Sunday, February 25, 2024

MY SUITCASE OF MEMORIES: The Best Worst Day Of My Life

Al Bruno III

Fall 1981

Let me take you back to the nostalgically idealized decade of the 80's. The year 1981, to be precise. I was fifteen years old and about to begin the first day of my second time through the ninth grade. That's right, I failed the ninth grade. Let me share a little background so you'll understand how.

From a young age, I spent more time reading and creating stories than hanging out with other kids. Constantly spending time with adults left me with a sense of humor and vocabulary about two grades ahead of the other kids. In other words, when I started kindergarten and started talking, the other students looked at me like I was from another planet. And a very loquacious and verbose planet at that, but still.

Couple that with the problem of my Kindergarten teacher. She knew my Mom was divorced and believed that children of divorce had behavioral problems, so she actively campaigned to have me removed from her class, and when she couldn't make that happen, she treated me awful. One time, she grabbed me by the back of my hair and dragged me across the classroom; another time, she had all my classmates scold me for her. And let's not forget the time she threatened to pull strings and have Santa Claus skip my house.

Charles Dickens had nothing on the Albany School System in the 1970s.

But what does all this have to do with me failing ninth grade? Maybe everything, maybe nothing. All I know is that from age five, I was marked, by staff and students alike, as a loser, an outsider, a subversive element. What followed was ten-plus years of varying misery. Sure, sometimes I would get a teacher who delighted in my presence. Sometimes, I would find a friend out on the fringes of the playground, but the older I got, the less interested the school system became in dealing with bullying and the more interested the bullies became in kidney punches and sharp objects.

Eighth grade was when it all got to be too much. I reached a point where I'd start feeling depressed and anxious on Saturday nights, knowing school was just one sleep away. So, at the end of that academic year, my parents—Mother, Father, and Stepfather—moved Heaven and Earth to get me into a fancy schmancy parochial school with strict academic standards and a stricter dress code. My family and I were convinced that this would be a chance to begin all over.

What no one in my family or I seemed to realize is that an oddball outsider trying to escape his problems is still an oddball outsider. The scenery changed, but the story stayed the same. But by November, I found myself back in the familiar territory of being treated the way I had always been. Except now, instead of exasperating underpaid civil servants, I was exasperating members of the clergy. Instead of trying to protect my dental work from middle-class kids, I was being tormented by snotty rich kids who dutifully said the Lord's Prayer in Homeroom every day before heading out to pummel me in gym class.

Despite all that, maybe things could have worked out; at the end of the second semester, some of the kids who had openly disliked me for most of the year started being genuinely nice. Unfortunately, I was done in by my own intellectual shortcomings. See, I wasn't a dumb kid, but I wasn't smart. I was clever.

Clever enough to coast through the public school system with a solid B minus average but not smart enough to realize this simply would not fly with my fancy schmancy new school. I crashed and burned. I crashed and burned so hard that I set records that still stand decades later.

In fact, I crashed and burned so hard that in August of 1981, my parents got a letter telling them I flunked out, not just out of the grade but right out of the school as well.

It was a painful and valuable lesson, painful to my smug little ego and valuable to my parents because they had spent a minor fortune to see their son end up right back where he'd started- Walking through the big ugly doorway of Dirt Lake Junior High.

No, that isn't really the name of the school. In fact, before we go further, I want to inform you that the names of every institution and person mentioned in this story have been changed so no one gets offended or confused. And while some characters and events may have been altered for dramatic effect, the heart of what I am telling you is true. As true as any memory can be anyway.

I don't know how it worked with other school systems, but in Albany, the eighth and ninth-grade students were warehoused in an L-shaped structure that had all the charm of a Russian tenement house while the tenth to twelfth graders occupied the building across the street, that was larger, better equipped and looked like an actual high school.

Familiar faces started noticing me as I walked through the building. On one hand, the teachers and administrators were looking at me with a mixture of amusement and pity; on the other hand were the students I had gone to school with for most of my life, who were now a year ahead of me.

None of them said a word to me, nor did I say a thing to them. What would I have said anyway? "Hey, you remember me? The kid that said it would be a cold day in Hell before you ever saw him again?"

Turns out it wasn't a cold day in Hell, in fact, that September morning was positively balmy. That morning in September, I felt humiliated, defeated, and hopeless.

I spent the first ten minutes of the morning struggling with my locker. Despite years of practice, I always forgot how to use them over the summer. Was it left, right, then two turns to the left, or was it two turns to the right, then left? Sometimes, I suspected they changed the pattern every summer just to mess with us.


Suddenly, I was on the floor, seeing stars. Someone had come up from behind me and body-checked me into my locker. Who had done it? A jock? A stoner? A mean girl? A rogue hall monitor with something to prove? I never found out, but thanks to them, I stumbled into Homeroom with a padlock-shaped indentation on my forehead and a fresh new headache. I made it to my assigned seat just as the bell rang.

