Monday, April 26, 2004

My High School Hell- I was in 8th grade when I chose to go to Andrean. I did it because I wanted friends; I knew that a few of my classmates at St. Mary’s Elementary would be going there. As it stood, there was a public high school closer to me- Lew Wallace- but I knew that I wouldn’t know anyone there. I had grown up downtown, and by mid-7th grade I was living in Glen Park. In both cases, I was essentially on the opposite end of town from from my elementary school- St. Mary’s was far northeast, in the Miller district. Most of my St. Mary’s classmates were going to either Wirt High or Emerson, both also in Miller. While L.W. (long-nicknamed ‘El Dubb’ by the student population) was in Glen Park, there was the vague spectre of its reputation as a roughneck haven. This is before gangster rap, by the way. Incidentally, two of my brothers and my sister went there, and my oldest brother to Andrean. Andrean is in Merrillville, a suburban town just outside of Gary. Little did I know that my four years as a ‘59er would be more (and less) than I expected. I had been going to Catholic schools all of my life, so I figured, “how could it be all that outrageously different”? Oy vey. I happened to ride a private bus service from the inner-city; the kids on my bus were all black. Not that I had an inherently easier time on the bus because of the ethnic homogeneity. As somewhat of a continuation of my years in grade school, I caught grief from the loudmouths once again; whether it was smart-aleck remarks (out loud or under their breath) or jackass antics like throwing paper wads/other small objects. I thought I could have a fresh start there; no one knew me, so I could at least get the benefit of the doubt as to be considered ‘cool’, and accepted. But as usual, I had another think coming. The ethnic makeup of the school was a total flip flop from my elementary school days; during that time, the white students (as well as others) drifted out of my class slowly every year- My eighth grade class had 16 kids total, including me. But at Andrean, I now had roughly 200 new classmates, of about 1,000 students overall. The vast majority of the student body was Caucasian, roughly 60-70%. Beneath that, maybe 10-15% Asian, 10% Latino and 10% Black. Given the comparatively expensive tuition, most students happened to be from middle class & suburban lifestyles. Base tuition was roughly $1,800 a year; needless to say, that didn’t include books- and for the fact that I tended to be late starting every year, meant that most of mine had to be bought new, rather than used. my parents made it work somehow, but it wasn’t easy. Not to say that I was a starving kid (I wasn’t); but I definitely knew of cheese blocks and food stamps. Dad had retired from the steel mill in ’85, after his back problems ended up with an emergency trip to the hospital to treat a slipped disc. After that, he stopped driving altogether. At the time, Mom was earning SS/disability from a leg injury from some time back. By the beginning of my sophomore year, her car had burnt out, and just sat dead in the driveway for a couple of years until she was able to sell it. Both before, during, and after this, I was a bus-catcher and a walker; over the years, tales of seeing me trek down Broadway became semi-legendary. Socializing outside of school was often difficult- As far as Mom was concerned, most places in the city were virtual shooting galleries; yet, even the safer teen hang-out spots in the area (malls, restaurants, etc.) became fairly inaccessible by default, rather than parental mandate. The bus system in the city was terrible- all routes cut off after 11 p.m., no routes went into the surrounding towns/suburbs, and there was no service at all on Sundays. Most of my Saturday nights were spent at home, watching TV and listening to the hip-hop radio shows. I knew that most of the incidental perks that some kids took for granted- including class photos and field trips- always had a stop sign in front for me. I remember when the school would have food drives, everybody would bring non-perishables, which would be given out to low-income families. In everyone’s homeroom, there was a box up front that the food was placed in. One year, one of the nuns pulled me aside, and brought me to where the boxes of food were being collected. They gave me about three boxes worth, and did the same thing next year. Sophomore year, class rings were being sold- at roughly $150. I brought the brochure home to Mom, and to say that she balked was an understatement; Junior and Senior year, I didn’t even bother asking- I just didn’t want to hear a lecture that I knew was sure to come. An annual fund-raiser had us selling calendars, which had pictures of us students. They went for $25 apiece; not that they were really worth that- it was one of those ‘support knowledge’ type of deals- In any case, for every calendar a student sold, they could potentially get back the same amount of money in cash. There was this bingo-style name pull with all the student names; I remember, throughout the campaign, my name turned up twice- and I had sold nada. Mom wasn’t about to shell out $25 for one calendar, let alone $100 for 4 of them, and none of my other relatives were really hip to it either. Not that I could really blame them- Nonetheless, whenever events/situations would come up that cost something, I was always self-conscious about it- Getting a part-time job would have helped- but with all of the afterschool activities I ended up participating in (science club, math club, et al), I guess it hadn’t even occurred to me. Effectively, they didn’t cost anything to join, and they helped to bring me some semblance of self-worth that was lacking. At any predominantly white-run and/or white-populated institution, there’s bound to be social tensions, certainly from the standpoint of the minority students. Generally, the pre-existing cliques were exacerbated by ethnic self-grouping; white with white, black with black, latino with latino, etc. Given that my two best friends there were white, I managed to clear through some of the typecasting that people probably did. On the flip side, I learned that not everybody there was meant to be your friend. It wasn’t so much a matter of coping with blatant bigots- there were a few fools that just seemed to give sullen stares, and never associated with minorities- at least you knew where you stood in their (twisted) mind. From my view it was worse dealing with the hypocrites. Certain guys that would be cordial with you- shake your hand, smile, talk with you during class, lunchtime, etc. But in other circumstances- you could come up on them when they’ve got their back turned to you (or otherwise not noticing you), talking to some other white guys, and hear some repulsive comments: “Dumb n****rs” this-and-that, straight up cracker-isms. And I’d be like “what the fu*k?!?” I really can’t say that I trust the so-called “white liberal” any more than the “white conservative”. It was a challenge to cope with the cultural hegemony at the school- trying to socially navigate among the ‘white privilege’ that I was thrust into. Grades were even more of an issue now- It wasn’t just 15 other kids in my class anymore, but 200+. My mother, naturally, would sweat me, constantly stressing the angle that it takes twice the effort for “us” to get noticed, in the mainstream. And after graduation, scholarships were going to be a must, not just a blessing. I guess on a basic level, I understood, but that didn’t make accepting it any easier. From my standpoint, the political worldviews I held were vastly different from not only the administration, but also many of my peers. At school, it was a very pro-Reagan/Bush, pro-military, right-wing sympathetic atmosphere. At home, let me put it like this- my mother wouldn’t have shot at President Reagan, but she wasn’t upset when John Hinckley did the deed. Maybe its was the typical “faculty is the enemy” ethic that a lot of teens have, but I tended to keep my distance from the faculty, personally and emotionally. Privately, I never really bought into many of the political comments people would express, and my mild-manneredness tended to obscure the frustrations within me. When it was announced that class elections would be held soon, I figured this is a chance to have some impact here. I wanted to be a class officer for my sophomore class. At the time, the setup was, students would run for a specific office. Every student representing each category- treasurer, secretary, vice-president, president- would make their speeches. Ballots were checked off on slips of paper, and counted under supervision of the teacher who was the class Sponsor (faculty member delegated to be the supervisor for all class-wide activities). Freshman year I wasn’t interested. I knew almost no one, except the St. Mary’s alumni I had hooked back up with; I figured I couldn’t get elected for class janitor (if they even had such a title). To get officially nominated, kids had to get all of their teachers to sign an ‘endorsement’ form. But I ended up turning in my form in a day late after the deadline, and lost out due to my own carelessness. Maybe, psychologically, I wanted myself to fail, because I was used to it, socially. But I did turn the form in on time the next year.

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