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Being Cool in School

It’s been a while since high school, which I attended in Calgary and included grades 10-12. We had junior high schools for grades 7-9, and I attended grades 1-12 in one very large city block. In some cases I saw the same kids for twelve years, even if we weren’t friends. The schools were large and there were hundreds of kids.

It was common to know your homeroom classmates and some of the students from other classes, especially if you took an elective that mixed the classes. And sometimes friends were in different homerooms so you’d know maybe half of your year to some degree and the rest of the students barely entered the zone of friends or classmates.

There were times in high school when everyone hung out, during breaks between classes and at lunch. Our high school had a major entrance (for students) that had been named the Pit. There was one to either side of the main entrance on the south side, which also had names. The actual grand entrance to the school faced the west and very few students ever seemed to use it, partly because it faced a shopping center and most of the homes were on the south and east sides. The east side also had a couple of entrances and one faced into the school field. We called this one Apple Crisp I believe. Another one was called Numbers and I think one was called Colors. I forget the rest of the names.

I’m not sure who named them and it could well have been the group we hung around with. Everyone knew of the Pit because it was the entrance used by almost everyone, open in both directions (as opposed to the side entrances, which were usually only exits) and where the students were allowed to stand and smoke. So it was always stinky and overcrowded. I never really picked up smoking. For awhile my girlfriends and I tried smoking wine tip cigarillos, more for the flavor and the look than for actually smoking. When everyone started to get into smoking I tried but had to be drunk to do it. (Shhh, yes we actually drank [without our parents knowing] during those high school days.) I don’t think I ever bought a pack of cigarettes and gave it up rather quickly.

Now the Pit, the center of our universe in many ways, was where everyone could socialize, smoke and hang out. It was known as the place where the jocks and cheerleaders gathered, a collection of the studly and maturing boys and the girls with bodies and legs and pompoms that they knew how to move. So we, who thought we weren’t the cool kids, tended to go to the quieter entrances and hang out. They were far less crowded and brighter, especially Apple Crisp, which faced the field. And if you happened to be skipping a class teachers wouldn’t find you there. In fact they probably would only find you in the Pit.

And of course, should you be skipping school (but not able to go home because a parent might find you) and still hiding in an entrance, it was a place to drink elicit alcohol, smoke pot or even try something like acid. Though the more hallucinogenic the drug, the more quiet and out of the way you wanted the entrance. Numbers I believe was the favorite for such activities.

We never thought we were cool. We weren’t the geeky studious ones, nor were we the jocks. We were also not the deadbeat losers that missed so many classes they failed. Fighting and knives and guns were still pretty much unheard of while I was in school except maybe for one or two boy on boy fights, though I never saw one. So we were a bit like nomads, flowing through, not quite part of any group.

Or so we thought. Of course we had formed our own group. But when you were in class, no one was a group. You were an individual under the watchful eye of the teacher. We were required to do a mandatory counseling class in high school. The girls would gather or the guys and it obviously wasn’t everyone because it was at the counselor’s office. Maybe it was 12-20 girls total.

I vaguely remember one session where there were a number of the cool cheerleader girls and then my friends and me. We ended up talking about belonging and being cool and we said how we knew they were the cool ones. And they said, but it’s you guys who are the cool ones. I don’t remember the exact details but I remember the feeling to this day.

Never had I felt cool, in control, the one people looked to for fun or leadership. And yet, that was my perception, not the perception of others. It was a very eye-opening experience for all of us. I wondered how many other people were either faking it or didn’t think they “were the ones” whatever being the one might be. I wrote about my experiments in changing myself in “You are Who You Pretend to Be” and in fact I was changing before this in high school. But it attributed to my change and I think the counselor who got us together from different cliques was very wise in letting us see how the other half lived, or acted. It truly didn’t put us all on a more even level. I sometimes wonder how much impact it made on my other classmates.

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Childhood Games: Marbles and More

We live in such an era of media overload that the childhood games of yesteryear are all but forgotten.Video games and TV still predominate to such a degree that childhood obesity is now a problem in North America. Sure there are some sports but perhaps not enough.

And with all the media inundation, children have forgotten often how to play or to create a game out of nothing. Back when civilization consisted of making everything by hand a child was lucky to have even one toy. It might be made of clay or wood, or perhaps scraps of cloth though early clothing construction consisted of no leftover bits. The toys would be tools to imagination and the child would have to create their own games.