Homeroom itself was a relatively quiet affair, except for the fact the teacher was the same Homeroom teacher I'd had from 1979 to 1980, and she freaked out a little at the sight of me. As I waited to be dismissed, I checked over my schedule. It was all basic high school freshman stuff except for the second to last class. I had taken an elective.

Do they still have electives these days? Just in case they don't, please allow me to explain.

Electives were these special classes that weren't reading, writing, arithmetic… gym… or industrial arts. Some of the classes covered home economics or different types of literature or typing. There was even a class on camping! Obviously, some classes were there to prepare us for the workplace or being a homemaker, and I'm sure that some of them probably rounded out a high school transcript very nicely. Other classes were a little useless.

"I signed up for Drama, one of the useless classes. Why? Because I was convinced I was going to be either the next John Belushi or the next Frankenstein Monster. Hell, maybe both. My first-period class was math with Mr. Crok. Normally, the first day of class should be devoted to the teacher outlining what material would be covered and what his expectations for us would be. Mr. Crok, however, spent the first forty minutes of our relationship regaling us with stories of his experiences in the Vietnam War. Riveting stuff, to be sure, but what I really needed to know was what kind of school supplies my parents needed to buy, not how to properly arm a claymore in enemy territory.

Speaking of enemy territory, the second period was gym class.

Ah, gym class in the 1980s, one part Lord of the Flies, one part dodgeball with just a little bit of rope burn thrown in for good measure. It was here that I first crossed paths with the Terrible Trio - Chuckles, NoNeck, and Stabby. Chuckles, the son of a state trooper, was gifted with the looks of a college student and mild fascist tendencies. NoNeck was the jockiest jock in the ninth grade; he did track, he did football and he seemed to believe that basic human empathy was dangerously high in caloric content. And Stabby? Stabby was a ticking time bomb in so many ways.

But more on him later someday, so much more.

While the rest of the students in the class were plodding through a game of kickball, the Terrible Trio were sizing everyone up, deciding who might be worthy to join the ranks of their followers.

It should be no surprise to any of you that I was not asked to be one of their followers. It should also be no surprise to you that the gym teacher did nothing when kickballs suddenly started flying at my head. But I wasn't alone in this spherical assault; there was another kid running for his life. He was skinny with white-blonde hair and tinted horn-rimmed glasses. Like any good nerd, he was also pale-skinned from lack of sunlight. Put it all together, and he looked kind of like an albino Roy Orbison.

You people still know who Roy Orbison is, right? Just in case you don't go listen to him, your ears will thank me later.

Anyway, after gym class, I introduced myself to the kid. "Hi," I said, "my name is Ab3."

“I’m Guido,” he said,  “Guido Jones. Are you new here?"

I shrugged as we walked together into the hallway, "Yes and no."

"Do you play D&D?"

"I've got the books," I said, "I dabble."

And by dabbling I meant that I spent many a lonely Saturday afternoon rolling up characters and then having them fight random encounters as they made their way across a randomly generated map. I'm not sure, but I might have invented open-world gaming years early.

"You gonna be in AV Club?" He asked as we huffed and puffed our way up the stairs to the second floor.

"What's AV club?"

And in the precious few moments before English class, Guido explained that not only was AV Club a great way to escape the doldrums and occasional terrors of Study Hall, but it was also a great place to learn how to use film projectors, audio equipment, and the school's slowly growing collection of VCRs and Video Cameras.

We promised to talk more later.

It was obvious we had made a connection. We both knew we had found a kindred spirit, someone more interested in Action Comics than AFL football, someone who preferred curling up with a good book over physical activity., someone who knew what it felt like to weep at the end credits of the Empire Strikes Back.

I made it to my next class in the nick of time. It was English class and was taught by a tiny and cranky woman by the name of Miss Lattrex. As she explained her plans for the first part of the semester, I realized I was going to have to study SE Hinton's The Outsiders all over again. My heart leaped because I realized that I still had the essay I wrote at my previous school somewhere in my room. It was a good one and had earned me a rare B minus.

Was I going to rewrite it and hand it back in again in a few weeks? Hell yes!

Stay Gold Miss Lattrex.

Fourth period was social studies. To my complete lack of surprise and interest, I found out that we would be studying American History from Plymouth Rock to the Election of Ronald Reagan. Covering all that in two semesters may sound ambitious, but back in the 1980s, we really streamlined things by just focusing on white guys. Don't get me wrong, we would cover topics like women's suffrage and slavery, but just in the context of how they impacted white guys.

And wouldn't you know it? This teacher assigned us homework, complete with chapters to read and questions to answer. For God's sake, it was the first day. Was nothing sacred?

