year that I started kindergarten, my parents became involved with a group of Christian fundamentalists who feared the increasing secularization of society, the civil rights movement, the second wave of feminism, and the growing power of the ACLU.  A new kind of "Christian Education" had been invented by some Texans and this new individualized method of instruction could be implemented by amateur teachers and volunteer moms.  So my parents dove in.  They started a Christian School right there in the little farm town halfway between Lansing and Flint.

There was always an interesting feeling of improvisational vagueness that defined the schools I attended; a kind of ongoing inventive process devoted to both schooling and inventing school.  At the same time.  In most ways these schools attempted to emulate the American Schooling Models of the 1950's, but because they were housed in church basements, church hallways, and included under-qualified teachers and hours and hours of a paranoid style of religious instruction, they ended up feeling like a mashup of sunday school and cult-like indoctrination.

The idea was that these schools could be a kind of hothouse environment that would allow the delicate flowers of childhood to develop while protected from the deadly forces of secular humanism, evolutionary biology, Freudian psychology, feminism and more social threats too deadly or politically sensitive to even say out loud.  The idea that we would flourish and find a kind of utopian happiness in these environments was everywhere suggested:  in the hymns, choruses and anthems we sang, in the publicity literature that captured smiles and happiness everywhere, in the carefully crafted yearbooks imprinted with an "official" happiness radiating from page after page.

We moved just before I started ninth grade and the nearest Fundamentalist Christian School was close to thirty minutes from our house so I rode to school crammed into the front seat of a pickup truck with Steve and Scott, upperclassmen soccer players who I knew from church, soccer camp and the "High School Retreat" that had happened the week before school.  The high school retreat was a curious combination of revivalist fervor and aggressive hazing of freshman in the off-hours.   Steve and Scott were well-scrubbed-polite when interacting with my parents, assuring them that they would keep an eye out for my best interests, but I had gathered that they were like all the other high schoolers I had met so far -- preoccupied by preserving their social status in the tenuous peer-groups that seemed most immediately expeditious.

I have always experienced fear in my stomach.  Not as a twinge or a pang, but instead as a growing deepening dread.   When I saw this iconic smiley face watertower that welcomes all visitors to Fruitport, Michigan, on the first day of school, I knew we had almost arrived.  I tried to warn Scott that I might be si.... but the sounds in my mouth mingled with the vomit that was already arriving, too late for a warning.

It splashed all across my preppy kelly green pants and shoes and the floor of the pickup.  The two f them groaned and exclaimed in disgust.  We pulled over, just blocks from the school, and wiped the offensive bile out of the truck and off of my clothes with tearing kleenexes and then rode the last blocks through Fruitport in silence.

I waited for 20 minutes for my grandfather to arrive with fresh clothes.  The receptionist positioned me in a chair across from the front door of the school.  Every student from kindergarten to high school walked past me in my stained polo shirt and indelibly green pants, and I knew that the story of my high school years could be nothing but a tragedy in the making.

Eventually by the end of the four years, I no longer felt the dread of an inscrutible social scene when I arrived in Fruitport and drove past the fiercely smiling yellow icon, but by that time I had all the dread that 13 years of bureaucratized education will instill in any human being.  So when I recently decided to take a detour and drive through the burgh of Fruitport, old enough to be mostly healed fromt he insults and regrets of high school, I was delighted to find this juxtaposition -- the weary sign of a tiny motel modifying the insistent cheer of the smiley face water tower.   Their combination seemed to me to perfectly articulate my personally inversed meaning of the tall smiling water tower that greeted me every morning for so many years.

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