Confessions of a Frightened 12-Year-Old

This was originally posted on Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk humor blog.

I spent most of my pre-teen childhood afraid of almost everything. Afraid of the Cold War. Afraid of rock musicians and their drug-addled fans. Afraid of being eaten by sharks, even in swimming pools. Afraid of being hit by cars (which I was once). Afraid of the song “Hotel California,” the beast they couldn’t kill, and the ghost of the guy’s wife who hadn’t been around since 1969.

One thing that scared me were the drug scare films they showed us in 6th grade to keep us from using drugs. These had been made in the early 1970s to show kids what would happen if they took drugs.

You would die.

Drugs, said the films, would make you freak out and have horrible screaming fits about psychedelic monsters trying to steal your face. Or they would make you think you could fly, and you’d climb on top of a building to try it, only to realize halfway down that things weren’t going according to plan.

These films filled me with a sense of dread that stayed with me for weeks after watching them, and I spent a lot my 6th grade year worrying that I was going to die from accidentally injecting myself with heroin, and becoming another statistic for drug film makers to use in their next round of scare films. (Okay, this one isn’t that scary.)

Or being eaten by sharks.

You can imagine my terror when I was 12 years old, and I found out my best friend, Doug, who was 13, had started smoking pot. I was convinced he would be dead soon.

After all, that’s what the drug films said would happen. Take drugs, think you can fly, and jump off a building.

This was not really a problem in Muncie, Indiana, because the tallest building in my part of town was my elementary school. We also didn’t have sharks. There was the Muncie Mall, which is 30 feet high, but it’s nearly impossible to climb.

However, as the drug films taught us, if kids even smoked pot, they would ride their bike the five miles to the mall, find a way to climb on the roof, and jump, much to the horror of their classmates who had all gathered to watch what would happen.

And yet, there was my friend, Doug, smoking pot with his druggie friends, completely oblivious to what awaited him. We called anyone who smoked pot “druggies,” convinced they were dirty hippies who wanted to get kids to try drugs so they could be turned into Communist hippies and undermine the American way of life.

I’m proud to say I refused all marijuana that was presented to me, turning down any offers of bongs, joints, pipes, or other paraphernalia. (I didn’t try pot until much later, when I was in college. Unless my parents are reading this. Then I never tried it in college either.)

For one thing, it smelled awful, like someone had stuffed a dead skunk into a tire, and set the entire thing on fire.

Not that his parents would notice the smell. His mom drank and smoked a lot, and never even smelled when the family dog had crapped on the floor. And I was convinced his dad was crazy and out of touch with reality. I based that on the fact that the only time he smelled anything we did was when we tried to set a chemistry experiment on fire in his basement.

All I knew was that I had to be hyper-vigilant, ready to wrestle my friend to the ground if he showed any signs of wanting to fly.

His disreputable, druggie friends could go jump in front of a bus for all I cared. I just didn’t want my best friend’s last words to be, “No, really! I can do it!” before he leapt off his ranch house into the muddy back yard, yet another victim of the pot that had cut short or ruined so many young lives, like the drug films said would happen if I ever smoked it.

After a couple of years of Doug and his pot-smoking friends not trying to kill themselves, I began to wonder if the drug films had exaggerated just a little bit. I still wasn’t trying it, but I began to relax and decided to let down my guard against anyone trying to fly.

I also decided that many of my other fears were probably unfounded as well, and that the things that had frightened me before were nothing but the product of a kid’s overactive imagination.

And then Friday the 13th came out.

Zero Tolerance Bullying Withers Under Scrutiny

Zero Tolerance is a festering mold that’s destroyed when its putrid nature is exposed to the disinfecting power of the sun.

We saw that festering mold destroyed this past week here in Central Indiana, after an outrageous suspension of more than 50 high school students was lifted, following protests, laser-guided media scrutiny, and national mockery of the situation.

This past Tuesday, in the town of Clayton, west of Indianapolis, six Cascade High School students were suspended after a prank of decorating their school with 11,000 Post-It Notes the previous night.Post-It Notes fill Cascade high school door

District superintendent Patrick Spray, who has apparently forgotten what it was like to be in high school, was outraged — OUTRAGED! — that students would pull such a prank. So he suspended the kids, including the valedictorian, salutatorian, and senior class president, for trespassing, entering the school without permission, and for being unsupervised while on school grounds.

Actually that’s not true, said the students. They got permission and a key from a school board member, who’s also one of the students’ mother. And they were supervised by a school janitor, who’s also the mother of one of the students.

Oh really? said Spray, and then fired the janitor, Kim Rouse.

Dude, it’s Post-It Notes. It’s 11,000 Post-It Notes that the kids paid for themselves. They even made sure to pull a prank that wouldn’t damage school property. It sounds like he was just upset because he looked like an idiot when the kids pointed out that they never actually violated those rules.

The following day, after 57 more students peacefully protested the suspensions, Spray realized he overstepped his bounds and behaved irrationally, so he apologized to everyone, and promised Rouse she could have her job back.

Just kidding. He suspended every protestor. And with 460 students in the high school, Spray — an education professional who probably uses phrases like “disrupting the educational process” — disrupted the educational process of more than 10 per cent of his students, thus ensuring the rest of the school wouldn’t pay attention either.

Even on my best day as a fourth grader, I could only disrupt the educational process of 20 other kids. This guy managed to do it to an audience 23 times the size of mine with slightly less dramatic histrionics. Trés impressive.