After that, it was lunch, and lunch that day was a square slice of pseudo-French Bread coated with sickly sweet tomato sauce and covered with a thick layer of processed cheese. Each serving of this treat they brazenly referred to as pizza was cooked to a state of being mouth-burningly hot on the outside yet slightly frosty on the inside.

Carrying my tray, I navigated from the bustling kitchen to the cafeteria, desperately scanning the room for a safe haven. It was too early in the year for any of the factions to have staked out any territories. All I could do was make a wild guess and sit near the most average-looking kids I could. It was the social equivalent of playing Russian roulette but there with five bullets instead of one.

I took a seat, offering polite nods to the guys on my right and the girls on my left. I didn't actually speak, I didn't dare, a Doctor Who reference or pun might fall out of my mouth and ruin everything.

Yeah, maybe I would become known as a student of few words, the suave, silent type. Was this my chance to reinvent myself? Maybe I could become known as 'the Quiet Guy.' Maybe all the girls would become enamored with my aura of mystery. Maybe the yearbook would end up voting me Most Likely To Stare Meaningfully Into The Distance. Maybe-

"Hey Kid!" The guys sitting across from me shouted, "Are you a VIRGIN?"

Suddenly, everyone was looking at me. Suddenly, a hot blush was working its way across my face. And for the record, yes, I was a virgin at the time, but I don't believe that the guy who asked wasn't either.

And that is what I should have said back. Why didn't I? Why didn't I bring his mother into it? Why didn't I insult his stupid face? Or his lousy Up With People t-shirt? Why in the name of God's green earth did the brain that had been getting me into trouble with snarky comebacks for over a decade suddenly choose that one moment to fail me?

Guess what I actually said after a long and uncomfortable silence?

"That's for me to know and you to find out."

ARGH! Even now, four decades later, it still makes me cringe.

Okay, enough. Let's go to fifth-period science class before this memory renders me catatonic. The curriculum was named Earth Sciences, and it covered every aspect of our natural environment, highlighting how profoundly our species had screwed it up. Sometimes, I would read through the materials given to us and lose myself in wonder at all the things that might kill me. Pesticides? Radiation? Biohazards? Truly, I say to you, my doomsday chalice runneth over. It was scary and sobering stuff, and I think it is a big reason why so many members of my generation abandoned the cold, unreasoning world of science for the gentle comfort of Internet conspiracy theories.

For sixth period, I left the world of science behind and entered the one class I had been looking forward to: Drama Class! If my parents had realized I was going to waste a precious hour of my day prancing around on a stage, they would not have been happy. They had spent most of the summer trying to beg, order, and bribe me into promising to be 'more normal' this year.

And as you folks can see, I tried to be normal all damn day. I tried! And what did it get me? Minor head injuries and major humiliations.

Drama class was led by Mr. Ainley, who primarily taught twelfth-grade English, so I guess this was his elective too. Despite his calm demeanor, there was a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. I think he recognized a kindred spirit in me, which meant he knew he was in for a rough ride.

The thing about high school drama class is that there are two kinds of students there, attention seekers like yours truly and kids looking for an easy grade. Mr. Ainley understood that the best way to distinguish between the two groups was to invite each of us to share something about ourselves at the front of the class. And after a brief discussion of our syllabus (there wasn't one), that is just what he did.

We went up in alphabetical order, and as my last name is the second letter of the alphabet, I got to go first. I didn't do an introduction; I did a stand-up routine. For over a minute, I rambled like Rodney Dangerfield on acid. I said things like I was born in a log cabin I built myself, and I had once tried to start a chicken farm, but I accidentally planted the chickens too close together.
My performance wasn't a complete disaster—some of the students laughed—but as my parents and so many teachers would ask, 'Were they laughing at me or with me?'

My answer would always be, "Does it really matter?"

The more they laughed, the more I continued; one minute became two. It was really obnoxious, but Fortunately, Mr. Ainley was among those laughing. He was even laughing as he shouted for me to stop talking and sit the Hell down.

Next came the other students. First, there were the two girls who had been gossiping throughout the entire class. Then, there was the boy who apparently never washed his hair, followed by the wannabe jock. Finally, the band nerd who believed Western culture had died with Benny Goodman.

Then SHE stepped to the front of the class.

There are moments in everyone's life when their world changes utterly and completely, and that's what happened the moment I saw her bright blue eyes and strawberry blonde hair. Everything changed forever.

Her name was Lilly Sunshine. Well, not really, but since I'm changing everyone else's name, I might as well change hers, too. I don't remember what she said that day, but I know I was hanging on every word. I watched her intently, my whole body tingling.

When she was done, she went back to her seat. She took the long way so she could say to me, "I thought you were funny."