Years ago I went with friends to their cabin in Clinton, BC. The little nieces were out in a rustic wood cabin with no electricity, no TV and no games. They started to whine about being bored. So I said, come on, grab a towel and let’s go outside. The three little girls followed me and we ran around like superheros or jumped out of the crabapple tree. Before long, they’d forgotten about their store bought toys and were enjoying make-believe in nature.merrygoround1

There have always been complex games and simple games. Chess is a complex board game, checkers, not as much. When I was a kid in elementary school there was the usual playground equipment: teeter totters, monkey bars, a merry-go-round (the foot powered style) and that would be it. Swings were for the parks but not amongst unruly kids during recess.

But we also played another game. I think it was around grade 3 that the kids would line up against the wall of the school and play marbles. You needed a few marbles to begin. Other kids would sit with their legs in a V, with a marble or marbles lined up. Then you would stand at the predetermined line and roll your marble toward the other one. If you hit the marble you got to keep both. If you missed, the other person kept both. Some people would line up three or more, or like a bowling alley so that you would have to hit the ones in front before getting the more prized marble at the back. Some people even built cardboard arches to set their marbles in.

Cat’s eyes were the commonest type of marble, but sometimes there would be a more interesting color combo. catseyesThere were the larger sizes; I can’t remember what we called them but I think either boulders or jumbos.  Next in marbles were the sold colors, opaque or with a marblesswirl through them. And there were the clear marbles, either blue or white or green, or some other color. I remember taking some of these and frying them in the frying pan, then dropping them in water. These would form crackle marbles. They too were prized but somewhat fragile.

But the most coveted of all marbles were the steelies, ball bearings really but their silvery perfection was what every kid aimed for. You used your cat’s eyes first to hit the other marbles and tried to get more prized marbles. If you ran low on the lowly cat’s eyes, then you set up your prize marbles (but not usually your most favored) to gain more marbles. It was about collecting the coolest marbles and about the most.seagrams I even had a clay marble at some point. It was very old but not worth much to the other kids.

Almost as precious as those steelies were the bags to carry your marbles in. And the best bag of all was the purple, Seagram’s Crown Royal whiskey bag. I managed to get one. Maybe it came with some marbles, maybe from an older sibling, but it was definitely the choicest bag.

When talking recently with my siblings, my older brother and sister and my younger brother (a span of eleven years) we all remember shooting marbles and the Seagram’s bags. My younger brother said it was uncommon for girls to play, yet I remember doing it but also being unaware of whether I was in a minority of girls to boys. But it seems we played through grades 3-5. Grade 1 was too young and by grade 6 we were on our way out to junior high (grade 7 in Alberta). It was probably the most popular playground game in school.

My younger brother is a teacher and says no one plays marbles anymore. It’s too bad. It was cheap and simple and taught kids numbers, how to trade and value. I don’t remember any fights breaking out over marbles. Maybe they did from time to time but it was still a way to keep kids occupied that didn’t cost hundreds of dollars. I still like marbles as pretty pieces of glass. Perhaps, as the economy continues to slow, people will go back to simpler pastimes.

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Personality: You are Who You Pretend to Be

As a child I was extremely shy and introverted. This doesn’t mean that I was weak or without personality. I was fairly strong willed but I wouldn’t talk or do anything to stand out in the crowd. The argument for nature vs nurture might play in here. My personality was imprinted at birth. My circumstances affected how my personality played out.

Growing up in a home rife with turmoil and many abuses probably made me into the shy and insecure child that I was. I was picked on, teased and remained in the background. I remember my passive aggressive act when one girl was bugging me in school. I didn’t confront her but as I walked home I spit on the sidewalk in front of her house.

In grade 7 I was still fairly shy but starting to flower in personality (as we are all wont to do in teenagerhood). I had a few friends, and was trying to fit in. However, my mother asked me what I wanted for Christmas (or my birthday) that year and I said a purple dress/shirt/some item of clothing. I received a wardrobe of purple; pants, tops, dresses. Everything was purple. I could not wear purple again for about ten years but today it is a color I wear frequently.

