Middle school is a time of social sorting and strict social enforcement. All of the carefree social fluidity of elementary school gives way. Best friends find themselves on the other side of the fence from each other. Those on top set the trends, the rules, and the membership.
But what happens when someone on the bottom does something undeniably cool?
In eighth grade, I played tuba in the band. I was getting pretty serious about music at this point. I was starting to explore the world of classical music records. I discovered my parents’ collection of albums which included Antonin Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony. Somehow I got the impression that the fourth movement was the basis for the Jaws theme. It bore a striking resemblance to be sure. I was getting into Tchaikovsky and Handel and Vivaldi thanks to the band, my parents’ records, and my cassette recordings of the Canadian Brass.
I felt that the band room was my home turf. In that room, I mattered. I wasn’t terribly popular, but I was a good musician. So when an English class was marched into the band room, probably to excuse the English teacher for something, I felt that my social status was a little higher than elsewhere in the school. I also felt invaded. The cool kids might try to take over and set the social agenda. And in a small way, they did…or at least they tried.
The band director rolled in a tv/video cart and plugged it in as we gathered around. We were all hoping for something decent, although anything was better than doing homework. We waited, silent and breathless for the announcement.
We thought of the band director as a bit of a grouch. I still know him, and I see him differently. He’s a New Yorker and that affects his sense of humor. He’s actually really funny; dead pan and sarcastic. I believe that he had a sense of how excited we were and he played it perfectly; eyes subtly rolling, the anti-hero in this scenario.
I’ll be honest, I don’t exactly remember what the movie was because what happened when the title was announced was far more important. Perhaps it was “Karate Kid” or “Back to the Future”. Whatever it was, it was popular enough to warrant a positive and truly amazing response.
When he announced the title, there was dead silence except for one kid. He said something that caused everybody’s head to turn. He had mastered something that very few kids in school had yet mastered because it was something so new and fresh. Something that required nuance and linguistic skill.
“Kewl!” he said in a clear voice for everyone to here. And he freaking NAILED it. So much so that the coolest girl in eighth grade immediately said, “Oh my God, who said that?”
Before I continue, I must demonstrate how it is said.
And at that moment, a boy took a step forward to claim credit by doing the upwards nod with the eyebrows raised. The “wassup” nod. This kid was at the bottom of the bottom socially. He was a trombone player and he had a weird shaped head…and he was poor. But he was clever, and I remember he was quite deviant. He and one of the baritone players once shared with me their scheme to detonate a pipe bomb under the intersection of Berry and Boyd. I was doubtful that they were serious, or that if they were serious that they could even pull it off. But I do confess I was concerned enough to mention it to my mother. She just laughed. She knew better.
So when the popular girl saw this kid, in his old army jacket and unkempt hair, her face fell and she simply said, “Oh”.
I knew what this meant, and maybe everybody else did, too. This kid had turned the social strata upside down for just a moment, and that was unacceptable. For one shining moment this kid, counted among the dregs of middle school society, had the audacity to be cool. Perhaps the girl was even a little embarrassed. Embarrassed that she had given someone who had deserved nothing, given his social standing, credit for something he had nonetheless earned through his very early mastery of a word that the cool kids were still fumbling to pull off.
In retrospect, she was a really sweet girl. And certainly one of the prettiest. And it occurs to me that she was just as stuck in the social web that I and the “kewl” kid was. And although it’s true that the glory of this moment faded as we watched the movie, it has never faded in my mind. One of us got to be one of them, even if for a few seconds. A case of mistaken identity.