And my brain exploded at a million miles an hour. I stared numbly at her and said something like, "Wasavusa vasa?"

Smooth Ab3, really smooth.

The final period was study hall, but I was in too much of a daze to study anything more than the clock. I spent the whole bus ride home thinking about her and also wondering why this girl had me so bedazzled. I mean, I always liked girls, even when I was at the age when boys were supposed to think girls were gross.

On that note, here's an amusing story. Back in fourth grade, I used to tell the girls all about Harry Houdini and the amazing things he did. I claimed to know some of his escape artist tricks. Of course, they didn't believe me. So, during recess, I would dare them to get some jump ropes and tie me to the jungle gym. I know that's some pretty advanced perving for a ten-year-old. I guess I enjoyed those comics where Catwoman tied up Batman a little too much. Anyway, the teachers saw. I went to the office. My parents were called and I got a good talking to.

Trust me, you haven't lived until you've been kink-shamed in the principal's office.

Now, where was I? Ah yes, love at first sight. That's what it was, love at first sight. No, it was more than that. It was recognition, not a recognition in the sense that I knew her. It was a primal thing, mystical, spiritual, and fundamentally life-changing.

Also, she turned me on. I mean, holy cow, fifteen-year-old boys are horny in general, but I was so riled up that I think I was abusing the privilege.

About halfway through the bus ride home, a half-eaten apple came flying at my head. I ducked instinctively, but it bounced off the window and hit me on the side of the head. The bus erupted in laughter and jeering. My heart sank, my swelling went down, and suddenly, I remembered who I was. I was a loser and a dweeb, and guys like me never get the girl.

Especially not a girl like her.

The bus dropped me off right in front of my house. It was easier than dropping me off at the regular bus stop a block away with the other kids. When that happened, I would end up getting wedged and chased home. I had gone through a lot of waistbands back in 1979.

My Mom was home taking care of my brother Monty and sister Mable; he was 11, and she was 10, so they got home an hour before I did. Because of that, they already had control of the TV. I didn't complain, I already had homework, and my parents were damned if I was going to fail another grade.

I suppose I could have lied and said I didn't have any, I suppose I could have goofed off, but I was damned if I was going to fail another grade again, either.

That was my intention anyway, but for an hour, I sat in my room pondering this humiliating day and shuddering at the thought of the next ten months.

Then my thoughts turned to Lilly, and they stayed there. I couldn't stop thinking about her, even while staring intently at the opening chapter of my social studies textbook for over an hour. Maybe I didn't think girls were gross, but damn if they didn't think I was. In fact, ever since the Valentine's Day Incident of the third grade, I had resigned myself to the idea that, unless that one cute cousin of mine moved back to town, I would never have a girlfriend.

But there I sat, considering how I might be able to get a date with a girl I had just met when, only a few nights before, I had been trying to decide from which country my inevitable mail-order bride would come.

Obviously, I couldn't just come into school the next day and ask her out to the movies. I had to be patient, and I had to have a plan.

I didn't hear it when my Mom called me for dinner, and she had to send my brother to get me. I didn't react to Monty's voice or presence either, and it must have worried him a little. He knew how much stress I was feeling because he didn't slap the back of my head nearly as hard as he would on a regular day.

One fistfight later, I was at the dinner table. My stepfather immediately turned the conversation to our first day of school. Mable was very excited that her fifth-grade classroom had a hamster in it; she couldn't remember the teacher's name, but she knew everything about the hamster. Monty was excited that he had ended up in a classroom with all his friends from last year. He wasn't excited about having to write a short essay about his summer vacation. I can totally understand; how can you stretch out 'tormented my older brother' to three paragraphs?

Then, all attention at the dinner table turned to me. My stepfather wanted to know if I was going to buckle down and fly right this year, which led to me questioning how I could buckle down and fly at the same time.

My Mom brushed that little bit of sarcasm aside and cut right to the heart of the matter. "What did you learn in school today?"

I paused thoughtfully, considering that it was just the first day, and the teachers typically didn't start real teaching until the second day. However, I had learned a lot. I had learned about the combat tactics of the Vietcong, I had learned that SE Hinton's full name was Susan Eloise Hinton, and I had learned what the AV Club was.

All good stuff; however, I had learned something so much more valuable than that and couldn't wait to share it.

"I met the girl I'm going to marry," I explained.

"Her name is Lilly."

The four other people sitting at the table, with ages ranging from thirty-two to ten, all groaned. My siblings mocked me; my mother told me I was far too young to worry about girls, and my stepfather scowled and said it didn't sound like I was buckled down at all.

Well, the joke is on them. In the end, I did marry Lilly. It only took forty years for it to happen.

I admit it took a little longer than expected, but then again, so did high school.

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