With that geeky stigma of one color, I tended to cringe and become conscious of clothing. I also looked at Margaret Parsons in my class. She was shyer than me, had red ringlets (really gorgeous red hair actually) and wore a school uniform. In retrospect I have a lot of sympathy for Margaret and Morag, who both came from school systems with uniforms. They stuck out like sore thumbs and again, moving into a district wasn’t easy. They were definitely outsiders and looked at strangely. Kids are very cruel, not yet tempered with the social skills on how to stab someone nicely in the back.

Back to Margaret; she was very very shy and quiet and I decided then and there that I didn’t want to be like her, which meant I had to change. It was important for me to fit in. My family was different, with divorced parents, not going to church, fighting. All my friends had more “normal” families. First was the clothing. Jeans and T-shirts were much the norm for teenagers.

By late high school I upped the ante again. My clothing was mostly in shades of blue and brown. I decided that if I wore brighter colors it would make me more outgoing (and had read something to that effect). Basically it became a case of fake it till you make it. I did this again in art college.

Overall it was a long, slow transition, but little by little my clothes got brighter and my personality changed. I started to wear more jewellery (some would say I wear too much) and became a clothes horse, liking fashion and trying to find unique styles. But along the way I consciously challenged my boundaries. And sure enough, I went from being a shy introvert to and outgoing extrovert.

Few of us are 100% of anything. We all have introvert and extrovert in us. I can be quiet, even withdrawn, and sometimes prefer to sit back in the sidelines and watch. But I also enjoy being at a party or around people. Had I not pushed myself I would have probably remained an introvert. Would the switch have happened anyways? I don’t know. But I’m sure it would have taken much longer.

Wearing bright colors was a physical manifestation of how I wanted to change and I think it did work towards bringing me out of my shell. And shell it was, a protective coating from a tumultuous home life and the jibes and jeers of class mates. Interestingly enough, I grew a different shell, with bolder colors that stopped a lot of the teasing once I wore them with confidence. So yes, I think a leopard can change its spots.

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Fashion and Discipline

Back in the bloom of my youth I went to a typical high school and dressed like a typical teenager. That involved a lot of jeans and T-shirts. Alberta had a junior high school system as well, which covered grades 7-9. It was fairly conservative and run by a principal reviled by most, Archie Wilcox. He was known for being draconian and supposedly had influence in getting his job through a brother on the school board. He was so nasty that at one time his tires were slashed and this was in a day before people were carrying guns or even knives at school. And when he started having an affair with one of the teachers and all of the students knew about it, we laughed at him. He was not loved at all. One day he was addressing the class in his lover’s classroom and his fly was undone so we all snickered at him. He nearly blew a gasket, not knowing what we laughed at.

In this stalag (Simon Fraser Junior High) we were not allowed to wear jeans and one day my homeroom science teacher said, “I need to talk to you about your jeans.” I heard, “I need to talk to you about your genes,” and looked at him confused until he elaborated. I was wearing a pair of light blue not quite jeany material but the cut was too jean like. So I was told I needed to change.

Our homeroom in grade 9 had a rep for being bad and unruly. I’m not sure why but we were definitely feisty (maybe it was one of our boys who slashed Wilcox’s tires). One day I was going down the hall, looking back over my shoulder, and ran into the doughy bosom of Mrs. Acton. She, like Wilcox, was old school, and was his right hand man from what I recall. She wore her hair in a bun, seemed always old and was built  like a battle tank matron.

She looked me over from the sharp edge of her glasses and told me to go see the principal about my top. It was what we called a pop top, sleeveless, and short. It showed about an inch of my midriff. So I went to the principal’s office where he told me I was not conforming to the dress code (or something…I don’t quite remember). I do remember saying back to him, “But this doesn’t affect our learning any,” and I repeated it, unrepentant. Wilcox bubbled a bit and I remained adamant. So I was sent home to change.

I wasn’t as knowledgeable or set in my opinions as perhaps I am now (though I like to think I’m always listening to the other side). Home was a 20-minute walk each way. I arrived home and told my mother what had happened. She agreed with me that my dress didn’t affect my learning but she made me change anyways. So grumpily I complied. (The part of this that may have also influenced her was that my sister had had problems with Wilcox–due to illnesses, I think, and my younger brother transferred to another school because of this principal. He was definitely not someone my family cared to associate with.)

In later years, I thought maybe the instructors were worried about the boys not learning if they were staring at girls in midriff tops. The truth is, that as teenagers everyone is trying on and forming their personalities and sexuality. Girls will show off their bodies if they can. People will wear what they consider sexy, especially if they’re trying to attract the opposite sex.