Because if there’s one lesson we want to teach our children, it’s that the only way you can assert your power is to be a petty little tyrant who throws a big hissy fit when he’s made to look like a bigger idiot than he was the day before.

But bullies, like festering molds, cannot stand the harsh sunlight of public scrutiny and awareness. And as the outrage grew, and a lot of media people and concerned parents began to ask a lot of uncomfortable questions — like “Really?” and “Don’t you think that’s a bit much?” — Spray backtracked, and lifted the suspension of the Post-It Six. He also removed the suspension from their academic records, and they were allowed to return to class.

He was originally going to reduce the suspension of the remaining protestors from two days to one, and let them serve it during school. But by Thursday, Spray said he would vacate their suspensions as well, and the suspensions would not be placed on their academic records either.

Do you remember that scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, when Principal Rooney was facing complete and utter failure to catch Bueller skipping school, and instead had to ride the bus home with a bunch of mouth-breathing kids?

Yeah, I’ll bet it was kind of like that for Spray. I can’t imagine the bitterness he had to swallow when he met with the concerned parents who thought he was a bullying little tyrant overstepping the bounds of decency and sanity.

Spray has said he will still recommend to the board that they fire Kim Rouse, the janitor, but from all reports, the board has indicated they won’t go along with that, which will be one more feather in Spray’s Big Cap O’ Failure.

While all hindsight is 20/20, it looks like Spray should have just forced a grudging smile, lectured the kids about respect for property, and let them clean up the mess, like they originally offered. Then none of this would have ever happened.

Instead, for the next several years, Patrick Spray will be remembered as the Zero Tolerance despot who was beaten by a small group of thoughtful, committed high school kids who did the one thing that many schools still don’t teach:

To stand up to bullies on behalf of those who can’t.

The Pains of a Writer’s Rejection

No writer likes rejection. It’s so personal. It’s not just our work that was rejected, we were.

Most adults build their identity around their work and its results. A carpenter doesn’t just say, “I hammer nails.” He says, “I build houses. Do you see that house? I built it.” A doctor doesn’t just say, “I prescribe medicine.” She says, “I help people. Do you see that kid? I saved his life.”

It’s that way with writers. We don’t just type, we create entire bodies of work that inform, entertain, and persuade. Having that work rejected means we have been rejected as people. Our thoughts, ideas, and experience, which made up our words, are not good enough to be read by others.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” say the veteran professional writer, smiling in that annoying, knowing way. “It’s just business.”

Sad puppy

When you reject us, this is how we feel.

He remembers all too well the last time his work was rejected. He remembers, because if he’s a real writer, it was last week.

The new writer looks at the old pro like she wants to stab him in the eye with a pen. He remembers that look too. It’s the same one he gave his mentor 20 years ago, when he wanted to stab that cranky bastar in his eye. He smiles, but prepares to defend himself. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but the dictionary makes a better club.

Anyone who wants to be a writer will learn to deal with rejection. Real writers eventually get used to it, and sigh resignedly the next time they get a rejection letter. They all have the same low opinion of editors: slack-jawed mouth breathers who wouldn’t know good writing if it whacked them with a dictionary.

(Note: This does not apply to my editors, who are salt of the earth, cream of the crop, princes and princesses among men, and can recognize sheer genius when it stands sobbing outside their offices in the rain, swearing it won’t go away until you just give me one chance.)

Writers have many coping mechanisms to deal with rejection: they rage and curse against know-nothing editors. They scream into their pillows. They weep silently on the bathroom floor. They entertain wild fantasies where they win the Nobel Prize, bump into that editor at the valet station outside, and ask him to bring the car around. But they mostly drink.

My coping mechanism was probably the stupidest of all: I went into sales. I thought it would be much safer, because no one gets rejected, and everyone is friendly and respectful in sales, right?

If you want to learn about real rejection, try dialing for dollars for a living. You’ll realize that the occasional editor’s “no” every couple of weeks is a walk in the park compared to the 20 “no’s” you’ll get every day in sales. For the next seven years.

Other than going into sales, the only way to get over rejection is to write more and get rejected more. A lot more.

Because the only way you’re going to get better is by developing a thick skin. And fantasizing about handing your editors a copy of your latest New York Times best-selling book, and they promise to read it, but then their manager yells at them to get back to the fry station.

And then one day, you won’t be Rejected. You’ll be Accepted.

Accepted!

It means you’re Somebody now. You’re that dorky kid in high school who got invited to sit at the cool kids’ table, and they all listened in rapt attention to your story about your little sister and the time she got a popcorn seed stuck up her nose.

You’re no longer just a writer, you’re a Professional Writer. (Because getting a $10 check and two copies of the magazine makes you a Professional.)

You’ll celebrate with a $20 dinner, and you’ll promise yourself that you’re going to remember this feeling forever. That this is the beginning of a long and distinguished career, that started with this one step.

Until the next day, when another rejection letter arrives.

Eventually you’ll learn to accept the rejections. Even welcome them sometimes, because you don’t have enough time, what with your next book and three speeches you have to give next month.

That’s when some new writer will come to you, asking what’s the best way he can deal with rejection, because he just got his first one, and he wants to quit writing.

You’ll look at him, knowingly, searching for the right thing to say, to let him know that it will work out in the end.

“Remember, it’s not personal,” you’ll say. “It’s just business.”

Just make sure you have a dictionary handy first.

This post was originally published at Erik Deckers’ Laughing Stalk blog.

Photo credit: hackett (Flickr)