Now I’ve heard that some schools have banned T-shirts that portray slogans. To make it fair, they ban all slogans to be sure the racist or bigoted ones are gone too. Some ban certain tops, or jeans so low they show the butt crack or underwear, or skirts so high they show the butt. Will it affect learning in general? No. I’m all for banning racist, prejudiced and bigoted comments from a learning environment. Teenagers also like to push boundaries, theirs and others. But what about the clothing  now that I’m no longer constricted to wear, or not wear by teenagerhood, school and all that entails?

Well, I work and I’ve almost always worked where the dress code was lax (or been self-employed). When I worked in a department store we weren’t allowed to wear jeans or dresses that showed our arms (I don’t think that part lasted long). Most places, unless they’re dealing a lot with the public, don’t care if you were jeans, shorts, skirts or T-shirts as long as they’re clean, not so old they’re scruffy and torn, and decent. Decent usually means no short shorts and no bellies showing. Some places may required little to no cleavage showing. It varies depending on the profession.

But as to schools and teenagers…well, they’ve never been the epitomes of fashion. Not that some people ever grow up to have a fashion sense. Teenagers are great experimenters in all aspects of their lives. With their individualism comes trying on everything from attitude to clothing. Too many, I think fall to peer pressure but some go their own way. And should some aspects of their clothing be banned? Well, they should probably remain decent but decency in dress has to be defined. Is a skirt two inches below the butt indecent or okay? Is a top showing some cleavage or a navel fine? Fashion and styles have changed (and come around again) from when I was a teenager, but not that much.

Some of the issues are still the same. The conservative people and administrators will still see certain fashion items as wrong, slovenly or indecent. My mother always equated jeans to working on farms because it was only farmers who wore them when she was growing up.

Granted times have changed and these days there are more and more cases of guns in schools (remember I’m talking mostly Canada here–gun mileage in your area may vary) so the range of what is acceptable may have changed with more “worldly” attitudes, but I think as long as the essentials are covered, in all positions (such as bending over or walking up the stairs in a short short skirt), then teenagers should be allowed the freedom to find themselves and experiment.

Of course, I don’t have kids. I could be singing a different tune if I did.

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Memories:From Shyness to Being Bold

When I was a child, and much to everyone’s disbelief, I was very shy. This was a combination of a bad home life, which built insecurities and just being shy. I was teased horribly because of this, some kids picking on me because I was quiet. There are scarring memories of some of those early years.

I remember this other girl in my class with red ringlets, saddle shoes and a school uniform. In retrospect I feel sorry for those transplants from England who wore their uniforms, not realizing how they would stick out instead of blend in. Calgary in those days have very few private schools, at least in the area where we lived.

Margaret Parsons was probably shyer and more awkward than me. I took a good look at her one day and thought, if I stay the way I am I’ll be like her. Or I can change. The change was at least twofold. It involved building a harder shell about myself so the jibes of the insensitve couldn’t get through. I became a bit of a joker, and teased my friends. I almost did this too much and hurt a few feelings before I learned to temper the humor.

The first stage started happening in grade 7, which was the beginning of junior high for us. The second stage was in grade 9, the last year of junior high. I started to wear brighter colors besides soft blues and beiges, believing that if I brightened my look it would bring me out more. And in fact that’s what happened. Grade 9 was still a bit of the process of become bolder and by the end of high school I was more outgoing.

I continued this into art college. I hit a plateau for a while of being less awkward, more fashionably secure and sociable to an acceptable level. But if anyone had ever told me I would act or read anything in front of a group of people, I would have laughed and said impossible.

Eventually, as I began to write more I thought of reading my poetry. The prospect was terrifying but at a fairly small venue of the Burnaby Writers’ Society I got up and read a couple of poems. I’m sure I stammered, I turned beet red and my throat became so dry from nervousness that I actually choked on my words. But I did it, feeling mortified but also brave.

After that first leap, I continued to read. I continued to wear bright colors and today, if you ask anyone, no one would think I was ever shy. Perhaps I’m too bold in some ways but I made a conscious effort to change myself. I’m still going through that process. In fact, I think it never ends. The changes are different now and don’t involve colors as much as redecorating the interior.

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